Responding to Comments

I got these two comments on an earlier post on this blog. I intended, when I started this blog, to respond to all comments; therefore, gentlemen, Mr. W.W.W. Gurkancelic Dot-com [Note: I have to write it that way or the browser automatically makes it a hot link, and I am not going to drive this schmuck’s traffic]  and Mr. What does t.b.h. mean out, I will endeavor to give you the same courtesy.

W.W.W. Gurkancelic Dot-com

This will make gossips less credible and hence of less interest to others.
Or, Amy, a supervisor, may hold meetings without co-workers
even though the workers are available and vital to the success of the company.
Gossip magazines revenue s signature, whereas the truth was that
it was a crime that he hadn.
Gossip gives us information on how to better interact with other people.
Online gossip girl 6 évad Control freaks feel that there is only one way to do things and that’s
theirs. Your probably wondering why I created this article.

Well, I am in favor of making gossips less credible and hence – fancy word, there, “hence” – less interesting to others; but I am certainly not going to click on your link to see what exactly will do this. I also don’t think that being incredible will make gossips less interesting. Seems like the less credible the gossip, the more enjoyable people find it. Ever read the Weekly World News?

And I have to say (though it seems like you’re spreading rumors about Supervisor Amy), I think holding a meeting without coworkers sounds genius. I did it earlier this year, and it was wonderful: my coworkers, who also didn’t want to be in the meeting, all stopped by my classroom and said, “Are we having a meeting?” I said, “Do you have anything for the agenda?” They replied in the negative, and I said, “Good meeting.” And away they went. When the supervisor (Mine isn’t named Amy) showed, I said that we had had a quick meeting already, and nobody had any particular concerns. It worked: the supervisor nodded and went away, his unholy thirst for meetings and networking sated, for the moment. (I had to further propitiate the beast with minutes for the “meeting,” which read a lot like the above: Short meeting, no concerns. BACK TO THE MIDDLE MANAGEMENT HELL FROM WHENCE YOU CAME, DEMON!) But it is nice of you to recognize that the workers are vital to the success of the company. Any chance of a raise? What’s that? Something about revenue and a signature? Hey, thanks – is that a – oh. The check’s in the mail, I see. Just a rumor, right? Yeah, that is a crime.

Okay – but now you’re saying that gossip gives us information? Useful information? On how to interact? I have to say, you’re not making that gossip seem less credible, here. Oh – Gossip GIRL gives better information, I got it. Gossip Girl 6? The 6th season? Never watched any of them, honestly; not my kind of thing. I prefer Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Or the Simpsons.

Your right about control freaks. (And damn my word program — and browser — for not recognizing that mistake.) But I am not, in fact, wondering why you created this article.

Thanks for the comment.

What does t.b.h. mean out

In saying that, He was referring to the feast of the Marriage Supper of the Lamb as discussed
above. It is salutary to accept one’s losses, but there comes a
time when one must reaffirm what remains and even begin to explore previously untapped potentials.
Meaning of tbh?
Moreover, the modems may not be usable (as often is the case) with other operating systems
or other Windows versions, because the drivers are simply not available.
When you are tired and complain about your job – think
of the unemployed, the disabled, and those who wish they had your job.

So I looked up the Marriage Supper of the Lamb to which you refer, and I have to be honest: it’s a little creepy. But it’s creepy in kind of a spectacular way. Here’s why: it’s a reference to Revelations, which includes a verse saying that Jesus Christ, risen in the End Times, will take a bride. The interpretation I read explained that this was metaphoric, that the bride is not a literal bride, but rather the Church. And those who have been reborn and taken Christ as their savior will become the bride of Christ. Which is weird, because it makes me picture a Moonie-like mass wedding; and it is spectacular, because that is unmistakably and unapologetically gay. Just picture all the beer-bellied bearded suspendered workbooted intolerant redneck Christians you know: the ones who pray, in earnest, for a winning football team; guys who would beat their sons to death if those sons came out; picture them in white dresses and veils, holding bouquets and looking starry-eyed up at the bearded Christ smiling down on them at the altar. That is fab-u-lous.

I agree: it is healthy to accept that which cannot be changed. I am moving that way with Bernie Sanders’s campaign for the nomination, which it is now looking like he really won’t win, and not because of the media, but because of votes. But I am willing and able to reaffirm what remains: Hillary Clinton. No, she is not everything I hoped she would be; like her husband she is beholden to moneyed interests, and I fear will not help us fix out longterm financial problems. But she has managed to push back Bernie Sanders; that means she will not have much trouble with Donald Trump. And that makes me very happy. I also believe there is additional potential there which, if tapped, could help solve some of our other problems, like wage equality. I also think that Barack Obama’s presidency helped to reveal some of the hidden racism that still seethes in this country, bringing it to the surface and, hopefully, helping us thereby to heal; perhaps President Hillary Clinton could do the same with the deep sexism that still infects us.

Oh – and speaking of accepting one’s losses, I think it’s time to throw away that modem. Of course you can’t find drivers for it: who the hell uses modems any more? How many baud you got on that thing, big fella? Get yourself a nice wifi router and a cable connection in your house, and call it good. Come into the modern age.

Ahhh, now you’re speaking my language. I am tired and complaining about my job pretty much every day. My job is hard. It is exhausting, and often frustrating. Of course it makes me tired. It doesn’t help, either, that I worry about doing it well, which sometimes keeps me up at night; last night it was because I got pissed at one of my classes yesterday because one of them walked in and before I could even talk about what we were going to do that day, before I could even start class, he says, “Can we just do nothing today?” That drives me nuts. Because why am I the one who has to come up with the motivation to do work? I get paid either way, and I can find a new job. These frigging kids are the ones who are building their futures – or not. And they want to take the one hour of the day that could be dedicated to improving their English skills, and just sleep, instead? Bite me.

But you’re right. I am employed. It is fortunate, because I came very close to ruining my own career. And I am both lucky and healthy enough to have avoided disability. I should be thankful for what I have, and for what I have the opportunity to do with my remaining time in this life. Well, not thankful, because I don’t think there’s anyone to thank for what I have; because I don’t actually believe in God, nor do I want to marry him. I don’t think beards are attractive. Plus I feel like he’d be preachy. Like if you blew off your cleaning, left dirty dishes in the sink, he wouldn’t say anything, he’d just sigh and shake his head and look sad. I would hate that. So passive-aggressive. So not thankful for my good fortune, but – pleased with it. Sure. I can do that. Hey – thanks. Really. I appreciate the reminder.

And t.b.h. means “to be honest.” Like this: don’t fucking spam my blog again. It’s an asshole move.

Out.

Review: Clarence Olgibee

Clarence Olgibee

by Alan Kessler

 

I was asked to review this book and given a free Kindle copy in order to do so; I wish I hadn’t been. Because if this hadn’t been part of an agreement, I never would have finished this book.

This is not a good book. (If it is too presumptuous of me to actually pass judgment, then it is my opinion that this is not a good book.) The plotline makes no sense. It is purported to be a sprawling epic, and I suppose in that it covers about forty or fifty years and a dozen individual lives, it is. The problem is that there is no reason to connect all of those lives. You start with the title character, Clarence; he has a high school chum named Todd; Todd grows up to work for a man named Walters. So why do we need to hear about Walters? Or Walters’s son, Donald? Walters and Donald are certainly connected to Todd, but they are not in any way associated with Clarence – and the book is called Clarence Olgibee, not Todd Munson. Or perhaps this book is an examination of racism: then why do we spend a full third of the book watching Clarence duck his mother and try to get laid? What has that to do with racism? It seems to me that the author could not decide what his story was really about, and so he included everything that he thought of in relation to it, background material, character development, everything.

Don’t get me wrong: some of it is interesting. The part when Clarence is in the Navy was quite well done, overall, particularly the chapters in the Philippines. The author has a way with description, and also with dialogue, particularly hate speech, which enables him to create some very distasteful villains – and yeah, it was fun to see some of them get their comeuppance. But much of that is ruined by one simple fact: I can’t stand Clarence. He’s a jerk: he uses everyone around him, resents everyone, envies everyone, and complains constantly that he can’t do what he wants – when what he wants to do is nothing. As he gets older, it makes more sense, as people actually treat him badly; but for the first half of the book, when Clarence is a teenager and his only problem is that his mother wants him to do his chores and homework, and the girl he’s lusting after is a shallow, dim-witted bimbo, it’s hard to feel sympathetic as Clarence lies and cheats and manipulates the good people around him – both of his parents (because I agree with his mother) along with his friends Willard and Todd – simply because Clarence’s only influence is a cousin that crashed at his house for a few months. Now maybe that would happen, a teenager deciding to admire Cousin Ortis instead of his mother or father or friends or anyone else; but it’s hard to like him for it.

What drives me crazy, though, is the fact that the author uses this. The story is of Clarence’s redemption. He decides, at a very few times in his otherwise worthless life, to do the right thing; and when he does, it is – well, nice. I appreciated it. I thought, “Good for you, Clarence.” And then I watched him go right back into being a putz. At least when Huck Finn realizes he cares more about Jim than about his reputation, he goes about trying to free Jim. He learns his lesson. What’s the point of a redemption that doesn’t actually redeem the person? And again, if the point was that Clarence was broken by his ill-treatment in a racist society, why is the first half of the book about the villains Doing Your Chores and She Doesn’t Want To Have Sex With You? Any chance of redemption was shot for me in Clarence’s last scene with his parents. I just had to hate him after that. Because I really liked his dad. You putz.

I wasn’t going to give this book that low a rating, because I do definitely see some good things, and I think the author has potential. He needs to work on telling one story that makes sense; this book should either be about racism, or about Clarence. He also needs to work on editing: because I can overlook a lot of things, but the main character’s name is spelled at least four different ways in this book, and that’s just ridiculous. The first chapter comes back around at the end of the book, yes, but only because the first chapter is an entirely artificial situation: the protagonist at that point, Jimmy, has literally no reason to commit the crime that he does. So it’s not a mind-bending use of irony, it’s a stretch, it’s a moment that strains the reader’s suspension of disbelief. And when the ending comes back around to that beginning point, the book should end. I hit that point and my Kindle said 94%. And everything that happens after that, I found just ridiculous and maddening, in the way it completely changed the narrative and asked me to go places I neither expected nor wanted to go, and tried to redeem Clarence when it was much too late to do that. That guy, and this book, were already lost.

This is a test. It is only a test.

(How perfectly ironic is it that the above clip was preceded by an advertisement by HP that runs on the tagline “Every student learns differently.” Now let me talk about standardized testing of those different-learning individuals, shall I?)

 

It’s testing season again.

If only that meant we could shoot them.

I have been reluctant to write about testing from a teacher’s perspective, because it feels so obvious: of course we hate tests. Of course we do. Everybody knows it, right?

But in the last week I’ve been asked by two different people – one a current high school student, not one of mine but one who presumably knew I’d be good for a rant; the other an auditor for the state of Oregon, who sent me (and presumably thousands of others – but wouldn’t it be funny if it was just me? If some random number generator landed on my Roulette-wheel slot, and my answers were the only ones that mattered?) a link to a survey looking for feedback – about standardized testing. And I’ve had to give standardized tests to my students, and I am working to prepare my AP students for standardized tests that are coming up soon and that are freaking them out; and in my discussions of those tests with those students, I have been sending mixed messages. And presumably thousands of other teachers have done exactly the same.

So there is a reason to write about this. Because maybe it’s not so obvious that teachers hate standardized tests.

But it should be.

I know I’ve written about standardized tests before in terms of grades and evaluation, and that criticism holds true: we put too much weight on test scores only because they are easy to understand. We feel like knowing that someone scored a 1500 on their SATs, and a 142 on their IQ test, tells us something about that person’s capacity and ability and potential. But think of it this way: if I tell you that I scored a 92 on my driver’s test, does that tell you how well I drive? Of course not: it tells you how well I drive when there’s a DMV employee with a clipboard in the car watching my every move. The situation is artificial, and therefore the results are not representative of my genuine abilities or normal performance. And the testing people would say yes: we create a situation of artificial intensity in order to put someone to the test; that’s what a test is, a crucible that melts away the impurities and discovers someone’s purest essence, so to speak. My driving abilities under pressure should represent my best driving abilities, right?

But they’re not, are they? As I drive around town, I will not be driving the same way I did when I drove for the clipboard-man. I will not be as alert, and I will not be as cautious, and I will not be as scrupulous in following the rules. And because of that, I will not drive as well. I will not be using my full driving capacity because I won’t feel the pressure. And so which is my purest essence: the things I can do in an artificial high-pressure situation, or the things I do on a daily basis? Which is my verbal language ability: the 720 I scored on my SATs, or the successes and failures in my day-to-day reading and writing, my failure to comprehend reading material that I didn’t pay much attention to, my failure to make someone else understand my point in an email or a letter or a memo? Wouldn’t it be the latter? Will Durant wrote, “We are what we repeatedly do.” (Often attributed to Aristotle, because Durant was writing about and paraphrasing Aristotle when he wrote it. But Durant was the one who actually said that.) So I would argue that it is our daily practice that shows our actual skill level, not the level we can force ourselves to when put on the spot: that reveals much more about our ability to handle pressure. Even that is flawed: because test pressure is different from actual crisis pressure, because tests are expected and planned, and we can prepare for them, study hard, psych ourselves up, have a good breakfast, bring extra #2 pencils; whereas crises happen without foreknowledge and with infinitely more chaos. What does my ability to handle clipboard-man pressure reveal about my ability to drive in a haboob?

(Note to non-Arizonans: a haboob is a sudden and intense sandstorm or duststorm. It is one of the hazards that Arizona drivers face. But I only included that because I wanted to write “haboob.”)

Nothing at all. And that’s what tests give us in terms of useful information: nothing at all. The nice thing, I suppose, is that now the test companies aren’t even pretending to give useful information; because teachers don’t get to see the test questions.

That’s right. Standardized tests are, like all tests, supposed to tell us how well a student is doing, right? To show us where the student is struggling, so we can focus our instruction on that area and help the student improve? Right: except standardized tests don’t do that any more, because they don’t reveal their questions, nor do they show a student’s right and wrong answers. The scores on standardized tests are also becoming more obtuse: test companies wish to preserve their market, and so they make their score reports esoteric, in order to ensure that people require the company’s services to interpret the test scores. Students don’t get a 70%, a 95%, or an A; they get a number without any context at all. Either a percentile rank, which tells you how well you did in comparison with other students, or you get a raw score that means essentially nothing. When I taught in Oregon and pushed my students through the proprietary Oregon reading test, the OAKS (Oregon Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, isn’t that clever; if test companies and others who sell education materials excel at anything, it is generating semi-clever acronyms.), they got their score automatically at the end of the 54-question multiple choice test. The highest score I ever saw was a 274. The lowest score I ever saw was a 206. So you tell me what that means. Sure, 274 is higher than 206. But does the 206 mean that the student got nothing right? Did the 274 student get everything right? Does that mean the 274 needs no further instruction in reading? Does the 206 kid go back to elementary school? Who knows: the range of scores is wider than the number of questions on the test. It’s not even a matter of multiple points, or partial credit; it’s a multiple choice test. And even if I could know how many questions a student got right or wrong, I don’t get to see the questions, because of fears about test security, because the testing company doesn’t want to have to create entirely new tests every year because that’s expensive. So all I as the teacher know is: the student got a low score on the reading test. Tell me how I plan instruction to help that student improve.

Which brings us, I suppose, to the real problem with standardized tests: students don’t care. It was extremely rare for the students who got the lowest scores to be the ones who actually have the most trouble with reading. Those students, aware of their troubles with the subject, tried harder than anyone else, because they wanted to do well, they wanted to improve, they wanted to succeed. In almost every case, the lowest scores came from those who simply didn’t try on the test, who clicked through the screens guessing randomly rather than paying attention to the (hideously boring) reading passages, because they didn’t think the tests mattered. And they were right: even when I attached a grade in my class to the test scores, it was only one grade, and it didn’t ever change much in the grand scheme of things. Besides, how many of my students really cared about their grades? Cared so much, that is, that they would take two hours to complete a test they could zip through in about twelve minutes? The students who did well were those who wanted to do well on the test; the students who scored the highest generally weren’t my very best students in terms of language ability, but rather my very best students in terms of diligence. What a shock: standardized tests reveal the best standardized students, the ones who respond best to the usual motivators, the ones who can put forth the most consistent effort on the most tedious tasks. The ones who can work without passion and never feel the lack. Essentially, the ones who are the best at not caring: because they can not care, and still complete the task.

Tests do not find the smartest people; they find the best cubicle monkeys, the best worker drones. And perhaps that’s what schools are for: we have surrendered the idea that education builds a meritocracy, that the cream rises to the top, that the very best students at the very best schools are the ones who should be in charge or our companies or our country; no, we’d rather have the guy who swills beer and watches football, the guy who goes to church, the regular Joe as our president, and we’d rather have the guy who shows results in charge of the company – tangible results. Increased profits. Higher test scores.

This is the real value of standardized tests. They allow people who profit thereby to manipulate the system. The new politician, the new superintendent, the new principal, they come in, they point to the low test scores; because no matter how successful a school is, there will be low test scores. Especially when test scores are reported as percentile ranks; because that means there has to be a bottom rank as well as a top rank – even if everyone who took the test scored 95% and above, percentile ranks simply compare those students to each other, so the ones who scored the 95% now get placed in the bottom rank of students, because other students scored 96% and above. So the new hired gun points at the low test score and says, “This is unacceptable. I will change this.” Then they do a few obvious things: maybe they dedicate more computer labs to the tests, or longer testing periods. Maybe they offer prizes, like pizza parties, to the students if they do well. Maybe they force the teachers to provide free after-school tutoring to students who are struggling. Maybe they buy a test-prep program – conveniently provided by the same company who runs the testing, because why wouldn’t you use them? They make the tests, of course they can tell you how to pass the tests! And then the scores go up. The new principal or superintendent or politician points to that raised score, they claim success, they collect huzzahs; then they parlay that result into a better position, moving higher up the ladder, lifted skyward by their new reputation as an Education Reformer.

Tests are very good at that. They are also very good at making profits for the companies that make the tests – mostly the College Board, which runs the SATs and the AP and ACT tests, and Pearson Testing, which makes pretty much every state assessment for public schools – who make billions off of their purported ability to reveal important information about a student’s learning, and about a school’s success in teaching, when they actually reveal nothing of the kind. At least the College Board releases their test questions after the fact. But they take a three-hour test, following a year’s intensive study, and boil it down to a number between 1 and 5. Then they return their test scores attached to advertisements for products, books and seminars and training and websites, that will absolutely no question guaranteed raise those 1’s to 3’s, and those 3’s to 5’s.

Teach those students more? Help them to learn? Pssh. Why would we do that? We can raise their scores. What else matters?

This matters: every minute, every consultant, every dollar dedicated to test prep is time and money and effort and people taken away from actual education. When students are learning how to succeed on tests, they are not learning how to read and write and think and calculate and plan and analyze and evaluate and hypothesize and create. They’re not even learning how to play dodgeball.

I’d rather they spent the same amount of time playing dodgeball. At least they’d have some fun and get some exercise. And when it’s a question of my tax dollars going to buy tests, or going to buy those big red rubber balls, I’d rather subsidize Wham-o than Pearson any day.

It’s just like health care, and the military. We spend more money on education than most other countries, and yet we don’t get good results.

In 2011, the United States spent $11,841 per full-time-equivalent (FTE) student on elementary and secondary education, an amount 35 percent higher than the OECD average of $8,789. At the postsecondary level, U.S. expenditures per FTE student were $26,021, almost twice as high as the OECD average of $13,619. Source

Why? Because this is capitalism. Our money funds profit. It funds profit for the companies that make the tests, and for the administrators and politicians who come in, raise scores, and then move on, without having actually improved anything, without having had any effect on education itself. I have no doubt there are teachers who do the same thing: who swoop in to low-performing schools, teach their students a good trick or two, bribe them with donuts on test day, and then reap benefits in the form of a reputation as a reformer, and maybe even merit pay bonuses. I myself have profited from my predecessor’s low test scores, because the fact that mine (and when I say “mine,” I mean “The scores earned by students I’ve taught”) are higher helps to ensure my job security. But the difference is, I actually teach. And I’ve never earned merit pay.

But I have helped to create this problem. I have told my students, in all sincerity, taking advantage of my reputation as a trustworthy authority figure with their best interests in mind, that tests are important and they should try their hardest. I have attached grades in my class to test scores that I can’t predict, that I can’t really improve, and that I can’t even see, in some cases; I have given students grades in my class based on their effort on the state tests, based largely on how long they took to complete it while I watched. I have shook my head and gotten annoyed, and I have even lectured my students, when they blow off the tests as unimportant. Right now I have students who are paying almost $100 apiece and who knows how much in stress and anxiety to take the AP test simply because I have decided that those who take the AP test get an automatic 100% on the final exam in my class – and some of them have told me straight out that they’re doing it to buy the grade from me. I have taken money to fix grades, and I haven’t even gotten the profit myself. I should ask College Board for a bonus.

I have told parents that test scores matter. I have offered ways for students to improve their test scores. I have even given out those atrocious, terrible test prep books from Princeton Review and Kaplan and the like, and told people they can use them for practice in order to master the tests. Not the material: the tests. I have sat through meetings about test scores and discussed the reasons why they’re low, and ways to raise them. So has every other teacher I know, and presumably every teacher across this country.

When put to the test, the real test of understanding and caring about education, I and my fellow teachers have failed.

In his Letter From Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr., said this:

“[T]here are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”

“Now, what is the difference between the two? […] Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.”

Is there any better description of how test scores make us feel? A false sense of superiority and inferiority? A segregation between the haves and the have-nots?

“Let us consider a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal. Let me give another explanation. A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law.”

So: students. Who, when it comes to having any real say in their own education, have been left behind.

 

I agree with Dr. King’s argument. I think he’s right, that we have a moral obligation to disobey unjust laws – and unjust policies – when we know them for what they are. And so I would like to call on my fellow educators to join me in finding ways to resist, non-violently, of course, the invasion of standardized testing in American schools. Let me quote Dr. King again:

“I hope you are able to see the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.”

Or, in this case, the highest respect for actual education. I believe that we must defend education against the tests: we should begin simply, by telling the truth, by calling the tests what they are: a sham and a fraud. Useless. A waste of time and money and resources. A drain on students and teachers and schools and the entire country, perpetuated only for the profit of a select few. Say it. Say it in public, say it to your students, say it to their parents, say it to administrators, say it to your fellow teachers, and help them to start saying it, too.

We are teachers: we must be the leaders in this fight. We won’t have to risk jail, not for refusing to pretend the tests have value. We may risk our jobs, but there are ways to counter that, particularly if we are good enough teachers to help students learn and therefore improve, with or without test scores.

If I may end by quoting a less august source, but one no less poetic and no less accurate than Dr. King:

It has to start somewhere.

It has to start sometime.

What better place than here?

What better time than now?

All Hell can’t stop us now.

 

Redshirts Review

Redshirts

by John Scalzi

When I bought this book, which is loudly proclaimed on its cover as a NYT bestseller that is a joy to read, with gushing blurbs from two authors I respect quite a lot (Joe Hill and Patrick Rothfuss), I was excited; but the clerk who sold it to me said something that cooled my ardor a little. “Yeah, I didn’t love this as much as everyone else did. I don’t really know why.” As I had been unaware that there was such a lot of buzz about this book, I was a bit puzzled by the comment; but now that I have read it, I completely agree.

I didn’t love this as much as everyone else did.

There’s something about John Scalzi’s writing that doesn’t speak to me. I don’t know what it is. I’ve read a book of his non-fiction, excerpts from his blog; and now I’ve read this Star Trek-themed novel; and I didn’t love either one. I feel like Scalzi is similar to what I’ve encountered in a lot of science fiction writers: their ideas are brilliant, but their prose leaves something to be desired. It makes for disappointing reading experiences, because I get excited about the book based on the concept, but then reading it leaves me a bit cold. Though it is entirely possible that this is my own subjective response, and not something that anyone else would experience. On the other hand: there are some real holes in the plot of this one, and even the short pieces at the end, the three codas that come after the main novel, don’t really spackle those holes in very well.

The idea behind this book is great. For those who know Star Trek, I don’t even need to explain it: the book is written from the point of view of the Redshirts. For those who don’t know the original Star Trek series, I wouldn’t recommend the book; it makes far too many inside jokes and references for those not in the know (And maybe, considering how much we nerds love a good reference, that’s really the appeal of the book.). But essentially, imagine you were a low-ranking officer on a starship sailing grandly through the universe, going where no man has ever gone before, and you realized that every time the command crew went down to a planet’s surface, or over to a ship that had sent out a distress call, somebody died: and it was always, always, somebody like you. The low-ranking officer. The captain and First Officer, the head of engineering and the ship’s doctor – they always went on the away missions, always got in danger, sometimes got hurt; but they never died. It was always somebody else that caught the laser blast or the alien monster attack or stood too close to the explosion. Once you realized that, what would you do? And if you were assigned to the ship that had this record of chewing up and swallowing people just like you – how would you handle it?

That’s a great set up. And the first half of the book, while the main characters are figuring it out while trying to stay alive, really is hilarious. It’s when they figure out the answer that this book lost me. The last half of the book, when they find a way to solve the problem and their own lives, just kept going downhill. There are some funny moments, particularly when crew members meet their own doppelgangers from another universe, but the basic concept really didn’t work. It’s too unnecessarily complicated: the book is clearly, obviously a reference to Star Trek, and Scalzi goes away from that, connecting it to a different fictional universe based on Star Trek but not Star Trek. That was a mistake. The way the Redshirts get their way was too deus ex machina for me, even though that’s the point of it; I would have preferred an actually clever solution, and I didn’t think that was it. And then the protagonist’s final realization of the layers of truth and fiction in his universe was far too precious for me. I feel like Scalzi was a stage magician waving his hands to distract me from seeing how the trick worked – but really, it wasn’t that great a trick. The same went for the codas, which were not as clever as I think they were intended to be, and just ended up annoying me more than the book itself did.

So I don’t know if it was just this book, which suffered from being an idea that is brilliant but probably too difficult to pull off well; or if it’s John Scalzi’s writing; or if it’s just me. At any rate, I didn’t think much of it.

Targeted Marketing

Going through my local grocery store checkout line. It’s a good store: Sprouts is the name of the chain; local and organic food are the specialties (in theory — I am suspicious of their prices, which seem lower than one would expect from a sort of organic food market. But I know that the brands they carry are good brands.), the location is very convenient for us, directly between work and home; the staff are polite and friendly and efficient. Only very rare problems with things being out of stock, and their produce is generally top-notch.

And so, it seems, is their demographic-specific marketing. Because while they clearly cater to the new age/hippie/free spirit subset of their larger mainly liberal consumer base, they are in Arizona, after all, which is a damned conservative place. So as we were going through the line, on one side — the left side — was this adult coloring book:

Pagan Coloring Book

“Activates the creative process of your imagination.”

 

And on the other side — the right side — was this one:

Jesus Coloring Book

 

Now I just need to find the aisle that has the atheist/Cthulhu coloring books. “Coloring Cthulhu activates the healing powers of your madness!”

The Foundling, and Other Tales of Prydain

The Foundling: and Other Tales of Prydain

by Lloyd Alexander

I wish I had had this book the last time I re-read the Book of Three series, the stories of Taran the Assistant Pig-Keeper. Like any good fantasy buff, I read the books first when I was young; I was excited and then disappointed when Disney made The Black Cauldron and got everything wrong about the main characters (Though as I recall, the side characters were great, Gurgi and the Horned King and the three witches in the swamp.); I named my very first Dungeons & Dragons character “Taran.” Stole the name from my friend and fellow fantasy buff. I regret nothing.(Another side note: I met a guy, works at my local grocery store, named Taran. It was an exciting moment for me, because I am also named from a fantasy series of about the same era. He was not as excited. I believe his response was, “Is there anything else I can get you?”)

Anyway, I loved these books when I was young, but when I re-read them, I discovered something: they are terribly sad. They are based on old Welsh myths, and perhaps that’s the source of the sadness; but the general arc of the books tells the life of a young man who wishes for adventure, finds it, and then wishes he had never left home in the first place. It’s not all sad, he ends up well in the end of the last book; but especially in the third and fourth books, when he is feeling lost and directionless, trying to find himself and his purpose, there is a real angst that, after the sweetness of the first book, made me sad. There’s also a tendency in the books to see the villainous characters as not really that villainous, simply as victims of their own greed or shortsighted ambition or fear; this makes it much less fun to hate them and wish them ill. Which I suppose is the point, but fantasy is supposed to have villains, dammit. Villains who cackle as they twist their mustachios, and who get soundly and at least semi-permanently defeated by the heroes. And Lloyd Alexander didn’t do that.

But this book, which serves as sort of a coda to the five books of Prydain, makes up for that sadness. Because this book is delightful. It allows you to go back and revisit the characters once more, and to see them in other circumstances than in the series, most of which is taken up with the war against Arawn, lord of the land of the dead. It gives the backstory on Dallben (He’s the Foundling, raised by the three witches of the swamp, who are also the Three Fates), and Colm, and Fflewddur Fflam, and all of them. The stories are short, they are not sad (Other than Dallben’s, which isn’t all that sad because it leads up to the Prydain books, where he’s like a great big ice cream cake of awesome, and this tells how he got to be like that), and they help fill in a lot of the little gaps in the stories from the Prydain books. Basically, this is what The Silmarillion should have been, and it was wonderful.

And if I haven’t made it clear, this book really needs to be read as part of the larger series. I think it would be fine to read it first, as it gives a good idea of Alexander’s wonderful telling-stories-by-the-fireside writing style and it’s very short and easy to read; but I think it’s best to read it as I did, after reading the longer series, so that you can get a final grace note and a happy ending. That way seems the most satisfying to me. So for those Prydain fans who haven’t read this one, go get it now. Enjoy.

I’m that cow.

Toni and I drive past a herd of cattle every morning when she takes me to work. We like to discuss what the cows are up to, and what they’re thinking. Toni is always amazed that they haven’t figured out body heat: because in the brutal summer heat, they all go stand under the shade trees on the edge of their pasture — but they all pack together, side by side, in the shade; we have no doubt that their shade is not in any way cooler than the sunshine. Nonetheless, every hot day: “Come on, everybody! Crowd in. Room for a few more if we squeeze. Man, is it hot! Well, at least we have shade!”

Toni and I like to make our own fun.

So this morning’s conversation went like this.

Dusty: I bet the cows discuss philosophical things while they’re grazing. I know if I was a cow, I’d do that all the time. I’d be like, “Hey, you guys ever wonder where the grass comes from?”

Toni: (Speaking for the other cows): “It grows out of the ground.”

Dusty (Speaking for the Wondering Cow): “Yeah, but where was it before that?”

Toni: I bet they’d avoid you. “Oh, no — here he comes again. Everybody turn the other way.”

Dusty The Wondering Cow: “Hey! You guys! You guys! You know what I was just wondering?”

Toni: You’d annoy them all, thinking too many weird things and asking too many questions. “Why? Why? Why?” You’d bug the crap out of the other cows.

Dusty: (After a lengthy pause) I’m like that now.

And then, silence.

I’m that cow.