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Review 219: The Pleasure of Finding Things Out

LL 219 - The Pleasure of Finding Things OutThe Pleasure of Finding Things Out by Richard Feynman

Here’s the problem with having high expectations: they’re so often dashed.

In my years trawling the web and being a science nerd, I heard a lot about Richard Feynman. There are legends about him, that he was the Puck of physics – brilliant, untamed, and really, really funny. I read another book of his, Surely You’re Joking, Mister Feynman, and enjoyed it thoroughly. I thought that this book, with a title that appealed to me and by an author-scientist whom I respected, would be as much fun.

When I got the book, I was expecting to read a lightning-quick volley of ideas that would set my mind alight with the wonder and infinite possibilities contained within a lifetime’s pursuit of science.

Yeah, that didn’t quite happen.

"Robert Oppenheimer kept formulas in this watch, son. And do you know where he put it?"

“Robert Oppenheimer kept formulas in this watch, son. And let me tell you – Feynman never found it”

Don’t get me wrong – Feynman is indisputably brilliant, and far from the classic mold of the physicist. He had no patience for titles or honors, and in fact couldn’t give a damn about them as long as he had science to do. He would tell Nobel laureates – men whose names were bywords for scientific brilliance – that they were wrong, without hedging or worrying about their egos. He liked to play the bongos, loved a good party, and delighted in playing tricks. One of his more irritating hobbies was safe-cracking, and by the time he left Los Alamos labs after the Manhattan Project there were no places left to hide secrets from Feynman.

So Feynman was no doubt a really cool guy, the kind of scientist you would want to invite to your party without hesitation. His first interest was science, and as scientist go, he was one of the best.

That doesn’t mean that reading him is always entirely entertaining.

The book is, for me, not very readable for two reasons. The first is that it goes get terribly technical at times, and while I love science, I am not educated enough in it to grasp a lot of the technical details. Indeed, it broke my heart when Feynman said that, when it comes to physics, if you don’t know the math, you don’t know the science. True, yes. Humbling, yes. But still….

Were I editing a collection of Feynman’s work, I would have started with the Big Ideas, defenses of science as an integral function of humanity’s ultimate progress. Then, having made the reader comfortable with how Feynman thought, they could have gotten into what Feynman thought.

The pitcher of ice water was an integral demonstration item, by the way.

The pitcher of ice water was an integral demonstration item, by the way.

But no, the book starts off with highly technical lectures on quantum electrodynamics and the difficulties in getting parallel computers to work. If you don’t know a lot about how computers work, or you don’t have a detailed awareness of atomic theory, you’re going to be a little lost. Or a lot lost. Even his minority opinion on the Challenger accident, something I was especially keen to read, was far too dry to be as enjoyable as I wanted it to be.

The second reason why I didn’t really enjoy this book is because a lot of it is transcripts of speeches and interviews. Very few people are able to speak in a readable manner, and someone with a mind like Feynman’s – always moving, always active – isn’t one of them. There are a lot of asides and false starts, wandering thoughts and truncated paragraphs. Even his more structured speeches aren’t structured very well for the reader.
I think it would be different to listen to him, to sit in the audience and watch the man speak. Indeed, if you go to YouTube and look around, there are a lot of videos from interviews that he gave, and he’s great fun to watch. He had the kind of infectious energy and enthusiasm that would make it easy to gloss over structural problems and really enjoy the speech. When you listen, you easily get the passion that he has for science and for physics in particular. Turning speech into print is always dangerous, however, and here I think it fails.

The first image in a search for "Feynman Acolytes." Tell me this man couldn't have been a cult leader.

The first image in a search for “Feynman Acolytes.” Tell me this man couldn’t have been a cult leader.

For different people – people who are deeply involved in physics or who are Feynman acolytes – this book is probably a fascinating look into the mind of one of the 20th century’s greatest scientists. For the rest of us, we’re going to have to find other things to enjoy from the text, and it is there. One of those is, indeed, the title of the book – the pleasure of finding things out.

For Feynman, science wasn’t a rigor or a job, it was a joy. He attributes a lot of that attitude to his father, an unlikely fan of science. As a uniform salesman, Feynman’s father was not a scientist and had no scientific training. But he raised his son to think about the world. Rather than tell him why, for example, a bird picked at its feathers with its beak, encouraged Richard to observe the bird, to form a hypothesis and then see if observations confirmed it. His father taught him to question everything, to form his own opinions about the world, and by doing so, made him into a scientist from an early age.

It is that attitude which should be the dominant theme of this book, rather than Feynman’s technical genius. He says, over and over, to doubt everything. Ask yourself why things are the way they are, rather than just relying on what other people tell you. Observe, experiment and test, and you’re doing science.

He has some disdain for social sciences, and a pretty healthy dose of misogyny in a couple of places, but if he is arrogant, then it is probably deserved. Feynman was a man fascinated with how the universe worked, all the way down to its smallest components, and that was his passion. Not awards, not titles, not praise – just the work, the discovery and the pleasure.

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“I don’t know anything, but I do know that everything is interesting if you go into it deeply enough.”
– Richard Feynman, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out
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Review 192: The Audacity of Hope

The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama

I know, I was supposed to have read this, oh, back in 2007 or ’08 when everyone else was reading it. And I thought about it, really I did. But the cynic in me thought, “Come on – what do you think it’ll be? It’ll be a 400 page sales pitch about why he should be President.” I lost faith in our elected officials a long time ago, and if I wanted to learn about Obama, I would rather have done so from a third party, rather than reading a self-aggrandizing autobiography about how awesome he is.

In a way, my Cynical Self was right – this is a sales pitch for Barack Obama. I don’t know if he was giving the Presidency serious thought when he was writing it, but he could have re-titled the book “Why You Should Vote for Barack Obama” and it would have been perfectly appropriate. Given that he wrote the book after his exceptional keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention, however, it is very likely that he wrote it with higher office in mind.

What an unpleasant little man he is…

The table of contents reads like a campaign platform, with chapters titled simply, “Values” or “Faith” or “Family,” and each chapter deals not only with Obama’s views on the topic, but his personal experiences dealing with it. In “Republicans and Democrats,” for example, he talks about how the Gingrich Rules bled out from Washington to infect his own state of Illinois, and how hard it was to get anything done when Republicans and Democrats viewed each other as enemies, rather than as different actors in the same play. In “Opportunity,” he talks about meeting the guys over at Google who can’t find enough American software engineers and the auto workers who can’t see their jobs surviving in the new economy. In “Family,” he talks about the challenges he faces as a political husband and father, and the more serious challenges facing other families around the country.

Make no mistake – this book is, first and foremost, an answer to the question “Who Is Barack Obama?” And it’s a very comprehensive answer. We get not only his positions on the issues of the day, but also his personal history (and how it informs his opinions) and a good sense of how the man looks at the world. For an angry, post-Bush Liberal, however, it is immensely, frustratingly even-handed.

You should see me – I’m grinning like an idiot already.

I’ll admit – if I’m feeling a little low, I think about my favorite things: a good book, a thunderstorm on a summer afternoon, sunlight filtered through autumn leaves, and Dick Cheney in an orange jumpsuit and manacles, preferably tarred and feathered. With bells on.

It’s a natural human impulse, I think, the drive to give as good as you get, and after the last eight years of being on the side slandered every time it questioned authority; of being a supporter of elected officials who have been the target of right-wing vitriol since I was in college; of having to defend the idea that government can be a force for good against thirty years of the incessant, endless, Reaganite drumbeat of Government Is Bad, what I really, really want is to see some heads roll. I want shame and ignominy visited upon those who put their own twisted and medieval ideologies ahead of governing the country. I want to see talking heads and pundits begging on the streets for spare change while the rest of us soar into a utopia of rational understanding.

And Barack Obama won’t let me have that. Dammit.

There are a lot of people annoyed with President Obama right now, and not only from the opposition party. There are Democrats who are frustrated with his pace and what they perceive as his lack of action. All of those people really should have read this book before they got behind him. I’m sure they still would have thrown their support to him, but they would have known better what to expect – a centrist, deliberative politician who plays the long game in lieu of scoring empty political points by, just to pick an example out of thin air, sending Karl Rove to Gitmo.

Not a bad role model, if you ask me.

Throughout the book, he emphasizes that while he has indeed picked a side in our political system, he can also see the value in opposing opinions. He knows that there is merit to some GOP ideas, and that they have simply lost their way at this time. Rather than dismiss ideas that don’t match his own, he looks for where his ideas and those intersect, and tries to find some kind of common ground to work from, in the hopes that a synthesis can lead to good governance. He is constantly questioning his own assumptions and trying to examine his own biases, seeing the world in the manner of Atticus Finch. He admits that no real problem has a simple solution, no matter how much we wish it were otherwise. And above all, he knows that hope alone won’t make the world better. Only deliberate, consistent action will lead us to a better country. Hope merely points the way.

Reading this book is a glimpse not only into the mind of Barack Obama but, in some sense, into the mind of everyone who wants to occupy higher office. A great deal of the book focuses not only on his positions and how he has come by them, but what it’s like becoming and then being a lawmaker. He says near the beginning that it takes a certain kind of personality to make it this high in public office. “Few people end up being United States Senators by accident,” he writes. “At a minimum, it requires a certain megalomania, a belief that of all the gifted people in your state, you are somehow uniquely qualified to speak on their behalf….” Along with a burning ambition, he also admits to the other lodestone of campaigners: fear. “Not just fear of losing – although that is bad enough – but fear of total, complete humiliation.”

Describing not only the physical trials that are involved with becoming a Senator but also the emotional and interpersonal ones that come with it, my first thought was, “What sane person would choose this kind of life?”

Oh, the notes I’ve taken…

It’s an illuminating book in many ways. My Inner Cynic has asked me to remind you that this is a book about Barack Obama, written by Barack Obama, and is not necessarily trustworthy in that sense. But the things Obama said in here are very consistent with the things he’s saying now, as long as we control for new information gained between 2006 and now. If I learned anything from this book, it’s that I now have confidence that he’s dealing honestly with the American people (given a certain political value of “honest” of course).

While I still don’t know if he’s going to be able to pull the country up into greatness the way his advance press claimed he would, I am at least confident that he has the nation’s best interests at heart. I like a lot of his ideas, and I think he’s got a good vision for the kind of America that I would enjoy living in someday. He may not get us there, but he can at least get us started.

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“I am convinced that whenever we exaggerate or demonize, oversimplify or overstate our case, we lose. Whenever we dumb down the political debate, we lose.”
– Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope
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Review 165: The Partly Cloudy Patriot

The Partly Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is awesome. At first glance, you might not think so – she’s a short, squeaky-voiced New Yorker who has a driving phobia, gets motion sickness and is allergic to damn near everything. She fits into the category of “nerd” with remarkable appropriateness. So if you’re the kind of person who dismisses the Nerd as someone without consequence or someone you should just disregard, then, well, you’re missing out.

Vowell used to write rock music reviews, loves Abe Lincoln, and thinks that it’s the height of fun to go to Places of Historical Interest on her vacations. She’s an unapologetic nerd, deeply cynical and not afraid to assume that other people are as interested in esoteric matters of history as she is. She’s a self-confessed history nerd, and she makes you want to become one with her.

There's nothing about this man that doesn't say, "I'm nuts enough to shoot a President."

I read another of her works a while ago, Assassination Vacation, about her journey to learn more about our assassinated Presidents and the men who’d done them in. It was a fascinating trip through three out of the four major assassinations that happened in this country, and far more interesting than one would think. Especially with regards to the lesser-cared about presidents Garfield and McKinley.

This book is a little different – it’s a collection of essays on a wide variety of topics. It starts, of course, with Lincoln, but goes off in all kinds of directions from there. For example, she talks about her time working for one of the world’s foremost antique map collectors, Graham Arader, and the persistent myth, up until about the middle of the 18th century, that California was an island. As part of this job, she was able to look at how the way we saw the world changed over time, and how maps become a part of the historical record of a civilization.

In the essay, “Pop-A-Shot,” she talks about her uncanny ability to shoot baskets in the Pop-A-Shot arcade game. While most of us would scoff at someone taking pride in a game where all you have to do is shoot balls into a hoop for forty seconds, Vowell shows us why this peculiar talent means something important to her, ties her to a sense of greater meaning and accomplishment and, more importantly, gives her something to lord over her male friends.

She talks about why she thinks she’s secretly a Canadian, given how generally polite and non-confrontational she is. And then there’s how much she and her sister have in common with Johnny and Luther Htoo, the twins who were the child leaders of God’s Army in Thailand. She talks about the incredibly painful feeling in her gut while she attended the inauguration of George W. Bush and the irritation she feels whenever someone compares someone else to Rosa Parks. And then there’s the advice to Bill Clinton on how to handle his Presidential library.

"Look, I'm not being a nerd here, it's just that there is NO way Han didn't shoot first. None. Seriously."

It’s a rather covert style of writing. She is funny enough and light enough that you don’t really think you’re in it for any useful information or heavy thought. But before you know it, you’re wondering to yourself, “Yeah, what is the media’s responsibility to the truth, and why do we let them charactature our leaders?” Not something you would normally think about, but the longer essay “The Nerd Voice” takes a look at the way Gore was misquoted and misrepresented during the 2000 campaign because the media had decided that he was the arrogant nerd and Bush was the homespun dummy. What’s more, she suggests that Gore might have had more success had he embraced his inner nerd and, like Willow on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, made the jokes about himself before anyone else could.

Vowell is a thinker, and most definitely a nerd, and she lets her thoughts go off into strange and interesting places. She has a kind of temporal persistence of vision, where she looks at how the past and the present intersect. “I can’t even use a cotton ball,” she says, “without spacing out about slavery’s favorite cash crop.” And, above all, she’s funny, which is a rarity in those who write about history. Check her out.

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“I wish that in order to secure his party’s nomination, a presidential candidate would be required to point at the sky and name all the stars; have the periodic table of the elements memorized; rattle off the kings and queens of Spain; define the significance of the Gatling gun; joke around in Latin; interpret the symbolism in seventeenth-century Dutch painting; explain photosynthesis to a six-year-old; recite Emily Dickinson; bake a perfect popover; build a shortwave radio out of a coconut; and know all the words to Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘Two Sleepy People,’ Johnny Cash’s ‘Five Feet High and Rising,’ and ‘You Got the Silver’ by the Rolling Stones.”
– Sarah Vowell, The Partly Cloudy Patriot
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Sarah Vowell on Wikipedia.com
The Partly Cloudy Patriot on Wikipedia.com
The Partly Cloudy Patriot on Amazon.com

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Filed under american history, autobiography, culture, history, humor, memoir, nonfiction, Sarah Vowell

Review 101: World War Z


World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks

(Just as a reminder – go take the listener survey! You’ll have good luck for seven years, I swear!)

So where were you when the zombies came? I remember where I was. I remember vividly.

It was the third lesson of the day – still one more to go before lunch – and one of my regular students was due for her weekly lesson. She came in each week like clockwork, and while her English never got a whole lot better, she seemed to enjoy herself. Actually improving her English was secondary to having a nice chat, I think, and we could always count on her to liven things up.

Not this day, though. For one thing, except for me, none of the teachers showed up. Normally that would be a problem, but a lot of students weren’t in either. It was just a few of us and one staff member. We had heard of some new sickness going around, but we work for a company that doesn’t accept sickness as an excuse for missing work. After all, I’d seen students come in with a cold that would have kept me at home, and Mrs. Kuroda was just that kind of person. Come hell or high water, I knew she’d be there. And she was.

No sooner did she get in the door than she collapsed. Her skin was pale and waxy and she had a bandage on her hand. It had little yellow flowers on it, I’ll always remember that. Like she’d made it out of a dress or curtains or something. I don’t know why that sticks in my memory, but it does.

The staff, Naoko, called 119 for an ambulance, and one of the other students, Shyunsuke, who was studying medicine at Kyodai, tried to see what was wrong with her. He laid her on her back, felt for a pulse, and got all panicky. “Shinda,” he said over and over. She was dead.

Now I don’t know if you’ve ever had anyone die in your workplace, but it’s weird. We didn’t know what the protocol for this kind of thing was. There were only six of us in the building, and none of us were really experts in dealing with sudden and unexpected death. Aki, a high school girl, started crying. Naoko kept redialing 119, but no one was answering. I was about to suggest moving her into another room when suddenly the most horrible sound came from the body on the floor.

It was somewhere between a moan and a gurgle, like someone drowning in syrup. We all looked at Mrs. Kuroda.

She was moving.

Slowly, jerkily, she was moving, getting her feet back under her and moaning the whole time. Naoko started to go to her, to see if she was okay, and I remember yelling, “Don’t!” At the time I didn’t really know why I yelled that. I know now. My years on the internet had pretty much prepared me for it, but I wasn’t nearly ready for the way the Mrs. Kuroda grabbed Naoko and took a huge bite out of her throat. Blood flew everywhere, and I think everyone was screaming. Mrs. Kuroda dropped Naoko and started making her way towards us, her arms reaching for us and that low, wet growl coming from her throat. I knew what she was then.

I grabbed a chair from a lesson room and started shoving her back, like some kind of lion tamer. I yelled for the other students to get out, but they weren’t moving. Aki was crying harder, Shyunsuke was busy vomiting, and the other two had hidden somewhere in the building. “Everybody out!” I yelled again, and gave Mrs. Kuroda a shove away from the front door. Then I swung it at her, aiming for the head, of course. It connected, and she went down. I ran back, grabbed Shyunsuke and Aki by the arms and yelled “Everybody out!” again.

I had barely enough time to shepherd them to the door than Naoko started to twitch. And Mrs. Kuroda was already trying to stand up.

We ran. Didn’t even care where we ran to – just away. The streets were quiet, but once I knew what I was looking for, it seemed like the zombies were everywhere. I’ve never run like that in my life, you know. Always used to joke that I would run when I was chased. So there you go.

We broke into a sports equipment shed at Otani University and each took one of those aluminum baseball bats. Then we headed for the Botanical Gardens. I still don’t know why we chose there, especially after what happened to Aki. A large, sprawling garden with lots of twisting paths and forests? Can’t imagine what we thought we’d accomplish. I just knew that we couldn’t barricade ourselves in a building – that never works, right?

I got the zombie that took Aki, and Shyunsuke was the one who made sure that Aki wouldn’t wake up again. Then we headed for the Great Lawn, on the theory that we’d be able to see any zombie coming from a few hundred meters.

Bad move.

It would have been a fine idea if there were more of us and if we were all armed with shotguns and chainsaws. All we had, though, were the two of us and some dinged-up aluminum bats. Against half a hundred zombies that all wanted to take a good look at the tasty humans who had so kindly put themselves on display. Shyunsuke and I were back to back, and I could hear him saying something over and over again in Japanese. I didn’t know what he was saying, but I reckoned it was a prayer of some kind. I was doing some praying myself as those things got nearer. I could see the dull shine of their eyes and hear their feet shuffle across the dead grass and wished for the first time in my life that I had a gun.

Not for them.

We were saved, improbably enough, by an SDF helicopter. It was doing flybys around the city and saw the zombies moving towards us. Some of the soldiers started taking head shots while others lifted us up into the copter to safety. Shyunsuke pretty much broke down as soon as we were safe, and I’m not ashamed to say that I did too.

That was the last I saw of the zombies. The rest of the story you already know – Japan was evacuated until the zombie threat was cleared. I wasn’t allowed to go back to Osaka, so I could only pray that The Boyfriend made it out alive while I waited in the refugee camp in Pusan. When I did make it back, after the war, I found that everything on this side of the river had burned to the ground. At that point, I prayed that he’d died in the fire. Anything other than becoming one of them.

It’s been a long while since “victory” was declared over the zombies, inasmuch as they care. People in Japan don’t like to talk about it, though. You get the feeling that we all did things and saw things that we’d rather forget, and if any nation is good at selective amnesia, it’s the Japanese. So I was really glad when this book came out. It made me feel… less alone.

Brooks went around the world, interviewing people who had experienced the Zombie War – including a couple of guys up in Kyoto, even. He listened to their stories, kind of like Studs Terkel, and wrote down what they had seen and done. He talked to everyone – soldiers, sailors, housewives, government officials – everyone who would talk to him. What he made of it is maybe not a comprehensive account of the war, but a broad look at all the things that people went through during those horrible years.

A soldier who went through the Decimation in the Russian army; another who witnessed the Iran-Pakistan “war”; that asshole who made “Phalanx,” which so many people thought would save their lives, Brooks talked to them all. He showed how the Great Panic killed so many people, and how the Redeker Plan and all its emulators saved so many more, as heartless and cruel as it was. He looked at the army and how they had to figure out how to fight an enemy that doesn’t need to eat or sleep, and which recruits new members as it kills them.

We still don’t know where the zombies came from or why they rose up. And I don’t think it really matters. As this book shows, there was so much death and pain, with so much heroism and glory, that the question of where the zombies came from is really immaterial.

It opened my eyes, I’ll say that much. From the refugee camp, we got very little news at all about the world. Just that the war was continuing. We heard about the civil war in China, and whatever it was that happened to North Korea – everyone heard about that. But the rest, I didn’t know. Not until now.

Brooks’ book is exactly what it claims to be. It’s an oral history, the collected stories of dozens of people who survived the war, and it’s something that our descendants will need to read carefully. For those of us who survived the war, the pain may still be close. So if you’re not sure if you’re ready for this kind of book, give it time. But do read it.

We must never forget what happened to the world when the Zombies came. In many ways, the living dead showed us just how important it was to be alive.

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“Don’t worry. Everything’s going to be all right.”
– Dr. Kuei, World War Z
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World War Z on Wikipedia
Max Brooks on Wikipedia
World War Z on Amazon.com
World War Z website
Max Brooks’ website

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Filed under horror, Max Brooks, memoir, zombies

Review 91: Memories of the Future, vol. 1


Memories of the Future volume 1 by Wil Wheaton

There’s something inherently sad about child actors. They’re called upon to do what older actors have been doing their whole lives, often acting alongside people who know their craft so much better than they do. To match the level of their adult counterparts, they have to work just that much harder, and they still get pigeonholed into fairly flat characters. For a lot of directors, even a poor child actor is good enough to fill out the character that has been created for him or her, so expectations are usually pretty low. In the end, a lot of child actors either burn out or give up.

Wil Wheaton wasn’t a bad actor as a kid – anyone who watched Stand By Me can agree on that. He certainly wasn’t what he could have become, but as child actors went, he did okay. Perhaps if he had been given the right roles with the right people, he would still be acting today and impressing us with the depth of his talent. As it was, he was on Star Trek: The Next Generation, which sent him down, let us say, a different path.

Wheaton’s experience on TNG was one that a lot of the fans (and I count myself among them) seriously under-appreciate. From the age of fourteen, he was given the unenviable role of playing one of the most despised characters in modern science fiction, at least before Jar Jar showed up. In the early heyday of the internet, before liveblogging and Twitter and Facebook, there was Usenet – an early internet discussion group. And one of those early groups was the infamous alt.wesley.crusher.die.die.die. The fans would speak of “The Wesley Crusher Problem” and write horrible fanfiction that would put Ensign Crusher through some of the most depraved torments they could think of. A small, but very vocal segment of the TNG fan base actively hated Wesley and, by extension, Wheaton.

I think he could have easily been forgiven for dropping out of the public eye forever after being treated like that. Fortunately for us, he has chosen otherwise.

With the growth of the Internet, Wheaton has really found his place. He’s a tech evangelist and one of the most active bloggers out there, discussing tech, games, family, politics, and whatever else he feels like talking about. He’s carved out a space for himself that doesn’t rest on his Star Trek credentials, and even if he had never been on the show, he’d still be a fine and upstanding member of the online community.

Surprisingly enough, he does not reject his days as Wesley Crusher, but embraces them. As terrible as it could be sometimes as The Kid – overlooked by writers and directors, hated by fans – he still got to do what most fourteen year-old boys (including this one) can only dream of doing: playing a space explorer on TV. He got to work with a group of fine men and women, and helped to create a show that would be truly beloved around the world. On balance, the good vastly outweighed the bad, and Wheaton was able to fold that experience into his life, making him a better person for it.

Memories of the Future is Wheaton’s tribute to his days on Star Trek. As he describes it, the book isn’t a salacious tell-all, revealing all of Trek’s dirty secrets. It’s more like “you’re flipping through your high school yearbook with your friends.” It’s an honest look at the first half of the first season, described only as someone who truly loves it can do: with snark, sarcasm and admiration for the work, but no illusions about when it was… shall we say, less than up to snuff.

It starts with Encounter at Farpoint and goes up to Datalore, covering the first twelve episodes of Season 1 (the summaries of the remaining episodes are forthcoming in volume 2). Each episode is summarized, in a hilarious and sarcastic fashion. True to his geek roots, he manages to work in references to all of the sacred touchstones: Monty Python, collectible card gaming, Dungeons and Dragons, and of course, the other Star franchise which we shall not name. He isn’t afraid to call out the writers when they make stupid choices, such as Dr. Crusher asking to bring Wesley onto the bridge during a major diplomatic/security crisis (Code of Honor) or having him casually solve a major plot point that all the experts in the room have been breaking their brains over, and then leave with a snide, “Heh. Adults.” (The Battle).

There’s quotable dialogue included for each episode, (“Oh, your species is always suffering and dying” – Q, Hide and Q) and Obligatory Technobabble (“Come off the main lead, split off at the force activator, then reversing the power leads through the force activator, repulsor beam powers against Tsiolkovsky!” – Wesley, The Naked Now). There’s also a Behind the Scenes Memory, giving us a good look at what it was like for Wheaton to work on the show, often showcasing how little he really knew about what was going on, and a section called The Bottom Line, which looks at each episode in the context of the whole series.

The episode recaps are at once both sentimental and brutally honest. Where there are flaws in the creative process, Wheaton points them out with a kind of rabid glee. Where there are gems of creativity, he shows us where they are as well. It’s the kind of look at TNG that could only have been done by someone who was a part of the show and loved it. He writes with clarity and honesty and, just to be sure I point it out again, humor. Lots and lots of humor.

It’s a very quick read, and a very enjoyable one. For bonus points, go find the “Memories of the Futurecast” podcast, wherein Wheaton reads selections from the book. It’s even funnier than reading it, and is a good way to kill fifteen or twenty minutes. And we podcasters have to stick together, right Wil? You and me, right? Right?

I may be overestimating our camaraderie.

If you’re a Trek fan, this book will be a nice visit to a better time. What’s more, this will probably make you want to go watch the first season again, if only to see if some of those early episodes are nearly as bad as he’s making them out to be. I can’t wait for volume 2.

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Riker looks at Troi and very seriously asks what’s wrong with his captain. Oh! Cool! We’re finally going to get to see Troi use her Betazoid abilities to tell us something more interesting than “Pain! Pain!” This will be the moment when Troi transitions from useless one dimensional plot device into a real character! What’s she going to say?!

The camera dramatically pushes in on her, as she looks at Riker and quietly says… “I wish I could say.”
From Battle, Memories of the Future, volume 1

Wil Wheaton on Wikipedia
Memories of the Future on lulu.com
Memories of the Future Podcast
Wil Wheaton’s blog

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Review 88: Surely You’re Joking, Mister Feynman!


Surely You’re Joking, Mister Feynman! by Richard P. Feynman

A while back, I read another book by Feynman, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, and I wasn’t all that thrilled with it. It was kind of disappointing at the time. I knew that Feynman’s fame came not only from his scientific brilliance, but from the fact that he was a genuinely interesting, funny and mischievous person. I had hoped that I could find some of that in the book, but to no avail. And so I gave it away so that someone else could get the pleasure from it that I could not.

Still, I was not completely turned off Feynman. There are videos of him around the internet that really show his vibrancy, his energy and the passion with which he approached the world, and I knew there would come a time when I would have to give him a second chance. Thus, this book.

Surely You’re Joking, Mister Feynman! is the story – or rather a collection of stories – about what can happen to a person with immense confidence in his own abilities, an insatiable curiosity about the world, a willingness to make mistakes, all topped off with a generous helping of genius.

First, as Feynman calls them at the beginning of the book, some vitals.

Richard Feynman was a theoretical physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project, taught at Caltech, and won the Nobel Prize in physics for his contributions to quantum electrodynamics. He was also one hell of a bongo player, an accomplished artist, and a self-taught safecracker. He was a joker and a prankster and a ladies’ man who could bluff his way into pretty much anything he wanted to do, and was often surprised that people believed his bravado. He had a passion for mysteries and puzzles and figuring out how things worked, from combination locks to the movements of electrons to why water curves the way it does when it comes out the tap, and he didn’t give a good goddamn about what the rest of the world thought of him.

In other words, Richard Feynman was a pretty awesome guy.

This book is a collection of Feynman’s stories, the kind that he might tell at a party or with a bunch of friends traveling. They’re the variety of story that might begin with, “Did I ever tell you how I joined a samba band in Rio?” and just go on from there. He starts with his youth, how he was the kind of boy who just loved to tinker with things. He would take electronics apart and put them back together, and then go to junk shops to buy parts that he could build into better radios. He did experiments with ants to find out how they communicated, and dedicated himself so hard to solving puzzles that eventually all he needed was the first line, and he could immediately come back with, “He starts by chopping every other one in three parts.”

He was one of those kids whose curiosity was boundless, and who never even imagined that there was anything “better” he could have been doing than exploring how the world worked. I couldn’t shake the feeling that if young Feynman were around today, he’d be medicated to the eyeballs just to stop him being so “weird.” But you know me. Cynic.

We follow him through his days at MIT, pulling pranks with friends and discovering those interesting weaknesses in human thought processes that allowed him to get away with murder when he was young. His habits of wondering how things work carried him through his participation in the Manhattan Project, his travels to countries like Brazil and Japan, and led him through a life that was never without fascinating and entertaining discoveries.

Long story short (too late), Feynman is – or at least should be – a model for young people today. While the book isn’t pitched towards young people, there are several lessons in it that should be taught to every child.

The first is that the world is infinitely interesting. Any kid who whines that she is bored needs to be shown the million and one ways that you can combat boredom just within a ten-foot radius of where you’re sitting. Look at something – anything and ask yourself, “I wonder how that works,” and then go find out. The possibilities are endless, and the potential exists that you may discover a passion you never knew you had. Feynman didn’t start out wondering how electrons work – he fixed his neighbors’ radios just because he could. One thing led to another, and next thing you know – BAM! Nobel Prize.

The second point, and it is connected to the first, is to never say No. In his essay, “But Is It Art?” he talks about how he learned to draw. It started when an artist friend offered to teach Feynman how to draw if he would teach the artist about science. While Feynman believed that he would be an absolutely atrocious artist, he still agreed to the challenge, and he stuck with it. Eventually he became well-known as a decent artist, even managing to sell some of his works. Now obviously, there are limits and caveats to “never” – there are times when saying No is the right thing to do. But when you find an opportunity to expand your abilities, to learn new things and face new challenges, the automatic “No” may deprive you of a joy that you never knew you could experience.

Third, you must know who you are. One of the problems inherent in living in a society is that there’s always someone trying to tell you who you are, or at least who you should be. Your parents, teachers, friends, all have an image of you in their heads, and are all trying to mold you into that image, consciously or unconsciously. Add to that the government, media, corporations, advertisements, shysters, preachers and other deliverers of hokum and propaganda who are also trying to tell you who you really are, despite having never met you and being pretty sure that you don’t already know yourself. And many people, sadly, don’t. But Feynman did. He knew who he was, and that was all he needed. He occasionally let people think differently about him, but the thread that runs through this book is a rock-solid self-awareness that allowed him the self-confidence to pick up showgirls or try to turn down a Nobel Prize.

The caveat to this, and a corollary to the second point, is that you can always discover new things about who you are. All through the book, we see Feynman faced with a new opportunity that he thinks he can’t do because it’s just Not Him. Drawing, playing music, learning languages – those skills didn’t fit into the mental model of who he thought he was, a flaw that all of us possess. A lot of us, without even giving it a try, might immediately discard something by saying, “Well, that’s just not me.” Maybe it could be. It takes courage, and the willingness to fall flat on your face, but if you can discover a new talent or a new passion, isn’t it worth it?

Finally, remember that everyone else around you is just as human as you are. Don’t be impressed by titles and uniforms, fancy suits and impressive business cards. Don’t assume that just because someone wears a soldier’s uniform or a thousand dollar suit that they are somehow “better” than you. Feynman not only resisted authority in so many of these tales, he actively worked to subvert it. Whether it’s trying to sneak codes past military censors or breaking into the safe that held all the secrets of the atomic bomb, he never let a title get in the way of learning or growing.

One of my favorite Feynman stories related to this last point isn’t actually in this book, but I’ll mention it anyway. After the Challenger disaster back in 1986, NASA was called on the carpet to explain to Congress why their shiny new space shuttle went Kaboom. The NASA managers went on and on about the O-rings, filling their talk with supercilious jargon and doublespeak, hoping that their haughty attitudes and impenetrable explanations of why the cold weather made the O-rings fail would be comprehensible enough to satisfy the committee, yet obtuse enough to avoid actually admitting that they had done anything wrong.

While they were doing this, Feynman put a piece of the O-ring material into a glass of ice water and let it sit there for a while. Then he took it out, stretched it, and showed that it had lost the pliability that it needed to do its job. With a simple demonstration, he not only showed the fault that led to the Challenger explosion, but at the same time put a bunch of self-aggrandizing stuffed shirts in their places.

I love that story.

Anyway, if you’re looking for a Feynman book to read – and who isn’t? – this is the one to start with. There’s not much hard talk about science in it, just lots of stories about a really interesting guy. Even if it doesn’t make you want to get into quantum electrodynamic theory, I hope it still makes you look at the world in a different way.

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“You have no responsibility to live up to what other people think you ought to accomplish. I have no responsibility to be like they expect me to be. It’s their mistake, not my failing.”
– Richard Feynman, Surely You’re Joking, Mister Feynman!
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Surely You’re Joking, Mister Feynman! on Wikipedia
Richard Feynman on Wikipedia
Surely You’re Joking, Mister Feynman! on Amazon.com

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Review 85: On Writing


On Writing by Stephen King

When I was in college, I sent a letter to Stephen King. It was the first letter I’d ever sent to an author – to any famous person, as far as I can recall – and I did my best to not sound completely fannish in it. I told him that I really liked his work, especially The Stand, and how I looked forward to seeing how other books came out, The Dark Tower series in particular. As far as I can remember, I kept my head. I was cool.

But I also did what I reckon many people do when they write to their favorite authors – I told him that I enjoyed writing as well, and I hoped I could be an author someday. In retrospect, I imagine King gets a lot of these letters, and after I’d sent it, I figured that was my stupid fanboy move. I knew what I wanted to happen next – I’d get a call from Stephen King who says, “You know, judging from the well-written letter you sent me, I would like to see an example of your fiction,” and so I’d send him the short story I was working on and he’d write back and say, “You’re BRILLIANT! I’m going to devote my remaining days to seeing that you become a writer of greatness! Stick with me, kid, and the world is your oyster!”

The advantage I have over other people with overactive imaginations is that I know when mine is bullshitting me. Honestly, I figured I’d never hear from him at all.

On that point, at least, I was wrong.

A few weeks later, I got a letter from none other than Stephen King himself! Included was a card, on which he thanked me for my kind words about his work, as well as a couple of photocopies of articles he had done about writing. I figure he had a whole stack of these, ready to send to every prospective writer out there, but it meant a lot to me that he had taken the time. The articles talked about how he wrote, and the advice he always gave to budding writers.

I figure he must have gotten a lot of letters like mine, because he eventually wrote this book. In it is nearly everything he knows about how to write well. I figure that he hoped people would stop asking when he published it, though I doubt people did. Those who want to be writers – and you can ask any published writer about this – believe that there’s a Secret to getting published. That there’s some special club of writers and agents and publishers who all know each other and in order to get in you have to go to live with John Scalzi and become his personal cat waxer for a year.

But it ain’t so. What those who are already in publishing will tell you is that the best way to get a story published is to write a great story. Do that, and your chances of success are much improved.

How, then, do you write a great story? All King can tell us – all any writer can tell us – is how he does it.

The first of the book is his Curriculum Vitae, in which he tells us about how he became a writer. It’s not a particularly surprising story, really. He gives us his memories of writing as a child, from knock-offs of horror comics to original works of horror and fantasy. The stories he tells, the memories that he relays to us show that he was interested in writing all his life, and the desire to write – no, the need to write – was something that has always been with him.

It follows him through his days as a neophyte novelist, breaking into the big time with the sale of Carrie, and how the personal and financial success he gained from that propelled him to write more and better. And, of course, there were the Dark Days. The drugs and the alcohol, the books he can’t remember writing and the days he can’t remember drinking through. He’s sober now, of course, but this is a warning – one of many peppered throughout the book: beware the Writers’ Traps. The illusion that you must be a drunk, a la Hemingway, to be a good writer, is one. He fell for it and, fortunately for us, he climbed his way out again.

Much like any trade, skill in writing is built by experience, and having the faith that you have something worth saying to the world. But even just having something to say and an unshakable faith won’t make you a good writer, so the second part of the book is a bit more practical: how do you make a story? Well, much like any trade, you need your tools. You need your grammar and structure and vocabulary so that you can present your ideas in a comprehensible form. You need your metaphor and simile, so that you’re not being too obvious in what you want to say. You need your symbolism, description and characterization, foreshadowing and nuance and dialog. But what you need the most is practice, patience and faith.

He walks through the steps of composition, character creation, and coming up with the essential through-line of your story. He gives us his own pet peeves as a writer (he hates adverbs passionately and says that the passive voice is to be avoided at all cost) and exhorts us to read as many different writers as we can. He gives us the benefit of his years of experience and the things he has learned, and says to us, “Now you try.”

King sets a very challenging bar, though – 2,000 words a day, every day, no exceptions. Well, for people just getting started he’s willing to be a little lenient: 1,500 words a day and you can have Sundays off. And you have to take it seriously, as you would any true craft. King recommends that you establish a Writing Space, ideally somewhere where you can close the door. Lose the distractions and take care of the reasons not to write.

And, as the fine folks at Nike would say, just do it.

Of course, if you’re new at this, most of what you write will be crap. In fact, even if you’re not new, the odds are that your first draft will be a mess. But if you have something to say, and you know what that is, then the story will shine through. You can polish it, revise, tweak and massage it until it’s something that you’re willing to let the rest of the world see.

It’s hard work, that’s for sure. At no point does King say that being a writer will be easy. He says that it’s sometimes thrilling, scary, exquisite, weird, toilsome, difficult, Sisyphean even. But never, ever easy. And there’s no guarantee that you’ll end up where he is. In fact, the odds are that you won’t be able to make a living as a writer. It’s certainly not impossible, of course – many men and women make that bar every year. But to write consistently at that level requires even more practice, patience and faith.

In the end, King is one writer who has most certainly made it big. He avoided destroying himself, and survived an accident that should have destroyed him, and he’s still writing. And if you get nothing else from this book, perhaps it is this lesson: a writer writes. No matter what, no matter why, a writer writes because that is what a writer must do to survive. If you’re willing to do that, if you have stories that you need to tell, then you might be a writer. It’s a scary thing to do, but who knows scary better than Stephen King? Take a read through this book, open up a fresh Word file, and get to work.

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“What follows is everything I know about how to write good fiction. I’ll be as brief as possible, because your time is valuable and so is mine, and we both understand that the hours we spend talking about writing is time we don’t spend actually doing it. I’ll be as encouraging as possible, because it’s my nature and because I love this job. I want you to love it, too. But if you don’t want to work your ass off, you have no business trying to write well – settle back into competency and be grateful you have even that much to fall back on.”
– Stephen King, On Writing
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Stephen King on Wikipedia
On Writing on Wikipedia
On Writing on Amazon.com
Stephen King’s website

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