Friday, November 30, 2007

A mentally draining vacation

This was definitely one of those cases where you need a vacation to recover from your vacation. For a few days since coming back I was still exhausted and felt a fantom ship rocking under my feet. I also continue to be brain dead.

I'm wondering if we should have gone on a Geek Cruise instead. Yes, there are cruises that have classes on all things geeky, such as becoming a Mac power user, or learning the ins-and-outs for Photoshop, as opposed to what passed for entertainment on our cruise (men's hairy chest contest, a seminar on how to get the best deal on diamonds in Cozumel). My IQ immediately dropped two standard deviations and haven't completely recovered.

Aside from lack of mental stimulation, our cruise was very geek-unfriendly in one other way. Lack of electric outlets. For shame! There was only one -- count them, one -- electric outlet in our room! So our power-thirsty devices (two laptops, two cell phones, one camera) had to take turns being charged. Just as bad, there were very few power outlets all around the ship, in the areas people hang out, such as bars, lounges, and eateries. I was hoping to find a nice, quiet corner on the ship, with a view of the sea, away from people, and camp out there with a laptop for some quality writing and blogging. No luck. I did less writing there than I do on a typical weekend at home. Like I said, the cruise atmosphere is not conducive to intellectual exertion. :-)

Making you feel like a sheep

The second most popular thing here beside feeding, it seems, is taking people's pictures. There are photo stations set up throughout the ship, where you can have your picture taken in a variety of settings: on the grand atrium stairs, in front of a huge poster of the ship Ecstasy, dressed up in a period costume, hugging a showgirl, or with all kinds of other props. A photographer also walks around the tables at dinner time and takes everyone's pictures. You can later purchase the pictures you liked. At one time the photographer was accompanied by a man dressed as a pirate. (We were in the Caribbean, after all! :-)) The "pirate", of course, has a hook for an arm; he shoves his hook under your neck, you smile (or make a scared face if you're feeling creative), the photographer clicks, and they move on to a next person. There are ~ 1500 people dining at the same time, and the photographer / pirate duo needs to process them all. Methodically, without missing a beat, without lingering an extra second, they move from person to person: put a hook under your neck, wait for a smile, click. I guess an assembly line approach is efficient when it comes to, say, bagging groceries, but a bit counterproductive when attempting to create fantasy memories. :-) Still, on a ship with 3000 people, assembly line approach is usually the only possible one, especially where it comes to herding people off the ship and on to tour buses, then back on the ship, etc. At every step there are crew members telling you where to go, where to stand, when to have your card in hand, etc. It's been a long time since I've felt so much like a sheep, what with all that herding, card-swiping, photographing and force-feeding. :-)

But I'm not griping. After all, there was luxury and there was free time, which is more than you can say about most life situations.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The cruise: tour guides that double as salesmen.

As I said before, these cruises seem to be designed to herd tourists from one money-extracting opportunity to another. The shore tours were just as efficient. On a ride to the ruins, a tour guide doesn't just recite historical facts about the ancient Mayan civilization. He also makes a sales pitch. On the ride to Chichen Itza the guide told us about Mayan calendars. Interesting stuff, and Wikipedia has a lot more on it. Of course, our guide did not give us a lecture of the same length and complexity as the article I'm referring to; he condensed it into a few sentences, from which I took away only that Mayan calendars were systems of interlocking cycles of various length; one of the most important cycles is 260-days long and based on the length of human pregnancy. (Oh, and two major cycles will both end in 2012, and that year will be a beginning of a Mayan new era; some apocalyptic nuts are already preparing for that. :-)). So, the guide told us we now had a unique opportunity to have personalized Mayan calendars made for us, and he passed around forms to fill out with personal info to put on a calendar. The calendars would be made by local artisans while we wander in the ruins of Chichen Itza. In what way a Mayan calendar can be personalized, I don't know; do they just mark your (spouse's, children's, etc.) birthday(s) on those cycles, or what? Or do they mark "significant" dates that result from interlocking of the cycles, as the dates to start major undertakings in your life? Is it a bit like astrology, then? I don't know; I sat too far in the back of the bus to hear the guide very well. ;-) Needless to say, I wasn't tempted by the offer.

Similarly, on the ride to Tulum, the tour guide (a different one) was offering to sell us little silver charms with our names written in Mayan characters. The charms were yet to be made; the guide passed around forms to fill out with personal information that would be collected as we get off the bus, and the charms would be made while we were on tour. But... Mayan characters are funny business. Our Tulum guide said ancient Mayan script was phonetic (i.e. each sound was represented by a letter), hence it should be possible to write any name, including foreign ones, in Mayan. However, our Chichen Itza guide said Mayan language actually used logograms or hieroglyphs. (And Wikipedia confirms it.) In theory at least that would make it impossible to write foreign words in Mayan characters, as I don't believe they had characters for Jim or Bob, or anything like that. :-)) So if anyone ordered those trinkets (I certainly didn't), I can only wonder what the characters on them said. Maybe "kill all the palefaces"? :-)

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

More on Mexico

As I said, I didn't get to see much of Mexico, except for little towns I glimpsed out of a bus window. Those towns, starting with Progresso, were rather dilapidated. To get to the ancient ruins we had to pass a large bunch of modern day ones. The 1-2 story buildings that lined the streets had gaps between them like missing teeth, where formerly occupied houses had been left to decay. In some places inner courtyards of houses had become open where a front wall had crumbled; I could see smoke, but not a single soul concerned with the fire: were those fires purposeful? Did people cook on an open fire right in the middle of their backyards? Or did they incinerate their trash, or...? Who knows? I didn't have time to speculate as the bus kept moving (too fast for me to take pictures) and new scenes replaced the old ones.

Even if you only spend a few hours in Mexico and stick to tourist routes, you can still see enough evidence that things are different there than here. Whenever somebody walked into a public restroom in Tulum, a restroom attendant would say: "water ees normal dee color". The phrase was worth repeating, because the water in the toilets was dark brown, the kind of color that would make you go "ewww". Of course, it may have been more effective to plaster the bathroom with signs in several languages, but then the attendant would be out of job. Stuff like that can lead you to ruminate on topics like poverty, many faces thereof. Poverty is not necessarily having nothing to eat, it is also the only job available to you being one where you have to repeat the same phrase over and over, robotically, every 5 seconds. I'm sure I speak for a lot of people when I say I would turn into a blubbering idiot after doing this kind of work for just a few hours.

Next: tour guides that double as salesmen

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The cruise: Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza is one of the best known Mayan ruin sites. It's a 2 hour ride from Progresso (Mexico), our second port of call. So we spent 4 hours on the bus and only about 2 hours in Chichen Itza. But even if I had spent several days there, I wouldn't have more to say about it than Wikipedia has. :-) So what can I say that others haven't? I can only speak about my own clumsy attempts to grasp the greatness of this historical site.

As expected, the tour guide barraged us with information, much of it pertaining to the stone carvings on the walls of the Mayan ritual ball game court. I might have digested it better, had I a bit more time to tune my eye to the ancient Mayans' rather liberal interpretation of human anatomy. The carvings on the wall of the ball game court tell stories of human sacrifices performed at the ball game. Or they would, if you could make out actual human figures in those pictures. You can see a semblance of a face here or there, but mostly the carvings look like abstract ornaments. Yet to our guide they were clear as day. Here a priest holds a knife over a kneeling victim, he said. And over there he holds a severed head. And here is blood gushing forth from the victim's neck. Actually, I think I got a picture of the gushing blood. It's here. And I think I was able to make out a severed head in this picture, although it was hidden really well. :-)

Regardless, Steve and I were left confused about some important aspects of human sacrifice. We could not agree if the guide said ancient Mayans sacrificed a player from the losing or the winning team. I thought it was logical to assume that a member of the losing team was sacrificed. However, Steve thought that since being sacrificed to the gods was a great honor, that honor fell to one of the winners!

Friday, November 23, 2007

The cruise: ruins of Tulum

Steve and I recently went on a Caribbean cruise that stopped at two places in Mexico. So, technically I can say I've been to Mexico, even though I spent at most 16 hours there, a good 10 of them on buses and ships. As little as I've seen of that country, it shall not prevent me from filling up these pages with my detailed impressions. :-) As always, I'll do it in installments.

First, the Mayan ruins of Tulum.

Our ship stopped off at Cozumel and Progresso; a variety of tours was offered at each port of call. One of the options at Cozumel was to tour the Mayan ruins of of Tulum. They are not actually in Cozumel, which is an island; Tulum is in inland Mexico, ~ 1.5 hours bus ride from the coast. So, first you have get to the coast from Cozumel. It means taking a boat. A small boat. (Small, at least, in comparison with the gigantic cruise ship.) The waves are, of course, the same size whether you are on a big or a small boat, but the amplitude of motion felt by passengers is very different. What feels like a gentle rocking on a big ship, feels like a rollercoaster on a small ship. The ride was only 40 minutes, but man, did I get sick! Sea-sickness is a bitch. I felt residual nausea the rest of the day. And then I had to return to Cozumel on the same boat, across the same choppy sea! Fortunately, it wasn't as bad. Perhaps the sea was really calmer, or because I sat in the bottom deck (the amplitude of motion must be smaller at the bottom, at least in theory), or because I kept my eyes closed for the entire ride back (when you don't see the horizon heaving up and down, your brain has fewer clues that the ship is rocking), but I tolerated the ride back fairly well.

Nausea or not, the trip was worth it, even more so since I haven't seen ancient Mayan cities before. From the ruins of Tulum a beautiful view opens up to the sea. It was there, according to our tour guide, that the Mayans of Tulum first saw the masts of Spanish ships over the horizon. (Or maybe our tour guide was dramatizing, as the ruins themselves weren't very dramatic, at least not in rainy weather :-)) And we all know what happened next. This adds a twinge of sadness to the beautiful view. Tulum survived only a few years after that. Actually, the tour guide said the Spaniards left Tulum alone, because there was no gold in it. The Spaniards had made their outpost in what is now Cuba, and raided various places along the Mexican coast, mostly looking for gold. But after the Spaniards conquered the Aztec emperor Montezuma, Tulum's days were numbered.

Then again I'm not sure if (a) I heard the guide correctly, and (b) he wasn't making things up. I later noticed some things our guide said were of dubious truthiness. (Like for example, that a certain restaurant in Tulum, run by his friend, had the best margaritas in the world. I tried a margarita there, and it was decent, but I've had better in some places in Austin. Ditto for the food. Still, it wouldn't be right to go to Mexico and not have "authentic" Mexican food and drink, now would it?)

More of my pictures from Tulum and Chichen Itza can be found in my photo gallery.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Alexis Glynn Latner "Hurricane Moon": FACT reading group discussion

10 people attended the discussion of Alexis Glynn Latner's debut novel "Hurricane Moon". 4 people have read Latner's short stories before. 7 people started the book, 4 of them finished. Some others didn't finish it because they got it too late. This book had not been in stores for long at the time of the discussion. Some of these people were planning to finish it, if for no other reason then because they know Alexis personally (she has been coming to ArmadilloCons for many years).

"Hurricane Moon" is a story of an interstellar mission to find a habitable planet for humans to colonize. Finding the right planet takes longer than expected, and having spent a thousand years in a stasis, the colonists wake up with significant gene damage. Unless the damage is somehow fixed, they'll be unable to procreate; hence, the mission will have failed. The only person capable of coming up with a way to fix the damage is Joe, a brilliant geneticist who is somewhat of a difficult character. The other protagonist is a ship doctor named Katharin. Joe and Katharin feel attracted to one another despite disagreeing on just about everything.

Readers quibbled with science and with romance

People's opinions on the romance thread varied. Two people commented that the book lost their interest when the courtship of the two main characters took the central stage. Some others said the romance wasn't done very well: it wasn't as sophisticated as, for example, the kind of romance you find in Lois Bujold novels. "Those two people seemed to forget they were scientists, they didn't behave like scientists," said a reader. Other readers argued that the love story didn't dominate the novel; this was still hard SF, not a romance novel with a spaceship thrown in. The love story was merely part of the character development.

Some people found quibbles with the science in the book. One reader said it's strange for an Analog writer like Alexis to have pools of anaerobic bacteria on the surface of the planet (where they are presumably exposed to oxygen). Then he thought the explanation why the plants on the planet were blue was scientifically infeasible. These two perceived errors ruined his enjoyment of the book so much he put it down. Regarding the blue color of the plants, another reader tried to convince him he misunderstood the explanation. Somebody also thought Alexis Glynn Latner played fast and loose with deceleration. The numbers didn't add up -- the engine didn't have enough power to slow the ship down over a short period of time.

The plot lost its focus in the second half

Others, including readers well-versed in science, did not see serious problems in that respect. They found the science plausible, and they liked how the book started out as a classical hard SF story. The decision making that went into selecting the right planet, the weighing of the risks -- to stay at the originally selected planet, even though it turned out to be much worse than expected, or to travel further in search for a more suitable planet and risk greater gene damage -- all of this caught their interest. However, some of those who were initially impressed, thought the story lost focus in the second half. When the crew settled on the planet, it seemed the author didn't always know what to do with them. A reader said: "I could tell it was the first really long thing Alexis has written, because the plot was in some places, OK, I don't know what I should do next, so let's let Joe (one of the two main characters, the brilliant geneticist) wonder around and get lost. It happened 2-3 times. One time I could have handled, but 2-3 times? And he's the only guy who can figure out how to fix the genome so that the people could reproduce? And they let him get lost? And the plot depends on him getting lost?"

It can make you ponder logistics of running an interstellar mission

There were other indications that the plot wasn't well thought out. One reader said: "I would have wished that they would have done more exploration of Green, Blue and the other planet, sending drones or something, before settling down. Particularly because Blue is in the title of the book. They never go there, and yet it's in the title." Another reader reminded him that the mission had only enough drones for one planet. This led to an observation that the expedition seemed rather poorly equipped. They only had 1 doctor and one person with training in first aid, which is rather strange for an expedition that has landed on an unknown planet. (Not counting, of course, hundreds of doctors and people of all specialties that were in the stasis, waiting for their turn to wake up -- perhaps decades after the first colonists have landed. Those people were "passengers", not the crew.) This led to an interesting discussion of what is an optimal crew composition for an expedition exploring an alien planet. One reader, after thinking about it for a while, concluded it was a rational idea to have just the absolute minimum of people awake until they determine who else they actualy need. Because the more people you wake up, the more demands you have on resources, and then it becomes a challenge to find out what combination of human resources you need to wake up in order to support all those additional people that have woken up.

So it seems there are readers in this group who have given more than a passing thought to the logistics of running an interstellar mission. They've also read enough books in this particular subgenre where you have a spaceship with colonists in a stasis. Despite the debatable flaws of logic, "Hurricane Moon" came out ahead of many books in this subgenre. It may sound like this discussion report focuses mostly on the negative, but actually a lot of people in the group liked it. I guess they just didn't make it very clear to me what exactly they liked it for. :-)

Or maybe they did, to some extent. They liked the culture, for example. The new culture the colonists are trying to build in this new world, the rituals they create, was seen as some of the more interesting things of the novel. One reader, though, was thrown off by the characters changing their last names, as it made it difficult for him to keep track of them. He also found the motivations of the colonists not very credible. Not just the motivations for taking on the names of their home cities ("if they are forever cut off from Earth, why are they holding on the geographical areas that have divided us for a long time?"), but also the fundamental reason for leaving the Earth. Several main characters seemed to be driven by the notion that the Earth society was too screwed up, so they had to go somewhere else to establish a better society. But the colonists are only human, and human society is not going to be all that much better elsewhere, the reader pointed out.

Overall, most readers thought all of these flaws could be attributed to this being Alexis Glynn Latner's first novel. They thought Latner had potential, and her subsequent books are bound to be better.

I wanted to like this book, because I have a weakness for hard SF, and because Alexis Glynn Latner is such a nice person, but I found it less than satisfactory for several reasons. The pacing is, to borrow a word from another FACT reading group member, a bit "pedestrian". From the time the mission lands on planet Green, nothing much science-fictional happens. There are no interesting scientific discoveries until the very end. Instead, the pages are filled with interpersonal drama.Even though the colonists in the end make two significant discoveries that challenge their assumptions about this planet, those discoveries play no part in solving the main problem they are facing -- healing the damage to their genes.


It is especially strange that the colonists conclude that the aliens made Blue what it is and put it there in orbit for religious purposes. It's hard to believe that a very advanced technological civilization would attach so much significance to religious symbols as to make an artifact of planetary proportions and put it in orbit. As an explanation of Blue's origin and purpose, it seems rather like a cop-out. It's almost as if scientists can't be bothered to seriously study Blue, so they conveniently label it a religious artifact, because then you don't have to explain anything -- who can begin to guess what the alien religion was like; whereas if you assumed there were good scientific, technological or political reasons for the Blue to be made what it is and placed where it is, you would have to continue to look for them.


When I pointed out that those discoveries play very little role in the story, one reader suggested that maybe their implications are left to be explored in a sequel.

Another way the resolution of the book was unsatisfactory is that the ending depends on a protagonist's psychological transformation rather than scientific / technical ingenuity. That's not what I would expect from a classic hard SF tale.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Book review: Richard Matheson "I Am Legend"

I read this book as "homework" for the FACT reading group, but ended up not going to the discussion because I've been steamrolled by work. Regardless, here is my review.

To sum up my opinion, it's a good character study, but a bit lacking in originality, and certainly lacking in scientific credibility.

The story follows a guy who (believes he) is the last surviving human after the Earth has been overrun by vampires. A cover blurb says Matheson was a big influence to Stephen King, and I wonder if that was the reason this book gave me a continuous deja vu. Stephen King has dealt with apocalyptic scenarios in some of his books, as well as with supernatural horror, though I think he did a better job of these two genres.

I was intrigued not so much by a premise that the humankind has been wiped out by / transformed into vampires, as with the notion that you can make an entire novel out of the last survivor's experiences (a short novel, but still). If the protagonist is the only person left alive in the world, what is the book going to be about? Him living out his days and dying? That would hardly make an interesting story. Thus, to fill up those 171 pages, something unexpected has to happen. Was the protagonist wrong in his assumption that he was the last person on Earth? The story is in no rush to reveal it. As the story goes on, you start to wonder if you were wrong and this is really a book about a lonely guy living out his sad, meaningless existence in a world without a future. He starts out desperate and pathetic. He is devastated by the loss of his wife and daughter to the vampire plague, and even more so by the realization that he is doomed to be alone until the end of his life. Even so, he's focused on survival. Each day he swings between alcohol-fueled rage and a tenacious, clear-headed effort to do what he needs to do to make it through one more day. Matheson portrays the character's emotional state so vividly and movingly that not only I sympathized with the protagonist, but I also started to think, grudgingly, that even if nothing more happens to him, the book will still be interesting enough as a character study of the last survivor.

Then the story gets better still, as the guy overcomes his alcoholism and becomes determined to find a scientific explanation of the vampire plague. That was the part I could really identify with. His frustrations reminded me a lot of my days in graduate school, when I used to bang my head against particularly ornery projects, or even of my current bouts with writer's block, as I struggle to think my way out of plot dead ends.

Yet when he found an explanation, it was very disappointing -- to me, at least -- because it was so implausible. Even more implausible was that nobody found this answer before him. And he wasn't even a scientist by training! He was merely a smart guy who taught himself biology from textbooks. Even though the plague was fast and the humanity, including all "real" scientists, was gone in a matter of weeks, it's still not likely that the CDC and other experts did not have time to make the same discovery that this self-taught scientist eventually did. Science is not this book's strong suit. Also, the ending did not seem well thought out. Certain things happened for no good reason.

The rest of the stories in the book were even more Stephen King'ish in their spirit. Their dominant genre is supernatural horror. There isn't much science fiction in them. But the characters are vivid, and their situations resonated with me in ways that held my interest despite the fact that this isn't my genre.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Maker Faire, part 5: of techno-optimism and reconstructed fashion

As one would expect at a faire, there were faire rides and merry-go-rounds. Supposedly they were all homemade? The amazing thing about them was that (I may be wrong on this) none of them ran on electric power. The ones I saw were all pedal-powered. Sure, these merry-go-rounds were nothing like roller-coasters in industrial entertainment parks, but they also required more active participation on the rider's part than simply giving in to mercy of the centrifugal force. And some of them, like this circular see-saw, managed to frighten some riders. Apparently, pedaling was less trivial than they thought. It got me wondering, by the way -- do the riders all need to pedal synchronously, in phase and at the same speed? What happens if one of them slacks off or falls out of phase? :-)

(I didn't go on any of the rides, I must say. I'm way too uncoordinated for that. One look at them makes me lose my balance. :-))

And this rolling wheel was just stunning, but I wasn't sure if it could move on its own, or if it needed to be pushed. In this picture, a bunch of people are pushing it, but maybe just because they need to help it up the hill?

More than anything else in this Faire, the merry-go-rounds and the modified cars left me optimistic in general about the ability of western civilization to survive the looming energy crisis. Oil may run out one day, but human ingenuity is under no such threat, it seems.

And then there was Swap-o-Rama-Rama, a two day event where you were supposed to be able to drop off your used clothing and be taught, or inspired, create new, reconstructed clothes out of stuff people dropped off. I didn't even stop by to check it out, because I knew it would ignite in me a temptation to start making clothes again. Sewing and knitting were my major hobbies in high school and college, but I abandoned them in favor of hobbies that hold a more profound appeal to me, such as writing. But I checked out their fashion show at the end of the day. They demonstrated clothes that were, IIRC, created during the day out of stuff people dropped off. Most of them were quite original. As I understand it, the creators of those clothes were actual fashion designers who specialize in "reconstructed" fashion. An ordinary person off the street, such as myself, would not likely have created something as good in just one day. But it was still interesting to see. Men's ties seemed to be a prominent sub-theme. Several of the dresses shown at the fashion show were made out of ties. Well, it was good to see ties can be put to good use: I don't remember the last time I saw anyone wearing a tie according to its purpose. :-)