Monday, May 27, 2019


Ah, yes... The sun always shines on TV. Or, at least, it used to.
I'm sure no one watching Game of Thrones, right now, has any belief in this anymore.
Because TV has changed.
No longer is it an idealized land of make-believe where everything works out in the end, the bad guys are defeated, and the hero gets the girl. Or, you know, whatever version of that you believe in.
And, yes, I'm pretty sure TV did used to be that way.
Thinking back through all of the old shows I used to watch when I was a kid, stuff from the 50s and 60s, I can't think of any shows that didn't always turn out right in the end. Well, except, maybe, Gilligan's Island, because they never did get off of that thing (not until years later when they made the TV movie to get them back home again), but, then, that was the point of that show, right? Within that context, though, everything always turned out fine.

At some point, reality began to work itself into TV shows (and other media, too (I'm, of course, tempted to talk about Marvel Comics and their breaking of the CCA in 1971)) but, really, I blame the 90s. Maybe, even, I blame MTV and The Real World, not that The Real World had anything to do with reality, but I think reality television changed the way things work. Not in a good way.

It gave us Trump (#fakepresident).
More importantly (to this discussion, at any rate), it gave us his obsession with ratings.
And, man, is he obsessed with ratings. His own ratings.
Which is not new information but, you know, sometimes you know things but don't quite grok them (yeah, if you don't understand the term, go read my review of Stranger in a Strange Land, then read the book), and I recently grokked something that scared the shit out of me:
To Trump (#fakepresident), this is all just TV. The things he does, the firing people and the chaos and everything else, are because those are the things you do to keep your viewers. To keep people watching you. It's that whole "all publicity is good publicity" thing.

I suppose I could break this all down and go point by point, but I don't think I need to do that and am not feeling compelled to do so. All of this came upon me because I was listening to one of his associates, someone who has been with him for decades, describing his "style," this style that he's had for, well, decades. A style he developed because of his reality show, evidently, and I had one of those... moments. An "Oh, shit! He thinks the presidency is TV!" moment. It's just to keep eyes on him and keep him in the news and people talking about him.

So, you know, if we end up in an actual war, say, with Iran or China, just know that it's because war is good for ratings.

Fuck this shit.
The sun has gone down.

Monday, May 13, 2019

The Book of Vice (a book review post)

I'm going to be honest: I only picked this book up because it was written by Peter Sagal of Wait, Wait... Don't Tell Me! fame. I love Wait, Wait, and Sagal is great, and the book looked amusing, at least, and, since I was getting it on, mostly, trade at a used book store, I figured I didn't really have anything to lose. For the price I paid, I'm sure that's true.

And the book was amusing, at times even fascinating. But...

By the end of the book, I was really wondering what it was supposed to be about. Because it's presented in such a way as to be about something, and it looks like it's supposed to be about something, but, at the end, I failed to see whatever that something was. Or is. I mean, beyond it being a list of "naughty things" people do. And I think it fails to be even that.

Or maybe I just missed the point since the book is supposed to be something of a parody of, or response to, The Book of Virtues, a book I haven't read. What I do know is that Vice didn't live up to its title: The Book of Vice: Very Naughty Things (and How to Do Them).

It's that "and How to Do Them" part that is the problem because, at no point, does Sagal ever go into how any "normal" person could go about doing the things that he's talking about. Not that I was looking for any instruction on how to pick up some vices, but it's right there in the title, man! Plus, he seems to have some confusion on what a vice really is, which is weird since he spends part of the introduction defining it, something you do for which you feel shame about later. In other words, something you don't really want other people to know you do.

Of course, at least half of the book is about sex.
And, let's face it, at least half of America would be more than fine if children grew up believing they were the products of spontaneous generation and that sex didn't exist at all.

The problem, though, is that after the first chapter... Wait, let's deal with the first chapter:
The first chapter is about swinging. And the first chapter is about regular people who swing. Mostly because, I think, he spends a good portion of the introduction talking about Power Exchange, a swingers' club in San Francisco (nope, never been there and, though I think I've heard of it, I didn't know that's what it was until I read this book), at which no actual swinging happens. In essence, he was forced to find some "real" people who do it to be able to talk about it. That said, I'm not sure it qualified as a vice for any of them since they had no secret shame over it. True, they didn't want it spread around that they spent weekends at a private swinging event, but none of the people he talked to treated it as if it was something wrong or bad that they were doing.

After that, though, each chapter dealt with the... providers...? of said vices.

The second chapter is about food but, rather then deal with people who, say, eat packages of Oreos on the sly, he dealt with high-end foodie restaurants, specifically with Alinea, and what goes into making very expensive food. I'm not really thinking that people who eat at places like that think of that as any kind of vice. You go to that restaurant, you brag about it after, not try to keep people from finding out you went.

The chapter on gambling deals with the establishments and how they know they'll win. Though the question is raised about why people would gamble knowing they're going to lose, he never actually talks to the regular people who go deep into debt from gambling addictions. The chapter on strip clubs approaches it from the perspective of why would a woman do that for a living, not a vice, rather than the perspective of the man who can't keep himself from stopping at a club every time he has a few dollars in his hand.

The chapter on consumerism... Honestly, I'm not even sure what that chapter was about. There's no "vice" for that. Unless breathing is a vice. Or drinking water.

The chapter on lying dealt only with some high profile liars and, since the book came out in 2007, we don't even get to see his take on Trump (#fakepresident), possibly the biggest lying liar ever. But I have a hard time classifying lying as a vice, too. Maybe it qualifies in some cases, but, at that point, I think it would more likely be called a pathology.

And the chapter on porn is all about porn stars, not the people who have their porn stash hidden away and only get it out when no one is around.

Substance abuse, including cigarettes and that "one" glass of wine after dinner every night, isn't even mentioned.

So, yeah, it's mostly amusing and, like I said, bits of it are fascinating, but, in the end, I'm not sure what he was trying to get at, especially since his own judgements about any particular "vice" are glaringly obvious:
Porn is bad.
Gambling is fine as long as you're the smart guy (him) who plays the one game where the odds are in the favor of the gambler; otherwise, your stupid to gamble.
High-end eating establishments, like Alinea, are dumb and people who spend their money at them are even dumber. Find a Jack-in-the-Box (his idea) and be satisfied.

Hmm... That sounds a bit more harsh, maybe, than I intend it to sound, but, well, that's how it ends up coming across. But, you know, if you want a light, amusing read with some interesting character studies, this may be the book for you.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Stranger in a Strange Land (a book review post)

I feel like I'm a little late to the Heinlein game.
Which is silly.
But, for someone who grew up reading all the sci-fi/fantasy he could get his hands on, it makes me feel like I'm late.
What makes it silly, though, is that even if I'd read this when I was a teenager, I would have been reading it decades after it was originally published. Can you really be late to the game with fiction? Unless you're trying to be in on the cultural zeitgeist game, but that's a totally different thing.

At any rate, I'm not sure reading this when I was younger would have necessarily been a good idea. I was a pretty hard-line Fosterite all the way through my 20s. Oh, wait, I mean Southern Baptist. Not that Fosterite equals Southern Baptist specifically, but it certainly equates to any of the Evangelical denominations. Probably all the Protestant denominations. There's every chance I would have dismissed the book as blasphemous and been done with it.

Or, maybe, it would have helped to yank the stick out of my ass.
I guess we'll never know.
"Waiting is...," as Mike would say it, and I think I've read it at a fairly appropriate time in my life.

What I want to say about Stranger in a Strange Land is that it's barely science fiction, but that's not really true. To paraphrase Mary Doria Russell's response when her book, The Sparrow, was referred to as not really being sci-fi, "It has spaceships and aliens!" And so Stranger does have spaceships and aliens. But the sci-fi wrapper is to cover the philosophy underneath. Which is, actually, totally okay. Asimov said something about sci-fi being the perfect genre in which to write about anything.

Or, in this case, everything. Almost everything. It's a philosophy of... the world. A view of how things could be if we could just... get along? Love each other? His name is Valentine, after all. I don't want to be spoilery and say what kind of figure Michael Valentine Smith is, so I'll say, instead, that the first thing I thought of, the other first thing I thought of, was Billy Budd, Sailor. Billy Budd and Smith are very similar figures, at least in my vague memory of Billy Budd, which I haven't read in decades. Since most of you probably haven't even heard of Billy Budd, I'm not really spoiling anything, right?

But did I like it? I'm sure that's the question you're all dying to know the answer to, probably in some very human rushed sort of way, wanting me to get on with it. But that's not very Martian, you grok?

Yes, it's a very interesting and engrossing book.You can tell by how quickly this review is following after my last review. [And shut up to you people who are pointing out that it's been a full month since my last review! For me, especially recently, I flew through this book!] It's good. In fact, it's very good. I especially enjoyed the character of Jubal Harshaw; I suspect he's a personification of Heinlein himself, though I don't really know anything about Heinlein so that supposition could be completely baseless.

That said, the book does have a few issues, the first one being the way the lead female character is referred to by the male characters early in the book. They pretty regularly call her "little girl" or "baby girl," something which made me extremely uncomfortable. And, like I said, I'm completely unfamiliar with Heinlein, this being the first book I've read by him, so I don't know if this is a Heinlein issue or not. Or it could have been purposeful and for effect since the main male characters quit that behavior as they... well, as they become more evolved due to their experience with Smith. So is it an issue? I don't know, but I bet he wouldn't write it that way if he were writing it today.
Or would he..."

The real issue I have with the book, though minor, is a story issue. And this is what you could call mildly spoilery, so you've been warned.

Mike grew up on Mars. On Mars, dead Martians hang around after they're dead and, really, control everything. They're the Old Ones and are considered all-wise. But, when your soul gets to hang around for... forever... I guess it gives you a different view on things. If you got to hang around after you died, wouldn't you want tell people what to do?

At some point early in the book, we get a snippet from the perspective of the Old Ones. Which was fine. That's part of the sci-fi. Martians aren't the same as humans. The issue is that Mike spends a good portion of the book wondering about the human "Old Ones" and how to get to talk to them, which is also fine... right up until we hit a point where Heinlein gives us some point-of-view from a dead human. That part just didn't work for me.

Heinlein spends a fair amount of time discussing, through Jubal, how it is that we can't actually know the truth about religion, especially in a world where everyone insists that they know the one and only truth. That he later breaks that wall by giving us a view of what happens after death, at least from his perspective, undermines his point about that sort of truth being relative. Fortunately, there's not a lot of that in the book, because that would have had the potential of ruining the story.

All of that to say, if you're a sci-fi fan and pretty flexible minded, you'll probably enjoy this book. If you're not a sci-fi fan but, still, pretty flexible minded, i.e., you enjoy hypothesizing about the state of the world, you'll probably enjoy this book. If you're ultra-religious or think you have everything figured out, unless you have happened to figure everything out in the same manner as Jubal, you're going to want to throw the book against the wall and burn it. Or, maybe, it will help you get the stick out of your ass.