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Science, Fiction, and points in between

Friday 21 December 2001

Read read read!

§ This probably never happens to you, but some people just can't seem to keep up on their reading.

Recently, Joseph Epstein wrote in the Times Literary Supplement, "As Prufrock measured out his life in coffee spoons, so I measure mine, or at least the orderliness of mine, by how many issues of the TLS I am behind at the moment."

"There's just not enough time to read," says Sherrill Cheda, a retired arts administrator. "My regret is that life isn't long enough to read more. My biggest fear is that I might go blind and not be able to read."

"I know people can calculate the number of books they can read in a year and the number of years they are likely to have left to read them and they come up with a sum that is much too small," says [Eleanor] Wachtel [host of CBC Radio's Writers and Company and The Arts Today].
National Post, December 17, 2001

§ So what do publishers do during their holiday time? Why, read of course. Read read read.

For the professionals there are two kinds of reading. There's work reading, with an editing eye, as manuscripts come to the office in whole or part, to be read and re-read, the writer's art in progress as it goes through its creative transmutations. And there's zeal that comes with reading for fun those books that one selects carefully and puts aside for pleasure, for vacation reading. If such reading is exquisite recreation for most of us, imagine the luxury for someone who reads for a paycheck all year.
— Martin Arnold, New York Times, December 20, 2001

Tuesday 18 December 2001

The Pundits and Tolkien

§ The political pundits discover they can relate to Tolkien, however silly they may think hobbits and dwarves are.

Ultimately, Tolkien's fantasyland of "Middle-earth" is a place of happy endings, but he was thinking also of another ring cycle that ended sadly - and then was acted out in the real world. "The Ring of the Nibelungen," the quartet of operas written by the 19th-century German composer Richard Wagner, is a kind of weird musical cousin of Tolkien's work. ...
[D]ecades later, the last act of the last opera, "Gotterdammerung," in which the Norse gods are destroyed by fire, became a source of suicidal inspiration to Adolf Hitler as, late in the war, Der Fuhrer pushed for the final destruction of Europe. And while Hitler was unique in his dictatorial monstrosity, the moral of Tolkien's story is valid for the politics of today and every day: Trust no one with power, least of all yourself.
— James Pinkerton, Newsday, December 18, 2001

§ Edward Rothstein considers the tragic tinge at the end of Tolkien.

Yet even after the evil Ring is destroyed, even after the terror of its power is incinerated at the heart of the Evil Empire, scars remain. Remnants of the ancient world dissolve. The age of myth ends and the age of modernity begins. The new Dominion of Men that Gandalf heralds prefigures the present. Its villainous side is shown in the postwar wreckage of the hobbits' countryside, the steam-belching machinery and crude homes that not only desecrate the pastoral Shire but, as Tolkien said, also resemble those that demolished the rustic world of his childhood.

Tolkien resisted modernity, but in the world of Middle-earth, as in the world of contemporary Earth, can anyone doubt its inexorable progress, or the implicit threat it embodies for the pastoral world with its pre-modern cultures and its ancient traditions? Virtue and destruction are mixed, and both are inevitable.
New York Times, December 15, 2001

§ There's an ironic resonance with current events, as in Anthony Lewis's reflections on ending his column after 32 years.

As I look back at those turbulent decades, I see a time of challenge to a basic tenet of modern society: faith in reason.

No one can miss the reality of that challenge after Sept. 11. Islamic fundamentalism, rejecting the rational processes of modernity, menaces the peace and security of many societies.

But the phenomenon of religious fundamentalism is not to be found in Islam alone. Fundamentalist Christians in America, believing that the Bible's story of creation is the literal truth, question not only Darwin but the scientific method that has made contemporary civilization possible.
New York Times, December 15, 2001

§ The Internet is changing the language, and that's a good thing, according to Language and the Internet author David Crystal.

Dr. Crystal concludes that the Internet is not going to spawn a generation of illiterates, as a cursory look at any undergraduate's e-mail might suggest. On the contrary, he contends, it is developing into a splendid new medium that shows language users at their most inventive, adapting a variety of styles for a variety of purposes, some formal, some highly informal.

... Dr. Crystal argues that the evolving discourse of the Internet is quite different from writing, in part because writing's prime characteristic is its stability. "You expect writing to stay in place," he said. "When you refer to a page you've read earlier, you expect it to remain the same. You'd be very surprised if it had changed its character." That's not true for computer-mediated communication, he said, which has a characteristic fluidity reflected, for instance, in Web pages that change or in e-mail that is cut and pasted to create a new message.
New York Times, December 13, 2001

§ Why do so many people buy Stephen Hawking's books? Do they really understand what they're reading?

Part of the lure of these books is the chance to reclaim one's citizenship in a troubled and baffling cosmos by hearing the word from the horse's mouth, from someone who has touched the cosmic mystery personally. But another part is surely being treated like an adult, of entering a rough-hewn colleagueship by being trusted to put work into deciphering statements like the one at the beginning of this essay, or to deal with straight talk of the nature of science and the universe.
— Dennis Overbye, New York Times, December 11, 2001

Tuesday 11 December 2001

§ To be a success, should you write with no style?

Pick up almost any best-selling work of popular fiction today and you'll recognize it at once. You may not know which writer you're reading (a telltale sign of No-Stylism) and you may have even read the same book before and can't remember (another sign), but you'll know the No-Style style when you see it.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.
The article includes "Six Keys to a No-Style Bestseller".
Washington Post, November 18, 2001

§ Is the Segway Human Transporter a giant step forward, or backward?

Truly what is needed is not another gizmo that provides otherwise healthy men and women with another reason to remain sedentary, but more sidewalks and walking trails, safer intersections, the reappearance of street-side shops and sidewalk cafes that once made urban walking enjoyable, and flatfoot cops on the beat that made that sauntering safe.
Salon, Dec. 7, 2001

November Aether Vibrations

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