Wednesday, April 6, 2016

On Being 43, Technology, And The Social Construction Of Public Spaces.

I recently turned 43.  This doesn't make me wistful, but it does make me pause and reflect.  Also recently, I read a fine quote from a fine author, the late Douglas Adams.  I don't recall the quote from reading Adams way back, but given my professional, academic and personal interest in technology, it struck me as a grand one:

“I've come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:
1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that's invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you're thirty-five is against the natural order of things.”

I reflected on this quote again as I watched the GIF below while swiping through Imgur on my iPhone (during what once might have been reading or TV time). 

Technology is a tool, of course.  It's hard to say it's neutral, because it's always positioned in its unique cultural and temporal context for resulting good uses and abuses.  I have to admit this GIF made me shudder.  The title of the post was 'It Begins.'  It's jarring to watch at 43, but perhaps exciting to those who are much younger and open-minded than I am.  Still, the impact of this is problematic not just for tripped pedestrians and lack of engagement with our social environment.  What does a critical mass of this behaviour do alongside self-driving cars, etc. to the lived environment, and investment in livable, human public spaces?

It had this 43 year old thinking about a classic scene from Gilliam's 'Brazil.'  All facade, literal and figurative, masking a burnt out husk of once livable, socially constructed spaces and places.  There's a lot to unpack from this, but I'll leave it there.

Gilliam's 'Brazil' - why make social space livable when amusing surface will do?

Friday, January 31, 2014

TMA-1, the iPhone dock!

Behold!  Marvel at my skills!
Building this iPhone dock was a real treat.  'A labour of love', to coin a phrase.

I have a long standing nostalgic passion for Space Lego from the 1970's and early 1980's.  There were a few epic Christmas gifts back then made for some of my  favourite memories from childhood.  As an adult, 2001: A Space Odyssey is among my favourite movies.  The rest is all 'chocolate, meet peanut butter' as they say.

See the full album here -

We came into about 50lbs of Lego from a relative, and I pulled a few pieces from that hoard, but I also had to order several of the pieces custom, from the amazing retail experience at Lego's Pick A Brick.  Sadly, the shipment was lost en route, and I had to wait a few extra weeks for the remaining parts.  A few Ebay auctions later, and I had my 5 red vintage Space Lego guys.  (They *had* to be red.)

Original inspiration from - The primate scene on Earth.
The initial inspiration for the piece was a post at Wired, via Boing Boing (I think).  Somebody had made an iPhone dock based on the primate scene from earlier in the film.  I recalled the old grey moonscape platforms from Space Lego and thought to myself how easy it would be to construct the TMA-1 scene on the moon as a base for my own phone.  I sat on the idea for a few years until we came into the Lego I mentioned, and I was fiddling with the pile while playing with my sons (2 and 4).  

Of course, the film itself provides the inspiration for the setting.  Here's the original scene from the film.  I've chosen to capture the moment the monolith starts to resonate for my dock.

I suppose the original, way back inspiration was a short internet video from the early 2000's (even late 90's?) I've just looked up again and embedded here.  

I thought it was damn clever for the time, and ended up using a minifig Dave Bowman in the monolith as my Gmail/chat avatar.  I guess you could say I have a long relationship with Space Lego and 2001.  This makes me a huge geek I suppose.  So be it.  Let the geek flag fly!


Sunday, January 20, 2013

How is this a winning business model?

This sign does not foster confidence...

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Ernest Cline's "Ready Player One" (Cadillac)

It's easy to capture the core of this story with a few pop culture examples.  Imagine Harry Potter blent with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with a good measure of The Matrix, and you have a pretty accurate picture of Ready Player One.  All of this is served up at a frenetic pace with a backdrop of 1980's cultural references that amuse for their nostalgia value and clever treatment. 

Yes Voltron, Rush, Dungeons & Dragons, Joust and scores of other 'proper' arcade games are just a little corner of the world of man-boy nostalgia Cline serves up.  The references are wrapped right into the story, as (e.g.) the protagonist has to re-enact films like Wargames in a 'Guitar Hero' like interface that has him racking up score by getting the lines right, with bonus for correct intonation.  Genius, and I can't believe this product is far from our current generation gaming consoles.

Here's the plot in a nutshell.  Our hero is a basic poor orphan type, finding his escape and adventure in an online world called The Oasis.   The creator of The Oasis is a Willy Wonka meets Steve Jobs type, who announced a great contest upon his death.  The person who finds the 'Easter Eggs' in his massive multiverse online oasis will inherit all of his corporate assets and control of this online world.  The Easter Eggs (gamer slang for hidden bonuses and other curiosities within video games) are all based on the deceased's love of the 80's.  Clues are given, but mastery of the films, games, music and pop cultural history of the 80's is a must.  Each Easter Egg provides the key to a gate.  At each stage a new clue or challenge based on 80's lore is tackled.  There's much more as the story develops, but I refuse to drop any spoilers here.  Suffice to say, it's an incredibly fun read, and an original take on 'vast virtual worlds' in more than a few ways.

Author of the Fanboys screenplay, his Ready Player One was apparently optioned for a film one day after the book rights were secured in a bidding war.  Well done Cline!  I'm reluctant to see this put to the screen if only because I know securing the rights to all the diverse copyrighted characters and content will radically pull back how much and how artfully they'll be used.  There are several references that just fit well with the character and hero's journey, and seeing them swapped out for something else (from the parent company's own library) just seems unfortunate.  Still, they already have my $12.  Shut up and take my money.

The author, with his personal Delorean, mocked up 80's geek style. 
He's the real deal.

About the Delorean above...

At the release of his paperback edition, he announced that the novel itself contains an Easter Egg, a link to an online site that will present yet another challenge to unlock based on three different video games.  The winner of this challenge will receive a custom Delorean as pictured here.  Sweet.  Clever.  Both hardcover and paperback English editions include the Easter Egg, so happy hunting.  That's two good reasons to check this book out.  Solid Cadillac.  (Or should I say Delorean?)

Many thanks go to Tyler Ward for picking this out as a family gift for me, on the occasion of my 39th birthday.

BTW - here's the link to his Easter Egg Hunt announcement...

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Pierre Berton's "Prisoners of the North" (Steak Knives)

Pierre Berton recounts the scattered stories of five personalities bound forever to the land and sea of Canada's north with his usual gift for narrative and history.  After doing a lot of reading on Arctic and Antarctic exploration, I decided to pull this off the parents' shelf as another loan, to better understand what makes this part of the world so compelling for such characters.  I must admit to some modest form of this fascination myself, of course, and the stories here helped scratch that itch.

While I wont recount each of them here, Berton shares the stories of Joseph 'Klondike Joe' Boyle, Vilhjalmur Stefansson, Robert Service, Lady Jane Franklin, and John Hornby, each linked to the geographical history of our north in different ways.  I'll call out a few of them briefly, but the rest is up to you.

The story of Vilhjalmur Stefansson is one that I'll likely follow up on with the book 'The Last Voyage of the Karluk' (not that the stack isn't already getting taller) that provides a more comprehensive account of the fatal expedition and his role in the affair that saw the needless loss of a ship and many lives.

Lady Jane Franklin, the ever-vigilant widow of John Franklin, was adamant and effective in rallying rescue and search expeditions for her husband's doomed adventure years after he left in seeking the northwest passage.  [I've blogged about that history in my review of 'Resolute' here.]  While a tragic figure, she's an inspirational and heartening one in many ways.

Most engaging for me was the story of John Hornby.  Here's a character too unique for fiction, equal parts romantic and crazy person.  The romance is for the permafrost of Canada's north between Edmonton and Hudson's Bay.  His history leading up to his final visit to this part of the world is itself a fascinating one.  He insisted on living off the land with little supplies or support, existing on a razor's edge of uncertain game and scarce fuel for heat north of the tree line.  Taking one hapless documentarian/scientist with him in an effort to live off the land for a year led to very close calls with starvation, and insane behaviour that that made his companion rightly fear for his life almost daily.  

Inexplicably surviving this misadventure, he manages (after a time) to infect a young relative with thoughts of adventure and convinces him to join Hornby on another attempt at living off the land through a harsh winter and beyond.  Another comes along for the ride, and all three perish in an all-too foreseeable slow wind down to starvation.  Poorly kitted out (they had rifles for the non-present Caribou that were useless for killing the ample fowl in the area), and too long deferential on Hornby's obstinance, the trio come to an end many directly warned them of even as they set out.  A partially decomposed diary discovered in the stove in their simple hut provides an eerie catalogue of their experience and the final days for each.  Their deaths are ironic in too many ways to recount here; a common trait for stories of death and misadventure in the back country.  

Hornby, Christian and Adlard's graves.

Hornby and his compatriots' end called Yossi Ginsberg's 'Jungle' to mind (and Krakauer's 'Into the Wild' for that matter).  I wasn't blogging when I read Jungle, but it's a high-end Cadillac tale of a doomed trek into the amazon rainforest with some naive young travelers and a guide either in over his head or just plain crazy.  Both tales grip the reader tightly, even knowing the outcome ahead of time.

All around, I'd recommend 'Prisoners of the North' to others with a passion for arctic and northern history.  While some pieces of this collection were slow or certainly less 'exciting', all the personalities are interesting ones nonetheless, and it helps fill in some gaps in the history of northern Canada, which is always a good thing.

The author, and Canadian icon Pierre Berton.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Michael Korda's "Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia" (Cadillac)

T. E. Lawrence, also known as 'Lawrence of Arabia', also known as John Hume Ross, also known as T.E. Shaw, gives us a biography with many unexpected faces and facets.

Best known for his desert exploits during WWI, of course, there's a great deal more to his story than simply riding off into the sunset of history on his motorbike.  I sought this out for the 'of Arabia' Lawrence, but in the end, found the life-long arc of his personality made for the most interesting read.  

Korda's account is one of many biographies on Lawrence (not to mention Lawrence's own 'Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph*).  It's a faithful account as far as this layman can tell.  Some of the more remarkable claims called for follow-up and cross reference online, which attests to the quality and surprise of the read.

I'll indulge myself with a long quote here, as it really captures the core of the character presented to us in Korda's bio:

Seldom has anybody stated more clearly his determination never again to be placed in a position of power over others.  With all his formidable willpower, Lawrence was determined to shackle the part of himself that had sought fame, glory, and greatness, and never allow it to rise again except in the pages of his book.  Nobody knew better than Lawrence what he was capable of.  He had executed a man in cold blood, suffered torture, killed people he loved, witnessed the ruthless murder of prisoners in the aftermath of battle.  Nor was anybody more anxious to do penance.  It was as if one of the great heroes of medieval times... had put aside his honors and retired in midlife to a monastery, tending to his herb garden and performing his humble chores, a simple brother, hoping not to evoke curiosity, pity, or interest.

Keep that larger context in mind as I give you the 'too short sum-up' of Lawrence's life:
- Lawrence is an illegitimate child.  His father runs off with Lawrence's mother (a servant) to start a new life under a new family name, leaving the comforts of minor nobility behind.
-Lawrence, though short of stature, shows great skill in anything he pursues.  From marksmanship to bookbinding, to ancient pottery, to architectural/tactical insight on the medieval castles based on summers riding his bike around France to advance his thesis - he's clearly gifted and passionate at whatever he pursues.
-His unique skills and interests lead him to study in the field at archeological digs in various parts of Turkey.  Despite incredible risk and danger, he travels alone and without pause for safety.  There are many close calls during this formative time.
-At the outbreak of the first world war, Lawrence is transferred to Egypt, and is eager to see action.  He's eventually entrusted with risky but minor missions, and quickly proves himself as a field agent and expert in local custom.
- By and by, Lawrence gains the trust, respect, and latitude of his superiors to prove himself in the storming of Aquaba from the desert side [not *quite* the odyssey portrayed in the film, but that's par for the course in such epics].
-Lawrence is fed money and supplies to fuel a guerrilla army of patchwork Arab groups with diverging interests and loyalties.  They all share the common enemy/target of the dying Ottoman empire.  While Lawrence is aiding the British cause in his efforts, his ultimate purpose is to deliver independence to the Arab people (a promise he already knows he cant deliver on, given the planned partition of the region in French-Anglo treaties premised on the successful close of the war).
-This guerrilla war is an ugly one, and Lawrence faces moral dilemmas I can't imagine, and at every turn.  He's raped, brutalized, and commits acts of callous brutality himself.  To say the experience is scarring only starts to capture what this must have been like.
-After the war, he seeks the anonymity of an assumed name and a modest role as mechanic in the contemporary equivalent of the Royal Air Force.  He's soon discovered, changes his name again and enters the army.  He's already refused decoration of any kind for his achievements in the war, and this to the face of the king himself.  He's become a headache for the establishment, and a press darling despite his best but mixed efforts to remain out of sight.
-He's transferred back to the air force, his real love, and dies as a mechanic in a random accident on his beloved motorcycle (a long standing love affair with fine bikes comes to a close).  It's a modest death for the modest man he strove to be.

It's been some time (3 months) since I read this, so the summary might be rough around the edges.  Still, this is quite an arc.  He's just a fascinating character.  The richness of the detail in-between these large milestones makes this an exceptional read all around.

With Faisal, Paris 1919 (middle inner right).
It's worth mentioning another facet of this biography that I found particularly surprising.  Maybe unexpected is a better word.  While the author attests Lawrence died a virgin, the book portrays a very complex, and very much sublimated sexuality for the hero.  How this erupts in his story I'll leave to the curious reader, but it's fascinating stuff, and does much to give you a feeling that you've read a really well crafted, intimate and thoughtful biography.  Highly recommended. 

* Lawrence had a passion for bookbinding, and worked at great personal effort and cost to create about 100 fully individualized versions for his intimates and other persons of note, all inscribed.  Variations were often random or subtle (e.g. different colours, types, plates/no plates, etc.), leaving experts to parse out the full range of differences after the fact.  Some of these have recently been valued at tens of thousands of pounds and more.  Yet another fascinating facet of this incredible character.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Amitav Ghosh's "River of Smoke" (Steak Knives?)

I keep returning to Amitav Ghosh, and he never disappoints.  While nothing since 'In An Antique Land' 12 odd years ago has paralleled its enjoyment, River of Smoke was as immersive and impressive a book as I've read in some time.

This second installment in Ghosh's intended Ibis Trilogy had me anxious from the outset. There's a tension in moving through long-narrative fare, tracking many characters over extended time, geography and divergent plot lines.  You get nestled comfortably into the personalities and direction, only to have the next installment re-shuffle the deck.  I was eager to settle back in.  While the focus and shift in characters was choppy and unclear at first*, he eventually settles into his new narrative paths without leaving the rich seam of (re-cast) continuity behind.

The Ibis Trilogy traces out different facets and of the 19th C. opium trade, with Canton as the locus of this installment (moving away from Bombay and India as the setting for Sea of Poppies, where the opium is produced and shipped out).  Gateway to all international exchange with China, it becomes the blockade to run for opium merchants/smugglers.  The characters all experience the outbreak of the first Opium War from different perspectives, interests and levels of intimacy, providing a tense and rich historical backdrop for the tale.  This and the broad cast of characters from far flung corners of the earth also act as reminders of how advanced globalization was even at this time, and the place of the opium trade in nurturing and accelerating this process.

19th C. Canton, with what I assume to be Fanqui town (based on the various flags) in the distance beyond the harbour.  This foreign enclave was where the non-Chinese merchants were housed, denied access to much of the rest of the city.
Ghosh's ability to map his story over the real history of this period creates a gratifying read on both levels.  The context of the time is quite an indictment of Western trade practices and relativism.  China, completely uninterested in any Western goods or manufactures, is soaking up cash selling tea and other exotic necessities flowing in the other direction.  To correct this colossal trade deficit, the British and other empires trafficked in opium, a great product for repeat business.   While they found an eager market for the drug among many Chinese, the local government was far less enthusiastic about the toll it was taking on the people, and the now reversed flow of gold leaving their shores for London and elsewhere.  China demands a stop to the smuggling, and Western merchants/dealers essentially thumb their noses in return, citing the irreproachable principles of free trade to justify their status as unwelcome pushers.

Too much of this is bad news for China.
Without diving too deeply into a plot recount, much of the focus of River of Smoke is on Indian trader Bahram Modi, with a boatload of opium he's unable to land and sell in the face of growing Chinese resentment and enforcement.  Taking a large gamble with promise of immense reward, if he's unable to move his cargo, he will be completely ruined.  The character's long love affair with Canton brings depth and pause to the larger debate around opium trafficking without minimizing it.  We feel Modi's urgency and desperation grow as the political tensions increase, and it's hard not to empathize with his various predicaments, both self-inflicted and imposed.  It was this plot thread that held the most appeal for me, pulling me along throughout the book.

I'm anxious to see the third installment, of course.  Ultimately, it's how this grand narrative rounds out that will determine the full place of this second volume, and it's potential for greatness.  Pending resolution to the trilogy, this fine volume can only rate a steak knives.

The author.
* I had to revisit a wiki summary of the plot for Sea of Poppies" to refresh my memory, as it had been months since reading it, and the cast and story lines are thick.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Sherry Turkle's "Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology And Less From Each Other" (Steak Knives)

I mentioned to my wife that this text was like the classic shrink-wrap package deal on DVDs.  “Weekend at Bernie’s II” bundled with “Ben Hur”, for example.  Priced to move, but you have to take the good along with the bad.  My wife felt this was a clever (if not original) metaphor, and I think it captures my reaction to this text perfectly.  The first half of this is brutally poor, and the second, while not quite Judah Ben Hur, is a great study of the role the internetz, texting and social media in shaping our relationships with each other. 

To split this text in half is easy.  Part I, a treatise on the role of ‘social’ robots in culture at large.  Part II, the close look at texting, Facebook and similar in mediating our relationships.  I’ll take a crack at each in turn.

Part I is the “Weekend at Bernie’s II” portion.  Turkle explores the growing place of robots in entertaining the young and caring for the elderly.   While I don’t discount what she offers here, her primary examples are Aibo, Tamagotchi, Furby and such from the turn of the Millennium or earlier.  In a 2011 publication, I’d simply and reasonably demand more contemporary sources.  She makes good points, but they’re rooted in what I’d call 'technological pre-history' given the break-neck speed of technological change in the last decade.  This portion should have been published 14 years ago, while I was still hitting raves and artifacts like Tamagotchi were still thick in the cultural air.  

Her point here, in coarse summary, is that the expectations we have of such virtual creatures provide form for how we come to expect our relationships with other humans to develop, and how children come to determine what is alive and what is not.  The most compelling part of this half of the text is how she considers elder-care by robots to be particularly problematic, asking  good questions of such technology in a context when even children beg the question ‘Aren’t their people for these jobs?’  Skip this half of the book, I think.

An aside for context:  I used Turkle’s fantastic “Life On The Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet” extensively in researching my Masters’s thesis.  In part, I explored how anti-globalization activists' online connections represented something more, something bigger, than simply one more touch point in their activist experience.  Rather, these online connections act as key identity referents that signaled a truly 'global' identity (transcending identity framed on national or local ones - e.g. 'I'm acting as a global citizen, not a Canadian.')  Of course, the irony is that anti-globalization activists are enacting 'globalized' identities in the process of their protest, literally 'being the truths they speak.'  An emergent social internet was seized as a mainline to a world-wide network of activism that provided a symbolic more than a pragmatic 'global interconnectedness' (at least for the turn of the Millennium).

It was a great read, and a timely one for my own academic purposes.  The second half of Turkle’s text here delivered on this pedigree, and was a pleasure to read as a thoughtful and intimate take on how social media has evolved to dominate and regulate our relationships with each other.  Start the book here

What if I only want Ben Hur?

In Part II (the Ben Hur half), she argues persuasively that we loose much in such technologically mediated relationships - hence, 'Alone Together.'  This is not done with the tiresome, plaintive tone of a Luddite complainer.   Most of her respondents are youth, ‘digital natives’ who grew up saturated in an online world.  As an anthropologist/psychologist teaching technology and culture at MIT, Turkle is as well positioned as anybody could be to comment on the subject.  It's a cautionary consideration of what is lost and what is gained in funneling meaningful social exchanges through the still narrow channels of social media, at least as they compare to rich face to face human interaction.

It's not an argument calling for a devolution and retrogression.   We all recognize that social media is an exploding part of our social dynamic, growing in scope and occupying more of our 'life mix' as we enact our selves in online and offline relationships.  We have to appreciate and make visible how things like our Facebook, Twitter, Blogger and Pinterest selves reflect facets of identity - partial not whole, if a positive dialogue about where our sense of person-hood is headed in all of this.

Her anecdotes from the field shed much light on how this plays out with digital natives as well as those of us who remember fondly their first clunky experiences with email, bulletin boards, and chat rooms, with primitive cell phones ('dumb' phones?) still a luxury of the rich and privileged.  For example, she recounts a young girl's 'relief' at finding out a classmate and friend had died via text message.  It gave her time to absorb and react to the blow.  By the time she returns to the face to face reality of the school yard, it didn't need to be addressed in full.  'Did you hear?'.... 'Yeah...'  There's an important benefit in the social experience of grief that's been denied here.  Something important, and something really human has been lost in running the experience through the narrow pipes of txt.  

A more modest example, familiar to too many, is being dumped via text (or FB).  The tension of this prospect sits at the fuzzy border zone of a new decorum, and challenges us to settle on a new norm to fit the medium.  Online avatar weddings in MMORPs, adopting new sexual and gender identities for role-playing and the like all present great outlets for personal discovery, but how do we fit these puzzle pieces back into the greater whole of a 'me.'  Are they different but equal representations of who we are, or potentially damaging retreat into a medium that demands less of us - preventing us from coming out or sharing our deepest needs with those who physically surround us.

She uses the idea of 'life mix' to grapple with all of the different social media modalities we adopt in creating our 'lives on the screen.'  It's a useful and apt lens, I think.  When we consider these different pieces as a concert of constructed identities, we can make better sense of their role and potential.  She makes the obvious connection to McLuhan - the medium is the message.  Twitter me is most definitely not an analog to Blogger me.  Facebook becomes an artfully crafted social representation of who we'd like to be seen as, rather than a faithful representation of who we are at core.   [Post the picture of you with duckface, but not the one blowing chunks into the toilet.]  Managing all of this becomes a new and novel stressor.  Others have access to our 'walls' as virtual representations of who we are.  We've all been tagged in photos we'd rather distance ourselves from, and having threads co-opted by marginal associates or embarrassing relatives is a new irk.  We're still learning (creating?) the emergent mores and norms on the fly.

What can we learn from how different parts of our identity erupt into these different channels as a less conscious but carefully executed process?  What can we learn from the fact that identity construction has become socially participatory at an unprecedented scale and scope?

Turkle misses (or ignores) an important dimension of the larger argument, IMHO.  Primarily, what it means to have a large and inseparable portion of our identity mediated by a brand/corporation (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, Blogger, etc.).  What does this mean in terms of ownership, control and privacy in the long term?  While I'm not expecting the big squeeze any time soon, lets assume FB were to shut down or move to a radically different business model tomorrow.  What agency do we ultimately have to reconcile our junior position in crafting our online identities?  This is a big, big, big question that still hasn't been directly addressed, even as we give over more, more and more of ourselves to these brand 'mediated' social interactions.

That this text creates so many questions speaks to its strength.  More than that, it's a call to action for thinkers and policy makers on the subject.

Sherry Turkle

Follow the link below to see a fine TED talk given by Turkle on this very subject.

Side note:  I just celebrated my 39th birthday and had 50+ greetings from Facebook friends, as well as several txt's and emails.  Humbling.  The scale of engagement is far larger than I'd ever have expected in my youth, but it's certainly much thinner.  I appreciate all of them, but it's not a cake with candles on it either.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Laurence Bergreen's "Over The Edge of the World: Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe" (Cadillac)

Magellan never did manage to circle the globe, but his expedition did.  Leaving with three ships, only one managed the first circumnavigation of the Earth, and just barely at that.  Quite aside from the technical and geographical challenges this amazing feat of history presented are all too common political and psychological ones, and all of these together present the context for another fantastic read in the vein of history in the age of discovery.

Laurence Bergreen, as I’ve said here before, captures such histories impressively.  His history of Polo’s adventures to Asia were my introduction to his work, and based on another great reading of his history of Columbus’ voyages the week before, I decided to pick this up on the road in Philly. (Traveling myself, it seemed particularly appropriate, though I enjoyed much more comfort and certainty than those several hundred years before me.  Air Canada lost my luggage and delayed my flights, but at least I arrived back alive and in good health.)

Much like Columbus, Magellan was beset by a host of challenges at home that crippled the voyage well before it set sail.  As a Portuguese captain, there was a fair degree of mistrust by the opposing super-power Spain, and he was kept on a rather short and tight leash.  Problems in his mandate and control erupted from the outset, and continued to plague the adventurers well after Magellan had fallen, as the ships tread lightly through Portuguese dominated territory in South-East Asia and around the African horn.

Only just hitting the South American coast had already seen Magellan’s hand forced in many ways, resulting in attempted mutinies, and tortuous deaths of perpetrators, described in morbid detail in this account that makes hair stand on end.  He had learned well from the executors of the Spanish Inquisition, and utilized several of the brutal punishments to stem the sentiment of dissent brewing amongst his co-captains.  He stranded a priest and a noble relative of a key benefactor of the voyage on a small Argentinean island as a due but contentious decision to ensure the future success of the mission to find the lucrative spice islands of the far-east (as approached from the west).  This would prove more costly than anticipated.

Upon discovery of the strait that would come to bear his name, a ship managed to slip away in mutiny, returning to Spain with nothing but ill words to speak of Magellan’s brutality and poor treatment of crew and crown.

Entering the Pacific was a welcome turn in fortune, but a short trip to the spice islands was not to be had.  The size of the Pacific was not anticipated, and the mutinied ship carried much needed stores for such a long passage that were now denied.  While it might seem tiresome to repeat the sentiment here, I can’t help but try to empathize with the feelings of the crew as they set upon this long and arduous crossing without sense of where they were, and how they might survive it all.

Pigafetta, a key chronicler of the voyage, took this time to compile a rudimentary lexicon of a South American they had snatched from his home.  The captive died on the crossing, tossed into the sea.  In fact, Pigafetta proves an invaluable source of much of what we know about the voyage, and the fact that he was among the few that returned alive (along with his faithful and robust account) is surely a great treasure to our collective history.  His was a narrative account, rather than a technical one as an officer or official might collect.  He was a staunch loyalist to Magellan, which colours his account, but provides a sense of personality to it all.

Pigafetta, chronicler of the circumnavigation.

Magellan devolves into a religious and hubristic zealot by the time he arrives in Asia.  This is a man on a mission for god.  It’s this affectation that accounts for his death at the hands of an inconsequential band of local malcontents as he tries to prove the mettle of European guns and armor, even as he tries to impose Christianity on those he meets.  It’s a sad end for a man who should have led his expedition home, but less an accident than Cook’s untimely demise in Hawaii.  His crew mates saw this coming, but were powerless (and some say complicit) in his death on a beach as he tried to brag his way to minor local fame.

Ferdinand Magellan.  Author of the first circumnavigation, but dead before it was realized.

My task here isn’t to recount the history in detail (I recommend you read it yourself), but the bottom line is this; the mission limps home after another long saga of trials, finding the spice islands and loading up on goods worth their weight in gold.  By the time the final remaining ship hobbles back to the safety of Spain, very few remain to recount the tale of this first triumphant circling of the Earth.  They are perplexed, despite their careful keeping of the logs, at the fact that they are off by a day, not having the schema to appreciate the crossing of a date line as they beat the rotation of the globe over time.  The mutineers of the early part of their voyage had beat them home with news of Magellan’s alleged transgressions, which added more grief to their long and arduous circling.

In the end, says Bergreen, it was Magellan’s slave Enrique who completed the real first circumnavigation.  An Asian captive, he arrived home before the Europeans who still had half a world to cross.  He was able to speak the language (or a dialectical variant that sufficed) of those in the Philippines they met at the far side of the Pacific.  At Magellan’s death, he fled, and rightly so, as Magellan’s will had stipulated he be freed at his death.  The remaining masters of the expedition did not want to part with his expertise in local language.  This too would prove more costly than the rash move of forcing him into continued slavery.  He conspired with the locals, assuring them of the ill intentions of the sailors, leading to a massacre on shore that deprived the mission of several of these few remaining able commanders.  This is great reading, and great history.  Magellan falls after several blows as he tries to force some stubborn locals into conversion to Christianity and the will of his new-found friends nearby.  Modesty and a sense of the local realpolitk might have changed history and his place in it immeasurably.  So it goes.

Magellan was reviled in his time, though he’s still remembered for his discovery of the strait to the Pacific that bears his name.  Had he not succumb to rank European and Christian hubris, he may have completed his voyage.  Reading the already-known end of this great explorer doesn’t make it any less powerful, and Bergreen had me tightly wrapped into the narrative throughout.  It’s a great history and a great tale, and I recommend it highly.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Paolo Bacigalupi's "The Windup Girl" (You're Fired)

I want my money back.  I want my time back.*  I want to know why this was nominated for both the Nebula and Hugo, and I want to know what kind of mushroom and/or acid binge the judges clearly took that led to it winning both.

The premise was an appealing one, and a reco by Cory Doctorow (author of some appeal for me, and primary contributor to BoingBoing, where the initial reco was posted), led me to pick this up on the road when I saw it at a fantastic Chicago used/new bookstore just off Michigan Ave that's now become a must-visit when in town, despite the letdown of this purchase.  In short, the book is a post-post global collapse after peak oil and genetically modified foods have finally saddled the world with a host of novel diseases that make food even more scarce and precious than it is today.  The protagonist (of sorts) is a ‘Calorie Man’, working for a food concern that’s hoping to find a new and lucrative way out of this whole mess.  Yes, food is so scarce they measure power in jules and calories.  This is a creative idea, but not altogether new.

As far as world building goes (an essential for any such work), Bacigalupi does a decent job in broad strokes only, when it comes to painting this post-post collapse.  Animal power and tension coils provide power.  Wind and dirigible make long distance travel impractical.  Global trade and cross-pollination are ‘shrunk.’  It’s an interesting basis for a story taking place in South-East Asia, but clumsily executed and embarrassing to contradictory in its detail.

I’d rather not catalog all the issues and inconsistencies in this book here, as I’ve spent enough time on it already, but I will note the following list of additional grievances.

The characters are wooden and implausible in their motivations much of the time.  The science, while seldom a sticking point for me in reading what is clearly science fiction, is just sloppy and nonsensical to even the non-specialist stickler reader.  The ‘windup girl’ is a gene-hacked demi-human of sorts, who inexplicably exists common enough to be reviled by the masses who recognize her kind in the street while seeming uncommon and rare enough to seem priceless to the powerful.  This doesn’t quite capture the disjunction the author creates, and I wont bore you with the detail.  Suffice to say, this central plot point is completely beyond the ability of basic logic to reconcile.  The plot is full of this disjuncture, and it’s insulting to the careful reader.

It’s a big idea, or rather, a big set of ideas.  Not original but distinctive enough for me to wish it had been given a better, even honest effort.  I’ll give the author full credit for the handful of themes collected here, but a better writer would have taken more time to polish his flow, consistency, science and characters.

I actually went to Amazon after reading this (on the road for work travel) to see if I was just too surly and scatter-brained at the time, and to see if I was alone in the reaction.  (Yes, I find Amazon reviews a good validation after the fact, when the mood strikes).  While well reviewed by many (!), the naysayers pretty much hit on all the complaints I had myself.  I’ve always maintained that the saving grace of much science and speculative fiction is the ‘big idea’, and that this alone can counter balance mediocre writing or storytelling (see Kurt Vonnegut for many examples – and I love Vonnegut).  Still, it’s a balance, and Bacigalupi strikes a poor one.  Harry Potter has rightly been criticized for Rowling’s use of ‘plot spackle’ to write her way out of a hole (and I loved her books too), but Bacigalupi doesn’t even bother with the spackle.  Lazy.

The author.
* Once I start, I feel obliged to finish, hoping the text will redeem itself.  If I put something down, it’s usually because I can’t give it the attention I feel it deserves at the time.