Thom on April 22nd, 2014

I’m listening to William Gibson’s “Pattern Recognition” again, narrated by Shelly Frasier. I’ve never actually read this book, and the other Gibson books I’ve read I’ve not liked so much. Perhaps Gibson is akin to Shakespeare–best heard spoken.

I can’t quite explain why I like this book so much. The plot is thin. The language is opaque–Gibson possesses and employs a vocabulary I’m far too lazy to approach. It’s more literary fiction than science fiction. I’m not even sure how it qualifies as sci-fi, really. With the the exception of the protagonist’s branding allergy there is nothing particularly fantastical or futuristic about it. On the contrary–it’s main draw is Gibson’s ability to take the mundane and make it fantastical.

Gibson’s talent seems to lie in taking things we’re largely familiar with and endowing it with a visceral, even garish, importance. Our protagonist Cayce doesn’t just suffer from jet-lag, she rhapsodizes about the disorientation of “soul delay.” Gibson doesn’t just “show, don’t tell”, he transcends it, giving even the most brief descriptions  a searing urgency. For him it’s not just about telling the story, but telling it in a particular way. He doesn’t just love words, he chooses them carefully for impact.

The effect is an immersive story. You don’t just see Cayce Pollard’s world, you experience it. It’s a fascinating world under the glare of Gibson’s literary style–only on later contemplation do you begin to wonder why you found it so interesting. Gibson loves what he is writing about, and he makes you fall in love with it, too.

“Pattern Recognition”, and to a lesser degree the two sequels, is if anything “anti-fantasy”. Typical fantasy says, “Look at this cool world I’ve come up with.” Gibson says, “Look at this cool world you live in!” His tale of Cayce Pollard, Cool Hunter, is semi-autobiographical. He has found all this cool-ness lurking on the margins of our world, and he’s presenting it to us. Vauxhall Wyverns. Silk Cut cigarettes. Pilates equipment that sound like aesthetically-pleasing torture devices. Otaku cults. Immigrant acculturation. Viral marketing. Moscow warehouses turned night clubs turned secret video production facilities. Near-mythical figures who make their fortunes in both ethereal and mundane ways. Cold-war relics and skillsets. Social media communities that become real-world undergrounds. It’s all normal. And in Gibson’s hands it’s all fascinating, fantastical, and viscerally cool. No object is merely itself.

I could never be a Gibson. I lack the vocabulary. I lack the mindset, the perspective. Even if I tried to write like Gibson I doubt I could keep it up for more than a short story that would at best be viewed as the sincerest form of flattery. I’m not sure his style could even be appropriate to what I currently write. What would Gibsonian style applied to fantasy even look like? I think the shock of juxtaposition would rip apart anything it was applied to, like the Genesis planet in Star Trek III. The result might be fascinating enough to convince an editor to buy one such book. But I doubt a career could be built on it.

Perhaps this is evidence that I should try a different genre for my next book. While Gibson’s approach might not work in a fantasy setting, it could work amazingly well in urban fantasy. In a way, that’s what “Pattern Recognition” is. It’s decidedly urban, with the magic derived from the unrealized potential of mundane things. It’s not strict modern fiction, because we’re taken on a tour of a world most of us will never see–if indeed it even exists. While we don’t doubt that such lifestyles and careers are possible in a world as crazy as ours, our chances of ever encountering them first-hand are as rare as unicorns. Cayce Pollard may very well exist in some form, but I’ll never meet her by living my life.

I can’t explain why I like “Pattern Recognition” so much. This is not my first attempt. It may not be my last. The reason may not even entirely be Gibson. Shelly Fraiser certainly does a better job of reading Gibson’s tricky prose than I do. But this is at least my fourth time through it now, which makes it one of my most re-read books. There’s something about it that has lodged in my psyche. Yet it’s certainly not for everyone. I don’t expect anyone else to “get it”, or get it for the same reasons.

This post, more than anything, is yet another attempt to deconstruct a book that clearly grabs me and try and figure out why. I hear from other writers more successful than I that the best thing you can do is write the book you want to read. This makes sense to me, because if you don’t even enjoy what you’re writing, it’s likely to come through in your writing, and no one else will like it either. And so I continue to try and figure out just what is about “Pattern Recognition” that pulls me in again and again.

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Thom on April 21st, 2014

I just spent over a week and a half with my family. It was an interesting vacation. The first official day of vacation I wasn’t so sure I wouldn’t have preferred being back at work. No need for details, but I felt I was failing just about everyone’s expectations, including my own. But, to quote Monty Python, “I got better!” (Or is it “be’er”?)

Life in a family is far from free of stress and trouble. Every member of a family will test you in ways unique only to them. But that’s only half the picture. Every member of a family will also bless your life in ways unique to them if you give them the chance. By the end of my vacation I was aware of just how much I love my family.

Certainly raising a family is not easy. It takes sacrifice. Anyone who thinks it won’t is either in for a shock or is not going to find it all that rewarding. Family is like any investment. What you put into it determines what you get out of it. While it’s true that by not having a family you can avoid a lot of heartache and pain, it’s equally true that there is a lot of joy and satisfaction that never be realized.

That’s not to say that accolades and acknowledgements at work aren’t great and all, but it sure feels good when one of your children nestles up against you and tells you they love you. Or when you see them succeed at something they’ve been struggling with. Or when one of them, when asked who they look up to the most, answers “My dad.” (I’d have been almost as pleased with “My mom”, mind you.) Or when you find out second or third-hand that one of your kids made good decisions even when you weren’t watching.

Of course their poor decisions can really make your heart ache, too.

I know it’s not polite to criticize the life-choices of others, and I really shouldn’t say that those without kids are missing out. But I will say that there are certain experiences and joys in life that can only come from engaging in the work of raising the next generation. The nature of those experiences and joys will change over time, but they will never stop coming.

Companies come and go. Career paths change. The job I’m in at work didn’t even exist when I started college. In two hundred years pretty much every system I ever worked on will be long forgotten. But somewhere there will be posterity who, perhaps without even knowing where it came from, will still be showing signs of my influence as a parent–for better or worse.

And that’s where it’s at.

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Thom on April 14th, 2014

I got a new family computer over the weekend. Anyone who has changed computers knows that this is second only to actually moving in its ability to disrupt family life. Fortunately I’m also on vacation, so I’ve got time to deal with this. Granted, this is not entirely what I want to be doing with my vacation. But the geek-out factor should sustain me for a little while longer.

But between dealing with the fall-out of the new computer, setting up a new work-center in our kitchen, moving the old computer desk out, and finding new places for everything I may not have a lot of time for posting the next few days. Sorry about that, chief!

See y’all around. I will return to regular posting as soon as convenient.

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“The Shadow Throne” is the third and final book of The Ascendance Trilogy, by Jennifer A. Nielsen. Our family had been anxiously awaiting this book after finishing the first two books in the series last year. Sometimes it’s good to be late to the party, so to speak, as you don’t have to wait as long for the series conclusion.

My first impression as we began reading (I read these books out loud to the family) was that this was going to be another “see how much abuse Jaron can take” book like the last one. Thankfully, no. He does get beaten up a lot, but we do get to move on to something else.

But I get ahead of myself. The last book left off with something of a cliff-hanger as Jaron’s country of Carthya is invaded on multiple fronts and the woman he loves is captured by the enemy. “The Shadow Throne” backs up a bit and lays some additional groundwork before picking up the story again. Jaron’s brief rule of his country appears to be ending in disaster, but he is determined to battle on against the odds.

Nielsen knows she can’t write another book like the previous two. We’ve been with Jaron too long now to believe he doesn’t always have a plan, and that he’s not at least one step ahead of his enemies at every moment. We’ve also learned to pick up on the clues she drops. As a result the suspense in the book comes not from wondering if Jaron will somehow win the war and save his country, but if he’ll live long enough to pull off his plans. So, in short, this book is focused more on action than on suspense. We know Jaron is going to win. We may as well just sit back and enjoy the ride.

There are a few threads that aren’t tied up satisfactorily, a few questions that go unanswered, but on the whole it’s a satisfying conclusion to the series. The consistently moral aspects of Jaron’s otherwise roguish character prove to be justified in a manner appropriate for the series’ middle-grade/YA target. I wouldn’t have minded seeing him actually have to make a decision to sacrifice someone other than himself for a change, but that’s my adult sense of reality getting in the way. For a book that appeared ready to kill off a great many characters, the death-toll is surprisingly light.

“The Shadow Throne” is a quick read, full of action and all the roguish fun that is Jaron. If you enjoyed the first two books you won’t be disappointed.

Thom on April 10th, 2014

I woke up this morning a little stiff–probably from my son’s baseball practice last night. My first instinct was to complain, but I’ve decided I’m not going to do that. There’s no reason why I should. For a 44-year-old who doesn’t get much strenuous exercise I’m doing well to only have some stiffness, frankly. All things considered, my body’s doing better for me than I deserve.

What’s more, my body works so well that I can easily take for granted all the things it can do. Even my leaky heart valves don’t really get in the way of my doing what I want to do. Oh, my eyes are getting bad enough I may have to give in and get bi-focals, but that’s not really something to complain about, either. “Oh no! I have to adjust these things that help me see clearly so that I don’t have to hold my book six inches farther away from me than normal!” Yeah, reall dramatic, soul-wrenching stuff there.

Think about what our bodies can do. Even with my allergy-wracked nose I can walk in the door and immediately tell what’s for dinner. I don’t think we realize just how much information we take in through just a single sense. Even at night I can tell if that dark lump a block away is a cat, a dog, or a piece of trash in the road. I can distinguish by taste a majority of the ingredients in any dish I eat. I can discern with reasonable accuracy if the music I’m listening to is live or synthesized/sampled. I can feel near-microscopic irregularities in a surface.

Any single sense by itself is amazing. Put them all together and we are capable of incredible things. We take it for granted, but even in this high-tech age we’re still not close to reproducing the same level of sensory discernment at any where close to the same speed at which our body operates. We can get pictures of every single square inch of the world, but it takes a human being to pick out the beginnings of a Chinese aircraft carrier in a massive shipyard (zoom out to see the green arrow).

My body works pretty well, considering. It would be silly to complain when so many out there would love to have a body, defects and all, that works as well as mine. Even being stiff today is really my own fault. I got it from spending some time supporting my son and his team. It was my choice, and a good one. Why complain?

All in all, I’ve got it pretty darn good.


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Thom on April 9th, 2014

Kirsten Dunst has angered the “Shut up” crowd, heaven help her. She voiced an opinion without the permission of the right-thinking crowd. Because clearly women should know their place, only speak when spoken to, and even then only with approved talking points. Having their own mind and speaking it is unbecoming of a woman! Just listen to these sexist, misogynist geezers! They sound like something out of “Mad Men.”

“Kirsten Dunst is not paid to write gender theory so it shouldn’t surprise  anyone that she’s kind of dumb about it,” Erin Gloria Ryan at Jezebel wrote.

And Stacey Ritzen at Uproxx — who admitted she’s “hated”  Dunst since the 1990s — also slammed the “Elizabethtown” actress for apparently  suggesting “women should know their place is in the home.”

And what horrible thing did Ms. Dunst have to say?

“I feel like the feminine has been a little undervalued,” she said, according to Us Weekly.

“We all have to get our own jobs and make our own money, but staying at  home, nurturing, being the mother, cooking — it’s a valuable thing my mom  created.”

Dunst added that sometimes “you need your knight in shining armor.”

“I’m sorry,” Dunst continued. “You need a man to be a man and a woman to be a  woman. That’s why relationships work.”

Dunst uses much, much more careful language than Ryan or Ritzen. The only thing she was somewhat assertive about is that there are differences in gender, and that relationships work best when the two people don’t try to be redundant of one another. What’s so dumb about that? For those of us living in the real world and not the ivory utopia of gender theory, it’s fairly obvious.

Dunst’s two critics are quite amusing, in a pathetic sort of way. Suppose Ryan’s comment were attributed to Paul Ryan instead. Can you imagine the uproar? There would be front-page hissy-fits and witch-hunts galore! But it’s okay for a woman to put down another woman as “not being paid to think.”

As for Ritzen, she’s pretty good at putting words in people’s mouths. Since when does “–it’s a valuable thing my mom created” equate to “women should know their place is in the home”? Is Ritzen really trying to say that motherhood has no value? Would she dare to say that to her own mom? For heaven’s sake, kudos to Dunst for being appreciative of hers!

It bothers me to no end that feminists seem to believe that the only worthwhile work is what you get paid for. Men don’t even believe that (witness the number of volunteer coaches), and feminists seem to believe they’re better than men! Why is it I hear feminists willing to trumpet the value of people doing grunt jobs like waiting tables or cleaning streets, yet turn around and disrespect mothering? It really makes me sad. It’s the apex of self-absorption: Mothering is so easy anyone can do it! Look at me! I turned out okay, and my mother didn’t have to do a thing! Just put any babies you’re stupid enough to have in the care of a toaster and go do something important!

Absolute idiocy. If that were true, why do I hear so many women claiming it’s so hard to “have it all”? I’m sorry, but of the three women mentioned, only Dunst shows any real intelligence, let alone appreciation for the importance of motherhood.

I really hope Ms. Dunst sticks to her guns and doesn’t let the “Shut up” or the “Just die” crowd bully her into a retraction or an apology. Women should be allowed to speak their minds, no matter whether they have anything intelligent to say or whether they get paid for it. Women should be able to have their own set of values, independent of what others insist they should believe. It would be terribly ironic if the feminist movement turns out to not have been about freeing women from oppression by men, but to simply to gain control of the leash. It’s women who are dead-set on oppressing women now.

Ms. Ryan and Ms. Ritzen, you deserve each other. Feel free to go back to writing gender theory and leave the rest of us alone. You offer nothing of value to society with your narrow-minded, intolerant perspectives. I wouldn’t dream of infringing on your right to be that way and to say what you want, but just know I am under no obligation to take you at all seriously, either. And I don’t intend to. Unfortunately for “feminism” you besmirch the brand to the point that I can’t take it seriously, either.

Ms. Dunst, bravo. Thank you for having the courage to be a rebel. Thank you for having the intelligence to see what should be obvious: that men and women are complementary, not identical, and can find a great deal of happiness together. And you especially have my respect for respecting both yourself and the woman who raised you. It is a valuable thing your mother created. My compliments to you both.

Thom on April 8th, 2014

People on my Facebook list have seen me putting in plugs for this already, but if you haven’t already checked it out, please do so. Mr. Totten is an independent journalist who goes to the dark corners of the world to help us understand how things are there and why they got that way. He writes regular columns for the World Affairs Journal, plus his own books on his experiences and travels.

For example, there is this recent post on how US foreign policy is harming one of our longest and most loyal allies: Botching North Africa.

Most Americans don’t know a disputed territory called Western Sahara even exists. Fewer still understand it. Partly that’s because the Western Sahara conflict isn’t exploding like Syria, and partly it’s because the Sahrawis aren’t suffering in ways that make headlines. Those who actually live in Western Sahara are doing just fine. The Moroccans have invested huge amounts of money to make it livable. They’ve done a good enough job that the coastal city of Dakhla is a hot spot for tourists from Europe. But the tens of thousands of Sahrawis who live in the Polisario’s refugee camps in Algeria—which are really more like concentration camps—have been held hostage for almost as long as I’ve been alive.

On a previous kick-starter he went to Cuba and gave us an in-depth view of life in what used to be the jewel of the Caribbean, but is now a post-apocalyptic dystopia to top anything in YA fiction: The Lost World, Part I

I’m used to seeing military and police checkpoints when I travel abroad. Every country in the Middle East has them, including Israel if you count the one outside the airport. The authorities in that part of the world are looking for guns and bombs mostly. The Cuban authorities aren’t worried about weapons. No one but the regime has anything deadlier than a baseball bat.

Castro’s checkpoints are there to ensure nobody has too much or the wrong kind of food.

Police officers pull over cars and search the trunk for meat, lobsters, and shrimp. They also search passenger bags on city busses in Havana. Dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez wrote about it sarcastically in her book, Havana Real. “Buses are stopped in the middle of the street and bags inspected to see if we are carrying some cheese, a lobster, or some dangerous shrimp hidden among our personal belongings.”

If they find a side of beef in the trunk, so I’m told, you’ll go to prison for five years if you tell the police where you got it and ten years if you don’t.

He also understands the Middle-East better than most, and is willing to go digging there to find as much of the truth as he can. It’s not the typical “hotel-roof” journalism we see from most networks and newpapers. It’s man-on-the-street and interview-the-players type journalism, revealing how life would be for our counterparts in other countries. It’s the “Google Street View” of journalism. And when he’s not the expert, he knows who the real experts are, and is paying attention to what they’re saying: The Truth About Egypt

MJT: So your sources are inside the organization rather than outside.

Eric Trager: Yes. I’m one of the few people who talked about this during the aftermath of the uprising, but I didn’t discover it. Richard Mitchell wrote about it in his book, The Society of the Muslim Brothers. It was originally published in 1968 and it’s considered the classic text on the Brotherhood, but many people who put themselves out there as experts on this subject haven’t read one of the most basic studies of the organization’s history. I’ve talked about this at conferences and been told by supposed experts that the Brotherhood isn’t structured that way. They obviously haven’t read Mitchell even though they have to if they’re going to call themselves experts.

In short, if you’ve ever been the slightest bit interested in learning what Vietnam has become over the past forty years since the end of the war, he’s the best guide you’re likely to find. Here’s what he’s hoping to accomplish in Vietnam in his own words:

The Berlin Wall fell 25 years ago. Just two short years later, the Soviet Empire collapsed. Yet communist parties still rule five nations—North Korea, Cuba, China, Laos, and Vietnam.

I intend to visit them all. I’ll have enough material for another book at the end.

Cuba was first. Next is Vietnam.

The United States lost the war there, but won the argument. Vietnam is still ruled by the Communist Party, but it junked Marxist economics and leapt with both feet into the global economy. The country is eradicating extreme poverty faster than almost any other in history. And its people are enthusiastically friendly to Americans—surprising considering our history in the 60s and 70s.

The Vietnam War is a wound in the American psyche. Even though I’m too young to remember it, I feel it a little bit too. But the Vietnamese seem to have moved past it.


Is it because they realize we were right about Ho Chi Minh, Mao, and the Soviet Union from the beginning? Or is it not that at all? Perhaps there something in the Vietnamese national psyche—tragically lacking in some parts of the world—that lends itself to reconciliation with former enemies. Maybe it’s simply because most Vietnamese are too young to remember the war, or because they were more wounded by the war with each other. The Vietnamese themselves might not even know. But I’m going to try to find out.

If you’d like to help him do so, please visit his Kickstarter Project.

Full disclosure: I’m already in at the $25 level, which gets me a full-color ebook dispatch on all materials from the project upon completion. If this doesn’t fund I get nothing. I want my ebook! Plus, I’m still nursing a bit of guilty conscience for all the knowledge I’ve gained through Mr. Totten’s work while not usually giving much back. I’ve bought one of his books (the excellent “Where the West Ends“), and I believe I’ve hit his tip jar a few times. But I promote his whenever I can, and as most of you know, I don’t do that very often. I review, yes, but I seldom push. Michael J. Totten is worth it.

There is also a related site called “Kickdriver” which helps people spread the word about their Kickstarters by giving supporters some rewards for spreading the word to their networks. I’m giving it a try.

Thom on April 7th, 2014

What do we want?! Change! When do we want it?! NOW!! How do we get there?! WHO CARES!

There are a lot of people who want me to change. And there are a lot of people who want me to just shut up. And there are some who would like me to die-please-now. (These latter are the same people who believe that contributing money to the wrong cause should preclude a person from ever working again).

The “Die please” crowd want to bring about change by destroying anyone who does’t believe in that change. I suppose sometimes that’s what it takes, but I can’t really get behind anyone whose desired change is so repulsive that the only way they can get what they want is to destroy everyone else. But I try not to worry about these people. I suspect they’ll turn on one another before long and destroy themselves instead.

The “Shut up” crowd are also very special people. They’re not really interested in changing anyone’s opinions, either, so much as doing whatever it takes to keep their opposition from getting in the way of their getting what they want. They bully, shame, shriek, and otherwise intimidate people into just not showing up when it’s time to vote or act. They silence their opposition so that it appears there is no opposition.

Then there are people who are truly working to change minds and hearts. I may not always agree with these people, but I at least respect them. It may take them longer to accomplish their goals, but their work is generally more effective, and more permanent. When they bring about change, that change tends to  last longer. But it is slower. It’s more difficult. It takes more effort.

So I can certainly understand the migration toward the other two methods, even if I cannot support it. The “Die please” crowd, if they don’t destroy themselves, will only succeed in creating an equal and opposite “Die please” crowd. Yes, it results in change, but it’s violent, destructive, and unpredictable change. It’s not the way to build anything useful and enduring. Nothing accomplished under threat can last–unless you can maintain the threat indefinitely.

The “Shut up” crowd may see initial success, but they tend to encourage sabotage. People who are intimidated into silence are not necessarily discouraged from action. They will find a way to undermine the cause secretly, exposing themselves to as little danger as possible. They may not openly oppose you, but they won’t support you, either. And you may realize all too late you needed their support.

On the other hand, I just spent a weekend with people seeking to encourage me to change. They did so out of love and concern. They related experience after experience of their own and others demonstrating the benefits of that change. The encouraged, even plead for me to change, but they didn’t attempt to silence or threaten. They left it to me to want to change.

And I want to change, even though what they’re asking of me is much more difficult than appeasing the other groups would be. This last group wants me to change my desires and my behavior, and that’s not at all easy. But, oddly enough, they also made me feel good about myself and my potential. They believed in me. That only makes me want to change all the more. They’re patient. They will wait.

Not so with the other two groups. They don’t care how I feel–in fact many of their tactics rely on making me feel badly about myself. They don’t care if I want to change or not. They simply want me out of the way. They don’t have the time or patience for persuasion. They’ll get what they want, and they’ll get it now, even if they have to burn down the world to get it.

I know who I’d rather cooperate with.

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Thom on April 4th, 2014

I was on a news site this morning when the following popped up:

Recommended for you:

James Falco tries to pick up 17-year-old online

Picking up 17-year-olds online isn’t recommended for any adult. Sorry!

Wayne Chilcott liked this post
Thom on April 4th, 2014

I’ve not paid much attention to Jimmy Fallon, but since his ascendance to hosting the Tonight Show I’ve been hearing about him quite a bit. And I’ve even watching some clips here and there. And surprise, surprise, he’s funny! His Vladimir Putin impression is comic gold. And lately he seems to be the only comedian willing to yank the chain of the current administration. So when I saw he had a skit with Sarah Palin, I had to watch. It made me laugh, which is more than I can say for most comic acts these days. Take a look:

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