Thursday, December 31, 2009

Books Read 2009

1. When Will There Be Good News? Kate Atkinson. Really well-written novel, somewhere between a genre mystery and a contemporary work of fiction.
2. The Phoenix Exultant, John C. Wright. Libertarian-oriented, far-future novel. Quite interesting.
3. The Edge of Reason, Melinda Snodgrass. Fantasy novel set in New Mexico. Didn't really work for me.
4. The Ruin of the Roman Empire, James J. O'Donnell. Argues the empire was "ruined" by Justinian's expansion. Not bad, but not great.
5. Little Brother, Cory Doctorow. Excellent novel, written for young adults but a good read for all ages. Won the Prometheus Award. Everyone in the Libertarian Futurist Society was enthusiastic about it, myself included.
6. Saturn's Children, Charles Stross. Science fiction novel about horny robots. A good read.
7. Dilbert 2.0, Scott Adams. Massive collection of Dilbert comic strips.
8. Opening Atlantis, Harry Turtledove (audiobook). Entertaining, average Turtledove novel.
9. Roswell, Texas, L. Neil Smith, Scott Bieser, et al. (graphic novel). Rather interesting look at an alternative Texas.
10. Liberation, Brian Francis Slattery. Unusual novel mixing literary and pop styles. I want to read more by this author.
11. The January Dancer, Michael Flynn. Good far-future SF novel.
12. By Schism Rent Asunder, David Weber (audiobook). Political-military soap opera. Held my attention.
13. The Dead Man's Brother, Roger Zelazny. Lost mystery novel finally published years after author's death. I thought it was quite good.
14. Cosmic Trigger 3: My Life After Death, Robert Anton Wilson. Essays by my favorite writer.
15. Down in the Black Gang, Philip Jose Farmer. Re-read this after hearing about Farmer's death. I think the book proves he was a skilled short story writer.
16. The Cutie, Donald Westlake (audiobook). Fun and fast-moving.
17. The International Spy Museum Handbook of Practical Spying, Jack Barth. Amusing book I picked up at the Washington, D.C., museum.
18. The Spartans, Paul Cartledge (audiobook). Good study by respected scholar.
19. Freakanomics, Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt (audiobook). Fun. I don't know enough about economics to really judge this book.
20. The Dream of Scipio, Iain Pears. One of the best historical novels ever. Individuals in three societies in crisis (fall of Rome, Black Death, World War II) in what is now southern France face difficult choices.
21. Hit and Run, Lawrence Bloch (audiobook). Typically entertaining outing by my favorite mystery author.
22. The Book of Lost Books, Stuart Kelly. I would have preferred more scholarship and less commentary.
23. Give Me Back My Legions! Harry Turtledove. Historical novel about the defeat of Varus by Arminius that essentially ended Roman attempts to conquer Germany.
24. The Family Man, Elinor Lipman. One of her best, which means it's really good.
25. As They See 'Em, Bruce Weber. Behind the scenes look at the role umpires play in baseball.
26. The Good Humor Man, Andrew Fox. Enjoyable novel about food Prohibition.
27. Nine Princes in Amber, Roger Zelazny (audiobook). I love Zelazny, but I can't figure out why people love the Amber books so much.
28. Prophets, S. Andrew Swann. Enjoyable, fast-moving space opera. First book of a trilogy.
29. Threshhold, Collected Stories Volume 1, Roger Zelazny. Wonderful beginning to NESFA's six-part chronicle.
30. Pallas, L. Neil Smith. Not as good as The Forge of the Elders.
31. Conspiracies of Rome, Richard Blake. Historical novel about Italy in late antiquity. I'm eager to read the sequel.
32. Power and Light, Collected Stories Volume 2, Roger Zelazny. NESFA is performing an excellent service by publishing these.
33. Rocket Men, Craig Nelson (audiobook). Excellent chronicle of the moon flights.
34. Saratoga, John F. Luzader. I read this because I knew I'd be visiting the battlefield. Somewhat revisionist treatment argues that Horatio Gates deserves much of the credit for the key victory.
35. Isle of the Dead, Roger Zelazny. One of Zelazny's best.
36. Bend Sinister, Vladimir Nabokov. Another excellent Nabokov, more political than his usual work.
37. Songs for the Missing, Stewart O'Nan (audiobook). Chilling book about murder of young woman.
38. The End of Empire: Attila the Hun and the Fall of Rome, Stuart Kelly. Shows role Huns played in Rome's fall. See comments in my 'Best of 2009' posting.
39. Healthy Competition, Michael F. Cannon and Michael D. Tanner. Cato Institute's take on health care reform.
40. The Unincorporated Man, Dani Kollin and Eytan Kollin. Very political science fiction novel. Interesting and intermittently good
41. By Heresies Distressed, David Weber (audiobook). Not as good as the previous book in the series.
42. This is Me, Jack Vance! Jack Vance. Memoir of one of my favorite authors.
43. Death of a Gentle Lady, M.C. Beaton (audiobook). Funny, very enjoyable mystery. Decided to try Beaton after reading Jack Vance's statement that Beaton is his favorite living author.
44. The Quiet War, Paul McAuley. Science fiction novel about global warming and its consequences. Pretty good.
45. Casting the Runes and Other Ghost Stories, M.R. James. My Halloween book. He's quite good at ghost stories.
46. The Healing of America, T.R. Reid. Useful look at health care systems in other countries.
47. Transition, Iain R. Banks. Really excellent alternate-worlds SF novel.
48. Makers, Cory Doctorow. Doctorow's tribute to entrepreneurs shows a gift for characterization.
49. Create Your Own Economy, Tyler Cowen. Insightful study of how technology allows each of us to create our own little worlds of education and entertainment.
50. The United States of Atlantis, Harry Turtledove. Dull plot that essentially recapitulates American Revolution, but interesting political insights.
51. A Highland Christmas, M.C. Beaton. Brief holiday novel by the Scottish mystery writer.
52. The Secret Life of Eva Hathaway, Janice Weber. Passionate, energetic and often funny novel by author who is also an acclaimed classical pianist.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Download a great, free Christmas audiobook

Librivox is a site that offers free audiobooks of public domain books, read by volunteer readers. (A public domain book is a work, usually old, that has gone out of copyright. Think Jane Austen.)

As you might expect, the quality of the volunteers varies quite a bit, and many of these works feature a succession of readers, some of them good, some not. That's a good description one of the site's versions of "A Christmas Carol." But I've made a discovery. A guy who goes by the name "Smokestack Jones," from my old stomping ground back in Oklahoma, made an excellent recording which you can download here.

More on Christmas audiobooks here.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Best Books of 2009

Everybody else does a best books list; why not me? Mine is shorter and easier to get through.

1. The Family Man, Elinor Lipman. Another warm, funny novel about human relationships by an author often characterized, not unfairly, as a latter-day Jane Austen. Uncharacteristically, the most important romance in the book is between two gay characters. Characteristically, the two gay men offer Lipman a chance to say something wise and humane about what being a "family man" is really all about.

2. As They See 'Em, Bruce Weber. A book by a New York Times reporter that examines the roles of umpires in baseball, and explain what it's like to be an umpire. If this wasn't the best book about baseball in 2009, the better ones must be pretty great.

3. The End of Empire: Attila the Hun and the Fall of Rome, Stuart Kelly. I love to read about the later Roman Empire/late antiquity/the "Dark Ages." I read more than one such book this year; this was the best. Kelly shows how the Huns damaged the Roman Empire not just by helping to cause a series of invasions by various tribes, such as the Goths, but also illuminates how Attila's attacks critically hindered the Eastern Roman Empire's efforts to bring north Africa back into the Roman fold.

4. The Healing of America, T.R. Reid. If you want to understand how health care systems work in other countries, this is where to go. Reid's book suffers from flaws and bias, as any book on such a politically-charged topic is likely to do, but I learned a lot from it and and admired the way he could clearly illuminate difficult topics.

5. Transition, Iain M. Banks. Banks is the best science fiction writer in the world who has never won a major SF award (such as the Hugo). I'll defend such statements by pointing to books such as this one, a politically-charged, masterfully-plotted alternate worlds novel. What an indictment of our literary culture that outfits like NPR and the New York Times ignored this book.

6. Create Your Own Economy, Tyler Cowen. Cowen shows how technology has allowed each of us to create our own private university (or "economy," as the George Mason University economist puts it. The book could have benefitted from a little editing to force Cowen to define his terms more and tease out his arguments, but the book is full of sharp insights.

Notes and Honorable Mentions: I thought Roger Zelazny's "The Dead Man's Brother" was quite good; others seemed to disagree. I read quite a few excellent books that just weren't published in 2009, among them 2008's "Little Brother" by Cory Doctorow. (His 2009 book, "Makers," also is quite good). I finally got around to reading "The Dream of Scipio" by Iain Pears, which is maybe the best historical novel I've ever come across.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Last-minute Halloween suggestions

I don't usually read horror, but I try to find something suitable every Halloween. In past years, I've read the Library of America collection of H.P. Lovecraft's short stories (good), Stephen King's vampire tale "Salem's Lot" (good) and Arthur Machen's "The Hill of Dreams" (a little disappointing.)

This year I am reading classic ghost stories by M.R. James. He's brilliant. I'm reading "Casting the Runes and Other Ghost Stories," an Oxford University Press book, but you can also simply download his stories from Project Gutenberg. (They are available as an audiobook as well as text.) Gutenberg also has oldies-but-goodies such as Bram Stoker's "Dracula" (also available as audio and text) and stories by Edgar Allen Poe.

For more suggestions on free Halloween content, go here.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Hey, sheriff, where do you want me to put this bomb?

My favorite news story today is from my own newspaper, the Sandusky Register, and it's about a guy who found a pipe bomb out in the woods in a wildlife area. Naturally, the only thing he could think to do about it was to tote it somewhere where it could hurt somebody if it went off. Apparently he was under a time crunch and couldn't find a nursery filled with babies, or a kindergarden class, or a dormitory full of nuns, so he had to settle for taking it to the local sheriff's office. The lobby was immediately evacuated, and a brave official then carried it outside. It was a live bomb, too. It was detonated by a bomb squad.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Internet column (Cooking By Numbers)

You probably have all kinds of food sitting in your cupboard and refrigerator. Ever wonder what you can cook with what you have on hand?
Cooking By Numbers ( has a simple menu that lets visitors check off which common ingredients they happen to have in stock. Click "search," and the site then provides a list of recipes for dishes you can make.
You may have noticed that Allrecipes ( has a similar service. You can enter four ingredients you happen to have on hand (and optionally, four ingredients you don't want to include), run a search, and get a list of recipes. I entered lentils, onions, rice and tomatoes, and 10 recipes popped up. When I omitted the tomatoes and included the other three ingredients, I got 25 recipes. I was really just testing the feature for this column, but I found a recipe I wanted to keep and e-mailed a copy to myself, using the site's handy e-mailing tool.
Tipnut has put together a list of "25 Vintage Food Prep Tips" at that are drawn from old cookbooks. (Sample tip: "Fried potatoes will be deliciously golden brown if sprinkled lightly with flour before frying.") TipNut has various household tips and is available at
Thought4Food ( tries to collect the "best cooking and food posts from around the Web." The site includes a large collection of links to food and cooking Web sites and blogs.
If you are interested in cooking, or just looking for a site that fits your particular needs, here are a couple of places to check. is just what it sounds like -- a straightforward list of 100 recipe sites. seems more comprehensive, covering kitchenware, baking and many other topics.
A fast browser. I've never been particularly interested in Apple's Safari Web browser. (A Web browser is the program you use to look at Web sites, such as Internet Explorer, Firefox, etc.)
The Macintosh computer I used at work came with Safari, but I noticed that not all Web sites worked well with it. And I can't afford to run out and buy an iPhone.
I was startled, however, when the Wall Street Journal's ace technology columnist, Walt Mossberg, reviewed the new Safari and reported that it is much faster in loading Web sites than any other browser he had tested. Mossberg also pointed out that Safari is available for Windows as well as Macintosh computers, which I hadn't realized. He also allowed he didn't like some of Safari's features. (You can read the review at his Web site,
I decided to try the browser, so I downloaded it to my Macintosh work computer. I discovered that my computer's operating system isn't up to date enough to use it. Windows users, though, can try it if they have Windows Vista or Windows XP with Service Page 2.
If you want to give the browser a try, you can find it at
Baggage fees. Planning a trip soon? One of the most unpleasant recent developments for air travel is that the airlines have been tacking on hidden fees. tracks baggage and other fees for the various airlines. I looked at it last week and saw that my wife and I would have to pay $30 for two checked bags if we each checked one each for a spring trip.
(Tom Jackson wants to hear about interesting Southwest Oklahoma Web sites and blogs. Write to him at

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Where good environmental practices and frugality meet

Connie Schultz has a nice column in Sunday's Plain Dealer about what she calls the "eco-friendly" practice of hanging clothes out to dry instead of using an electrical dryer. I thought I was being cheap when I did this in Lawton, Oklahoma, years ago, but apparently I was part of the pro-environment avant-garde.

If she writes about such topics again, I hope she'll mention that her readers can also save energy (and money) if they simply turn off their desktop computers when they aren't using them. This is a good idea for other reasons, too. My computer runs better when it hasn't been on for hours and hours, and computer security expert Bruce Schneier points out that a computer can't be a target for hackers when it's turned off. He writes, "Turn off the computer when you're not using it, especially if you have an "always on" Internet connection."

CNN has just posted an article on "Six Simple Ways to Save Energy at Home." Some of these were new to me.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Jack Vance: A couple of miracles

Science fiction writer Jack Vance has been one of my favorite writers ever since I was a teenager. I've never wavered in my opinion that he's wonderful.

When his 2004 novel, Lurulu, came out I thought that was the last we had heard of him. But it turns out there was more.

The New York Times magazine ran a wonderful article about Vance in July.

And now there's even a new book, a memoir, "This Is Me, Jack Vance!" published by Subterranean Press. I've just finished it, and I'm hoping to get somebody to accept my review of it.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

New recording of Duckworth classic

I've been waiting for quite awhile for someone to get around to making a second recording of composer William Duckworth's signature piece, "The Time Curve Preludes."

It's finally happened. Pianist Bruce Brubaker has released "Time Curve," which includes many of the preludes. It's a little maddening that he didn't record all of them, but I have to say I like the Philip Glass etudes also include on the disc. The recording is available as a cheap "Web album" at and is listed at

Duckworth, by the way, has revamped and modernized his Web site.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Doctorow's 'Little Brother' wins Prometheus

Cory Doctorow's "Little Brother" has been awarded the Prometheus Award for the best science fiction novel of 2008 by the Libertarian Futurist Society. J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy picked up the Prometheus Hall of Fame Award. Full announcement here.

The other finalists also are good books and deserve to be listed here: "Matter" by Iain M. Banks, "The January Dancer" by MIchael Flynn, "Saturn's Children" by Charles Stross, "Opening Atlantis" by Harry Turtledove and "Half a Crown" by Jo Walton. (Cross posted at Libertarian News Network.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Roger Zelazny's lost novel

I've published my piece on Roger Zelazny's lost novel, "The Dead Man's Brother."

Friday, April 24, 2009

L. Neil Smith's top 15 favorite books

A friend of mine on Facebook named Catherine Green has begun a "15 Books" meme on Facebook. The idea is to name the first 15 books you can think of in 15 minutes.

After I posted my list of 15, science fiction writer L. Neil Smith followed with his 15 books. Here El Neil's list:

Anthem by Ayn Rand
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
The Crossroads of Time by Andre Norton
Death of a Dude by Rex Stout
Door Into Summer by Robert A. Heinlein
Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein
Guardians of Time by Poul Anderson
Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen by H. Beam Piper
Microbe Hunters by Paul de Kruif
A Planet for Texans by H. Beam Piper
Principles of Personal Defense by Jeff Cooper
Roosevelt's Road to Russia by George N. Crocker
Starman Jones by Robert A. Heinlein
Tunnel in the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein
The Whenabouts of Burr by Michael Kurland

Smith noted later he forgot to list "Fahrenheit 451" by Ray Bradbury. "
I knew the instant I pressed ENTER that I'd think of five more books I'd like to have added," he remarked.

If you want to try one of Smith's own books, he suggests "The Probability Broach," "The Forge of the Elders" or "Pallas."

Here's my fifteen:

Illuminatus! — Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea
Cryptonomicon — Neal Stephenson
The Gold Bug Variations — Richard Powers
Money — Martin Amis
Hyperion — Dan Simmons
Excession — Iain M. Banks
The Book of the New Sun — Gene Wolfe.
Pride and Prejudice — Jane Austen
The World of Late Antiquity — Peter Brown
Nine Hundred Grandmothers — R.A. Lafferty
Main Street — Sinclair Lewis
Pale Fire — Vladimir Nabokov
This Immortal — Roger Zelazny
Islands in the Net — Bruce Sterling
Flag of Ecstasy — Charles Henri Ford

I wish I'd remembered Heinlein's "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress." It's not a coincidence I listed "Illuminatus!" first — Robert Anton Wilson is a big influence on my politics and thinking.

My son Richard Jackson's list:

1.The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
2.The Princess Bride by William Goldman
3.And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
4.Matilda by Roald Dahl
5.The Giver by Lois Lowry
6.The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
7.The Seven Percent Solution by Nicholas Meyer
8.Road to Perdition by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner
9-15. All seven Harry Potters by J.K. Rowling

Ricky says he forgot Orwell's "Animal Farm."

Cathy Green's original 15:

The Botany of Desire - Michael Pollan
This Our Exile - James Martin
Exiles - Ron Hansen
Dancing in the Streets - Barbara Ehrenreich
The Far Field - Theodore Roethke
Six Tales of the Jazz Age - F Scott Fitzgerald
Sweet Thursday - John Steinbeck
Sex Lives of Cannibals - Troost
Diving Bell and the Butterfly - Bauby
Owl in the Family - Farley Mowat
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek - Dillard
Grendel - John Gardner
Nothing with Strings - Bailey White
A Green Journey - Jon Hassler
A Fine and Private Place - Beagle
Every Living Thing - Cynthia Rylant
Animal Vegetable Miracle - Kingsolver

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The good news about Kate Atkinson

A couple of months ago, I read an excellent mystery novel by Kate Atkinson called "When Will There Be Good News?" My wife has posted about it on her library's blog, Read it or Weep, to bring you up to speed.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Obama's useless broadband program

ProPublica, the investigative reporting Web site, ran a largely-ignored story about a useless program to provide Internet broadband to rural areas that received a big dose of money in the federal government's stimulus bill.

The program pays for such useful projects as bringing broadband to an affluent Houston suburb "built around a golf course" and providing fast Internet access to areas that already have it. The waste began under Dubya but Obama has been touting the program's wonderfulness in his speeches, a nice touch of bipartisanship, so I've written a headline allowing the president to claim overship.

Note that ProPublica is a nonprofit that allows anyone to reprint its articles if you provide credit, link to it, don't edit the story and don't sell it.

Full story follows. (Original ProPublica headline, "Rural Broadband Stimulus Program Slammed in Government Report." I like my headline better.)

By Michael Grabell

A key stimulus program to bring Internet service to rural America may not be up to the job of spending its $2.5 billion in extra funding effectively, according to a report released Monday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s inspector general.

The Rural Utilities Service’s broadband program faced heavy criticism in 2005 when auditors found irregularities with a quarter of the funds the program had received in its first four years of operation. In one case, the program loaned $45 million to wire affluent subdivisions in the Houston suburbs—including one that was built around a golf course and another outside one of the richest cities in Texas.

Monday’s report found that the Rural Utilities Service continues to grant loans to areas that already have broadband service and to communities near major cities.

“We remain concerned with RUS’ current direction of the broadband program, particularly as they receive greater funding under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act,” Assistant Inspector General Robert W. Young wrote. “RUS’ broadband program may not meet the Recovery Act’s objective of awarding funds to projects that provide service to the most rural residents that do not have access to broadband service.”

In written comments attached to the report, the Agriculture Department said the law creating the broadband program contained no restrictions as to proximity to major cities. “Rural” was defined only as a community with fewer than 20,000 people.

More than 90 percent of the loan applications the agency has approved since the critical report in 2005 went to areas that already had broadband service, the report said. “OIG remains concerned because the overwhelming majority of communities…receiving service through the broadband program already have access to the technology,” Young wrote.

Agriculture Department officials declined to comment further Monday evening.

In nearly every speech about the federal stimulus package, President Obama has touted an initiative to expand broadband access to millions of Americans in underserved rural areas. Such an expansion, supporters say, would aid small businesses and improve access to health care and distance learning programs.

The stimulus package, passed by Congress in early February, provides $7.2 billion for broadband grants and loans. A Commerce Department agency will manage $4.7 billion while the Agriculture Department’s Rural Utilities Service will manage $2.5 billion.

That’s nearly twice as much as the rural broadband program has given out in loans over the last eight years.

The inspector general’s report also noted that 148 communities that receive broadband service funded by agency loans were within 30 miles of cities with more than 200,000 people, including communities outside Chicago and Las Vegas.

According to the Agriculture Department’s most recent report on April 3, none of the stimulus money for broadband grants has been awarded or spent.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Halpern talks about George Alec Effinger

Even before SF writer George Alec Effinger died in 2002, ace editor Marty Halpern had begun working on a collection of Effinger's "Budayeen" stories and trying to revive Effinger's career.

Halpern has now begun a three-part blog series, looking back at the three Effinger collections he edited for Golden Gryphon Press. It's a valuable source of information about an author I've always loved.

My tribute site for Effinger (needs a bit of updating, but includes FAQ) is here.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Much better than tofu, yes

Banned in Colorado.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Everyone's a publisher these days....

So it's worth listening to what two professors from The Ohio State University had to say at the SPJ conference in Columbus on Saturday.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Newspaper journalism, 2009

I'm in Columbus today, with five of my colleagues from the Sandusky Register, attending the Spring Conference 2009 of the Society of Professional Journalists.
Aside from the breakfast and lunch sessions, there are six program items. Five deal with the Internet, with one program on blogging and others dealing with various Net topics. The sixth item covers how to deal with layoffs, downsizing and "your next career move."
I seem to recall that when I went to these things in the 1980s, they used to deal with writing for a daily newspaper, one that was printed on paper.
(Cross posted at Jackson Street Beat.)

Monday, March 30, 2009

Roger Zelazny's new book -- three surprises

Three interesting facts about the new Roger Zelazny novel, "The Dead Man's Brother," published a few weeks ago:

(1) It's a surprise, first of all, to see this title in print at all, as Roger Zelazny died in 1995. A couple of his books were completed by his girlfriend, Jane Lindskold, after he died, but I had no idea there was a completed novel out there until I saw this title in Poisoned Pen bookstore in Scottsdale, Arizona.

It's not that unusual for even a successful writer to have unpublished novels. There are two or three unpublished George Alec Effinger novels that may never come out, barring a sudden revival of interest in his work.

(2) A bigger surprise is that "The Dead Man's Brother" is so good. This isn't "To Die in Italbar" or even "Jack of Shadows." It is a top flight Zelazny novel, crackling with wit and literary allusions, colorful and thoughtful. Trent Zelazny, the author's son, estimates in an afterward that the book was written "around 1970 or 1971." It's amazing that a book this good has gone unpublished for more than three decades.

(3) Finally, although this book is marketed as a mystery, it does have a science fiction element. The hero, Ovid Wiley, has been determined by scientists to be difficult to kill, i.e. they have used statistics to determine that a certain number of individuals can be determined to be "lucky" in surviving plane crashes, assaults by hit men, etc. This quality of Wiley's plays an important part in the plot. He's not another immortal Zelazny protagonist, but he is certainly less than mortal.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Prometheus Award nominations announced

Movie lovers have the Academy Awards, music fans have the Grammys, readers have the Pulitzers. Science fiction fans such as myself have their awards, too.
One of the awards given out in science fiction is called the Prometheus. Its list of 2008 novels nominated for the award was announced today. (Disclosure: I am one of the judges who worked on the list).
The books are:
“Matter” by Iain Banks;
“Little Brother,” Cory Doctorow;
“The January Dancer,” Michael Flynn;
“Saturn’s Children,” Charles Stross;
“Opening Atlantis,” Harry Turtledove;
“Half a Crown,” Jo Walton.
More information here.
The Prometheus, given to science fiction novels that promote the cause of freedom, are not the biggest award in science fiction. At best, it’s like the Golden Globe. The top award, the equivalent of the Oscars, are called the Hugo Awards, and the novel nominees for the award were announced a few days ago.
The Hugo nominees are:
“Anathem,” Neal Stephenson;
“The Graveyard Book,” Neil Gaiman;
“Little Brother,” Cory Doctorow;
“Saturn’s Children,” Charles Stross;
“Zoe’s Tale,” John Scalzi.
I have read all of these books except for the Gaiman and the Stross. I especially recommend the books by Banks, Doctorow, Stephenson and Flynn.
(Cross posted at Jackson Street Beat).

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Getting computer advice

(Another Internet column for my former newspaper, The Lawton Constitution).

My first computer was a Commodore 64 that my sister gave me when she bought her first IBM computer.
It sat on my desk for months because I had never used a personal computer before, and I assumed that I would not be smart enough to figure out how to put it together and make it run. I finally worked up the courage to hook up the cables and components.
I discovered I could get the thing to run. I then discovered that playing with it was fun, and started attending the meetings of the local Commodore users group.
My point is I didn't always write a computer column. Everyone has to start somewhere, and even people who know quite a bit about computers can learn more.
The Internet is a great place to learn about computers, whether you are a novice who barely knows what a "mouse" is or a sophisticated techie who puts together his own distributions of Linux as a hobby.
People who don't know much about computers and need help with basic tasks while running Windows programs should look at the Computer Lady site run by Elizabeth Boston at She offers two free e-mail newsletters, "Ask the Computer Lady" and "Computer Lady Lessons."
More sophisticated users are the target audience for Lifehacker (, a blog that concentrates on offering computer advice but also provides tips on many other topics, including diet and personal finance. Much of its advice can be used by anyone, but its detailed tutorials on Linux are aimed at computer nerds.
The blog makes good use of article tags. Visitors can browse the archives for a specific topic, and can subscribe to all posts about a particular interest. For example, you can follow all the posts about cell phones.
Most computer advice sites fall somewhere between these two. They are aimed at people who already know something about computers but are not experts.
Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal is a genuine expert, but he makes a conscious effort to write for ordinary computer users. His columns and advice appear in the Journal, but all of his articles, and the articles written by a sidekick named Katherine Boehret, are available free on the Internet at
If you are planning to buy a desktop computer, laptop computer or digital camera, I suggest checking out Mossberg's buyer's guide.
All Things Digital frequently has articles about useful Web sites; currently the site has articles about an online college guide and a site for home buyers.
Lately, I'm convinced one of the best things about The New York Times ( is the free "Circuits" e-mail. Last week's issue had a great article, "Low-Tech Fixes for High-Tech Problems" by Paul Boutin. Google it to find out how to make credit card swipes work, how to keep your cellphone battery from losing its charge so quickly, what to do if you drop a cell phone in the toilet, and so on.
Mediamaster shutting down. One of my favorite music sites, MediaMaster (, is closing down.
The site allowed users to upload music files and then play them from any computer with an Internet connection. No date was announced for the shutdown, but I assume it will be gone soon.
"It was a good time, but not good enough to make a business from in the current world," the owners said.
MediaMaster's blog suggests that music fans try or I'll take a look at those sites soon and write about them here.
Jazz sites. I'm a big jazz fan, but I have had trouble finding jazz Web sites that would inspire me to pay a repeat visit.
Beckey Bright of the Wall Street Journal, however, has found some good jazz blogs for her column, "Blog Watch." Rifftides ( is written by author Doug Ramsey. Do The Math ( is written by Ethan Iverson of the group, The Bad Plus. Straight No Chaser ( by Jeffrey Siegel also seems to cover the jazz scene well. I've added all three blogs to my Google Reader subscriptions (
The Wall Street Journal is a paid Web site, but "Blog Watch" apparently is included among the free content (

Sunday, March 15, 2009

A new Zelazny novel

Yes, you read that right. The late, great Roger Zelazny died in 1995, but a new Zelazny novel, "The Dead Man's Brother," has just been published.

I've had Roger Zelazny on my mind a lot lately. I live in the Cleveland area, where Zelazny orginally was from, and I've been wondering which Zelazny book I should read next. (I've read many of them, but not all of them.) I'm on vacation in Arizona, and I was astounded when I went to the Poisoned Pen, a mystery bookstore in Scottsdale, and found "The Dead Man's Brother" on a display table, with the words "first publication anywhere" on the front cover.

It's a mystery novel he apparently wrote around 1970 or 1971, when he was writing science fiction mystery novels such as "My Name Is Legion." The afterword by his son, Trent Zelazny, says the book was discovered by Zelazny's agent.

It's published as a "Hard Case Crime" book, a cheap paperback available for $7. I haven't had time to read it yet and find out if it's any good, but at this point it feels like an unexpected gift.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

My 'Black History Month' column

Belatedly, here is the Internet column I wrote for Black History Month.

We are in the middle of Black History Month. I've tried to write about that in past columns, when I could find a site interesting enough to make that worthwhile.
This would seem to be one of those times, because the Smithsonian Institution has mounted a Virtual Heritage Tour on African American History.
The tour is an online exhibit of various objects in the Smithsonian's collection that relate to black history and culture. Visit it here
One thing I liked about the tour was that navigating around it was so easy. There are different ways to browse the site, none of them wrong. Clicking on "Timeline" and "Explore Objects" at the top of the page worked, but so did clicking on little icons of the objects themselves at the bottom of the page.
The exhibit seems to be aimed at children, although there's enough substance to keep the attention of adults. As I clicked on each, I could read a brief caption and hear a brief audio lecture.
Lawton's former Congressman, J.C. Watts, played a role in creating what will be the new National Museum of African-American History and Culture, which will likely be another wonderful Smithsonian museum in Washington, D.C. You can find out how the museum is coming along by going to
I downloaded document from the site that told me an architect for the new museum is supposed to be selected in April. The estimated start of construction is in 2012, with the museum to be finished by 2015.
Weather alerts. In light of the tornado damage at Lone Grove, it seems timely to remind everyone that the state government offers weather alerts at
Notifications are available for winter weather, flash flood, severe thunderstorms and tornadoes. The alerts can be sent as e-mails or as text messages to your cell phone.
Love me, love my pet? I should have gotten around to mentioning this site before Valentine's Day. Oh well. Date My Pet ( is a site that aims to unite dog and cat lovers. Visitors can browse the site for photos of owners and their pets.
Visiting college campuses. If someone in your family is trying to figure out where to go to college, point that person to Campus Tours (, which offers virtual tours (or least links to home pages) for many different colleges across the U.S.
Customizing your signature. Like many people, I run all of my e-mail through my Gmail account. It means I can check all of my e-mail in one place, rather than three different places.
But I've had one complaint about Gmail. The signature I use for my work address (promoting my newspaper's Web site) is not the one I wanted to use for my personal e-mail. Gmail only lets me create one signature, but I needed two. I wanted a personal sig to promote my personal blog site.
Wisestamp ( is an extension for the Firefox Web browser that lets me create different business and personal signatures, and quickly choose one when composing an e-mail.
(Tom Jackson wants to hear about interesting Southwest Oklahoma Web sites and blogs, and sites that his readers find interesting or useful. Write to him at

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Philip Jose Farmer dies

One of my favorite old science fiction writers, Philip Jose Farmer, has died. I fell in love with his writing when I was a teenager and for awhile I collected everything by him that I could. I have given up most of those books by now, but I remained fond of him. Some of my favorites: the first two "Riverworld" books, the "World of Tiers" series, his novella "Riders of the Purple Wage," the collection "The Book of Philip Jose Farmer."

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Gary Farber, your Internet cause of the day

Gary Farber, the well-known blogger (and also a longtime member of SF fandom) has been booted off Facebook. Details here. If you are not a spammer or a troublemaker -- and Gary is not -- this is kind of cruel, as Facebook is a useful tool for keeping up with friends. If you are on Facebook, please consider joining the group, "Why Has Gary Farber's Account Been Disabled? Please Explain and Reverse!"

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Gmail adds offline feature

(My latest Internet column for my old newspaper, The Lawton Constitution).

I've long been a fan of Webmail services such as Gmail and Yahoo Mail.
I change Internet providers all the time, but I've been able to keep the same e-mail addresses for years. Someone who writes to me using an e-mail address that's five years old will likely get me.
There's one disadvantage to using Webmail. You can't use it when you are disconnected from the Internet. You can use an e-mail program such as Outlook Express with Gmail and other Webmail services, but you can't use the service itself.
Until now. Gmail has just launched a new service, allowing its users to work with their Gmail even when disconnected from the Internet. It seems very promising, although it still has a few bugs.
The offline version of Gmail works by loading a Google software program called Google Gears, which is an add-on for the browser you use to look at Internet sites.
Google Gears can be used with both Internet Explorer and Firefox. It allows users to save information for Google applications so that they can still use them when you aren't connected to the Internet.
Google Gears was deployed first for Google Reader, Google's online tool for reading blogs. It then made Google Docs available offline. (Google Docs at is an online office suite that allows users to create or read text documents, spread sheets or slide shows from any computer connected to the Internet.)
Using Google Gears for Gmail only started a few days ago.
To try offline Gmail, click on "Settings" when you are logged into your account, then click "Labs," where Gmail keeps new, experimental features. Click "enable" for Offline, then click "Offline" while you are in your Inbox.
Google will walk you through what you need to do. It will put a Gmail icon on your desktop, which you'll click to log in to your e-mail when you are not connected to the Internet.
You can read your messages offline, compose new messages and do anything else you would normally do while connected to the Internet. Then, when you connect again, what you did offline will be synchronized with your online Google account.
It took Google awhile to figure out how to use Google Gears with Gmail, despite the obvious demand for offline e-mail, and there are still a few bugs with the service. When I tried it the first time, the offline feature someone got switched off, and I had to enable it for my account again. I've also encountered delays trying to synchronize my account, even when I appear to have a good Internet connection.
I generally have the Internet connected all the time at work and at home, but the offline service would be useful when I know I can't be connected for awhile — when I'm on a plane, for example. It would also be a way to "get by" for people who are on the road or can't afford an Internet service. You could work on your mail offline, then synchronize when you go to the library or a coffee shop.
It does work, but if you want a service that works flawlessly, it might be a good idea to wait a few months for Google to get the bugs squeezed out.
File storage. Speaking of Gmail, here's a simple idea for file storage. E-mail documents you want to store online to your Gmail account, and you have an archive that's searchable. You also have an online storage site that's unlikely to disappear soon. (XDrive, a free online storage stie that was run by AOL, shut down last month.)
I got the idea from an author named Susan Wise Bauer who is writing a history of the world in several volumes. She mentioned in her blog that she backed up the first volume by e-mailing copies of the chapters to her Gmail account.
Watching the lawmakers. The Oklahoma Legislature has just begun its new session. You can track the bills you are interested in by going to (Or go to and follow the bill tracking link.)


Friday, February 13, 2009

New version of AntiX Linus released

One of the best reasons for using Linux is that it can make an old computer useful again. The light versions of Linux use the latest version of the operating system and have the applications you need, but use window managers that run faster on an old computer than the latest version of Windows or Ubuntu.

My wife has given me an old IBM Thinkpad 600X for my birthday (256 MB of memory, 12 GB hard drive) and I've already installed my favorite light Linux distro, AntiX Linux (the light version of Mepis Linux). A new version was just released today. As with past versions of AntiX, it appears to have many more applications right 'out of the box' than other light distros, and installing it was fast and easy.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Tourism in Madagascar not for wimps

My brother-in-law, Kevin Kerns of Kent, Ohio, has a degree in biology. He is in the middle of a several week trip to Madagascar, a large island off the coast of Africa, looking at the animals and plants. Kevin tells me that the flora and fauna is very interesting, more akin to what's found in Asia than in Africa.

Since he's arrived, two people have been struggling for control of the country, and at least 25 people were shot dead outside of the presidential palace over the weekend. Here's Kevin's e-mail, sent to us Monday:

Wow! Just unbelievable! I've been in El Salvador and Guatemala during their civil wars and in Nicaragua just after the Contra counter-revolutionary war. Those were some screwed up countries. But Mada beats them all hands down!

The Malagasy people are known for their politeness and orderly lines. They don't raise their voices or show visible anger. But through their history they have been known to erupt and lash out.

Just as I was flying out to the most remote part of Mada, the mayor of Antananarivo decided to make a coup attempt against the president who had dismissed parliament. The people erupted with looting, burning and killing in the two largest cities: Antananarivo and Toamasina.

Fortunately I was in a part of Mada that was unaffected except for bank closures and canceled domestic air flights. I'm fine but I've seen the roughest travel that I've ever seen in my entire life.

If any of you have four wheeler ATVs and can't find places to ride them, I've got good news for you. Mada has hundreds, thousands of miles of the wild roads (no these aren't roads). Bring plenty of spare parts though: Tires, axles, wheel hubs, gas cans, tools because you'll need them. While you're at it you'll need to hire porters to carry (I'm not kidding) your ATV or moto across some really rough stretches.

Land transport here is by a vehicle called a taxi-brousse. It's usually a midsize Toyota pickup with extra heavy suspension, modified double 4-wheel drive transmissions. The beds are then welded shut and then a steel frame is welded around it to make a heavy duty conestoga type cargo vehicle. They load these things with thousands of pounds of freight: Mostly agricultural goods and crops. After the freight is loaded in go the people: Three in front, four or five on a bench seat behind the driver, and as many as fourteen in the cargo area.

Now come the roads! The Route Nationale Nu. 5 would be hard for a horse. Nothing can get through this but taxi-brousse - and only if it's dry. It often isn't. At best you achieve top speeds of ten mph. More often it's walking speed. As a matter of fact you frequently have to get out and walk because of the danger of flipping, getting stuck, or careening onto the rear wheels. Often one of the two front wheels leave the ground for distances of two to four meters.

The ruts can be eight feet (not exaggerating) deep. You drive over boulders, around washed out bridges, and through holes that would swallow in one bite a regular car. The road south of Mananara, where I flew, takes twenty or thirty hours to trasverse a distance of about 100 miles. Inside the Taxi-brousse passengers hang onto whatever they can for this entire journey or they ride standing on the rear bumper. That sounds fun untile after about thirty minutes your arms are so fatigued you can't hold on. It is physically punishing!

Once I rode this thing back from the south on a return to Mananara. I expected to get in and see some very grumpy and exhausted people. To my utter amazement these Malagasy were singing and joking like they'd only been in it for twenty minutes, not twenty hours.

South of Mananara I visited a park called Mananara Nord which protects one of the very last lowland rainforests left in Mada. Its a UNESCO World Heritage site. I didn't see many animals but the half day of hiking through the rainforest was stunning. The water thqt runs from streams here you can drink without treating - just delicious.

The political situation mens that internal flights are delayed or cancelled so I had to take (you guessed it) a taxi-brousse to Maroantsetra which is a town on the inside of that thumblike peninsula on the Mada northeast coast. Our ride, two taxi-brousse, and thirty some passengers had to wait eight and a half hours to leave. We had to time the tides!

The route is fairly flat north of Mananara but there is lots of loose sand and several rivers. On every river crossing we had to all get out and walk. There were a couple ferries but most big crossings were done on rafts. That's right, they would put the vehicles on rafts and use poles to push the raft across the rivers. Mostly, the rafts were big enough. On some crossings low tide left a brief time window where the taxis could just race through the river but loose sand on the banks made pulling each other out a necessity. These were the good crossings.

The remaining bridges were made of local timber and many were collapsed. After dark the taxis would illuminate bridges with only a few single planks left so we could balance our way across in the dark. Then the taxi-brousse operators would take pieces of what was left of these collapsed bridges and rebuild by hand in the dark the first portion of the bridge.

They'd then drive the vehicles onto the bridge. You could hear the wood breaking and snapping and occasionally the headlights would move as a wheel dropped through. Then they'd disassemble the bridge from behind the taxi, carry it in front, and create new(?) bridge to continue. They did this three times. It was simply amazing - and sheer lunacy!

I made it to Maroantsetra to see the last extensive jungle left in Mada, Parc Nationale Masoula. The problem with banks owing to the political unrest meant however that I was beginning to run low on cash. This is a big area. It's very remote and rugged. To do things here means cash - lots of it because you need to hire boat transport everywhere. You also have to hire compulsory guides in all Mada parks.

Three or four days of taxi-brousse was a non-starter. Air travel was suspended until further notice. This must be Africa! The only option was to walk 63 miles north to the town of Antalaha. At least I would see a small portion of the Masoula wilderness this way. But missing doing major portions of it is the single largest disappointment of my trip here. The Masoula really had caught my imagination.

I hired the obligatory guide and we set off. First was an hour long trip by dugout canoe through swamp areas and then by foot for the next sixty miles.
The Masoula wilderness was always within sight but we only skirted small parts of it. Nevertheless I was grateful to be there even if from afar.

The first day was short and we stayed in villages of palm thatch and woven bamboo. The next two days we covered 25 miles each day. Major portions were spent climbing boulders and crossing rivers. It was really tough going. I'm a pretty tough hiker. Ask anyone who's been out in the woods with me. But this was about pain. My feet were always wet and after such abuse they were in shreds by the time we finished. I was one of the fastest trekkers my guide (his name is Ramiandry) had ever been with.

I'm back in civilization, such as it his here in Mada, with recovering feet and relative comfort in a place called Sambava on the northern northeast coast. I look forward to writing again.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Munger on the stimulus bill

Here's a wonderful interview with Duke professor Michael Munger on what's wrong with the stimulus bill. (Via his Kids Prefer Cheese, one of my favorite blogs. The other guy who blogs there is pretty great, too.)

Saturday, February 07, 2009

The Cramps' lead singer dies

Lux Interior, lead singer of new wave rockabilly band The Cramps, died Wednesday at age 62 in Glendale, Calif., from a heart condition.

I saw the Cramps perform in Norman, Oklahoma, shortly after I was out of college (it would have been 1978, 79, 80, something like that.) I thought they were one of the best concerts I'd ever attended. The line consisted of Interior on lead vocals, two beautiful women who played rockabilly electric guitar (one of them his wife, Poison Ivy), and a drummer. The few records I ran across by the band left me a little underwhelmed, but it sure was a great show.

My friend Brett Cox loved the records, too, and he has a nice appreciation here, with useful video links.

Lux Interior was from Stow, a city near Cleveland where my sister and her family used to live. The Cleveland Plain Dealer's John Petkovic has a nice article about Interior here, with interesting information about the band and its Cleveland roots.
Doctorow's outstanding 'Little Brother'

I've been reading novels that have been nominated for the Prometheus Award, the literary award for science fiction handed out by the Libertarian Futurist Society. I'm on the committee that's charged with sifting through the nominees (13 so far, I think) and coming up with a list of five or so for a finalist ballot that the general membership will vote on.

I've just finished Cory Doctorow's "Little Brother," one of the nominees. It's a really fine book, one of the best books I've read in months, and I recommended it to anyone who wants to read a good novel, learn about Internet and computer technology as it relates to privacy, or is concerned about civil liberties and politics. It was written for the young adult market, but it's really a book for everyone. Everyone else on the committee seems to like it, too; at the very least, I think it's almost surely going to be a finalist.

The book also includes an afterword by Bruce Schneier, who also contributed an afterword to one of my other favorite books, "Cryptonomicon" by Neal Stephenson, which was a finalist for the Prometheus some years ago.

Doctorow at his Web site is his usual mix of rampant egomania and breathtaking generosity. He has a post urging everyone to nominate him for the Hugo Award for his latest batch of fiction. He also has free downloads for "Little Brother" and a new book of essays, "Content," which I'll tackle when I finish the various Prometheus Award nominees.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Internet column: Spiralfrog

(I've decided to start reprinting the Internet column I write for The Lawton Constitution here on my personal blog, as a courtesy to readers who have trouble finding past issues of the column. Here's the first one:)

Any site that offers tons of free music can't be all bad.
I am referring to, a site that despite offering plenty of music has generally earned bad reviews because of its use of DRM, or Digital Rights Management technology, which seeks to prevent pirating but also limits what honest users can do.
I am not a big fan of DRM, either, and I found it prevented me from doing everything I wanted to do with SpiralFrog. Nontheless, I am rooting for SpiralFrog to succeed. I hope it survives the current economic downturn and I urge you to give it a try. resembles services such as Napster-To-Go, Yahoo Music Unlimited or Rhapsody. All of the latter are subscription services. In return for paying a modest monthly fee, the user can "borrow" a huge number of music tracks, downloading and playing them on a computer or an MP3 player. As long as you are paying the monthly fee, the songs work. If you quit paying, you lose the music., however, is supported by advertising and is free. As long as you log in once every 60 days, its service continues.
Now, here's the bad news. SpiralFrog works only with Windows XP or Vista, so if you use Macintosh or Linux computers or an older form of Windows, it won't work. You have to have a recent version of Windows Media Player on your computer. And if you want to be able to put the tracks on a portable music player, you have to use one that uses Microsoft's "Plays for Sure" technology. SpiralFrog won't work with the iPod or the Zune.
I signed up for SpiralFrog and downloaded a couple of albums. I found they played fine on my computer. But when I tried to transfer them to one of my MP3 players, I only got error messages.
Admitted, my rather cheap players aren't on SpiralFrog's list of compatible devices. But the site says that's only a partial list, and I thought one of my players, compatible with Windows, should have worked.
I was all set to write a bad review of SpiralFrog. But you know what? That classic Tom Petty album I missed, "Let Me Up I've Had Enough," sounded fine on my computer.
And when I searched for other artists, I found SpiralFrog has a truly impressive music library. There's lots of Tom Petty, including many entire albums. There's plenty of Rolling Stones. There's a good deal of jazz and classical.
Whatever kind of music you like, you can find it here. The country section includes George Strait, Lee Ann Womack, Keith Urban, Rascal Flatts, Willie Nelson, Toby Keith and many others. There's no Beatles, but lots of Paul McCartney, including live albums in which he plays many Beatles songs. There are gaps -- no Brad Paisley albums, and the many Miles Davis albums seem to be limited to his 1950s period -- but what's available is more impressive than what's missing.
And I found that although the music only played on my computer, a little creativity would allow it to be heard in other parts of the house. I plugged an FM transmitter into the headphone jack of my computer -- one of those little devices designed to let your MP3 player broadcast on a car radio or anything else with an FM tuner -- and I found I could listen to SpiralFrog albums in my bedroom. if I used my best radio.
If you have the kind of computer (and the kind of portable device) that SpiralFrog allows, give the site a try.
More music. Here are a few of my favorite music sites, all of which work with a wide variety of computers. Imeem streams music only rather than allowing free downloads, and it does not seem to have many entire albums. But it has an awful lot of songs and you can put together playlists. It works fine on Macintosh as well as Windows computers.
Slacker is an awesome collection of Internet radio stations; if you don't like any it offers, you can build your own. It's meant to sell an apparently cool portable music device, but works fine as a free offering on your computer.
MediaMaster will stream any music you upload, to any computer. It's another free service and works well, although it says that someday it will charge a fee.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

'Hyperion' novels to be filmed

Variety is reporting that the two Dan Simmons "Hyperion" novels, "Hyperion" and "Hyperion Cantos," are being made into a movie to be directed by Scott Derrickson.

Initial reaction seems to be negative, but I think the "Hyperion" books and the "Endymion" sequels are a great SF epic, one of the best works of fiction ever produced in SF. Any attention a movie could draw to those books would seem to be a good thing.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Hey, shouldn't the losers get the prizes?

The Shirley Jackson Award, an award that honors top horror and suspense stories, is raising money with an appropriate vehicle: A lottery!

This is a lottery you'll want to win, though, if you're a horror fan, because it means you get various nifty stuff, including books autographs by the likes of Neil Gaiman, the right to have a character named after you disemboweled by devils in an upcoming literary work, etc.

You can get all of the details you need by clicking here. Because remember, on the Internet, everyone is just a stone's throw away.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

'We'll always have Burris'

Any "Casablanca" fans out there? Don't miss "Best of the Web" blogger James Taranto's rewrite of the romantic final scene of Casablanca, with former Gov. Rod Blagojevich standing in for Humphrey Bogart's character. (Skip down to the dialogue).

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Are you a libertarian? A test you can't fail

If you lean libertarian, you are probably familiar with the World's Smallest Political Quiz, designed for newbies to figure out if they are libertarians, too.

I recently ran across the Libertarian Purity Test, by Bryan Caplan, which seems aimed at promoting a more generous view of libertarianism. The answer key is amusing. I scored in the 60s. The answer key says, "51-90 points: You are a medium-core libertarian, probably self-consciously so. Your friends probably encourage you to quit talking about your views so much."

Caplan, by the way, is the guy who wrote "The Myth of the Rational Voter."

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Adolf Hitler, bookworm

I’ve always been kind of a bookworm. When I have free time when I’m off duty, as often as not I have my nose buried in a book. I know many of the people at the Sandusky Library by sight.

So it’s a little disappointing to learn that Adolf Hitler was kind of that way, too. The New York Times has an interesting review of the new book “Hitler’s Private Library” by Timothy Ryback.

At the end of a long day of work, Adolf liked nothing better than to kick back with a “steaming pot of tea” and a book in his study. A photograph from the book shows him posed in front of a bookshelf in his apartment. The only personal possessions Russian soldiers found in his Berlin bunker at world’s end were dozens of books.

I suppose the book proves what we already know — that what's scary about the world's monsters is the way they seem just like the rest of us.

Jo Walton's excellent novel, "Ha'Penny," about an alternate world in which Britain makes a separate peace with Germany, includes a scene that depicts Hitler as charming. Last November on her blog, Walton answered questions from readers about her "Small Change" books, including "Ha'Penny," and I remarked about the portrayal of Hitler.

Walton replied, "Hitler really did have attractive qualities. The way I describe him is based on how many British and American people writing about meeting him in the thirties described him. If he'd been a visible monster radiating evil, people wouldn't have followed him in the first place. You read Diana Mosley's letters and she says things like 'Poor dear Hitler.' And you read that and the cognitive dissonance is quite astounding, because the way history has painted him after the fact you can't quite imagine that anyone could ever have spoken about him in that tone of voice. Yet if you let him be a monster, and uniquely evil and all that, it makes it much safer, because you'd recognise a monster, wouldn't you, you couldn't be taken in by one? Part of what I was doing with these books was showing where the monster is in us."

Addendum: Off topic, but topical, Jo Walton remembers Donald Westlake. (Via Supergee).

Monday, January 05, 2009

Prometheus Hall of Fame nominees announced

About a year ago, I joined the Libertarian Futurist Society, a group that exists mainly to present two annual literary awards for science fiction works concerned with liberty: The Prometheus Award, for the best novel published the year before, and the Prometheus Hall of Fame Award, for a classic.

During last year's awards, I simply voted for the nominees in each category, but for 2009, I've been allowed to serve on the two judging committees. The Prometheus Award nominees won't be announced until next spring, but the Hall of Fame panel has finished its work and come up with six nominees.

They are:

  • Falling Free, a novel by Lois McMaster Bujold (1988);
  • Courtship Rite, a novel by Donald M. Kingsbury (1982);
  • "As Easy as A.B.C.," a short story by Rudyard Kipling (1912);
  • The Lord of the Rings, a three-volume novel by J. R. R. Tolkien (1955);
  • The Once and Future King, including The Book of Merlyn, a novel by T. H. White (1977); and
  • The Golden Age, a novel by John C. Wright (2002).
I think it's a strong batch of nominees.

There are three works that weren't on the ballot last year, and I really like two of them, including Courtship Rite, about a planet with few natural resources that practices cannibalism and group marriage. Sounds off-putting, I know, but it's a very interesting and original novel. The John Wright is a kind of far-future libertarian utopia; the conflict comes from a struggle by the hero to build and pilot an interstellar spaceship. His peaceful society believes establishing colonies on other star systems could reintroduce war. Wright is a very philosophical writer, with a style obviously influenced by Jack Vance. The Bujold, also new to the "Hall of Fame" ballot, isn't terrible, but it's not particularly interesting, either.

Official announcement is here.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Scott Adams' war on Amazon

My main Christmas gift this year was the new Dilbert book, "Dilbert 2.0."

I haven't had time to read it yet, but I know I'll love it. It's a very large collection of Dilbert comic strips, plus a DVD of every Dilbert strip published so far over 20 years, and there's a long introduction on how Adams creates Dilbert.

So, it's good news for Dilbert fans. But I can't see how it can be good news for Amazon, where my wife ordered the book. It's a very large, heavy book -- I can't fit it in any of my bookshelves. I'll have to find out whether I can sell my spouse on putting it on the coffee table.

Amazon loses two ways. First, the book is heavily discounted. And second, the free shipping must be a killer for a book so large and heavy. If we read in a few weeks that Amazon suffered unexpected losses during the holiday season, I'll blame Scott Adams.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

"Lost" Cheap Trick

If they remember Cheap Trick at all, most people remember the band for their early, commercially-successful albums, e.g. "At Budokan" or "Dream Police." But although they fell out of critical and commercial favor, many of their later albums are quite good. Some are not so good, admittedly, but "Music for Hangovers" is a great live album, and fine complement to "Budokan."

"Woke Up With a Monster" (1994) is a pretty good. It's produced by Ted Templeman, the producer who discovered Van Halen and made them into stars, and the album sounds as if Templeman is trying to turn the band into a typical 1980s hard rock band. The thing is (as a character in a book I just read, Kate Atkinson's "When Will There Be Good News?" is wont to say), Templeman has a lot to work with. There's no better hard rock singer than Robin Zander, and Rick Nielsen is a fine hard rock guitarist. It's a cheap album, too; it's available on Emusic.