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A subject certainly worthy of discussion, the discussion of how to excavate properly in the great outdoors and the health and environmental hazards connected with it, may be stretched a bit thin over the length of an, albeit short, book. A chapter in a general book on life outdoors would have been more appropriate. Even so, Meyer’s tone is refreshingly unconcerned with propriety – she explains about the difficulties getting it right in the introduction – and the stories she has collected can be entertaining. The biggest value for me was to learn about history and mechanism of the diseases – like Giardia – that make drinking unprocessed surface water such a hazard these days. The practical tips seemed nothing common sense wouldn’t have you know already, though maybe it’s a good thing to see them spelled out.

Saturday, March 11th, 2006

Andrew Horvat – Japanese Beyond Words (2)

It’s always hard to get a feeling for a foreign culture without being immersed in it, and it’s probably even more difficult when the gap is as large as it is sure to be between so called western countries and Japan. I find the insistence of most introductions to stress the quaintness and formality of Japanese customs a bit irritating, for the blind eye it turns on equivalent behaviours in the reader’s home culture. Generally, a big deal is made for instance of the different distinct levels of politeness or about set phrases for different social situations, as though neither of these existed in other cultures. While this issue crops up in this book as well, much of the specific information in it is really helpful, and it is a nice read to boot.

An interesting anecdote which maybe doesn’t sum up this volume of writing advice, but certainly illuminates it, has Mozart being asked for hints on symphony composition by a young, aspiring composer. He advises to start with small pieces and work up, and when the composer is confused by this and points out that Mozart himself wrote symphonies at quite an early age, Mozart replies “Yes, but I never asked for hints”. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the advice in this volume only applies to writers of mediocre talent, or that it isn’t useful for experts. While the individual essays in this volume vary greatly in quality, with Asimov providing the largest number of essays, and has the least substance to his superficial und uncultered boasts, there are a few pieces that delve deeply into the problems of building entire worlds from scratch. This problem is arguably one of the most important reasons for the gap in literary quality between science fiction and the rest of it – where ordinary narrative can rely on the reader’s ability to fill in gaps in background, characterization and psychology, science fiction must often close them, using original material for it. The seams of implausibility that result whenever this goes wrong wreak havoc with characters, plot and world plausibility, requiring the aspiring writer to pay much more attention to minute details and work it all out. Incidentally and as an aside, the other big reason for the quality gap would be the fact that writers genuinely interested in general themes of human existence rather than scientific what-if-narrative will naturally shy away from setting their plots against an artificial background, leaving a large faction of people like Asimov, who openly admit that they care not one bit about subtelties of storytelling and characterization, and that ideas are all that matters. It’s too bad, really.

The high points of this collection are the essays by Poul Anderson on world building, Norman Spinrad’s somewhat dated sounding advice on how to project current trends using simple cyclical models – it’s a funny moment when he reports in awe that the spreadsheet he uses is a file of gargantuan 600 kilobytes. Good old days -, Hal Clements advice on how to create believable psychologies in an unknown world, and Connie Willis treatise on humourour writing – though technically that last one doesn’t belong here, since she herself points out that there is nothing peculiar to writing funny SF opposed to funny anything else. Also entertaining is Stanley Schmids list of cliches editors will not ever want the read, though I have to say that if you indeed want to write an Adam and Eve story because you think the idea is highly original, another line of work might be better suited.

I’m not likely to read the whole of it, but I found the basic knitting instructions very satisfying – they got me from zero to 50 (rows) in just a few hours – and I’m very happy with the project I picked and modified from it. A striped scarf (of course), with a subtle pattern created by switching between left and right stitches. I guess that makes me a knitwit now. Yay!

Monday, February 13th, 2006

Paola Cavalieri – The Animal Question (2)

The caveat first: this is not exactly a book written for a general audience. It is a treatise of ethical philosophy, and the reasoning and phrasing is, I felt, even denses in some places than reverence to the esteemed traditions of academic discourse, let alone the subject matter, should have had it be (Though not having tried to set a thorough study of the intricacies of a system of moral acting in popular prose, I of course might be entirely mistaken and this book the closest anyone can get to simplicity in what is without a doubt an discomfortingly complex matter).

Cavalieri sets out to evaluate what entities are moral entities, in the sense that they figure into moral considerations of the actions of moral agents. A thorough review of opinions of the past reveals that none of them can be made consistent. Cavalieri then suggests that the best possible solution for our current state of knowledge of the cognitive life of other species is to extend the notion of human rights to all mammals and birds. Unfortunately, her case is solid, so this is the rare case of a book that has the potential to change my life. No more burgers. Poor me.

Sunday, January 8th, 2006

Yamamoto Tsunetomo – Hagakure (2)

The more I learn about Japanese history, the more I wonder how it is possible that the European captains found anybody alive there at all when they arrived. They should have disembarked, a fearful expression on their faces, and waded in blood, among the guts and remains of the honorable dead, who slashed themselves open to maybe make amends for an ill chosen colour of off-white for the master’s new lampshade, or some such. This makes for very fascinating reading, but it is indeed hard to understand how a society, in which disrespect leads to fights to the death, which in turn means seppuku for those who started them, could have functioned, Maybe, then, Yamamoto exaggerates wildly. This is somewhat more plausible for modern readers when they realize that some of his short texts read like they are the direct inspirations for Monty Python’s suicide squad lead by Otto in The Life of Brian, and the Black Knight in the Holy Grail – now of course available as a plush doll, which probably would have horrified old Tsunetomo right into killing himself.

Monday, December 26th, 2005

Sun Tzu – The Art of War (3)

When a dog pees on a mountain, does the mountain care? Depends on the size of the dog, you might answer, but in general it won’t. General – what better segway than that to lead into my two cents on Sun Tzu’s Art of War, commonly hailed as the essential read for business strategists, soldiers, garbage collectors, and, really, everybody, for war is a metaphor for life, and we all have one of these, after all. In spite of that Master Sun’s strategic nuggets of wisdom were a bit lost on me. I don’t object to anything said, and the style of the translation, and, I presume, the original, is very concise and poetic in it’s condension, but what in this book I find applicable is obvious, and what isn’t obvious doesn’t seem applicable. On top of that this edition has been translated an edited by Thomas Cleary. Cleary follow every few sentences of Sun’s text with serveral different commentaries, and the sequence of Sun’s dense, poetic writing, and the commentators clumsy, wordy rephrasing makes this an odd comedic experience.

Thursday, December 22nd, 2005

Gichin Funakoshi – Karate-do Kyohan (1)

This is a wonderful and concise introduction to all mayor aspects of karate, from the basics and kata to free sparring. What I found most fascinating – besides the insightfully detailed kata descriptions – was how meaningful those detailed notes become when you don’t read them as descriptions or recipes, but as commentaries on something you already know – or, even more interesting, know in a similar shape. Since I’ve been studying all the Kata’s in their Wado form, Funakoshi’s reasoning is most intriguing where he describes the rationale for doing something different from how we do it. The dialectics of form become apparent, the fact that one needs to be restricted, to see the unfoundedness of that restriction, and thus overcome it. Which makes me realize that Hegel was a very eastern kind of Swabe.

Friday, December 16th, 2005

Joseph Jennings – Winning Karate (3)

With martial arts training, it’s mre about the form, the spirit and the attitude of the student than it is about the actual specific movement or skill that’s trained. So a physical description of the basic techniques provides technical rather than spiritual insight – at least when it’s read rather than physically studied. On the other hand, the illustrations in this book demonstrating how to deal with an attacker armed with a gun, knife or rifle, are extremely spiritual. And by spiritual I mean funny.

Wednesday, December 14th, 2005

The Karate Dojo – Peter Urban (3)

Partly insubstantial ramblings, partly interesting Martial Arts stories, this was a nice and entertaining read. Slightly annyoing that he mixes fact and fiction in his anecdotes, without making clear, which is which. But judging from his website, he’s just too great to care.