Hawking Up Hairballs

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Think Like Cheney, Act Like Cheney

Georgian president Saakashvili has been a Bush administration favorite, and it looks like he's been taking his cues from Dick Cheney. According to this piece from the Telegraph, Saakashvili punched his prime minister in the face, then threw a telephone at him. I guess the poor bastard should feel lucky. At least Saakashvili didn't give him a buckshot facial!


Monday, December 29, 2008

Show, Don't Tell

One of the rules of thumb recommended to the beginning fiction writer is: Show, don't tell. Why is this so important? Fair question. In short, that which is shown has more dramatic and emotional impact. For example, say you've got a character who's just received shattering news. You could tell what's going on by saying something like, "Richard took the news hard. He had to sit down to absorb it." On the the other hand, you don't even have to tell the reader how he took the news. Instead you could describe the way his jaw dropped and the way his hands began to shake. You could describe the expression on his face and the way his knees went weak so that he had to sit down. The reader would draw the inevitable conclusion, that the character was devastated.

There are a lot of classic novels that do a lot more telling than showing, but things began to change with the advent of movies and, later, television. People became accustomed to seeing characters fall in love, rage against fate, and even die, right there in front of their eyes in emotionally wrenching scenes, and they weren't going to accept anything less from their reading. It certainly made things more difficult for the writer. He now had to show the reader just what happened but framed in such a way as to evoke a desired reaction. The work of the imagination became much more demanding. If you are going to "show" convincingly, you have to understand how a character will react in detail - the expression on his face, his body language, the tone of his voice.

That brings me to the point of this post. "Telling" is often an excuse for lazy writing. When I said that Richard took the news hard, and had to sit down, that was it. I didn't have to worry about how he reacted in detail. I've already told the reader what's going on. You see a lot of this kind of lazy writing in pop fiction where the plot is everything and a strong plot can carry a book, particularly one without great ambitions.

Last week I was on the National Public Radio web site checking out their books of the year for 2008. I noticed another section about books that slipped under the radar. One of those books was The Unknown Terrorist by Richard Flanagan. He's an Aussie, but he's no Tim Winton. His story is interesting, but he's one of the sloppiest writers I've read in a while, at least among those who are seriously attempting to produce literature, and there's no doubt that Flanagan is trying to do that. He has a page at the back of the book called "A Note on Sources" that makes it clear. The only conclusion that I can draw is that he is only interested in the story, and that the language is of secondary concern, if that.

I don't understand why the NPR reviewer didn't call Flanagan to task for his lazy writing. Their reviewers are usually a couple of notches above the Oprah Book Club types. Perhaps they've become infected with the new orthodoxy that seems to have made its way into the New York literary establishment, the one that refuses to say anything negative about an author's work. Bah to that, I say. Bring out the scalpels. The more blood on the literary floors, the better.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

It's All About Sex

Don't believe me? Then check out this article from The Washington Post. Sixty-year-old Afghan chieftain has four younger wives. CIA wants him to provide information on Taliban activities in his area. Chieftain refuses to cooperate. Out come the "little blue pills". Next morning, the chieftain is grinning like he's got a new dick. CIA gets information galore. See, when you get right down to it, life can be summed up like this. Food, sex, forget all the rest.


Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Santa Claus

Here it is Christmas Eve and I'm sitting before the fire with a glass of wine as I watch a local news broadcast track Santa Claus and his sleigh on the weather radar. All right, so it's not a fire; it's a noisy, old floor furnace that rattles and bangs as it heats up, and I'm on my third glass of wine. The only reason I'm even watching the newscast is because the well-scrubbed, little honey on the tube* likes to wear tight sweaters and, man, does she have some nice boobs. I only wish I could get close enough to sniff them.

At my age though, libido doesn't take you far and I actually started watching them track old St. Nick as I pondered the question, what the hell is with this Santa Claus stuff? I have no quibble with the season. It's kind of nice to have a holiday in which gifts are exchanged to demonstrate love and affection. There's much to be said for that, but why the Santa Claus crap? I see nothing charming or desirable about selling the kids on the fiction that there's a jolly, old, fat man in a red suit who runs around on Christmas Eve bringing them gifts. What purpose does it serve except to prep them for belief in a benevolent, paternal deity?

People are damned serious about their Santa Claus too. If you don't believe me, find some relatives who have small kids. Gather the little ones around you and announce that there is no Santa Claus. You'll end up eating Christmas dinner with the likes of the Cratchits in the days before Scrooge turned. The grown-ups just can't seem to wrap their head around the idea that it might be better to tell the little ones that we're exchanging gifts as a gesture showing just how much we care for one another. I guess it's just too mundane for them.

If you've got to have a Santa though, I like the one that I've seen in a commercial this season. He's svelte and debonair. He wears a well-tailored suit and his white hair is coiffed. He's got a cellphone, and he tells people to call him "Claus", pronounced "klouz". Now there's a Santa for the arrogant CEO's and the Wall Street swindlers. See you in Davos, baby!

* In the era of flat-screen TV's, is it still appropriate to call them "tubes", since they're no such component anymore. Wouldn't something like "panels" be more apropo?

Friday, December 19, 2008


Last week I was watching The Daily Show on The Comedy Channel. The last third of the show is usually devoted to an interview with someone who is pimping his book or upcoming movie. On this particular show, the guest was a former military interrogator who has written a book about his experiences in the role. I don't recall the name of the guy, nor the name of his book, nor do I much care. I don't plan on reading it.

The only reason I mention this at all is because it got me to thinking. This guy's argument was that the Bush people have been going about things all wrong. He didn't believe that it's necessary to use torture, nor that it was productive. He claimed to have achieved much better success by showing the prisoners respect and consideration while developing a relationship with them. I have no doubt that he's right. When the likes of Rumsfield first proposed the use of torture, they had in mind a subject who was a professional, someone who had been trained to resist interrogation. This was made clear in the arguments that the administration and its proponents put forth when arguing for extreme methods. They kept talking about scenarios like the one where a terrorist attack is imminent and a captive has information that will enable them to stop it. As the argument went, they have only hours to thwart the attack and they need the information the captive has. What other choice then is there but torture? Come on now, this isn't one of those movie thrillers. How often has a situation like that ever arisen? Can they document even one?

The fact of the matter is that the overwhelming majority of those in Iraq and Afghanistan who end up in US military custody are insurgents. They're people who have been caught up in fighting the US occupation of their countries. Their motives for fighting are probably many and varied. Some probably really do want to chase the infidels from their country. Others may be seeking vengeance for the death of their relatives. There are probably even those who are fighting because that's what the men in their communities are doing. What does torture accomplish against such people? Most likely it will serve only to harden their anti-American sentiments. Treat them like human beings and show them some respect, and there will undoubtedly be some who will decide that the Americans aren't so bad after all. Such people might even provide useful information.

Now, lest I sound like one of those bleeding heart TV liberals*, let me say this. I don't think that the wars the US is conducting in the Middle East are just. The behavior of US forces is criminal and unethical. For example, the very idea of using air power in urban settings, where the death of innocent civilians is inevitable, is repugnant to me. I also don't think that the fellow who wrote this book was some kind of good guy interrogator, and he may have been engaging in practices that amount to torture. One question that has to be answered is, under what conditions were these people being held? If they were being held in isolation that constitutes torture. The best thing we can do is leave those people alone. True, if the US military were to pull out overnight, it would probably lead to political chaos, but there are remedies for that. Let a UN force take over, one that's constituted of troops from the region, troops with a culture and religion in common with those who are living there.

* I am not a liberal. I'm a leftist. Liberals merely believe that the system as it exists merely needs to be reformed. They're constantly looking for heroes like Barack Obama. I think the system needs to be replaced with a truly democratic socialism that addresses the needs of the people as a whole, not those of the moneyed few.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

We Don't Need No Stinkin' Clinical Trials

"The U.S. Food and Drug Administration plans to use new computer technology to simulate how some drugs in development are supposed to work, helping researchers and regulators spot safety and effectiveness issues before late-stage tests on humans are completed.

"Entelos Inc., a Foster City, Calif., company that has developed the technology, said it will enable researchers to obtain computer-generated test results in a matter of days or weeks, compared with years required for most major clinical trials. Far more 'simulated patients' also can be tested than in conventional human trials."

The above item comes from The Wall Street Journal. I found it on the Pharmalot web site. My eyes fluttered when I first read it. That couldn't be right, I thought, and I went to get my caffeinated beverage of choice to help wake me up so that I could see straight. I sat down at the computer and read again. Damned if I hadn't gotten it right the first time, and it was indeed the Pharmalot site. I hadn't inadvertently found my way to a satirical Onion page. The FDA is indeed going to simulate the testing of drugs on a frigging computer. The Pharmalot folks went on to explain.

"Entelos says its technology, called the Cardiovascular PhysioLab, uses a mathematical model to simulate how cholesterol functions in the human body and how deposits of fatty material called plaque develop in the artery walls and become prone to rupture, the Journal writes. By running certain chemical characteristics of drugs through the model, the hope is to be able to predict whether the compounds might cause cardiovascular problems and, if so, in what types of patients."

You don't have to have a degree from Harvard Medical School to see what bullshit this is. The mathematical model referred to above was developed by people based upon our current knowledge of how cholesterol functions in the body. Uh-huh. Like we have a complete understanding of the biochemistry of cholesterol, as well as any other compounds that might interact with it in the body. Not only that, but someone in the Pharmalot's comment section claimed that he'd been involved in the development of such products and that they were skewed toward the assumption of safety. Of course they are. Don't get me wrong. Software like this could be valuable, but it's proper use is in research. For example, it could be part of the decision process in trying to decide whether or not to proceed to clinical trials. However, to use such software to substitute in any way for clinical trials is not only irresponsible, but reprehensible.

I have two guidelines that I use when deciding to accept a drug prescribed by a doctor. One, I won't take it unless it's been in widespread use for several years so that any nasty side effects have had a chance to become apparent. Two, I do as much research as I can to determine whether or not I think the drug is effective and safe. The fact is that you can't just take your doctor's word for it when he or she suggests a prescription. You have to do your own due diligence, and don't be afraid to tell him or her that you don't want that new drug that's just hit the market. In most cases, there older and better understood alternatives.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Obama's Pragmatism

Barack Obama claims to be a pragmatist, not an ideologue. He's made that point, in his interview on 60 Minutes for instance. His advisors and some of those who are closest to him have made the same claim. However, there is no such thing as ideology-free pragmatism. We all start from a point of view, a way of seeing the world, of which are usually unaware of. The linguist George Lakoff calls it a frame. Hence, even when we are acting pragmatically, we are acting under the influence of an ideology. The article to which I link below makes this point at length much better than I could. It originally appeared in The Nation and, it's well worth a read, whether you're an Obama fan or not.


Thursday, December 11, 2008

Class Education

"The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle."

That's from The Communist Manifesto, folks, and it's still true. There had been this notion abroad in the USA that we're not a class society. Total bullshit, of course, as recent events have made abundantly clear. The scions of the ruling class are educated at elite universities like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford. That's also where those who will later be tapped to manage their interests are educated. I'm supplying a link to an article by Christopher Hedges about the state of education in those universities. Pay attention, folks. These are your future masters he's talking about!


Monday, December 08, 2008


Last night I watched the new TNT show, Leverage. It's the usual mindless fluff. The show's protagonists are "good thieves" who only steal from those who deserve it. In last night's episode, they were approached by an aircraft industry executive who wanted them to steal back some plans that a competitor had stolen from his company. The theft was duly accomplished, only to have the "good thieves" discover that they'd been used. They hadn't stolen back the plans; they had simply stolen them. Of course, vengeance was in order, and vengeance was served.

I won't critique the show. It really doesn't merit such attention, and the only reason I've mentioned it at all is because of the preview of the next episode. It showed a distraught couple, obviously working class, who were telling the head of the "good thieves" about how they'd been screwed over by some big corporation. They'd sought justice in the courts, but had been thwarted by the corporation's expensive lawyers. I was sitting there and it occurred to me that, given the current crisis in the economy, we are going to be seeing a lot of these Robin Hood type shows in the coming few years. I'm guessing they will become the next big thing.

Now, of course, since it is big corporations who finance these productions, you can count on one thing. They will never suggest a blanket condemnation of the current economic system, what we called the Establishment back in the day. The nasty business will be portrayed as the result of the machinations of a few bad actors in some otherwise blameless company, or perhaps the company itself will be portrayed as an anomalous bad apple in an otherwise laudable system. Another thing you can count on. The little people will never rise up and organize to press their concerns. If the movies and TV are to be believed, they are incapable of that. Some hero has to come along, either to do it for them, or to kick their butts to get them into motion. The lesson that one is supposed to learn there is that some people are just better than others, which means, of course, that a class system is in the natural order of things. And you know what? It just may be. I used to think differently but, in my cynical old age, I'm no longer so certain.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Charles Stross

Most writing is bad. Run-of-the-mill literature of the serious sort is usually written well enough, but it tends to be boring and unreadable. The people who write those books seem to have forgotten that there's a lot of narrative tension in Shakespeare's tragedies and that he kills his characters off as readily as they do in a James Bond movie. When it comes to the pop genres, it is most often the prose itself that stinks. The authors rely on suspenseful and exciting plots to carry their novels, and the ugly fact is that the reading public either doesn't know or much care whether or not the prose is any good. Nevertheless, in most pop genres, there are authors who write solid prose. In crime fiction, James Lee Burke comes to mind. In pop historical fiction, there's Patrick Cornwell of the Sharpe series family. Those are just two examples.

Then why is science fiction such an exception? The writing there is so often just plain bad and the stories lame. This isn't just my opinion either. A while back, I was checking out a site that was pitched to aspiring authors. There was someone there who took questions from those who visited the site. One of them was apparently from someone who had written a science fiction novel but couldn't get it published. He was asking about how to go about self-publishing. The answer was that he shouldn't waste his money self-publishing because standards were so low in the science fiction genre that, if he couldn't get it published, his book very likely wasn't any good.

That said, I've found an author who isn't bad. I know that's tepid praise, but what can I say? Yes, tepid, and he's one of the best in the genre. He's been nominated for the Hugo Award for the best sci-fi novel of the year on five different occasions. The man I'm talking about is Charles Stross. So far, I've read two of his books. In their own way, both are crime novels set in sci-fi worlds. The first, Iron Sunrise is a hard-core space opera.* I won't go into a great deal of detail, but it's set in a universe where humans have mastered the trick of traveling great distances by jumping through space-time. Hence, they've colonized many different planets in many different star systems. One population that has cropped up is transparently modeled on the Nazis. One of their member has apparently blown up a planet. The good guys have to find out who did it and stop him before he strikes again. The second, Halting State is set in the near-future where the world of massive, multplayer games hosted on the internet have merged with the real world. Someone is killed, and the good guys have to find out who did it. I liked these books well enough to read another one of Stross's novel. I think I'll try Accelerando next.

Two things set Stross apart from most of his fellow sci-fi authors. One is his black humor. More importantly though is his ability to keep up the suspense. That's something that is really lacking in science fiction. Interestingly enough, Stross is a Brit, and the Brits are apparently leading a resurgence in the genre. Among them is Richard K. Morgan, who I've also read and like. He brings a noir sensibility to the field. I also find it intriguing that, in my lifetime, so much of the so-called serious fiction has also come from Brits. (I use that term in the broadest sense. I consider anyone who writes in English, and is from the former British empire to be a Brit. For example, Salman Rushdie is a Brit, at least insofar as he's a literary figure.) American literature is generally tepid. It's too much linked to the academy, but that's a story for another day.

Anyway, I'm not going to tell you to go on out and pick up one of Stross's books. He shouldn't even be mentioned in the same breath as Tim Winton, and I'm ashamed of myself for doing it here. However, if you want something light and entertaining, and think that science fiction might be the thing, Stross is a good bet.

* When I first ran across the phrase "space opera" a few years ago, I had to look it up, and I suspect that only sci-fi fans will know what it means, so here's the definition from Wikipedia. "Space opera is a subgenre of speculative fiction or science fiction that emphasizes romantic, often melodramatic, adventure, set mainly or entirely in space, generally involving conflict between opponents possessing powerful (and sometimes quite fanciful) technologies and abilities. Perhaps the most significant trait of space opera is that settings, characters, battles, powers and themes tend to be very large-scale." Interestingly enough, the guy who is credited with coining the phrase was comparing certain science fiction with soap operas. You see, I told you the genre has problems.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Clinton Redux

To those of you who got all tingly at the election of Barack Obama, I hope you've been paying attention to his appointments. Start with foreign policy. He's retaining Gates as Secretary of Defense, and he's chosen the hawkish Queen Bitch for State. It's not promising, and it looks like more of the same for the people of the Middle East. The neo-con Prince of Darkness even seems to think so. Richard Perle told the New Republic, "Contrary to expectations, I don't think we would see a lot of change."

Then there are Obama's economic advisors, guys like Summers and Geithner. These are the same folks who got us into this mess. How can you expect them to get us out of it? There are those who will prattle on about how these guys are experienced, and how they will know how to proceed, and yadda-yadda-yadda. If you believe that, then I guess you can't wait for Santa Claus to arrive on Christmas. This point of view arises from the notion that economics is a science like physics and chemistry. There are certain principles, and its practitioners know how to apply them. I hate to tell you, but it don't work like that, folks. As Michael Perelman says in his fine book, Railroading Economics: The Creation of the Free Market Ideology, "...economics is an ideology designed to defend existing practices rather than a science." This was made clear by Marx in Das Kapital when he convincingly demonstrated that classical economics took the side of the employers against labor. This led to a recasting of the "science" of economics in the 1870's, when it became a theory of exchange rather than production. Here's Perelman again, "In this new form of economics, capitalists and workers alike no longer appeared as members of distinct classes, but as part of a homogeneous group of individuals. Whether the 'individual' is Wal-Mart selling toilet paper or a worker selling labor makes little difference." And there you are. That's pretty much where we are today, so we can't expect much from Obama, not with the advisors he has. The only way out of this mess is with a massive redistribution of wealth downward, and Wall Street isn't going to stand for that.

As Chomsky pointed out in the piece I linked to below, a recent study has shown that you can pretty much predict what a new president's policies are going to be by where his money comes from. By that criterion, we'll probably get just what seems to be shaping up, namely, Clinton redux.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Tim Winton

Read Tim Winton. Walk, run, or ride to the nearest bookstore and pick up one of his novels. I've read three of them so far, and I'm impressed, very impressed. I should have discovered Winton long before now. He's prominent in his Australian homeland, where he's won the Miles Franklin Award three times. That's the award that's given annually to the best Australian book or play. He's also been shortlisted twice for the Booker Prize.

As you'll see if you check out his Wikipedia entry, Winton is all about place. In his case, it's coastal western Australia. In the entry, he's quoted as saying, "The place comes first. If the place is not interesting then I can't feel it. I can't feel any people in it." That I find intriguing, and there are many writers like that. As for me, place is little more than backdrop when I'm writing. I'm much more interested in the way the characters bang up against one another.

The least of the three novels by Winton that I've read is Breath. It's the least only in comparison with the others because it's still damned good. It's basically a coming of age story, about the teenaged Bruce Pike. He lives in a small logging village close to the western Australian coast, and surfing is the vehicle through which Winton explores Pike's relationship with his best friend Lonie and their sometimes mentor, sometimes enabler, a former pro surfer by the name of Sando. It is through surfing, and at the urging of Sando, that the two boys test their manhood and push themselves to their limits, even unto the brink of madness and death.

I read Cloudstreet next. All I can say is, wow! It's the story of two working class families who live together in a big old house at One Cloud Street. Their lives are chronicled over a twenty year period, from the mid-forties to the mid-sixties. Winton makes an interesting choice for family names, the Lambs and the Pickles. The Lambs are an industrious lot. They turn the front of the house into a small store that becomes quite popular in the neighborhood. Their motto could be said to be, the Lord helps those who help themselves. The store is proof of it. It brings in enough income to support the family. The Pickles, on the other hand, are fatalists, and they always seem to be in a pickle. The old man is a compulsive gambler, who loses every bit of money that comes his way, and his wife is a street gutter alcoholic. Some have called Cloudstreet the great Australian novel. I don't know about that. I'm in no position to judge, but it's a wonderful read.

Dirt Music takes place in a fishing village, again in western Australia. It's the story of three people. There's Georgie, a former nurse who is living with Jim Buckridge. He's a commercial fisherman who is the local "boss", and he has a reputation for violence. Luther Fox is the sole surviving member of a family of local outcasts. He makes his living by fishing on the sly. He doesn't have the expensive commercial license required by law, and the locals consider the likes of him to be little better than poachers who are taking food out of their mouths. Fox has a brief affair with Georgie, and ends up fleeing to the wilds of northern Australia in order to avoid a confrontation with Buckridge. Unbeknownst to him, Buckridge follows with Georgie in tow. I didn't much care for the ending. It was a bit too melodramatic for my taste, and there was an element of deus ex machina in it as well. That said, it didn't really detract all that much from the book as a whole.

So, what is it that appeals to me in Winton's work? After thinking about it some, I've concluded that it's the desperate attempts his characters make to escape the ordinariness of everyday life. That's an endeavor I can appreciate. Let me put it in the words of one of Winton's characters. In Dirt Music, Luther Fox catches a ride with an elderly couple. They reveal that the woman is dying of bowel cancer, but that she has declined the draining, medical treatments. Instead, she's gone to see the sights of the Australian wild. As she put it, she didn't just want to die, she wanted to die with music. It's like that with all of Winton's characters. They don't just want to live. They want to live with music. Amen to that. Cue the orchestra! Strike up the band!