Friday, August 23, 2019

Make 'Em Laugh

Over at Intellectual Takeout, Frank McAndrew laments the lack of humorous self-deprecation among politicians today.

As he sees it, presidents even up until Barack Obama were able to poke fun at themselves, an attitude which went a long way towards gaining people's support and approval. He links to what may be one of the top such moments, when Ronald Reagan opened a debate in 1984 with Walter Mondale by saying he would not make age an issue in the campaign -- he refused to exploit, for political purposes, his opponent's youth and inexperience. Since one of the knocks made against Reagan was his age, the line brought the house down -- even Mondale was laughing, although you know that inside, he was probably thinking, "Well, crap. This one's over."

I agree that Obama did poke a little fun at himself, although it didn't seem like his heart was in it. But when you're anointed -- and to a degree, self-anointed as a political messianic figure, sometimes it's easy to forget that you can be made fun of as well. Obviously President Trump lacks this ability, despite the statements he makes to the contrary, as McAndrew notes. Hillary Clinton may have recognized the need to sometimes make herself the object of the joke, but she lacked any skill at pulling it off.

About the only candidate in the 2020 race who seems like he may have a little humor about himself was Michael Bennet, who a couple of weeks ago promised that if we elected him we might be able to go two weeks without thinking about him while we got on with our lives. In addition to this being the correct view of the roles politicians should play, it's kind of funny.

Sure, no matter who gets elected we're going to make fun of them, and few people in the public eye deserve it more than this collection of wannabe national saviors. But it'd be nice to believe they had enough brains, self-confidence and humility to be in on the joke.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Book Look

In the third book of his "Carlisle and Holbrooke" series of naval fiction novels, Jamaica Station, Chris Durbin let the junior of the pair, George Holbrooke, make use of the personal and professional growth in which he'd been encouraged by his captain, Edward Carlisle. In the subsequent two volumes, Durbin has events take their course and separate the pair, as he spent book #4 on Holbrooke and now returns to Carlisle in #5, The Cursed Fortress.

Fully recovered from his injuries, Carlisle is sent north from Jamaica to rendezvous with British naval forces fighting the French on the northern end of the 13 colonies and into what will become Canada. The fearsome Louisberg fortress guards the St. Lawrence seaway and prevents seaborne resupply of soldiers fighting along what is in our day the US-Canadian border. French forces, allied with local native tribes, make a successful land-only siege of Louisberg difficult. Only if the Royal Navy can keep French supply and troopships from landing can Louisberg be taken, and the damp foggy cold of late spring will make that a sizable task.

Fortunately, Edward Carlisle is a first-rate strategist as well as fighting sea-captain, so he and the crew of the Medina should be able to handle the job.

Because of his orders and the need for the on-station fleet to to resupply -- as well as return to seaworthiness after surviving the winter -- Medina is the only ship which can both scout the unfamiliar waters, observe the French military positions and harass French shipping. Durbin ably spins out Carlisle's thinking through his different options, highlighting both how he sees many of the obstacles and benefits of different courses of action and how he will react as conditions change. He outlines Carlisle's initial mistrust and eventual embrace of his new first lieutenant and the internal back-and-forth that drives those moves. We can see clear distinction between his heroes: Holbrooke has an intuition that leads him to dare the risky yet correct bold stroke, while Carlisle swiftly plans and calculates before committing himself to the move that has the best chance of succeeding. Although we certainly want some stories with our heroes back together, Durbin gives himself the leeway to use several more battles from the Seven Years War as his backdrop by splitting them up and allows for several more novels set within that shorter time frame.

Some sections of the story need some more showing than telling -- Carlisle's reunion with his estranged father and brother is described more than related, and might have been stronger if we saw it unspool rather than hear Carlisle's post-meeting impressions. But Cursed Fortress puts another strong entry into this series and allows it fair winds as it navigates the crowded field of sail-navy fiction.
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Sometimes science fiction books incorporate their advanced technology into the story as a part of the fabric. Artificial gravity, for example, makes the story flow a little more smoothly and offers a ready explanation for why accelerating at thousands of times the speed of light does not crush your characters into paste against the back wall. Some stories outline the development of such technologies, showing how scientists or inventors are moved by the desire to explore the universe and the frontiers of human knowledge.

But not until Jon Del Arroz's Gravity of the Game did we come across a futuristic technology employed for a truly meaningful and important purpose: Allowing baseball to be played on worlds other than the Earth.

World Baseball League Commissioner Hideki Ichiro is facing hard realities. His sport's viewership numbers are cratering. His owners are mostly short-sighted money grubbers who will do whatever they can to increase their own profits even when it might hurt the overall game and the rest of the League on which they depend. Sports media magpies huddle, waiting for his commissionership's demise so they can exalt themselves by claiming they knew it would happen. He's gambling on the novelty of baseball played on the moon, but that body's lesser gravity presents problems that would render the game strange and unwatchable even if it could work, which so far it hasn't.

Which is where the artificial gravity comes in. Even in the high-tech world Ichiro occupies, the concept is seen as fantasy fluff, and the money spent on its research wasted. Ichiro's investment in that research is one of the reasons some of the owner factions cite as a need to remove him for a more practical mind. Can he keep his position as commissioner and succeed in a long-shot bid to revitalize the sport he loves?

Del Arroz doesn't stuff Gravity with more than it needs to do its job. It's not hard to see it on the pages of a mid-century sci-fi pulp magazine even if it's much more novella-length than short story. Ichiro's love of his game and his belief in its importance come straight from the days of Mantle and Maris, no matter his date of birth or country of origin. But Gravity isn't satire or send-up, and Del Arroz illustrates the important point that sometimes people trying to solve ordinary problems bring about solutions with extraordinary reach. In this world, artificial gravity wasn't developed by a space navy or a technocratic state so that starships could explore unknown planets. It was developed so that pitcher and batter remain separated by 60 feet, six inches, as God intended.
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What if the monster-hunting, wizard-slaying, horde-smacking bands of mercenaries of the sword-and-sorcery novels were seen as and treated like the heavy-metal bands of modern rock music? You'd earn royalties when bards sang your tales. You'd have merchandise deals and sponsorships. And as you aged and your styles grew less and less distinctive, you'd retire, taking up everyday employment in one village or another, recognized only by your contemporaries as newer, hipper bands took hold in the public imagination.

Until the day that one guy, the really out-there one, shows up at your doorstep asking for the kind of help only his old buddies could provide and says the words you always dreaded but secretly longed to hear: We're putting the band back together.

In Nicholas Eames' debut Kings of the Wyld, Clay Cooper's ordinary and very very safe life is interrupted by just such a former friend, who needs the help of his once upon a time bandmates to rescue his estranged daughter from a city besieged by a horde of monsters. It's the kind of gig that Clay's band Saga would have turned down even when they were at the height of their strength and fame, since it's an obvious one-way journey to the hereafter. So naturally...

Eames writes for the fantasy genre aficionado, wasting no more time in worldbuilding than he needs to put his specific classic rock spin on a standard Dungeons and Dragons model. This magic does this, these monsters do that, and despite their creaky frames and slower skills Saga kicks all their tuckuses in fine Roger Murtaugh fashion. He has a deft hand for an action scene and usually doesn't try to put more nuance and depth to a character than he can manage.

Like a jam band show with a drum solo, though, Kings is too long at more than 500 pages. The length makes for some slooooowww pacing that saps the urgency we should feel as Saga tries to reach the trapped city. And although Eames has a sure hand for his action sequences he includes too many of them and they grow repetitive. Kind of like its sedentary and settled protagonists, Kings would be better off with a good-sized section trimmed from its middle.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Political Advice

There seems little point to commenting on what just about any Democratic presidential candidate says these days, with the Iowa caucuses still five months out and there being more of these people than anyone could keep track of. But "Beto" O'Rourke, loser of a 2018 Senate race against Ted Cruz, stood out this past week by saying stuff that makes his desire to seek the office logically implausible.

The former Texas Congressman mostly resembles John Edwards in his campaign, being an empty suit full of words that mean even less that a football coach's comments on why his team can win the game if they score more points. He has, of course, significantly more personal integrity than Edwards, who fathered a child during an affair he had while his wife was battling cancer. But as a candidate, he is just as meaningless and has struggled to transfer the excitement of his battle against Cruz to his battle for the nomination. Since Cruz did not cooperate by declaring a Democratic candidacy, it has been difficult.

His latest tack has been to activate the Racial Animus Mode of campaigning, first declaring in a speech in Nashville that the United States was founded on white supremacy. He then doubled down on that opinion in a Sunday tweet and claimed that our nation was founded on racism and is still racist today.

Now, one of two things must be true about Mr. O'Rourke's claims: 1) They are true, in which case why would someone as upstanding and perceptive as he wish to lead such an irredeemably racist people? Or, 2) They are false, in which case why should anyone have any confidence that his judgment and understanding in office will be any better than his judgment and understanding while seeking office?

I personally believe Mr. O'Rourke is wrong. So do a lot of historians who are smarter than either him (well duh) or me (slightly less duh). But I and those smarter people could still be wrong. So either we are unworthy of Mr. O'Rourke, or he is unworthy of us.

Thus, it makes no sense for Mr. O'Rourke to run for president, and he should delete his campaign immediately.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Confusion

I was not tempted in the slightest to watch the Amazon adaptation of Garth Ennis' stupid and violent comic book series The Boys, because I think Mr. Ennis makes a career out of anti-human stories that have mistaken vulgarity and brutality for transgressive art.

I did read a little bit about it, though, because while I was sitting in the hospital waiting room for my father to get out of surgery I ran out of things on the internet that I really wanted to read and had to settle for whatever was there. According to the two or three articles I skimmed and the one I read, The Boys is a fantastically creative idea and brilliant deconstruction of modern super-herodom. The premise, it seems, is that the superheroes of this particular universe bear watching and being taken down by a squad of folks who've been wronged by them. They're all caricatures of their more famous counterparts such as Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman and so on and they're narcissistic bullies who use their powers to cover up their debauched lifestyles filled with sex and drugs. That is, when they're not complete sociopaths to begin with.

So they're villains. I didn't know villains were new.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Good Shoe Diaries

So these people bought out the whole remaining stock of a closing Payless Shoe Store in order to give the shoes to a women's shelter.

A place that helps people gets some help it needs, and the store employees and manager don't have to keep hanging on in a dying outlet and can get on with hunting up new work.

I think I kind of like them.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Oversimplify

Although I rarely read current Doonesbury, we shouldn't forget that at certain times in the past, Mr. Trudeau was pretty dadgum funny.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Test Pattern

Spending some time studying for a particular "scopy" exam, so posting will resume once everything's passed.

See what I did there?