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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Surreal Battlestar

When we arrived at Kate's parents' last night (in town for a wedding), her father was watching the Dumbass Horror Movie Channel Sci-Fi Channel, and we left that on more or less by default. Thus, I ended up watching the new Battlestar Galactica for the first time. Of course, it's in the middle of the series, and Kate and her father were catching up, so I missed the occasional bit of dialogue, but I think I basically understood what was going on:

With Admiral Lt. Castillo in a coma, John McCain has taken control and declared martial law. He's had the rightful President, Dr. Melfi, thrown in jail with some guy from a boy band. Egged on by his wife, Lady Macbeth, he makes a number of disastrously stupid decisions, leading to the shooting of several civilians during a riot on the set of Babylon Five.

Elsewhere, the only Asian woman in the cast has turned out to be a robot (Kate mutters darkly about this whenever she notices), and has been thrown in a different part of the jail with a pudgy guy. Olive Oyl is really unhappy about this, and wanders around complaining to various crew members, including the Creepy Long-Haired Scientist. Egged on by his hallucination of Kim Basinger, Creepy Long-haired Scientist goes to the jail, and tortures Asian Robot Woman by poisoning Pudgy Guy and refusing to give him the antidote until she reveals how many other robots are on the ship. After several tense moments, she yells the first number that comes to mind, and he buys it, thus proving himself to be the Doug Feith of the umpty-umpth century.

After this, they decide to transfer Asian Robot Woman and Pudgy Guy to the Dallas police station, and Olive Oyl jumps out of the crowd and shoots Asian Robot Woman. The picture of her shooting him goes on to win a Pulitzer Prize. Or something.

Meanwhile, for reasons that remain unclear to me, Cameron Diaz and a clean-shaven Jayne Cobb are wandering around in the woods, where they get ambushed by Kyan from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and the cast of Red Dawn. There are several tense moments in which various members of the Wolverines point guns at Cameron and Jayne, who point their guns at Kyan, and then Cameron Diaz defuses the whole situation with her knowledge of sports trivia. Later, she and Kyan play a spirited game of Calvinball, and then go exfoliate. Or something.

Back on the ship, President Dr. Melfi and the fighter pilot from the Backstreet Boys arrange a daring slow-motion jail break, which appears to consist of waiting until the guards are looking away, and tip-toeing out of the cell block. Dirk Benedict makes a brief appearance as DeForrest Kelly. After a poignant scene in which the White House Chief of Staff from N'SYNC refuses to go with them, President Dr. Melfi and her backstreet fighter pilot board a shuttle to flee the ship.

Supreme Commandante John McCain threatens to shoot them down, but doesn't, presumably because Lady Macbeth isn't allowed on the bridge to hecor him into doing stupid things (Kate mutters darkly about the horrible roles for women when she notices). While she's berating him for his incompetence, later in their apartment, Admiral Jaime Escalante awakens from his coma, and wanders in in a bathrobe to put things right by teaching John McCain calculus. Or something. End of Show.

I think I've got this thing nailed. Did I miss anything?

Posted at 8:17 AM | link | follow-ups | 11 comments

Friday, August 05, 2005

Horizon-Expanding Monoculture

John Scalzi considers the state of SF in the wake of a dubious review, and comes to a grand conclusion:

Science fiction emphatically doesn't need a monoculture, either in the literature or in the approach to that literature. There's no better way to kill it dead and to assure no one is left to mourn the ashes. What it needs -- and what the range of titles noted just in Killheffer's article alone suggests it already has -- is a multiculture that grows the audience for science fiction by giving that audience what it wants... whatever it is that it wants.

This interacts oddly with my reaction to a panel at Readercon, a few weeks back. One of the panelists on the "Know But Can't Prove" panel suggested that SF as a genre is particularly beneficial for the social development of its geekier readers, as it forces them to constantly consider new worlds, and new possibilities, and thus learn about the ways other people think and interact. This is a special case of an argument that drives me up the wall, and I don't really buy this version of it, either. Not in today's SF market, anyway.

Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether SF is unique in providing this horizon-expanding effect (I tend to think it's just better at holding the interest of geeks), I don't think it's necessarily true that the way people read these days produces that effect. It may have worked that way in the past, when being a reader of SF meant that you bought whichever of the three SF books in the drugstore rack you hadn't already read, but in the era of the big-box superstore, I'm not sure that's the case any more.

In fact, my impression from the Internet and various real-world interactions with young SF readers is that the people most in need of some serious horizon expansion are also the people most likely to read nothing but a steady stream of David Weber knock-offs, in which the closest thing to a worldview-shaking experience is when a Bujold book slips in by mistake (though Baen has started to give her a distinctive cover design, to head that off). And we won't even talk about media tie-in novels, which seem to take up more shelf space every year, and often don't even require readers to confront new characters.

One of the weird side effects of the expansion of the SF market (and all book markets, really) is that it's become more possible to experience a monoculture in the heart of a multiculture. If you want to read nothing but militaristic SF novels in which space battles are oddly Napoleonic and the politics are at least faintly right-wing, you can find dozens at the local bookstore. On the fantasy side, it's no real challenge to locate large numbers of nearly identical epics in which a motley collection of heroes embark on a three- (or four-, or five-, or N-) volume quest to rescue a medivaloid magic kingdom. They differ in the background details, but rarely offer much variation in the character interactions and worldviews that are supposed to encourage personal growth.

In a weird way, the ready availability of a huge number of SF books has made it possible for people to narrow their reading of the genre in a way that would've been difficult before the big-box superstores. When it's difficult to find a lot of SF books, you'll take whatever you can get, and wind up getting some Le Guin in your Terry Brooks. If you've got twenty bookcases worth of stuff to choose from, though, you can be more selective.

This shouldn't be a surprise, as it's more or less parallel to what cable and the Internet have done to political discourse. If you prefer to get all your news delivered by sneering right-wing hacks, or huffy easily-offended liberals, you can arrange it easily. For that matter, if what you really want to read is physicists talking about the contents of their iPods, well, blogdom will provide a rich variety.

John's right that SF as a whole is far from a monoculture (and never was one, no matter what some people try to claim), and I agree with him that that's a good thing. I enjoyed both Old Man's War and Iron Sunrise, and I wouldn't want to give up either subgenre. But I'm not sure that broad reading within the genre is really all that widespread.

Then again, it may just be that I'm making the same error as the original panel, in reverse. Rather than assuming that kids these days have the same reading habits I did as a kid, I'm generalizing too broadly from a small sample and concluding that they read in a radically different manner. The truth is probably somewhere in between.

It's a reasonable topic for a slow Friday, either way. Unless you'd rather hear what's on my iPod.

Posted at 8:37 AM | link | follow-ups | 3 comments

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Singing on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

When I played "Your Little Hoodrat Friend" (still a great ear-worm, thanks for asking) for Kate, she listened to a bit of it, and said "So, this is one of those 'She Talks to Angels' songs about a woman with Problems?"

It's a weird example of a musical subgenre that seems really clearly identifiable-- people singing in the third person about women who are disturbed or troubled in some way-- but there aren't as many examples as I think there ought to be. The best-known ones I can come up with, other than the Black Crowes tune, are probably "Jane Says," by Jane's Addiction, Aerosmith's "Janie's Got a Gun," and the Hootie and the Blowfish chestnut "Let Her Cry." Del Amitri's "What I Think She Sees" probably qualifies, but Kate and I are two of the dozen people who bought that record, so it's not a great example.

Kate has suggested "Kate" by Ben Folds Five, mostly because she doesn't like sharing a name with the woman in that song ("Every day she wears the same thing,/ I think she smokes pot"), but I don't think it really counts. That's more of a "Woman who happens to be eccentric" song, like "Lola."

Songs about messed-up guys are either rarer, or less memorable, because the best I can come up with is "Joey" by Concrete Blonde (which is a second-person song, but whatever). "Jeremy" by Pearl Jam is a maybe, but it feels a little different, somehow. "The Wreck of the Barbie Ferrari" comes to mind, but again, it's a criminally neglected album, and more dopey than troubled.

I've got to be missing some examples, because the basic concept is such an "Oh, yeah, of course" sort of thing, but I'm drawing a blank.

(Yeah, fine, this isn't exactly helping to unravel the mysteries of the universe. One of my research students is done for the summer on Friday, so we're in Data Crisis Mode here, and Deep Thoughts aren't going to be forthcoming...)

Posted at 8:18 PM | link | follow-ups | 16 comments

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Experimental Evidence of Stupid Design

President Bush endorsed "Intelligent Design" creationism on Monday:

Bush compared the current debate to earlier disputes over "creationism," a related view that adheres more closely to biblical explanations. As governor of Texas, Bush said students should be exposed to both creationism and evolution.

On Monday the president said he favors the same approach for intelligent design "so people can understand what the debate is about." [...]

"I think that part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought," Bush said. " You're asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, the answer is yes."

PZ Myers is making a list of bloggers who believe in science, and oppose this policy. He can feel free to add me to the list, though it's hard to really find anything to say.

I mean, it's not like this does anything to lower my opinion of the man, as it was already pretty much at rock bottom. And it's hardly a surprise that he would endorse the favorite tactics of the lunatic Christian right.

The depressing thing about this is that there's virtually no downside for him. The people who are genuinely upset by this sort of thing weren't likely to vote for him (or any other hard-core religious conservative) in the first place, and the dwindling non-fanatic wing of the Republican party just doesn't care-- bad science education is something that happens to other people.

I'd love to be proved wrong-- I'd love to see, say, Eugene Volokh come out and say that this is the final straw, and he can no longer support a party that is actively hostile to the entire modern scientific tradition, and he'll be voting Libertarian from now on. I won't be holding my breath waiting, though.

Posted at 7:44 PM | link | follow-ups | 4 comments

The Slow Death of a Network

It's been clear for several years now that ESPN is headed down the trail blazed by MTV, namely completely abandoning the original purpose of the network (sports for ESPN, music for MTV) in favor of cheaply-produced talk shows and game shows and manufactured events ("X Games," anyone?). There was a breif glimmer of hope a year or two ago, when Fox appeared to have beaten them to the ultimate goal, switching to a 24-hour "The Best Damn Sport Show Period" format, with the occasional list show mixed in to let Tom Arnold recaffeinate. Sadly, it was only a temporary glitch in ESPN's continuing demise-- I flipped the tv on yesterday when I got home from work, and found ESPN2 broadcasting an eating contest.

This is so far beyond "jump the shark" that I think we may need to invoke some prehistoric megafauna to find a metaphor with appropriate magnitude. I'm willing to forgive poker on tv, because it turns out to be weirdly compelling, but I draw the line well before eating contests. A good rule of thumb would probably be that nothing that would be at home in a county fair setting belongs on a national sports network. Because, let's face it, nobody wants to turn on the tv some day, and find Stuart Scott MC'ing a "biggest pumpkin" contest.

(Meanwhile, Fox has rebounded slightly, airing an Aussie Rules football highlight show and occasional soccer games. They don't seem to carry any American sporting events that are worth a damn, but at least they're showing sports, instead of obscene displays of gluttony.)

I realize that we're in the Mid-Summer Sports Desert, so the options for real sports programming are pretty much 1) baseball, 2) baseball, 3) people talking about baseball, 4) golf. Still, I think I'd prefer fifteen hours of baseball a day to eating contests, "Battle of the Gridiron Stars" and the endlessly irritating Stephen A. Smith getting his own show.

Things will get better soon-- NFL training camps just opened, so they can start working in an hour or so of Chris Mortenson and John Clayton analyzing what the third-string linemen for the 49ers ate for lunch today-- but it will be a temporary improvement at best. Things are just going to get worse in the long run.

I know, you're saying "How can it get worse than eating contests?" I don't know, but they'll think of something. MTV continues to find new ways to disappoint and appall-- I have faith that ESPN can do the same.

In the meantime, if you're annoyed by the current state of the ESPN family of networks, and would like to vent, they're almost done with the second round at The Road From Bristol. If you haven't seen it before, it's a single-elimination tournament to determine the most annoying person on ESPN (the latest pdf bracket is here), with the head-to-head scoring determined by votes in the comments. If the endlessly irritating Stephen A. Smith doesn't win, it's a crime.

Posted at 8:02 AM | link | follow-ups | 7 comments

Sunday, July 31, 2005

Singles of the Moment

This "ten current songs" thing is going around (for some values of "going around"...), and I'm a sucker for that sort of thing. They're not all new songs, but it's all stuff I've been listening to recently:

Special Bonus Eleventh Track:

And that's what's playing in Chateau Steelypips these days.

Posted at 9:37 AM | link | follow-ups | 2 comments

All In the Assignment

I've occasionally griped about the way the New York Times tends to run book reviews written by people who are so predisposed to disliking a given book that their review is guaranteed to be effectively useless-- non-fiction reviews written by rivals of the author, fiction reviews written by people who disdain the genre in question, etc. Every now and then, though, this method pays off, as Joe Queenan gives Edward Klein's new piece of hackwork exactly the review it deserves:

What I am saying is that if Klein purposely set out to write the sleaziest, most derivative, most despicable political biography ever, he has failed both himself and his readers miserably. ''The Truth About Hillary'' is only about the 16th sleaziest book I have ever read. Though, in fairness to the author, reading creepy, cut-and-paste books is my hobby.

I want to see that as a jacket blurb.

Posted at 9:13 AM | link | follow-ups | no comments

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