Monday, February 28, 2011

Why You Have to Say "I Can"

When I go out to climb, I have found that most of the people I meet on the rocks are warm, friendly, and sometimes even prone to invitations of inclusion toward complete strangers.  This is generally the opposite of the climbing gym, where people are very focused on what they are doing and are not particularly inclusive of new people--at least new people who are as shy as me.

Another thing about the outdoor climbing community that I love is a bent towards positive thinking.  I think this is because you just can't do climbing if you don't take a positive attitude toward your own skill--it's so easy to refuse to lead anything hard and to just bail out while not on lead as soon as it starts to get hard, yet if you just bail out, you never get anywhere.

I know my own problem, in equal measure to that irrational falling fear thing, is fear of failure.

Since I'm as self-conscious as the next person I am still sometimes annoyingly prone to saying things like "I doubt I'll be able to do this route" in the face of new territory.  I said something to that affect yesterday as some climbing strangers were passing by a 5.11A I was about to try, the first climb rated higher than a 5.10 that I'd ever attempted.  You know, in case they were to stop and watch me flail around miserably or something, at least I'd announced that I wasn't actually a 5.11 climber or anything I was just trying it out to try it so they couldn't laugh at me fail or whatever the hell reason drove me to make a ridiculous comment like that.

"You know, I think today is your day to be a 5.11 climber," they told me, in true outdoor climbing community fashion:  friendly and encouraging but in more than just a hollow "you can do it!" kind of a way. It was a patient yet unflinching reminder that among climbers is a safe place to try and to fail, that there is no room and no need to get caught up in silly self-doubt.  You know full well, they were telling me, that doubt is the lamest thing that will keep you from your success.  Which is not to say there isn't actual athleticism involved--there is--but it really is important not to underestimate yourself in a sport where every step is a possibility for something you've never done before and throwing yourself forward without worrying about that counts for half the battle.

And they were right, of course.  About the inappropriateness of any self-doubt, and that by god it was my day to be a 5.11 climber.  At least of that route.

I made a goal with myself, that I would stop looking at potential problems as things I probably couldn't do but would try anyway.  That attitude is better than one alternative---looking at potential problems as things I probably couldn't do so not trying--and makes it seem like I'm giving myself a way to not get so upset if I fail.  The problem with that way of thinking though, is that if failure looks imminent or even happens it is to easy to say "oh well I figured I wouldn't actually succeed so oh well," which in it's own way is like not trying. 

Now I want to start looking at things, and I mostly mean climbing things, but climbing is such a great metaphor for life, and thinking "it is entirely possible that I CAN succeed at this," or maybe even "I will succeed" and really believing that, without trying desperately not to be terrified that I won't.  Leave the "failure is probable and therefore not going to bother me" out of it--because setting up what I'm afraid of as likely just so that it's not such a disappointment when it happens is not making it not bother me, and not providing a true opportunity for an alternative outcome.

And that, I suppose, is one definition of confidence.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Intensity of Wild

The federally designated wildernesses near me truly are different even from the national forests and national parks to which they are peripherally attached.  Trails are rougher and aren't blazed, marked, or even completely maintained, and sometimes overgrown old trails that have been let go, animal highways, or just slightly-impacted places from human wandering off course are hard to distinguish from the real trail. An advanced level of navigation with thorough understanding of intended route and topography is needed.

Being there can give one pause, a slight reminder that the safety found in control of surroundings is at present more removed than usual. The trail is all you have connecting you back to that easier world and losing it would be putting yourself at the mercy of a force that humans have mostly conquered yet allow to live on in certain places, one of which you have entered willingly and must now respect.

I tend to be good at spatial thinking and I like being challenged in navigational way, and wilderness is appealing because of the depth of the wild around me, the removal of background sounds of human activity, the real way that nature reveals want she can do if she's left (well, for the most part) devoid of human management.

Yet the salient thing I notice about wilderness is that, no matter how many people I am with, it feels lonely.  I feel lonely there, in a way that isn't necessarily bad but is startlingly real, that fades away when I reach marked trails again even if those trails aren't particularly well visited either.  It's curious how traversing an area where the only sign of human passing is a narrow area of worn down underbrush feels lonely in comparison with areas of slightly more obviously worn down underbrush that are occasionally marked with a colored blaze or sign.  I know that in some ways it's all a farce, as I've only hiked a handful of miles from a paved road and even if the danger of getting lost is real if I'm stupid then I wouldn't have to travel more than twenty miles any direction to encounter civilization again.  Still, in the depth of the forest, loneliness.

Perhaps this is an instinct, a reminder that our rise to civilization was in fact a long struggle against the realities of living in nature untamed, or human-as-intensely-social-creature fear of being without the resources provided by a community of my own kind, or something.  Perhaps this is a kickback from how I felt here when I was younger, an only child dragged frequently into the woods by parents who sought all those Emersonean ideals while being too young to understand them and wanting only to play with children my own age.


Rock climbing is also about nature:  the nature of gravity and the nature of irrational fear.  Irrational in the sense that safety gear is rationally in place but instinct to not be in a such a tenuous position as clinging to a rock always remains.  Lead rock climbing is taking that safety gear and putting occasionally between you and it the possibility of a ten? fifteen? twenty? foot fall, perhaps more if your skill at setting up safety gear leaves something to be desired. 

Rock climbing can be pretty too, the geology can look interesting and the view from the top can be spectacular, but the relationship with nature is a more visceral one. It is about the nature of yourself, and how hard you are willing to fight against instinct to achieve something you want--without wavering in wanting it when things get scary.  When I lead climb, every second is a constant battle with myself to keep from giving in and accepting that maybe this isn't something I want bad enough to try until I fail.  It is a constant fight against freeze-and-go-nowhere hesitation.  Climbing is a pact with yourself, that you will trust your abilities enough to continue to further the challenge until it is complete, despite the fact that you can sometimes (although not always, and not so easily when you're ten feet from your last piece of safety gear) bail out.  It is a pact with yourself that you will not sell yourself short and decline to try because of fear or doubt.  The world becomes nothing but the problem in front of you, the mix of sediment and minerals at eye level, the movement of hands, feet, muscles flexing in commitment of going forward into a situation that is not at all certain but must be faced.

The feeling at the top of a lead climb is like nothing else on this planet.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Value is Valuable

When I first considered the green building/energy efficiency field, I admit my interest was 40% nerd-out to all the cool and interesting technological applications and 60% well here's an important way to save the planet.

The environmental importance of green building is nothing to understate:  building operation accounts for 35% of global energy consumption--the largest portion of that is associated with heating and cooling--while the manufacture, transportation, and construction of buildings and building components alone accounts for 5% to 8% of US greenhouse gas emissions.

Yet there are so many houses, and no matter how many net-zero homes we start building, the majority of the people are living in a building whose carbon emissions could be reduced with available technology but not with the available economics.  You can add in land-use concerns about building new buildings on undeveloped land in a world where we already need to be preserving natural spaces as potential carbon sequestration, and it's clear that no matter how nerdily-cool are many products, ideas, and systems available for the buildings of the future, the buildings that are already built are what need attention, even though the money to take an existing structure with yesterday's technology and vastly re-doing it with tomorrow's is not there for the majority of the people who own the majority of present buildings.

What I've found is that I care about "green building", energy efficiency, thoughtful design, how to do retrofits--all of it--for an additional reason, the more I do it--since money is so important in decisions made both by the individuals who own these homes and the companies who are trying to find a niche to make this stuff happen.  That reason is value itself, and being part of an industry that takes the time to give people something that really is equal to the advertised value.  Green building is about green but it's also about quality, and that is partially because "green" things like saving energy and avoiding wasteful use of materials are really about doing things right rather than just doing them nominally.  It's not just shoving in extra insulation, it's installing the insulation in a way that makes it actually perform to the level advertised on the package--since you know, you are paying for that level of performance when you bought the material.  It's not just putting on the "eco" windows and gutter option cause somebody told you it's green, it's thinking about how the environment will affect the house so that five or ten years from now the house doesn't fall down due to all the studs around your window being completely rotted out from a hidden leak-- since going into debt for thirty years on a product that only lasts ten is nobody's idea of a good deal.  Maybe the house would have cost you more to buy if your builder had taken more time to care about durability details, and yes, new green construction does typically cost some degree more.  In the more extreme cases of water-management stupidity and energy-efficiency ignorance, it's almost like buying a car with four wheels verses buying one with three:  the one with three is cheaper, but it doesn't function as a car so you still paid too much.  You also ultimately pay more for the car you have to drop a thousand bucks on to fix every ten thousand files than the cheap no-frills new car that lasts.

I just don't want people to throw money away on something that is really a stupid deal for them to begin with--or at least, I want other alternatives to having to do that in order to own a building to exist.  From an environmental standpoint building a low-quality house is hanus, because all those (carbon intensive to produce and ship) materials went into a stupid product that is likely to contribute to landfill waste sooner rather than later, that land is now occupied in something other than wildlife habitat, food production, or carbon sequestration, and the people who own it might find themselves stuck in money-pit repair problems and held captive to ever increasing energy bills, and who knows, maybe the thing is eventually foreclosed upon and now nobody even gets any shelter from the thing until somebody swoops in and buys it for cheap to demolish it (see landfill waste) and start over again.  I don't deny that people need housing and people who can't pay a premium for quality deserve housing of whatever sort they feel no objection to having just because better options exist, but my experience in the industry has driven me to feel the need to advocate for at least understanding what you're getting into, figure out how to add a base level of quality without adding a substantial premium, or just enabling same-cost options that feature quality over other aspects for those who DO value it.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Car Talk

Several memories, involving me, men, and cars:

My dad teaching me how to drive stick.  After suffering through the obligatory jerky parking lot hill starts and proceeding to normal-ish driving, he would sometimes yell at me "stop riding the clutch! stop riding the clutch!"

My high-school boyfriend, riding in the front seat while I was driving us through a washed-out gravel road, full of potholes.  "Stop! You're going to plant! You're going to plant!" he shouted at me.  "Don't plant!"

Since one generally has a hard time proceeding objectively when someone is yelling something nonsensical at you, I inherently ended up doing even more of the behaviors I was being told not to do.

In the second situation but not the first one, being considerably older and wiser, I stopped the car, turned the engine off, and rounded on my interlocutor.  "I will respect your advise if you present it to me calmly and tell me what you mean and why it's a bad thing for the car."

(What he called "planting" is driving through a pothole in such a way that your wheel goes into it so deeply that the frame of the car rests on the outside edges of the pothole, potentially even taking weight off of the tire. Driving forward in such a situation is very bad for frame, suspension, and axle.  In hindsight I don't think any of the potholes on that road were deep enough.)

This has been such a crucial life lesson.  Both that car issues can be understandable if one undertakes to understand them, and that people communicating only their frustration that you don't know something, are acting like assholes and should sometimes be called out accordingly.

A final car memory:  my dad, taking learners-permit me out after a winter snowstorm, having me stop and try to start at the bottom of a slushy hill.  I proceeded to slide and wheel-spin but followed his instructions and encouragement, put the thing in second, then third, and finally got going.  I experienced several slides and skids and weird driving obstacles that day, and to this day have strong confidence in my ability to drive my little sedan safely through snowy and icy roads if I need to.  So what I'm saying is, while sometimes a jerk, my dad is mostly awesome.

Speaking of Krispy Kremes

I've never been one of those people who could skip breakfast.  I ravenously seek out breakfast within the first moments of waking up, and I'm not going to be satisfied by a mere piece or toast or a protein shake, I'm talking full, balanced, protein-heavy meal, here. This has been true my whole life, which people who decry how stick-like I am and how I clearly need to eat more should take note of.  I eat plenty, thank you, and quite a lot of it in the morning.

When I was in middle grades, my school took us on a series of overnight field-trips, and all the drama of hotel-roommate picking and being non-picked that this entailed.

For breakfast, they fed the hordes of us a carton of milk and one krispy kreme donut each.  Since krispy kremes are darn cheap, and kids need calcium, and we gotta go quick, yo!

This made all of these field trips miserable for me, because I need to eat a lot more of whatever it is I have for breakfast than one donut's worth, combined with the fact that a krispy kreme is big on fluff and low on substance.  I was so hungry by 9 am that I could not concentrate on anything, was downright sugar-overload-no-energy sick by noon.

I can somewhat sympathize with the position the teachers and trip-planners were in, wanting to get us all food quickly, wanting to make trip prices affordable so we could all go. 

But to this day, I cannot smell a krispy kreme donut without feeling suddenly and desperately hungry.  And what I experienced on a few field trips is what some children have to fight with every day.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Climb Hard

So, after those heavy posts of the weekend, something light is in order.

Or maybe something lightly horrifying.  Ladies and gentlemen, I bring to your knowledge of it's existence the Krispy Kreme Challenge, in which competitors run two miles, shove down a dozen krispy kremes, and run two more miles.  That's one way to raise money for the children's hospital.  And probably a very vomit-y one, at that.

So.  More light news.  I had my first stint as a salesperson this week. In general with regards to selling things I choose to follow an axiom I first discovered in a poem my drama class performed under the guidance of our strange teacher in fifth grade, whereby we chanted to a slightly perplexed audience: "If you have to wash the dishes and you drop one on the floor, maybe they won't let you wash the dishes anymore!"  E.I., if I prove myself bad at selling things, I'll never end up stuck in sales.

But in the world of Getting it Done one must wear many hats, so I answered the phone, I took down the address, I went and measured things and answered questions.  Turns out the potential customer was a musician here in town who is quasi-famous here and who's CD I have.  I thought "wow that's so awesome I get to meet him and we can talk about his music and he'll buy insulation from me and it will be great!"  And I got to meet him, and he was nice, and I presented myself well enough but am still obviously new at this and he wasn't that excited that I mentioned I'd been to one of his concerts--and since he didn't call me back today odds are he went with somebody else.  Still, small worlds are fun.

Today I also stopped my social moping and got myself out to the climbing gym when it was actually busy. Predictably, when I arrived, the introvert in me wanted to crawl in a hole and contemplated just leaving right then.  This is always made worse by the super muscular dudes who are doing impossibly hard things in the main wall space and don't notice you except to mutter "sorry" when they back up into you.  But I didn't turn and flee, I made myself stick with it, claiming a little corner on the easy wall to work my pathetically non-great skills on pathetically easy routes.  And I worked on trying to keep myself from calling it all pathetically easy, too.

And you know, it was crowded, but some friendly people were about, and they came over to climb on the wall I was on, and I smiled and was friendly and outgoing and ending up working on a fair number of problems with them, learning a few tips I hadn't known about technique, joking around and being supportingly challenged to push myself.

This reminds several important lessons.  One, just smile and start small conversation with people, it doesn't have to be anything grand.  If they don't want to reciprocate they aren't likely going to be really mean about it, and in general they may well not mind.  In other words:  even if you're an introvert, being warm and outgoing works and is really not that hard.   Oh, and if doing so, ask about them, don't just talk about you.

Two, even though what I really want more of is a regular group and new best friends and people with compatible friendship styles to form really close friendships, just loose socializing is still good and fulfilling in it's own way.  It doesn't have to lead to anything deep, and the small stuff has to happen first anyway. 

And three, doing something challenging like trying to climb at your best with others is way better than doing it alone, because other people will push you where you are reluctant to push yourself.  Somebody with extreme mega discipline may not have that problem, but I will wimp out so easily on many athletic endeavors if it's just me talking to myself, and then I'll never get better.  Having somebody spotting you and saying "hey, don't hesitate, stand up on that leg" is just what I need sometimes, as well as "hey, have you tried this?"  Makes me wish I had those climbing best friends...but that's why going to the gym when other people are there is the way to start, even you're painfully shy when they're all so much better than you.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Words are for Communicating

 Trigger warning: this essay comments on rape and sexual assault, among other things.

I do volunteer work for part of the year with a program that works with at-risk teenage girls, using rock climbing and mentorship to help build confidence.  It is rewarding and really hard and awesome all at the same time, and I do it in equal measure because as a ropes course professional I have long believed in the power of rock climbing to help young people in general and in equal measure because I remember being an insecure teenage girl even though not dealing with inordinate family and life trouble, and am all for the underlying cause of rape-prevention that the program exists to work on by creating an ability to understand and communicate one's boundaries.

The downside of this being that observing very sad stories unfold sometimes happens, and that much thought into subjects of violence and sexual assault result.  This work and conversation is a part of my life, even if difficult and sometimes inflammatory to blog about, and sometimes I do think I've found some important things to say about it.

In addition to the girls we get who have very little confidence, who are very shy and have a hard time speaking up for themselves, we have girls who have internalized a message of violence at all times to protect themselves, of belittling, distancing and antagonizing men in particular and other people more generally as the only way to stay safe from them.  This is neither a way to live a healthy lifestyle, is harder, at least for me, to figure out how to help with, and it strikes me that in some ways the acceptability of this is as equally deep-wired as the social cues that contribute to under-confident women.

One aspect of this that deeply bothers me is that it is acceptable, even admirable or cutely sassy, for a woman to slap a man for a minor offense, while the reverse would ostracize and perhaps criminally indite the man who did the same thing.  Not that a man shouldn't be ostracized or criminally indicted, but why do women get a free pass on assault just because the victim is male?  This point is surprisingly hard to get across in discussions with young women about communication.

I have a somewhat personal understanding of where this acceptability comes from.  Many women generally live under a constant risk-analysis, which goes like this:

If I receive male attention while in a public place, is it of a benign, friendly, flattering kind, or of a creepy intent-to-do-me harm kind?  Is it a kind I could politely refuse if I didn't want it or heck maybe even safely reciprocate if I did like it and not have that be an open invitation for absolutely anything, or a kind I need to be firmly assertive in blocking and potentially ward off with self-defense if I'm inclined that way but at the very least a call for help and protection?  Because if I smile and am friendly and the guy starts being creepy, then by some societal rules, probably the ones in his mind, I just lead him on, the most asinine implication being that if I in any way could have been seen as leading him on then whatever he ends up doing to me to me is kinda sorta my fault too. Yet if I am overly rude, I'll be seen as a bitch, and while it may seem like no big deal or an acceptable price to pay for safety to be seen as a bitch by a total stranger, if I act that way toward every stranger I ever meet then I'm likely to miss out on meeting quite a few people I'd actually like to know.  Sometimes the difference between creepy and benign is obvious--but sometimes it isn't at all, because some great people suck at communication, and some very bad people are very good at manipulating others.

But if the choice was just the difference between sorting out good verses bad people among strangers, that would be one thing, something that's part of being a functioning adult even if sometimes difficult.  Everyone must go through that risk-analysis, because anybody could turn out to be a jerk or randomly hurt you and yet being open to no one means never making new friends.  Yet this particular choice for women is couched in a whole load of societal angst about what is appropriate and safe, mixed in with an extra helping of judgment, judgments that do not apply to other situations:  a woman trying to sort out the good verses the bad from stranger women, a man trying to sort out the good verses the bad from stranger women or stranger men. 

Women are supposed to both be smartly aware of danger and not put ourselves into stupid situations with men at the same time that we can't be too un-social, defensive, removed or unwilling to interact with men because then we'd be a bitch who's hard to make friends with.  If we do actually want to be desired by men who aren't going to hurt us, we're unable to do so if we must take the "ice queen" approach as the only method of personal protection.  And although women DO assault men and violently too, "Stranger Danger Rape" is generally attributed to men attacking women because it more generally happens that stranger men assault women than the reverse, and women who are sexually assaulted are put through the "well was she doing what she was SUPPOSED to be doing?" test in a way that victims of no other violent crime are not.  Just look at cases with rape charges against famous football players, or the case against Julian Assange.  Sure, there are bad women out there, who make up cries of rape to get attention or remove blame from themselves or as a tool for some other motivation or just to be bad people.  But we put women who cry rape through these "well come on, she was hardly screaming out DON'T VIOLATE MY BOUNDARIES in the events leading up to the rape, therefore maybe she has some culpability herself" judgments in a way we do not do to people who claim they've been robbed or beaten.

With this in mind, reserving the option to use a slap or other small act of violence in response to something that, while minor, can be seen as somewhat threatening, does seem like a tempting option.

This is further complicated by the fact that real sexual assault is 99% of the time NOT Strange Danger at all.  It's your best friend who you thought you could trust, your boyfriend who doesn't respect your boundaries, your boyfriend who doesn't respect your boundaries now because wtf you had sex with him before doesn't that mean sex anytime he wants, is the man you just want to like you and so when he goes too far well then maybe that's okay because you were sort of leading him on anyway and you know what his wants are more important than yours and he won't like you otherwise and isn't him liking you what you wanted most anyway?

If someone you think you can trust won't listen to you when you say no, perhaps you do have a right to use violence in your own defense--but who is going to do that?  It's your best friend! I'm not sure about you, but I could see myself  maybe defending myself from a uppity stranger but I am going to hesitate, perhaps critically, to attack my friend.  But if violence against men isn't such a big deal if he was asking for it, is just an okay thing for me to do because it's full of okayness if he's being a jerk, then defending against absolutely whoever I need to defend myself from is possibly a little easier.

So yeah.  The slap across the face for a forward comment, maybe it's tempting to let that be cutesy and sassy and fine.  Defending yourself against real sexual violence sure as heck is fine--if you happen to have the wherewithal to recognize it for what it is at the time it is happening and have no problem doing so even if it IS your best friend, and can deal with being judged as an overreacting psycho-bitch if it turns out he wasn't really intending to be that creepy.

But outside of self-defense, violence is still violence.  Rape and sexual assault are a particularly demeaning form of violence--and it is a form of violence that is perpetuated across all forms of gender-pairing.   Responding to something that is NOT violence itself just furthers the problem, no matter what gender you are.  Excusing an "all in good fun" kind of slap as a "cute" communication of boundaries furthers a double-standard that is damaging to all genders alike:  that in defense of personal space, words are not enough.  

Words should be enough, and there are enough bad or even just clueless people in the world that they won't always be.   But allowing violence in a situation that doesn't actually warrant it doesn't do a damn thing about that problem, and at worse sets up the expectation that words don't have to be listened to so you might as well do what you want.  Then you know, she wasn't actively struggling although she did say "no" so she must have been up for it after all and so it wasn't like, rape or anything, not really.

Plus, that guy you just slapped?  Now he's been assaulted just for saying something, and maybe that happened because you were expressing your own desire not to be assaulted yourself, but he WANS'T actually assaulting you, and transferring the violence against one party to violence against the other is just raising the rights of one group of people to not to be assaulted above the rights of another group not to be assaulted, perpetuating the destructive myth that more rights for women means less rights for men, that equality is a zero-sum game that must pit all the factions vying for equality against each other.  Then lost amid all this is the crucial skill of just communicating.

Fantasy and Information Presentation

I think I need a better book-recommending system.  My usual plan is to scan the library shelves at random, picking out the titles in my preferred genres of fantasy and science fiction that seem interesting, moving to the first page if the description/blurb holds my interest, and proceeding to check out the book only if I still want to know what happens after reading the first few pages.

It's crucial to me that books past the "first few pages" test, but lately what I've brought home hasn't stood up to the "first few chapters" test.

A friend of mine once posited that perhaps he ought to only read Hugo-Nebula awarded books in the SciFi/Fantasy genre to save time and guarantee a base level of quality, and I recalled that when I brought home my most recent reading endeavor by a Nebula finalist.

So far, not passing the "first few chapters" test.  The first chapter is suitably interesting and hints at rich, deep conflicts both internal and interpersonal to be unfolded---but from then on, nothing much happens.

Since she is a nebula finalist, and since the prose itself is good, I wonder if perhaps the book is just not my taste rather than not good craftsmanship.  I am so deeply in love with the fantasy genre, but there are certain ways of going about it that don't appeal to me at all, that strike me as not-great storytelling that I wouldn't stand for if I were a fantasy editor.

This book has two features that don't gel with me.  First, like all fantasy, it has an elaborate set of alternate physics, in this case that forms the bulk of the plot, in the sense that "magic going wrong" is the antagonist, and the clever protagonists must fight through past ghosts in order to figure out what's going wrong and fix it before the world explodes.

I actually quite love fantasy because of the alternate physics, but the presentation is important.  I don't find that the story "works" for me if the alternate physics comes across as random and nonsensical and every new twist must be explained by the magic-scholar protagonist in exposition to her side-kick because what is going on and what are the implications are in no way obvious, despite being central to the plot.

This is a fine line, surely, because the whole point of alternative physics is that it isn't like the physics we the reader already know, doing it too much like our cultural magic mythology becomes unoriginal and repetitive quickly, and devoting too many pages to showing rather than telling an initiate's training in the magic system makes your series turn into Wheel of TimeShowing things that are different without ever explaining them doesn't work either, but continually showing nonsensical things and then having the protagonist tell everyone about them is neither the correct approach.

In this case, the plot starts off with a woman traveling and fighting random earth-demons and worries from her past (interesting start), and then has her arriving at a city to deal with a strange map conjuration with strange things going wrong with it, indicating very bad doom and gloom that she must then logically go and do...something, to stop. The reader just hasn't been given enough of a sense of how these things relate and make sense to get the true gravity the story is trying to convey.  I don't fully appreciate the heroism of the protagonist because I don't have any idea enough about the magic system to grasp what is so heroic about what she is doing.  My only information about this new physics is what she decides to stop and lecture to the other characters.

Second, and equally annoying is the way the back-stories of the protagonist and her sidekick hero are revealed, post earth-demon fighting.  They pretty much meet each other in a bar fight and become lovers without much preamble, and spend their evenings asking each other overly dramatic questions about their pasts. Thus you learn of their back-stories by an entire series of "tell me why you're wearing that strange amulet",  "it's complicated...but I guess I'll explain" melodrama that just gets wearying after a while.

Both of these criticisms come down to a writing axiom I once learned that stipulates that The Infodump is a weak and suspect plotting tool.  A story full of one character telling another character things, about the world, about his or herself, just fails to have the depth of a story which finds a way to bring the reader into the story.  "Show, don't tell", they say, and although in fantasy and science fiction too much showing and no telling can be very confusing, telling too often and in the same way just makes for a story that feels forced.

Perhaps I am in the minority of the fantasy audience, because wise magicians (or scientists) Infodumping is a generally accepted way to going about working through some complications in fantasy (or science fiction).  Yet surely even this type of writing is better if the right balance of watching events unfold with providing information about these events in a non-lecturing way is reached.

I've seen this balance done well by authors like Holly Lisle in fantasy and Octavia Butler (more on her later) in science fiction, who bring the characters through a combination of discovering the physics on their own and correctly pinning down and focusing on the implications of the physics that are character-based and thus recognizable to readers by virtue of common humanity.  And even though it goes on too long, the way Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time works physics and world-building into a character-centered plot worked too, and it goes on too long because it has about fifty main characters and darn it you care about all of them just as much as because he lingers overmuch on world-building.

The author of this book is a Nebula finalist, although not for this particular work, and so her use of tools I'd always thought were clumsy and amateurish reflects that, what, my dislike of them is a matter of taste instead of an adherence to good form?  Sometimes writers write bad things after they write good things, so maybe the Nebula-nominated novel of hers is better.  Either way, this one's going back to the library sooner rather than later.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Politics Through the Lens of a Scientist

Me the scientist has always felt downright alienated by the way politicians have ultimately framed the climate change issue.  Lately it's too much of a political landmine and/or political old news to even get a mention at all, but that doesn't surprise me considering the pressing, deep-running and stubborn economic problems of the 2008-? recession.

Leading up to our forgetfullness of the whole issue, and even now, when it still get mention, there is a push from the political right to frame climate change as an "is it real or is it not" debate--which was true one to two decades ago when there was ample room for many legitimate skepticisms, yet the ongoing succession of refuting evidence has been ignored at best and deliberately redirected into pointless irrelevant realms of non-logic at worse. 

This is a game that is nothing new to politics but that doesn't make it not shameful.  And scientists, used to following a process that requires--however imperfectly--an honest adherence to truth only as far as one can reach it with carefully designed hard work, can so easily find it deeply wrong that truth in the political word is mutable or else possibly flimsily correct but full of glaring omissions.  The world-views are almost completely incompatible.

That plenty of policy-makers would deliberately obscure what science tells us doesn't really surprise me, because the reality of climate change sucks and who wants to do something hard when they could do something easy instead?  But it disappoints me so, from a "human civilization can address and solve problems" standpoint, and the thing that really does get my science blood boiling is when arguments that display an utter failure to grasp the science are held us as legitimate counterpoints, with the same level of credibility as thoughtful scientific inquiry.

The most crass example of this is of the "well trees need carbon dioxide so it's good for the environment and so it can't cause climate change QED" variety, but slightly more sophisticated yet equally scientifically wrong assertions exist, and at least in popular media stand among some of our politicians as if on the same scientific footing with verified fact.

This is not to say that scientists can never be wrong either.  In fact scientists set out to prove themselves and each other wrong all the time, and there is a wide, gaping, expansive difference between realizing that your understanding needs refinement after putting in the research and brainpower, and saying "well it's snowing so global warming can't be real" and not probing any further than that.

We can, and we should, have a debate on whether or not climate change is worth the high economic cost of dealing with now that the economy sucks or even if it didn't--and I would fundamentally argue and you may disagree that even amid a recession, this is the most pressing issue of our time and that reasons both economic, moral, and Preserving Of Our Own Asses abound to address this--but we aren't having that argument, and that's not because nobody on the right is scientifically literate and they all really thinks that carbon dioxide is good for trees and so what's the problem.

Perhaps the root of the political breakdown is that addressing it climate change is hard and involves things that conservatives don't like much. The kinds of proposals that have thus far been brought forth to address climate change stink of socialism and social engineering, which the right runs from at all costs and most Americans in general are highly wary of.

That doesn't have to be, though!  The only reason the past few climate bills are so liberalnomics oriented is because the liberals are the ones who made the show of sticking the green plank in their platform, and they're proposing to fix the issue according to how they look at society and absent input from the right about how to do it differently.  If you fundamentally disagree with the methods, as most fiscal conservatives no doubt do, that's a separate debate from whether or not there is a problem.  The Bigger Man approach, the Right Thing, is to still address the problem, to have the debate for what it is, and as a scientist, it is very, very difficult to have patience with anything less, even being fully aware that the ways of reasoned inquiry are not the ways of politics.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Starport Airport

Been sick, and then had a family emergency related to aging grandparents, and then sick turned into low-level migraines, and oh man, migraines mean all bets are off.

I know, I know, excuses, excuses.

So what I've got for now is just a link to The Awesomeness Way Airport Security Will Ever Inconvenience You.

Thanks to Real Physics, holograms are not just for Star Wars anymore, boys and girls!