Electrolite
Art and argument. Popping fresh.
(October 2001 archive.)
        Tell all the Truth but tell it slant--
Success in circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise

(--Emily Dickinson)

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"Peace means something different from 'not fighting'. Those aren't peace advocates, they're 'stop fighting' advocates. Peace is an active and complex thing and sometimes fighting is part of what it takes to get it."
(--Jo Walton)

"We act as though comfort and luxury were the chief requirements of life, when all that we need to make us happy is something to be enthusiastic about."
(--Charles Kingsley)

"Plot is a literary convention. Story is a force of nature."
(--Teresa Nielsen Hayden)

"Just because you're on their side doesn't mean they're on your side."
(--Teresa Nielsen Hayden)

"Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die."
(--Anne Lamott)

"You will never love art well, until you love what she mirrors better."
(--John Ruskin)

"They lied to you. The Devil is not the Prince of Matter; the Devil is the arrogance of the spirit, faith without smile, truth that is never seized by doubt. The Devil is grim because he knows where he is going, and, in moving, he always returns whence he came."
(--Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose)

"Details are all that matters; God dwells there, and you never get to see Him if you don't struggle to get them right."
(--Stephen Jay Gould)

"For every complex question, there's a simple answer. And it's wrong."
(--H. L. Mencken)

"History is the trade secret of science fiction."
(--Ken MacLeod)

On September 20, 2001 at the National Press Club in Washington, more than 150 organizations, 300 law professors, and 40 computer scientists expressed support for a declaration entitled "In Defense of Freedom."

Please visit the site and consider adding your own name to those endorsing their declaration.

Some weblogs I look at:
Making Light
boingboing
World New York
Pigs and Fishes
24-Hour Drive-Thru
Yawl
Charles Stross
Honeyguide
The Null Device
Follow Me Here
Looka
Metafilter
Memepool
Plastic
Slashdot
Talking Points Memo
Matt Welch
Ken Layne
The World After WTC
U.S.S. Clueless
Newsrack
Punditwatch
Instapundit
Red Rock Eater
Crypto-Gram
Spinsanity
Arts and Letters Daily
Moby Lives
Media News

Wednesday, October 24, 2001
[6:45 PM | permanent link]:

Linked from Phil Agre's Red Rock Eater, a Bechtel engineer's chronicle of Ground Zero excavation. Lots of technical detail and fascinating human interest. Worth reading in its entirety. Some samples:

The level of destruction is nothing short of total. There is nothing to betray what this "stuff" once was. There are really only two substances in the rubble. Steel and dust. No furniture, no concrete, no wood...it is all pulverized into dust held in a suspension with twisted steel and light metal. After climbed through passages in the rubble we came out on the mall level below the plaza. This is where there were stores, Coach, Warner Bros. Chase Bank. Here, with the exception of a few holes through the roof, the area is fairly intact but full of debris that was blown into the mall when the towers collapsed.

From there, we went into the levels of basements below. Except for dust and water, they were fairly intact, but very eerie and pitch black. Cars in the parking lots, offices empty. Tunnels leading down and under the collapsed towers, blocked with the hundreds of tons of building that had fallen into them. It was very disorienting and even with plans and drawings, it was verify difficult to orient our location with the streets and plaza above. As we tried to find our way to the last basement we wandered into an the abandoned subway station. Very weird as while it was completely cut-off, it still had power and the lights were on.

[...] The debris piles are amazingly hot. Daily, infra red pictures are taken from aircraft (or maybe satellite--I do not know which), to try to locate submerged fires and hot spots. No one wants surprises because as rubble is removed from piles, random pockets of steel, glowing brilliant red, are uncovered. Sometimes new fires erupt--sometimes the steel just glows because there is nothing left near by to burn. A curious phenomenon, no fuel to burn but something, heat migrating through the pile, continues to keep the steel at over 1,000 F. When that happens, work stops, equipment pulls back and the firefighters put thousands of gallons of water on the piles to cool them down. Huge billowing clouds of steam are created, and we wait.

[2:40 PM | permanent link]:

A Los Angeles Times piece suggesting, with some anecdotal evidence, that Americans are scrambling to rectify their endemic ignorance of foreign affairs. Worth reading. One hopes, almost desperately, that it's true.

[2:35 PM | permanent link]:

An interesting paper on the effects of September 11 on people's use of Google.

[2:30 PM | permanent link]:

One thing that's taking a battering in this war: my interest in following the (supposedly more measured and thoughtful) broadsheet British press, which I've long done via newspaper Web sites. I haven't been keeping a running list, but every day, it seems, I notice the Guardian, the Independent, the Telegraph, or the Times making some boneheaded error of plain garden-variety fact about something concerning the United States. The cumulative effect is to convey that actually being careful with the details is of very minor concern, compared with the importance of catering to readers' prejudices and keeping the story jazzy. Today's example is on the Web front page of the Independent, where a headline informs readers "Spores Found at White House." No they weren't, they were found on a machine at Bolling Air Force Base which is used to process White House mail. As is explained in the second paragraph of your own story, you fatuous half-wits.

There's a lot to criticize about the American "serious" press, and I've remarked before on the way British broadsheets routinely carry a much broader range of views in their opinion columns. But while American and British papers could probably match one another dumb mistake for dumb mistake any day of the week, there's a jivey, unpleasant sense that oozes out of even the best British papers that this "journalism" stuff is really just a racket, you know, and that only chumps and suckers actually take it seriously or aspire to get the details right. A lot of American journalists are at least part-time hypocrites, but the ideal that their hypocrisy pays tribute to is the notion that facts and details actually matter.

Monday, October 22, 2001

[2:15 PM | permanent link]:

Singer-songwriter Janis Ian ("Society's Child," Between the Lines, many albums, nine Grammy nominations) turns out to be a longtime science fiction reader and an aspiring writer of the stuff. She was at the World Science Fiction Convention this year, inspiring some amazed comments -- "you mean the Janis Ian?" She has now written up the experience in an article on her web site, proving conclusively that she isn't just a casual reader but rather One Of Us, a born hard case, complete with sensitive fannish face and, probably, slan-like tendrils and downward-slanting eyes. Among other things, she shows an immediate grasp of some important facts about our little demimonde:

That's another thing that keeps striking me, the overall attitude toward fans. I've always hated the pop sensibility of total insulation for the artist; running offstage into a limo, fleeing the gig, avoiding them at all costs. That's why I started staying after shows to meet people & sign things. Here, the Hugo Awards are voted on by the fans. The Worldcon is for the fans. It's amazing how available most of the authors stay, and how friendly they are when a stranger comes up with a question or request. Really gratifying to see some of the biggest names in their field, being humble and aware that if not for these people, they wouldn't have a career. I haven't heard a single snickering aside. Pop music's lost that, and it's a shame.

Would that some of our own writers, like those who act as if the Worldcon exists primarily as a vehicle for their own self-promotion, were as sharp as this lady.

Saturday, October 20, 2001

[6:45 PM | permanent link]:

Teresa and I have been away from home, helping teach the Viable Paradise writers' workshop for the past week, but we'll be back up to speed shortly. Right now, I'm interviewing John M. Ford in the Well's world-accessible "inkwell.vue" conference. If you don't know the work of this remarkable writer, check him out; if you do know his work, feel free to lob your own questions in by emailing them to inkwell-hosts@well.com. We'll be continuing the interview for most of the next couple of weeks.

Monday, October 8, 2001

[12:15 PM | permanent link]:

R.I.P., Herblock.

Sunday, October 7, 2001

[9:30 PM | permanent link]:

Vicki Rosenzweig pointed this out on rec.arts.sf.fandom: according to an MSNBC story, NATO AWACS planes will soon help patrol the skies over the US, "an unprecedented use of foreign military forces to defend the U.S. homeland."

As Vicki observed, it makes sense, if NATO really is an alliance for mutual defense, but it's likely to give the black-helicopter anti-world-government types an aneurysm.

[4:00 PM | permanent link]:

Robert E. Belknap may be the world's leading authority on lists in literature. (Yes, Scraps DeSelby, that's your cue to wake up.) From Homer's catalog of ships to Borges's categories of animals ("...animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) suckling pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) etcetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies"), lists, Belknap says, "serve the work at large by making explicit the value system under which [it] will operate."

From a piece about Belknap in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

"They're everywhere. They are more places than you know," Mr. Belknap exclaims[...] Some medieval and Renaissance literary forms were essentially lists. The blason, a kind of poem, particularized a beloved's attributes, one feature per line. Another poetic form, the ubi sunt (Latin for "where are ... ?") those qui ante nos fuerunt ("who went before us"), simultaneously revivified the dearly departed and reconsigned them to the grave.

"The better listers," says Mr. Belknap, "have an understanding of the tricks that they can perform, sleights of hand they can pull. Anyone can make a list, but to make a purposeful list that will have more than its surface quality ... " Well, that is no easy task.

[...] So, for example, in Moby-Dick, when Ishmael presents an inventory of the supplies needed to outfit a ship -- "400,000 lbs. of beef. 60,000 lbs. of Friesland pork. 150,000 lbs. of stock fish." -- as well as firkins of butters and ankers of Geneva, whatever those may be -- he furthers Melville's goal of expressing "the entire compass of whaling life" and triggers digressions that drive the narrative and thematic development of the book.

Undoubtedly, says Mr. Belknap, the list was something Melville "could revel in and enjoy," and use to show off his ability to recognize and construe the world's variety. If literary writing is a process of perceiving, imagining, and creating, then listing is a particularly self-conscious form of writing, suggests Mr. Belknap.

[3:35 PM | permanent link]:

Good overview (ironically, from the Washington Post) of the upcoming controversy over how to rebuild lower Manhattan.

Over time, the critics grudgingly came to acknowledge the twin towers, for all their aesthetic flaws, as a powerful symbol of the modern city. But they are gone now, and no one with any clout wants to rebuild them. This is a mercantile and unsentimental city, and few firms would be eager to rent a 102nd-floor office suite in this climate. The battle now is not to resurrect what was, but to define the future of Lower Manhattan, and of the larger city.

And the lines of engagement are forming.

[1:15 PM | permanent link]:

John M. Ford writes in response to the item below:

First Artiodactyl: "Oh, wow, will you look at the damn saurians."

Second Artiodactyl: "Yeah, that Rex is dead as Cambrian vaudeville. Darn shame, too; they just about had that standing-up thing right."

"Glad we moved away from the Yucatan now?"

"Yucatan my aunt conodont, do you realize what this is gonna mean for the protohominids?"

"The what?"

"The gerbil things the saurans used to use for hors d'oeuvres. Gonna change the whole dynamic."

"What you mean is, there goes the dry neighborhood."

"Look, you start moving toward the beach, I'll see how that baleen thing is going. I'm just glad we stuck with live birth. Oh, and bury all the stone tools."

"Where?"

"Somewhere deep. But add it to your song, just in case. Some bad critters in the deep blue."

"I thought you were worried about the pro -- the gerbil things."

"One thing at a time. It's not like they're otters or something."

[11:35 AM | permanent link]:

New fossil evidence about one of the more interesting evolutionary questions around, the land-mammal origins of whales. (From Honeyguide. I mean to try to, more consistently, credit weblogs from which I'm getting interesting links.)

[M]illions of years of evolution can yield surprising results. In the case of whales and their cetacean kin, it led to one of the most dramatic transformations known, producing fully aquatic mammals from terrestrial ones. For that reason, whale origins have long fascinated scholars.

The fossil record documents much of the whales' land-to-water transition. Determining which mammalian group gave rise to these leviathans, however, has proved difficult. Scientists agree that whales are actually highly specialized ungulates, or hoofed mammals. The question has been, to which ungulates are they most closely related? Traditionally, paleontologists have posited that whales descended from extinct hyenalike creatures called mesonychians, based on dental similarities between the two groups. But in recent years molecular biologists have put forth a different hypothesis--based on DNA from living animals--asserting that the ancestors of whales were instead artiodactyls--a group whose extant members include hippopotamuses, pigs, camels and ruminants.

Saturday, October 6, 2001

[1:05 PM | permanent link]:

And another useful clearing-house for debunking nonsense on the Internet and elsewhere: Purportal.com.

[1:00 PM | permanent link]:

More obsessive picture-collecting. These unusual views of the site were taken by an anonymous photographer whose digital camera was seized by police and the shots deleted; fortunately, a data recovery program restored them, and the shots are now online.

I hadn't previously seen such clear views of the site from West Street, and the visible structural damage to the World Financial Center is stunning.

For slower connections, this is the photographer's selection of the best shots, scaled down to a reasonable size.

Friday, October 5, 2001

[9:00 PM | permanent link]:

The Reverend Louis P. Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, has made his contribution to national healing by asserting that public and private relief agencies should deny aid to surviving gay partners of people killed in the events of September 11.

In an article in today's Washington Post, the Reverend is quoted as saying that "Assistance should be given on the basis and priority of one man and one woman in a marital relationship."

Good to be reminded, as if we needed reminding, that Islam has no monopoly on insane religious fundamentalists with hearts of stone.

[8:45 PM | permanent link]:

Stephen Jay Gould writes about something I've always been fascinated by, the overwhelming human propensity to do good:

Good and kind people outnumber all others by thousands to one. The tragedy of human history lies in the enormous potential for destruction in rare acts of evil, not in the high frequency of evil people. Complex systems can only be built step by step, whereas destruction requires but an instant. Thus, in what I like to call the Great Asymmetry, every spectacular incident of evil will be balanced by 10,000 acts of kindness, too often unnoted and invisible as the "ordinary" efforts of a vast majority.

We have a duty, almost a holy responsibility, to record and honor the victorious weight of these innumerable little kindnesses, when an unprecedented act of evil so threatens to distort our perception of ordinary human behavior. I have stood at ground zero, stunned by the twisted ruins of the largest human structure ever destroyed in a catastrophic moment. (I will discount the claims of a few biblical literalists for the Tower of Babel.) And I have contemplated a single day of carnage that our nation has not suffered since battles that still evoke passions and tears, nearly 150 years later: Antietam, Gettysburg, Cold Harbor. The scene is insufferably sad, but not at all depressing. Rather, ground zero can only be described, in the lost meaning of a grand old word, as "sublime," in the sense of awe inspired by solemnity.

In human terms, ground zero is the focal point for a vast web of bustling goodness, channeling uncountable deeds of kindness from an entire planet--the acts that must be recorded to reaffirm the overwhelming weight of human decency. The rubble of ground zero stands mute, while a beehive of human activity churns within, and radiates outward, as everyone makes a selfless contribution, big or tiny according to means and skills, but each of equal worth.


All contents copyright 2001 by Patrick Nielsen Hayden. All rights reserved.