Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Hidden Figures

Last night, the lovely Amanda and I went to see Hidden Figures. For those who don’t know, this film tells the story of three pioneering African American women who worked for NASA during the space race.

Mary Jackson, aerospace engineer, in an era when neither women nor blacks were heard of in that position.

Dorothy Vaughan, mathematician and computer programer. And also the first African American woman to be a supervisor at NASA, and later the first to be head of personnel.

Katherine Johnson, who merely calculated the flight path for Alan Shepherd’s spaceflight, calculated John Glenn’s orbit and reentry, worked on the Apollo and Space Shuttle programs, co-authored 26 scientific papers, and now has a facility at NASA named after her for her decades of brilliant contributions to the space program. Basically as badass as they come.

These names really should be better known than they are. Kudos to NASA for doing its part to recognize them. 

 Mary Jackson (Octavia Spencer), Katherine Johnson (Taraji Henson) and Dorothy Vaughan (Janelle Monae)

We tend to forget it these days, but in those pre-electronics years, all the math for space flight - and it is a LOT - was done by human “computers.” And many of these computers were women. (This didn’t just apply to flight, much of science was conducted this way. See How Old Is The Universe? for a bit more about women who contributed behind the scenes but never got credit.)

Some of these women - an entire unit at NASA in fact - were African American. These were the days of Jim Crow, so they had segregated bathrooms and so on, a fact which plays a major role in the film.

I don’t want to spoil the film (although history is history…), so I won’t go into too much further detail. This is a great film, though, and tells the story well. I was impressed that the focus remained firmly on the African American women, and didn’t become all about the whites who helped them.

A few things really struck me. One was the scene where John Glenn refuses to fly unless Katherine Johnson personally calculates his landing trajectory. This sounded a bit Hollywood, so I looked it up. Well blow me to Bermuda! It really happened. And Glenn really was as shockingly progressive as the film portrays him. Fraternizing with the “coloreds” indeed! (Glenn Powell really nailed the portrayal of Glenn too. Nice casting.) 

I also found the issue that arises between Katherine Johnson and Paul Stafford (portrayed by Jim Parsons). I have no idea exactly how this went in real life, but in the movie, Katherine stubbornly affixes her name as co-author of each report she types up, featuring work she does, but Paul insists that only his name be on there, because “computers don’t author reports.” Again, Hollywood license? Maybe. Or not. What I do know is that this sort of thing goes on all the time in the real world. Woman does work and comes up with ideas, man gets credit. My wife was specifically trained, so to speak, on how to play the nurse/doctor game. Nurse comes up with an idea, but must sell it to the doctor in a way that he thinks it is his idea, and can thus take credit for it. My wife’s generation, though, has been saying screw it to this game, and is more likely to insist on interacting as equals in different roles, not as superior and inferior. (Nurses work for the hospital, not doctors…) So I fully believe that Katherine Johnson had to put up with this from the white males on her team. In what had to have been a satisfying development, Johnson would go on to co-author a good many reports and scientific papers - and get credit for them.

Another powerful scene was where Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) truly realizes the cost that segregation is having on his team - Katherine must walk a half mile each way to relieve herself in the “colored” restroom - he goes ballistic, and violently destroys the sign on the segregated restroom, and proclaims that anyone can use any restroom in any building, white or black. His closing line is great:

At NASA, we all pee the same color.

The other line that was amazing and profound was this: Dorothy Vaughan meets Vivian Mitchell, who is some mucky-muck in Personnel in the newly desegregated bathroom. The two of them have a history, because Vaughan has been doing the work of supervising the “colored computer” unit, but has been refused a promotion. Mitchell claims it is just “how NASA works,” but everyone knows that the problem is that Vaughan is black.

After a bit of an awkward exchange in the bathroom, Mitchell says (more or less), “You know I never held any ill will toward you ladies.”

Vaughan hesitates, then softly says, “I know...I know that’s what you want to think.”

Mic drop.

I can’t get this line out of my mind.

Because this is really what I feel I am up against trying to discuss racial issues with my own tribe. Because everyone keeps saying, “I’m not a racist, but…”
“I don’t have ill will toward brown skinned people.” But you just said that Black Lives Matter is a media creation, and that police brutality is a myth.
“I don’t have ill will toward brown skinned people.” But you just voted to give Steve Bannon a leadership position. (Sorry, he bragged about giving White Supremacy, sorry, the “Alt-Right” a platform at Brietbart. He doesn’t get a pass for that.)
“I don’t have ill will toward brown skinned people.” But you just said that blacks are “more criminal” or “less civilized” than whites.
“I don’t have ill will toward brown skinned people.” But you said racism doesn’t exist, or if it does, it is toward white people.
“I don’t have ill will toward brown skinned people.” But you just reposted that meme mocking Michelle Obama in racial terms.
“I don’t have ill will toward brown skinned people.” But you just referred to protesters as “thugs” and “animals.”

“I’m not racist.”

“I know...I know that’s what you want to think.”
Damn, that’s a good line. It absolutely gets to the heart of the problem. Many people don’t really want to think about the impact their actions or inactions have on people of color. What is most important is that they don’t feel discomfort or have to look at themselves honestly. Mitchell wants to preserve her own sense that she is a good person, without having to actually stick her neck out and advocate for justice for Vaughan.

This perhaps is why I will be making sure my kids see this movie at some point. They need to see and understand that positive change requires more than positive feelings. It requires action. Each of the three women has to at some point demand justice for themselves - and they make the white people in power VERY uncomfortable when they do so. It also requires that those of us who wish to be allies for people of color cannot simply content ourselves by saying that we personally would never discriminate. We have to be like Harrison and refuse to allow segregation, consequences be damned. We have to be like the (unnamed) judge who goes against Virginia law to side with Brown v. Board of Education to allow Mary Jackson to attend engineering classes. We have to be like John Glenn and actively and expressly side with our brown skinned brothers and sisters - and yes sometimes that means politically too - no matter how much disapproval we get from our own tribe.

Otherwise, we are just staying in our little bubble, thinking a little good intention will paper over action and inaction that does evil. No, we’re not racist. Right?

“I know...I know that’s what you want to think.”

It’s very encouraging to me that Hidden Figures is doing well at the box office. Yes, it is well cast and well acted. (Taraji Henson, Janelle Monae, and Octavia Spencer are all outstanding.) But the story is powerful, and comes at a time where there has been an open revival of White Supremacy, and far too many people feel free to say openly racist things. This film is a reminder that, jackasses like Steve King notwithstanding, it wasn’t just white people who have contributed to the world. They just haven’t gotten the degree of credit they deserve. I am thrilled that this story is finding an audience.

Go see this film. Take your children (it has no gratuitous sex, violence, or language, actually). Let them see what our nation was like not very long ago, so they can understand what an appeal to return to the past really means for many Americans. This film should also encourage our daughters, and children of color, to aspire to careers in math and science. These women were nothing short of amazing, and without them, the space race would likely have played out very differently. Our society is better off when we encourage the contributions of all, regardless of gender, race, national origin, or religion. We must never forget that, and we must constantly fight against the ideas that seek to deny this truth.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Summer Lightning by P. G. Wodehouse

Source of book: Audiobook I own jointly with my brother.

My goal has been to either listen to or read one (or more) Wodehouse books each year. Given his prolific output, I would have to live a very long time indeed to finish everything he wrote, but it’s worth the attempt. In 2015, I read one, and listened to two more. Then I missed fitting any in to 2016, which is odd, but there you have it. I started 2017 off right with this book, which we listened to on January 2nd.

While by no means a complete list of Wodehouse books I have read, here is the list of the ones I have discussed on this blog:

Wodehouse (WOOD-house) books generally fall into four categories: 1. The Jeeves and Wooster stories 2. The Psmith stories 3. The Blandings/Lord Emsworth stories and 4. Everything else. Although I have read all of the Psmith books, I did so before I started blogging. Those will probably have to wait until I locate an audiobook version so the kids and I can listen on trips. The others are all represented in the above list. 

Summer Lightning is a Lord Emsworth story. It was published under the title of Fish Preferred here in the United States, which makes no sense whatsoever as a title.

Clarence, 9th Earl of Emsworth, is a good natured old chap, a wee bit slow when it comes to conversation. He is utterly dominated by his sister, Lady least until he is pushed beyond his limits and he is forced to stand up to her. His hobby - and indeed his very life - is his prize winning pig, the Empress of Blandings. Also populating the Blandings universe is Rupert Baxter, formerly the Earl’s secretary, but now banished in disgrace - to the great consternation of Lady Constance; and Beech, the imposing butler; and Lord Emsworth’s neighbor and archrival, Sir Gregory Parsloe Parsloe, whose own pig is the only real rival to the Empress.  

In this particular book, intrigue and love have descended upon Blandings Castle, and, naturally, hilarity ensues.

Lord Emsworth’s disrespectable younger brother Galahad has returned, and is writing his memoirs. Gally had a wild and crazy youth, which is bad enough. But worse, he was a companion to many respectable aristocrats during their wild and crazy youths, and he knows hundreds of embarrassing and juicy secrets. And boy, does he intend to reveal them!

Not happy about this is Sir Gregory, who spent his 20s in dissipation and hijinks. Worst of all would be disclosure of the “prawn incident,” which the book never divulges, but mention of which causes great consternation. Also unhappy about the memoirs is Lady Constance, who, being an aunt and all, is a killjoy.

Love, on the other hand, comes via the younger residents of and visitors to Blandings. Wodehouse would never settle for something as boring as a love triangle. He insists on at least quadrilaterals, or, in this case, a love pentagon.

Lord Emsworth’s niece Millicent has fallen in love with Hugo Carmody, a penniless young man who has taken over for the banished Baxter as Lord Emsworth’s secretary. Hugo returns the affection, but he knows he must somehow win the heart of Lord Emsworth if he wishes to marry above his station. Meanwhile, Lord Emsworth’s nephew, the rather ditzy Ronnie Fish, is madly in love with Sue Brown, a chorus girl, who often danced with Hugo. Ronnie, to win his uncle’s affection, conspires to steal the Empress, then “find” her and be a hero.

Once the Empress goes missing, things start to get crazy. Lord Emsworth dispatches Hugo to London to hire Percy Frobisher Pilbeam, a private detective who is infatuated with Sue, to recover the Empress. Meanwhile, Sir Gregory hires Pilbeam to steal Gally’s manuscript, which is also being sought by Baxter at the behest of Lady Constance. And then circumstances conspire to lead to a misunderstanding between each set of lovers, and, well, I’ll stop there. The result is typical Wodehouse. Wit and humor abound, and nobody is exempt from being the butt of a joke or two.

I should say a word about the audiobook. From what I can tell, there are two camps of Wodehouse audiobook aficionados: those who insist that Jonathan Cecil is the only true interpreter of Wodehouse, and those who say the same about Martin Jarvis. Find a review thread on Amazon, and expect the discussion to get overheated really fast.

We had previously experienced Cecil, but not Jarvis, who narrated this book. I have to say, if you are going to listen to a Jeeves book, go with Cecil. Because nobody (except, of course, Stephen Fry) can bring Jeeves to life like Cecil. His work is simply outstanding. And really, all of the Wodehouse books he has narrated are top notch. Those who favor him are not blowing smoke. He is the real deal. I would even say that everyone should listen to Jonathan Cecil read Wodehouse at least once in their lifetime.

But, now that I have heard Jarvis, I will give credit where it is due. Jarvis is a legitimate competitor to Cecil, and has earned his place in the pantheon. While Jarvis doesn’t quite raise Beech to the Jeeves level, Jarvis is simply amazing at the other voices. This book has a wide variety of characters, and there is never a doubt about who is speaking - he makes each voice individual. I was particularly impressed that Millicent and Sue sound very different, despite both being earnest young ladies. Jarvis nails the inflections that each class would use. Galahad is also well done, with a distinctive voice that doesn’t really duplicate any other Wodehouse character.

But the very best is the way Jarvis handles Lord Emsworth. The stutter, the fear around Constance, the affection for the pig. It’s all there, and so very well done.

So, I guess I can’t pick. Probably Cecil for Jeeves, but Jarvis for Blandings. Jarvis would probably nail Psmith too, so I may have to seek out one of those.

Summer Lightning is a delightful and typical Wodehouse comedy, a light and pleasant read.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

The Essays of Francis Bacon

Source of book: I own this.

“If the Hill will not come to Mahomet, Mahomet will go to the hill.” The earliest this proverb appears is in this work, Essays, by Francis Bacon. It is one of many that have entered the common knowledge - and yet the witticisms are not Bacon’s primary contribution to the world of thought. 

Francis Bacon, 1st Viscount St Alban, was quite the polymath. He served as Attorney General under King James I (making him roughly a contemporary of Shakespeare), served in Parliament, and contributed to philosophy, science, and literature. During his lifetime, he was considered to be the one who established the essay form, although later generations have acknowledged his debt to Montaigne and Aristotle who also utilized the basic idea.

However, one can truthfully say that Bacon was the founder of the Scientific Method. It was he who advocated for the switch from science as “natural philosophy,” best advanced through logical thought, to an empirical discipline, where careful observation, experimentation, and testing were rigorously employed. To say that this was revolutionary would be to gravely understate the scope of the change.

The Aristotelian view of science as a purely intellectual pursuit, unsullied by the dross of experimentation, had prevailed for 2000 years, but it had let to a lot of error. To quote David Weintraub (How Old Is The Universe, reviewed here), “Aristotle’s logic and reasoning were elegant, sophisticated, powerful, and regrettably also wrong.”

To Bacon, one must use the senses, not just the intellect. One must test. One must ruthlessly eliminate biases. And thus would truth be discovered.

In addition to his scientific endeavors, Bacon also promoted a number of ideas which would become central to the Enlightenment and to the founding of the United States. (Jefferson named him, along with Locke and Newton as those who most influenced his ideas.)

Essays was Bacon’s first published book, the first edition coming out in 1597. He continued to add to the book through 1625, which is the final edition most of us know. He considered it a bit of a trifle compared with his other works and pursuits. Nevertheless, it remains one of the most important and influential books of its time - and indeed any time.

The essays cover a wide variety of topics, from musings on truth, fame, and friendship to practical ideas for statecraft and international policy. He intentionally keeps his ideas broad and widely applicable rather than specific to his time and circumstances.

To me, the collection was fascinating for the combination of ideas that sound impossibly archaic with ones that still resonate in the 21st Century. On the one hand, he casually accepts the inferiority of women and monarchy as the natural form of government. But he also advocates for reducing the number and power of wealthy nobles, freedom of speech and thought, and separation of religion from state power.

There are a number of quotes that really stood out to me.

In “Of Unity In Religion,” he warns against the use of temporal power in the name of religion. I found it interesting that, while he disliked the idea of the government using religion, he was equally or more appalled by the idea of religion becoming a weapon of the masses in revolution and in rage against those who do not share their beliefs.

It was great blasphemy, when the devil said, I will ascend, and be like the highest; but it is greater blasphemy, to personate God, and bring him in saying, I will descend, and be like the prince of darkness; and what it is better, to make the cause of religion to descend, to the cruel and execrable actions of murthering princes, butchery of people, and subversion of states and governments? Surely this is to bring down the Holy Ghost, instead of the likeness of a dove, in the shape of a vulture or raven; and set, out of the bark of a Christian church, a flag of a bark of pirates, and assassins.

It’s hard to find a better condemnation of  “in the name of God, harm” than the changing of the Spirit from a dove to a vulture. (This sure seems applicable today to both “Corporations WILL be saying ‘Merry Christmas’ or else” and to “LGBTQ people should be denied housing and employment and health care.” Vultures one and all.) As Bacon notes, the problem is the exercise of temporal power in service of this corrupted religion.

Bacon’s relationship to women was a bit, shall we say, complicated. While there has been speculation that he was gay, the evidence is sorely lacking. From what I can tell, a verdict of assexuality is better supported. Or, it could be that a couple of early experiences turned him sour on women altogether. The first was his first love, Elizabeth Hatton, a young widow who dumped him for a wealthier man. And not just any man, she married Edward Coke, Bacon’s mortal enemy throughout his life. Later, Coke would successfully drive Bacon from his public position. Bacon tried again at love later, marrying Alice Barnham. (Just an indication of the time he lived in: He was 45, she was 14.) It was not a happy marriage. She seems to have felt he didn’t make enough money to support the lifestyle she grew up in, and she eventually cheated on him. They never had children. So, not much positive there for Bacon.

So, with that in mind, here are some interesting lines from “Of Marriage and Single Life.”

He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief.

“Hostages to fortune” is one of the lines that originated with Bacon, by the way. It is the second one, however, that I think has a real ring of truth about it.

Chaste women are often proud and froward, as presuming upon the merit of their chastity.

As a divorce attorney, I have to say heck yes! While violent marriages are the worst, the second worst is the one where the wife was a virgin on the honeymoon and has never let him forget it. I could write an entire post on the way that Purity Culture has conflated virtue in females with sexual purity, and lied to them that they are specially entitled to wealth, happiness, and service from their husbands because of their hymens.

One more line, quite sour:

Wives are young men’s mistresses; companions for middle age, and old men’s nurses.

Later, in “Of Love,” he expresses a general disdain for romantic love.

The stage is more beholding to love, than the life of man. For as to the stage, love is ever matter of comedies, and now and then of tragedies; but in life it doth much mischief; sometimes like a siren, sometimes like a fury.

One final one comes from “Of Friendship,” which is generally quite good, musing on the need for a true confidant, an equal, to who one can unburden and also count on for unbiased advice. He captures the difficulty of kings (and indeed the powerful) in finding true friends, not those looking for advantage. But there is one problem, which is one that has been considered to be an unquestioned truth through most of human history:

A man cannot speak to his son but as a father; to his wife but as a husband; to his enemy but upon terms: whereas a friend may speak as the case requires, and not as it sorteth with the person.

It hardly need be said that my own experience contradicts this. Indeed, the idea of “but as a husband” is really meaningless. “Husband” to me does not mean superiority of station, higher authority, or - what was near-universally believed throughout history - a natural superiority in every way to a woman. Instead, husband means that we are equals, that we are friends, and that we may indeed speak freely with each other. Perhaps this is the most profound way in which Feminism has made my life immeasurably better.

I don’t want to create the impression that Bacon is all like this. The fact is, these are memorable lines, and they stand out because they are a bit dated.

The short essay “On Studies” is quite good. Here is the best part:

Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider.

That first clause is in fact why I really loathe the whole endeavor of apologetics: it is reading merely to contradict and refute someone else’s position, not to learn for learning’s sake. The second pretty much describes the way most people read political writing: to find confirmation of their biases. The third has perhaps fallen out of style along with discourse in general. And it is incredibly rare to find those who read truly to weigh and consider different points of view. That is, reading with an open mind to find truth, not to confirm one’s own opinion and arm oneself for battle against those with a different perspective.

The passage goes on to say:

Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.

This too is true. I don’t necessarily read through every source for everything. I do seek out primary sources, but not everything requires a full study. I do not need, for example, all of Josephus to confirm one incident he writes about. The rest may be interesting, but not necessary. Other books are more for fun than study. I don’t look to P. G. Wodehouse for profundity, although he does have a sharp eye for human foibles. But there are others which require careful attention and full diligence. Might I recommend, for example, The Better Angels Of Our Nature by Steven Pinker as one that many people I know would be well advised to digest thoroughly before asserting badly uninformed opinions about the glories of the past.

Another great essay is “Of Riches.” It begins thus:

I cannot call riches better than the baggage of virtue. The Roman word is better, impedimenta. For as the baggage is to an army, so is riches to virtue. It cannot be spared, nor left behind, but it hindereth the march; yea, and the care of it, sometimes loseth or disturbeth the victory. Of great riches there is no real use, except it be in the distribution; the rest is but conceit.

So many good things here. Riches do indeed impede the development of virtue. Sadly, our modern American belief is that riches are evidence of virtue, which is pretty much the opposite of how Christ (and the prophets) appeared to view them. As evidence of oppression of others and an impediment to entering the Kingdom of God. But we prefer to worship wealth - and the wealthy. The second point is good too: once riches exceed a certain amount, they don’t really benefit the rich person. They are of no true usefulness. Once one has shelter, food, healthcare, and some basics, the rest is all about bragging of what one has.

I also want to mention in this connection, a thought from “Of The True Greatness of Kingdoms and Estates” The essay is broader than this one point, touching on a variety of issues related to why states are great and how they can attain or preserve greatness. But this one is interesting and applies well to our modern times:

Let states that aim at greatness, take heed how their nobility and gentlemen do multiply too fast. For that maketh the common subject, grow to be a peasant and base swain, driven out of heart, and in effect but the gentleman’s laborer.

Hmm, let’s think about our own times, where inequality is growing at a rapid pace, while real wages for all except those at the top have declined. Too many people at the top with status and wealth - and who don’t really have to work at common labor. Those lower down becoming in essence laborers to preserve the wealth and privilege of those higher up. Nope, not at ALL like what we have seen in the last 40 years. We in the US tend to think we don’t have class distinctions. Like hell we don’t. We just pretend we don’t have castes.

Another interesting observation comes in “Of Great Place,” which addresses good governance and how to avoid corruption.

For corruption: do not only bind thine own hands, or thy servants’ hands, from taking, but bind the hands of suitors also, from offering For integrity used doth the one; but integrity professed, and with a manifest detestation of bribery, doth the other.

Words to ponder when we talk about campaign finance and other related topics. Bacon continues:

And avoid not only the fault, but the suspicion. Whosoever is found variable, and changeth manifestly without manifest cause, giveth suspicion of corruption. Therefore always, when thou changest thine opinion or course, profess it plainly, and declare it, together with the reasons that move thee to change; and do not think to steal it.

On the one level, this is the question that should be directed at every politician who flip flops on an issue. See, I understand changing one’s mind. I’ve changed a lot in the last 20 years. If you follow my blog, I really try to explain the ways I have changed, and why. But that is much different from changing because it benefits you.

But I want to carry this one further. This doesn’t just apply to politicians. It applies to all of us. Do we change our positions because the change is genuine? Or because it benefits us to change?

One of the things that has just burned me this past election is to see “Christian” leader after leader explain why when Bill Clinton was president, sexual peccadilloes were the end of the world, a total and absolute disqualification for office. And now, when someone who brags about sexual assault and going into teen girls’ changing rooms to gratify his lust and thirst for power is somehow not just acceptable, but the last hope of Christianity, I have to ask, are you going to admit your change in position? Are you going to explain why you changed your mind?

Of course not. Because the reality is damning. They haven’t really changed their mind in any defensible way. There has been no epiphany. And they will go right back to their former position as soon as it benefits them. Because the only thing that changed is the letter after the last name of the candidate. And what does that mean? That the one promised them political power and the other didn’t. All the flip flopping has proven is that these “Christian” leaders never really gave a rat’s ass about character. It was always about political power. Their political power. And their actions have proven them to be corrupt to the core.

One final essay I want to mention - although there are many other excellent ones - is “Of Seditions And Troubles.” Bacon was, as I have noted, a monarchist, and he hated the idea of civil unrest. I tend to share the second of these, as I am temperamentally inclined toward peace rather than revolution. This whole essay is outstanding, for a number of reasons.

First is his insight that civil unrest is commonly greatest “when things grow to equality.” One of the things I have noticed as I have studied history is that there has been a reaction every time there has been a milestone in racial equality. (This is by no means original to me, of course. But once I read about it, it was interesting how well it fit.) So, after the Civil War freed the slaves, there was a violent reaction to Reconstruction. The first iteration of the KKK formed and terrorized the former slaves. The South enacted a series of laws which established Jim Crow and poll taxes, and so on. Likewise, the second wave of the KKK (beginning in 1915) was a reaction against growing immigration from Catholic countries, increased urbanization, and...wait for it...a perceived loss of political clout to Southern white males. (Notably, working women were a target of this movement. Get them back in the home where they belong…) The third KKK arose during the Civil Rights Movement. Likewise, Nixon’s Southern Strategy, and the rise of the Religious Right were in direct response to the enactment of civil rights laws such as the Civil Rights Act of 1965 and the Voting Rights Act. In my own time, it is no accident that the first African American president has been followed by an outpouring of racial hatred, with White Supremacists openly cheering the perceived triumph of their political goals. Bacon was right, there is a reaction to growing equality, and civil unrest follows.

Bacon goes on to say that a symptom of this unrest is libels against the state. That is, false claims about the state. Perhaps, um, conspiracy theories? Guess what has become the stock and trade of the fringe elements of both sides lately? This crap keeps popping up in my Facebook feed, from people who really should know better.

Bacon is absolutely correct, though. These are symptoms, not causes. He also is correct that the worst thing to do is to suppress them. Nothing makes them linger more than active suppression. On the other hand, Bacon advocates despising these false ideas. Show them contempt.

I’ll just hit on the rest of it. Bacon notes (correctly) that a main cause of civil unrest is poverty. He mentions two kinds: first, the impoverishment of the “better sort.” By this he means the lesser nobility and larger landowners: the middle to upper middle class, as it were. Second, the lack of necessities for the lower classes. He considers the combination of both of these to be the worst possible danger. This is what violent revolutions spring from. (See, for example, the French Revolution and the Communist Revolutions.) Bacon warns in the strongest terms that a wise prince will not ignore either of these, but will take action before it is too late.

More good stuff: Bacon warns strongly against letting wealth and power accumulate in the hands of a few. He even advises the use of luxury taxes to curb the excesses of the rich. He warns against quick changes to laws, particularly those affecting religion or custom. Finally, he notes that lasting peace comes when the rulers have a good reputation, and not when they are popular and bombastic. Dang, maybe we should have thought about that recently, yes?

Seriously, the whole essay is great. It will probably appeal to those of the center-right like me, who value a basically conservative outlook, but who see grave danger in inequality and ostentation. Address the problems before they get bad, aggressively work to keep wealth and power spread as broadly as possible, and seek to use good judgment rather than demagoguery.

Because of its age, this book is best read a little at a time. The language (as is obvious from the quotes) is archaic. Even I had to look a few words up from time to time. I will also note that Bacon assumes the reader knows Latin and French, as he quotes from it often. Google is your friend in this endeavor, although many of the quotes can be figured out if you have a passing knowledge of Latin roots.

By modern standards, Bacon may seem a man of the past. But it is worth remembering that without Bacon, we would not be who we are today. We take for granted that his most revolutionary ideas are true. Indeed, they are the ideas that the Enlightenment was built on, and on which rest much of our modern world.

Postscript: The truth of the story has been disputed, and there is little direct evidence either way. But here it goes: Bacon died at age 65 of pneumonia. This much is undisputed. One of his early biographers wrote that he caught said pneumonia while attempting a scientific experiment on the preservation of meat. To wit, he was testing whether chickens could be kept preserved by filling their bodies with snow. In an era when refrigeration was unknown, and germ theory itself wouldn’t be proposed for another quarter century - indeed, germ theory wouldn’t be accepted for nearly three hundred years! - Bacon was on to one of the revolutionary ideas of modern life that we take for granted. I can purchase food, and it will keep easily for a week. If I freeze it, it can last years. And I won’t get sick when I eat it. This is the true stuff of revolution. Alas, Bacon succumbed to those germs that hadn’t been discovered, and his death was blamed on a chill, which probably wasn’t as much of a factor as his old age (for the era).

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Sky Raiders (Five Kingdoms) by Brandon Mull

Source of book: Audiobook from the library

One thing I must say about Brandon Mull: he is an outstanding world builder, with an amazingly fertile imagination. Whether it is Fablehaven, with its wildlife preserve for fairy creatures, or The Candy Shop War with the wizards that live among us and control children using treats, Mull creates universes with internally consistent rules, delightful devices, and endless possibilities for adventure. 

Sky Raiders is the first in the Five Kingdoms series, and was clearly conceived from the outset to be one in a longer story arc. His first book, Fablehaven, is self contained, understandable since he needed a successful book before trying to sell a longer series. Eight years and over a dozen books later, the Five Kingdoms series appears to have been planned that way.

As with Mull’s other books, the best features of this book are the abundant imagination that went into the world of the book, and the skillful storytelling. Mull’s plots tend to be well paced, alternating action with description so that neither dominates the other. On the one hand, the descriptions never go on for so long that they get tiresome - if anything, I always want a little more detail than he gives. On the other, the action and adventure always complement, rather than overpower, the setting. I never felt that Mull was writing with the inevitable blockbuster movie in mind.

The weakness of Mull’s writing, if you wish to be picky, is in his characterization. Not that his characters are poorly written, exactly, but that they tend to be a stand-in for the reader more than the focus of the story. This is in contrast to writers like, say, Terry Pratchett or Richard Peck, for whom the characters are usually the primary concern. But this isn’t necessarily a knock on Mull. The books he writes are not intended to be deep in that way: they are straight up adventure stories, not literary novels. That said, they aren’t just shallow fluff either. The ethical dilemmas are less complex, but they are there, and Mull doesn’t gloss over tough issues. They just aren’t the focus.

The plot in Sky Raiders is set in motion when Cole and some friends visit a haunted house attraction in their city, and are unexpectedly kidnapped and taken to some place outside of, well, the known universe. Scratch that. Cole’s friends are kidnapped and sold into slavery, and he follows them to try to rescue them. Things go wrong, and he too is enslaved.

I like the way that Mull writes about capture and enslavement. Without being preachy at all, he lays out in a straightforward manner the horror of being kidnapped and sold. He doesn’t have to make the explicit connection, but I would suspect the average kid reading this book would be able to empathize with those taken in the slave trade in Africa. Kudos to Mull for not sugar coating the violence in these scenes.

Before the slave train can reach the market, though, Cole is sold to the Sky Raiders. This is where the book veers from realistic SciFi into true fantasy. Let me give a brief explanation of this part of the book’s world.

At the edge of this world (which seems flat) is a literal edge: “The Brink,” as the residents call it. This sheer and seemingly infinite cliff overlooks an equally infinite space. On each side, extending as far as can be seen (but not infinitely), is a wall of clouds. No one who has entered the cloud walls has ever returned. From the eastern wall comes a succession of floating castles that traverse the sky to the other wall, where they disappear. The Sky Raiders are one of several “salvage” companies which travel out to the castles and take whatever they can get for use and resale. These castles are occasionally benign, and the Raiders can take what they want without interference. However, many more are fraught with danger.

At this point, I should probably explain some of the underlying reality that Mull builds. The magic (or technology, which is largely the same thing…) is “shaping.” In the section of this world that Cole goes to, Shaping is used to create things. Objects and other non-living things are called “renderings,” while quasi-living objects are called “semblances.” It is these quasi-living objects that are the most interesting. One might perhaps compare them to androids, as they are created to act as though they are living, without actually being fully sentient. Some are extremely simple, and can only repeat a few lines, while others are rather difficult to tell apart from truly living creatures. In fact, one of the more interesting questions raised by this book is when the line is crossed between semblance and existence, between programming and sentience, between life and non-life.

An outstanding scene in the book occurs when Cole, scouting out a new castle, finds a semblance who is basically a Roman centurion. Through a combination of conversation and a magic object whose purpose Cole discovers accidentally, the semblance becomes self aware. Has he crossed the line to personhood? He is clearly not fully human, as he cannot leave the castle without disintegrating, and he still is mostly a slave to his nature - that is, his programing. But he is now capable of a limited degree of free will, and rational thought, which is more than a semblance can ordinarily do.

It is also in this scene that Mull gets at a rather profound truth about the human existence. We humans are a lot like the semblances on the castles. We do not remember how we came to exist (anyone remember being born?), and we float along for a brief few days before we disappear. For those of us who have a belief in a higher power an afterlife (Mull is a Mormon), the metaphor is perhaps even more interesting. Who makes the castles? Nobody knows for sure, and certainly nobody can see them being built. (Except one person, maybe…) Why do they even exist at all? What happens to them when they disappear into the other cloud wall? It is one thing to stand on the outside as Cole and the other truly living beings do, and quite another for the semblances like the centurion, who knows only the castle and the “memories” that were programed into him. We exist for such a small period of time, and the beginning and the end are mysteries still.

It would have been fun to have spent more time in the book among the castles. I suspect Mull envisioned these almost as levels in a video game. Get in, defeat the big boss, get out with treasure. (Mull is roughly my age, and I can see a lot of our common culture in the writing…) But, all good things come to an end, and Cole finds he has a lot more to worry about than getting back to his friends and rescuing them. There is a great political crisis in this world, with hidden identities, and evil king, and great power run amok. Cole and the friends he makes have their work cut out for them, and this book ends long before a true resolution to the overarching problems is found. The conclusion is presumably several books away.

Anyway, this is yet another interesting and entertaining book by Mull. He is good at what he does, and seems to have an endless imagination for new worlds and the wonder of a child even in his middle age.

My kids are fans of all the Brandon Mull books we have listened to together so far. My sons are particular fans of Fablehaven, and have read some of the sequel books. I would add that they are particularly well suited to the use we make of them, which is getting us through long trips in the car. The pacing helps the driver stay awake and alert.

This audiobook was read by Keith Nobbs. I forgot to note who read the other Mull audiobooks we listened to. Nobbs does a competent job - in fact, you don’t notice him much, which is a complement. So far, all three Mull audiobooks seem to have good production values and reading styles.