The Martian

the-martian-by-andy-weir-r-1000x1000The Martian, Andy Weir    

There are often times in life where I have to explain something to a group, and I’m struggling with how to get started, or to condense a complex topic down to a few power point slides. And as I’m trying to figure out how to do this and playing online, I realize that xkcd has already done this, and so much better than I could ever hope to do.

 

 

the_martian_2x

So. Yeah, that’s a fairly good description of this book. This is an excellent piece of science fiction, with a hard emphasis on the science. I first read this book because I heard an interview with the author on a science podcast I listen to, and the author was hilarious and incredibly interesting. Andy Weir even talked about the challenges he faced running simulations of interplanetary travel at different points in the future to make sure the possible orbits he was discussing would happen at the proper times as he wrote in his book, and that the rocket flights would be mathematically correct. That is a nerdiness and attention to accuracy of which I am in awe.

For a hard science book, The Martian is also a very easy and enjoyable read. For those of you who don’t know the background yet, it takes place in 2035, when Martian missions are relatively new but semi-routine. One mission requires an emergency evacuation and astronaut and botanist Mark Watney is accidentally left behind. The rest of the book is dedicated to Mark Watney staying alive, and the crew and NASA trying to save him. (Mark Watney is played by Matt Damon in the movie, leading to a wonderful breakdown of how much money the world has spent rescuing Matt Damon. Roughly US$900 Billion, adjusted for inflation).

The way all of the problems are solved in the book are wonderful. If you like McGyver, or that one scene in Apollo 13, if you’ve ever done Odyssey of the Mind spontaneous problems, you will love this book. The way that NASA realizes that Watney is still alive is one of the best points, in my opinion, but everything about how he keeps himself alive, builds and rebuilds life support systems, was wonderful. And even when things go wrong-and lots of things go wrong-it was interesting and realistic. (If you didn’t read the alt-text on the xkcd cartoon, it states “I have never seen a work of fiction so perfectly capture the out-of-nowhere shock of discovering that you’ve just bricked something important because you didn’t pay enough attention to a loose wire.”) It also made me consider how absolutely amazing it is that we have ever been to space. Everything, absolutely everything, has to go right, or everything immediately goes wrong.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough to anyone who enjoys hard science fiction, anyone who enjoys suspenseful novels, and anyone who enjoys a fun beach read. I finished in two days; someone without kids can probably do it in one.  It’s not that the book is perfect, the author admits that in a few places he had to take some liberties with the science in order to make it workable. He just ignored how radioactive being in space is, for instance. But most of it is pretty accurate, and the whole book is a fantastically fun read. If you missed it the first time it went around, you should probably pick it up today.

                                     

Zeitoun

220px-ZeitounZeitoun, Dave Eggers

Imagine, if you will, a time when the threat of terror attacks has led to a drastic curtailing of civil liberties, and discrimination and oppression of Muslims. When it comes to immigrants, Muslims, and other people of color, law enforcement seems to operate with impunity. And many key government appointments seem to be held by staggeringly incompetent people with no actual qualifications. In fact, many historians are saying that the current president will go down as possibly the worst in history.

Yes, 2005 was a different time. A time many of us miss now, but I think that’s because we’ve forgotten how frightening it really was. Zeitoun is a good reminder.

Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers, takes place in New Orleans right before and in the weeks after Hurricane Katrina. The title character, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, is a Syrian-American immigrant, a Muslim, and a builder and general contractor in New Orleans. When Katrina is coming, while his wife evacuates with the kids, he stays behind to watch over the property. He and some friends spend the days after the hurricane boating around the streets, helping to rescue neighbors, deliver water and supplies, and help abandoned pets. Amazingly, when help finally comes, he and his friends are arrested by the National Guard and held for 23 days without notifying his family, or giving him access to a lawyer.

This is a narrative non-fiction, along the lines of What is the What, and I find that Eggers is particularly adept at this. I know it’s popular to dislike him-partly because he gets all prickly about criticism-but he is a talented writer and story teller. And his particular style does well in highlighting huge, intimidating problems in a manageable way, relating to one individual, and what abstract concepts-like civil liberties-or major news stories-like the civil war in Sudan-actually mean.

I found Zeitoun fascinating. I was and am a very politically involved, politically aware person but had actually not heard about the renditions in New Orleans after Katrina, or that this was used in another front to push what is allowable in the fight against terrorism. But wrapped up in the horror of the lack of planning pre-hurricane, the lack of effective response, the fact that a white suburb and their police force blocked black residents from entering, and law enforcement shot people looking for food, apparently the government did find time to send in the National Guard to look for terrorist. The response to Katrina was even worse than many of us knew.

I’m incredibly glad that I read this book, and was reminded of how things were, and which fights under the Trump administration are new, and which are ones that we never finished during and after Bush. It may seem that this is a book that would only be timely for a little while, and perhaps in popular view it is, but I always find it useful to read topical books much later, or popular fiction from decades ago, or historical books that go into the daily life rather than major events, to remember what we so easily forget from our history. It’s important that we don’t let such events fade into the background. Partly for when it seems we’re in a more dangerous time, so we can look back and remember that politicians and newspapers always say we’re in the most dangerous time. And partly so that we can be on the look out for real dangers—like the destruction of civil liberties—and know the warning signs and how to fight back. And so we remember what was tried before and failed, and don’t get suckered by it again. (Those last two are things that the U.S. in particular needs to work on.)

I think that in writing this review I need to also explore the controversy surrounding the book. In short, in the two years after Zeitoun was published, Abdulrahman Zeitoun and his wife, Kathy Zeitoun, separated, with his wife citing abusive behavior. He was eventually arrested for plotting to have his wife and her son killed. This is, obviously, horrific behavior. And from what I was able to tell, Eggers refuses to seriously address these issues since writing the book. However, I do not think that they undermine the book, and, from what I can tell, other than suggesting that Zeitoun may not have been the “perfect victim” of the police state, do not dispute the main facts of the book: that he stayed behind in New Orleans, that he and his friends were helping others in the days after the hurricane, and that he was eventually arrested on suspicion of being a terrorist and held for 23 days with no access to a lawyer or his family.

Kathy Zeitoun has said that the presentation of their relationship was true at the time the book was written, while at the same time saying there had always been some violence. She also said that Zeitoun became more violent and radical in his Islam after his detention. It is not unbelievable that someone who had been through such an ordeal may have seen their behavior altered dramatically. I am not defending his violence at all or trying to deny or excuse attempted murder. Only that it can be the case that the presentation in the book was mostly true, and that Zeitoun, while doing good things for others after Katrina, is not actually a great person and only deteriorated after his detention.

If that ruins the concept of the book for some people, I understand, and I didn’t know about it until after I finished the book and started looking up other reviews. If I’d known it before, it would undoubtedly have colored my opinions when reading it. However, I still recommend the book for the reasons I listed. It’s an engaging and highly readable story, and it covers a topic that we should all remember. A major American city was destroyed because of incompetence, the citizens continued to suffer because incompetence was compounded by racism, and in the midst of this we found time and resources to seek out and arrest Muslims we suspected of sneaking into a flooded city. As we find ourselves again being told to fear the others and accept leaders who know nothing of governing, told, indeed, that one of the most competent and inspiring presidents we’ve had was destroying the country simply by being other, it seems a very timely read indeed.

Institutions and Trump

I’ve seen pages of digital ink spilled about whether or not our institutions are strong enough to stop the worst of Trump, and just the other day had a conversation where I was told that he was President now, and that we had to trust the system.  Obviously, putting any trust in the “institutions” or “systems” that have already allowed Trump to take power is wrongheaded in the extreme.  But here’s the other thing that anyone who suggests that we calm down, stop over reacting, and trust in our institutions gets wrong.

Institutions are made of people.  They are not living, breathing, sentient beings in and of themselves.  Institutions are created by and sustained by people, and the decisions we make everyday.  Courts can’t stop Donald Trump without people freaking out and filing lawsuits, the free press doesn’t work without people aggressively seeking and reporting the truth, elected officials will too often take the easiest path and so Congress won’t hold anyone accountable without people protesting, marching, and attending townhalls.  Democracy does not just happen on its own through “institutions” chugging along.  Civil rights, extension of voting rights, exposure of corruption, the continuation of democracy, the all happen because people make the institutions work, force them to if necessary.

The protests you see are the institutions working.  Every massive social change and progress in the United States or elsewhere in the world that has been accomplished peacefully is because people trust the systems that are in place, but know that they must be prodded, shored up, protected, or forced to act.  Civil disobedience, protests, and lawsuits show trust in institutions, and that society will do the right thing.  Without that trust you get violent revolution or terrorism, depending on what side you support.  But trust doesn’t mean abdicating responsibility.  It means working through the institutions.  That’s what civil rights heroes, suffragettes, muckrakers, and early unions did.

As the saying goes, democracy is not a spectator sport.  And it should not just happen every four years.  If you don’t like what’s happening, but think things will work out because we’re America, you are wrong.  America works because Americans make it work-and because we are lucky enough to have the tools to make change.  Don’t just trust the institutions, use them.

The Road to Little Dribbling

road-to-little-dribblingThe Road to Little Dribbling, Bill Bryson

I believe I have mentioned once or twice that I will read anything Bill Bryson writes.  So when I saw Road to Little Dribbling on a “Buy 2 get the 3rd free table” only a few weeks before going on a family vacation, well, how could I resist?

One of Bryson’s earlier books is Notes from a Small Island, about his time as an American expat living in Britain.  Oddly enough, I have never read that particular book.  This is probably because once my to-be-read collection exceeded two shelves, the only new books I acquire are from the library book sale, gift-receiving and gift-giving* occasions, and the two for three table at a bookstore.  That’s a shame, as Little Dribbling is a successor to Notes and references it on several occasions.  It wasn’t at all difficult to follow the newer book, mind you.  I just wish that I could have caught all of the call backs.

Notes from a Small Island was written after Bryson, originally from Des Moines, IA, had been living in Britain for a few years.  He’s ended up marrying an English girl and living and working in Britain for over 20 years, with occasional breaks to live in the US.  In Little Dribbling he is preparing to officially become a British citizen, and so decides to travel from one end of the island to the other.  His rules in the beginning of the book were that he would go to new places rather than just recapping his travels in Notes, but he seemed to also spend an awful lot of time recapping his travels from Notes.

I always enjoy Bryson’s writings, and when he is good he is very, very good.  He has a dry wit, an eye for details that others would miss, obvious delight in the things he enjoys, and a liberal dosing of random information and trivia that I always find fascinating.  A reviewer once criticized one of my favorites, One Summer, America 1927, as a “unusually slight…highly amusing encyclopedia” and its hard to disagree, but that’s what I buy the books for.  In this book alone I learned about the odd British craze of holiday camps, the oldest hominid in Britain, how the green belt system works, the arrangement of municipalities in the country, and loads about railroad history.  Who doesn’t want that in their vacation reading?

For all that, though, this wasn’t my favorite of Bryson’s books.  For one thing, while I do enjoy reading about the parts of Britain that he loves-and a walking tour there does sound absolutely lovely, now I want to go on one-it did start to get a bit redundant.  I lost track of exactly how many places there are the loveliest scene he’s ever beheld.  I know how he feels, though.  Every bend in the drive around the California coast will take you to the most breathtakingly beautiful sight you’ve ever seen in your life.  A wonder to drive, but if I’m describing it at some point I would run out of adjectives for “gorgeous” and “spectacular” and start to bore you.

And sometimes the book swings too far in quite the opposite direction.  I regret to note that in his old age Bryson has turned into a bit of a curmudgeon.  He’s always been a bit of a curmudgeon, and sarcastic complaints about society turn up always.  They’ve moved away from creative and humorous and more towards “get off my lawn!” space.  There is actually a complaint about what kids today wear in this book, as well as the rather unoriginal observation that pop culture is vapid.  I feel that he could do better.

Lastly, it was a bit odd reading this book now, one month into the Trump administration, a year after Brexit, and realizing it was written in 2015 as these things are beginning to get started but we still thought they wouldn’t happen.  Bryson is never really political, other than in the commonsensical way people in the midwest used to be-a belief that things should work properly, that they require a bit of involvement and money in order to do so, that people should treat each other decently, and more or less mind their own business unless there’s a reason not to.  But these are all controversial statements now, and his irritation with shortsighted austerity programs, and extremely gentle defense of immigrants-after all, he is one-are impossible to read without thinking of where they in context of a society that will continue down that road.  At least for me.

For all that, though, this book was still an enjoyable distraction.  I read it while on vacation and watching three small children, and it was good for that.  Not so taxing that I couldn’t read it while my attention was divided, and not so light that I forgot to pick it back up.  Perhaps not Bryson’s best, but all in all worth the purchase price.

 

*I often buy my husband books that I’d like to read.  Usually I also think he’ll like them.

 

Proust Was a Neuroscientist

Proust Was a Neuroscientist, Jonah Lehrer

Jonah Lproust-was-a-neuroscientistehrer’s first book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist aims to make the argument that artists may understand the human condition even better than scientists.  In particular, neuroscience—probably an easy place to make the case, seeing as how relatively young neuroscience is compared to other disciplines and how little we still know about the brain.  It’s not a bad idea, and I generally agree that art can be another way of knowing and explaining the world in a different way from science that the Western World should have a great deal more respect for-that’s why I picked up the book.  But in this case, the execution was severely lacking.

The book starts with Lehrer—a Rhodes scholar who studied both neuroscience and humanities as an undergrad—taking a break to read some Proust, as so many of us do.  While reading A la recherche du temps perdu he was struck by Proust’s discussion of eating a madeleine being transported to a scene from his childhood.  Now, far be it from me to question the origin story for this book, but if there’s one thing any cultured intellectual type person knows about Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past it’s that it’s really, really long.  And if there’s a second it’s that the taste of a madeleine and tea returns him to the happiness he felt as a child.  However it happened, that passage made him think of how neuroscience has since proved how closely scent is tied to memory, but that Proust was onto it far earlier.

I found the discussion tying Proust’s discussion of how his memory worked to scientific research into memory intersting, but the book never made a strong argument for why we should care outside of an intellectual curiosity.  And the book struggled to defend its thesis-that art often predates science.  Most of the relationships seemed quite tenuous, some of them just seemed wrong.  According to Lehrer, because she said that to be alive is to grow, George Elliot’s books suggested that our personalities are in flux and we are constantly growing and changing.  I’m not entirely sure that she’s the only author who has suggested such a thing, but I am entirely sure that she wasn’t actually arguing that our neurons can repair themselves (a relatively recent discovery) or that our brain is constantly making new neural pathways.  I doubt that what she was saying was even particularly controversial at the time, and certainly not arguing against science.  It just seems a bit of a stretch to say she’s predating official neuroscience.

Elsewhere we have strong connections, but Lehrer never takes the step to show why art may better explain the world than science.  Gertrude Stein’s poetry is highlighted to show that she understood that there were innate building blocks to language long before Chomsky proved that there was a universal grammar.  (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Universal_grammar).  The problem here is that, as Lehrer himself points out, Stein studied psychology and studied writing and language in particular, so it seems odd to make the point that it’s where art and science are clashing.  (There’s also the small problem that the theory of universal grammar has found itself under criticism recently and may not be true.  But I suppose if you had to wait for the science to be settled you could never write about neuroscience.)  What seems undoubtedly true, though, is that Stein found writing and poetry to be a better medium for her to explore the realities of language that psychology.  Why would this be?  Was it purely the hostility of the male students and teachers?  Had science not caught up with what she had to say?  Did she find art to be a better and more useful medium?

Stein seems as if she should be a great jumping off point for a discussion of how art can be used to explore a concept that science may not have explained.  And in other cases perhaps art explores new areas of conscience, describes the human experience in a different way than science does.  Art and science can be complementary paths to helping us understand the world, and art can express truths that we all know but that science has not been able to prove, or has not yet found a way to explore.  This seems the reason that science should actual share more with the humanities.  Instead, Lehrer seems on the verge of actually constructing an argument for more respect for art, but stops short and gets too distracted coming up with crazy coincidences and chasing false comparisons.  Ultimately, we’re left with a few mildly interesting connections and nothing else.  There’s just no there there.

One of Many Election Post-Mortems

I am in horror today, and like more than half of America I am grieving.  I had so much difficulty seeing my children this morning and wondering what kind of world I’m leaving them, so much trouble talking to the Muslim woman who watches my daughter, and her daughter, who had voted in her first election and been out organizing all week.  So much trouble just driving to work and seeing the news and listening to the radio and pretending that anything is okay.

And I am shocked.  Shocked because of how wrong all of the polls were, in ways no one saw, true.  But also shocked that anyone could have voted for Donald Trump.  Shocked that he could have made it this far.  And I am left wondering how this could happen.  Obviously we have a lot of outreach to do and a good long ways to grow.  But there’s a lot of blame to go around.

Last night I was watching CNN as the election returns came in.  And as it became clear what was happening, the anchors seemed in shock and as horrified as  those of us at home.  And of course they did, because they know what this means, and they know how dangerous Trump is.  But as I was watching, I was wondering, CNN, are you happy with the choices you’ve made?  Happy with the decision to hire people who are still on Trump’s payroll?  Happy with the decision to cover the story of State Department e-mail protocols as if it was the same as every single thing that Trump did?  Happy that you analyzed e-mail dumps from a hack by a foreign power–e-mail dumps that only showed us that Clinton was a politician involved in politics, but nevertheless “raised questions”?  Happy that you spent all of the primary and most of the general election airing Trump’s every utterance, giving him hundreds of hours of free airtime and providing him an unchallenged platform on your station?  Happy with continuing the long-standing practice of evaluating everything based on what it meant for the election rather than what it actually meant for policies and for people?  Because all of these decisions shaped this election and went into making last night’s result happen.

I don’t want to unduly pick on CNN here.  Yes, they made some of the most indefensible decisions, such as hiring Corey Lewandowski.  But I think Jake Tapper has done very good work in pushing Trump’s people, and we’ve all enjoyed Ana Navarro.  Their decisions, though, are similar to what other respected media giants such as NYT, Washington Post, MSNBC and others have made.  Unlimited coverage for Trump, only horse race coverage during the primary, pretending the e-mails are the same as anything else because of “balance” or hating Clinton or who even knows.  On Super Tuesday the major networks barely mentioned Clinton’s wins, and showed Trump’s entire acceptance speech for goodness sake.

During this election season we had at least 1000 articles on Trump’s supporters, and an equal number on Hillary Clinton’s enthusiasm problem.  Where were the articles on her supporters, on why so many people were supporting her, a chance for people to tell the story of why they were voting for Clinton?

When it came to free media of rallies and the like, there was no semblance of balance.  And yet for scandals, the media felt compelled to pretend that the candidates were alike.  For every horrible thing Trump did, the media covered the e-mails.  The articles always summarized the “scandal” by pointing nothing was actually wrong–but there were clouds.  And questions.  And shadows.  Leaving every voter with the impression that there was something wrong when there wasn’t.  Yes, there were articles on Trump’s Foundation, well researched articles on his taxes, but all the scandals together probably got as much focus as e-mails where, well, nothing was wrong, per se, but surely there were questions.

And in the meantime we had to treat everything Trump said as worthy of respect, and pretend that this was a normal race.  Remember when Clinton gave an incredibly well researched speech with loads of obvious examples about how Trump was getting support from the new racist and white supremacist movements?  And then Trump tweeted that Clinton was the real racist?  And then the media the next day played it off as Trump and Clinton were trading barbs?

Many journalists undoubtedly think that they did what they were supposed to do, researching Clinton and researching Trump.  But the truth is that they built up stories about nothing for Clinton into stories of potential scandal, and to voters created the impression that these candidates were equally corrupt and untrustworthy, when there was never a competition.  The pretended that calling Trump racist was just candidates trading barbs.  Pretended that calling the KKK deplorable was a gaffe, rather than digging in to the racism.

And at the tail end of the election, the media published and poured over private e-mails from a hacked server that had almost definitely been procured by a hostile foreign power, and decided to publish a Republican press release rather than waiting a half hour for clarification.

There are ten thousand things that went wrong here, and so many problems in our country that this election has shown.  But I certainly hope that the mainstream media, who, for all the discussion of new media still have a large part to play, are considering the criticism they received throughout a lot more seriously.  Because it is largely due to them that we will now see President Trump.

Lost in a Good Book

lost-in-a-good-bookLost in a Good Book, Jasper Fforde

Lost in a Good Book is one of those books that would be bad if it weren’t so good.  It runs the risk of being too clever by half, but it’s just clever enough, and the risk of being too convoluted, and too gimicky, but in the end it’s none of those.  Just an incredibly fun read and especially wonderful for literary nerds who can get all of the references.

The second book of the Thursday Next series, following The Eyre Affair, Lost in a Good Book takes place in 1985 Britain in a world that is very similar to ours, but is different in a few very big ways.  For instance, genetic engineering can occur through at-home cloning kits-our hero has a pet dodo.  And because of that Neanderthals were cloned but are not allowed to breed and are fighting for their rights.  Most long distance travel occurs through pneumatic tubes.  Vampires and werewolves are real, but are mostly just a nuisance.  Time travel is real, and the Crimean War has been going on for over 100 years.  And the most important difference: literature is important.  Really, really important.  Like, people get trampled at book sales and there’s an entire police agency dedicated to book forgeries and keeping books the same important.  Oh, and also some people-although not all-can jump back and forth between the fictional world and the real world and interact with the characters.  That’s kind of important, too.

In The Eyre Affair, Thursday Next is on the hunt for her former literature professor turned master criminal, Acheron Hades, who has kidnapped Jane from Jane Eyre for blackmailing purposes.  Next tracks him down and saves the novel-making a slight adjustment to the ending-but also traps someone from Goliath Corporation (if you can’t tell from the name, they’re bad guys) in the text of The Raven.

Lost in a Good Book picks up after the events of The Eyre Affair have settled down somewhat.  Thursday is married to her childhood sweetheart and expecting, she’s a minor celebrity for saving Jane Eyre and back at work.  Unfortunately, others have demands on her time as well.  Her time-traveling father, a former Chronoguard officer who now officially doesn’t exist, is warning her that the world is about to be destroyed under pink goo, and JurisFiction, a secret department made up primarily of fictional characters hopping between worlds, is both arresting her for meddling in Jane Eyre (which results in a great trial á la Kafka) and making her an agent, and the Goliath Corporation wants help bringing their employee back from The Raven.

It can all get a bit confusing.  Fforde’s books definitely keep you on their toes.  But they move along briskly, and they’re clever enough, witty enough, and fun enough to keep the reader involved.  For a ridiculously pretentious read, it doesn’t take itself too seriously.  And the messiness of the plot recalls other British authors as well.  It’s a bit of Douglas Adams via a tour through the classics section of the library.