Saturday, December 27, 2008

Number 52

A year ago I committed to publishing a new article on The Nort Spews each week. If I had thought about how many weeks there are in a year, and that it would mean writing 52 essays in that time, I might have chickened out. But here it is, a year later, and we have arrived at number 52.

Looking back, what surprises me most is that I was never at a loss for something to write about. Between books, movies, music, politics, religion, science, grandchildren, sports, and prognostication, there was no shortage of material. In fact, for most of the year I had several articles waiting to post well in advance of my Saturday deadlines. Of course, professional columnists do this all the time, year after year -- some of them with daily deadlines on top of the weekly ones. This experiment has given me new respect for them while at the same time satisfying my curiosity about my ability to get that kind of a job done. (Offers, anyone?)

But it has meant much more to me than that.The blog has given me both opportunity and incentive to more fully explore my own life of the mind. It's one thing to enjoy a piece of music, another to give expression to that enjoyment and share it with others. Life itself is full and rich, but much of the richness flows past all too quickly and is lost like flotsam in the wake of a boat. The blog has been a way to capture some of those things as they go by, to take snapshots and fasten them into an album of memory.

Blog writing is really a new form of communication, part diary, part editorial, part open letter to an intimate friend. In making my efforts public, I find I have a reason to explore my thoughts more fully than I would if I were merely making notes for my own reference, as I would in a journal, or even in a deep discussion with a close friend. Instead of just saying what I remember, I'm forced to check my facts, which is often an interesting exercise in itself. As Yogi Berra said, "You can see a lot just by looking."

And what a full year it was. Looking back over my list of titles I see that I began and ended with exploring the future, both in science fiction and fact. In "The God of the Falls" and "The Simple Truth" I managed to give as complete a statement of personal spiritual belief -- and history -- as I have ever done. It was the year I explored ebooks with the Sony reader I got last Christmas, opening a new torrent of readily available literature. I recorded another visit to the Miami Book Fair, and explained the secret behind my fondness for the Olympic Games. There are memorials to my father-in-law as well as to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and reports on three notable Conscientious Objectors -- one of whom I met, and another who should be legendary.

I revisited the Evolution debate yet again, and explored a new theory about the origin and fate of the universe. I reviewed three 19th century books about America, three versions of The Man Who Would Be King, three books about Los Alamos, and two histories of the early U.S. Navy. I cheered on a Presidential candidate, and shared my vote with my eight-year-old grandson in an election that neither of us will ever forget. And always there was a backdrop of music ... the innovative computer animations of Animusic, the immortal pianist Glenn Gould, the history of local classical radio, and the lost jazz of Paul Desmond.

I'm under no delusions of fame for all this. Google's tracking software tells me I get some hits every day, but many are mere glances, like the passing eyes of browsers in a book store. There are a few faithful readers out there (you know who you are!) to whom I am grateful. Sometimes a comment comes back like the distant plunk of a pebble plumbing the depths of a deep well. But I am my own favorite reader, and the rewards of writing have never been more clear to me than they are now.

So onward into 2009. My challenge for the new year will be to keep it up without the clockwork of calendar deadlines. I may post more or less often than once per week, but life goes on, and so will these observances of it. I feel sure there is much more to come.

- Steve Donachie

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Wrestling With the Rosary

Merry Christmas -- with apologies from a lapsed Catholic ...

When my mother died I inherited two Madonnas -- no, not the singer, which is what you get if you do a search online, but the one named Mary who gave birth to a most famous Son apparently in a rare case of parthenogenesis. These small statues, one of wood, the other ivory (before it was illegal!), were brought back from Europe as gifts for my mom when my father returned from fighting World War II.

My family left the Catholic Church when I was very small, so these figures never acquired religious significance for me. But in keeping them I find they remind me of my mother, and of my connection to both of my parents.

Another mysterious symbol I have always remembered from my childhood was my grandmother's rosary. She most emphatically did not leave the Church, and spent part of her time praying for those of us who had.

Whenever my sister and I visited her apartment one of the things we did was to explore her jewelry box to find the rosary she had stashed away in there. This mystical artifact, its purpose unknown to us, with its silver cross and beads of black cut glass, seemed to point to something beyond, and fascinated us.

In one of those bizarre coincidences that are not really uncommon in life, a rosary arrived in my mail recently, barely two days after I found myself remembering these things. (As always, there is a logical explanation: the local charity, Camillus House, had sent it out with an appeal for donations for the homeless. But that takes nothing away from the delight of the coincidence.)

So, as you must do when such an occasion lands in your lap, I decided to finally discover what the rosary was all about. I already knew by now that it was an aid to repetitious prayer, and that at least part of it involved the Hail Mary -- the one so widely known that it has become the name of a play in football where you just let loose with the long ball and pray for success.

Camillus thoughtfully enclosed a brochure of instructions for how to pray the rosary, so that's where I began. The title was "Praying the Rosary - An Easy Guide." I suppose it is easy enough, since the instructions were all in English (no Latin grammar required) and the steps were as simple as 1,2,3 ... 4,5,6,7,8,9, and 10. Here's where I took my first deep breath.

The rest of the instructions consisted of the text of the seven (seven!) different prayers to be repeated, and then a list of four sets of five (=20) Mysteries to be contemplated while engaged in the repetitions. First talk, then chew gum. Got it.

Setting the Mysteries aside for another day, I launched into the prayers. One of them, the Our Father, I already knew, thanks to several years of primary school in that simpler time when we began each day with a prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag (under God) and didn't even know it was bad for us.

Another one, the aforementioned Hail Mary, I almost knew -- and that was just as well, because I would have to repeat it a whopping 53 times, far more than any of the others, which I suppose is intended to stress the centrality of Mary in all this.

But before I could get on to these two old friends I first had to get past the Apostles' Creed, which I'd never seen or heard before. Right away I was troubled. This begins with the words "I believe," followed by quite a list: God (no problem there), Jesus (of course I believe he existed, it's well documented) (but that he was God's only son? Wasn't he telling us we are all children of God and should act accordingly?) (that he rose from the dead? -- books have been written about this) (and that he's coming back "to judge the living and the dead?" -- the same guy who challenged us to cast the first stone?) ...

But wait, there's more: the Holy Spirit (sounds fine), the Catholic Church (whoa), "the communion of saints" (need to look it up), forgiveness of sins (I certainly hope so), the resurrection of the body (do we really want our bodies back after they're dead? sounds macabre), and life everlasting (okay, but no dead body, please). So you see I had a few questions and issues.

And that was just for openers. At least it is only said one time. Then after a hop (Our Father), skip (3 Hail Mary's), and a jump (the Glory Be or Doxology), it was on to the first of the day's 5 mysteries. These are categorized and assigned to days of the week, but since there are 4 groups and only 7 days the Luminous Mysteries get short-changed and are only said once on Thursdays. The others groups are Joyful, Sorrowful, and Glorious. (Stop snickering back there with your Grumpy and Bashful.)

I confess (not in the Catholic sense) that I have not paid due attention yet to the Mysteries. They are all notable incidents from the Gospels, and certainly worthy of contemplation. But before I got to that page I stumbled across a typo in the "Let Us Pray" section of the Hail Holy Queen. There was a phrase that read "while meditation on these Mysteries," which was clearly intended to say "while meditating on" or "while in meditation on."

Such a small thing, really. The kind of mistake that must have plagued the monks who spent their lives copying books by hand. But it reminded me of finding a similar typo in Stephen Hawking's book, A Brief History of Time. Somewhere in the first few pages, at the end of a dense and difficult paragraph, the sentence that summed up the gist of the paragraph -- what we used to call in English class the "topic sentence" -- stated the exact opposite due to the insertion of a single "not" (or the absence of one, I'm not sure which). Again, a tiny flaw in a wonderful manuscript, but one that might have caused some readers to decide that they would never be able to understand the remainder of the book if this paragraph meant the opposite of what they thought it said.

So here was a similar issue in a prayer, a carefully formulated string of words that was meant to be said properly, yet flawed with the potential of other errors that might be less apparent. What if someone learned to do it wrong?

Another example was the Glory Be to the Father, which was by far my favorite part: "Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen." A strong and clear affirmation of divinity in all its forms, and recognition of the eternal -- what's wrong with that? Nothing. But the brochure seemed to say it was optional ... or it might have meant the next part was optional, again unclear. And what did it say about my affinity for all this if my favorite part was the only one considered optional and able to be omitted altogether?

By this time I had become curious where the tradition came from and how far back it went, because I was pretty sure it was not something that Jesus did or even talked about. I did some research online and learned that early monks from the first few centuries used strings with knots in them to keep track of their prayers, and that a principle practice was to recite the psalms of David. Well, they were into some good poetry and rich imagery then.

At some point beads began to be used in place of knots. In fact, the word "bead" comes from the Latin word "bede" for prayer. So you might say the word preceded the object as it did "In the Beginning."

The modern rosary only goes back to the 12th century when a monk who had been fasting and otherwise distressing his body fell into a coma. While unconscious he had a vision of the Blessed Virgin, who personally gave him the instructions he was to follow. Upon waking up he proceeded to spread the custom far and wide. Evidently visions from a coma were all the proof people needed back then.

If you know my scientific turn of mind you will be able to imagine the kind of sinking feeling that had come over me by now. But that was nothing compared to the further instructions I found on how to pray the rosary properly.

This online source, which I won't hold up for ridicule by name, stressed the importance of correctness in the process. You are supposed to imagine Jesus and his Mother standing before you. On your right hand your Guardian Angel (you do have one, don't you?) collects the roses you produce with each repetition and weaves them into a crown to adorn the heads of the holy duo. Since these are spiritual roses they will never die, but will continue to pile up. (Heaven must be loaded with them by now, though I would have thought Jesus had enough of the thorns while he was here among us.) But wait -- you mustn't forget that on your left hand is the Devil who is just waiting for your attention to wander so that you screw up one of your roses, and who then grabs it and "writes it in his book of death!"

Well, there you have it. That's as far as I got. Heaving a big sigh, and feeling sympathy for any children who are being frightened by this, I finally had to recognize that the same forces that drove my parents into Catholic exile were still at work in me, leading me to question everything, accept nothing on faith alone, and to find my own way in my own spiritual world. God, I feel sure, welcomes my earnest search for the truth no more or less than the earnest prayers, or attempts at prayer, of those who conform to the various rituals of their churches.

At meeting, we Quakers sit in silence and listen for the truth, whenever and however it may appear. That too is a ritual and can be done wrong, yet no one is ever threatened with death, and it is never implied that there is anything inherently better about the right hand than the left. Perhaps I will find myself contemplating a mystery there, whether it is one of the ones on the official list or not. I might even discover that the words of the Doxology or the Hail Mary are still with me, rosary or not.

But then again, maybe I'll just remember my grandma.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Singularity

The last thing we will ever have to invent is almost here ...

According to technology pundits like Ray Kurzweil (whose book, The Age of Spiritual Machines, I reported on a couple of years ago), the human race is about to replace itself with something new. We don't know yet exactly how it will come about, or even what form it will take, but if you follow the progress of scientific breakthroughs for another few decades all the arrows point to something unprecedented -- unless you go back to the evolution of human consciousness itself.

Statistician I. J. Good was the first to write about what he called a potential "intelligence explosion" back in 1965:

Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion,’ and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make.
We're talking about the ultimate evolution of human tools. We started out with sticks and stones and used them to make ever more refined versions from more and more advanced materials. Now we are assembling components measured in nanometers and creating devices that can very nearly think for themselves. Soon the "very nearly" will be eliminated.

Vernor Vinge, who Kurzweil cites as a source, began to popularize this idea in the 1980's with a series of articles, including one called "The Coming Technological Singularity" (published in 1993 and available for free download from Feedbooks). Vinge is one of those people who have successfully straddled multiple worlds by pursuing careers as a mathematician, computer scientist, and science fiction author. (Another choice example is Rudy Rucker.) This article of his combines the forward looking vision of the futurist with the rigorous thought of the scientist.

Vinge applied the name "singularity" to the intelligence explosion, borrowing the astronomical term for a "black hole," in the sense that further prediction becomes impossible because the rules will change. It begins when super-intelligence -- whether mechanical or biological -- becomes capable of designing improved versions of itself.  (It is already impossible to design improved chips without using computers as tools.)

Once this point has been reached it becomes inevitable that they will eventually exceed not only the intelligence of a human, but the intelligence of all humans put together. Beyond that, our own survival may depend on how well we are able to adapt to this new state of affairs and what role, if any, remains for us to play in the new world. Or, for that matter, if "we" will still be who we are.

Waking Up

There is one leap of faith necessary to bridge the gap between mere computational machinery and human awareness. This is the idea that consciousness results purely as a byproduct of a certain level of complexity and a certain degree of organization. In other words, the human brain apparently consists of nothing more than a collection of identical neurons interconnected with one another, a kind of "soft machine" which begins as a blank slate and gets programmed with memories and personality traits as it is exposed to the external stimulus of the outside world. There is no other mystery component that makes us who and what we are.

[Whatever mystical or spiritual connection there may be to a larger intelligence such as God is a question that is not addressed by this view -- in fact, the idea may have to be seriously reexamined once we are confronted with any example of intelligence beyond ourselves, whether or not it is one of our own making.]

At some point quite early in our lives we apparently "wake up," an event that may be as basic as becoming self aware and which may start with something as simple as discovering that we have toes. Perhaps there is another breakthrough in adolescence when we become even more self-aware (often painfully so) and arrive at maturity.

The leap of faith is the assumption that the intelligent machines we are building will similarly reach a point where they "wake up." This phrase is explicitly used by Vinge as he describes not one but several different ways in which super-intelligence might arise. Interestingly, they are not necessarily intentional:
  1. An advanced computer may "wake up," whether or not it was designed to do so, and demonstrate intelligence at or beyond the human level.
  2. An entire network of computers (like the kind run by search engines) may "wake up" as a single entity, again with or without intention on our part.
  3. Computer/human interfaces may become so intimate that humans themselves can be considered enhanced to a higher level of intelligence. This is a sort of symbiotic result.
  4. Bioengineering made possible by the use of computers may result in humans of super-intelligence.
Perhaps the most likely scenario is that in time all of the above may come to pass. Our attraction to technological enhancement will lead us to continue to adopt anything that makes life easier, longer, more healthful, and more enjoyable. It is a road we started on long ago and are not likely to abandon now that it's really getting interesting.

Even those among us who are most critical of technology would be reluctant to give up much of what we have become accustomed to. You might be willing to do without TV, even movies and computers, but what about antibiotics, anesthetics, or modern dentistry? You might be willing to give up having a car, but would you also give up mass transit and go back to exclusively walking or riding a horse? Are you ready to take up farming?

So if they build it, we will likely buy it, and buy into it. And in the long run it will do no good to legislate against progress. If we have any moral qualms about playing Creator in this country, someone in Russia or China or Japan or India will not. Once it becomes possible, it will happen.

"It's Alive!"

Ever since Mary Shelley entertained her house guests with Frankenstein we have been haunted by nightmares of what could happen if our creations get the better of us. The image of the "robot" has become the personification of technology, and remains one of the powerful myths of our age even as it progresses rapidly from fantasy to reality. In fiction robots have been variously treated as benevolent servants and heartless destructive villains. (See my earlier blog about "The Terminator" and "I, Robot.") In real life they will be what we make them -- but only until they begin making themselves. If we want to influence the outcome we had better start making the decisions now.

When will all this happen? Kurzweil says by 2045. Vinge said he would be surprised if it happens later than 2030. So pretty soon we will begin living smarter, longer, healthier lives as "enhanced" humans, whatever that turns out to be. And the co-species we create, whether constructed or bioengineered, may go on to surpass us and to fulfill the dreams we gave them. Like proud parents we may cheer them on as they leave home to explore the stars. Let's hope they drop us a line now and then, just to let us know how they're getting on.

[Other resources: KurzweilAI.net contains another article by Vernor Vinge about what might happen if the singularity does not. Many links for further reading are in the Wikipedia entries for the Singlarity, Vinge, and Kurzweil. And if it all seems too fanciful for you then you need to have your imagination stretched a bit. Try Postsingular, Rudy Rucker's novel about how wacky things might get -- available on Feedbooks .]

Saturday, December 06, 2008

The Year 2889

In which the intrepid Jules Verne hazards a leap into the distant future ...

Those who would predict things to come are in big trouble these days. The present is changing so rapidly that the future has become a moving target.

In the time capsule that I "planted" on the Internet back in 2000 I referred to the predictions of a woman from 1895 whose letter to the future had been unearthed from a real time capsule buried by the people of a Midwestern city that year. The most advanced thing she could imagine was that after a century a flying machine might have been invented. But as we know, that happened only eight years in her future when the Wright Brothers took off in 1903.

The real developments of the past century went so far beyond her understanding that they would have required lengthy explanation. Radio, television, space travel, nuclear energy, DNA, computers, bioengineering, robotics, nanotechnology, the Internet -- all the things that have really changed in our lives were either unimaginable or impossible to believe back then.

Another good example is the idea of going to the moon. Just think how many stories, novels, and movies were made about it when it was a wild fantasy, and they all got one thing wrong: No one ever dared to imagine that the landing would be televised live around the world. On the other hand, the lunar colonies of Clarke and Kubrick's 2001: Space Odyssey are still a fantasy. And people have been predicting flying cars for decades without result. Sometimes we seem to know what's coming, but not when.

Not even the 19th century pioneer of science fiction, Jules Verne -- who successfully predicted heavier-than-air flight, electric powered submarines, and a trip to the moon that actually departed from the east coast of Florida -- could see much beyond the mechanistic science of his own day. He left us a short piece titled "In the Year 2889" (available for free download from Feedbooks) which falls laughably short on so many counts that its chief value is to demonstrate just how wrong it is possible to be.

Let's have a look at some of the bullet points in his vision of the world 1,000 years in his future:

  • Cities will have 10 million people. OK, that's about right ... for now.
  • Streets will be 300 feet wide. Let's see, that's about 30 lanes, 15 each way -- or less if you include a median strip and shoulders -- so parts of the Interstate are almost there now. He doesn't tell us if the traffic will still be bumper to bumper. Or why anyone would still use a street when they could fly instead. Maybe flying cars didn't work out after all.
  • People will travel through pneumatic tubes (like the ones that carried interoffice messages back then) at speeds of 1,000 mph. Well, our fastest trains are about a third of the way there already. But just try getting through the airport.
  • The telephone will be augmented by the "telephote," making it possible to see images from a remote location. Will there still be commercials? Actually his description sounds more like a cross between a fax machine and a webcam than a TV. He accurately describes teleconferencing, but 900 years too late.
  • The US capital will move from Washington DC to Centropolis. Maybe because the waters rose from global warming, which he did not predict? Actually, he proposes melting the polar ice to create more living space. Bad idea! Wish he'd called it "Metropolis" instead, but he didn't predict Superman either.
  • There will be 100 stars on the American flag. Hmm ... the folks in South America and Canada might have something to say about that, assuming there is still a United States in 2889. Or an America. Actually he predicts we will annex the British Isles. Come to think of it, so did George Orwell in 1984. Maybe we already have.
  • The most powerful man in the world is the owner of a newspaper -- Yes! they will still have newspapers! -- although the news is now distributed through "telephonic journalism." You call them up and they speak the news to you. Don't have time? Set up your home phonograph to record it for you, then listen later. Tivo anyone?
  • The average life span will have increased from 37 to 52 years. This would be funny if it weren't so sad. I hope the health care system has not declined so much in a thousand years, though we are certainly headed in that direction.

I could go on, but you get the picture. Even Verne's wildest dreams were obsolete by 1989, let alone 2889. Let's not be too critical, though. Think you could do any better? How about the world of 3008? Oh, what the heck, let's give it a try ...

  • There is no travel in 3008. People prefer telepresence, which allows them to be anywhere in the Inhabited Worlds instantly. Most people no longer know or care where they are physically.
  • The idea of space travel has changed. Now it means sending tiny probes to good looking planets, which can take hundreds or thousands of years to arrive. Once there, the probes begin to replicate themselves from local materials and to diversify in function, just as the cells of a developing embryo assume the roles of bone and muscles. They mature into a fully functioning infrastructure to support civilization. Finally they are activated and people can live there telepresently.
  • Long range planning is now common, due to human longevity reaching into centuries and space colonization spanning millennia. There is a 100,000 year timetable for spreading human civilization throughout this half of the galaxy. After that we'll see.
  • The definition of "person" has changed a lot. It includes intelligent animals, sentient artificial intelligences (SAIS), and deceased humans whose minds continue to function in simulacrum (SIMS). All have equal rights under the law, though everyone knows the SAIS are calling all the shots since they are way smarter than anyone else.
  • The population of people living as SIMS exceeds the rest of the population, though in most cases it is hard to tell the difference.
Fun, isn't it? But even though I'm giving it my best shot, I feel sure that Jules Verne did too. Accordingly all these wildest dreams of mine may be hopelessly outdated by 2108, let alone 3008. Just wait and see.

[Thanks to Paleo-Future for the Victorian flying car pic. You should see the other stuff they have. And refer to this recent post about how The Long Now Foundation is trying to plan 10,000 years into the future.]

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Back to the Future

New variations on traveling through time ...

Nothing is more fun than time travel in the arena of science fiction. Ever since H.G. Wells came up with the original Time Machine in his 1895 novel, hordes of others have continued to explore the possibilities and paradoxes of moving at will through the medium we are normally stuck in.

A recent effort is Joe Haldeman's The Accidental Time Machine. In this one, an MIT lab assistant discovers that his latest gadget, a "calibrator" that serves as the novel's McGuffen or plot instigator, has the unintended characteristic that pressing its reset button sends it into the future. He quickly discovers a further flaw -- not only does it move only forwards in time, but it does so by a factor of twelve times farther each time.

It doesn't take long for him to figure a way to go along for the ride, and the adventure begins. Each jump takes him to a future world stranger than the one before, and complications soon have him hoping to find someone still farther ahead who might be able to send him back home.

An old favorite of mine is The Fall of Chronopolis (1974) by Barrington Bayley, unfortunately now out of print. It involves a war fought between two empires millennia apart, and their attempts to undo one another by altering each other's past. The final cataclysm turns the universe inside out and starts it over again, like a computer that crashes and reboots.

The book includes an interesting variant on the old paradox about what happens if you go back in time and meet yourself there. The character aptly named "Narcis" goes into the future and kidnaps himself back to the past so his twin selves can live in wedded bliss. The only problem is that they will eventually arrive at the night when a stranger from the past comes to kidnap one of them, leaving the other alone again.

Just for laughs, there's a short story called "A Niche In Time" that I remember from the 1950's or 60's, by an author I can't recall. It involves a man named Harry Styne who uses a time machine to avoid prosecution for murder by jumping ahead of the statute of limitations. Confronted with this dilemma the judge finds for the defendant, stating, "in this case, a niche in time saves Styne." [Groan, groan.]

But seriously, folks ... Perhaps the best thought-out successor to Wells' original is The Time Ships, Stephen Baxter's sequel that picks up where Wells left off with the return of the Time Traveler from the world of 800,000 years in the future. He plans to go back to where he left little Weena of the Eloi falling victim to the vicious Morlocks, only this time he will be prepared to rescue her and to bring proper (Victorian) civilization back to humankind.

The plan immediately unravels, however, when he finds that the future he saw on his first voyage is no longer there -- somehow by traveling forward and back he has altered things completely. And this of course means that the past has changed as well, and that he will never have a home to return to.

This book, which was sanctioned by Wells' literary estate, does a great job, especially at the beginning, of resuming the old narrative voice of the original. Along the way Baxter investigates several alternate histories located in the past as well as the future, and ends in the "multiverse" where the infinite strands of possibility all collide. Bringing his hero back from that is quite a trick. But remember, in sci-fi all things are possible -- regardless of how probable.

One more short piece on the subject is Cory Doctorow's "A Place So Foreign," which leads off with the information that the father of the boy hero is "the ambassador to 1975" (from the year 1898). But we soon see that it is not the 1975 we know, but a radically more futuristic one resembling that of the Jetsons. Eventually we learn that the problem is that time travel is causing the future to "leak backwards" as technologies migrate into the past along with those who travel back and forth.

Perhaps our fascination with this subject is because we are all time travelers, even though like the hero of The Accidental Time Machine we can move in one direction only. The older we grow, the further back our memories extend, and the less familiar the world around us comes to seem. Eventually we must all end up displaced, born into one century but living and dying in another, like ambassadors from the past, strangers in a strange land, with no way to get back home.

[Does futurism have a future? See this article from New Scientist on the future of science fiction itself.]

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Marketplace of Ideas - Part II

Continuing my saga of this year's Miami Book Fair ... If you missed it, you might want to start with Part I.



... Beginning with Peter Matthiessen, who has finally (after seven long years) reduced the epic trilogy that started with Killing Mister Watson into a single volume called Shadow Country. It seems to me that this project all by itself could qualify him for a Nobel Prize, or at least a lifetime achievement award from somebody. Actually he's up for the National Book Award, and he would have my vote if I had one.

His long-time interest in this subject began when he was a teenager on a fishing trip with his father in Florida bay. Their boat passed the ruin of an old house on the shore, and their guide told them "that's the old Watson place," and gave them a short version of the tale: how the evil Watson had been shot dead by a unanimous collection of his neighbors, a weird case of vigilante justice. The story hooked young Matthiessen like a fish.

He's 81 now, and eventually ended up spending a big chunk of his writing life pursuing the truth behind the legend and turning it into an exhaustive and definitive work. The new version should not be considered an abridgment, according to the author. Rather, the book has finally reached its intended form.

The original 1500 page version "frightened the publisher," who convinced him it could only be printed in three separate volumes, reduced to a mere 1300 pages. However, according to Matthiessen, the middle volume never worked as a novel in its own right even though it contained much of the best material. So he kept on going, and has finally honed it down to 900 pages crammed into a single narrative, as he originally intended.

In response to a question from the audience, he revealed that he reworked many of the characters in the process, eliminating or toning down some while bringing others to the fore. One example was the solitary black citizen whose bullet was "the first one to strike Watson, and the only one needed." In the earlier version he appeared but had no voice in the narrative; in the new version he has much to say.

So, OK, Mattheissen has done his part and it's up to the rest of us to meet him half way. I finally have to read the durn thing. Looking forward to it immensely.

Briefly -- because I could go on at great length about both of these -- the second session concerned (1) Marshall Goldman's Petrostate: Putin, Power, and the New Russia, which describes the strangle hold that Russia has on Western Europe though its gas pipelines, and (2) Andrei Cherny's The Candy Bombers: The Untold Story of the Berlin Airlift and America's Finest Hour. (Yes, two more examples of subtitles. They're everywhere.)

This second one forced me to revise my ideas about the occupation of Germany after WWII. We like to think we were welcomed as liberators and immediately used the Marshall Plan to rebuild the country in our own image. The reality was much more in line with our current experience in Iraq.

[Begin digression:]
The victorious allies started out with the idea of destroying Germany and its industrial capabilities far more thoroughly than had been done at the end of the First World War. The population was fed a starvation diet during three years of occupation, and opinion polls showed the vast majority of Germans would prefer living under Communism if it would guarantee them full stomachs.
But then the closing of the East German border by the Soviets and the isolation of West Berlin led to the Berlin Airlift, a conveyor belt of airplanes, one every 90 seconds, that kept the city's supply line open for nearly a year. In the midst of this, a simple act of human kindness, when an American pilot decided to drop some candy to the kids down below, became an international symbol of resistance and good will, and resulted in a reversal of public opinion in the rest of Germany.
More importantly, during those eleven months Harry Truman got re-elected and created the Marshall Plan to do for the rest of Europe what the airlift had done for Berlin -- foreign aid on a scale never seen before or since, and surely one of the best investments America ever made.
A slogan of peace activists is "Wage Peace" -- the idea that if we put the same resources into conflict resolution that we put into warfare, there is no telling how far we can go toward making a more peaceful and prosperous world. And if there is any doubt about whether it would work, just consider this question: Which was more responsible for building the resurgent continent of Europe as we know it today -- destroying its cities with bombs, or bombing its children with candy?
[End of digression.] Well, I warned you I could go off on either of those topics, so that was it.

Before heading to my last event I hit the streets again. This time I turned up some bargain jazz CD's at the WDNA booth -- two for five bucks, with a free bumper sticker thrown in. I can now proclaim "I [heart] Serious Jazz" on the back of my van. Along the way I also had a nice chat with a man giving away pamphlets that proclaimed "Islam - Religion of Peace." Amen to that. (You can read about it at www.alislam.org.)

Words in Pictures

Normally, graphic novels (meaning the ones that are mostly pictures, not the ones full of explicit sex and violence) give me the willies. They are too similar to those wordless pictorial newspapers in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, which were all people had to "read" after they had burned all their books. Nevertheless, I attended a session featuring four artists and their books, and came away very glad that I did.

First off, our friend Youme Landowne presented Pitch Black, a project she did in collaboration with Anthony Horton, a man who she met on a subway platform in New York and ended up following into the subterranean depths of the city to visit the tunnels where he had lived for some years. This slender volume belies the power of the story it tells, fittingly in stark black and white. I love the opening epithet: "Just 'cause you can't see don't mean ain't nothing there."

Ms. Landowne's Selavi, a children's book about a group of Haitian orphans who started their own radio station (true story!), received a lot of attention and four awards, including the Jane Addams Peace Award. It appears Pitch Black will extend her reach to an adult audience.

Swiss artist Alex Baladi showed several of his books of comic-style art, including Frankenstein -- not a retelling of the story, but set in his home town of Geneva which, he reminded us, was the original setting of Mary Shelley's novel.

Then Ralph Penal Pierre, from Haiti, impressed us with a comprehensive rapid-fire slide show of his highly professional illustrations. He's a working artist, making his way in one of the most difficult economies in the world by cranking out slick commercial work as well as his own creative projects. On the drawing board now: a highly realistic (in style) book-length "monologue on peace." Amen to that again.

Finally, syndicated cartoonist Stephanie McMillan, who publishes her daily strip "Minimum Security" online, introduced us to her first graphic novel titled As the World Burns, in which a half-blind bunny who escaped from a mascara testing lab joins the good fight to save the world from an army of alien robots. Stephanie herself is a bright-eyed young woman who talks cheerfully about reading a Communist newspaper and wittily about nearly everything. I haven't enjoyed having the comics read to me so much in ages.

Concluding on this upbeat note, that there is humor even in the end of the world, I departed with my autographed copy of Pitch Black resolved to come back again next year -- assuming we all survive that long -- and to have read a lot more books.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Marketplace of Ideas - Part I

The Miami Book Fair turns 25 ...

The world economy may be tanking, the value of your home and retirement funds may be shrinking before your eyes, but if the Miami Book Fair is any indication then the marketplace of ideas is still alive and thriving.

I doubt that even its most ardent supporters back at the beginning expected it to be the runaway success it has been, but our good old Fair has become the premier event of its type, and it just keeps on coming. Even with the five-dollar admission fee now being charged, the streets are packed, readings are filled to near capacity, and appearances by people like Art Spiegelman have to be managed by distributing tickets. Tickets! To hear a writer! Is this great or what?

Once again C-SPAN (their broadcast van still labeled "Campaign 2008") parked in the street to pump select venues to a national and international audience by television and the Internet. (The oddest of bedfellows: "Book TV.") All of this serves up as rich and varied an assortment of thoughts, fantasies, memories, histories, essays, and poetry as you might care to imagine.

My visit this year was somewhat more abbreviated than the marathon session I described a couple of years ago, but it was still packed with stimulating material.


The first session I attended was the troika of Florida International University professors and alumns: John Dufresne (please pronounce it "Dufrayne"), James Hall, and Dennis Lehane (rhymes with Dufresne -- and you'll understand why I emphasize it if you were there).

Dufresne's latest novel is Requiem, Mass., a title so fortuitous it's amazing no one has used it before. It makes me think of an exercise that John is fond of giving to his creative writing classes: First you come up with the name of a town (mine was Sheetrock, Fla. -- you can use it if you want to), then describe walking through it, then walk into one of the buildings, then meet someone ... perhaps they speak to you, or you to them ... and before you know it you are waist deep in a new piece of fiction.

In this case however Requiem is a fictional Worcester, so the town preceeded the name, and the main character is a sort of fictional Dufresne who "like me comes to Florida and works in my office but is not me." Obviously some of the material owes a lot to John's life, though the division between fiction and memoir has never been more murky. Perhaps if the oft-stated equality between the two is correct then we should give up trying to tell the difference. (Didn't Jack Kerouac do that many years ago?)

The first passage John read was a delightful though hair-raising confrontation between the boy Johnny and his authority figures in Catholic school, attending which "is a scab you pick for the rest of your life." I will only say that amorous priests are not the only things to beware of -- watch out for those vicious nuns!

The other selection about the fate of his first-crush babysitter was classic Dufresne, gentle, cruel, dispassionate, and heartbreaking all at once. Kind of like life.

James Hall -- who, along with host Les Standiford, was responsible for bringing Dufresne among us and establishing the excellent writing program at FIU -- is well known for his dramatically plotted mysteries. Today he shared a new twist on murder, that of a young woman killing an older one, which is a combo he's never dealt with -- although he freely confessed to killing many of his characters over the years, and in bizarre ways, too.

He is, in fact, a veritable poet of the genre, and this example from Hell's Bay is no exception. Both murderer and victim are carefully drawn, and the moment of truth approaches both breathlessly and meticulously. The setting itself adds the perfect ironic touch -- the idyllic Peace River in Central Florida.

Dennis Lehane, the FIU grad who has been following along in the successful wakes of his mentors, has just produced his most prodigious novel. At 700+ pages, The Given Day takes place in 1918, but before you start yawning let me hasten to add that it includes some of the snappiest writing about baseball I've ever heard. Babe Ruth lives!

In the second session I caught Scott Simon, one of NPR's most mellifluous voices, reading from Windy City: a Novel of Politics. This is about the best time I can think of to come out with a political piece set in Chicago -- and it's funny, too. Simon says his aim was to do something "about 80% humor and 20% serious." Sounds like a wild ride. And Simon showed off his acting abilities as he impersonated his character, Mayor Sonny Rupini, with great gusto.

Simon was also the first, but not the last, to elicit applause by referring to the recent election results. People are still gushing, and ever on the lookout for ways to show enthusiasm for our new President-Elect.

Also sharing the podium was Russell Banks, who has produced a meditative monologue on the American character called The Reserve. This began when he was interviewed for a French film the aim of which was to show the contrast between America as seen by its writers and America as perceived by the French through American cinema. How convoluted is that? Keep in mind it's a film about that, to be shown to the French.

Over eleven hours of interview was condensed to less than an hour in the film, so Banks took the entire transcript and edited a more complete version into book form. It appears to be full of insight, and of course beautifully written.

My apologies to Alan Cheuse -- who appears to have struck a similar chord in To Catch the Lightning: A Novel of American Dreaming -- for having to duck out during his reading. You can't be everywhere at once. But let me just ask publishers ... is it the latest thing that novels have to have subtitles so you will know that they're novels and what they're about? I thought that's what cover blurbs were for.

Anyway, I had just enough time left to consume my once-per-year arepa (a kind of grilled-cheese sandwich made with discs of sweet cornbread, yum) from the Arepa Queen in the food court, and to pick up a couple of bargains at the book stalls. Penguin was giving away free books containing sample chapters from eight of their current best-sellers, the first time I've seen that. "Collect the whole set," said the booth jockey with a grin. The Nation had free sample issues to hand out, including the one from election week. And I purchased one hardback from Florida University Press, a history of Florida railroads.

The book was $21, marked down from the retail of 27.50, so I saved more than enough to pay for my arepa. I don't know how business was overall, but it appeared brisk, at least to judge by the amount of browsing going on. However, I did see a sign at Pineapple Press, a publisher of books about Florida, that said ALL BOOKS 25% 50% OFF -- something you don't usually see until the final day of the fair.

And that brings us to ...

[Part II will be posted on Sunday.]

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Format Wars

We're having the Miami Book Fair this weekend (report next time), so here's something that affects the future of books, and why you should care how your documents are stored ...

A struggle for world domination has been going on in recent years that will affect your ability to read and write digital documents, whether they are your own or the property of others. 

The most prominent example is the battle between Microsoft's ubiquitous Office formats (consider the chutzpah it takes to trademark the word "office") and the alternative Open Document standard as proposed by a consortium of other companies, individuals, and organizations, and certified by the ISO. There is an old gag among computer hackers that says, "a standard is a good thing, so it's a good thing there are so many of them." The joke of course is that with enough different standards there is no standard at all.

That particular struggle is still unresolved at this point. Microsoft has managed to have their own proposal for an "open" format adopted as a second standard by the ISO, but neglected to fully support it even in their own software, leaving us with a "standard" that no one can use except theoretically. (Joseph Heller must be rolling over in his grave at this example of a Catch 22.)

Meanwhile the opposition -- represented by OpenOffice.org, Sun's StarOffice, and IBM's Lotus Symphony (all free and compatible) -- forges ahead by supporting both Open Documents and the proprietary Microsoft Office formats that people actually use, thus building a bridge across the troubled waters for anyone who wants to take it. In case you can't tell, I count myself in that category.

A footnote to this is that OpenOffice.org and its brethren also support saving documents as Adobe Acrobat PDF (Portable Document Format). If you wonder why Microsoft until recently required third party software to support this widely used feature, you only have to look as far as Microsoft's own answer to PDF -- the XML Paper Specification, or XPS, which they would prefer people to use instead of Acrobat, which is owned by a competitor. However at the moment XPS requires Microsoft Internet Explorer and Microsoft Windows, which kind of defeats the goal of making an electronic document universally readable.

By now you can see where this is going. Governments and big corporations are not the only ones who should be concerned about how their digital documents are archived. The issue of whether and for how long those documents will be readable is something we all have an interest in, whether as small businesses, students, writers, citizens, or anyone who has anything to save on a computer -- which pretty soon will include every last one of us. If your data format dies because your chosen software is driven out of existence by market forces, it is definitely a problem.

We know the nightmare can happen, because it has happened already. Long ago many law offices standardized on WordPerfect because at the time it was the only product that gave them the features they needed for legal documents. But now WordPerfect is struggling to survive in the face of the Microsoft juggernaut on one side and free competitors on the other. If and when it dies, an unknown number of critical legal documents may become unreadable, or garbled by imperfect (no pun intended) conversion programs.

As a writer I have had to migrate my work from the old DOS-based PC-Write to Lotus Ami-Pro, then through two semi-compatible versions of WordPro, and finally two versions of OpenOffice. (The first one was before the new standard.) And this is within a period of 25 years -- an average of just five years per format.

Even those who have exclusively used Microsoft's Word (there's that chutzpah again) will find that they can no longer read their oldest documents unless they have converted them as they went along and new versions came out. Coming up with new formats has proved to be an excellent marketing tool, since it forces all users to buy new software so they can read documents created by others who have bought it already. But clearly what works for the vendor does not work for the consumer.

And Now eBooks

Meanwhile a new front has opened in the arena of electronic publishing. Due to the understandable desire of publishers and authors to protect their work from piracy, an assortment of new standards for Digital Rights Management (or DRM) have sprung up, along with a separate assortment of file formats that work with one or another version of DRM. Unfortunately the result is that hacker joke all over again. (Here's a comparison between the various formats so you can see how bewildering the assortment is.)

Just as with music, when you acquire an ebook you have to choose one of the available formats, and this choice will determine what computers and other devices you will be able to read it with. After that there are many ways to lose access to what you thought you owned. Your format of choice may become obsolete so that it is no longer supported by newer devices. Your computer may die or be stolen, forcing you to plead for a replacement license for a new machine. Or the format that you like on your computer may not work with your phone or PDA or the new reader from Amazon or [insert vendor of your choice].

About the best you can do is to avail yourself of DRM-free documents in a form that is as widely supported as possible. There are many sources for works that are either in the public domain or which have been made available by their authors as freely distributable while remaining under copyright.

In the latter case you are free to read and share them, but not to sell them without arrangement with the author. Cory Doctorow and Bruce Sterling are notable examples of writers who have chosen to "give away" at least some of their work in this way, while continuing to sell traditional books in print form. It is arguably a way to insure wide readership which may in the long run enhance sales.

Free At Last

Alas, even with freely distributable texts there are problems. Since I acquired my Sony Reader last Christmas I've become all too familiar with them.

Project Gutenberg, the first attempt at creating a free library of public domain books, made an early choice to use "plain text" as their format in order to make their books as widely accessible as possible. (Now they are also using HTML and PDF for some books, and even audio -- a whole other can of worms.) While this avoids the pitfalls of those word processors of yore that are no longer with us, it leaves their online books as "plain vanilla" with no ability to use bold or italics or different fonts, and no diagrams or illustrations.

Worse still, their texts have embedded line breaks that make them difficult to adjust for different display sizes. Removing those line breaks can be difficult or impossible depending on what software you use and what your level of expertise is -- and yes, it is maddening that something so simple should be so hard.

In practice this means that when I read a Gutenberg document on my
Sony with its 5x7 page, there
is no combination of font size or orientation that matches where the line
breaks are. It doesn't mean I can't
read it anyway, but it's esthetically unpleasant. (Like this paragraph.)

PDF files can suffer similar problems, because they were not originally meant to have text that would reflow if the page size was changed.

One example of a new solution is the Epub format, created by the International Digital Publishing Forum and supported by Sony and an assortment of other vendors and online distributors like Feedbooks. It is able to handle fonts, page reflow, and even graphics, which makes epub documents a pleasure to read. However, at this point it is yet another new standard -- and the same old joke applies. Come to think of it, they work fine on my Sony Reader, but I didn't have any software that would recognize them on my PC until I downloaded and installed Adobe's Digital Editions.

Hey, wait a minute -- can you still read this? If so, it's because of the universal use of HTML (hypertext markup language) for text on web pages, which is a perfect demonstration of what a true standard can offer us. Let's hope we can someday agree on another one for books and plain old documents.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

The Conscientious Objector

On Veterans Day, let's remember that they also serve who do not fight ...

The most courageous man in the history of warfare may be someone you never heard of. I certainly had never heard of him until I discovered the excellent documentary film called simply The Conscientious Objector.

That's right, Desmond T. Doss was a Conscientious Objector during World War II, and the acts of bravery he performed in his service as a combat medic made him the only C.O. ever to be awarded the Medal of Honor.

To really get this story you should visit the website desmonddoss.com, or better yet, see the film, which is available through Netflix. Director Terry Benedict has done a magnificent job of telling the story with quiet emotional power, easily rivaling the best work of Ken Burns. He filmed extensive interviews with Doss just a few years before his death in 2006. He also filmed other friends and survivors who had served with him, and even got a few of them to accompany Doss on a visit to Okinawa, back to the very ground they had struggled to take from the Japanese near the end of the war.

The short version of this tale is that Doss was a Seventh Day Adventist with an aversion to violence that dated back to his childhood, when a dispute between his father and uncle put him in mind of Cain killing Abel -- a story he had never been able to comprehend. "How could a brother do such a thing?" he wondered. From the day he had to hide his father's pistol he swore he would never again touch a weapon. And he never did.

When WWII came along he was offered a deferment on religious grounds, but declined. Instead he volunteered to serve as what he called "a conscientious co-operator." He thought he could be a medic and help to save lives instead of taking them. But though the army accepted him they did not accept his conditions. His commanders expected him to take weapons training and to carry a sidearm once he was in the field, medic or not. Time and again he refused even to touch a gun it if was handed to him.

Almost more problematic was his effort to honor his chosen Sabbath every Saturday, when according to his precepts he was not supposed to work. Sometimes he was allowed and sometimes he wasn't. Always he had to pay, in having to do all the worst jobs on Sundays, and in the derision of his fellow soldiers. Once he was threatened with a court martial, but by then he had an established precedent in his record, a tacit agreement that his beliefs were to be honored, and that he would not have to carry arms.

Everything changed when Doss's unit finally went into action in the South Pacific. He quickly came to be known as the man who would never leave a wounded soldier untended, regardless of the risk to his own safety. This behavior culminated at "Hacksaw Ridge," the highest ground on the island of Okinawa, where horrific fighting went on for day after day.

When an all-out assault left only about one third of his unit able to retreat under their own power, Doss stayed behind with the dead and wounded atop the plateau. One by one he found the survivors, dressed their wounds as best he could, and dragged them single-handed for as much as a hundred yards or more to the edge of the cliff, where he finally lowered them by rope to those waiting down below. He continued this for twelve hours, under constant fire from the enemy. Praying the whole time, he said that he kept repeating, "Just let me get one more, Lord," and when he had done that, "Just one more ..." In the end he had personally rescued 75 of them.

But he wasn't done yet. In subsequent action he was severely wounded himself -- and even then it was in the act of throwing aside a grenade before it exploded, saving more lives. After spending five hours waiting for stretcher bearers to carry him off the field, he gave up his stretcher to a more seriously wounded man. Then he was hit again. This time he made a splint for his own shattered left arm from a rifle butt and crawled to safety, finally saving himself.

I'm getting choked up again just remembering all this. Some of the other guys in his unit, the same ones who had been saved by Doss after earlier ridiculing him, were feeling the same way. A Bronze or Silver Star was not enough for this man. They submitted his name for the Medal of Honor.

Harry Truman, who awarded the medal in a newsreel of the time, is supposed to have said this was a greater honor to him than becoming President. Doss was headline news, a genuine and unprecedented kind of hero. There was even a comic book version of his story, which became the inspiration for director Benedict's making of the film many years later.

Alas, honoring the hero is one thing, and caring for him is another. Doss was 100% disabled as the result of his service. Besides his damaged arm, and legs filled with shrapnel, he lost a lung to tuberculosis contracted in Okinawa. Then the army doctors made things worse by giving him an overdose of antibiotics that left him completely deaf. At the time of the documentary, in 2002, he could only hear somewhat with the aid of a cochlear implant.

For years he declined offers from Hollywood to make movies about him. He preferred to live out his days in peace and quiet on his small farm in the backwoods. Over time he was all but forgotten. But it's not too late to remember him now.

Desmond T. Doss. A man who simply lived his simple faith, and made it count.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Make Us Proud, Mr. President!

The change has been going on ever since the nation was founded. The struggle has been between the idealistic principle expressed in the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal" and the compromise that was written into the Constitution which gave representation to states based on all of their free citizens and three-fifths of their slaves.

Like an infectious virus the ideal has worked its way into reality, through the mortal fever of the Civil War, the symbolic victories of people like Jackie Robinson, and the adolescent growing pains of the civil rights movement in the 1960's. It found its most eloquent voice in the person of Martin Luther King, and its greatest tragedy in his loss.

But last night Barack Obama extended King's promise, "that we as a people will get there," beyond the boundaries of race to include all of us, both in this country and the rest of the world.

I'm old enough to remember the years before the civil rights movement began to change the culture of America. When my family arrived in Miami in the 1950's racial segregation was still deeply entrenched, even more so than it was in the New York we had left behind. My parents were embarrassed about the "Colored" signs that everywhere denoted the second class restrooms, waiting rooms, seating areas, and water fountains reserved for those who were second class citizens.

I particularly remember the water fountains. A common arrangement was to have a small, non-chilled fountain attached to the wall next to the refrigerated ones for whites. Sometimes there were cup dispensers labeled "cups for colored." Once in my ignorance I tried to use one, and a passing man told my father that I shouldn't. My father didn't believe in the system, but he was practical, and so told me that I should save the cups for the people who had no choice but to use them. He was right. The next time I passed the same fountain I saw that the dispenser beneath the "cups for colored" sign was empty, as perfect a symbol as I can imagine for the vacant promise of "separate but equal."

I was 16 years old when King delivered his "I have a dream" speech in August of 1963. Home from school for summer vacation, I watched the whole pageant unfold in fuzzy gray images on a small black and white TV. The size of the crowd and the mix of ethnicities in it formed a backdrop as powerful as that of the Lincoln Memorial. I knew I was witnessing history, live as it happened -- a feeling I have seldom had since. There was the moon landing in 1969, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and last night an acceptance speech in Chicago.

We changed the Constitution in the 1960's so that it was no longer at odds with the noble sentiment in the Declaration. But reality has been slower to come around. It took two years from King's speech before my high school was finally integrated during my senior year. Then the civil rights issue was swamped in the upheaval of the Vietnam War and the larger cultural and generational struggle that is still going on today.

But we've reached another turning point, another day when we can say that things will be different from now on. I've never felt more proud of my country and its citizens. The best thing of all, as revealed in the demographic studies of the electorate, is that we have all done this together, across all the traditional lines that have ever divided us.

"We shall overcome" is not the only part of the old song that has come to pass. It is also true, as it says in the second verse, that "we'll walk hand in hand someday."

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Election Special

We interrupt regularly scheduled material to bring you this special report from the front lines of early voting in a pivitol swing state ... "Florida, Florida, Florida ..."

Yesterday (Saturday 11/01) my wife and I finally voted early, helping to clear the decks for what we hope will be an unprecedented turnout on election day. It meant standing in line for over three hours, keeping company with thousands of other dedicated citizens who similarly felt that yes, it was that important. But what made it all worth while for me was seeing it through the eyes of our eight-year-old grandson, Vincent.

This is the first election he's been aware of in his short life, so he is not jaded as we are by decades of cynicism and dashed hopes -- not to mention stolen elections in the recent past. So his optimism knows no bounds. About the nearest thing to doubt that I've heard him express was the poignant question, "Do you think we'll win?"

Far be it for me to pour water on his enthusiasm. I told him I thought we would, but that it probably would be close and we would have to work very hard to make it happen.

I can tell you that if Mr. Obama does not win, it will not be through any lack of effort on Vincent's part. He made signs, participated in honk-and-wave events, and walked into a local campaign office and insisted that they give him something to do. (He sorted snacks to be given out to volunteers, and remade a poster for them on his home computer.) When the yard sign in front of his house was stolen, he made sure it was replaced with a new one.

We thought it only fitting to invite him to come along with us to vote. Accompanied by his even younger sister, he showed himself equal to the test of the long wait. Both kids found ways to occupy their time, and never once asked to be taken home.

The line we were in snaked around three sides of the Coral Gables library, and the wait was about an hour on each side. During this time we received the attentions of a number of people soliciting votes, or urging action on one of the ballot initiatives and State constitutional amendments that are also up for grabs.

I noted an interesting difference between the Obama supporters and those from the dark side. The Obama people quietly worked their way down the line offering stickers, bottles of water, and anything else they could think of that might be helpful. There were quite a few of them, and they had an enormous mountain of bottled water on hand, far more than was needed for this day.

The Opposition was represented by a couple of small groups carrying mostly handmade signs of questionable effectiveness. What do you make of this one: "If you think medical care is expensive now, just wait till it's free!"

Well, I think we see where they're going with this ... that we will all have to pay more if we want to provide coverage to those who don't have it. But doesn't it sound like a good thing if it was free? What if it was at least freely available, regardless of cost?

Another example was, "This is your change if you vote for Obama." It showed a profile of Obama replacing Lincoln on the penny. Again, we get the rather pointed message that a penny is all we'll have left after the spendthrift Democrats have had their way. But I kind of thought he looked good on that coin, and the comparison to Lincoln was both complimentary and historically resonant.

But the McCain camp followers were not content to insult our intelligence with idiotic signage. There was another pair of guys who went for street theater. One of them carried a sign that declared he was a "third generation Democrat voting No-Obama." His cohort had a "plumber's friend" or drain plunger stuck in his belt (he's Joe the Plumber, GET IT??) and accosted the captive audience to deliver what he called a "lecture." This consisted of using the plunger to point to another sign on the back of an SUV, this one written in black markers on a quilted silver sun screen, that said, "Obama=Welfare, McCain=Jobs." End of lecture. Short and sweet enough for you? But haven't we heard this somewhere before?

Half an hour later as we approached the final corner of the building he upped the ante. Now a new sign equated Obama with Fidel Castro -- both of them Marxists! Well, now we know, and the cat is finally out of the bag. But the best part of this was the spontaneaous response from the crowd.

A tall Latino man gave them a well-deserved fascist salute, which brought a McCain-style burst of anger from the Plumber. You're not an American, he shouted, you don't love your country, you should move to Canada, etc, etc. Our Latin hero got into it with him. Why should he have to leave the country? Back and forth. A concerned poll watcher intervened and counseled calm when a passing maintenance worker (picking up all those empty water bottles) got into the fray on the Obama side..

I was framing my own response, perhaps, "Hey, we're all Americans here," or even better, "Oye, todos somos Americanos aqui," but I was beaten to the punch by a young woman with less writer's block who simply raised her own sign and shouted, "Obama!" Delightfully, a big section of the line took up the cheer, probably not the reaction desired by the Plumber, who became somewhat more subdued.

Things were quiet after that. We soon passed the orange cone at the 50-foot barrier to proselytizing, and then finally gained access to the inner sanctum of American politics. Groups of ten were ushered into the room where an amazingly dedicated group of poll workers ran a smooth operation already more than two hours after closing time.

As we went I explained what was happening to Vincent. First they looked me up in the computer to make sure I was a registered voter, then I signed in to prove it was me, then they printed a customized ballot with my correct precincts and municipal choices on it. A very patient man delivered for the thousandth time that day a clear explanation of how many pages I had, how to make my selection, and what to do when finished. He was not Hispanic, but I noted he was equally capable of delivering his speech en espanol when it was called for.

At last we were alone together in front of the ballot in the small cube of private space allowed. And Vincent himself filled in the small circle beside the candidate of his choice.

He was so excited he actually held his hand over his mouth so he wouldn't SCREAM. This is a child who does not hope ... he knows that we can make a better world, and he knows that this is something he can do.

Would you tell him he's wrong or misguided to be so naive? Me neither.

[Sunday Update: We drove past the library twice on Sunday and saw the line was about 50% longer than the day before, extending around the fourth side of the building almost back to the entrance, and indicating a wait time of about 6 hours, which was later confirmed by news reports. But people were not leaving! An hour after the 5 PM closing time the line was still as long.]

[Monday Update: Local NPR news reports well over 300,000 votes cast early in Miami-Dade County alone, and an additional 140,000 absentee ballots already received. WOO-HOO!]

[Tuesday Update: Election day at last! I passed three polling places on my way to work and saw lines that were less than half a block long, indicating perhaps an hour wait. It would appear the turnout is heavy as predicted, but manageable. Of course it depends on how many people are waiting till the last minute, but it seems that early voting has helped.]

[Tuesday 10 AM: What a difference a few hours makes -- lines are growing, turnout is HUGE -- this is the closest thing we've seen to full participation by the electorate in living memory. Once again, WOO-HOO!]

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Six Frigates

Let's go down to the sea in ships ...

One of the great pleasures in life is to embark upon the sea of Patrick O'Brian's twenty volume series of novels about the adventures of a British naval captain and his physician friend during the Napoleonic wars.

These works, which some have called the best historical novels ever written, go far beyond adventure. They create an entire world, complete with exotic peoples and customs. Life aboard the square-rigged vessels of the time is portrayed in all its rich variety -- the sights and sounds, the smells, the food or lack thereof, the tedium, the cold, the heat, the sweat, the storms, the cruelty, and of course the horrendous mayhem of war fought with cannons and cutlasses.

Add to this the wonders of the natural world as explored along the way by Doctor Stephen Maturin (a foreshadowing of the voyage of Charles Darwin), season with his adventures as a spy, and you have a feast as satisfying as one of Captain Aubrey's best formal dinners.

If you haven't read them yet my only advice is to try the first one to test the waters, so to speak, and take them one at a time. If you're not hooked by the middle of the second book it will probably never happen, so you can save yourself the trouble of trying the rest.

Otherwise you will all too soon discover yourself at the end of the final volume (the unfinished #21 is now in print posthumously), wondering where to turn next. If you've gotten that far already, you may be ready for Six Frigates, Ian W. Toll's history of the early years of the United States Navy.

In my case O'Brian had whetted my curiosity about what that period of time was like on our side of the Atlantic. (I don't think it is giving away too much to mention that he was able to place his characters on board HMS Java at the time it was defeated by the USS Constitution, "Old Ironsides," after which they have to spend some time in Boston as prisoners of war.)

Toll has done a magnificent job of making his subject as alive as any current history, and it is full of interesting revelations. The title comes from the first order for ships placed by Congress to protect the commerce of the fledgling nation in 1794 -- a mere six wooden frigates. But these were to be no ordinary ships.

The designer was a Quaker ship builder named Joshua Humphreys who apparently had no qualms about constructing ships of war. By way of explaining how unusual this was for a member of that peaceable community, Toll quotes a Southern congressman who spoke of their uneasy union with the Northern states: "They adopted us with our slaves, and we adopted them with their Quakers." That's how notorious they were for their stance against war and enslavement.

The ships were to be of a unique design, large enough to carry a heavy battery of guns, yet with a hull sleek enough to let them outsail their rivals. This would give them the ability to choose their engagements, either chasing down their prey or escaping when overmatched. In fact, one of the most notable exploits of the Constitution was when it managed to elude a small fleet of British warships even while they were all becalmed.

You don't have to be a warmonger to appreciate the accomplishments that are recorded here. In its time it was an undertaking on a par with the space program. Right from the beginning lives were lost simply in the quest for the timbers to build the ships. The designer would accept nothing but the right-angled trunks and branches of the Southern "live oak" (well known to us in South Florida) to form the strongest possible "knees" in the frame of the ship. It is no exaggeration to say that this decision put the iron in "Old Ironsides." Yet the teams of men that went on lumbering expeditions to the jungles of the deep South were decimated by yellow fever, resulting in many deaths even before the ships were under construction.

One of the most interesting angles on the whole story is the way that the need for a navy brought up all the same concerns about taxation and the budget, the national debt, the power of the federal government, and the effects of a permanent military establishment that are still being debated today. If the aim was to protect the country's commerce, wouldn't it end up doing more harm than good if it saddled the nation with a debt it could never pay? The heated argument raged back and forth through several administrations and involved many of the Founding Fathers on both sides, including Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Adams, and Monroe.

With classic Congressional indecision, the ships were ordered, canceled, built, put into action, put into storage twice, and then taken out again. In the long run the outrages of the Barbary pirates, and the impressment of American seamen by both the British and French, convinced popular opinion of the necessity for a navy regardless of cost. And so it began.

Toll concludes his tale by rapidly reviewing the subsequent growth of the navy through the Civil War and up to the time of Teddy Roosevelt, who created the "Great White Fleet" and ordered it to tour the world, putting everyone on notice about what a big stick he was carrying.

Those who built the original sailing ships could never have imagined that in less than a hundred years they would be succeeded by such a number of steam-driven vessels built of iron and steel -- or that in another hundred years the fleet would include nuclear powered submarines, guided missiles, carriers full of aircraft, and hydrogen bombs.

They were right about one thing, though: The price tag is killing us, even if the bombs aren't.

[For much more on the work of Patrick O'Brian see www.patrickobrian.com. You might also like The Naval History of the United States published in 1886 by Willis J. Abbot, which is available for download from Project Gutenberg. Vol. I covers the same period of time from the Revolutionary War through the War of 1812, with Vol. II picking up from there. Plenty of swash and buckles in both. And of course you can still walk the decks of the Constitution in Boston Harbor, though there is scarcely an original board remaining in it.]