Sunday, December 28, 2008

Me Chinese, Me Play Joke...

One of my original intentions for this blog was that it was to be a culinary cooking and food blog. The blabbing about science fiction pulpsters was an entirely unforeseen development.

Check out this great and hilarious presentation about the origin of "Chinese Food" in the United States, including an explanation as to who this "General Tso" guy was, anyway.

The presentation doesn't talk about Cuban-Chinese food - it's not commonly known, but Havana's Chinatown was the world's 2nd largest besides San Francisco's. In a lot of Miami Chinese restaurants, you can get your honey chicken with a side of platanos fritos.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Some Hate for Proposition Eight

Do you believe that the government has the right to tell people who they can or can't marry?

Prop 8's the one thing that harshes my buzz about finally having a President that talks like a grownup adult (that, and the fact the Three Stooges remain in power here in Florida: I guess running Joe Garcia, a charismaless nerd technocrat, wasn't enough). Proposition Eight is an example of the ugly Karl Rove "old" school of politics the American people categorically rejected: divide the electorate with an issue and hope you end up with the bigger piece. Usually, it nearly always involves smearing a minority group (undocumented workers, homos, Ay-rabs).

This actually affects someone close to me personally, because my Mother has a "civil union" with her boyfriend that gives her hospital and visitation rights and allows them to share insurance.

Incidentally, I fully expect a lot of comments that go "Hey, if you're so tolerant, how come you're not tolerant of my intolerance?" Those just crack me up.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Iraq 'em up

If you knew you could get away with it, would you kill for fun?

It's a fair bet that half of my High School P.E. class would absolutely say yes.

Alright, now pretend I'm paying you (no joke) $160,000 a year to guard State Department officials - which in practice means opening fire on any Iraqi kid that so much as sneezes in your care. And also, you're from the boonies and don't have a college education.

It's obvious by now that I'm talking about the dumb, mean and incompetent employees of Blackwater. The funny thing is, I'm going to take the Foreign Service exam in a couple months, and I'd much rather be protected by a Blackwater merc than what passes for a Marine (or rather, "Freedom Scout") in the deleusional self-parody America has become. I'll take a mercenary in it for the money over a do-gooder anyday.

I don't blame Blackwater for the murders. While Nuremberg established that it is possible to prosecute a soldier even if they were under orders to kill civilians, so much chaos and carnage happens regularly in Iraq that a show-trial for someone that killed the wrong target is hypocritical and darkly comic.

What does gall me about Blackwater is how they reveals every lie we were taught to swallow when we're growing up: that the way to success is to study hard, be smart, and get good grades. If the current financial crisis is anything to go by, assholes like me that studied hard are going broke, whereas the dumb, mean guys that placed firecrackers up the anus of cats are buying McMansions hand over fist.

It isn't that Blackwater is brutal, it's that they're dumb: how many of them speak Arabic, for instance? This is important because in the modern, asymmetrical school of warfare, tanks and jet fighters and big 'roided out Texans with guns are not as important as intelligence operations. A lot of cracks are made at the expense of someone like James Bond, how he isn't realistic or relevant. Actually, with the importance of asymmetrical warfare strategies, now may be the only time that someone like Bond (a hitman with a brain) is even vaguely relevant.

Iraq is a war for linguistics and social studies, not engineering and metal shop. The failure to predict the ensuing sectarian violence after the fall of Saddam can be traced exclusively to the fact that most pundits just didn't get that there is more than one kind of Muslim, and they're not exactly bursting at the seams with brotherly love for each other. As Bob Woodward remembered in PLAN OF ATTACK, George W. Bush didn't even know - and the folks that did know better were too focused on playing with their Green Army Men and the usual military wargaming than focusing on the basic social facts of the region.

And...not to gloat, but this is something I saw coming. Without a strong central government, Iraq would break down into sectarian violence.

And finally, there's definitely an expiration date on this kind of Blackwater model. I'd say it passed in the fifties, when guerilla warfare came into style worldwide, or even earlier, though you wouldn't hear that from the Pentagon: they're still polishing their shiny new toys like they're going to fight the Wehrmacht and the Japanese Imperial Navy instead of al-Queda.

So maybe nerds get their revenge over the vicious after all.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Isaac Asimov's Lucky Starr Series

This is kind of embarassing, but the first Asimov stuff I ever read was the fiction he wrote as Paul French - the Lucky Starr stuff, space opera adventure for young adult readers.

Lucky Starr is an agent for the Science Council of the Solarian League, accompanied by his sidekick, the 5'2" ironically named Bigman. Some of the gadgets range from the cool (Lucky Starr's identifying science council tattoo is invisible and changes form beneath his skin), influential (the Force-Blade, the inspiration for all the laser-swords in science fiction), to the just-plain weird (Lucky Starr's hopper, a pogo-car as ludicrous as it sounds).

What's really amazing about the stories is how Lucky Star uses his head: his stories are, contrary to their superficial appearance as Space Opera, science fiction detective stories and mysteries. For that reason, I'll never forgive the cover artist for LUCKY STARR AND THE MOONS OF JUPITER in the seventies series, which blew the ending to the book on the cover!

In this series, the crew is plagued by a Robot spy from the Sirius League, settlers that became cold-war rivals to Earth's solar system. The whole mystery of the novel is who the robot spy might be. In the end, it turns out to be the seeing eye-dog of the blind astronaut.

Lucky Starr manages to beat the robot spy the same way everything gets resolved in an Isaac Asimov novel involving robots: by creating a situation where there's a conflict or loophole in the laws of robotics, so the robot shuts down. This is, incidentally, the same technique that would be a trademark of James Tiberius Kirk years later: using logic problems to destroy evil computers.

What strikes me as interesting about the Lucky Starr books is how they are something that Asimov (and for that matter, most good science fiction writers) don't really do: they have a story that can be rewritten without any science fiction elements as another work of genre fiction. Replace the Orion Confederation with the Commies and the Science Council with the CIA and you've got a mystery/espionage thriller.

The best science fiction is the kind that you can't rewrite as another kind of genre story. Science Fiction's best works aren't Westerns with six-shooters and aliens replaced by ray guns and aliens; they aren't fantasy with laser swords and gizmos standing in for magic and swords. Science fiction is a type of story in and of itself. Science Fiction has problems and conflicts that can only exist in science fiction. By no means is this list complete:

1) Communication. How do you express meaning to something totally different from yourself? "Communication" stories include Harry Harrison's WEST OF EDEN, or all those Ursula K. le Guin stories about cooperating with an alien race.

2) A story that provokes a sense of wonder just by its scale. An example would be Bradbury's "You Just Missed Him," about a crew that goes to another planet and discover that someone of great religious significance (presumably Jesus Christ, but this is not explicitly stated) was just there, but they "just missed him." So they rocket to the next planet, only to learn they were too late, he just left there...and so forth.

3) A strong central concept based on real science. The ultimate example would be Niven's Ringworld. The physics textbook has yet to be made that doesn't have at least one work problem and sample test question involving the mind-boggling math of the Ringworld.

4) Sentience. What exactly is sentience and intelligence? Do humans have it? Robots? The best work of this kind would be H. Beam Piper's LITTLE FUZZY.

In fact, all the hoariest science fiction and space opera cliches are stand-ins for tired elements in other kinds of stories. Space Pirates, for instance, or the unstoppable space-Mongol horde that threatens everything (how many quasi-Oriental stand-ins have their been through the history of space opera?), or the cheeseball story type used to lecture us on the evils of prejudice when two alien races fight. As they're aliens, it's perfectly okay for us to be judgmental and shake our heads self-righteously about their tribalism and prejudice. After all, we're so much better than they are, and since they're aliens, we don't have to admit or confront any real flaw in ourselves!