Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Reading List

I am totally copying Atomic Nerds here and succumbing to one of those chain blog trend things.  So feel free to skip.  But I can hardly call myself a Science Fiction enthusiast and not comment on NPR's list of of top sci-fi and fantasy reads, the one's I've read, anyway.  The ones I haven't I just removed from the list.

1. The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy, by J.R.R. Tolkien

Here's something embarrassing: I read this purely because the kid I had a crush on in 7th grade was reading it.  But more than that, my best friend at the time and I both had a crush on him, and we were both racing to see who could read it first and make it the most obvious to him that we happened to be reading the same thing that he was reading ooh look how much we clearly had in common.  It was pretty ridiculous, but had the happy result of exposing me to a genre and series of books that I really liked it at the time. (I wasn't really all that new to fantasy, but Tolkien is one of those "gateway" books in the genre.) I didn't like it quite as much when I went back for a re-read (something I do with ALL the books I really, really love), mostly because there are essentially no female characters at all, and because, you know, it is a long and drawn-out epic.

2. The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, by Douglas Adams

Always a classic.  I recently actually made it through the series, all the way to So Long and Thanks for All The Fish after stalling out halfway through in high school.  As far as plot goes--there's really not much, so don't expect one--as far as wit and classic British Humor goes, it's great fun.

3. Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card

I actually haven't read this, but apparently should be shot for admitting that, so suffice to say it's on my list so I can rant about it or rave about it soon.

4. The Dune Chronicles, by Frank Herbert

I liked the first one all right, but I got so tired of Look How Glorious Is My Protagonist And How Am I Frank Herbert For Writing Mystical Nonsense That Sounds Oh So Smart that I did, in fact, no joke, throw Children of Dune across the room in disgust.  And that's the last I had anything to do with that.

6. 1984, by George Orwell

High school reading requirement.  A diverting read, worth having done once, but pretty much way more pessimistic about human nature that I'm willing to accept, which is true about pretty much everything I was forced to read in high school.

10. American Gods, by Neil Gaiman

I didnt' finish this.  I didn't dislike it, I just didn't get sufficiently interested in it.  I liked the imagery and mythology a lot, and the main character was an interesting and compelling guy, but I just didn't feel like we was going anywhere.

12. The Wheel Of Time Series, by Robert Jordan 

I admit to being a fan, as a result of a different 8th grade crush--although by that point it's because he recommended it to me as one fantasy lover to another.  A decade later, and it seems like we might be seeing the last 1000 page installment coming out soon. This really is the Series That Goes On and On and On, and plays the Isn't It So True That Women And Men Are Just Different From Each Other theme really hard, which is a theme I really don't agree with. But he does it in a way that works with the story and isn't meant to be degrading of either women or men in the slightest, and his world and his physics and the intricacies of the plot are oh so cool that what they heck I just think it's great.

14. Neuromancer, by William Gibson

I read this and even used to own it, but I couldn't tell you a thing about what happened in it and what is was about.  Some kind of heist or something, maybe. Whatever it was, I clearly did not find it very memorable.

16. I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov

I did my 10th grade literary paper on this, and I went through a serious Asimov faze.  In general I prefer character driven stories while these more situational, set up to hypothetical ethical questions about the future.  Yet they are intellectually engaging, and I like Asmov's optimism.  If you're up for some short stories they are good and thought-provoking entertainment for short sitings.

22. The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

I really hate books that take the "Lady or the Tiger" approach and don't explicitly tell you how they end.  As a literary artifact, I think that tactic more of a cheap ploy than an actual show of literary skill.  Also, back in my radical feminist days I wanted to write a book like this without knowing one already existed--and I'm glad I'm a lot wiser now than I was then about human nature.  Don't read this if you don't like being depressed.

27. The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury

I just read bits and pieces of this when I was really young and don't remember much except that I liked it.  It's probably worth picking up again as an adult.

33. Dragonflight, by Anne McCaffrey

Early in high school I went through a phase with this where I joined some Internet groups that did some fanfiction-esque writing and art following the rules of Anne McCaffrey's Pern.  I stumbled upon that before I had actually read the books, and before I realized she really didn't want her fans to be doing what we were doing because of copyright concerns. The books themselves are pretty good if you your like science fiction and fantasy elements heavily influenced with the plot structures of romance novels--which I did, in high school--although I stopped after about the first four books, because they were getting somewhat similar.  Also a little too heavy with the Female Protagonist Is So Much Smarter and Braver And Stronger Than Other Women and thus Rocks while all other women are Stupid Shallow Flakes meme.  In high school, of course, I was into that, and wanted to be That Woman--but then I grew up and realized that people are, thank goodness, so much more complex than that.

38. Flowers For Algernon, by Daniel Keys

This is one of my favorite books, and one of the best science fiction books I have read.  It has complex and interesting characters doing intellectually interesting and morally relevant things that matter to them in ways that make you really care about what happens to them.  To bad it's also a very sad book.

40. The Chronicles Of Amber, by Roger Zelazny

These were too weird and too masculine for me. Steriotypical I Am So Awesome and Manly Protagonist (And I'm Not Particularly Nice Either But You're Supposed to Like Me Anyway), engaged in Battles for Royal Throne Succession in a setting that can really only be described as one continous acid trip.  Intrigues among siblings that don't make sense and change on a dime, and women who prety much exist to be ornaments.  No thanks.

42. The Mists Of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley

When I read this I was probably way too young to read a book that had this much sex in it.  Which of course meant I devoured it with no small measure of "people do THAT?" and was all kind of confused as to how this mideval sexuality was supposed to translate into this sexuality thing in the modern world.  That's one of the things that parents would probably rather not know about their kids' fiction.

46. The Silmarillion, by J.R.R. Tolkien

I tried, I really tried.  But I didn't get very far.

47. The Once And Future King, by T.H. White


48. Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman

This is the one by him that I did read all the way through.  It was 'aight, although I don't know what's really remarkable about it.

50. Contact, by Carl Sagan

I really liked this, for no particular reasons that I can put my fingers on.  I thought he had good characterization and managed to pull of intellectual depth and the magical cool mystery of the universe and mathematics all that in way that was REAL, not in the Look At Me Not Making Sense And Trying to Pass It Off Like It's Just Too Deep For You to Understand way that intellectually superior authors like to do.  This book is like the perfect antitode to people who really like the univese but hate The Misunderstood Genious meme.  Also props for a female protagonist struggling through the politics of being a minority in physical science.

62. The Sword Of Truth, by Terry Goodkind 

Read it and some other pieces of this series, and no.  Just not quite deep enough or interested enough or un-cliche enough.

69. The Farseer Trilogy, by Robin Hobb

Yeah this was pretty good but this was about the time I was getty really weary of epic fantasy, and it gets pretty epic.  I trudged through the long parts (and I did skip some) just because I really, really wanted to know what had happened to Verity.

70. The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger 

Another book that should come with a warning label for containing generous amounts of sex.  I liked it a lot up until the ending, which I thought was kind of a cop out, not really a satisfactory ending at all.  But I don't really know how you'd end a book like that any other way.

Now, what books weren't mentioned that YOU think should have been on that list?

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Ripples In The Life Of

Even when things are going great, a friend noted sagely just last night over a great dinner in a cool late-summer evening, we always find little pockets of imperfection in our lives to obsess over. 

Which is too true.  My latest obsession was having a big enough social life--which I think I can say I've satisfactorily obtained, so now it's time to find something else, I guess.


My cousin just got married and I danced the whole night away in celebration.  He went to the bahamas for his honeymoon and had to evacuate because of Irene.  Meanwhile, on the way back, my parents once again pulled their periodic "we think we might up an move somewhere really far away" moments, the hypothetical of this Cycle-Of-Painful-Indecision being Louisiana.

There's a lot of childhood and only-child baggage associated with all of this--but the short of it they're adults and I'm an adult and I've got to remember that they can darn well do whatever they want with their lives, even if I think what they are doing is wrong for them and stupid.  That's what parents have to do with their kids, after all.  See you every few Christmases, I guess.


Meanwhile, Significant Other's father just came over and announced he needs a couple more volunteers whose pulses he can take as part of training for his acupuncture classes.  Once a week.  Every week.  For eleven months.  That's a lot of (not yet and who knows, maybe not ever I'm not ready to think about marriage yet)) In-Law time, that I really can't even promise, but somehow I agreed anyway.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Open Water Swim

I competed in a 2-mile open water swim last weekend. Someone at my work said he was doing it about a month ago, and I decided I needed an extra challenge in my life. By the time I worked out getting a pool membership again, I had about 2 weeks to train. But hey, I used to swim distance events on the high school team, I've done plenty of 1-mile swims in the lake at scout camp without feeling particularly exerted, and I've been feeling like I'm currently in the best shape of my life.

Scout Camp Swimming Lake is not in the same league as Real Big Dammed Up River Lake--not at all. And open water swims are not like swimming in a nice little pool. I knew I needed to add a certain percentage to my pool time to account for flip turns and a lack of a straight line to stare at, but I couldn't really have prepared for the psychological aspect of being--not all alone, because there were lots of other swimmers, and kakayers and motor boats patrolled the swim lane--but still, pretty much alone in your own little world of murky water with flashes of rocky shore or open water caught during breaths in between. It became disorienting extremely quickly: nothing under you, everything around you too far away to really see. It was also very hard to swim in a straight line. I had to interrupt my stroke constantly to steal a glance ahead and line myself up off the next buoy. It probably would have been easier if I had enlisted a personal kayak escort, as some swimmers had done--just line up off your kayaker and forget everything else.

I'm not saying all this to imply that I didn't love it--because I did. I loved the immersion, I loved the extra mental challenge to go along with the physical challenge. Actually, I pretty much hated feeling disoriented and had a very painful air bubble to boot, and by the end I really, really had to pee, but looking back, these are of course the moments we live for. To be challenged, and to push.

After all, open water swimming is kind of like lead climbing. You are there, you are exposed, and you are in a position of commitment because you can't just stop when it gets hard and find immediate relief from this state of challenge. In lead climbing, you've got to get to the top first, or at least to a place where you can put in your next piece of gear if you are really sure you want to bail and don't care that you'll have to leave a really expensive piece of equipment behind in order to do so. In open water swimming, it's not like you can just grab the side or touch down. You can wave to your escort boat and they'll probably be able to get you in a pretty timely fashion--but they aren't all that close to you, and you still have to wave for help before you are really in trouble.

I finished the event way faster than both I and my parents thought I would (1 hour, seven minutes, 56 seconds. I came in 14th place overall out of 61 swimmers and was the 4th placed female to finish. Not bad for 2 weeks of training!) I couldn't even find them when I got out because they were still out in a motor boat on the course following someone much slower who it turned out wasn't me at all. Another thing about these swims is that with matching yellow swim caps, we all look the same from far away. "Good job!" My dad said, "I'm really proud of you. I was really worried you were in over your head when you told me you signed up for this event, and I was worried we couldn't find you and you'd be stuck in the back and discouraged." Gee thanks for the confidence, Dad. But it's true, I'm really not who I used to be, physically, but maybe especially mentally.

I'm kinda getting really into this stuff. Being afraid and uncomfortable and having to really trust myself--and the confidence I gain by being my own, strong, decision-making island. Really pushing my personal fitness by doing physically exerting things in exotic settings. Not saying I'm about to go swim the English Channel or lead climb El Capitan--but you never really know what your limits are until you push them.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

All In Good Order to Help the Planet and Save You Money While Reflecting Heat from the Sun

I have a large backlog of unfinished environment and green building related blog posts--maybe one day I'll get to them.  Some of my writing "mo-jo" has been strained lately by an ongoing work project to ovehaul our company website.

The thing is, I don't have a degree in marketing.  I have one in physics.  So I'm not trusted to write technical information in a way a layman could hope to understand, thus we hired a content writer, who interviewed us and took the pages of "this is what this term means" and "use this picture" documents that I created to write up some web-copy.

The result was a monstrosity, a veritable Frankenstein of cobbled-together copy.

As it turns out, you can either talk about what something means directly--or you can do elaborate workarounds to avoid talking about it in order to avoid scaring your audience away from the frightening technical nature of it. But! If you use the technical words anyway and yet use them incorrectly because they are just words someone fed you and you don't know yourself know what they mean, then you are writing utter nonesense.

So now it's my job to go back and re-write the stuff we originally hired the copy-writer to write for us. 

The trouble I have with the general marketing philosophy we have taken of "speak to the lowest possibly education level" is that, although it is really important to explain in non-engineering terms what the advantage of your product or service is, all too often this is not done well. Instead we get deliberately vague language that people can tell is not the whole truth, with a healthy dose of the overused claim that "Science Says So!" all linked unsatisfactorily to vague, repetitive, and frankly untrustworthy promises to "save you money."  And I have long held that tackling even technical things head on is preferable even for non-technical people, if you can find simple examples that make sense to daily life, rather than just skipping technicality all-together because that shit scares people off. The goal is to not contribute to the idea that it's scary, but make it less scary by making even a tiny piece of it genuinely accessible.  Or maybe I just suffer under the illusion that people generally are smarter than they actually are, which I think is at least more, I dunno, helpful, than assuming that people generally are dumber than they are in reality.

But what do I know?  I'm a scientist, not a marketing professional.