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June 2003

Want to Promote Family Values? Build Sidewalks.

I admit, I really didn't understand where the Scalias and Santorums of the world get the idea that decriminalizing sodomy threatens the sanctity of marriage. It would seem to me that keeping the government out of people's bedrooms helps, rather than hinders, the protection of marriage.

In his editorial The Bedroom Door, William Safire explains. Now I get it. The sodomy laws are viewed by the Christian right as a dike against a flood of gay rights legislation, especially legal sanction of gay marriage.

How allowing gay marriage would affect whether a heterosexual couple gets married and the couple's probability of staying married still eludes me. In the US, the state does not bestow sanctity (i. e. holiness or sacredness); only legal sanction, which is something else again. As a sacred institution, marriage is administered by churches.

Even though Safire gives too much credence to the right-wing Christian position, he makes some good points:

. . . straight marriage is showing signs of strain. More nubile women are postponing weddings to pursue careers. More eligible men dither along into uncommitted cohabitation. More of our marriages are ending in divorce, as no-fault life doth us part. Now marriage isn't even between one man and one woman, the way it's been for thousands of years. Traditionalists despair: What's happening to the idea of the rock-solid, procreative, mutually supportive family?

Rather than wring our hands and cry "abomination!", believers in family values should take up the challenge and repair our own house.

His general point is valid: that people concerned about marriage should focus on the behavior of heterosexual adults. But I do wonder why he didn't bother to check divorce statistics before asserting in the NYT that More of our marriages are ending in divorce, since divorce rates in the US have been trending downward for 20 years. I assume he didn't check because it is the conservative position that additional people getting divorced translates to an increasing incidence of divorce.

Can I get some of that Family Values energy behind a movement to put sidewalks in the suburbs, please? The promotion of sidewalks in the existing suburbs plus a prohibition on building new developments without sidewalks would do much to strengthen family neighborhoods. You don't get the connection? Maybe I should enlist Safire to explain.

MEANWHILE, Writing in Orange cites this weblog and Patrick Nielsen Hayden's Electrolite as exemplary weblogs.

Elizabeth Speaks Chimpanzee

Peter's in his circle of stumps setting the click beetle free. It's been a beautiful day, so I spent a good bit more of the day outside than I'd planned. (Peter's just brought me a larger stick than I would have thought he could get up the hill in order to show me the interesting potato-shaped fungus growing on it.)

Last night we watched a Jane Goodall DVD, Wild Chimpanzees. Elizabeth was very vocally resposive the chimp chatter, reproducing the sounds with uncanny accuracy. It would seem that infants are wired to speak chimp. I wonder if anyone's ever researched this.

Too Hot to Blog

It's been in the 90s all day. This neighborhood was built in the 1950s before everyone expected central airconditioning. So in this kind of weather we have a lot of brownouts and dirty power. We've been trying to keep th computers turned off as much as possible.

We feel self-righteous about this, since we have airconditioning only in our cars. None in the house. We are part of the solution, not the problem.

An Exopolitical Perspective?

For those, like me, suffering from Rumsfeld fatigue, who just can't get interested in the latest twists and turns of the Bush administration's consequentialist explanations no matter how important it is to keep track of the lengths to which the truth was stretched to justify war, here is some light comic relief: an academic paper by one Dr. Michael E. Salla, entitled An Exopolitical Perspective on the Preemptive War against Iraq:

In conducting this analysis, this study examines the available evidence of an historical ET presence  in Iraq, and then applies this evidence to better understand the contemporary political situation in Iraq. The study will then analyze the motivations of the main political actors in the prospective                US led preemptive war against Iraq. The study concludes by making                some policy recommendations concerning how to respond to the legacy              of an ET presence in Iraq and its contemporary political relevance.


He concludes:

This  paper suggests that the best mechanism for responding to the existence  of ancient ET technology in the ancient Sumerian capital of Uruk and/or  elsewhere, is a willingness by major world governments and associated  clandestine organizations to share information and control over these  ET assets. A preemptive war conducted largely for the control of a  'Stargate' in Uruk which pits the US and its allies, against an Iraq  which is tacitly supported by key European nations, could be calamitous  if indeed the 'prophesied return' signified an actual physical event  involving the ancient ET race that played a role in the start of human  civilization. Competing clandestine government organizations struggling  through a proxy war over the control of ancient ET technology in order  to prepare for those events corresponding to the 'prophesied return  of the gods', would hardly send the best example of a mature humanity  responsible enough to continue to exercise sovereignty over the Earth's  resources. The Columbia Space Shuttle may well have been a high profile  victim of such a proxy war intended to send a message to US based  clandestine organizations over the preemptive war against Iraq. Human  sovereignty may therefore be at stake at the very time where there  exists an opportunity for a rapid movement forward in the evolutionary  growth of human consciousness. It is up to all humanity to decide  how we respond to the challenge posed by clandestine organizations  struggling over Iraq's historic resources to further their respective  secret agendas.

This makes as least as much sense as what's said at White House Press conferences these days, much which seems to come from Mars.

(Via Just As I Thought.)

Maybe Fans Realy Are Slans

In science fiction we occasionally cast a wry and sardonic glance back at the idea among early science fiction readers and fans that science fiction people were somehow smarter than most people because science fiction addresses the big questions like why are we here?, is there life on other planets? , what is the true nature of reality?, etc. I've heard this referred to in conversation (accompanied by some eye-rolling) as "that whole fans are slans thing." (For the uninitiated, Slan (1941), by A. E. Van Vogt features superhuman slans living among normal humans.)

I was going to look up a few references to this in our research collection, but then I remembered David had already done that when he wrote the chapter ""I have a Cosmic Mind -- Now What Do I Do?'" in his book Age of Wonders (1984). (There is a revised edition issued by Tor about 10 years ago, by the 1984 edition is what I find on the shelf in our still partly-disassembled living room.)

A few select quotes, cited by David:

Robert A. Heinlein at the WorldCon in 1941:

Science fiction fans differ from most of the rest of the race by thinking in terms of racial magnitude -- not even in centuries, but in thousands of years . . . . Most human beings, and those who laugh at us for reading science fiction time-bind, make their plans, make their predictions, only within the limits of their own personal affairs. . . . In fact, most people, as compared with science fiction fans, have no conception that the culture they live in does change, that it can change.

Kurt Vonnegut responds via the character of Eliot Rosewater in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965):

I love you sons of bitches . . . . You're all I ever read anymore. . . . You're the only ones with guts enough to really care about the future, who really notice what machines do to us, what wars do to us, what cities do to us, what big simple ideas do to us, what tremendous misunderstandings, mistakes, accidents and catastrophes do to us. You're the only ones zany enough to agonize over time and distances without limits. . . .

By now, a lot of us within sf have come around to the wry bemusement Vonnegut articulated at the idea that sf people are more intelligent than the rest of the human race because of their cosmic perspective.

So along comes Howard Gardner, a Harvard neuropsychologist, author of Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (1983), a theory popular among educators, positing that there are many more kinds of intelligence than the rather narrow scholastically oriented abilities measured by IQ tests. In Frames of Mind, Gardner proposed that there were at least seven intelligences. In his 1999 book, Intelligence Reframed, he discusses a few more candidates. He adds naturalist intelligence to the list and gives serous consideration to the issue of adding something called existential intelligence:

Let me begin by proposing a core ability for a candidate existential intelligence: the capacity to locate oneself with respect to the furthest reaches of the cosmos -- the infinite and the infinitesimal -- and the related capacity to locate oneself with respect to such exisistential features of the human condition as the significance of life, the meaning of death, the ultimate fate of the physical and psychological worlds . . . (p. 60)

It does sound awfully familiar, doesn't it? Is Gardner validating 1940s fannish claims to intellectual superiority? Maybe there are ways in which people who read sf really are smarter than the rest of our species. Maybe fans really are slans.

I form no firm conclusions here, but I find the notion intriguing.

An Object of Contemplation

We had the offending TV hauled away yesterday, much to my satisfaction. We had to move a lot of boxes rather suddenly yesterday afternoon when the men came to pick it up, so there is no place to sit in the living room at present. My goal for today is to get the living room put back together.

Yesterday was Elizabeth's eight month birthday which I commemorated with an entry on her web log.

I was a bit out of it yesterday morning, I think because I ate what I'd made for David's dinner. A large salad is not adequate nutrition for a nursing mother. It was a tasty salad, but I need all kinds of things that he shouldn't eat right now. Elizabeth nursed a lot in the night, so by about 8 in the morning, I felt pretty awful. I need to have a lot more fat in my diet than I ought to feed him. His new, strict dietary restrictions are going to take some serious rethinking or else I'm going to end up making separate meals for each member of the family.

I'd hoped to take the kids to the Hudson River Folk Festival yesterday, but it rained all day, with thunderstorms in the afternoon, so instead we were mostly in the house which was surprisingly pleasant. Depending on weather and how David is feeling, I might take the kids there this afternoon, though probably not.

While rooting around on the web in the past few days, I've discovered something interesting. I didn't know that there were so many types of ADD. I thought there was just ADD and ADHD. It seems that there are six or seven: ннInattentive ADD, Hyperactive-Impulsive ADHDOverfocused ADD, Limbic ADD, Temporal Lobe ADD, Ring of Fire ADD, and Basal Ganglia/Anxiety. (These links come with cool brain scan images.)

So why am I telling you this? The description of Overfocused ADD produces in me a shock of recognition. Not only does it sound a bit like, um, me, but it also sounds like a lot of people I know in SF. The characteristics overlap substantially with the popular image of Aspergers. Although it has it's down sides, overfocusing is one of those really useful intellectual skills that allows you to plunge passionately and joyfully into the deep structure of a subject.

A while back, I discussed posthumous attempts to claim Einstein and Newton for Aspergers. One problem with this hypothesis, I think, is that an indicator for Aspergers is a statistically significant discrepancy between Verbal and Performance IQ scores, the performance being substantially lower. (At the time I blogged it, I made an off-handed remark about a connected between Aspergers and impaired mathematical ability and then couldn't remember my basis for saying that. This discrepancy was what I was alluding to.)

IQ tests as they exist now are really peculiar scientific instruments. While some subtests at least try to test for specific skill sets, others seem to test for different theorists ideas of what constitutes intelligence. One guy thinks general intelligence is a function of processing speed. Another guy thinks general intelligence can be assessed by measuring something called matrix reasoning. A given individual can score as a bit slow by one measure and really smart by another.

Although, in rough approximation, Aspergers and Overfocused ADD might appear similar, I gather that they would show different scatter patterns on IQ subtests. I present this as an object of contemplation for the science fiction field.

(I should say that I'm not sure I believe in the notion of generalized intelligence. Howard Gardner's notion of multiple intelligences makes more sense to me.)

INTERESTING TO THINK ABOUT IN THIS CONTEXT is the NYT Magazine piece Savant for a Day.

(Via Jerry Kindall.)

MEANWHILE, the Guardian reports that the documents incriminating Labour MP George Galloway appear to have been forged. We already knew that the road to war was paved with lies, but this a new and particularly creepy one.

(Via Charles Stross.)

DAVID updates you on his condition on his weblog.

When you try to fix a TV, unplug it first.

When you try to fix a TV, unplug it first. Um, I knew that. But I've had a lot of things on my mind lately so I didn't. The TV David wanted to watch this afternoon is broken. I thought this was because it had blown a fuse, which it has done occasionally in the past. So I unscrewed the back, pulled out the fuses, acertained which one was bad, and started reinserting the fuses that were OK. I think I must have closed a circuit with my wedding ring, because when reinserting the second fuse, I got an unpleasant shock. Then I noticed that part of my white gold filligre wedding ring was missing. I think I'd accidentally used it as a fuse. I suppose I might have really hurt myself if I'd had a sturdier ring on. I'll have to be more careful. Now that I've replaced the fuses, the TV still doesn't work. OBVIOUSLY, I should have read my horoscope in My Excite first:
Trying to do too many things at once only adds to your sense of confusion and frustration. Take your time and really think about what you're doing before and why you're actually doing it.
If I'd really thought about what I was doing, the three middle fingers of my left hand wouldn't feel unpleasantly itchy now. DAVID UPDATE: He's occasionally up and around and then he lies down again. He appreciates the emails he's been receiving. We are cancelling our plans for the next week or so. We will not be attending the ALA (already in progress). Nor will we be at the SFRA next weekend. We had a lovely trip planned which we were looking forward to, but this doesn't seem the time. We may have to rearrange some other summer plans around this rescheduling. But right now we're trying to take things one at a time.

A is for Angiogram

We have not left for Toronto and it is unclear when or whether we will be able to. David has been hospitalized for tests and I'm getting to learn new words like angiogram.

Today was Peter's last day of Kindergarten and shortly I will take him out for dinner to celebrate.

If life were fair, we'd all be in the car heading north on the Taconic.

UPDATE: Thanks for the kind words. David had a stent put in the right artery of his heart this evening. We expect that he will be fine.

Madam, I'm Adam

There's some really weird stuff coming out of the study of DNA. The new Nature is a special issue focusing on the Y chomosome. My favorite revelation so far is this weird bit from The male-specific region of the human Y chromosome is a mosaic of discrete sequence classes, explaining that palindromes encode some of the protiens expressed in the testes:

Eight palindromes comprising 25% of MSY euchromatin The most pronounced structural features of the ampliconic regions of Yq are eight massive palindromes (Table 3). In the dot plot of Fig. 5a, the longer palindromes are visible as vertical blue lines that approach the baseline. An MSY map highlighting all eight palindromes is shown in Fig. 3a. In all eight palindromes, the arms are highly symmetrical, with arm-to-arm nucleotide identities of 99.94-99.997%. (By convention, these percentage identities refer only to nucleotide substitutions and do not take account of insertions and deletions by which palindrome arms differ.) The palindromes are long, their arms ranging from 9Ýkb to 1.45ÝMb in length. They are imperfect in that each contains a unique, non-duplicated spacer, 2-170Ýkb in length, at its centre. Palindrome P1 is particularly spectacular, having a span of 2.9ÝMb, an arm-to-arm identity of 99.97%, and bearing two secondary palindromes (P1.1 and P1.2, each with a span of 24Ýkb) within its arms13. The eight palindromes collectively comprise 5.7ÝMb, or one-quarter of the MSY euchromatin.

Six of the eight palindromes carry recognized protein-coding genes, all of which seem to be expressed specifically in testes (Fig. 3b). In all known cases of genes on MSY palindromes, identical or nearly identical gene copies exist on opposite arms of the palindrome. Of the nine multi-copy, protein-coding gene families identified so far in the MSY, eight have members on palindromes. Indeed, six families are located exclusively in palindromes. These include the DAZ genes, which exist in four copies -- two in palindrome P1 and two in P2 -- and the CDY genes, which also occur in four copies -- two in P1 and two in P5 (Fig. 3b). In addition, the palindromes contain at least seven families of apparently non-coding transcription units, all expressed exclusively or predominantly in testes (Fig. 3e).

The world is stranger than we think!

Further (in Abundant gene conversion between arms of palindromes in human and ape Y chromosomes), these palindromes predate the divergence of our species from chimpanzees:

Using comparative sequencing in great apes, we demonstrate here that at least six of these MSY palindromes predate the divergence of the human and chimpanzee lineages, which occurred about 5 million years ago. The arms of these palindromes must have subsequently engaged in gene conversion, driving the paired arms to evolve in concert.

And finally, another article rewrites British history:

A new survey of Y chromosomes in the British Isles suggests that the Anglo-Saxons failed to leave as much of a genetic stamp on the UK as history books imply.

Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Danes, Vikings and Normans invaded Britain repeatedly between 50 BC and AD 1050. Many historians ascribe much of the British ancestry to the Anglo-Saxons because their written legacy overshadows that of the Celts.

But the Y chromosomes of the regions tell a different story. "The Celts weren't pushed to the fringes of Scotland and Wales; a lot of them remained in England and central Ireland," says study team member David Goldstein, of University College London. This is surprising: the Anglo-Saxons reputedly colonized southern England heavily.

The Tortoise and the Hare

Yesterday was hectic far beyond what I expected. Today is piled with the aftermath. We are due to drive to the American Library Association, arriving in a couple of days, but all plans are up in the air. It is no longer clear when we'll get out the door. One thing that is clear, however, is that its going to rain until we do.

In the paid-subscription section of the Financial Times, Judy Dempsey argues the WMD scandal (though she doesn't use that word) may push the EU to form its own policies on WMDs, rather than letting the US call the shots:

Europe loses its innocence over WMD

Things tend to move slowly in the European Union. And when it comes to foreign policy, things can move very, very slowly.

But change is in the air. Despite all the deep divisions between the US and Europe and among Europeans themselves, the US-led war in Iraq may well have helped to concentrate the minds of EU countries.

The main reason is that even though weapons of mass destruction have so far not been found in Iraq, the run-up to the war showed the Europeans two things.

It is pointless for individual EU countries to go it alone, believing that if they side with the US, they can influence Washington's thinking.

Secondly, even if the Europeans had pulled together, they would have achieved very little because the EU has never defined its strategic interests, has never considered a security doctrine and has never collectively considered what to with states that had weapons of mass destruction failing all diplomatic, economic and political pressure.

Until this week, that is, when EU foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg spelt out in considerable detail what they called "An Action Plan for the Implementation of the Basic Principles for an EU Strategy against Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction."

This would be all for the good, it seems to me. While one does want proliferation of actual weapons of mass destruction to be held in check, an EU strategy would go far to prevent future fraudulent uses of the issue. One hopes that this happens soon, before the US invades Iran or Syria.

BEFORE I HAD CHILDREN, I envisioned dressing babies as rather like dressing a doll. Actually dressing a baby can be a lot more like trying to dress a cat: she's squirming, she's trying to get away, and she'd rather not have clothes on anyway.


The Geoff Hartwell Band will be LIVE at HOGS and HEIFFERS, 95th Street and 1st Avenue, in New York City, Friday, June 20th at 10 PM. (I had previously listed the address incorrectly.)

I Remember Pasting Bumperstickers Across My Chest Like a Miss America Sash

Today's box on the calendar is covered with ink scrawls reminding me of things to be done, not all of which are going to get done today. So no long lovely essays on art in the Berkshires for me today.

FOR SHEER YUCK FACTOR, the boy who peed beetles:

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - A 13-year-old Indian boy has begun producing winged beetles in his urine after hatching the eggs in his body, a senior medical official says.

I haven't decided whether to tell Peter about this news story or not. I know he'd be fascinated, but I think I'd better not.

MEANWHILE, Neil Gaiman sums up our political predicament:

Of course, when stood next to the choice of American political parties ('So, would you like Right Wing, or Supersized Right Wing with Extra Fries?") my English fuzzy middle-of-the-roadness probably translates easily as bomb-throwing Trotskyist, but when I get to chat to proper lefties like Ken MacLeod or China Mieville I feel myself retreating rapidly back into the woffly Guardian-reading why-can't-people-just-be-nice-to-each-otherhood of the politically out of his depth.

Maybe it's because I lived in Europe for a few years at an impressionalbe age, but that's how I see things, and I was born in Bloomington, Indiana, the child of Texans. But really, I do remember when we had a Democratic party. I remember being taken to their picnics as a child when my mother was running for state legislature, pasting their bumperstickers across my chest like a Miss America sash. What happened?

(Via Patrick Nielsen Hayden.)

Today is the birthday of my grandmother, Frances Sackowitz Cramer. She died in 1999. I won't tell you how old she would have been today, since she wouldn't have wanted you to know. Ladies don't tell their ages, she believed. She moved to Seattle from Houston in 1973 to be closer to us and was a consistently reliable adult through much of my childhood and adolescence. She made my life immeasurably better, for which I am deeply gateful. She was a terrific cook and was indefatigably hospitable. Happy birthday, Grandma.

Our Weekend Adventures

First, a family commercial announcement: Geoff, who came over for dinner last night, wants everyone to be aware that The Geoff Hartwell Band will be LIVE at HOGS and HEIFFERS, 95th Street and 1st Avenue, in New York City, Friday, June 20th at 10 PM. (They are being sponsored by Rhinegold Beer).

We've been away at David's 40th Williams College reunion in Williamstown, Massachusetts. (David is Williams class of '63.) The kids and I were something of a novelty item. I'm 41. I guess that makes me a trophy wife in this context.

We stayed with Paul Park and his wife Deborah Brothers in North Adams, just outside Williamstown. (Their house is refreshingly free of an Internet connection, a condition I found quite peaceful, like going on a camping trip where there is no phone, no radio, and no TV, hence no blog for those days. I could have used a terminal on the Williams campus, but since I am used to spending quality time with my cable modem connection, I was not attracted by the idea of a quick fix.) They have a wonderful house with a view of the Berkshires and a large back yard planted with perennials. The house is very kid-friendly and Deborah shares my taste in textiles, so I find their house a very amenable place to be.

They have two children, Lukie (5) and Miranda (8); Peter had a great time with them and ducked out of the two long reunion dinners to be with the kids. As we packed to go, Peter was very insistent that he must bring his Pokmon cards along. It crossed my mind to worry that he might infect their children with the Pokmon virus. I needn't have worried. When we got there, I noticed that Miranda had a notebook of Pokmon cards in plastic sleeves and was reading a Pokmon book.

One of my favorite moments of the visit was when Miranda found a mistake in the book. She was deeply outraged. She began jumping up and down, saying that she knew more about Pokmon than the people who wrote and illustrated to book. And of course she's right. All three children were scandalized that there could be a mistake -- actually two; she found a second one -- in a Pokmon book.

Over the course of the long weekend we took Peter to three art museums: The Clark Art institute, Mass MoCA, and the Williams College Art Museum. Although Peter loves museums, up until this weekend, art museums were Peter's least favorite kind of museum. Over the course of the weekend, he warmed to art museums.

First, we went to the Clark, starting with the Turner exhibit which was written up in the NYT, Seeing the World in the Sea, the Sea in the World:

WILLIAMSTOWN, MASS. -- TEMPESTS and sun storms sweep through "Turner: The Late Seascapes," an enchanting exhibition that opens tomorrow at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute here. James Mallord William Turner himself, his brush raised like a wizard's staff, seems to preside over the show, as he did over British Romantic art nearly two centuries ago.

I loved it, though I sometimes wondered if he had actually seen two different weather conditions portrayed in some paintings coexisting at the same moment. (I suspect there was some artistic license taken with weather.)

It was a hard sell with Peter until we got to the Noah's Ark picture and the picture with a sea monster in it.

After a visit to the gift shop, we tried the Clark's main collection. The first picture you see when you enter the Clark's main collection is Thomas Gainsborough's Elizabeth and Thomas Linley (1768). Thomas Linley, who was apparently later to befriend Mozart and become a composer, looks just like Peter. After that, fine art was a much easier sell.

I showed Peter my trick with Gilbert Stuart portraits of George Washington: Hold your thumbs out in front of you so they cover your view of the corners of the mouth. Then you see that Washington probably wore a more cheerful expression when sitting for the portrait. (This also works with the Stuart portrait of Martha Washingotn I've seen elsewhere, but not with copies of the Stuart portrait by other artists.)

In the afternoon, I took him to MassMoCA. Since it was his second art museum in a day, I didn't try to take him to the main collection, but instead headed straight for Kidspace. I wasn't sure how he would respond to the Susan Leopold: Mixed-Up World exhibit, but he was quite interested and spent about half an hour with it before sitting down to do an art project in Kidspace. (Once Deborah and kids arrived, I went downstairs to see the Gregory Crewdson pictures, some of which are quite stunning. (The best of the bunch I know I'd seen in a magazine, probably in National Geographic, Deborah says.) From the Mass MoCA web site:

Gregory Crewdson's elaborately staged photographs capture the transitional moment between domestic order and natural disorder, the real and the surreal, the attractive and the repulsive. Through meticulous articulation of a wealth of mundane details, Crewdson imparts a mysterious pregnancy to his images of prosaic New England neighborhoods.

By the time we took Peter to the Williams College Art Museum Saturday, for the College Reunion kids' program, Experience the Spirit of Tibet, he seemed to have the idea that art museums are interesting and wanted to look at he collection rather than just do the Tibet-related kids' projects.

The high point of Peter's weekend was the Stream Critter Search at the William's College Hopkins Forest. It began with the catching of a large garter snake that Peter had spotted earlier. Then the group headed down an extremely steep bank to a stream to search for critters. We found a wide variety of fly larvae (stone, catis fly, crane fly) and at least four species of salamander. Peter found salamanders but was unable to catch them. I caught a dusky salamander that another little boy had tried to net but had missed. It occurred to me only later, when Deborah pointed it out, that I had caught it one-handed while carrying the baby.

We had a lovely Sunday morning brunch with the Park family in a North Adams bistro across from Mass MoCA and then headed home. I would have liked to stop off at the Berkshire Museum to see the William Morris exhibit that just opened, but we had a lot to do and so are saving that for later in the summer.

The Mad Hatter's Tea Party of Literary Discussion

I woke up from a dream that Peter was attending a writers workshop with a bunch of people I knew. I was very worried that he couldn't actually literally write, but Kathy Goonan assured me that his stories were good so they'd find a way around the writing part. He'd brought to the workshop an enormous beautiful blue beetle, which escaped, but after a long confusing dream sequence in which Peter's rabbit also escaped, the bug was caught and I could go. So I left and walked around town while he was at the workshop, and found myself at the counter of a line of cosmetics designed by M. John Harrison. The saleswoman was very eager to apply samples to me, and I was resisting. When I looked at the clock, it was just before 6, so here I am.

I think I'm done discussing the New Weird for now. I've feel like I've been the Mad Hatter's Tea Party of Literary Discussion.

I as I said yesterday, I was willing to entertain M. John Harrison and China Miéville's whole post-Seattle No Logos stance for the purpose of discussion, but what the whole exercise proved to me was that you can't really discuss literature in those terms unless you are talking only about a single author. I think I've learned my lesson and won't be drawn into a literary discussion on those terms again.

For the uninitiated, post-Seattle refers to the Seattle WTO thing as a pivotal event and No Logos apparently refers to Naomi Klein, who has codified post-Seattle politics or some such. It is the globalization of anti-globalization.

I have other problems with what I understand to be post-Seattle politics, but as a literary impulse, I think post-Seattlism is DOA. It energized the discussion by creating suspense but prevented most of the actual discussion from taking place.

In the interests of rejecting potential commercial globalization of their movement (or its symbolic exploitation or some such), they were very coy about who was in it or what works they were discussing, wanting instead to discuss matters of principle and say what their movement wasn't.

You just plain have to be able to say what you are talking about to have a meaningful discussion of literature. I think the noses out of joint are largely a result of the failure of this experiment.

Now that we've celebrated the unbirthday, I think I'd like my cup of tea, please (or coffee, actually).

MEANWHILE, Greg van Eekhout's readers discuss the Harrison interview in Strange Horizons in which he says,

I think it's undignified to read for the purposes of escape.

(Via Patrick Nielsen Hayden by e-mail.)

Well, enough lit-crit escapism and screaming literary class anxiety! Let's regain our dignity and see what's been going on in the world while I've had my head buried in people's fantasies about fantasy.

Tecnhonrati's breaking news appears to be broken at the moment, which is unfortunate, since that is my favorite way to read news.

ON HUMAN ORIGINS, there have been a couple if interesting news stories in the past few days.

This morning in the Financial Times, I see

The oldest known fossils of modern humans have been discovered in Ethopia. An international team led by researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, found the skulls of two adults and a child dating from 160,000 years ago - 40,000 years earlier than the previous oldest remains of Homo sapiens.

The discovery, described on Thursday in the journal Nature, fills a big gap in the human fossil record: the absence of accurately dated hominid remains in Africa between 120,000 and 300,000 years ago.

(I should have read my e-mail from Nature more closely, otherwise I would have known this already!) Here's Nature's summary:

Evidence for the 'Out of Africa' hypothesis for the origin of Homo sapiens has been questioned because of the lack of African hominid fossils from a critical period, between 100,000 and 300,000 years ago. New finds from the Middle Awash region of Ethiopia have filled that gap. A near-complete adult skull and a partial child's skull have been dated to about 160,000 years old, making them the oldest remains that can be firmly assigned to modern Homo sapiens. In addition this shows that morphologically modern humans had emerged long before 'classic' Neanderthals vanished from Eurasia. The series of illustrations on the cover, by J. Matternes, are reconstructions based on the fossilized adult male cranium from the Herto locality.

Also, and more significant in a science-fictional way, is the suggestion that we are all descended from a human population of about 2,000 which lived about 100,000 years ago and that there was a point when our species nearly went extinct. This is based on lack of genetic diversity among humans as compared to our closest relative, chimpanzees.

There's a novel in that. (Paging Rob Sawyer!) I can't find the version of the story I was reading yesterday, but here's the ABCNews version.

ONE FURTHER NEW WEIRD REMARK: I just encountered an interesting Naomi Klein quote about the post-Seattlism: This is a movement that has declared it has "no followers, only leaders." This was exactly what was wrong with the New Weird discussion; an attempt to follow that model when discussing literature stood this inclusive discourse on its head.

THE LIGHTER SIDE OF SPACE OPERA RESEARCH: Found as a reply to what must have been a bit of porn spam inserted into the Yahoo Space Opera Discussion Group:

Look, if we wanted great sex lives, we wouldn't be reading space opera, so go find a more appropriate group to post in!

I'm still wipping the tears out of my eyes.

And check out this reader testimonial in praise of reading for escape:

One of my greatest loves in SF is the Space Opera. You can't beat it for sheer mindless entertainment, and sometimes, you just don't want to have to think about the hero's motivation. Or the alien's. You just want to blast things. Space Opera is perfectly suited for that.

For sheer space operatic fun, I don't personally think that anyone beats Edmond Hamilton. You can't get any more operatic than the works of someone nicknamed "The World Wrecker."

Sturgeon Award finalists

Chris McKitterick has sent me the list of Sturgeon Award finalists:

Bronte's Egg by Richard Chedwyk (F&SF, 8/02)
Liking What You See: A Documentary by Ted Chiang (Stories of Your Life and Others, Tor)
Singleton by Greg Egan (Interzone, 2/02)
A Year in the Linear City by Paul di Filippo (PS Publishing)
Madonna of the Maquiladora by Gregory Frost (Asimov's, 5/02)
Stories for Men by John Kessel (Asimov's, 10/02)
The Seasons of the Ansarac by Ursula K. Le Guin (Infinite Matrix, 6/3)
The Wild Girls by Ursula K. Le Guin (Asimov's, 3/02)
Breathmoss by Ian R. MacLeod (Asimov's, 5/02)
Coelacanths by Robert Reed (F&SF, 3/02)
Over Yonder by Lucius Shepard (SciFiction, 1/02)
In Paradise by Bruce Sterling (F&SF, 9/02)
Halo by Charles Stross (Asimov's, 6/02)

Winners will be announced in Lawrence, Kansas, at the Campbell Awards Banquet on July 11, 2003. For more information about the Center for the Study of Science Fiction or the Campbell Conference, see the CSSF website.

A fine list of stories -- read them all!

MEANWHILE, Jeff VanderMeer has gone elsewhere to discuss new weirdness.

DREADFUL NEWS, from LocusOnline:

Locus has confirmed the recent deaths of George & Jan O'Nale, publishers of Cheap Street Press, apparently in a double suicide. Details will be posted as they become available.

We Need a Broader Discussion of Genre Boundaries

The New Weird conversation is interesting and energetic. But a discussion of genre boundaries needs to encompass more writers, works, and publications than can be accomodated in a discussion of the New Weird. Defined by process of elimination, the New Weird is rapidly shrinking. Remaining New Weird writers are, by my count, M. John Harrison, China Miéville, Justina Robson, maybe Gabe Choinard, and one or two drafted posthumously. Everyone else has been shot down or left.

Alastair Reynolds is irretrievably New Space Opera unless he can be wooed away from accomodating reader expectations. We should pay very close attention to Jeff VanderMeer's departure (taking with him the crowd he publishes, I think), Jeff having concluded that he will not be using the term New Weird. With Jeff's departure, a significant majority of writers negotiating a new relationship with genre are out.

As I stated (in my June 4th post in the New Weird discussion), there is a widespread change in writers' relationships to genre boundaries that is different than Slipstream. I am now convinced that this is not the New Weird, but something else which is perhaps in need of naming.

There is a thriving movement of small press magazines, antholgies, and web sites publishing off-genre fiction, fiction in dialog with genre while outside the parameters of what the major magazines can publish: Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, Polyphany, Conjuctions: 39, Leviathan, Fantastic Metropolis, etc. These, too, are not New Weird.

Neither Miéville's nor Harrison's influence can be conflated with the New Weird. The New Weird is narrow but the influence of Perdido Street Station and Miéville's other novels is broad. And while Miéville's work seems to me strongly in the tradition of Dhalgren, Delany is definitely not New Weird because he thinks genre boundaries serve a useful purpose (and I agree with him).

Harrison is widely influential in his lifelong attack on fantasy and science fiction tropes and his violating of readers' expectations. Some credit him with having destroyed the old Space Opera in the early '70s. But again, we cannot count influence as equivalent with the New Weird.

Influence, after all, is a function of reception rather than writer's intent.

Bees Replacing Birds and Other Boundary Crossings

Peter called me outside to see what he thought was the beak of a baby bird peeking out of one of our birdhouses. In past years, wrens have inhabited that birdhouse and raised families there. A week or two ago, I'd seen movement and presumed it was a baby bird.

Closer inspection revealed that this year's inhabitants are fuzzy bees. The look somewhat like small bumble bees and they've made some kind of web over the opening of the birdhouse. They don't seem to be aggressive.

Out in the yard, we compared differently shaped leaf galls from different kinds of leaves: some were long and thin (on brown birches); some conical (on witch hazel), others, on a tree I don't know the name of, were round. Elizabeth swang happily in the baby swing while Peter and I discovered a species of small bright red slightly lumpy beetles, and bright green caterpillars that had wrapped themselves in leaves.

I've been thinking about the discussions of genre boundaries in the New Weird discussion and the Samuel R. Delany quote below (in the previous post) and it occured to me that, although I would phrase it differently, I agree with Delany. I like genre boundaries. Not only do I like what can be done with then aestheically (as I said in the New Weird discussion):

I love genre boundaries, not because I think writers should obediently write inside them, but because it is so interesting to see what writer do to get over, under, around, or through. To me, the most interesting writing is constantly in dialog with whatever the writer perceives are the conventions of the genre(s) with which he or she works.

. . . but, after some consideration of Delany's point, I agree that there is real virtue in the container as such and the conversation or game which defines it. (And I do view genre sociologically as a form of game.) I like the science fiction field and the genre associated with it. I like the vibrancy and richness of its discourse.

Hard SF & Space Opera Spillover

The discussion of the New Weird and it's relation to genre keeps spilling over into hard sf and space opera, both topics I'm very interested in, so I'm inviting long digressions beyond the limits of social acceptability over to my place. As soon as I can put Elizabeth down, I'll add extracts.

So, what do we think is happening with regard to genre boundaries in the new hard sf and the new space opera that is too long to say (or really not relevant) in the context of the discussion of the New Weird?

Here are selected quotes about Space Opera and as discussed in context of the New Weird

Jonathan Strahan (April 30, 2003):   

Much like the new space opera (a term invented by a bunch of critics to cover the fact that they got distracted by cyberpunk and didn't notice that no-one had stopped writing the other stuff), the new weird/new wave fabulist/slipstream whatever seems to be a pretty happy and healthy outgrowth of some things that came before which would probably be much better of if left unlabeled and left to grow in the dark where they belong.

M. John Harrison (May 03, 2003): 

My increasing sense is that both the New Weird & the New Space Opera, although they have clear and acknowledged roots, are a response to *now*, rather than a kind of inturned, in-genre historical development, or just a development from an alternative but equally historical root. Those writers are writing about the world now. That's why I like what's going on so much, that's why it's all so invigorating: that's also why I want to be careful who defines it.

Alastair Reynolds (May 07, 2003): 

One thing I think worth adding is that - judging by remarks in interviews and so on - a lot of the new writers have a very ambiguous relationship with the genre they're most likely to be associated with. China clearly has a bit of a love/hate thing going with fantasy (I loved his remark about consolatory fantasy making him "puke"!!!!). I feel a bit the same about space opera/ hard SF etc. A lot of it I can't stand, but it's still the area that I'm most interested in working in.

Jonathan Strahan (May 08, 2003): 

. . . it seems fair to say that the New Weird is secular; politically-informed and  culturally-aware; incorporates action and detail; and is intensely visual. It also is aware of its genre antecedents without being bound by them. I'd add that it is pretty clear that the New Weird and the New Space Opera are at least sibs, if not actually the same thing. And it seems to be more UK-based, for some reason (though it certainly is coming to the fore in the US).

Paul J. McAuley (June 04, 2003): 

Alternate cultural frameworks is something I've been banging on about for some time, ever  since I was outed as a ringer bending space opera to my own fell ends; that is, trying to make  space opera do something that didn't reinforce the hegemony of American capitalist democracy.  I don't make any extraordinary claims about this; it's an attitude that Brits are likely to assume as a matter of course, since they're outsiders in a genre that's characteristically American.  Brian Aldiss was Third Worlding it long before most everyone else in a genre which is supposed to be open to all kinds of ideas and weird points of view, but is too often open only to those which reinforce American triumphalism.

Alastair Reynolds (June 10, 2003): 

I think the New Weird/New Space Opera discussion is very interesting because it forces us to take a good hard look at what we're doing, ask why we're doing it and if it's what we want to keep on doing. The problem (*if* it's a problem) with the New Space Opera (or the New Radical Hard SF, or whatever we want to call it) is that, by its nature, it can't ever be as weird as the NW unless it becomes the NW itself. This is because the New Space Opera will always exclude anything it can't rationalise. If I have a ghost walk on in chapter five of my new book, there will be a vast weight of expectation for that ghost to be susceptible to rational explanation within the framework of the story because I have a rap as a hard SF writer. I don't think the New Weird has this problem - the grab-bag is open and it's a given that anything goes. It's like that fantastic bit in (sorry) PSS, where the authorities reluctantly contact Hell to see if it can help them out with the moth problem (which of course sets up the utter awfulness of dealing with the Weaver, my favorite of all China's characters).

(I do suggest reading them in context and encourage further New Weird discussion. I don't want to interrupt Mike's party.)

IN THE COMMENTS: Charles Stross makes a radical suggestion.


A piece on Samuel R. Delany in  LA Weekly:

Delany views science fiction as not a literary but a "para-literary" genre. "Many people think of it as a kind of disposable text that doesn't have any stylistic, intellectual or aesthetic merit -- and I think it does," he explains. "I think the fact it's been considered this way for a long time has had a great effect on how the genre writes itself, thinks itself, puts itself together. Obliterating the distinction between para-literature and literature is probably not a good thing, because it obliterates a great deal of the history of the genre."

And Mark Tiedeman responds to Sven Birkerts:

Why is psychology so all important that it displaces all else in consideration of what constitutes "Literature" with a capital L?

Don't get me wrong--if you don't do the characterization right, everything else starts to crumble. But there is more to art than one lens. And more than one thing on which to focus those lenses.

What Birkerts criticizes Atwood's novel for is a sacrifice of deeper character study for the sake of examining the social and technological concepts she's deploying. So what? This seems to me a question of degree--how much of what do you put in to make the story work and work well? A little less character so the consequences of the human will as worked on the world at large can be examined? The deeper reactions should then take place within the reader's imagination. Rather than prescribing an emotional content, it evokes it. That's how fiction should work anyway.

But lyrical writing, deep description, and serious examination of concept can be every bit as eloquent and evocative as study of character. To the extent that humans are part of the world--and the world both acts upon and responds to humans--where comes this idea that applying the same artful gaze to the landscape as we might to the personality of the characters renders the book less?

Because that's what Birkerts suggests. That, ultimately, in spite of the fact that he likes Atwood's book, it is necessarily less than her non SF work, because she's paying attention to externalities.

Well. Henry James--and obviously Sven Birkerts--was obsessed with psychology. And not everyone's, but a narrowly-defined type, exemplified by upper middle-class to upper class Victorian white people of the 19th Century. Other issues simply didn't attract his attention, not to the same degree. He took his own highly refined sensibilities--and considerable gifts as a writer--and handed down the pronouncement that this was the only worthwhile endeavor of the serious novel.

(Via LocusOnline.)

Small Messes

Today is full of cleaning up small messes: a fax I forgot to send Friday; we accidentally left a car door open last night, draining the battery, so I had to get it recharged; etc. (It's sunny out, though!)

Once I've atoned for various oversights, I may have earned some time to blog.

Earth to Delta

I've just had a really annoying experience trying and failing to pick up David at the airport. Westchester County Airport is a nice small airport 8 minutes from our house, and it's usually great. However I have just discovered a little problem with the ultraheavy security at airports in our brave new world: I couldn't get any information at all about David's flight at the airport beyond the obvious fact that it was delayed.

David called shortly after his flight was supposed to take off to tell me about delays due to thunderstorms. He said he'd call back in an hour if his flight hadn't boarded. He didn't call back and the Delta web site continued to list the flight as on time until it was time for me to leave to pick him up.

I circled in the airport past the passenger pickup area, but no David. Then I did the highly illegal thing of parking the car by he curb and running in to baggage claim to look at the board so I could find out whether to park in the garage or take the kids home. The flight was listed simply as DELAYED. So I parked the car in the garage and brought the kids in so I could get more information. Bad move.

I spent about 35 minutes walking around the airport trying to find a Delta employee that I could talk to. The Delta desk was closed. There were no Delta employees anywhere near baggage claim. I could see Delta employees through security, but since we had no tickets, I couldn't get to them. There was no way to talk my way anywhere because of all the security. After a good long while, the Delta desk reopened and began the serious work of rebooking passengers on cancelled flights. I stood there for a while, the line not moving, the monitor giving no further information, Elizabeth melting down as babies do when you have to stand in line for a while, Peter trying to stick his finger in the back of security equipment clearly marked DANGER: HIGH VOLTAGE!

My cell phone doesn't work there. If I'd been really desperate, I could have used a pay phone, scraped together my change, called directory assistance for Delta's number and then called Delta and braved their automated menus, etc.

Instead, I just came home. Now, the Delta web site shows the flight having a two and a half hour delay. But it also shows the return flight to Cincinati, using the same aircraft, which I know has not even landed in White Plains yet, as being on time.

Anyway, I don't ever remember being in an open airport during regular business hours and being unable to find an airline employee to speak to to ask questions about a delayed flight. (Sometimes they don't have it, but that's a different problem.)

EARTH TO DELTA: Try putting someone in or around baggage claim to answer questions about significantly delayed flights if all other employees are to be sequestered behind armed guards.

As nearly as I could tell from the information I was able to get from Delta's automated phone system (when I called the number on the web site, I still didn't manage to speak to a live human being) David's flight was taking off just about the same time as I was giving up in disgust and going home.

Amazing that the airline can do this much to irritiate me without me even booking a flight.

New Weird Discussion Continues

The discussion of the New Weird has just acquired a fourth URL, so I'll give all four links for the uninitiated. This is good stuff!

The New Weird
Function follows Form: New Weird 2
The New Weird 3: The New Weird
The New Weird 4: Own Wired

Go read!

I've got to hurry Peter off the church to be an animal in a play of Noah's Ark this morning. Geoff, Peter's great big brother, will be playing with the backup band. (It is extremely rare that Geoffrey is spotted out of bed at this hour of the day!)

New Turtle Technique

I have a new technique for getting a stray turtle out of the road. Having gotten extensively peed on last week when I picked up the large turtle in the road, I was determined not to repeat the experience. This time I chased it out of the road and back into the swamp. It was facing in the direction I wanted it to go, so I stood behind it and stomped loudly and shuffled my feet to keep its attention focused on fleeing. This new technique worked very nicely.

It's really too bad that it's rained all day, because there was lots of great stuff going of for kids, much of which we did anyway, despite the rain.

First, in Chappaqua, I signed Peter up for soccer next fall (which I suppose makes me an official soccer mom). I do like soccer more than most sports, but I do wonder what Peter is going to do the first ten times he's accidentally kicked in the shins. Actually, I don't so much wonder as think I know.

Then we went to the Lion's Club Folderol in Armonk. I spent all my cash on tickets for the rides. The Dizzy Dragon, which we'd noticed was missing from the Katonah Fireman's carnival was in fact in Armonk this year. Peter went on it several times. Elizabeth had her first carosel ride, and was quite upset to be removed from horseback when the ride was over. She was never satisfied to wait in the stroller again for the rest of the afternoon. We went to check out the live bees and the bee keeper's table and the kittens that Forgotten Felines had brought, and then it was anounced that the rides were closing because of rain. Peter managed to go on a few more rides, but I still have about $3 worth of tickets in my pocket.

After the rides closed, we continued on to the Police Open House in Valhalla. Peter petted police horses and police dogs. I ate two hot dogs graciously provided by local merchants showing their support of the Mt. Pleasant police. We saw a demonstration of police dog skills. If you happen to live locally and watch channel twelve, I'm the woman wrapped in the silver tarp in the background. (My raincoat had soaked through in Armonk.)

Next we opted for something drier: the children's open art time at the Katonah Museum. Since they have an Edward Giobbi exhibition of paintings of houses, the kids art projects are centered around houses. Peter drew a very nice house and then we saw the exhibits.

It's supposed to rain until Tuesday and there's a flood watch in effect for Westchester. There a dead chipmunk by the back door. I think it's the one that had decided it lived here.

Peter's blowing bubbles in the rain.