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Sep. 26th, 1996 05:04 pm
garote: (io error)
[personal profile] garote
Garrett Birkel
English 2, essay 2 v1.0

Internships and Lectures
comparisons and suggestions

Zach Archer, a music major at UC Davis, has the following to say about his class schedule: "The music classes I'm taking are, for the most part, relevant and comprehensive. The scope of material is fairly broad, ... However, ... there are some topics that are totally omitted from discussion in these classes, and I must research these on my own time. This would be fine, except: I have no [expletive!] time, and there is no written list of possible research topics lying around anywhere."

This is one of the shortcomings of lecture-oriented teaching. The class covers what the lecturer can teach; anything beyond that is the responsibility of the student. Many students, saddled with high tuition fees, have to work employment around their class schedules. Some find that internships at companies associated with their majors actually teach more than their classes do -- and pay the bills to boot.

Mark Hedges, a UC San Diego student, has found his class schedule as a Computer Science major unable to address his needs: "...it was hardly at all relevant to the still possible career of network administrator/user support director, it was more programming oriented." Though network administration falls under the category of Computer Science, Mark discovered that "The major is very industry-oriented for programmers." He was able to get an internship at a computer lab, however, through which he is leaning the skills that his classes do not cover.

Brad Hill, a student at Michigan State University, encountered the same thing: "I'm learning a lot more about my job working in the lab at my internship than in my classes.... There's only so much you can learn from static sources, including a Prof. talking at you in a lecture."

With internships getting such rave reviews, one would think that they are the answer to the shortcomings of colleges and majors everywhere. Why not expand the internship practice? Why not simply drop a student into a job, to learn skills "on the fly," bypassing lecture classes altogether? ... Well, I'll tell you why not.

If internships were inducted into the college curriculum, they would relieve some of the conflicts between class loads and work time. To be truly integrated, they would have to be worth college credit. However, there is no real way to rate the success of a given student employee. Having employers submit periodical evaluations of their students is a risky proposition at best: Some tasks may be harder than others, thereby making a comparison between students unfair; some evaluators may be critical of things that others aren't. If there is no proper way to judge, then any credit awarded cannot figure into a GPA and is thereby useless in evaluating students.

In addition, consider the inherent annoyance of being constantly evaluated and watched by "big brother", in the classroom and at work. This constant, rigid evaluation is something that pervades High School teaching practices, and is something that most college students would be averse to. However, as many a UC Santa Cruz student could tell you, it also provides a measure of security. UCSC students are given written evaluations at the end of a semester, which can then be only tentatively converted to grades if a student wants to transfer elsewhere. This dilemma is the proverbial two-horned bull. In the end, it can only be said that some form of fair evaluation is necessary, and that it is something that cannot be gleaned from an internship.

Some fields cannot conceivably train internees in real-world jobs because it would be unlawful, dangerous, or improper. For example in areas such as physical therapy, architecture, or psychology. To avoid lawsuits and accidents, interns in these fields would be reduced to gofers and observers, which would invalidate the purpose of the internship. (To provide real work experience.)

Clearly, internships are not for everyone, and are not suited for every field. One of the questions on the survey I gave my interviewees was "Would an internship program, where you are hired by a company at a reduced wage to "learn on the job", be useful to you?" Zach, the music major, replied: "In my case, I don't think so. The only equivalent internship that I would accept would be something like, "Write a soundtrack for this new film". And that would require a LOT of hours, and I would want some sort of Zen Master watching over my shoulder to make sure I actually knew what I was doing, and to offer advice along the way, etc."

In the computer-oriented field, internships have more potential to help simply because of the nature of the skills required. Mark said this of his employment at the on-site college computer lab: "My job is ... incredibly more useful toward a sysadmin/user support career than any schoolwork." Of the college curriculum, Mark says: "There's one class on advanced unix administration here. I'd have to take so many classes as prerequisites I'd never get there. As far as the commercialized government career option goes, ... an internship is probably a 95% necessity to get experience to start in the field,"

However, Mark also goes on to say that: "a good solid academic background is 100% necessary."

Since real employment for class credit can never be fairly evaluated, and the professor/lecture structure is inadequate on its own, I propose we work to merge the two on campus. The Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills makes a similar recommendation in it's 1991 report on educational goals for "America 2000". One of the main ideas it endorses is that "Learning should be reoriented away from mere mastery of information and toward encouraging students to recognize and solve problems." (19) and furthermore that "Students do not need to learn basic skills before they learn problem-solving skills. The two go together. They are not sequential but mutually enforcing." (19)

From my standpoint as a computer science/programming major, I feel capable of recommending some changes that would improve general learning conditions and narrow the gap between work and school for my fellow computer science majors:

First, make lab time a requirement for programming classes, and make it a set time. This is crucial for bringing all the students in together, where they can conduct their team exercises and get to know their fellow programmers/coordinators/artists, et cetera. As the SCANS government report says, knowledge of team dynamics and social skills are a must for the employees of today and tomorrow. Definite lab time, with instructors to oversee (the "Zen Masters" Zach spoke of) and computers near, would provide the foundation for these skills to grow. It cannot be emphasized enough how vital lab time is to a computer-oriented career.

In fact, I couldn't say it any better than IBM employee Jim Dezell, who manages the development of advanced education systems for grades K through 12. In the book "Educating America" by Jack E. Bowsher, Jim says that "a technology-based learning environment is better than traditional instruction because it is risk-free from the student's perspective even though frequent measurements are built into programs in the form of exercises on the computer. There are no failures and no red-pencil marks. There is no labeling of students - no slow group or fast group. The new systems foster learning through discovery, which is the best of all teaching methods for motivating students to learn. Each child becomes responsible for his or her own learning, which is the empowering element that improves self-esteem." (emphasis added) (172) Learning through discovery is what lab time is all about.

A less radical suggestion I have is to allow programmers to fix the bugs the correctors find in their programs, and turn them back in for a bit more credit. This would be an accurate reflection of the kind of follow-up work required of programmers these days. In fact, programming assignments could be much more flexible than the ones Brent and I have encountered. (Brent is a UCSC student I know, who is taking their programming courses.) Much more often programmers are called upon to add a feature to an existing program, instead of beginning one from scratch. Teams could trade programs and then add features, to lean how to read other peoples' programming styles...

The final recommendation I wish to make is for the integration of team building exercises into the curriculum, just like any team-oriented occupation. The many reports I have studied all share a common claim: Teamwork and social interaction are absolutely essential to productivity and success these days. When I was asked to work with partners on my programming projects for the classes at this college, it was assumed that I knew the people around me and had a feel for their individual strengths and weaknesses. I am hardly a social butterfly. There was no time set aside for our class to get to know itself. I also recall, with a measure of regret, that the assignments given were below my knowledge level and I had no trouble completing them even without a team. In the end, there was no need to form one, and a potential lesson was lost on me.

The era of the solitary, Albert-Einstein-like genius is coming to a close, as sheer quantities of information overwhelm the time constraints of the individual, and standards are developed that must be maintained. Our progress in these coming years is dependent upon accurate collaboration and thorough communication. These skills must be taught before students begin real work, not haphazardly during it. I am confident that the few changes I recommend in this document will encourage these vital skills.


Archer, Zach. (UC Davis student) Personal Interview. 8 July 1995.
Bowsher, Jack E. Educating America: Lessons Learned in the Nation's Corporations. New York: John Wiley & Sons Inc., 1989
Hedges, Mark. (UC San Diego student) Personal Interview. 6 July 1995.
Hill, Brad. (MSU student) Email Interview, Wed Jul 5 21:36:38 1995
Thorington, Brent. (UC Santa Cruz student) Phone Interview. 6 July 1995
Unites States. Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills, under the Department of Labor. A SCANS Report for America 2000. Washington DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, June 1991.
garote: (maze)
[personal profile] garote
Time to write down some stuff so I can forget about it.

On the way up to Dad's place in Sacramento, I turned on the radio while parked at a gas station and heard the preacher at the beginning of that Meat Beat song: "I know the ... the EVIL feeling that you feel when you sing it, I know the ... the lost position that you get into with the BEAT ... Well, uh,... If you ask the teenager of today what it is they like the most about rock music, they'll say the beat, the beat."

I went "Whoah, creepy."

Then a narrator broke in and clarified that this preacher had spoken about rock music in protest to Elvis Presley's growing fame, some thirty years ago.

The show cut to Elvis himself, saying "The parent groups down there, they really thought I was ... well, something. (laughter) The police came to film the concert, and when I went up on that stage I couldn't move at all. All I could do was wiggle my little finger a bit like this, (laughter) nothing else was allowed."

I also learned that one of Elvis' singles, I think it was "Are You Lonesome Tonight", sold over a million copies in it's first week of release. Think of the distribution channels back then - that's one HELL of a sale! Good lord!

Let's see, what else to say...

Last week or so I was sitting in the Cabrillo cafeteria failing to do math homework (as always), when a girl I'd seen in my Physics class over a year ago walked in. Short, about 5'4", with angular Irish features, wearing tight blue jeans and a thin white blouse. Through the blouse you could see the areole of her breasts, darting about like eyes. She was walking fast on uncomfortable shoes, in a hurry, and without a bra, so quite a bit of darting was going on.

Now this is all pretty typical, at least up to my reaction - I became angry!

I knew from working with her in Physics class that she had a very steady boyfriend, and they were practically engaged. She certainly didn't need to walk around jiggling to attract anyone, so she must have been doing it for her boyfriend, or perhaps just because it felt nice to go braless with a thin blouse. As she passed by I saw her eyes moving around the room, and her expression grew hard. Clearly I wasn't the only one looking -- and clearly we were all, in her assessment, bad people for doing so.

What made me angry was that I perceived her as being insensitive... Insensitive to the sexual frustration she inspired.

I've heard of this thing called the "male gaze". I think it's a combination of men's tendency to look at women's bodies, women's conflicting responses to it, and attention from men being potentially dangerous. It's very confusing because it's very subjective. It seems to me that women are in some kind of endless battle with each other, trying to dress just well enough to get attention and appear desirable, but only to the men they want, and not so over-the-top that they get ostracized by other women for ruining the competition. There's a similar game for men, less about being sexy and more about threat management. After a while it becomes so natural you forget you're doing it, but nevertheless, whenever you enter a room and see a man you don't know, you always, always, do the threat-assessment dance. Some men are big and they can't help be imposing, and you make allowance for that, but a man wearing a muscle shirt and giving you the Hard Stare in the middle of a PTA meeting clearly wants to be everyone's problem. Same deal, in the other game, with a woman dressing way too slutty at an office party. Context matters, clothing matters, your physical template matters... It's a mess with too many players and it never gets sorted out completely.

Anyway, about this girl in the cafeteria. She must have known how eye-catching she was, but what frustrated me was that it was socially unacceptable for me to gawk. Sexual freak with a mind in the gutter, I'd be, if I were to watch her boobs dance through her shirt, and watching me do it, she'd stare daggers at me. "Quit looking; I'm not wearing this for YOU!"

Now let me contrast this with what happened later that same day.

I went to UCSC, walked up on a hill with a bunch of other people in the middle of the night, took my shirt off, and played the drums and danced for hours. Four or five girls, mostly better endowed than the little Irish flower in the cafeteria, took their shirts and bras entirely off and danced topless to the rhythm. And how did I feel? Happy! Joyous! I could look at them all I wanted, but I didn't really need to or care to, because hey - it DIDN'T MATTER. I was having more fun drumming.

Why did I feel angry in one context and not the other?

Looking deeper, I see it is tied up in my sense of the kind of person the Irish girl is. Not the kind of person who would go to a drum circle and dance topless. In fact, I can compare her to someone I saw at the drum circle... Another young girl, probably a freshman, who wandered up later after the circle had already grown to a crowd. All the topless girls were certainly nice looking, but this girl was obviously even higher on the physical shape chart, and wearing leather ankle boots, black lycra pants, and a midriff-baring buttoned shirt with a collar and cuffs just a little too tight for her chest.

Perhaps she couldn't take anything off for fear of the dry-cleaning bill, but I think closer to the truth was that she was disoriented. She certainly looked confused, almost shocked, by the casual way everyone else was grooving. I imagine she was especially shocked by the topless girls. I fancy she was thinking, "I'll lose face, I'll lose respect, if I shed my shirt and dance. I'm certainly losing respect for these people. I'm not engaging in some wanton debauchery. I am more mature by keeping my clothes on. I have more power than these people when I'm covered. And in the end, why would I want to get naked anyway? Just a bunch of loose hippies with no sense of modesty, all these people, probably high on something, not role models in any way!"

It's almost hilarious how context-sensitive and subjective it all is. Or it would be hilarious, if it wasn't based on the often debilitating surges of hormonal lust, fear, envy, and rage in young people like me and everyone around me at this college. At least it isn't high school any more.

Perhaps the lesson for me right now is, if you think a certain group of people is scary, you no doubt scare them too. If you think people dancing naked are scary, think of how scary you are, hiding forever behind your clothes, nursing superiority. You could be hiding a gun in there.

And in closing I can say thank Bob for the topless girls of UCSC. They make me feel at home.

Then, elsewhere in my life, there is simply looking for the sake of looking. Like sitting here at Brent's computer in the Ocean Echo Motel, I can look outside and see Heather watering the flowers. Always its the white tank-top, and always it's the black bra, when she leans towards me to get the pots wired to the eaves. Two tasty round snacks. Not just one, oh no; nature blesses us with one, and then adds another just like it! It's the best deal in the universe.

What was I thinking about??

(no subject)

Jul. 23rd, 2017 02:29 pm
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[personal profile] johnny9fingers
So my old chum Aaron got married yesterday. I was best man, deputising for an unfortunately crocked Steve Asher, who is stuck Down Under and under doctor's orders not to travel. Aaron's whole family pitched up: the Hollywood crowd, consisting of his Dad, Laifun, Thomas, and Alexandra, who was there with her Bulgarian Fiancé, as well as Kate and Josh, Aaron's other siblings from Ted's first marriage.

Aaron married a distant cousin of mine so I was on both sides of the aisle, so to speak.
no dramas at the church; a sold C of E service of the traditional kind.
The reception was held at Aaron's house. Which is an 1890's large family house. Two staircases, bultler's pantry etc. Marquee on the croquet lawn. The wedding band did the gig, so I was on double duty and didn't get off my feet until 2.30am. Fuck-up over money so Aaron and I had to empty a local cashpoint to pay the band. Bit angry with the boss of the wedding band over that one. Never mind. Apperently Alexandra's upcoming nuptials are big news in Bulgaria. She's a very good-looking lass I suppose, and Ted Kotcheff is quite well known in Bulgaria, having some cultural significance and originally hailing from there. Mr K senior is looking a bit frailer than when I last saw him. Young Thomas is taking care of him adroitly. I like Thomas. Apart from the fact he's an exceptional musician and composer, he's also a nice guy. Mr K senior's second family are as cool as the first. First met Thomas at a UK premier of one of his compositions a few years ago. After the band packed up he played half an hour of flawless and beautiful Debussy in the parlour as antidote to the '60's and '70's soul, disco, and pop music that are the standard fare of the wedding band.

However the real stunner yesterday was Celine, who looked unbelievably beautiful. Good on Aaron, making an honest women out of her even if you had to drag her to the altar kicking and screaming... which you didn't, of course, but it still took you fifteen years and two kids to get around to doing it.

Quick set today

Jul. 22nd, 2017 05:17 pm
ericcoleman: Cheshire Moon (Cheshire Moon)
[personal profile] ericcoleman
Almost all new stuff, either from the new CD or from the Patreon page, including two songs we have not done live.

The Well Stone
In This Place Of Steel And Stars (1st time)
Beast Within
Gargoyles (1st time)
Ghost Train
Boneman's Daughter

Good fences make good possum highways

Jul. 20th, 2017 11:44 pm
garote: (Default)
[personal profile] garote
Over this last winter, the fence around three sides of my house took a huge beating from the wind and rain. First the endless rain rotted the posts, then the wind shoved them over.

The previous owners of this place made some wonderful decisions about the layout, and some nice aesthetic decisions as well, but they must have been distracted when it came to the fence. The posts holding it up were all untreated wood hammered straight down into dirt. No cement footings. Not even gravel. In a relatively short amount of time, bugs ate so many holes in them that they just crumbled away.

Well, I knew a proper fence needed proper posts. I asked one of the local contractors how much it would cost to rebuild all the fences with cement and treated wood. He walked around with a measuring tape, thought for a little bit, and then said:

"About seven thousand dollars."

Holy crap-o-noley!! I talked to another contractor. He quoted me six thousand. That's still insane, but at least it's going in the right direction. I had a recommendation for a pair of handymen, so I called them up. It took them about six weeks to get back to me. They stalked around the fence, debated with each other like a Laurel-And-Hardy act about the best way to rebuild it, complete with waving arms and pacing in circles, and then said they'd get back to me with a quote.

Two months went by, during which my messages went unanswered, so I gave up on them. Perhaps I could do it myself?

I did some "research", in the form of ten YouTube videos and a bunch of web pages. It was technically possible, but a huge amount of labor. Some of the fence I could take apart and rebuild with better posts. Other parts of it, I would need to demolish and replace entirely, because the wood was too far gone. I made a list of tools, tried to research lumber prices, then got distracted by my day job.

When I came back to the task, it was because the rear fence was halfway collapsed into the neighbor's driveway, and the only way I could keep it upright was to rope it securely to a tree. It was time to confess:

Screen Shot 2017-07-17 at 6.21.32 PM

While I pondered my own imbecility, I had some tree-trimmers over to deal with the overgrown foliage in the back yard. They did very good work on an apricot tree that was overhanging the fence, and I complemented them on it, then said, "I don't suppose you know any people who are willing to rebuild a fence like this?"

Turns out, one of them knew a guy. Now I knew a guy who knew a guy. I got his number and called him that moment, while the arborists were still packing up their saws and mulching the leftover trimmings. He spoke fluent Spanish but only fragmented English. "Your cousin the arborist recommended you!" I said. "Can you rebuild a wooden privacy fence, with cement footings?"

He said he could. He came over the next morning and examined the fence while we chatted, then he took a bunch of measurements and said he'd consult about lumber prices and get back to me. Two days later he sent me an estimate: 3800 dollars.

Now, that's still a lot of money. But it's just about HALF of what the official contractor quoted me. I said, "Let's do it," and I cut him a check for 10% of the amount to get started.


Here's what the back yard looks like with no fence. Weirdly exposed!


Here is what a proper post-hole looks like. They dug each one two feet deep and tamped the soil down with large metal bars.


They used thread to line up the postholes precisely. Turns out the old fence wasn't quite straight. They brought in a cement cutter and took a notch out of the neighbor's patio so they could reposition the hole, then repaired the cement after pouring the cement for the posthole beneath it.


Hmmm, delicious concrete! Concrete is amazing stuff. It doesn't get wet and then "dry" like glue. It actually absorbs the water into itself, growing crystals that interlock with each other to make one solid object. This is why you can create concrete posts even underwater.


Now that is a proper post.


The next day, with the posts set, it was time to put the framing up and start rebuilding the fence. Check out all that fencing laying around!


They used treated wood for the framing as well, and cut it onsite. They also cut custom pieces for the corner of the fence, interlocking it with the neighbor's fence on the other side to make one continuous structure. The whole thing was put together with screws, rather than nails, which is the more modern way of doing things.

In the end, I figured it was money well spent. The guy showed up on time, took exactly as long as he said he would, put all the dirt and plants back in their spots, hauled away the old fence, and even re-attached my irrigation pipes to the new fence without damaging them. If he had a "Yelp" page I would have given him 42 stars.

Now all I had to do was apply sealer to the whole thing:


Warning: Applying sealer to a fence takes a very, very long time. My mistake was trying to do it with tools at hand, such as a paint tray and a roller. The smart way is to use a large spray bottle, which you pressurize with a hand pump. I switched to that partway through.


That is a crapload of fence. It was a crapload of brushwork.

But now, I have a fence that will last 20 years, as long as I keep re-applying sealant to it every couple years. Yaaay! Another thing off the maintenance list.... For the time being.
garote: (wasteland priest)
[personal profile] garote
This picture is pretty self-explanatory:


The question is, whatcha gonna do about it?

For a while, I explored the idea of replacing the carpet with laminate flooring. That exploration mostly consisted of trolling around YouTube for helpful videos:

Removing carpet and trim: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hrULX2ofBZs
Installation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OMDdYmReQw8
More installation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=43b2P25CS7E
Undercutting: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8rGt6lxbMYk

The tools required seemed pretty simple. I already had a jigsaw. Just needed a special levered cutting instrument, sold specifically for laminate floor installation. Less than 20 bucks at any hardware store. I began looking at flooring samples:

Here's some dark laminate that sort of matches the upstairs... And here's an even closer match...
Here's the "underlayer" lining I'd need to install below the flooring, like pad under a carpet...
Here's a cheap installation kit...

Wow; I think I can actually do this!

Then I brought some samples home and placed them in the room and realized - they're all very dark, and they don't match the paint in the room, and a dark floor in a below-ground room would kind of look dirty anyway. All the lighter laminate flooring samples looked aggressively woody, so those didn't fit the room either. I wanted a subtle pattern, or no pattern at all.

The more I looked and researched, the more I realized it was also going to be a huge amount of labor to install that flooring myself, mostly cutting and fitting all those edge pieces. Why go through all that labor just to install something I wasn't thrilled about?

So I threw my hands in the air, and said, "bugger it; let's just get exactly the same thing." I cut a big scrap out of the nasty old carpet, and bicycled it over to a local carpet dealer.


In a couple of weeks they arrived with a big work van.


Then they tore up and removed the old carpet in less than five minutes. Look at that filthy stain on the underside! That's a spore factory for sure.


This pad's not much better... It's practically turning into dirt and crumbs right there on the floor...


Ten minutes later and they were laying down some nice new pad.


And on top of that, some nice new carpet, stretched over the tacks with some weird tool that looks like spare parts from a vacuum cleaner factory.


It was seven hundred bucks to do the whole room and the closet, replace the pad, and haul away the old carpet. That's a good chunk of money, for sure. But on the other hand, all the labor I had to put into it can be summed up like this:

1. Open the door and let the workers in.
2. Scrawl my John Hancock on a cheque.


It's proof yet again that I am not above throwing money at a problem, and admitting this:


Party on, dude!

What the house needs, it gets

Jul. 19th, 2017 12:13 am
garote: (bards tale garth pc)
[personal profile] garote
You ever had to replace a garbage disposal? Me neither. Turns out it's trivial: You just unscrew the metal rings from two pipes, pull a plug from a socket, and the whole thing comes out.


There it is! One wrench to remove the connector pipe and set it aside, and you're ready for the new disposal.

Meantime, you can clean out the rest of the pipes. You'll probably find evidence of the last meal that finally killed the disposal off for good.


Mmmm, delicious! I think that's ... avocado skins?? Or maybe someone murdered Shrek.

The one that broke, and the replacement, are both called "In-Sink-Erators". Har har.


Here's some garbage disposal advice, straight from a repair technician I hired earlier this year to fix a dishwasher:

"Always run the water into the disposal when you're running it. You don't have to run it very long to chew everything up; usually just a couple of seconds will do it. There's no need to wait until it's full before you turn it on. If you want to keep the sink smelling good and clean the pipes, turn on the water, turn on the disposal, and squirt some dish soap in there. Let it run for about 10-15 seconds. Suds might come up from the drain on either side of the sink. That's good. Ordinary dish soap is fine but use Pine Sol if you want something tougher."

"A garbage disposal does not shred things, it just breaks them into chunks. I've seen people clog their pipes by putting all kinds of wrong stuff into a garbage disposal. Clothing, coffee filters, plastic or mesh bags, sponges, apricot pits, peanut shells... The general rule is, don't put anything down the garbage disposal that you wouldn't chew up with your own teeth."

"No bones. Would you chew up bones? Well, maybe you would if it was baked chicken and you were my grandma. She could eat a whole chicken down to like, a tiny pile of broken bones. But seriously, the bones people usually throw into a disposal aren't like that. Why make your disposal chop up bones, when you can just drop them in the trash? I dunno; people are weird."

"Don't put ice down a garbage disposal -- it doesn't sharpen the blades, contrary to what people on the internet say. That's like trying to sharpen your kitchen knives by putting them in a rock polisher; how's that gonna sharpen anything?"

THE MORE YOU KNOW (rainbow sound effects here)
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[personal profile] hyperfocused
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Ilium and Olympos

Jul. 16th, 2017 09:03 pm
garote: (maze)
[personal profile] garote
I started these books quite a while ago, right around the time I got into the game Civilization V. It was part of a confluence of historical fiction and pop culture that planted strange ideas in my head, some of which are still simmering away and not ready for me to write about.

But this weekend I spent at least 12 hours applying sealant to a new fence - a very boring bit of manual labor - and I listened to some of Olympos to entertain myself. Afterwards I realized I'd never written any critique of these books at all. Not even as a brain-dump. So, when it got too dark to see the fence, I cracked open the laptop and started dumping. Spoilers ahead, and stuff.

The novel really can be boiled down to one word: Solipsism. The central idea here is that a work of genius in the arts can actually create and/or give access to an alternate universe based on that artistic work. In this case it's taken further because the fictional creations have their own agency -- for example, Cetebus busting in through the walls of an adjacent universe uninvited and unexpected.

The writer is clearly using Hockenberry as a surrogate not just for the audience, but for himself, as an aging, over-educated, but distinguished academic, thrust into a total wish-fulfillment situation where he gets to observe legendary historical events in close detail, describe and analyze them, and eventually interfere with them to suit his tastes, and engage in political intrigue - or just have sex with - the most prominent figures involved.

I wonder how much of that role was Dan Simmons just going, "wow, I'm in Troy, what would I do next? I know! I'd totally seduce Helen Of Troy! Time to arrange some wackadoo series of events to make that plausible..."

The second book - Olympos - was much more difficult reading than the first, for a number of reasons:

1. The critics are right: There aren't very many answers given for important questions, especially in the realm of science. The answers that are given, to explain central parts of the plot and the mechanics of the universe, are often dropped without comment into a single sentence, surrounded by acres of less informative or unrelated narration. If you stop the novel cold and chew on these little tidbits for a while, you can actually unravel a lot of the plot and history. If you don't catch them ... you're screwed.
2. An enormous plot point involving a far-future weapon of war - a post-nuclear submarine - poofs into existence at about the 85% mark. There is zero foreshadowing of it, and it gets only a few pages of context, but it turns out to be central in the motivations and destinies of at least seven of the major characters. It suddenly explains, in retrospect, about half of this entire very very long novel. Also, our friends the Moravecs spend 4/5 of the novel pursuing their own investigations on a trip to Earth, and then as soon as they blunder across this wrecked ship - by accident no less - they instantly abandon their business, without any discussion, and start dealing with the ship. While this happens, we are treated to page after page of dithering from Harman about the past and fate of humanity, straight from the sheep-shearing barn in Dan Simmons' head. What the hell?
3. The critics are right: Most of the action takes place in the last quarter of the novel. It's still fun getting there, but after spending so much time wondering "what the hell is going on?", suddenly everything is going on at once, and you have to just give up asking questions and roll with it.
4. The Moravecs provide great discussion, and by far the most color and humor in the novel, but they are ill-used. Their purpose in both Ilium and Olympos is to swoop in like robotic janitors and clean up whatever mess the humans get themselves into. They are Machina ex Deus acting as Deus ex Machina, whenever the plot gets too thick. After a while it creates the impression that they are crowbarred in from another novel - possibly a superior one - like The Fonz crashing into a Laverne And Shirley episode, jazzing things up, sucking all the attention out of the scene, collecting some applause, and then buggering off. The effect is that you want to follow them out the door and leave these stupid humans to flounder in the mud. I could listen to Mahnmut And Orphu Discuss The Classics for a thousand pages and not get bored. Pity it had to come woven into a turgid drama about some pathetic, clueless, almost entirely humorless teenagers slowly learning that there is more to life than dinner parties and breeding.

Setting aside things that are left totally unexplained, there are still lingering questions of plot. For such a long, long novel it's rather irritating that Simmons couldn't just toss us a single-sentence bone or two at the end. I can only conclude he meant to leave these questions unanswered. Where did Cetebus go? One moment he was there blasting thunderbolts at spaceships, the next moment he was gone. Did the beam at Delphi contain three million Earthlings - or not? Where the hell is Caliban? What happened to all the post-human gods, once Hephaestus took over? And what the hell is up with Odysseus and Circe?

Like I said, the keys to understanding huge parts of this novel are often tiny and scattered indifferently in acres of prose. I gathered what felt like many of them, but perhaps I missed even more, because I still have way too many unanswered questions.

If Caliban can free-fax (teleport anywhere at will) then how exactly was he "trapped" in orbit for so long? Wasn't there a better - and less grisly - way to feed him than moving all the medical pods there? (I can think of five better ways in less than a minute.)

There is one single instance where a character uses the Turin Cloth to actually interact with the Trojan war, not just observe it. Why mention that once, then never again? Why have the feature at all, given how easily one could disrupt the course of the war?

Why would Circe put the submarine into suspension, rather than just lifting it into space and chucking it into the sun? She clearly has the tools to do so. How in the bloody hell did Prospero know that Harman would enter the submarine? For that matter, why did he send him there in the first place? To teach him a lesson about Post-Human stupidity? Why the hell was the Atlantic Breach even there? Why would radiation poisoning slowly destroy all the proteins in Harman's body but miraculously leave his stores of vat-absorbed protein knowledge completely intact, for later transmission? That's just sloppy, Mr. Simmons. You talk up the storage capacity of DNA, then totally disregard the fact that it is incredibly sensitive to radiation.

Why were the Moravecs cruising through space in a pointlessly "steampunk"-derived spaceship, when they had far better technology just sitting around? Why would they turn their whole expedition around just to rescue one dying man in a fit of compassion, but rain fire down all around the Trojans and Greeks in their war with the gods?

Cetebus crawled through a huge doorway to get to Earth -- and since he/it can make those doorways at will, why didn't he consume the Earth thousands of years ago already? Is it because he was trapped on Mars by Prospero? If so, ... how? By big stone statues? How the hell did that work?

Also, why just Prospero and Cetebus? That's awfully arbitrary. Why isn't the universe crawling with other Shakespearean characters? Why isn't Loki running around, or Gandalf, or Sherlock Holmes, or Moses? There is some sense in the idea that Ariel and Prospero are emergent phenomenon, formed from the complexity of the engineered Earth the Post-Humans left behind. And okay, all the Greek gods flying around have a semi-comprehensible origin story, being Post-Humans who got a wild hare up their butts and decided to reform themselves into a pantheon and play in a sandbox. But ... Cetebus? Where the crap did Cetebus come from? Just ripped a hole in creation and came tumbling through? If you're gonna introduce a straight-up evil entity and declare it the villain, only to explain nothing about it, then yank it mysteriously away at the end of the novel without a fight or even an ending monologue like "I'll get you next time, Gadget, next time..." then why introduce it at all? No, seriously, just edit Cetebus right out of the novel. Hundreds of pages saved, and almost nothing lost.

Hey, don't get the wrong impression. Ilium and Olympos are still fine novels. For long stretches they are an absolute delight to read, and the weird veneer of semi-serious science over the fiction works better than you'd expect. Later on I'm sure I'll have more to say about the mental conflagration it was part of last year, but for now I guess the take-home is this: Greek mythology is a lot more interesting and influential than I thought. And: This could make a pretty good series of movies, if you cut out a whole lot of the boring Old-Style Human dithering.

Oh and one final thing: For a long time I had an old paperback sci-fi anthology sitting around my house. It was called "The Crystal Ship". Check out the cover art, and the summary of the first story, and tell me that isn't the direct inspiration for the orbital city in Ilium, including that crazy multi-seated transport platform visible in the corner of the cover!


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