Quick Book Review: Superluminary

I think somewhere on his blog, John C. Wright mentioned that in his latest novel Superluminary: The Lords of Creation he decided to go as over-the-top cosmic pulp adventure as he could. If that’s so, the author of the Eschaton Sequence, the Golden Age series and Somewhither  has finally cut loose ? Stopped toning down the SFF crazy?

Superluminary: The Lords of Creation by [Wright, John C.]What? I would say that when it comes to piling on more wild SciFi speculation into a book or story, Mr. Wright is without conscience. And that’s a good thing. That said, this book is a wild ride.

The Lords of Creation, the first of four books that compile the weekly serial Superluminary, starts fast and never stops. Somebody wants to kill Aeneas Tell, the upstart young Lord of Creation, and very nearly succeeds. The first chapter ends with the first of many narrow, death-defying escapes, characteristically employing wild yet tethered to reality SciFi gadgets.

The extended family of an insane (or is he?) god-like ancestor have nearly limitless power due to an alien artifact that the original Lord discovered. The offspring overthrew him, and have solved all want and war, but treat mere mortals as nothing more than pets. Aeneas thinks the Lords have grown too powerful and complacent, but his plans to overthrow them and share their technology with the peons backfire. He gets assassinated, after a fashion.

Aeneas finds himself headless and freezing to death on the forbidden planet Pluto, losing precious heat through the bloody stump of his neck (he keeps a backup brain in his torso for just such contingencies), when his enhanced senses discover a gigantic tower on the horizon, which turns out to be a long-lost spaceship with an undead, life-sucking crew of 300 – you get the picture. And it never stops!

No planets get blown up in this volume, an oversight I trust Wright will remedy over the next three.

So if you’re jonesing for a rollicking good old-style space adventure with boatloads of modern tech speculation and undead spacemen and a deftly and memorably drawn cast of characters, this story is for you. 5 stars.

Got a couple more books/magazines to review when I get a minute. Also, started rereading William Brigg’s excellent Uncertainty: the Soul of Modelling, Probability and Statistics, which I never quite finished and reviewed – it’s not a light read, but a book to be pondered. Must give that a write-up as well.

Bombax and Our Lady of Grace 

In St. Petersburg Florida for an industry convention. On the lawn of the Museum of Fine Art there’s this bombax tree: 

No leaves this time of year, but a zillion giant red flowes. Impressive.

Also, a little over a mile away is St. Mary Our Lady of Grace, a lovely octagonal church I’d visited before years ago under similar circumstances, but failed to get pictures of this time. 

Aaaand – that about sums up the highlights. Off to Tampa and a flight home.  More book reviews coming up soon. 

Book Review: For Steam & Country

For Steam and Country, a steampunk adventure Jon Del Arroz, is a lot of fun, a fantasy with airships and steam cars, knights and mysteries, castles and kings and a war with an implacable enemy. The story is told in first person by Zaira, the 16 year old daughter of the famous hero and inventor Baron von Monocle. He has been missing since leaving in his steam-powered airship 2 years earlier. Since Zaira’s mother had died a year before then, Zaira is left to care for the family farm alone. She is aided by a friendly neighboring family and their handsome son James.

The cover catches the flavor nicely. 

The story opens with an earthquake that severely damages the farmhouse. Zaira is fretting, as she cannot both repair the house and get the next crop of vegetables ready for market. James has dropped by to help her clean up. A tall well-dressed stranger and a woman in military garb appear at the door.  They have a message for Zaira, and whisk her away in a steam car.

Adventures ensue. Derring-do is done, heroes emerge, and dreams come true.

Del Arroz creates a series of memorable characters and fun steampunk, and puts them in a fast-paced plot full of action.  I had to laugh early on at how perfectly the story followed the classic Hero’s Journey, but quickly forgot about that as the action intensified. We do have an epic here, and if you want to map the story and characters to Star Wars, you can do it pretty well. That said, reminding readers of a classic epic fantasy is hardly a bad thing.

This story is suitable for adults and children. Bad guys and couple good guys do die, but again, if your kid thought A New Hope was not too scary, they should be fine with this as well.

So, go buy and read this book! Fun, action-packed adventure. With steam-powered airships!

Boodog!

Y’all probably thought I was making this up, right? You thought my efforts to popularize ‘throwing down the boodog’ as an idiom for vigorous partying was just some random emission from my overheated brain.

Well, well, well – here’s a little video, from some Mongolian university no less, that will show you just how wrong you are! (Or probably or possibly wrong, to cover all the bases.)

Ha!

(Darn it! Can’t get the video to start at the #6 at 3:44 in, which is boodog. So skip ahead if that’s all you want to see.)

Boodog (which I admit I am disappointed to learn is pronounced more like ‘buhdig’ than BOO-DOG! Mongolians don’t know the opportunity they’ve let slip away here) is in fact what any solid Mongolian throws down at a party. Just watch the video!

That is all. Except I ate a bunch of gator bits (that’s what the sign near the dish called it) with a slightly spicy sauce here at this convention I’m attending in St. Petersburg, FL. I had them with a nice Merlot, if you must know.  And yes, it did taste somewhat like slightly chewy chicken. So I would myself have some boodog if anyone were throwing some down in my presence. I’m that kind of guy.

Hail Lithuania!

Until I spent a few minutes googling around just now, all I could tell you about Lithuania is:

  • One of those surprising medieval empires was built by Lithuanians, as a kingdom that passed into a duchy (I think.)
  • A disproportionate number of tall, athletic men hail from Lithuania. Šarūnas Marčiulionis and Arvydas Sabonis being perhaps the most famous.
  • They have very good and cheap wireless access there (read this in some business publication somewhere…).
Sabonis Lipofsky (1 of 1).JPG
This dude, for example, is HUGE!

Aaaaand – that’s about it. Sounds like a fascinating place, just never really read up on it. How such small countries/nationalities retain their identity and culture when so many others are crushed and forgotten is a subject of great interest to me, so I suppose I should try to find out how a couple million people managed to hold on when surrounded by much larger and more aggressive cultures (Russia and Germany, for starters). There must be something strong about Lithuanians.

Why am I writing this? the inscrutably bored reader might wonder in passing. According to WordPress’s blog stats, some person or persons from Lithuania have been surfing this humble blog over the last few days.

So consider this a shout out! Welcome & thanks!

 

Science and ‘Scientific’ Education

When I’m cruising through my giant pile of education history books, the pernicious phrases  ‘scientific’ education and ‘scientific’ schooling keep popping up.

That word you keep using – I don’t think it means what you think it means.

Brief recap of the use of the word science: The ancient use of words ‘science’ and ‘scientific’ referred to the systematic and logical exploration of a topic. Only later did the ‘scientific’ method arise. Science in the original sense was developed from fragmentary origins by Aristotle into the method of inquiry he used, for example, in the Physics.

Aristotle’s standard formulation of his approach: we start with what is most knowable to us and move toward what is most knowable by nature. As with much Aristotle, this is stating an obvious, simple thing: if you want to know about, say, horses, you start with the actual horses at hand – most knowable to us – and move toward the generalized knowledge of horses as a genus – more truly knowledge. Aristotle will use examples like ‘four-legged’ to describe the sort of thing we’d learn from the horses at hand. We’d conclude that having four legs is natural to horses in general. Stuff about horses in general is more knowable by nature as follows: a particular horse may be brown and unusually skinny and short, but once you know enough individual horses, by the miracle of the human mind, you can understand something about horses in general. Horses can be many colors and sizes (but not all colors and sizes!) but all of them have 4 legs and eat grass.

Image result for weird horseWhen applied in this manner to natural objects, Aristotle’s ‘scientific’ approach is not much different in nature than what modern hard (read: real) scientists do, including the part about where all conclusions are conditional: given the horses we have looked at are really representative of horses in general, and that we’ve perceived what we think we’ve seen correctly, then horses are of such and such nature. Aristotle would have never asserted that what he knew about horses rose to the level of certain knowledge, such as can be achieved in mathematics and logic. But it was interesting, and not unworthy. Aristotle didn’t care much that it was also useful – the tamer of horses better know what horses are like! And the city-state needed horses! – that came later with the likes of Francis Bacon. To Aristotle, the satisfaction of knowing something was the short term reward; the goodness of cultivating one’s mind and the excellence that results from such cultivation were the long term benefits. Making a buck, not so much.

To get from Aristotle’s approach to modern science, three things were missing: experimentation(1) – the idea that one could tease out knowledge from nature by making it jump through carefully controlled hoops; math – the idea that many of the relationships so teased out could best be expressed through numbers and formulas; and motivation – that whole ‘conquer and subject Nature to Man’s will’ thing. The Franciscan friar and scholar Roger Bacon is often credited with adding experimentation in the 13th century, although this is disputed (historians love to view the ancients through modern biases – see? Bacon was advanced – like us!). Be that as it may, Bacon’s writings pointed in the direction of  the increased importance of careful observation of the natural world as a way to knowledge. (His contemporary Albertus Magnus, a Dominican friar and scholar, whiled away some of his time making careful observations and drawings of plants – much like Darwin 650 years later – so the successful ideas again prove to have many fathers.)

Once experimentation and math got added to the mix over the next couple centuries, and people like Francis Bacon (the bring-home-the-bacon Bacon, as it were) promulgated the dogma that the purpose of science is to be useful (2), we’d reached both what we’d recognize as the the modern scientific method – and a great divide.

Without the math and especially experimentation, and, for really modern science, without the need for discoveries to prove themselves useful and profitable in the real world, science could trundle along including any number of subjects and approaches. Many things might be thought of a science, loosely speaking, in the old sense of something thought about rationally and systematically, that are not at all science in the current sense.

On one side of the divide, then, we have science in the full modern sense of the term – a body of knowledge that was teased out by careful experimentation, generally expressed at least in part through mathematics, and which has proven useful in some sense. This usefulness may merely be as an aid to further understanding (such as astronomy or even Darwinian evolutionary theory) but most often it means cold hard cash. Maxwell’s equations are used to make sure the lights go on when you throw the switch; Einstein’s discoveries are used to give you your correct location when you use the GPS function on your phone. And people have made a lot of money making use of that science, and we are all better off for it.

Sorry (slightly. Very slightly) if I’m bursting any bubbles here: Systematic, mathematic and profitable. That’s the science to which we owe allegiance. Pure knowledge for knowledge’s sake is lovely stuff, I am a fan, but the crass truth is that we’re never as sure about the claims of science as we are when somebody puts it into practice – and nothing motivates that like cold, hard cash.

On the other hand, there is a form of envy? Ambition? Greed? that compels some people to put on the sacred lab coat of science and claim that their pet ideas are science, even if there’s no systematic, replicable experimentation behind it and no one has challenged or is even allowed to challenge their ‘discoveries’. They then claim their ‘science’ is owed the same allegiance we pay to the science behind all the wonderful tech and gadgets that have given us, among other things, cars and phones, clean water, lots of food and long lives. Some – Freud, for an egregious example – wanted to be famous SO BAD that they just make stuff up and call any who object bad names. Others – their name is Legion – infest our colleges and schools so that they can inflict their ‘insights’ unchallenged on callow children. No systematic, repeatable experimentation? No solid math?  Nobody making the world better by applying these discoveries? No science, no allegiance owed.

Phrenology springs to mind as an historical example – serious people worked up what they took to be a serious scientific theory about how different areas of the brain created or controlled ‘propensities’, higher and lower ‘sentiments’ and so on. Phrenologists had theories about how the physical configuration of the skull could tell us about the mental condition of the brain inside it. They had all sorts of case studies, after a fashion, which proved their theories to their satisfaction.

The idea that you’d need careful definitions and double-blind, controlled studies preferably conducted by non-believers didn’t really seem to occur to fans. As is so often the case with complicated ideas about human behaviors, it would be difficult if not impossible to concoct an experiment that illuminates phrenology’s claims. How does one define a propensity, say, such that anyone could do a double-blind a study  to shed light on what sort of correlation, if any, exists between skull shape (or brain configuration – there were different flavors of phrenology) and such a propensity, as compared to some other propensity? One can imagine an ‘instrument’ of some sort by means of which one person could gather information about subjects and some other person could judge from that information to what degree any particular subject had this or that propensity, and then other people could survey their craniums (inside or out or both, I suppose) and someone else could attempt to correlate skull/brain topography to various propensities – but nothing remotely like this was ever done, as far as I can discover with the minimum amount of research I’m willing to do for a blog post. Way too much work, I imagine, for the armchair pseudo-scientist.

All the foregoing is to simply show that the term ‘science’ in the modern world is used equivocally. There’s the science that’s *hard* in at least 2 senses of that word, the science that leads to the tech that leads to better living (or at least works!). Then there’s the ‘science’ that is a combination of wishful thinking and browbeating and child abuse (telling self-serving lies to 18 year old under pain of expulsion from at least the cool kids club and maybe college itself isn’t abuse?).

Which brings us to today’s point:  There is no science behind ‘scientific’ schooling. No careful studies were ever done showing that grouping children by age and feeding them all the same instruction at the same time regardless of what those kids already knew for hours and months and years on end is better than any other approach or even works at all. (3) No studies were ever done showing that this approach succeeds better than any other approach or even no approach at all. There’s no evidence to show compulsory graded schooling yields better results than 1-room aged mixed schooling, homeschooling, or unschooling or any other approach, for that matter.

There is NO science behind the modern schools. None. Nada. It’s ‘science’ in the same way Freud’s ad hominem harranges and phrenologists’s pretty diagrams are science. In other words, not science at all.

Modern schooling does demonstrably work considered as a tool for the destruction of the families and communities that might oppose the total state. There’s some science behind that idea, although not generally expressed in those terms.

  1. I’m saying experiment for the sake of brevity. Please include ‘careful, replicable observation’ under ‘experiment’ in this sloppy blog post. Yes, astronomy can be a modern science.
  2. Through the expedient of making scientists like Bacon rich and famous. Or maybe I’m seeing things through my modern biases?
  3. For example: control for parents: if a child has successful, happily married parents, does modern school contribute anything to the likelihood of that child’s future success? Similarly, if a child has a single drug-addicted parent and lives in squalor and neglect, does school help? Intervention might help – but is school the best or even a workable form for such intervention? Inquiring scientific minds would like to know.

Music at Mass Review: 1st Sunday of Lent 2018

Up at Lake Tahoe for our annual President’s Day weekend snow trip with friends from Diablo Valley School. ‘Snow’ being pretty much nominal this year, unlike the 10′ high drifts last year.  So off to the striking church of St. Theresa’s Parish in downtown South Lake Tahoe for the 8:00 Mass. A lovely group of people with a good, humble priest.

One amazing thing happened. This building has a large window behind the altar through which one sees forest and the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra – very striking, especially on a windy winter’s day when clouds whipped by, sunlight dappling the sanctuary as they flew past.

At the Elevation, the altar was in shade. As the priest lifted the Host, It was brilliantly back-lit while all else remained in shadow. Very beautiful and appropriate.

In previous years, I found the amateur woodworking on the pews distracting, as discussed in the post linked above. I think I’m finally over that particular temptation. The music, however…

Again, some sweet people are doing their best. A young woman with a lovely light voice lead the singing. But if all you know is Ripple, good red wine will be spit out of your mouth.

Theory: contemporary church songs are particularly bad in Lent, because contemporary writers have no concept of repentance. How could they, when, at least in the West, the whole project since V-II seems to be to get everybody to accept everybody (themselves included) as, essentially OK as they are. Repent from what? in other words. Hurting Gaia’s feelings, I suppose?

That Desert Father and Counter-Reformation Jesuit recognition that we’ve screwed up both individually and as a Church and could not possible do enough to correct it (we need a Redeemer, after all – another thought conspicuously absent from 99% of modern songs) is completely foreign to enlightened sensibilities. The idea that it is meet and just and ESSENTIAL TO OUR SALVATION that we throw ourselves weeping on the Mercy of God, despairing of our own strength and trusting solely in grace of Christ’s Holy Sacrifice as the Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world – not so popular. Am I saying we’re not OK? How dare me!

Pick any Catholic Lenten hymn more than 75 years old, and it’s easy to see St. Francis fasting and lying on the cold ground while praying those thoughts, or St. Catherine of Sienna weeping her eyes dry. It works. Now, imagine St. Teresa of Avila, in her stern humor, or Mother Theresa or even Dorthy Day reading over ‘Ashes’ and – I think some anathemas might be forthcoming.

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