Saturday, November 24, 2007

Ron Paul

As you travel east off the Claiborne Pell Newport Bridge and make landfall on Aquidneck Island, you'll see an exit to your right marked "Scenic Newport" that will eventually take you into the heart of Newport's tourist trap region. If you ignore that exit and keep going straight, you will debouch onto Admiral Kalbfus Road opposite the Newport Grand Slots emporium. If you make the trip on the morning of November 24, 2007, then on your way to the Newport Grand, you'll see a series of Ron Paul for President lawn signs stuck in the ground on your right. Turn right onto Admiral Kalbfus Road, make a circuit of the Rotary, and then turn right onto the on-ramp leading back to the bridge, and you'll see several more Ron Paul lawn signs.

These signs were all placed there in the middle of the night by one of Paul's dedicated, enthusiastic supporters. By the time the sun sets on Newport, though, those signs will be gone, because it's illegal in Newport to leave unattended signs on public property. But that's all right. The Paul campaign has plenty of lawn signs, and plenty of dedicated, enthusiastic supporters, and more signs will eventually sprout there again, and elsewhere in Newport, before the Republican presidential primary on March 4, 2008.

Make no mistake: Ron Paul is nuts. But he's nuts in an old-fashioned Barry Goldwater way, rather than the newfangled hooray-for-Gestapo-tactics-and-imperialism way of modern conservatism. As a former Deaniac, I can't help but be impressed at the level of commitment displayed by Paul's supporters. Four years ago, that would have been me driving up to the bridge on-ramp in the dead of night and planting Dean for America lawn signs.

And as a former Deaniac I also have a warning for any Paulies who are led by Google to this blog post: the political establishment doesn't like your guy, and if he shows any signs of gaining traction, they will do everything in their power to stop him, and in the end, they will succeed. At that point, your candidate (and you yourselves) will have to decide whether you think that beating the Democrats is more important than getting revenge on the mofos in your own party who screwed you over. Dean himself (and most of his followers, including me) decided that beating the other side was more important than beating his own side. He (and we) fell in behind Kerry, and he (and we) worked our asses off (no pun intended) trying to get him elected. And because Dean remained loyal to the Democratic Party, he became its next Chairman, and his revolution continued from the inside, helping the Dems to regain control of Congress.

So, when Ron Paul loses the Republican nomination (and he will lose), where will he and his supporters go?

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Lethal Weapon

Reasonable conservative Jon Swift recently posted this gem in which he argued quite persuasively that if Hillary Clinton were to be elected president, Washington Post columnist and noted Clinton hater David Broder might very well die of shock. While I still prefer Chris Dodd to Hillary, I have to admit that Swift's logic is undeniable.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Cosmic Engineers

Clifford D. Simak was a journalist from Wisconsin who wrote science fiction as a hobby. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison he worked at a number of newspapers in the midwest before settling down at the Minneapolis Star and Tribune in 1939. His first science fiction story, "World of the Red Sun", appeared in the December 1931 issue of Amazing Stories (Isaac Asimov reprinted the story in his anthology Before the Golden Age). He published four more stories in the next year, then stopped. He published another story in 1935, but it wasn't until John W. Campbell became editor of Astounding Stories in 1938 that Simak began publishing stories regularly. He published four stories that year, three of them in Astounding, and followed that up with his first novel, Cosmic Engineers, which was serialized in Astounding from February to April 1939.

Cosmic Engineers was an example of Doc Smith-style universe-spanning space opera. The story opens with a scientist named Caroline Martin being awakened from a thousand years of suspended animation when a newspaper reporter named Gary Nelson stumbles across her ship in space near Pluto in the year 6948. Nelson and his photographer sidekick Herb Harper are on their way to Pluto to cover the launch of humanity's first faster-than-light ship for their paper, the Evening Rocket. (Yes, they still have newspapers in 6948. Not only that, they still have evening papers in 6948.)

In spite of her state of suspended animation, Martin remained conscious the whole time, and preserved her sanity by pondering the laws of time and space. She also found herself receiving not-quite-comprehensible telepathic messages from an alien race. When Martin and the news guys reach Pluto, they discover that the team working on the FTL ship has been in contact with the same group of aliens. Martin is able to use the Pluto team's equipment to communicate with the aliens, who live at the edge of the universe and call themselves the Cosmic Engineers. They tell her that the universe is in imminent danger of being destroyed, and that they desperately want help from humanity. The Cosmic Engineers instruct the Pluto team on how to build a hyperspace thingie that will let them travel instantaneously to their world at the edge of the universe. The Pluto team does so, and Martin, the news guys, and two members of the Pluto team travel to the CE world.

They meet the CEs, a mechanical race living in a huge, nearly-deserted city. The CEs tell them that the universe is on the verge of coming into physical contact with another universe, which will result in an influx of energy destroying both universes. To avert the catastrophe, Nelson and Martin must travel millions of years into a possible future and make contact with the descendants of the human race.

In 1950 Gnome Press published Cosmic Engineers as a novel, and Simak took the opportunity to revise and expand it slightly. Paperback Library published a paperback edition in December 1964, followed by at least two reprints (the copy I'm reading is a second reprint from June 1969). The novel was also published in the UK in hardcover and paperback in the 1980s.

Cosmic Engineers has several notable features. First is the obvious Mary-Sue nature of the protagonist, Gary Nelson, like Simak himself a newspaper reporter. Second is Caroline Martin; she is not a simple damsel in distress character, whose only function in the plot is to be placed in danger and thus motivate the hero into being heroic. Martin is an accomplished scientist, and by far the most intelligent of the novel's human characters. It is due to her that the group on Pluto is able to communicate with the Cosmic Engineers, and is able to travel to the edge of the universe to meet them.

Finally, for all its universe-spanning scope, Simak keeps the science in Cosmic Engineers on a remarkably firm footing. The threat to the universe comes from the extra mass that will result from the influx of energy; with the added mass, the universe will no longer continue expanding, but instead will quickly contract back into a primordial cosmic egg, and will have to go through the Big Bang all over again.

Cosmic Engineers is an unusual novel with an interesting cast of characters. At 159 pages, it's a fast read, and the cosmic scope provides the sense of wonder that is the hallmark of good science fiction.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

What Katherine Said

Go ahead and read Katherine's post at Obsidian Wings. Just to remind yourself why the pro-torture Providence Journal is evil.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Shaw's Reading Room

The Count of St. Germain was an adventurer in 18th century France who claimed to be an alchemist who was several centuries old. He was mentioned in a 1745 letter by Horace Walpole, and appeared several times in Casanova's memoirs. Several Theosophists claimed to have met St. Germain in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In 1978, the fantasy writer Chelsea Quinn Yarbro published a novel called Hôtel Transylvania in which St. Germain was actually a 3500-year-old vampire. Yarbro followed up Hôtel Transylvania with a series of other novels featuring the vampire St. Germain set in various historical periods, including ancient Rome in the time of the Emperor Nero, the courts of Ghenghis Khan and Ivan the Terrible, and France during the Black Death. These are technically horror novels, but the central conceit of the series is that all of the horrors portrayed are the work of ordinary human beings, and not of St. Germain and his fellow vampires.

In 2002, she published Night Blooming, featuring St. Germain in the Frankish Kingdom of Charlemagne. Thanks to one of the inexplicable quirks of the publishing industry, several hardcover copies of this novel wound up in the remainder bin at Shaw's supermarket in Middletown, Rhode Island last week, on sale for $4.95, about one fifth of the cover price. I happened to spot them there, and since I'm a fan of the series, I bought a copy. A quick search of shows that hardcover copies of this novel go for $3.18 and upwards (plus 3.99 shipping and handling), so thanks to the Shaw's supermarket chain, I have a copy on my bookshelf in perfect condition, without serious damage to my meagre checking account.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

The Worst Books Ever Written

Fred Clark is an evangelical Christian who blogs from a site called slacktivist. Since 2003, he's been doing an in-depth critique of the Left Behind series of books by Tim LaHaye and Jerome B. Jenkins, a series Clark refers to as the Worst Books Ever Written.

Some background: LaHaye and Jenkins are both premillennial dispensationalists, who believe that a particular scheme of Biblical history and prophecy, as outlined in the Scofield Reference Bible, with further refinements made by Hal Lindsey in the 1970s, gives a surefire preview of the End of the World. The Left Behind series is basically a novelization of the Scofield-Lindsey scheme of the End Time.

Clark does not share LaHaye and Jenkins' belief in the truth of the Scofield-Lindsey scheme. He puts it like this:

Let's be clear: there is nothing literal about this convoluted, herky-jerky, cut-and-paste collage. Their reading is neither literal nor linear -- arbitrarily leaping about from Revelation to Ezekiel to Zechariah to John Birch, leaving no context intact.

Premillennial dispensationalism is as far from a "literal" reading as you can get. These folks are not orthodox Christians and they're not illiteralist "fundamentalists" either. So don't buy their pose.

Clark regards the Left Behind series as heretical, dangerous, and fundamentally un-Christian.

In the last four years, at the rate of one blog post per week, Clark has made his way through the first 19 chapters of the first book in the series, Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth's Last Days. Along the way, he has picked up a devoted band of faithful commenters, and has even managed to get a paragraph of his own in the "controversies and criticisms" section of the novel's Wikipedia entry. Today's entry, titled "Buck's soul searching", looks at Cameron "Buck" Williams, the Greatest Investigative Reporter of All Time (which Clark snarkily reduces to the acronym GIRAT). He's supposed to be sitting in a cab in New York City, pondering the meaning of the disappearance of over two billion people. Clark points out, though, that Buck's experiences so far in the novel are so obviously the result of divine intervention that he has to be a complete idiot to even question the existence of God at this point. LeHaye and Jenkins want to give their readers the portrait of a man slowly being won over to a belief in God, but since God in the past year has erected at least two huge neon signs saying "HERE I AM, YOU DUMMIES!", a slow conversion experience makes no sense (and is just one of many, many things in the first novel that make no sense).
UPDATE: Combine end times genre fiction with the closely related field of Young Earth Creationism and you get . . . the velocirapture!

Dry Run for Dictatorship

The always-interesting and informative Jen Clark has a new post up about Pervez Musharraf's seizure of power in Pakistan. She notes that Mushy's declaration of "emergency rule" bears a troubling resemblance to George W. Bush's National Security Presidential Directive 51, which calls for the Executive Branch to take control the functions of federal, state, and all other territories in the United States if the Decider-in-Chief decides that the country is in a state of "catastrophic emergency". She further notes BushCo's seeming indifference to the fact that their second-favorite partner in the Glorious War on Terra has just set himself up as an absolute dictator, suspending that country's constitution, shutting down independent media, and arresting thousands of dissidents. Could this, Jen speculates, be a dry run for a similar seizure of power by the Commander Guy if it looks like the Dems are going to win the 2008 presidential election? (Would it be irresponsible to speculate? It would be irresponsible not to speculate!)

The 20-something Jen wouldn't remember some interesting stuff that happened in the early 1970s, but I do, so I think I'll share. Back in 1972, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos was nearing the end of his second (and legally last) term of office. Even though the country was generally peaceful, there was a sudden spate of political terrorism in the summer. Marcos responded by declaring a state of martial law on September 21 (secretly at first; he didn't actually announce that the country was under martial law until two days later). The military seized control of the media and various opponents (actual and potential, real and imaginary) of the regime were arrested. Elections were suspended.

At the time, the Philippines was the USA's closest ally in that part of the world, and formed an essential component of the military organization that had been built up to carry on the war in Vietnam. So, what was US President Richard Nixon's response to such a vital ally suddenly becoming a dictatorship? Pretty much identical to Bush's response to Pakistan. In fact, given how important the Philippines were, it's pretty much inconceivable that Marcos could have seized absolute power without Nixon's complicity.

If the Watergate scandal hadn't intervened, would Marcos' seizure of power have served as a model for Tricky Dick as his own second term came to a close in 1976? It would be irresponsible not to speculate.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Remember, Remember, the 5th of November

The film version of V for Vendetta was originally scheduled for release on the weekend of November 5, 2005, the 400th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot, which would tie in with V's use of a Guy Fawkes mask. One aspect of the film that has become dear to the hearts of self-described libertarians is V's line, "The people shouldn't be afraid of their government. The government should be afraid of the people."

This is nonsense. Authoritarian governments are afraid of their people; that's why they try to turn their countries into huge prisons. The more frightened the government is of the people, the harsher its rule becomes. In the end, neither people nor government should be afraid of the other, because the people ultimately make up the government (which is a truth that libertarians are always at great pains to deny).