Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Science fiction or fantasy?

My most recent reading material is Andy Weir's Project Hail Mary. Weir has a fair amount of expertise in science and engineering and it shows in his work. His first book, The Martian, got all the technical stuff right. Everything that happened in the novel matched up neatly with reality; there wasn't anything that wasn't conceivably possible just by extending current technology out a bit further: sending a manned mission to Mars, having various devices working, and sufficient dramatic elements to keep a reader interested in seeing The Hero manage to survive on a diet of potatoes far longer than one would think possible. The book was readable. I enjoyed it, but had zero interest in watching the movie. 

Project Hail Mary is similar in that all the technology and science seems plausible. No violations of known laws of physics (e.g., no sudden discoveries of a faster-than-light drive or wormhole technology), for example. It does include the discovery of a life form that seems to be impossible given the conditions where it was found, but it's not totally implausible. Scientists have found marine life at depths where the water pressure should flatten them and thriving in thermal tubes where they should be getting cooked instead of breeding. So I'm willing to accept Weir's invention of 'astrophage.' 

In short, the book should be easily classifiable as hard core, old-fashioned science fiction. There's only one small problem. The plot centers around the need to Save the Planet, a classic trope in speculative fiction. An imminent threat is discovered, more or less by accident, that has the ability to turn Earth into an ice-covered lifeless rock. And it's a threat with a short timeline. If a solution isn't found within a few years it'll be too late. This is where the book steps away from being science fiction and turns into fantasy.

Humanity's response (or at least politicians' responses) is pure wishful thinking. Elves and orcs are more grounded in reality than Weir's vision. The governments of the world throw themselves into cooperating with the effort. The Chinese, Russians, Swedes, you name it, are all united in supporting Project Hail Mary. I can slide easily into a willful suspension of disbelief when it comes to accepting a lot of things authors do -- time travel, multiple universes, you name it and I probably won't quibble -- but a united Earth? That's the proverbial bridge too far. I'd be cruising along in the book, enjoying the various things The Hero has to cope with, and then there'd be a dip into governments worldwide giving the project's administrator a blank check. No, no, no. We humans would rather die a miserable, post-apocalyptic death while shivering over a dumpster fire and cooking rats than we could ever manage to get two countries, let alone the whole world, to agree on something that everyone needs. Don't agree? Just take a look at the stellar job we're all doing on agreeing on actions to slow climate change. 

Despite the fantasy element, the book is a good read. The management of the project pops up occasionally and has me muttering, but fortunately most of the novel just focuses on The Hero and the problems he personally is trying to solve. I'm actually not quite done with it -- I read another section that had the project manager bulldozing her way through bureaucracies and enjoyable though it was to see someone ream desk monkeys it got me thinking about how thoroughly unrealistic that plot element appears to be. Which is a shame, because it really would be nice to have a Project Manager for the whole planet.   

Monday, February 21, 2022

Very shakey moral high ground

 Listening to '1-A' on NPR this morning and thinking, not surprisingly, that the United States has a really short memory when it comes to history. As a society we're really good at shoving unpleasant facts deep into the memory hole. The topic of the hour is Chinese mistreatment of the Uyghur minority within China. It is undoubtedly a horrible situation. The Chinese have established "re-education" centers, moved Uyghurs from their traditional homeland and forced them to take jobs elsewhere, they've tried to prevent Uyghurs from speaking their native language and separated children from their parents. Where, one asks, could they have possibly gotten inspiration for such mass indoctrination and attempted acculturation?

Genocide of native peoples? Indoctrination efforts? Boarding schools for the children? Persecution for practicing their traditional religion? Relocation to areas far from home to work in factories? Locked in internment camps as a possible threat to national security? The irony runs deep. 

One of the news items earlier in the morning was a brief report on the Secretary of Interior explaining the latest (as in, the immediate future; Biden still has to sign the bill) addition to the National Parks system, a site in Colorado that during World War II served as a concentration camp for Japanese-Americans. Amache National Historic Site is located in southeastern Colorado near the town of Granada. It is only one of multiple sites around the nation where Japanese-Americans were imprisoned during the war. We were at war with Germany, too, but I don't recall ever hearing about German-Americans being forced to leave their homes in Milwaukee, St. Louis, and elsewhere after being given barely enough time to pack a suitcase, but maybe no one in government wanted to risk losing breweries.  

A slight digression. The bill to designate the internment camp as a national historic site met with almost zero opposition. It was one of those rare examples of Congress coming close to passing a bill unanimously. One loud exception: Mike Lee, the asshole Republican Senator from Utah. He wants absolutely no land added to the National Parks (or maybe to the Department of Interior in general) so had said the only way he'd vote for it was if Interior agreed to put an equivalent amount of land, something like 1 square mile, up for sale to private ownership. Amache was already in public ownership; it was simply being transferred from state to federal management. Of course, Lee is still seething over President Biden restoring the boundaries for Bears Ears National Monument in Utah (also all public land, both before and after the boundaries got modified, because everything included in both versions of Bears Ears was owned by the Bureau of Land Management). Lee caved after the senior Senator from Colorado leaned on him.

In any case, I could see the U.S. lecturing China on human rights and suppressing indigenous and minority peoples if it was couched as "We did something similar and we realize now it was a huge honking mistake, a major blot on our legacy, and one we've learned to regret," but, nope. It's more like that whole demonizing the Japanese never happened. Almost 80 years after the fact the country is now willing to preserve a few crumbling buildings and put up a few books on sticks, but it's not going to get mentioned in policy discussions or lecturing other nations on proper behavior.

Ditto the re-education efforts, the removal of children from their homes, and all the other efforts to change the Uyghurs. If a person is thinking about it all pretty quickly calls to mind phrases like "Indian boarding schools." The book pictured above, The Ledgerbook of Thomas Blue Eagle, is both one of the most beautiful illustrated kids' books a person can read and one of the most heartbreaking. Thomas Blue Eagle is a teenager removed from his home on the reservation in South Dakota and sent to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. The book is the boy's journal. He's homesick, he misses his family, he gets punished whenever he forgets and speaks his native language, the school cuts his hair and changes his name, and in general they try to get him to forget he's Lakota. But he copes, he adjusts, and he looks forward to being able to go home for a visit soon. And then he dies from tuberculosis, as did massive numbers of other students in the boarding schools. It's definitely one of those keep the box of Kleenex close when you get toward the end books.   

More recently, there was the Urban Relocation Act in 1956. . . I know people who got persuaded to leave their rural homes and move to Chicago, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, or other cities in search of a better life. Native Americans were assigned social workers in the cities who would help newcomers find a place to stay and businesses that were hiring. Fred Dakota, former tribal chairman for the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, told a story about going down to Chicago in the late 1950s and getting hired by a company that made sporting goods like bows and arrows. He'd get pointed out to plant visitors as being "a real Indian" as if he possessed some special expertise when it came to manufacturing arrows. (He didn't last long in the city. He came home to Baraga County, became active in Native politics, and is remembered now as the father of Indian gaming. The Chinese government had better hope the Uyghurs don't have a Fred Dakota because the Uyghurs will eventually end up owning the country.)

In any case, the goal of urban relocation wasn't to end rural poverty or lack of opportunity; the implicit goal was to separate people from the reservations, get them to become embedded in a dominant white culture, and gradually depopulate Native communities, thus relieving the burden on the Bureau of Indian Affairs and treaty obligations. Granted, no one was forcibly removed from their home and told they now worked in a factory a thousand miles away, but is financially coerced cultural assimilation that much better morally than forced assimilation?

You know, when an ethically dubious government program happened recently enough that people who participated in it are around to talk about it, that's not exactly ancient history. You don't have to be real smart to recognize why the Chinese consider American hand wringing and lectures about human rights to be rather meaningless.

Saturday, February 19, 2022

Feeling a bit weirded out

 Retail display fixtures definitely can slide over into totally weird and creepy pretty quickly. I've been wandering around the intertubes searching for clothing display equipment for the museum. We have a distinct lack of decent mannequins and other fixtures for exhibits that involve clothing of any sort. 

We have a couple torsos, including two dudes that have heads and arms but stop at about crotch level, which means pants are going to hang kind of loose on them. We have one complete female mannequin (head and torso, arms, and legs -- the top half and bottom join at the waist) but she's in sad shape with a smashed skull (sort of taped together and hidden with a wig when she's used) and a mangled arm. And we have a couple dress maker's dummies. When we did a World War I exhibit we resorted to using a rather busty dressmaker's dummy to display a man's uniform -- we just put it on the dummy backwards and positioned it so the lumps in its back weren't too noticeable. 

I have been pricing good mannequins for awhile now. They're not cheap. If we went all out and ordered from a museum supplies catalog there'd be a comma in the price tag for just one mannequin. The only way we'll ever order a museum quality conservation mannequin will be when/if the museum gets a very generous grant for mounting an exhibit and finds itself desperate to spend it all. Even an ordinary store display mannequin can cost several hundred dollars. 

Anyway, knowing actual mannequins currently qualify as fantasy items, I went searching for shaped hangers, something that I could hang a uniform on and then display on a wall. The ideal hanger would be shaped enough to fill out the uniform jacket a bit instead of it just laying flat as well as having rounded shoulders to prevent creases forming in the material. 

You know, there really is a remarkable variety of molded plastic body parts out there. I did find the torso hangers I was looking for. They come in a variety of genders and age ranges -- you can get flat-back children, women, men. And they're cheap, which is good. I ordered four dudes, which means I can do at least two drum corps uniforms, maybe three, and then will use the fourth one to add a Vietnam era U.S. military jacket to the military exhibit.   

I did step away, figuratively speaking, from the search with just one question: why was there such a huge variety of men's "swimsuit" forms? There were a gazillion, all with a bulge to indicate that yes, this particular piece of molded plastic is male. And they were like snowflakes. When it came to the package, no two were alike. Some of the plastic men were obviously extremely well endowed; others must have jumped into a very cold lake. It was weird. None, however, resembled a piece of a Ken doll. 

I also found myself remembering an old Toivo and Eino joke ("the potato goes in front"), but ethnic humor is frowned upon these days. 

Friday, February 18, 2022

Dipping into the Golden Oldies vault?

I see by recent headlines that Trump has decided to return to one of his favorite themes: Hillary bashing. Or accusing. And maybe I shouldn't just label it as a Trump obsession. For reasons not discernible by rational beings, the right wing in general keeps viewing Hillary Rodham Clinton as being the embodiment of everything that is wrong in their world. When reality turns too stark and actual facts are unpalatable it becomes time to once again Blame Hillary. You name the crime, she has apparently committed it. Nonetheless, she's still walking around free.

I've said it before. I want her superpowers. She is obviously the most powerful person on the planet or its most cunning criminal mastermind, which kind of begs the question of Why did she lose? It's a mystery. 

The love of using Hillary as the grand unifying theory of everything violates a long standing norm Presidential blaming: if things are screwed up now, it's always the former guy's fault. You know, when George W. Bush was in office, if there were issues with anything it was always Bill Clinton's fault, not his wife's. When Obama was in office, the left blamed aWol for anything that wasn't going quite right. So then Trump got elected, and, yes, there were definitely Republicans who blamed Obama for various woes, but there were a lot more people on the right who blamed Hillary. And they're still blaming her for everything and indulging in lock her up fantasies. It's an odd deviation from the standard pattern.

Of course, the truly bizarre part is Trump spent a fair amount of time on the campaign trail back in 2015 and 2016 encouraging the Lock Her Up chants. Then he got elected and did absolutely nothing for four solid years. If there had been a reason to lock her up, it seems like she'd be wearing orange jumpsuits now. But, nope, despite being President for a full term the Donald never quite got around to punishing Hillary for anything. Now he's simply the Former Guy who's busy worrying about how to continue sucking money out of MAGAt bank accounts while dodging process servers. The Congressional committee investigating the January 6 riot at the Capitol, the U. S. Attorney for the southern district of New York, and the New York state attorney general are all getting closer to making Trump's life thoroughly unpleasant so what does he do? Circle back to blaming Hillary. Doesn't make his own situation any better, but it keeps his fan base happy.

I'm going to take this as a sign that he's actually worried about acquiring attire that matches his skin tone. A girl can dream, but she won't hold her breath.

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Happy birthday, Val

It is my youngest sister Valerie's birthday today. Once again I present a photo taken long, long ago in a galaxy far away.She's quite a bit younger than me, but for sure she no longer plays with tops.

The fellow in the photo is our step-grandfather, Grandpa Pope. He was my grandmother's fourth or fifth husband (I still haven't figured out how many there were; maybe my niece who's gotten into genealogy has managed to figure it out) and the final one.

Sunday, February 13, 2022


I checked the museum's email this morning. It appears a trip down the luge run (or maybe it's a skeleton run -- I will be facing forward while going down The Hill; not staring at the sky and screaming) is on the agenda for tomorrow. We sold another lot of vintage ladies' hankies so as the secretary/treasurer I get to go down, stuff them into an envelope, and haul the package to the post office. It may be the last lot of decorative snot rags out of the ones listed on Ebay a couple weeks ago. If only the other weirdness we'd like to get rid of would move as fast. Alas, the market for vintage laminated Tigers souvenir placemats apparently 'borrowed' from a Big Boy restaurant or an 1890s guide to American artists (Recent Ideals of American Art; a book that's both humongous and heavy) is apparently limited. We've got half a dozen of the placemats. No one wants them. Ditto the art book.

The museum's been on my mind a lot lately anyway. Besides the Ebay stuff and thinking about the water stains on the ceiling (just how many shingles go missing every time there's a strong north wind?) I'm worried about summer. At this point we have zero, nada, zilch, absolutely no volunteers waiting in the wings to serve as docents. Our older members who are still breathing and used to volunteer have hit that stage of fragility in geezerhood that doesn't allow them to deal with being on their feet as much as a docent has to be; our younger members (a depressingly small number) all have conflicting obligations, like jobs. We don't have anyone who hits that sweet spot: old enough to be retired, young enough to still be physically fit and reasonably agile. 

It is, to put it mildly, going to truly suck if we get two really nice new exhibits up and there's no one available to unlock the front door so visitors can see them. (The S.O. and I have a conflicting commitment for this coming summer; we will not be around to see what, if anything, happens between the end of May and Labor Day.)

Monday, February 7, 2022

I guess Lockheed needs more drone sales

I've been watching the U.S. and the main stream media keep pushing harder and harder to create a reason to get sucked into a land war in Europe. Cynic (realist?) that I am, it seems obvious that since the high tech arms market in south Asia dried up when the Forever War in Afghanistan ended Lockheed, Raytheon, et al. need a new market for their high tech weaponry. We've been hearing about supplying the Ukrainians with Tomahawk missiles for awhile now. Each missile has a price tag of not quite $2 million, which makes them definitely a more lucrative item to peddle than bullets for the infantry to use. There is a reason why the U.S. isn't real interested in reviving the diplomatic efforts promoted by France, Germany, and other European countries.

Naturally there is, of course, an almost feverish rush to put all the blame on Vladimir Putin. Not only do politicians and the media love to have a villain they can point at, focusing on Putin and his imperialistic designs on a former Soviet republic means no one is asking the really important question: cui bono? Who benefits? Who has the most to gain if the U.S. gets entangled int he Ukrainian mess? 

Other than the arms manufacturers, though, I'm not sure anyone does. Putin doesn't really want to invade Ukraine. He's fine with just encouraging the pro-Russian insurgents in the Donbas region to continue trying to break away from Ukraine as a whole.If he can manage to sucker the American government into doing something stupid that'd be an added bonus.

There has been a low key civil war happening in the Donbas region of Ukraine for years, the area where the majority of the population are Russian speakers and where many people still get nostalgic for (believe it or not) the good old days of the Soviet Union. Or maybe an even earlier time period, the good old days when the Russian aristocracy spoke French. The imperial government may have been incompetent and corrupt, but it was consistently incompetent and corrupt, not to mention supposedly having God on its side. Given the choice between a predictable autocracy and an unpredictable democracy, a lot of people prefer the former.

And, speaking of that imperial government, a glance at the maps predating World War I provides a pretty clear reason why Russians, Putin included, might feel like they're justified in changing a few borders. Russia used to extend significantly farther west than it does now. Regions that are independent countries now were duchies in 1913. Some regions had a fair amount of autonomy, but they were all part of Russia.It's unlikely Putin actually believes he's going to be able to get any of that back, but you know he's got to be fantasizing about it.

I'm not sure what Biden and other American policy makers are fantasizing about. I do, however, find it interesting that the two governments talking the loudest about getting tough with Putin -- Great Britain and the United States -- are the two whose countries aren't part of the same continent as Ukraine. There's nothing quite like being the farthest removed physically from a potential mess to inspire hubris in a person or a government.