Thursday, July 20, 2017

Gregory Benford: "Nobody Lives on Burton Street"

Gregory Benford
"Nobody Lives on Burton Street"
from The Best of Benford
David Hartwell, editor 
a short story first published in 1975


Nobody Lives on Burton Street  (1970)

"I was standing by one of our temporary command posts, picking my teeth after breakfast and talking to Joe Murphy when the first part of the Domestic Disturbance hit us.

People said the summer of '78 was the worst ever, what with all the pollution haze and everything was kicking up the temperatures,  than '78.  Spring had lost its bloom a month back and it was hot, sticky--the kind of weather that leaves you with a  half-moon of sweat around your armpits before you've had time to finish morning coffee.  The summer heat makes for trouble, stirs up people. . .

.  .  .  . 
I turned and walked back out onto the roof where we had our command post.

We knew the mob was in the area, working toward us.  Our communications link had been humming for the last half hour, getting fixes on their direction and asking the computers for advice on how to hand them when they got there."



The above quotation from the beginning of the story seems fairly straightforward.  The story takes place in an urban setting, a mob is on the loose, and the authorities are getting ready to handle the situation.  The mob appears, waving clubs and torches and setting some of the building ablaze.


But then, I get the feeling something was wrong.  Those in the command post didn't seem strongly affected when several police officers and firefighters who had arrived on the scene were brutally attacked by the mob. Those in the command center acted as though all was going as expected.   In fact the arrival of the police and firefighters was carefully orchestrated from the command center.  There was some suggestion that the police squad car was controlled from the command center.  


SPOILERS FROM THIS POINT ON







All is not what it appears to be.  What the reader perceives is not the real situation.  This is not an out-of-control rampaging mob but a carefully staged cathartic event.


The reader eventually learns that the mob action is actually a planned event.   Citizens can register to take part in an upcoming planned riot, after a psychological screening to determine if they would benefit from participation.  Moreover, the command post is not staffed by police officers, but members of the city's public relations department, and the police and fire personnel are androids.

While there's been a long-standing debate on the precise meaning of catharsis, in popular usage today, it usually refers to the purging of strong, possibly disruptive or dangerous emotions through the vicarious experience of similar tragic or violent events.  Simply put, it suggests that viewing violent destructive actions will reduce the possibility that the viewer will engage in such actions in the future, an emotional escape valve.  This staged riot carries the theory a step beyond vicarious observation.  It allows the participants to partake in a riot, although carefully monitored and controlled.  The assumption is that participants will have purged the anger, hostility, tension sufficiently to reduce the possibility that they might get caught up in a real riot.

While not brought up in the story, there is an opposing theory--desensitization. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, desensitization actually extinguishes or at least reduces an emotional response (as of fear, anxiety, or guilt) to stimuli that formerly induced it. Consequently, participating in an activity increases the chances that one will engage in it again.   As you can see, this directly contradicts the cathartic theory.  Not only does it contradict the cathartic theory, but it also insists that putting the cathartic theory into practice will make the problem even worse.  Those who take part in the staged riot will be desensitized to the destruction and the killing of the police and fire personnel on the scene  and, therefore, are more likely to do it again.

One can wonder whether the cathartic process is actually working, for in the first paragraph of the story, the director of the staged riot remarks that last year was the worst ever for riots and now "it was a year later and getting worse."  Does this suggest that the staged and managed riots are making the situation worse?

This is just another example of that short-sighted behavior we humans are not only capable of  but far more likely to engage in, instead of intelligent problem solving behavior.   As usual, the powers-that-be prefer to attack the symptoms of a problem, rather than the causes.  

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Three Films

KWAIDAN:

Kwaidan is a Japanese film with subtitles directed by Masaki Kobayashi.  The title comes from a collection of short Japanese tales translated by Lafcadio Hearn .  The film includes four stories from the book.  The photography is beautiful and the colors vibrant, and it is hard to believe the film came out in 1965.  It must have been reworked to bring back the original colors.

The four tales include the following:

 A woodcutter's life is spared by the Snow Woman who killed his comrade on condition that he never speak of what happened to anyone at any time.  However, humans being human . . .


Hoichi is a young, blind Buddhist monk who is also talented musician and singer.  One night a man comes to guiide him to the court of a noble who wishes him to sing about the last great battle his clan lost to the Genji. Since he is blind, he doesn't know who comprises his audience.  His attempt at freedom, aided by his fellow monks, costs him dearly.


A samurai leaves his wife to marry a rich woman in order to escape their poverty and his insignificance.  Over the years, he learns that this was a bad decision.  Finally he leaves his rich wife and his comfortable position with her father and returns to his former wife.  Unfortunately he learns  that not only one can't go back,  but that it is far better that one never even tries.


A samurai upon pouring himself a bowl of tea discovers a strange face inside the bowl staring out at him.  Each time he empties the bowl without drinking it, the face becomes clearer and more ominous.  Finally he drinks the tea in spite of the face--a very poor decision.  Unfortunately, the reader never finds out what eventually happens to the samurai because every time a writer attempts to finish the story, he or she disappears, leaving it unfinished. What would happen if someone tried to adapt this tale for film?

If there's a moral to the stories, it is that it doesn't pay to get involved with spirits and demons.




POLAR EXPLORATIONS

The film is a collaboration, a fruitful one, between the Teaching Company and the National Geographic Society was first shown in 2015.  The lecturers are obviously knowledgeable, which is what I would  expect of a Teaching Company production, and the photography is stunning, again something I would expect from National Geographic.

It is a boxed set, which I got from the local library, consisting of 4 DVDs, each DVD with six 30 minute lectures.  The first set of lectures focuses on the various expeditions to the North and South Poles, the men who went on them and the many who did not return.  Subsequent lectures then centured on the geology, the geography, the climate, and the inhabitants of both regions, along  with commentary on the present situation at the Poles, which has been declared off-limits to resource development and territorial claims by countries.

The last set detailed the changes now taking place at the Poles.  In 2014, aerial photography disclosed a large crack in the Larson C ice shelf.  The lecturer discussed the possibility that the shelf might actually break from from the continent.  Several weeks after I viewed the DVDs, I read that the Larson C ice shelf had broken away from Antarctica. 




A WALK IN THE WOODS:

A Walk in the Woods is based on the book by Bill Bryson about his walk with a friend along the Appalachian Trail, a marked trail that stretches through the Appalachian Mountains some 2200 miles from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine.

It is really a buddy film as Bryson is joined by Stepen Katz, a longtime friend he hasn't seen or talked to in many years.  The film is not a travelogue, and those viewing it for the scenery will be disappointed.  While there are some shots of scenery, the real focus is on the reconnecting between the two friends, Bil Bryson played by Robert Redford and  Nick Nolte as Stephen Katz.   Actually that was my reason for watching the film; I wanted to see Redford and Nolte for I just couldn't picture them together in a film.  It turned out to be a great pairing. 



Sunday, July 16, 2017

Myoe: On the virtues of tea

An paean to tea

Tea has the blessing of all deities
Tea promotes filial piety
Tea drives away all evil spirits
Tea banishes drowsiness
Tea keeps the five internal organs in harmony
Tea wards off disease
Tea strengthens friendship
Tea disciplines body and mind
Tea destroys the passions
Tea grants a peaceful death

-- poem attributed to the Japanese Buddhist priest Myoe (1173--1232)
    who had it inscribed on a teakettle.



The poem is included in Beatrice Hohenegger's highly informative work:  Liquid Tea:  The Story of Tea from East to West.


How could anybody refuse to drink something so marvelous and miraculous?  I am sitting here with a cup of tea (Numi's toasted rice and green tea) by my side, and I feel better already. 

Friday, July 14, 2017

Kenko: Essays in Idleness

No. 88

"A certain man owned a copy of Wakan Roei Shu which, he claimed, was in the hand of Ono no Tofu.  Another man commented, 'I am sure that there must be good reason for the attribution, sir, but does it not seem an anachronism that Tofu should have written the manuscript of a work compiled by Fujiwara no Kinto, a man born after his death?  It seems rather strange.'

The owner replied, 'That's precisely what makes the manuscript so unusual.'  He treasured it more than ever"

-- Kenko --
Essays in Idleness
Edited and translated by Donald Keene






I wonder if there really are such people.. It seems hard to believe.
   





Notes:
Ono no Tofu (896-966)  was a celebrated calligrapher.
Fujiwara no Kinto (966-1041) was born in the year that Ono no Tofu died.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Simon Clark: The Night of the Triffids

Simon Clark
The Night of the Triffids
469 pages
published in 2001





It's been twenty-five years since Bill Masen with his family and others escaped the triffids by fleeing to the Isle of Wight, just off the  coast of England.  It was a wise move, for the triffids could not cross over to mount any sort of large scale attack.  Bill's son, David,  has grown up and is now a pilot of the few aircraft available to them.

This novel begins much like Wyndham's novel, with a celestial catastrophe.  Only instead of bright lights in the night which blinds all who see them,  David and the others now face a day of complete darkness. It is darker now this morning that it would ever be at night, for there is no sun, no moon, and no stars.  Only the Blind can function normally; the Sighted need lights.  In addition, some triffids have made it to the island, a rare occurrence, but still possible.  Is it a coincidence or is there a link there?

David is ordered to make a reconnaissance flight to determine if this darkness is caused by some sort of strange cloud.   At one point during the flight, he loses radio contact and becomes lost.  Forced to land, he finds himself threatened by triffids.  But he is rescued by a ship from New York City.  Initially they had promised to take him back to his island, but upon receiving a radio message, they head for their base, Manhattan Island to be exact.

He is not a prisoner and is treated well.  Of course he is trapped on Manhattan for the triffids are everywhere. But, then so is everybody else.   He is amazed at how well the people of NY live;  it's almost as though the triffid invasion and the Blinding never happened.  But there is a dark side to the life these people lead.

Shortly after David arrives, he is kidnapped by the Foresters, those who live outside NYC in small communities.   They lead a precarious existence for they are always under attack by the triffids.  At first David does not understand why they live out in the wilderness and not in NYC.   Shortly after he arrives, he learns that the triffids are not the only threat and that the communities are  threatened not only by the triffids but also by the military might of NYC.  It is from them that David learns of  the suffering and misery that underlies the apparent prosperity of NYC and the threat they present to those who oppose them. 

One point that wasn't resolved in the first novel was that of the intelligence of the triffids.  And, were they conscious?   David becomes increasingly convinced that the triffids are capable of planning and working together in their attacks on humans, especially on human settlements.   Another question  still remains unanswered: what, if any, is the relationship between the triffids and the blinding lights?

The Night of the Triffids has a different feel to it.  While it was interesting, I thought The Day of the Triffids was a better book.  But, then again, it's been years since I read it, so I might see it differently now. 



 

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Ray Bradbury: "The Parrot Who Met Papa"

Ray Bradbury
"The Parrot Who Met Papa"
from Long After Midnight


"The Parrot Who Met Papa" is the second story I have read by Ray Bradbury that centers on Ernest Hemingway, sometimes familiarly known as Papa.  The first I read was "The Kilimanjaro Device," a time-traveling tale.  My post on that story is at  http://tinyurl.com/y7xt9t4h.  I wonder if there's any more about Hemingway and why he chose to write about him.  I also wonder if he has any other stories about real people.  I guess I will just have to read more stories by Bradbury. 

I suppose most people back then knew that Hemingway spent considerable time in Cuba.  That was the problem, for so many people knew this that Hemingway became a tourist attraction when he was there.  When the staring got to be too much, Hemingway would absent himself from his usual watering holes and hide out in a small local bar, the Cuba Libre.   At one end of the bar was a parrot in a cage, an ancient parrot to be sure.  Hemingway grew to like the parrot and would spend much time talking to it.  In fact, the question was whether Hemingway ended up talking like the parrot or the parrot sounded like him. Rumor had it that Hemingway had taught the parrot a word-for-word record of his last unpublished novel.

This parrot became famous, almost as famous as Hemingway himself.  So, although it was a shock to many, the reasons why El Cordoba, that was the parrot's name, was birdnapped? should have been obvious.  But, the real reason wasn't known, until much later.

Ray (the name of the teller of the tale, a coincidence, no doubt) decids to investigate and flies down to Cuba.  Upon interrogating the bar owner, he decides he knows the identity of the birdnapper.  He had asked the bar owner if someone strange or peculiar or eccentric had recently been there. The bar owner then described such a person who had been there the day before the parrot had disappeared:

"What a creature!. . . He was very small.  And he spoke like this: very high-eeee.  Like a muchacha in a school play, eh?  Like a canary swallowed by a witch!  And he wore a blue-velvet suit with a big yellow tie. . .And he had a small very round face. . . and his hair was yellow. . .he was like a Kewpie doll."

Ray recognizes him and blurts out, "Shelley Capon!"  (a capon is a castrated domestic rooster fattened for eating).  Ray knew that Shelley Capon hated Hemingway and now was very concerned about the fate of El Cordoba.

Perhaps I'm wrong here, but that description and the name reminds me of Truman Capote. Unfortunately I don't know anything about the relationship between Hemingway and Capote, so I can't offer that as evidence.

Ray then decides to confront Shelley Capon and rescue El Cordoba.  Shelly Capon is the most interesting character in the story.  If you have read the story or read it sometime in the future, let me know if you agree or disagree with my speculation regarding the identity of Shelly. 

It took a while for me to realize this, but this is a detective story!  El Cordoba is a victim of a kidnapping, and Ray comes to his rescue.  Shelly Capon is the unique and fascinating bad guy with his henchmen about him in the hotel room when Ray confronts him.  Their meeting gives us a clue:

Shelly greets him:  "'Raimundo, sit down! No .  .  . fling yourself into an interesting position.'

Ray responds:  "'Sorry,'  I said in my best  Dashiell Hammett manner, sharpening my chin and steeling my eyes.  'No time.'"

The tone is almost noir.  Ray senses a threat from those gathered in the hotel room.  Will he be allowed to leave, on his own two feet?   He responds with a threat of his own, clearly a hard-boiled detective tale.  Bradbury later introduces a very familiar element from a Hammett story, just to remind us of this story's antecedents. 

Overall, it's a light-hearted work, not to be taken seriously.  But, on the other hand, it is written by Ray Bradbury .  .  .



Friday, July 7, 2017

A Minute Meditation

No. 225

The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.  

-- John Muir --
In His Own Words 


This sounds strange today in a world of spaceships and trips to the moon and probes to many of the planets in the solar system.  Perhaps he's talking about a different Universe?
 

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Frank Herbert: The Exploits of Jorj X. McKie, Saboteur Extraordinary

Frank Herbert
Whipping Star  a novel


Once, long centuries past, con-sentients with a psychological compulsion to "do good" had captured the government.  Unaware of the the writhing complexities, the mingled guilts end self-punishments, beneath their compulsion, they had eliminated virtually all delays and red tape from government.  The great machine with its blundering power over sentient life had slipped into high gear, had moved faster and faster.  laws had been conceived and passed in the same hour. Appropriations had flashed into being and were spent in a fortnight.  New bureaus for the mos improbable purposes had leaped int existence and proliferated like some insane fungus.

Government had become a great destructive  wheel without a governor, whirling with such frantic speed that it spread chaos wherever it touched.

In desperation, a handful of sentients had conceived the Sabotage Corps to slow that wheel.  There had been bloodshed and other degrees of violence, but the wheel had been slowed.  In time, the Corps had become a Bureau, and the Bureau was whatever it was today--a organization headed into its own corridors of entropy, a group of sentients who preferred subtle diversion to violence. . . but were prepared for violence when the need arose.  

This, of course, goes against conventional wisdom which insists that slow, inefficient governments, those that are bound up with red tape, are bad governments.  It even suggests that slow and inefficient governments provide more freedom for its citizens than do fast and efficient governments.  It's an interesting question to meditate on. 

So what keeps the BuSab from turning into a juggernaut? Their promotion policy. The way you get promoted is to sabotage your boss.  The Bureau of Sabotage therefore slows itself down and makes itself more inefficient by regularly replacing its management. 

The Whipping Star is one of two novels that feature the exploits of Jorj X. McKie, Saboteur Extraordinary.  The other novel is The Dosadi Experiment,  one of my favorite novels by Frank Herbert, second only to Dune.  In addition, there are two short stories:  "A Matter of Traces" and "The Tactful Saboteur."   While none of the stories are sequels, they are all set in Herbert's ConSentiency Universe, which include a galactic government in which humans and aliens are equal, something a bit unusual for a story first published in the late 50s and early 60s.

Jorj X. McKie is the protagonist in all four stories, and he clearly is not the typical handsome heroic Anglo-Saxon hero found in most SF at that time.He is described as a "squat little man, angry red hair, face like a disgruntled frog."   If a film were to be made of one of these stories, I wonder who would play McKie.

The sentient races of the ConSentiency Universe  have been blessed by the appearance of the Calebans, an alien race that apparently looks like or possibly inhabits something like a beach ball.  Yet, this race provides the sentient races with a means of travel, the jump doors, that ignores the limitations posed by the speed of light.  What is most surprising is that, as best as anyone can figure, there are only 83 of them.  Well, there were 83 when they were first encountered, but they have disappeared lately so that now only one remains.  McKie's assignment is to track down the last one and find out why the others have disappeared.

This sounds simple except for several minor details.  The last Caleban has signed a contract with Mliss Abnethe,  a woman who has an obsession with whipping things.   Since she is one of the richest people in the galaxy, she was able to escape imprisonment for capturing and whipping other humans, but she had to agree to sin no more.   She took that to mean that she couldn't go around whipping humans, but there was no mention of aliens.  So, she decided to practice her obsession on a Caleban.

The other minor detail is that Calebans can't communicate too well with other sentients.  In fact, nobody is certain that there's any communication at all.  The parts I enjoyed most in the novel occurs when McKie meets up with the remaining Caleban and attempts to question him? her? it? about the fate of the other 82 Calebans.  When the Caleban speaks, I can't help but wonder if those really are coherent rational statements or words that were just randomly assembled.

When McKie finally locates the last Caleban,  he learns that the situation is much worse than he thought.  The whipping in some way reduces the Caleban's life force.  In fact, another five to ten whippings will destroy it, the last Caleban.  When that happens every being who has ever used the Caleban's jump doors will die.  Since everybody uses the jump doors regularly, including McKie, this means the end of sentient life in the Galaxy, or perhaps the Universe. 

What I enjoyed also was something that didn't appear.  Herbert didn't spend several chapters going into Mliss Abnethe's obsession, in other words a long-winded treatise how this obsession related to certain traumatic events in her childhood, something many contemporary writers find it necessary in order to expand the length of the story.  Nor did he provide us with pages of excruciating detail on why McKie had racked up over 50 divorces so far.  These were givens.   This is an SF novel and not a psychoanalytical case study.

I think you might enjoy the story as long as you don't spend too much time trying to understand the pseudoscience.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Carl Sandburg: "The Mist"


THE MIST

I am the mist, the impalpable mist,
Back of the thing you seek.
My arms are long,
Long as the reach of time and space.

Some toil and toil, believing,
Looking now and then on my face,
Catching an olden, vital glory.

But no one passes me,
I tangle and snare them all.
I am the cause of the Sphinx,
The voiceless, baffled, patient Sphinx.

I was at the first of things,
I will be at the last.
          I am the primal mist
          And no man passes me;
          My long impalpable arms
          Bar them all.

-- Carl Sandburg --
The Complete Poems of Carl Sandburg
 

My first thought was that the mist was death, but that second stanza makes me wonder.  I find this an unusual poem for Sandburg, or at least unusual in that the few poems I've read of his seem to focus more on the physical world.   This has much more of a mystical or metaphysical theme, or at least more than I have encountered in the few poems that I have read by him.



Saturday, July 1, 2017

Edward FitzGerald's The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: the Final Quatrain

 I've cheated a bit here, for this is a repeat of a previous post.  However, since this is the last post I will make on the Rubaiyat (as far as I know right now), I thought it appropriate.  These are the last quatrains for the First, Second, and Fifth Editions.




First Edition:  Quatrain LXXV

And when  Thyself with shining Foot shall pass
Among the Guests Star-scatter'd on the Grass,
     And in thy joyous Errand reach the Spot
Where I made one--turn down an empty Glass!

                    TAMAM SHUD



Second Edition:  Quatrain CX

And when Yourself with shining Foot shall pass
Among the Guests Star-scatter'd on the Grass,
     And in your joyous Errand reach the Spot
Where I made One--turn down an empty Glass!

                    TAMAM



Fifth Edition:  Quatrain CI
  
And when like her, oh, Saki, you shall pass
Among the Guests Star-scatter'd on the Grass,
     And in your joyous Errand reach the Spot
Where I made One--turn down an empty Glass!

                    TAMAM



Fitzgerald made only minor changes over the five editions, and most of them occurred in the first line.  In the first edition we see  "Thyself" which becomes the less poetic  "Yourself" in the second edition.  Also, "shining foot" is changed to "silver Foot" in the second edition.  "Silver" is much more specific in that it denotes a white foot more clearly than does "shining."


In the fifth edition, we find the most drastic change to the first line.  The references to her personal appearance disappear and she is named Saki.  In addition, we find a reference--"like her"-- to the previous quatrain where the Moon is depicted as shining down on those in the garden.  The tie to the previous quatrain is much stronger in this edition than in the earlier versions in which the quatrain began with "And," which also ties this quatrain to previous one.  In other words, he substitutes a direct reference for a conjunction.

The second, third, and fourth lines of the various editions are identical except for a change that occurs in the second edition, when "thy" becomes "your" to match a similar change in the first line.

The sense of the quatrain seems quite clear--remember me with an empty glass, which refers back to earlier quatrains concerning the scene in the pottery shop in which a pot suggests that filling it with wine might restore it.  However, there seems to be no possibility of that happening here, for death is the final emptying of the glass.


 I started this project on September 26, 2008 and never realized that it would last for almost nine years.  I have now posted entries on all seventy-five quatrains in the First Edition and related quatrains in the Second and Fifth Editions.  I have also posted on all quatrains that were added by Edward FitzGerald in the Second Edition.  All quatrains in the Fifth Edition are identical to or are modified versions of quatrains in the First and Second Editions.   As far as I can tell, no new quatrains were added in the Third or Fourth Editions, or if any were, FitzGerald dropped them when the Fifth Edition came out.

This, therefore, will be the last posting I will make on Edward FitzGerald's version of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.   It is with mixed feelings that I say this. 

Someone, I think, once said that endings were really opportunities for new beginnings.  





NOTE:
"The Arabic word sāqī ساقی (also written as saqi or saki) literally means wine-server or wine-pourer and is frequently used in Persian poetry to describe the glorious Server who continually pours out the wine everlasting to all of mankind, while implying that only a completely empty bowl is truly ready to be filled with such a fine wine. For the Sufi, the greatest task of life is to become empty enough, selfless enough, to be a suitable receptacle for the wine which the Sāqī  pours.

In some cases, the word sāqī   may be used as a reference to a specific spiritual teacher, but in the grand scheme of things, a spiritual teacher is merely a worldly symbol for the presence of the Beloved, the One and Only One."