Archive for April, 2010

No more “Taxi to” Clearances

Friday, April 30th, 2010

Apparently after 30 June this year, taxi clearances will be getting a lot more verbose.  AVWeb is reporting that the old style of taxi clearance is being discontinued.  That’s probably good.  Today (and for another couple months) a clearance to “Taxi to runway XX” authorizes the pilot to cross any runways and taxiway between their current position and the runway in question.  It saves time for controllers, but can be a little nerve wracking when taxiing on an unfamiliar field.  I know Brenda is uneasy when we do it.  Well, on 1 July she can taxi easier.

Review: Collapse

Friday, April 23rd, 2010

I’ve complained about my difficulties finding a book on climate change that isn’t overly hyped or completely dismissive of the problems.  I think that Jared Diamond, of Guns, Germs, and Steel fame, has written the book that clarifies the situation for me.  His Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed is as much a warning of the environmental pressures on society as The Weather Makers, without the hype and magical thinking that turned me off.  Collapse is a compelling call to change the way we live on the planet in order to sustain our species that doesn’t require any sudden changes to the climate.  Diamond clearly points out that we’ve got enough troubles even without tickling “Gaia.”

His strategy is simple and powerful.  He frames the issues with a chapter on the changes in society and the environment in the US state of Montana, as it has moved from being a somewhat marginal but mostly profitable ranching and mining area to one of tourism, polarized classes, and damaged environment.  Little of this transformation is from ethereal causes; people have overused the land, failed to clean up the mines, and been priced out of the ranching and agricultural markets by globalized labor and cheap transportation.  The situation is urgent but not unaddressable, and more importantly the multiple fundamental causes are crystal clear. This comprehensible, pressing problem is solidly rooted in the reader’s mind as Diamond goes on to discuss societies that have failed such tests in the past and looks at how other areas of the world face similar problems now.

From Montana Diamond takes us to a variety of societies faced with environmental and economic crises, most of which failed these tests.  Several Pacific island cultures are explored, some Southwest Native American societies, and finally the Scandinavian colony in Greenland. Even if one were to miss (or disbelieve) the connection between these societies and the current situation, the studies are fascinating in terms of how archeologists puzzle out the past from a few clues and a lot of clever and meticulous reasoning.  These societies’ patterns and decisions are also interesting in their own right.

As diverting as those studies are, the most important thing I took away from them is how solid our understanding of them is and how important the effects of societies on their environment are.  The time spent in deep understanding is key here.  The reader comes away from the cases convinced that real human beings making decisions they believed in failed to cope with the pressures that their way of life put on their homelands.  There’s no magic in any of these studies; no inexplicable meteors or sudden warming trends blot out these societies.  The pressures are largely of their own making, though climate changes do play roles.  If one believes that global warming is the world’s biggest environmental problem, or that wishing it away or disbelieving it is sufficient to guarantee human societies survive another millennium, I recommend reading this book.

Once the trip through the past is complete, Diamond looks over a few success stories from the past – and it’s something of a relief to know there have been some – as well as looking at the signs of environmental pressure that one can see in current societies.  China, Rwanda, Haiti, and Australia all get their moments under the microscope for better and worse.  This makes the parallels between the challenges of the past and those of the present clearer.  It also gives Diamond a chance to point out differences and let the reader know another slew of interesting facts about these places.

Finally, he looks at what larger lessons can be drawn from all this investigation, notably what underlying causes contribute to bad decision making on a societal level and what the possibilities are for the future.

The single best thing about this book is Diamond’s relentless determination to describe the problems we face and the potential solutions in the full glory of their complexity.  All the outcomes he discusses – successes, failures, and ongoing attempts – stem from multiple influences.  He never tries to claim that a single bad policy or decision doomed a group or that a single change in the environment or sudden event caused the problems.  Nor does he let readers believe that single axis solutions will address these complex situations.

Despite all this admission of complexity, the situation is not presented as overwhelming either.  There are multiple pressures on the societies and the environments, but they are all tractable with careful thought.  His point is that these real, multifaceted problems need to be looked at in their complexity and addressed thoughtfully and resolutely, or we will become a world in decline.

I found the book refreshing and inspiring, as well as being interesting and informative.  It is, without a doubt, the clearest, most reasonable assessment of the environmental problems that modern society faces.

A must.

Review: A Scanner Darkly

Friday, April 23rd, 2010

A Scanner Darkly is another tour de force from Philip K. Dick.  I enjoyed The Man in the High Castle so much that I picked up Scanner when I saw it a couple weeks later.

Scanner seems to capture a lot of what people love and hate about Dick.  It’s nominally a science fiction story about a powerful drug in a near future setting, but it’s also a novel about people and how they behave on drugs in contemporary society.  (Actually in 1970’s society – some of the slang is pretty humorously dated.)  There’s a focus on how people interact, but no character is an individual standout.  The plot, as a plot, is very by-the-numbers, but lots of interesting ideas and prose styling is hung off it.

Now, for me that all adds up to a closely observed novel about a marginal subculture that becomes more powerful when universal ideas about identity and paranoia are juxtaposed through unique writing.  For some people it adds up to a couple hundred pages of dialogue that goes nowhere as a set of forgettable characters discuss getting stoned and forget who they are, obscured by confusing text and random interruptions.

I stand by my position.  I think the novel is both enjoyable to read and interesting to think about and analyze.  So much of what I find worthwhile about it is how well the chances Dick takes in his writing and subjects pays off that I can see how a reasonable person could dislike it.  More than many things I like, I think assessments will vary widely.

I think it’s a great novel.  Variance may be high.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: Shakespeare Wrote For Money

Friday, April 23rd, 2010

Shakespeare Wrote For Money is another collection of Nick Hornby’s columns about books for The Believer.  I’ve missed the middle collection, and just about everything I said about The Polysyllabic Spree holds true for this set of columns as well. I don’t really have much else to say about it, really.

Strongly recommended.

Review: Snow Crash

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

I read an interview with Neal Stephenson where he mentioned that he can make a living as a writer because he writes things people like to read.  That sounds kind of vacuous, but there’s a point in there.  Almost without exception, when I read something by Stephenson, I enjoy the experience cover to cover.

Snow Crash is extremely well regarded among geeks and science fiction folks in general, but I’m always a little leery when approaching a book with so much buzz about it.  I’ve been disappointed by a lot of cyberpunk in the past, and having a protagonist who is a hacker/network guy is always dicey for me.

I shouldn’t have worried.  Even though I came into the book a little standoffish, Stephenson grabbed me pretty quickly and pulled me into his world.  Cryptonomicon is more nearly believable, but the feel of the hackers and others in this world is right.  It reminded me a little of Charles Stross’s Halting State in that the hackerish parts of the world felt right even if the details were unfamiliar.  Stross’s details are unfamiliar because he’s taking the reader to a near future Scotland.  Stephenson is taking us much further into satire and fiction, with the contrast and volume high.

One of the best things about Stephenson is that even when he’s got the throttle all the way open and the speakers blaring, he’s in control of his narrative and his characters.  The trip is a lot of fun, but there are things to contemplate as they go by.  And is you don’t like what just went by, something else will be along in a second.

Snow Crash is a lot of fun, and rewarding as well.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: The Man In The High Castle

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

I really haven’t read very much Philip K. Dick.  I did read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep a few years ago, and was a little dazed by the thing.  I’ve also read some of his short stories, which I found less impressive.  My recent 3 for 2 run at Barnes and Noble gave me a good excuse to try another Dick work, The Man in the High Castle.

Castle is both an enjoyable yarn, and a really effective piece of writing.  It’s an alternate history in which the US lost WWII and is under joint occupation by Germany and Japan. Unlike many of the alternate histories, the focus here isn’t on the details of how such a loss came to be, but more about the emotional and cultural impacts.  It’s simple premise is remarkably well executed, despite the many times I’ve seen it done.

Dick’s America is eerie, filled with the logical changes brought about by such an occupation, without overstating details.  I understand Dick is not widely praised for his memorable characters, and I think that criticism is well founded in the sense that none of these characters transcend the story as a Falstaff or even a James Bond.  However as entities in service to the overall story, they are simple and effective, advancing plot and underlining themes without shouting out each other or the overall narrative.  They’re believable but never outsized.

If the well-crafted alternative history were not enough Castle also presents us with the problem of the mysterious author and his strangely powerful and perceptive book about what might be the real history of the war.  It keeps everything that little bit more off kilter to have this almost mystical entity out there, as well as being something of a plot mover in itself.

Overall the book is a masterpiece of tone and implication, rather than of straightforward plot and character.  The plot and character are not neglected, but the small doubts and allusions to the world we know from the world we don’t add to the disorientation and paranoia of the work.

Strongly recommended.

Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

Monday, April 19th, 2010

Yeah, reading The Year of the Flood kicked off something of an Atwood run for me.  I actually found The Handmaid’s Tale in the buy 2 get 1 free bin at my local Barnes and Noble, so I grabbed it.  I’m always good for a classic by an author I like.

The Handmaid’s Tale showcases two of my favorite superpowers that Margaret Atwood has: her ability to extrapolate societies by believably turning up the gain on today’s society and the ability to create people in those societies who think, react, and generally behave like real people.  The first is a necessity in writing speculative fiction worth reading and the second makes reading the speculation a joy not a chore.

If one wants to pick nits in the plot mechanics, one can, on sober reflection, succeed at that game.  But the characters are so wholeheartedly invested in the world that it seems in poor taste to do so.  Just as good actors can create a suspension of disbelief, so can Atwood’s characters.

The characters do play symbolic roles, and the aspects of society are exaggerated to make a point.  But the points are all well worth consideration, and the symbols all speak with the voices of our friends.  The total effect is powerful and thought-provoking in a way that few works are.

Strongly recommended.

Review: Oryx and Crake

Monday, April 19th, 2010

After reading Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, I needed to go back and read the first book in the series in the hopes of having some blanks filled in as well as seeing how the characters from the second book fit in the first.

I enjoyed the Oryx and Crake, even knowing the broad outlines of how it came out.  While I was looking for the appearance of the characters from Flood, I was really surprised by how tangential their involvement was here.  This was a mixed bag.  On the one hand, it makes each book a more distinct experience; on the other it heightened the feeling that these few characters more than represented the whole society, but completely were the whole society.  The same feeling of an unrealistically cramped world was here.

Still, there is plenty to enjoy in Oryx and Crake.  The same large issues shape a world populated by real characters.  This is a world we may yet see, right through to its end.  Though there will probably be more people in it.


Review: Founding Brothers

Monday, April 19th, 2010

If you haven’t read any of Joseph Ellis’s history writing, but think you might like it, Founding Brothers is a good book to try.  It’s shorter than his biographies of Adams, Jefferson, or Washington, but showcases his techniques and insights well.

Ellis has an eye for the illuminating historical moment that focuses attention on a figure’s strengths and weaknesses, and can use that moment as a jumping off point to lead the reader through the tangle of history that brought them to it.  It’s an interesting and effective technique.  Brothers showcases it to good effect.

His scholarship and writing bring the facts of the situation to the reader clearly, and his informed speculation breathes life into the proceedings.  He makes an excellent tour guide to the early days of America.


Review: The Year of the Flood

Sunday, April 18th, 2010

The Year of the Flood relates events in Oryx and Crake from a different perspective. This is a tricky bit of business.  Both books are near-future works of science fiction relating a societal collapse, so being able to get two books out of the same sequence requires the world to be sufficiently rich that there are two compelling viewpoints from which to view the events.  Even when that’s the case, the writer is still presented with the problem of creating two sets of interesting characters.  Fortunately, the writer in question is Margaret Atwood, so this all goes pretty well.

Atwood’s strengths and weaknesses are all on display here.  The world is extrapolated from today’s world in ways that expose the underlying ideals, ideas, and ideologies that shape it.  Characters are iconic, but with enough life in them that they aren’t just tokens to be moved through some intellectual bingo game.  On the down side, the iconography and some Dickensean coincidences make the world seem small.  The ideas are all big, but the cast seems small.

A large focus of Flood is the hybrid Christian/Environmental Fundamentalist cult, God’s Gardeners.  Atwood does a great job showing how the ideas underlying such a belief system could come to be, how individuals could get drawn into it, and how one would practically run such a thing.  It’s an eye opening set of ideas, put forth in a diverting narrative.

Strongly Recommended.