Monday, March 2, 2020

Planned hiatus

... as opposed to the unplanned blogging hiatus of the last couple of weeks, when what attention I could muster was devoted to getting the first draft of the current book finished before my next date with the knee surgeon. That's done, the surgery is scheduled for oh-dark-thirty tomorrow morning, and I'll be back when I have something to say. Maybe a week, two weeks.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

The modern version of Cliff's Notes and condensed books

So while avoiding work and browsing on the internet, I saw an article entitled, “Read more using these apps…”
Oh, goody! Maybe one of the apps would offer a better way to discover new writers I’ll like. Because Amazon’s recommendations suck, and downloading/deleting stuff from KU can get discouraging after the ninth or tenth hopeless loser.

Well, no. The article might better have been entitled, “Feel virtuous while avoiding actually reading.” Then I wouldn’t have clicked, because (a) I have no desire to replace reading with potted book summaries, and (b) who the heck feels virtuous about reading, anyway? Like just about everybody I know, I consider reading a semi-guilty pleasure. As in, “Yeah, yeah, I know I promised to clean out the refrigerator today, but it’s really my duty as a writer to keep up with the current state of urban fantasy and I’ve just downloaded three new dragon fantasy novels.”

Sigh. Let’s face it, if anybody actually did design an app for people like me, it would be called something like “Get off your butt and clean the refrigerator!” and we’d never download it.

In the meantime, this article has been a mildly interesting window into the world of those for whom reading is a virtuous and not terribly attractive activity.

Of seven recommended apps, four are book summaries and three purport to teach speedreading techniques. While the speedreading courses leave me cold – what I really want is a slowreading course so I can make books I really enjoy last more than a day – the proffers of summaries taking anywhere from 3 to 12 minutes to read leave me mildly curious… and ambitious to try my own. What do you suppose a five-minute summary of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire would contain? How about a one-paragraph precis of King Lear? The twelve-minute version of War and Peace?

By the way, the prices of these apps are even more impressive than their promises of instant literacy – in more than one way. Quoted list prices range from $100 to a whopping $1200… but they’re all “on sale” for at most 20% of list price, some at a mere 5 to 10%. One gets the feeling that not too many people are actually springing for canned book summaries and promises of increased reading speed. Certainly, even though I’m faintly embarrassed by the fact that I somehow managed to get a minor in German literature without actually reading The Sorrows of Young Werther, I’m not really tempted to pay one of these services to summarize it for me. I’ll settle for Thackeray’s version:

WERTHER had a love for Charlotte
Such as words could never utter;
Would you know how first he met her?
She was cutting bread and butter.

Charlotte was a married lady,
And a moral man was Werther,
And, for all the wealth of Indies,
Would do nothing for to hurt her.

So he sighed and pined and ogled,
And his passion boiled and bubbled,
Till he blew his silly brains out,
And no more was by it troubled.

Charlotte, having seen his body
Borne before her on a shutter,
Like a well-conducted person,
Went on cutting bread and butter.

Monday, February 3, 2020

But what about the madrassas?

Elizabeth Warren recently made a statement that, predictably, outrages much of the Right while much of the Left nods in agreement.

“States should focus on funding public schools, not private ones—especially not ones that maintain anti-LGBTQ+ policies. We must ensure every kid—especially LGBTQ+ kids—can get a high-quality public education.”

-Elizabeth Warren

Right-leaning columnists and writers are screaming that this would amount to religious discrimination against Christian schools. Left-leaning writers, on the other hand, are just fine with discrimination against Christian schools.

So… I read that there are ever more Islamic schools in this country. And, you know, Islam is not precisely gay-friendly. Some Christians believe that homosexual acts are sinful; but some Moslems believe that gays should be flogged, hanged, or maybe just tossed off high buildings. I mean, enough Moslems believe that to make such draconian punishments for homosexuality the law in every Moslem country I’ve checked on.

So I just wonder… what happens if somebody goes after not only Christian religious schools, but also Islamic ones, for discriminating against gays or teaching that homosexuality is wrong?

Will the Right still be upset about religious discrimination, or will it decide that in some cases it’s a great idea? Will the Left prioritize Islam over gay rights, and scream that madrassas must get those precious tax credits, or will they attempt to be consistent with prior statements?

Short answer is, of course, that it’s not going to happen, because nobody’s going to attack Islamic schools. In the Leftist victim hierarchy, Moslems > LGBTQWERTY > women (Christians don’t even make the list), so the present situation is just hunky-dory. And leaders on the Right are, so far, much more interested in defending Christian schools than in having a serious discussion about values in education.

But I do wonder what’ll happen if the question ever comes up.

(Image: andrew wales [CC BY (])

Friday, January 17, 2020

Traveling in Europe half a century ago

Inspired by the discovery that I really need subtitles now to follow German-language movies that I haven’t already memorized (I can still follow The Merry Widow just fine, but Generation War was another story) I’ve been reviewing German via programs and audiobooks for a couple of weeks. It seems to be working in that my comprehension is improving, but now there is a different kind of frustration, one I remember from earlier days: whatever foreign language I’ve most recently used, that’s what comes up when I reach for any foreign language. It’s like my brain has just two boxes, one labeled “English, aka the Real Stuff” and one labeled “Everything Else” which operates on the LIFO principal. I rediscovered this problem when the cleaning crew arrived while the First Reader had the flu. “Bitte gehen Sie nicht in das Schlafzimmer, mein Mann ist krank,” didn’t do a thing for them. I had to look up how to say “sick” in Spanish! I knew that much Spanish three weeks ago!

That kind of thing used to be hugely frustrating on European trips when I needed to switch languages frequently. And it has reminded me of the language techniques I found most useful in those days. So, here’s a compendium of how to survive while traveling around Europe – somewhat dated. Things change. My survival strategy was developed in the sixties and seventies, when World War II was still a vivid memory and the Iron Curtain was still solid. But let’s pretend you’re interested anyway:

1. When in France, speak French just long enough to make people realize that everybody will be much happier if they switch to English, because no matter how bad their English is, it won’t hurt their ears like your French accent.

2. In Germany, German works just fine, although you may have to beg people to slow down because their assumption is that you’re a native speaker who just happens to come from some distant region with a funny-sounding dialect.

3. Outside France and Germany, wave your hands and speak English. Then, having established that you yourself are not German, switch to German. Everybody over 40 understands you just fine.
3a. Do not try this in Crete. Just… don’t. The story is too long to tell here…
4. Don’t bother trying out your Russian in Hungary. Despite the fact that Russian had been mandatory in Hungarian schools for my entire lifetime, Hungarians were really good at not understanding Russian. The German Strategy works much better.
4a. If you do have even a few words of Hungarian, you can drive people crazy by using them. Because they are resigned to the fact that no foreigners ever, ever even attempt their language, and they can tell by looking that you’re not one of them. You must be a space alien!
5. Outside the larger towns in Yugoslavia (Yeah, I know. There is no more Yugoslavia. I told you this list is dated.) don’t bother with your carefully memorized “I don’t speak Serbo-Croatian.” The response is likely to be, “That’s fine, we don’t either,” followed by, “You must come from far away, like the other side of the mountain.” See German Strategy, above.

6. The western third of Romania is populated by ethnic Hungarians. Speaking Hungarian in Transylvania will get you the good will of the locals… and the unfriendly interest of the secret police.

7. In Italy, get your back against a wall before trying any conversation whatsoever. It won’t improve communications, but at least you won’t get your bottom pinched.

8. Do not under any circumstances respond to young men who follow you down the street calling, “Miss… Mademoiselle… Fräulein… Señorita…” and watching to see which language elicits a response.
8a. One exception to this rule: if you have a grenade and are not afraid to use it.
8b. A second exception: if you happen to be fluent in a truly obscure, non-European language, you can discourage pursuers by smiling sweetly at them and burying them in a torrent of Hindi, Japanese, Luo, or whatever comes to mind. In Paris I once drowned some importunate young men in Swahili. As they slouched away one of them commented in French, “She’s awfully tall for a Chinese.”

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Forget the flying cars, the rest is good!

One of the few good things about being an old codger is the sense of perspective. We may not have flying cars or moon colonies yet, but 2020 has a lot of features that I find more immediately useful than being able to zoom over the live oaks to the supermarket. (Grocery delivery, for one.)

90 percent of my favorite books are available as e-books and, for the first time since 1990, I can see pockets of empty space on the bookshelves!

I get to research a historical fantasy from my couch instead of trekking over to the rare books collection where I'm strip-searched and refused any writing implements other than one pencil... to read a modern facsimile edition of an Elizabethan fencing manual.

The kid in Brooklyn can call any time she wants to chat instead of waiting for messages urgent enough to justify three minutes at night time lower calling rates.

Instead of parsing mainstream media stories to figure out what they're carefully not saying, I can check out a wide variety of alternative news sources and form my own opinions about the story behind the spin.

Looking farther afield... charities that distribute used clothing overseas now tell me that they don't want any garments that aren't in excellent condition. Being able to hold out for a new-looking shirt instead of being happy with a ripped and stained undershirt probably doesn't seem like luxury to us in America, but it's a vast improvement for much of Africa. The wealth created by the Industrial Revolution continues to spread.

Those millions of people who were supposed to starve to death during the overpopulation famines to follow 1970... didn't. I'm sorry about the ones who did starve and are starving because of our inability to completely destroy all manifestations of socialism/communism/totalitarianism, but in celebration of the non-famines, we could do worse than erect a statue to Norman Borlaug.

And as for the personal robots... Pass on that one. I'm not letting Alexa or any of her friends into the house, thank you very much! And the First Reader gave me a nifty little phone case that supposedly blocks location tracking, so in the unlikely event I actually go anywhere, the Data Giants won't have an automatic record of my movements. Some "progress" is to be celebrated, but some is to be thwarted.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Here comes another year!

"Hark, it's midnight, children dear.
Duck! Here comes another year!”
-Ogden Nash

Personally and professionally, 2019 was - to say the least - not a good year. I'm not so much making resolutions for 2020 as I am engaging in pre-emptive ducking. I finally picked up the long-dormant Regency fantasy two days ago and will be very happy if this time I can resume regular writing and not get derailed by events. I'll be ecstatic if we go more than a month without a health, family, or professional crisis.

Resolution: to remember this and to be properly grateful if at the end of January I have finished the book I struggled with through nine months of distractions and problems in 2019. If in addition I have a reasonably fleshed-out idea for the next book, I'll make a sacrifice to whatever gods may be. Do you suppose they like chocolate? Everybody likes chocolate, right? O gods of chance, I know where to get the good stuff, the high cocoa content dark chocolate. Just be nice to me - no, scratch that - just don't pay any attention whatsoever to me - and I'll give you a cut from my secret stash, okay?

Monday, December 23, 2019

What am I missing here?

This morning I read this article in the NYT, bemoaning the way in which cell phone location data is used to invade people's privacy. They certainly come up with a number of scary scenarios:

Imagine the following nightmare scenarios: Governments using location data to identify political enemies at major protests. Prosecutors or the police using location information to intimidate criminal defendants into taking plea deals. A rogue employee at an ad-tech location company sharing raw data with a politically motivated group. A megadonor purchasing a location company to help bolster political targeting abilities for his party and using the information to dox protesters. A white supremacist group breaching the insecure servers of a small location startup and learning the home addresses of potential targets.

It did just cross my mind that a popular cop show the First Reader and I watch occasionally depicts the cops using cell phone location information to intimidate their targets, not to mention using a facial recognition system that would be the envy of the Chinese government, trawling through the phone and email and financial records of anyone who interests them, and generally tearing up the Fourth Amendment into tiny pieces and trampling on them. But, you know, it's all right because they're the Good Guys. If their audience buys this world view, I doubt the opinions of a New York Times columnist will bother them. Day by day in every way we are accepting the surveillance state...

But that's not where I was going, which was, actually, to Amazon. It took approximately 30 seconds to find a $10 Faraday cage that is advertised as blocking GPS tracking.

Over time, protest could become the exclusive right of those with the means to safeguard themselves technologically, including having a second, “burner” phone. “It’s technologically possible to be anonymous, but it’s hard,” Mr. Tsui told us. “You can only protect privacy with tech right now, and so only those who have money and knowledge can do it.

Well. If "money" means having an extra $10 to spend to prevent your $500 smartphone from reporting on your movements, and "knowledge" means being able to do a cursory search on Amazon... that's a low bar.

I suspect the higher bar will be understanding that invasion of privacy is not a good thing, and that your privacy is worth more than the convenience of pulling out your smartphone to tell your friends where to meet you at the protest. And that ship may have already sailed.
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