Sep 28 2013

Nightmares and Dreamscapes by Stephen King

I recently finished the Dark Tower series, which is mostly fantasy rather than horror, so I had forgotten how utterly creepy Stephen King’s imagination can be. I had been of the opinion that King peaked in the 80’s and had lost his touch since then, but this collection of stories has forced me to revise that opinion somewhat. Some of these stories really creeped me out, but all of them were seriously entertaining. King has never yet produced a single work of fiction with serious literary merit, a fact of which he himself is all too aware, but his ability to spin an enthralling story is unsurpassed. These stories won’t give you much to think about…but they just might make you sleep with the lights on.

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Sep 21 2013

The Early History of Rome by Livy

One thing is clear from this history: from the founding of the Republic, class warfare was endemic to Rome. Rome was perpetually at war with her neighbors, but was politically at war with herself for much of her history. It seems the aristocracy used war and external threats as a means to stall the popular demands for reform; since Rome was almost always at war, reform was thus indefinitely deferred. Livy is clearly on the side of the aristocracy, yet even he puts some noble and stirring speeches in the mouths of the tribunes. Livy is too conservative and patriotic to be objective, and he has no head at all for military matters, but he captures the divisive politics of early Rome more clearly than he intended, since he makes clear from the beginning that his aim is to show how glorious and virtuous Rome was in the good old days before vice and decadence set in. There is much in this work that could have been left out with no loss to posterity, but the overall theme is timeless.

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Sep 18 2013

The Fall of Berlin 1945 by Antony Beevor

The writing and the research of this book is first rate, but still, reading endless accounts of the orgy of mass rape committed by the Red Army in 1945 is quite disheartening. Stalin from the beginning intended that the Soviet army would reach Berlin before the Western Allies, but he deliberately misled Churchill and Eisenhower to conceal his motives. The German people certainly suffered during this war, but it is disturbing how after the war hardly any of them perceived how they had brought this disaster on themselves. Many had no sense of moral burden and seemed to feel that the only thing they had done wrong was let themselves be defeated. The Soviets likewise did not cover themselves with glory in the war’s aftermath; a large portion of the Red Army that had seen the better living standards of Germany with their own eyes and had begun to doubt the efficiency of state socialism were deemed subversive and sent to Gulags. A miserable chapter in history that is worth remembering.

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Sep 04 2013

An Army at Dawn by Rick Atkinson

This book goes a long way toward dismissing the notion that America’s triumph in World War II was inevitable. Operation Torch in North Africa was full of mistakes and setbacks for the Allies, with generals blaming each other for failures and British and Americans viewing each other with contempt and mistrust. The French, contrary to myth of heroic resistance they fabricated about themselves after the war, proved more valiant in fighting for the Nazis than in fighting against them. But above all this is the story of America’s reluctant evolution from isolationist pacifism into the warrior nation it would eventually become, with both soldiers and leaders gradually learning the deadly art of war. This experience transformed Eisenhower from a raw West Point cadet into a first class world leader, and thus he serves as a metaphor for the transformation of America’s role in the world brought about by this war. A very good book, fortunately written by a journalist rather than a historian.

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Aug 30 2013

Dickens, Dali, and Others by George Orwell

Aside from a couple of masterpieces that everyone is familiar with, most of Orwell’s fiction is not very good. His essays, however, are nothing short of brilliant. Most of these were written shortly before, during, or shortly after World War II, and even though the subjects are mostly literary his arguments are quite political, in keeping with his belief that all writing is ultimately political. Although a conservative can quote Orwell to his purpose, most conservatives conveniently forget that Orwell was a committed socialist, and he is as critical of capitalist exploitation and establishment hypocrisy as he is of totalitarianism. This collection of essays shows him at his best, and I will look for more such works in the future.

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Jun 19 2013

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

The biography of Steve Jobs is a study in how a complete asshole can nevertheless be a powerful force for good in the world. It is also a study in successful executive management and business leadership. Jobs was not an engineer; he did not personally design or build any of the hardware or software at Apple…yet the amazing products that Apple developed were indisputably his creations and never would have happened without him. Steve Wozniak created the first Apple computer, yet as he himself admitted, it was Steve Jobs who created Apple and made it the wonder that it was. This book amply illustrates what I call the House Paradox (after the television show “House” about the brilliant doctor): that it is possible to be a force for good by being good at what you do even if you are a horrible human being. Isaacson argues that Jobs as a visionary entrepreneur belongs in the company of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, and this thesis is hard to contest. Not a nice guy…but a great man.

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Jun 18 2013

Kill Decision by Daniel Suarez

This book offers a story relevant to current political issues as well as a peek into what the warfare of the future may look like. Americans are by now used to drone warfare; that is, drone warfare conducted by US. But what happens when the United States government is no longer the sole operator of these weapons? The scary possibility is that this technology will not just be used by hostile governments, but that they may be controlled by private operators who use them for their own agendas. This novel explores this possibility in great detail, and of course, there is a heroic team in charge of thwarting this fiendish plot, including an entomologist whose research on warrior ant colonies proves to have surprising technological applications. It sounds pretty far out, but it is actually inches away from what is already going on in the world. The story is riveting and easy to digest and offers some fascinating if disconcerting food for thought about future conflict scenarios.

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Jun 15 2013

Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell

In this memoir, which one gathers is at least semi-non-fictional, Orwell takes a voluntary excursion into poverty to see how the other half lives. He accepts most of the miseries of dire poverty with literary good humor, but all of this in the end is grist for his socialist mill. He seems genuinely indignant that poverty should exist in the modern world, arguing that there is no inherent difference between the well off and the dirt poor that justifies this arrangement, but like most socialists he is better at identifying the problems than proposing a workable remedy. But despite the subdued note of social protest this is quite an interesting memoir, full of memorable stories and characters inhabiting the underworlds of Paris and London, rendered with Orwell’s inimitable English irony. That Orwell’s poverty was voluntary and not forced is testified to by the book itself; most people who fall into the pit of poverty never emerge to tell the tale. A good story by a good sort of bloke.

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Apr 28 2013

Sexism in Moffat’s Dr Who.

I am focusing on the Moffat era of Doctor Who because it is convenient, it is the latest and freshest in my mind. This is not the say that there was no sexism in other eras. Watch any classic Who and it will smack you in the face, but then that was hardly uncommon in the 70s. Davies did not exactly do better, lovesick or shrill tended to be his defaults when it came to writing woman. So this should not be seen as an attack on Steven Moffat, but rather an attack on the representation of ‘woman’ in Doctor Who.This rant, like so many lately, starts with River Song, a character of great potential that was squandered. Before her backstory was given to us, I created my own for her (did I fail to mention how much of a nerd I am). In my head, at some point in her career as an archaeologist, she had stumbled onto something about the Doctor and had become obsessed. I think that’s quite a regular thing with academics, it is what happened with me. I stumbled onto a reading about sexuality education and it changed my whole academic focus. This still allows for all the other aspects needed in the story, her obsession with the Doctor, her ability to track him through history, but it also allows her some agency of her own, some choice over her life.Instead we got the 50’s version of the woman that goes to University to fill in time until she gets married. She states the only reason she wants to pursue a degree is to find the Doctor, her life, her career, her goals are not about her, are not her striving for something for herself. They are about her getting a man. Moffat gave us the MRS degree in Who. So what does this say to young women? Go to University, if you are lucky you’ll find a man as wonderful as the Doctor. Don’t choose an academic or career path based on what you love, do one that will conform to a cultural standard of female as wife and mother.I have never brought into the idea that River was his true love, the woman he marries. This is not because of some obsession with another companion, indeed the companions I love tend to be the ones that are viewed as a best friend, as an excited explorer. It is, that when I look to River I do not see any compatibility. It also appears that the more we see of River the more shrill and nagging she becomes. It is like we are being presented with the worst stereotype of a wife. She nags at him constantly, she finds fault in everything he does, and only ever says derogatory things about him. This is what being a woman and a wife is becoming on Doctor Who.

I had heard that that the Christmas Special of ‘The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe’, would show that women are presented positively in Who. But then the Doctor Who fandom say a lot of things I have to wonder about. I thought I’d just watch it without considering the sexism, and just focus on that later. That didn’t last. For a show that the fans said would address the sexism, it is probably one of the worst. Of course this isn’t the say that it was officially presented that way, I have yet to read anything official about the representation of women in Doctor Who.

But back to the Christmas Special. I will say that I have never found jokes based on sexist or racist stereotypes that funny. I can see the bookending joke, the mirroring of the event in the beginning to the event in the end. But use something else than the all women are bad drivers stereotype. And yes, maybe in the scheme of things that is pretty minor, but it shouldn’t go unsaid.

Then we move onto the brother and sister in the episode. The girl is portrayed as stupid, as non-adventurous and scared compared to her brother. It is not just that she doesn’t know things, it is that she is presented as intellectually foolish compared to her knowledgeable brother. Boys are smart, girls are pretty is the message. There is a point where the Doctor calls her stupid. To some degree that works for my idea of the Doctor, he can be socially clumsy at times, this is the guy that eats a stranger’s jam with his fingers, but in this context it was jarring and hurtful, so much so that the actual joke gets lost. It is also the boy that is adventurous, that starts the whole adventure. The girl is reluctant, nervous and uncomfortable with the unknown. Boys it seems are adventurous explorers, running into the world to experience, girls prefer to sit quietly and read about the world instead. The sister does not overcome her fear, does not go to hell with it, I want to see this world, instead it becomes about her nurturing and compassion. She goes forth to take care of her brother, to ensure he is safe. Therefore her bravery is not for herself, but in service of another.

Which brings us to the mother, the supposed heroine of this story. Now I actually admit the fooling your captors by pretending to cry actually worked for me. It was saying don’t believe the stereotype is real, don’t think that the fragile tearful woman is the only version of woman in the world. And for that I liked it. But that also appears to be the only active role she had in the episode. In the end she saves everyone because she is a woman. My first issue with that is this idea that there is one universal meaning of being a woman, that all women will have some essential trait in common. As it turns out this essential trait for the writers is motherhood. I do wonder then if those women that don’t want to, or physically can’t bear children are somehow less, not fully a woman.

The woman that saves the day doesn’t do it because of some strength of character, some wisdom, some creativity, some endurance that makes her special. In fact when I considered it, it actually has nothing to do with her at all. She is not special, she was convenient. Indeed one of the Androzani was a woman and she would have been equally as effective. It wasn’t about who the mother was, it was about her fertility, it was about her reproductive organs. Her ability to carry life made her the right choice, but this ability doesn’t speak to the person, pregnancy does not actually require any active process from the woman. People may make choices about when to get pregnant, and choose healthy living, but it isn’t necessary for pregnancy to occur. What was being praised was a biological process, not the agency of the woman.

And this also gets to be seen in what I consider possibly the worse message of this episode. When the mother was talking about her husband it became clear that she did not choose him, indeed did not particular want to marry him, to have him in his life. He harassed her, he followed her everywhere, and she couldn’t tell him no, because that would have been rude. Again we are shown a woman that has no agency of her own, no ability to make choices, to decide on her own life course. There is no consent, because it wasn’t an option. Even if the other person is being annoying, is being aggressive and disrespectful, girls don’t make a fuss, don’t speak up, that would be rude.

The last issue in this post is about the intelligence of Clara Oswin Oswald. It is a little picky, and if in isolation I would not even be that worried, but as a pattern of women without personal choice, personal value it is yet another one. Oswin was extremely intelligent, the Doctor level of intelligence, but this was not her intelligence. She had no great intelligence of her own before the Daleks converted her. Oswin was not intelligent, the Dalek was. And then again, when she was downloaded, she was declared not particularly intelligent, and then given the upgrade. Her intelligence, her ability to assist the Doctor in finding the Great Intelligence, was not hers, she did not possess it, it was simply a failure to delete a file. Her skill, and perhaps even her value as a companion, has come not from who she is, but what others have done to her.

For the record I am aware this is a television programme, and some may consider that I take it too seriously. But these ideas of what it means to be a woman, how we decide what is of value they are socially constructed, and part of that construction is how we are represented in forms of media. Young people are watching these shows, and are seeing these things. And it gets incorporated in how they construct their meaning of gender.

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Apr 21 2013

A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman

Fourteenth century France seems to encapsulate medieval Europe in all its grandeur and folly. The Middle Ages seem to have been a time when everybody believed in Christianity and nobody practiced it. Likewise, they seem to have been a time when men were most warlike yet waged war with the greatest incompetence. After reading this extraordinary volume I retain my amateur historian’s opinion that the Middle Ages represent the nadir of Western civilization. They were an age characterized by high ideals…Christianity, chivalry, noblesse oblige, and the duties of royal sovereignty…that no one took seriously. In spite of the Middle Ages’ claim to have been the Age of Faith, men at this time were all too obviously what they have always been. This was a highly engaging work surveying the adventures and villainies of medieval men, but it was not an inspiring work on the achievements of civilization.

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