Friday, April 28, 2017

Just Getting Started

What you're looking at here is the original starter from a 200 Land Rover Discovery II.  Resquiat en pace, little starter, seventeen years was a good run.

Replacing one of these things is as simple as disconnecting two wires, and undoing two bolts.  It's normally a fifteen minute job, but this one took three hours because the bolts had thoroughly seized up.  To get enough leverage to break them required cutting out a half inch piece of the transmission flange - not an easy thing to do given the location of the starter.  So it wound up being over two and a half hours to undo the bolts, and then a fifteen minute swap out.

Bear in mind, that it didn't take ME three hours, it took a friend of mine three hours.  He offered to show me how it's done, and then wouldn't take no for an answer when the time scale of the project inflated.  He enjoyed the challenge, and I enjoyed the camaraderie. 

It was just another reminder of one of the high costs of technological specialization.  The massive amounts of electronics and digital controls in modern cars precludes men from crawling under the hood and tinkering.  Which in turn eliminates an excuse for bonding between and among men. 

This change in American car care is grossly under-considered.  Most analyses begin and end with a celebration of the increased complexity and the reduced "need" to tinker, but it would be nice to see more acknowledgement of how working on cars brings men together.  Not much of a car guy myself, I'm only now beginning to appreciate the car culture, and how far it differs from the culture at large.  If you've never entered a car parts store such as an O'Reilly's, you might be surprised at how generous people are with their time and expertise.  Random strangers will stop and ask what you're doing, and offer helpful advice or stop and take 20 minutes out of their day to help you solve a puzzle.

As one example, the first time I had to change the tire on my Land Rover required three trips to O'Reilly's, and the purchase of a particular kind of tire iron.  The bolts on this vehicle are specifically designed to be removed only with a six point ratchet - a 12 point won't do it.  If you don't know what that means, don't worry, neither did I nor the two guys who stopped to help me solve it.  We only fixed it because each of them called two separate friends, only one of which could tell us that that 12-point ratchet we were using didn't give us enough torque.

It took ten guys to figure that out - when was the last time ten random guys stopped to help you with anything?  It doesn't happen often, but it happens to me at the car parts store all the time.  It's a subtle sort of goodwill, transitory and random and entirely informal, but it's an important one.  It's an acknowledgement that we are all in this together, and that we all have each other's backs.  It's an  important social glue that is passing away, and it's a shame.

There's an irony at work here.  I firmly believe that there are forces at work doing everything they can to wage war on private car ownership.  Every time the CAFE standards go up, every time another thousand dollar safety device is mandated, and every time the gasoline tax goes up, it makes it that much harder for everyday Americans to own a car.  When you hear the bizarro world calls in the media for robot driven cars, shared cars, and increased public transit ridership, that's all part of a concerted effort to reduce the freedom and independence that comes from owning your own method of transport.  At least for the hoi polloi - most of those pushing this agenda make six figure incomes and know full well that they won't be called on to give up their freedom or independence.

It's a way of making everyone more dependent on those around them - through the blunt tool of government.  And most of the people calling for these sweeping changes sleep well at night knowing that their benevolent and wise guidance will lead the nation to a better place, where everyone takes care of everyone else. 

In fact, these deluded fools - many of whom have never set foot in a car parts store - simply don't have the experience to understand how well Americans already take care of each other in a myriad of informal, everyday ways.  They are blinded by their egos to the reality on the ground, and are actually destroying one of the knots that holds the fabric of this great nation together.

As for me, I'll hang onto my pre-digital ride as long as I can.  In a very real way, keeping that bucket of bolts on the road is a team effort that represents the best that America has to offer.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Black Company, Fingers Crossed

The Black Company is coming to a small screen near you.

As a card carrying member of the pulp revolution, I tend to favor heroic fiction that fun and free-wheeling, but Glen Cook got me through a lot of years of pink slime.  It’s exactly the sort of grim and gritty setting featuring the moral ambiguity and anti-heroes that constitute the only sort of story media wants to tell these days, but it’s done so well that I love it anyway.  Part of the reason I’ve never much cared for George R. R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice series it that it is but a pale echo of Cook’s far superior offerings.

Glen Cook
It’s a little surprising that it took this long to get The Black Company off the ground.  It’s tailor made for a relatively low-budget production.  The big set-piece battles are few and far between.  Most of the on-screen action takes place in the lulls between battles or on the periphery of the big fight scenes.  We hear about massive street fights in the city of Beryl, but as the palace guard, the Black Company and its commanders spend their time running around trying to save the Syndic.  They get up so all sorts of foolishness during the campaign in the north, but the ending of the massive siege of the city of Roses gets brushed aside by Cook by way of Croaker, who describes it with one sentence:  “So we took Roses.”
Sure, you have your Stair of Tear and all the strangeness of the Plain of Fear.  It will be interesting to see how they deal with those and the flooding of Dejagore.  But even with those massive projects, the bulk the narrative takes place in the small scale, quiet moments of the world shaking events.
One of the two biggest questions in my mind revolve around the casting.  Eliza Dushku makes sense, the Lady is of the North.  But the Black Company as a whole?  If you’ve read the series, you know their source is anything but faux-European, and one of the big surprises in the book is that most of the early Company men were likely swarthy faux-Persian or even faux-Asiatics.  How they deal with this issue should prove amusing as the alt-white sneers at obvious white washing, and then how the Narrativists grumble that the explicitly faux-African types in the early part of the story (the wizards One-Eye and Tom Tom) are fairly comical in nature.  Then, as the Black Company replaces its numbers in the North, the cast will get whiter and whiter, causing even more aggravation among those for whom these things are Very Important Aspects of Media.

Then you have the question of casting Soulcatcher.  Soulcatcher is a masked wizard, one of the most powerful, but exactly who she is and what she looks like – whether she really is a she at all! – is left as a mystery until well into the series.  Whoever takes that role will be stuck behind a mask for a good long while to preserve the suspense.  Let’s hope whoever wins that important role takes a page from Karl Urban’s portrayal of the The Law in Dredd.
The series is wonderfully intricate.  As mentioned above, it’s what George R. R. Martin wanted to achieve and fell short of with his own epic fantasy, after all.  But a lot of that intricacy is subtle.  Things planted in book one are not paid off until book ten.  I remain skeptical that the producers understand the full depth of the property they hold, and doubt their ability to deliver on Glen Cook’s promise.  Nevertheless, this is one series that I’ll keep an open mind on and give a fair shot.

It’s the least I can do for one of my favorite fantasy series.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Hugo Novelette: Touring with the Alien

Tomas Diaz beat me to the punch on this review, and more power to him for that. My review was written without peeking at his.  As you'll see, he takes a far more cerebral approach to his review, and I highly recommend giving his blog a read. Where I deal with the brass tacks of this story's inherent contradictions, he delves into the actual philosophical conundrum that arises whenever a nihilist starts flapping their gums.

Onwards and up(?)wards!

Carolyn Ives Gilman takes a stab at Lovecraftian fiction with Touring with the Alien.  Like the alien-human-road-trip film that likely inspired this short story (see left), while the tradesmanship is fine, the pointlessness and meaninglessness of the tale result in nothing more than a few fleeting moments of enjoyment that as forgettable as the story itself.

Reading Touring with the Alien was a much more pleasant experience than my last foray into Hugo territory.  Unlike Alyssa Wong, Gilman sticks to tried and true prose and narrative structures that work.  Her descriptions of a cross country tour evoke the drifting way that time seems to expand as the miles fly by, the terrain outside the window changes, and the towns stay the same, and then contract for the memorable slices of Americana like a downtown café or a county fair.

Her descriptions of a mother's grief at the loss of a child are strong and poignant, with every aspect of the story from the gray weather to the wet grass to the broken terra-cotta angel left on her daughter's grave lending itself to instilling a feeling of sorrow in the reader.  This aspect of Avery, the point-of-view character, humanizes her with a fullness that you don't see all that often in today's 'female bad ass secret agent' characters.

It's tight and compelling writing.  Shame its wasted on such a pointless story.  Carolyn Ives Gilman continues the Hugo Award trend of failing to understand the difference between a trade and an art.  Gilman masterfully strings together sentences that pile up into a pointless heap of garbage the way a master carpenter might lend his talents to this monstrosity:

The phrase "point-of-view character" used to describe Avery sounds clunky, but it's as good as it gets.  For all that she is presented as a sympathetic victim of fate, she is no hero.  She consigns humanity to the dustbin of history, regretful only that she wasn't given the free choice to do so, but was tricked into it by the slave of the alien slavers come to conquer the earth:
Gilman knows which side of the Hugo bread is buttered, and right out of the gate, she checks that all important box without which no story can be considered for the silver rocket:

With that passage, as pointless as the rest of the story, we are two for two in the 2017 Novelette category for tacked-on virtue signaling.  Gilman stops the narrative before it has even begun in order to wave a red flag of GoodThink around the arena to distract the ever-present bulls of the thought police.  She knows full well that without this signal the rest of the story becomes as pointless as, well, as the rest of the story.  She knows that without the first sentence of that paragraph, this story would not have been a Hugo Contender.   Of course, given the SJW penchant for quoting out of context and utter lack of reading comprehension, every sentence of this paragraph after the first will be ignored by them, but the struggle is the glory.  Once again, the objection here is not the inclusion of a homosexual character, but the hamfistedness manner in which its done.  The character of Lionel is expressly written as Hispanic, an important check mark in the racial inclusivity box, but unlike Blake and Jeff, the fact of Lionel's race is presented seamlessly and organically.

There is a second passage that once again showcases Gilman's insular provinciality.  This is a woman so steeped in her own culture that she paints the Other with a brush that reveals more about herself than those whom she writes:
The complete and utter lack of self-awareness of these authors never ceases to amaze.  Desperate to signal her GoodThink and inclusivity, she writes off whole swathes of people with whom she has only the most passing familiarity.  Her egotistic vie of herself as an urbane and sophisticated auteur dispensing deeper truths stands on a foundation of utter ignorance and profoundly crude assumptions about rural Americans. 

And that sort of shallowness of thought doesn't limit itself to descriptions of 'flyover country', it that permeates Touring with the Alien.  Avery is presented as a smart and tough operator who outwits the CIA, but who then gets fooled by her boss and the inexperienced and naïve alien slave, Lionel.  Avery bounces from caring sister to hard case to grieving mother to indifferent genocidal maniac with head snapping speed.  The aliens are presented as all-wise, then know-nothing - eating raw cats makes you sick, bro - with the same sort of disregard for continuity or sense.

Then there's the complete disconnect between the story's main theme of "Nothing really matters," and the constant reminders that we are surrounded by big deals.  All of these disconnects slowly pile up the thoughtful reader's mind, making this story a complete and utter hash.

It's well written hash, and it's hash that the empty headed will enjoy, but in the end, Touring with the Alien is as pointless as the worldview it illustrates.