The Accidental Time Machine

The Accidental Time Machine
The Accidental Time Machine

By Joe Haldeman

I read The Forever War a while ago, and enjoyed it immensely. One way to articulate that book’s project, though, is as follows:

A man joins the army and, because of successively longer relativistic jumps, experiences the slow evolution of the human race and society over hundreds or thousands of years. Interesting developments of character and thought experiments about humankind follow.

Here’s a brief summary of The Accidental Time Machine:

A man accidentally invents a time machine and, because it only moves forward through time in successively longer jumps, experiences the slow evolution of the human race and society of hundreds or thousands of years. Interesting developments of character and thought experiments about humankind follow.

That nit picked, the book entertains and holds up well, and its more recent provenence means its issues (such as the rise of conservative religious power-mongers) are more relavent for today’s readers than are Forever War‘s. A few additional thoughts:

  • I like the politics of scientific discovery and its place in the novel. The continuing question of whether the main character gets credit for his discovery amuses me to no end.
  • The most well-thought out section is the 200-some year jump in which Matthew finds himself in a post-war regression period of religious fervor. Haldeman damns the tendencies of conservative politics and/or religion to hide information that disagrees with their point of view. He also makes plenty of room for those raised under such umbrellas and the lack of perspective such experiences engender.
  • He also develops a damning perspective of the far future of eBay culture, a kind of counterpoint to Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. In Haldeman’s consumerist future, people have lost initiative or incentive to do anything because no secondary economy (beyond ownership) has developed. By contrast, Doctorow’s book suggests that once the problems of food and population are solved, the gift/reputation economy will emerge and provide different incentives for people to create and thrive. At the same time, one could imagine thoughtless lumps like Haldeman’s characters living in Docotorow’s world too.
  • There are A.I.s in Haldeman’s world, but they don’t get much attention, other than being bored with the short-sightedness of human biengs.

Overall, it’s an intriguing read and a solid story. Worth looking at, for sure.

2009-08-30 Tweets

  • oh man, my fish have been ravenous lately. I feed them and they go CRAZY! #
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New Herb Shelves

After all the success we’ve had with tomatoes and other growables, we reflected on the gross waste we incur (both herbal and fiduciary) as we try to get fresh herbs on our food. Hence, a new gardening project:
Herb Shelves
We’ve planted 10 herb plants (2 oregano, 1 basil, 2 thyme, 2 rosemary, 1 sage, 2 parsley) in long boxes along the back window of our house (a western exposure). I had to build a couple simple shelves, which I just finished and mounted yesterday. They’re 57-inch 1×8 boards with 2-inch finished lattice wood along the edge to make a nice rim. I mounted them using decorative shelf supports. The whole project (plants and materials) cost us around $50, so we’d better keep these plants alive for a while.

But fresh herbs will be worth it, for sure; we had some Basil on our pasta last night. MMMMmmm.

I, Robot

by Isaac Asimov

I just finished reading the seminal story collection by Isaac Asimov about the emergence of robots and their effect on mankind. Predicated on the three laws of robotics, Asimov’s stories explore various problems that arise from different ways these play out. As usual, they’re well written, character-driven stories that tease out particular ideas logically.

A couple thoughts:

  • In “Evidence,” Asimov tells the story of a politician accused of being a robot. Unwilling to submit to testing, the politician becomes a lightning rod for activists and stuff. In this story, Asimov explains how the three laws of robotics are actually analogs of good human behavior: “Of course, every human being is supposed to have the instinct of self-preservation. That’s Rule Three to a robot. Also every ‘good’ human being, with a social conscience and sense of responsibility is supposed to defer to proper authority…. That’s Rule Two to a robot. Also, every ‘good’ human being is supposed to love others as himself, protect his fellow man, risk his life to save another.”(221)
  • One of my favorite parts of reading old SF (this book was originally copyrighted in 1950) is to see the mis-predictions. Asimov has us productively living in space far faster than we did, but he strongly underestimates the speed the world’s population will bloom.
  • The last story asks the larger question explored many times over by a variety of SF writers — what happens if we give over control to the robots. Do we get a Skynet debacle (Terminator), a HAL malfunction (2001), or a benevolent dictator so powerful we don’t even know we’re being guided? Asimov returns to this idea in the Foundation series, more successfully there, I think.
  • I like the interview style. It makes the book a sort-of Citizen Kane of robot stories. Without the sled, though.

Finally, I couldn’t help but notice the distinct absence of the story about a robot who kills his master and the renegade, handsome, popular rap artist police detective who solves the murder.

This scene is not in the book.
Alright, which one of you murdered Isaac Asimov and stole the rights to this title?

The Three Laws play an essential part in the plot of the Will Smith vehicle, and a distillation of the story seems like the missing story, one left out of the book that was crafted for the movie under the same kinds of ideas, and with cool action sequences involving speedy cars and AI rejects. Even more disconcerting, I read the movie-release version of the book, so I have a glowering, worried Will Smith on the cover of my book, along with the nonsensical tagline: “One Man Saw It Coming.” Having read the book inside, I’m not sure what he saw.

Random bullets from the day

I spent all day in a retreat, and plenty of good stuff came out of it. Bad stuff too, though:

  • Big meetings like that make me feel like a jerk, but I can’t help grouching to myself.
  • Favorite comment (from a friend): If you’re merely well-informed, you’re useless.

From home:

  • Three dead fish in the tank today. That’s roughly 1/3 the total population. I hope this isn’t a trend.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

Roger Ackroyd
I'm not sure what spilling red liquid has to do with this book

by Agatha Christie

The only Christie novel to make the 1000 books you must read before you die list, Ackroyd serves as a metonym for every Christie novel, or at least every Poirot novel. It’s skillfully written, with a wide net of characters, an intriguing puzzle mystery with plenty of side distractions (affairs, debts, scoundrels, liars), and a great resolution. I won’t comment much on the plot because I want you to read it eventually and I don’t want this to be a spoilery review. A couple extra thoughts:

  • One of the biggest problems the scientific movement faces in the era of the Internet are “Google degrees,” people who spend a few hours reading information on line and presume themselves to be experts (or capable of speaking on equal footing with experts). This phenomenon occurs often in the anti-vaccination movement, but is a regular part of the interaction between experts in any field and amateurs. The lesson from How to Think About Weird Things is thus “There is good reason to doubt a proposition if it conflicts with expert opinion.” Christie crafts a scene in which a denizen of the 1920s Internet, a gossip who knows everything about the village, argues with her brother’s (a doctor) analysis of a corpse.

    “Mark my words, James, you’ll see that I’m right. That Russell woman was here that morning after your poisons. Roger Ackroyd might easily have been poisoned in his food that night.”

    I laughed out loud.

    “Nonsense,” I cried. “He was stabbed in the neck. You know that as well as I do.”

    “After death, James,” said Caroline, “to make a false clew.” [I love the way they used to spell “clue” — BR]

    “My good woman,” I said, “I examined the body, and I know what I’m talking about. That wound wasn’t inflicted after death–it was the cause of death, and you need make no mistake about it.”

    Caroline merely continued to look omniscient, which so annoyed me that I went on:

    “Perhaps you will tell me, Caroline, if I have a medical degree or if I have not?”

    “You have a medical degree, I dare say, James–at least, I mean I know you have. But you have no imagination whatever.” (229-230)

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

  • The cover art I’m seeing on line oscillates between hilarious vagueness and preposterous imagery. The first cover listed there shows someone spilling a drink. There aren’t any spilled drinks. The copy I read (at right) is even stranger. I have no idea why it features a knife in a cucumber. The house and blue envelope and even the knife itself make sense. But the cucumber?
  • Another appearance of Crippen. You’ll remember the story of Dr. Crippen–detailed in Erik Laarsen’s Thunderstruck–the British pharmacist who murdered his wife and ran away with his lover, but was caught because the ship had a newfangled Marconi device. BOOM. Technology all in his grill. Dr. Crippen was the O.J. of his day, and thus appears in a bunch of books and stuff. To whit, Dr. Sheppard’s sister says “I knew he’d try to get away to America. That’s what Crippen did.” (228)
  • Finally, I think there’s some potential for some awesomeness in using the relatively rare name of Ackroyd to write a parody of the story called “The Murder of Dan Ackroyd.” At the same time, I wonder how Dan Ackroyd would feel if he read that story. Kind of like John Malkovich must have felt when first encountered Being John Malkovich, or Paul Giamatti with Cold Souls.

Quote of the day

From Randy Cohen, about the role of anonymous commenting on the Internet:

Has anonymous posting, though generally protected by law, become so toxic that it should be discouraged?

It has. To promote the social good of lively conversation and the exchange of ideas, transparency should be the default mode. And that goes both for lofty political discourse and casual comments on Amazon. “Says who?” is not a trivial question. It deepens the reader’s understanding to know who is speaking, from what perspective, with what (nutty?) history, and with what personal stake in the matter. It encourages civility and integrity in the writer to stand behind her words. There are times when anonymous posting is necessary, when disclosure is apt to bring harsh retribution — I’ll come to that — but more often, anonymous posting sustains a culture, or at least a hideous subculture, of calumny and malice so caustic as to inhibit the very discourse the Web can so admirably enable. Writers should not do it, and Web site hosts should not allow it.

Campion: Look to the Lady

Funny reference to obtuse episode title here.
Funny reference to obtuse episode title here.

To further cement my place in your heart as a big ol’ nerd, I’ve started watching another BBC mystery adaptation series. This time it’s Campion, starring Peter Davison. Look to the Lady is the first in the series, and was made in 1989.

  • Davison and Brian Glover are a winning combination as the dashing, jaunty, silly Campion and his burly tough, Lugg.
  • Campion qualifies as the amateur (though getting paid) detective, with the sense of humor and general glee at life as his key personality aspects. Picture a smart and competent Bertie Wooster. Lugg is admirably angry all the time, the perfect muscle and counterpoint to Campion. Like Holmes, Campion has innumerable connections and many identities, and he does what he likes when he thinks it suitable. Unlike Holmes, he’s very personable and not a drug addict.
  • The mystery was interesting, but nothing special. And the end isn’t as well explained as Jenny and I would have liked. We weren’t entirely clear if there were supposed to be some sort of clockworks or something that we didn’t understand to make the guardian move. Hmmm.
  • Gypsies play a role in this story as the Baker Street Irregulars of Campion’s employ. It will be interesting to see if they turn up again. Also, Campion’s apartment becomes a key idea in the text, always unlocked and right above a police station. He also seems to have the drive to help just because, as Holmes does.
  • We watched this episode through Netflix Instant play, over four different nights (we kept falling asleep). Fortunately, the player remembers where you were and starts up at the right spot.
  • While she isn’t quite as silly, this series reminds me quite a bit of the Mrs. Bradley mysteries.

I’m looking forward to checking out future episodes. Eventually.

My new favorite thing

Recommended by Columbia colleagues Rob Lagueux and Doug Reichert-Powell:


Crusader’s Cross

Crusader's Cross
Crusader's Cross

by James Lee Burke; narrated by Will Patton

Crusader’s Cross is another Dave Robichaux novel, the one before Tin Roof Blowdown, I believe. It’s only the second of the series I’ve read, but delightful still. The novel focuses on two cases: the 30-year-old disappearance of Dave’s brother’s hooker girlfriend and a series of murders occurring in and around New Orleans. The book has lots of good twists and turns, with Robichaux’s alcoholism and his Vietnam-haunted past coloring events. Will Patton does a fine job with the narration, rendering excellent mix of voices for the different characters. I particularly like the voice for Clete.

Some other thoughts:

  • Burke’s rendering of Louisiana crime has a realistic feel to it, like Carl Hiaasen’s depiction of Florida corruption. It’s a skanky world in Burke’s books.
  • As in the other book I read, Burke uses lots of great analogies as he describes the world, mixing personal observations with taut physical descriptions and evocative characters.
  • This book does a lot to help show how war defines a person’s experience for the rest of their lives. There’s a moment when Dave thinks he sees something but turns out to be mistaken. He describes the worry as being like when you see a guy in the elephant grass, but then he isn’t there.
  • One of the subtexts of this book is the Nancy Grace-style expose reporting and the harm it does to people. The reporter is one of the key suspects in the book and thus we sure want him to get his comeuppance. I can’t help but reflect on the fact that the little people steamrolled by big media in day-to-day affairs rarely get the vengeance this book offers Dave. (Nor the vengeance wrought in a recent episode of Leverage against a similar character.)

Unlike Tin Roof Blowdown, which has a fairly self-explanatory name in its depiction of a crime that occurred during Katrina, Crusader’s Cross comes to the plot a bit more obliquely. [spoiler perhaps] I see a couple readings. First, Dave refuses to give up investigating Ida’s death. This causes many of the troubles from the book, and is suggests a kind of foolish quest. Second, at one point Dave ponders how people doing things they thought were good often brought terrible problems down on their heads. Crusaders brought robes and gold home, but also plague-infested rats. You could also point to a third interpretation, that the patriarch of the villainous family was an honorable criminal, and thus he was like a crusader (killing people and yet “noble”). And because he bore the consequences of his actions, it was his cross to bear? Oh hell, I don’t know.

2009-08-23 Tweets

  • Our cat’s buddies (family stayed w/ us for a while) are gone and he’s lonely. Result: Brendan == cat hair shedding spot. #
  • I love Barney Frank: #
  • Yesterday was the first full day of “welcome back” meetings. mmmm, Fall. #
  • @RecruitingGuy I’ve been getting one or two a week for a while now. BLOCKed. in reply to RecruitingGuy #

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Sometimes, this is how I feel.

awesome squirrel

Paean to Intercontinental Music Lab

I realized when I was doing my music write up on Friday that I never posted about one of my favorite bands from Jamendo, Intercontinental Music Lab.

Superheroes Of The Sea
Superheroes Of The Sea

Superheroes Of Science
Superheroes Of Science

I’ve only listened to two of their albums (but I’ve now discovered a third that’s being downloaded as I write this. ICL brings together musicians from around the world to collaborate on songs about specific topics (i.e. the sea or science). The stuff they turn out is strange and poppy, and some of it is downright amazing. “Cunning Odysseus” from The Sea and “X is for unknown” from Science are both stunning and drive me crazy with delight.

I’ll post something about Superheroes of Space” next month.

Harper’s Island

I just finished watching our TiVO backlog of Harper’s Island: The DVD Edition, a “whodunit” involving plenty of bloody murder and a “mystery” to solve. While I did enjoy the show quite a bit, it felt more like watching a television version of I Know What You Did Last Summer than a whodunit. It had a delightful, soap-opera quality to it, but wasn’t as awesome as I’d hoped it would be. More below.

Spoilers Ahead.

Harper's Island
Harper's Island
  • The main problem with the show is its billing. The show was much more like a slasher movie — in which we don’t really care who‘s chopping up everybody, but we want to know why. We also know most people won’t survive. Another difference from your usual whodunit was in the layers of suspicion. While the early part of the series put lots of great suspicion on everybody, it often undid itself by killing those people just as they were starting to look really good and guilty.
  • The acting was creditable and enjoyable, and well within the genre. I especially liked the killer’s nervous smile in the last couple episodes. It contrasts brilliantly with the violence of his/her actions.
  • There were a few “duh” moments that I found really obnoxious. Leaving the killer in a locked cell but unsupervised seemed (and turned out to be) pretty dumb. Also, in the classic horror movie trope, whenever the killer gets knocked down, people run away instead of finishing him. I’d hate to ever be in such a position, but I think I’d keep hitting until I was sure he wasn’t getting up again.
  • The location for the film was perfect, with lots of scary everywhere. Forested northwestern islands make for great creepy venues. In that regard, the early sequences (in the first two or three episodes, no one realizes anything is wrong. Oops!) with the creepy traps in the forest were delightful.
  • I was intrigued when I heard that this was to be a series. The second season would apparently be an unconnected but similar style of storytelling. I’m sad to learn that it wasn’t picked up. It would have been lame if any characters had carried over, but the possibility of trying this project again with different actors and story intrigues me.

August music rundown

I don't know which is Koerner and which is Glover
I don't know which is Koerner and which is Glover

emusic downloads:

  • Koerner & Glover, Live at the 400 Bar – I’m a big fan of Koerner and Glover, whom I discovered among my father’s CD collection. They do old fashioned guitar and harmonica folk music, with good renditions of standards and their own twists on songs. My favorites on this album are “Goodnight Irene” and “What’s the Matter with the Mill.”
  • Aquabats, Return of the Aquabats, 3 songs – I liked these enough to download the rest of the album. Review forthcoming next month.
  • Passion Pit, Chunk of Change – I downloaded one song from this album last month — “Sleepyhead” — and that song continues to be the best track on the album. That said, the other tracks are all delightful. The lead singer’s falsetto croon, which reminds me of James or Radiohead, works very well for the electronically playful tunes scattered across this album. I particularly enjoy “I’ve Got Your Number” and “Cuddle Fuddle.”
  • Jonathan Coulton, Thing a Week Four – I had a couple of the big tunes from this album, but I downloaded the rest this month. None of these are amazing standouts, but they hold up. “Under the Pines” is particularly deceptive, as it appears to be about a lost love, but then reveals itself to be about a tryst with, um, Bigfoot. “The Big Boom” also deceives in the other way, appearing to be an hilarious end-of-the world song like Weird Al’s “Christmas at Ground Zero,” but its jaunty pop guitars hide the very real fear of another attack that dwells inside most New Yorkers, if not in most Americans. Of the whole album, I still think “Creepy Doll” far outshines anything else there, but that wasn’t a new song to me.

Jamendo downloads:

  • Ralph Buckley, Cocoa Krispies & Lucky Charms – Buckley’s light-hearted songs and solid lyrics are a delight. I am reminded a lot of Jude or perhaps someone like David Gray. The high-spirited air of the title track particularly captured my imagination. I’ll definitely be downloading more Buckley in future. In retrospect, looking at songs like “The Bees are Dying” makes me reconsider the phrase “light-hearted.”
  • racecar, Country Gold – This collection of classic folk-style songs with a modern sensibility works pretty well for me. Having listened to some Guthrie and Seeger over the last couple months, I was happy to hear the original songs, as well as the reworked classics. I particularly like “Sunshine Revisited” and “Mary Lou.”
  • Ivan Ivanovich & The Kreml Krauts, Begi Suka – I’ve come to appreciate the European version of ska that has emerged, blending classic Polka sensibilities with punk/ska aesthetic. The result are ska songs driven less by horns and more by accordions. Ivan and the Krauts are an excellent example of this genre. I particularly like “Velospied,” but they’re all solid songs. Not knowing what the Russian lyrics are saying, I’m in danger of succombing to the Engels Laren problem, of course.

Just for kicks, here’s a “Creepy Doll” fan video.