Friday, January 07, 2011

The Month That Was - December 2010

The Month That Was - December 2010: We are now into the second decade of the 21st century, a fact which blows my mind. With each passing year we put the lie to more and more sci-fi. Arthur C. Clarke's 2001 (overrated) and 2010 (lame) have been moved into the realm of fantasy. The third in the trilogy is 2061 (pretty much completely unknown) at which point I will be 100, twice my current age. I would wager real, folding money that even then we will still be without flying cars and it will take a TSA anal probe to get into the air. That's progress for you. The fourth in the trilogy is 3001 (which I didn't even know existed until I looked it up -- it has the Freddy Krueger-ish subtitle of "The Final Odyssey") at which point I expect to be a brain in a jar. That will make for a slimy grope for the turn of the millennium TSA agents.

But I digress.

Misspent Youth is, effectively, done. I have just received the galleys. As long as they check out, I can declare the publishing to be over and it will be up for sale at Amazon shortly. Then I get to work on the Kindle version. Whee.

The important thing is that the days are getting longer.

[Books] Book Look: A World Lit Only by Fire
[Detroit] Glimmer in Detroit
[House and Home] House Grouse
[TV] Tube Find

[Books] Book Look: A World Lit Only By Fire, by William Manchester

Book Look: A World Lit Only By Fire, by William Manchester: Check out this quote:
The Dark Ages were stark in every dimension. Famines and plague, culminating in the Black Death, and its recurring pandemics, repeatedly thinned the population. Rickets afflicted the survivors. Extraordinary climatic changes brought storms and floods which turned into major disasters because the empire's drainage system, like most imperial infrastructure, was no longer functioning. It says about the Middle Ages that in the year 1500, after a thousand years of neglect, the roads built by the Romans were still the best on the continent. Most others were in such a state of disrepair that they were unusable; so were all European harbors until the eighth century, when commerce began to stir. Among the lost arts was bricklaying; in all Germany, England, Holland, and Scandinavia, virtually no stone buildings, except cathedrals, were raised for ten centuries. The serfs' basic agricultural tools were picks, forks, spades, rakes, scythes, and balanced sickles. Because there was very little iron, there were no wheeled plowshares with moldboards. The lack of plows was not a major problem in the south, where farmers could pulverize the light Mediterranean soil, but the heavier in northern Europe had to be sliced, moved, and turned by hand. Although horses and oxen were available, they were of limited use. The horse collar, harness, and stirrup did not exist until about A.D. 900. Therefore tandem hitching was impossible. Peasants labored harder, sweated more, and collapsed from exhaustion more often than their animals.

Surrounding them was the vast, menacing, and at places impassable, Hercynian Forest, infested by boars; by bears; by the hulking medieval wolves who lurk so fearsomely in fairy tales handed down from that time; by imaginary demons; and by very real outlaws, who flourished because they were seldom pursued. Although homicides were twice as frequent as deaths by accident, English coroners' records show that only one of every hundred murderers was brought to justice. Moreover, abduction for ransom was an acceptable means of livelihood for skilled but landless knights. One consequence of medieval peril was that people huddled closely together in communal homes. They married fellow villages and were so insular that local dialects were often incomprehensible to men living only a few miles away.
That jaw dropping description of the Dark Ages stopped me dead in my tracks. It is stunning to hear how far Western Civilization fell from the heights Greece and Rome; nearly completely back to subsistence level hunter/gatherers during lean seasons. What a dire existence it must have been. Robin Hanson of Overcoming Bias has postulated that in the far, far future (tens or hundreds of millennia from now) humanity will have necessarily reverted back to subsistence level living. It won't be unhappy, he claims, but it will be all about survival again. What knowledge remains of our times will seem like a myth of a Dreamtime from long ago. I'm sure Robin doesn't suppose such a life would be similar to the Dark Ages, but if that sort of world is the ultimate result of reverting to subsistence level ways, I can't imagine it being anything but unhappy. [[Note: Interestingly, as I was writing this, Robin posted a suggestion that the upcoming movie, Lift Up, may be a good demonstration of happiness in the face of grinding poverty.]]

Think about the things that are absent from such lives. It was possible to go from cradle to grave with hearing a note of music or being exposed to any fiction short of a few stories passed down from elders, never mind any form of drama. Along with the near complete absence of arts, goes with the near complete absence of knowledge. Intellectual stimulation and abstract thinking were superfluous, mostly. Then there are all the little things lost -- taste, for instance: food was purely sustenance and taste only served to detect spoilage. Better savor that '95 Cabernet while you can. You knew no sights other than those of the immediate surroundings -- you may have carried no mental image of the ocean, or snow, or mountains. This was an age so devoid of anything to satisfy the more developed human desires that the only thing separating it from complete obscurity is that the fact of our emergence from it.

If such an existence is not necessarily unhappy, it speaks to the near perfect relativity of happiness. I am boundlessly grateful to be living here in Dreamtime, with my Zune and DVR overflowing, the knowledge of the world at my keyboard,31 flavors of ice cream and four microbreweries within 15 minutes, and new sights and sensations a plane ride and a TSA rubber glove away. Plus, deodorant.

But (returning to the book review) all that is just visceral reaction. Reflection and investigation suggests that that description of the Dark Ages is misleading. A World Lit Only By Fire cannot be considered a history book in the sense of being fully researched and based on primary sources. It is more of a dramatization -- sensationalist dramatization -- of generalized facts mixed with anecdotal stories from a handful of other books. I say this in complete confidence, having read 6 pages of 1-star reviews on Amazon. But seriously, anyone who is even mildly aware of the tone and timbre of biased writing will be able to identify rumor, prejudice, and selective presentation of facts just from the prose style alone. No matter how low civilization may have sunk between Rome and the Renaissance, humanity and human nature is just too complex to have descended all the way to the broadly simplistic demi-savages described above then pretty much instantly rebound thanks to Gutenberg, Leonardo, and Luther. It took millennia to climb out of savagery once, it seems unlikely it would happen overnight a second time.

Still, from the passage above, you can see Manchester is a compelling writer and can create an affecting and disturbing vision. He turns many of the stories of Middle Ages-to-Renaissance transition into ripping good yarns. (For those concerned, there is an extended discussion of the sex lives of the prelates of the Vatican just to get the old blood pumping.) But as history, it's too simple and too slapdash. We jump back and forth between decades and even centuries, often the same paragraph. Litanies of names and events are thrown out as anecdotes to back up the main thematic thrust of whatever topic is at hand -- none of which would mean anything to the casual reader (and the serious reader of history wouldn't touch this book with a ten foot pole).

No, Manchester missed the boat with this one. He should have gone full on into the realm of historical fiction. He could have left out the useless recitations of people and places and really indulged his talent for salacious commentary. Now that would have been fun. Should you read A World Lit Only By Fire? Probably not. Certainly not if you are looking for history. If you are looking for Medieval or Renaissance based entertainment it might be worth it, but just know what you are getting into. Don't take this stuff at face value.

[Detroit] Glimmer in Detroit

Glimmer in Detroit: If you have kept up on my commentaries about Detroit over the years (click the Detroit tag over to the right), you may have come away with the idea that I am a very pessimistic person. Not really. I am broadly optimistic, but specifically pessimistic. This jibes with my experience in life. There are many more failures than successes. This is a simple result of the fact that it takes numerous failures at anything before you succeed. Which is to say, statistically speaking, you will probably fail.

With respect to Detroit, they really have had made only one attempt to make the place livable and it has lasted 50 years. That attempt has consisted of essentially bribing whoever they can to stay or move into the city, and to label anyone who points out the problem with that nothing but a hatefully hating hater. Needless to say, as a continuing strategy, it hasn't turned out terribly well. So in my model of "many failures-one success" they have been on their first failure for half a century.

Now it appears that they have gone finally getting on to the next attempt. The impetus here is Mayor Dave Bing -- who I will happily go on record about: he is better than the city deserves -- and his plans to drastically downsize the city to make it remotely workable again.

Let me attempt to paraphrase Bing's thinking. The policies and stewardship of the city have been a disaster. Civilized life has become so tenuous that any drastic change is doomed to failure because it simply cannot be executed in a reliable manner. Whatever programs and policies the city administration could come up with wouldn't really matter because there is no conduit for implementing them. Key example: What good are anti-crime policies if police cannot cover the ground needed to enforce them? What needs to be done is to, quite literally, downsize and restructure the city. The plan for this and some of the challenges are especially well described in a Time magazine article, and more succinctly over at the Wall Street Journal.

It seems to me a reasonable plan of action. It's certainly worth a try, which is more that can be said for the bribe-and-jive tactics of mayors like Coleman Young and Kwame Kilpatrick. Of course it means doing things like displacing widely scattered people -- literally removing them from their homes and relocating them -- which has already caused self-styled "community activists" to cry "Oppression!" I guess the worst that comes out of it is we will have tangible proof of whether I am right or wrong about the people not deserving Dave Bing.

For a couple more recent takes on Detroit see:As for me, I have a tiny glimmer of hope for the city of my birth, although it remains almost completely shrouded in the blackest pessimism. And I have an open mind about making 2011 the year I returned to Detroit, for the first time in at least a decade. Maybe for the Tour de Troit bike ride if they hold it again. (Notice that the Detroit Police require them to keep the route a secret. Like they say downtown, Welcome to the big D.)

[House and Home] House Grouse

House Grouse: I am getting a rapid education in home-ownership. It seems like everything you want to do requires you to do at least two other things first, each of which requires you to be available in a four hour window for delivery or else requires extensive trial and error shuttling to the hardware store.

I'm finding all the little things I didn't see on inspection. A scratch here. A hole there. A door knob that needs to be replaced. A loose shelf. I'm building a laundry list of annoyances.

Speaking of laundry, after waiting in vain for the guy to come and hook up my gas dryer, I did it myself. Took a little trial and error. I guess we'll know if it worked by whether or not I inadvertently take the gas pipe.

The business of having well water and a septic tank instead of city water and sewer is going to be, um, interesting.

A friend of mine pointed out that buying a home is the point in your life where you first get comfortable with thinking of costs in multiples of a thousand.

(Actually I've owned my condo for many years now, but the dollars involved have been on a much smaller scale.)

And how do you know what furniture to buy? Seriously I have absolutely no eye for that sort of thing. None whatsoever. So I try to get opinions of others who seem to know. I'll point out something that seems attractive and get subtle responses like "You like that, eh?" or "Well, that's interesting, isn't it?" or "Does it remind you of your dorm room?" and so forth.

So I guess the lessons of home ownership are "you're gonna have to be patient" and "you can't please everyone." That, and to memorize the phrase "It's only money." You'll need it.

[TV] Tube Find

Tube Find: I have fallen in love with The A.V. Club (especially the TV section). Imagine finding a place where folks wax on endlessly about film and television and books and music, writing in-depth reviews of just about anything pop culture that comes into their purview. What sets it apart from other sites is their willingness, even eagerness, the rehash media from the past, rather than pander to what's hot. This is less rare in the case of movies, but where else are you going to find episode by episode reviews of say , The Sopranos or Seinfeld, in order of release, written from a current perspective?

For a boost to your optimism, check out their look at the most anticipated entertainment events of 2011. I've already mentioned #37, the Return of The Milch (with Michael Mann and Dustin Hoffman in tow), but I have to add #34, a new book(s) from Haruki Murakami that further research suggests is highly awesome, and #44, the return of the BBC's contemporized Sherlock, which was a total delight in its too short first season.

Another great feature: "A Very Special Episode" section which has carried reviews of one of the few episodes of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson still surviving from the '60s, and the Thanksgiving episode of Northern Exposure , and much more.

This is hog heaven for me. I can't believe I just discovered it. If you can't find me, I'm off somewhere quiet, reading this site.