Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Wall Street Journal Reviews Kano, MOSS, and Little Bits

I posted this at Facebook (remember when Facebook had a character limit for status updates? That so didn't work for me). And then thought I might as well post it here as well.

I wrote a long review of MOSS Robotics back in July.

Here's the Wall Street Journal Article, Tech Toys to Make Children Smarter, which is a terrible title.

And here are my comments on it:

The Wall Street Journal reviews Kano, MOSS Robotics, and Little Bits. Because of the kind of person I am, we have all three of these things.

I'd add, or emphasize, that Kano is beautifully designed, and putting it together and following the on-screen animations to set it up is amazing. Once it's together, though, it's got a processor that is slower than anything the children of the 21st century have ever encountered before, leading to multiple instances of us sitting around wondering if it's crashed while waiting for it to load a webpage or finish a process. The Tiny Tornado loved the idea of having his own computer, but switches to a device with a faster processor whenever he has the chance, and now hasn't fired up his Kano for awhile. I suspect the market for Kano is families like ours, that have access to other computers and buy this low-cost computer kit to enhance their kids' experience, which makes me think TT's story isn't unique. If you had a kid very committed to programming already, Kano might work great for them. But there are a lot of programming resources that are awesome, cheaper or free, and run on a tablet or the computer you've already got.

The kids in the review had the same problem we had with MOSS Robotics: the instructions are very difficult to follow, and the robots fall apart. All the time. Over and over and over again.

Finally, when they tried Little Bits, they got to a problem I think is pretty well ubiquitous with these kinds of toys and gadgets: to really unlock the power, users need to start thinking independently, trying their own ideas, using them not as a kit with instructions to be followed but as a tool for making their own creations. But not everybody's minds work like that, and a lot of kids need plenty of guidance to make the change. As much as these things market themselves as easy-to-use, they really have a heck of a learning curve.

Friday, December 12, 2014

I'm Not Bad, I'm Just Drawn That Way: Hawkeye In the Comics

I used to read comics regularly back in the 80s, primarily The Uncanny X-Men. I was eventually driven out of the fandom by tie-ins with other series, like Spider-man or Iron Man, which required you to buy other comics in order to keep up with your story. When it got to the point that I was having to buy 3-5 comics a month in order to follow the X-Men (and yes, I had to, because I am a completist with an OCD diagnosis) my resentment and limited college-student budget overcame my affection for the comics, and I quit.

I'm amused to see that the comics that were driving me into the poor house cost 65 cents each:


My partner Raider was a serious collector in his childhood and youth; our basement still contains longbox upon longbox of DC Universe comics, each individually stored in a protective plastic sleeve.

So, when the Marvel Cinematic Universe became a thing, we were right there. Not only are Raider and I long-time sci-fi fans with fond memories of our comics-reading days, but we have three kids who love that stuff, too. The opening of a Marvel movie is a family event for us, one that Raider and I celebrate with more sincere enthusiasm than any other, including Christmas and Easter.

Because I always want more of a good thing, it was inevitable that I would discover fanfiction, and then, eventually, looking for something else we could share as a family, would look into the comics. So a week or two ago, I brought home Hawkeye: My Life as a Weapon from the library. 



This is a trade paperback collection of issues 1-5 of the recent Hawkeye standalone comics, as well as one issue of Young Avengers Present which features Hawkeye. Here's the intro:

Clint Barton, aka Hawkeye, became the greatest sharpshooter known to man. He then joined the Avengers. This is what he does when he's not being an Avenger. That's all you need to know.
All six issues collected in My Life as a Weapon were written by Matt Fraction, and I like Fraction's take on the character. Clint's good-hearted but impulsive; he never thinks things through, and it lands him in trouble. He's a bit hapless. He owns a crappy apartment building in Brooklyn because the old landlords were raising rents and planning to evict his neighbors, so he bought it. He has a one-eyed pizza-eating dog named Lucky because he can't stop helping; when he sees Lucky hit by a car, he takes him to the vet, and then home.

One story line starts with him deciding it's time to organize his trick arrows; he's got them all spread out in his living room when he discovers he doesn't have any tape for labeling them. He heads out to buy tape, ends up impulsively buying a car then impulsively sleeping with the women who sold him the car, who of course ends up kidnapped because this is a comic book. Ultimately, he and Kate Bishop end up fighting a battle with his unlabeled trick arrows, so they don't know what any given arrow will do until they shoot it ("Oh, hey, explosion!").


I like this Clint, though I understand it's enough of a departure from previous versions of the characters that some long-time fans have been unhappy with it.

But that's not what I wanted to talk about.

I want to talk about how the characters are drawn. The first three comics in this collection are drawn by an artist named David Aja; the next two by Javier Pulido; and the Young Avengers Presents issue is drawn by Alan Davis.

I was really liking Aja's way of drawing the characters. His Clint is a pretty regular-looking guy, not much broader in the shoulders than in the hips. Kate Bishop is a regular-ish teenage girl in both her dress and her build. They both spend most of their time in jeans and t-shirts. We get a bit of Naked Clint because he's the kind of guy who finds himself unexpectedly unclothed and without transportation, but Aja gives us absolutely no Kate cleavage or butt shots. Aja doesn't seem interested in drawing characters with the kinds of exaggerated physical features you tend to associate with comics. So you get characters who look more-or-less like people. A very narrow selection of people, sure, but people nonetheless:





I hadn't been paying attention to the artist, until I got into Issue 4 and things looked different. Apparently Clint's been really hitting the gym because his shoulders are now way bigger than his hips. If the David Aja Clint is a guy you'd see on the street and think, "nice-looking guy," Javier Pulido's Clint is going to make you think, "Whoa, that dude is built!"


Meanwhile, poor Kate Bishop gets a really bad case of Cartoon Girl Face, complete with Jessica Rabbit lips and ridiculous eyebrows:


And this is what she now looks like in a t-shirt and jeans:



Everything is just that bit exaggerated: big eyes and lips, tiny waist, breasts! and curvy hips on Kate, and Weightlifter Triangle Torso on Clint. Kate is also a lot shorter than Clint in Pulido's world, whereas you can see that Aja drew them within a few inches of each other. He's bigger and she's smaller, because the things that supposedly make a man a man and a woman a woman are being emphasized here.

Meanwhile, the less said about the action figures and Barbie dolls who populate Young Avengers Presents, the better:


There's been a lot of talk in the last couple of years about the way women are drawn in the comics, with a particular emphasis on physically-impossible poses women contort themselves into so they can show off their breasts and their butts at the same time. Who knew Wonder Woman was an invertebrate? It's the only possible explanation for this:


This little collection of six comic books are a good demonstration of greater variety than that, which suggests that artists aren't just following convention when they draw mostly-naked women with painted-on costumes, but making a choice. David Aja shows that different choices are possible. Pulido's got more stylized cartoonish style, which shows not only in characters' features and body shapes but in how they move and interact as well, as you can see in the body language in this panel:


But I'd argue that a cartoonier style doesn't require sexing things up. I find myself wishing artists were thinking about these things more, and making better choices.

The upshot of all of this is that I've now  read a sum total of six comic books published in the last decade, but I already have a favorite artist. David Aja, whose Clint Barton just can't ever catch a break:


Coincidentally, there's a fan campaign from a couple of years ago that sought to point out the ridiculousness of the way women are drawn in comic: The Hawkeye Initiative.  Artists recreate comics panels with Hawkeye in place of the half-naked buxom warrior women. It's fun to browse.




Wednesday, December 3, 2014

A Long Post About a Long Book: Cryptonomicon

I often find it illuminating to read other people's reviews of books, even if I disagree with them. Sometimes it's just fun to see how someone has read a book very differently than I have, and sometimes it makes me think about the book in a new way.

I'm currently re-reading Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson, something I do every few years because I love it. I don't think it's a perfect book, and I can certainly see the validity of many of the criticisms I hear. I can't fault anyone for not liking Stephenson's style, or for finding his endless digressions tedious rather than charming. If you call Stephenson a "self-indulgent" writer, I can't deny it: Cryptonomicon works for me, but he lost me with his very next book, Quicksilver, which I couldn't get through. So when someone gives Cryptonomicon a one-star review on goodreads because they just couldn't keep reading it, I have no argument with that. My tolerance for Stephenson's shenanigans is just a bit higher then theirs.

On the other hand, there are some criticisms that are so off the mark I can only laugh about them. For instance, someone at goodreads claimed she disliked Cryptonomicon because it was so predictable; she saw the ending coming, she said, from 600 pages away.

I don't believe her.  600 pages from the end, we've barely begun to hear Goto Dengo's story, and don't even know Golgotha exists. And yet somehow she already knows that the book will end with the Epiphyte folks teaming up with Goto Dengo to get the Japanese war gold out of the caves by flooding them with oil and setting it on fire so the melted gold flows out via the river? So predictable, right?

There are also criticisms that may be valid, but seem to me like they might be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. One reviewer at goodreads was extremely offended by what she saw as a pattern of unworthy men being rewarded with the love of hot Asian women, as demonstrated by Bobby Shaftoe's relationship with Glory Altamira, and Randy Waterhouses's with Bobby and Glory's granddaughter America. I don't quite get this, because I think it's a very simplistic reading of both of those relationships. I also think those two relationships are a very small part of a very large book, and that, for me, a problem like that, unless it's much more egregious than what Stephenson has done here, fall under the heading of "liking problematic things," something I do a lot of.

I love Cryptonomicon, for instance, but I think it's tremendously problematic that none of the point-of-view characters are women, for instance. And that the women, however varied they are, are primarily a part of the story because of their relationships with men, and only present in the story when their men are (Glory Altamira is a part of the resistance during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines, which must be a heck of a story, but we only see what happens to her when Bobby's around). And while I don't necessarily agree that Amy Shaftoe is treated as an Asian doll Randy wins as a prize for being a guy the author likes, I do agree that it's hard to believe she'd be interested in Randy, who is a fundamentally passive person whose strengths are a) writing code; b) being in a place with other people without actually interacting with them; and c) going where Avi tells him to go. Randy hot for Amy, who inherited the full measure of Shaftoe competence and adaptability? I believe it in a heartbeat: he's totally looking for someone who will be strong for him. Amy hot for Randy? Ha! Randy is not the only one she reminds of "level-headed blue-collar lesbians he has known, drywall-hanging urban dykes with cats and cross country ski racks."

Then there are bigger criticisms that also seem worth thinking about, things I haven't paid attention to but can't deny are there. Things I can't agree or disagree with without some reflection. For instance:

Another very critical review on goodreads derided the book for being a libertarian fantasy. I have never read the book this way, but this person is not imagining things. Randy's friend and business partner Avi is an increasingly-observant Jew with a perpetually-pregnant wife; he is obsessed with the Holocaust, and his motivation for getting rich is to disseminate the HEAP (Holocaust Education and Avoidance Pod), which includes instructions for making a simple but functional gun. Avi is also, and relatedly, obsessed with privacy and security; he and Randy have this exchange early in the book, when Avi requires a ridiculously long encryption key for their email:
[Randy] has pointed out to Avi, in an encrypted e-mail message, that if every particle of matter in the universe could be used to construct one single cosmic supercomputer, and this computer was put to work trying to break a 4096 bit encryption key, it would take longer than the lifespan of the universe. 
"Using today's technology," Avi shot back. "that is true. But what about quantum computers? And what if new mathematical techniques are developed that can simplify the factoring of large numbers?" 
"How long do you want these messages to remain secret?" Randy asked, in his last message before leaving San Francisco. "Five years? Ten years? Twenty five years?" 
After he got to the hotel this afternoon, Randy decrypted and read Avi's answer. It is still hanging in front of his eyes, like the afterimage of a strobe: 
I want them to remain secret for as long as men are capable of evil.
Avi is obsessed with evil, and with the victims of evil. He wants to set up a data haven, and take control of the Japanese war treasure buried at Golgotha, because he sees these as steps to preventing another Holocaust, by keeping both information and money out of the hands of men who are capable of evil. But, of course, getting into the data haven business means forming alliances with people whose motives are less exalted, like Randy and Avi's libertarian-survivalist business partners, John Cantrell and Tom Howard. And like the men at their meeting with the Sultan of Kinakuta:
There is a delegation of Filipinos. One of them, a fat man in his fifties, looks awfully familiar. As usual, Randy cannot remember his name. And there's another guy who shows up late, all by himself, and is ushered to a solitary chair down at the far end: he might be a Filipino with lots of Spanish blood, but he's more likely Latin American or Southern European or just an American whose forebears came from those places. In any case, he has scarcely settled into his seat before he's pulled out a cellphone and punched in a very long phone number and begun a hushed, tense conversation. He keeps sneaking glances up the table, checking out each delegation in turn, then blurting capsule descriptions into his cellphone. He seems startled to be here. No one who sees him can avoid noticing his furtiveness. No one who notices it can avoid speculating on how he acquired it. But at the same time, the man has a sullen glowering air about him that Randy doesn't notice until his black eyes turn to stare into Randy's like the twin barrels of a derringer. Randy stares back, too startled and stupid to avert his gaze, and some kind of strange information passes from the cellphone man to him, down the twin shafts of black light coming out of the man's eyes. 
Randy realizes that he and the rest of Epiphyte(2) Corp. have fallen in among thieves.
And this is when we realize that Randy, for all that he is a brilliant systems admin and hacker, and for all that his grandfather may well have been one of the inventors of the digital computer, is not very bright. Because Avi certainly knew they were falling in among thieves; Avi almost certainly went looking for thieves, thieves being the kind of people who most want a data haven. Avi has a mission: to protect people from the forces of evil, and he is willing to cut some moral corners to carry out his mission. Or maybe he doesn't see this as moral corner-cutting; we don't know enough about Avi to be sure. But Randy doesn't have a mission. Randy has just been following Avi.

Here's what I can say about the libertarian thing: it's definitely there, and it's bigger than the hot Asian girlfriends thing, and it's bigger than the no-women-as-POV-characters thing, and if it bugs you, it's going to be hard to overlook, and no wonder the book didn't work for you, goodreads reviewer. I'm still thinking about it, myself, and it's got me reflecting on Randy Waterhouse, who feels in so many ways like the protagonist of the book, even though Lawrence Waterhouse, Bobby Shaftoe, and Goto Dengo all have their own chapters as well. Randy is not a libertarian; he is not, like Avi, obsessed with anything. He is not driven; he is a drifter. He is so loosely anchored that Avi can nudge him in any direction he wants him to go:
This is how Epiphyte Corporation came into existence: 
"I am channeling the bad shit!" Avi said.
The number came through on Randy's pager while he was sitting around a table in a grubhouse along the coast with his girlfriend's crowd. A place where, every day, they laser printed fresh menus on 100% recycled imitation parchment, where oscilloscope tracings of neon colored sauces scribbled across the plates, and the entrees were towering, architectonic stacks of rare ingredients carved into gemlike prisms. Randy had spent the entire meal trying to resist the temptation to invite one of Charlene's friends (any one of them, it didn't matter) out on the sidewalk for a fistfight 
He glanced at his pager expecting to see the number of the Three Siblings Computer Center, which was where he worked (technically, still does). The fell digits of Avi's phone number penetrated the core of his being in the same way that 666 would a fundamentalist's. 
Fifteen seconds later, Randy was out on the sidewalk, swiping his card through a pay phone like an assassin drawing a single edged razor blade across the throat of a tubby politician. 
"The power is coming down from On High," Avi continued. "Tonight, it happens to be coming through me—you poor bastard." 
"What do you want me to do?" Randy asked, adopting a cold, almost hostile tone to mask sick excitement. 
"Buy a ticket to Manila," Avi said. 
"I have to talk it over with Charlene first," Randy said. 
"You don't even believe that yourself," Avi said. 
"Charlene and I have a long standing relationsh—." 
"It's been ten years. You haven't married her. Fill in the fucking blanks." 
(Seventy two hours later, he would be in Manila, looking at the One
Note Flute.)
Randy's grandfather Lawrence also has this tendency to let life send him where it will; he manages to remain in a general state of befuddlement while gradually becoming one of the world's most expert cryptographers, privy to information so classified that only a handful of people in the world have access to it. Bobby Shaftoe is competent and capable in ways that the Waterhouse clan can only dream of—he's a Marine Raider, after all, which is "like a Marine, only more so." But from the moment he follows the Wisconsin Shaftoe tradition and joins up, his fate is never in his own hands. He spends the war going where he's told and carrying out orders that only become stranger and less comprehensible once he ends up in Detachment 2702: dressing a dead butcher in a wetsuit and dropping him into the ocean; making a camp that's existed for days look like it's been there for months; and, of course, painting out the numeral 1 and painting in the numeral 2 in its place (multiple long quotes, but I just love this part):
In the next rank of the chart is the name Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse. There are two other names: one is an RAF captain and the other is a captain in the United States Marine Corps. There is also a dotted line veering off to one side, leading to the name Dr. Alan Mathison Turing. Taken as a whole, this chart may be the most irregular and bizarre ad hocracy ever grafted onto a military organization. 
In the bottom row of the chart are two groups of half a dozen names, clustered beneath the names of the RAF captain and the Marine captain respectively. These are the squads that represent the executive wing of the organization: as one of the guys at the Broadway Building puts it, "the men at the coal face," and as the one American Guy translates it for him, "this is where the rubber meets the road." 
"Do you have any questions?" the Main Guy asks. 
"Did Alan choose the number?" 
"You mean Dr. Turing?" 
"Yes. Did he choose the number 2701?" 
This level of detail is clearly several ranks beneath the station of the men in the Broadway Buildings. They look startled and almost offended, as if Waterhouse has suddenly asked them to take dictation. 
"Possibly," says the Main Guy. "Why do you ask?" 
"Because," Waterhouse says, "the number 2701 is the product of two primes, and those numbers, 37 and 73, when expressed in decimal notation, are, as you can plainly see, the reverse of each other." 
All heads swivel toward the don, who looks put out. "We'd best change that," he says, "it is the sort of thing that Dr. von Hacklheber would notice." He stands up, withdraws a Mont Blanc fountain pen from his pocket, and amends the organizational chart so that it reads 2702 instead of 2701. 
As he is doing this, Waterhouse looks at the other men in the room and thinks that they look satisfied. Clearly, this is just the sort of parlor trick they have hired Waterhouse to perform.

***many pages later***

"This the fellow we've been waiting for," Chattan says to Robson. "The one we could've used in Algiers."  
"Yes!" Robson says. "Welcome to Detachment 2701, Captain Waterhouse."  
"2702," Waterhouse says.  
Chattan and Robson look ever so mildly startled.  
"We can't use 2701 because it is the product of two primes."  
"I beg your pardon?" Robson says.  
One thing Waterhouse likes about these Brits is that when they don't know what the hell you are talking about, they are at least open to the possibility that it might be their fault. Robson has the look of a man who has come up through the ranks. A Yank of that type would already be scornful and blustery.  
"Which ones?" Chattan says. That is encouraging; he at least knows what a prime number is.  
"73 and 37," Waterhouse says.  
This makes a profound impression on Chattan. "Ah, yes, I see." He shakes his head. "I shall have to give the Prof a good chaffing about this."  
Robson has cocked his head far to one side so that it is almost resting upon the thick woolly beret chucked into his epaulet. He is squinting, and has an aghast look about him. His hypothetical Yank counterpart would probably demand, at this point, a complete explanation of prime number theory, and when it was finished, denounce it as horseshit. But Robson just lets it go by. "Am I to understand that we are changing the number of our Detachment?"  
Waterhouse swallows. It seems clear from Robson's reaction that this is going to involve a great deal of busy work for Robson and his men: weeks of painting and stenciling and of trying to propagate the new number throughout the military bureaucracy. It will be a miserable pain in the ass.  
"2702 it is," Chattan says breezily. Unlike Waterhouse, he has no difficulty issuing difficult, unpopular commands.

***many more pages later***


Shaftoe is about to brief his three handpicked Marines on what is to come when the private with black paint on his hands, Daniels, looks past him and smirks. "What's the lieutenant looking for now do you suppose, Sarge?" he says. 
Shaftoe and Privates Nathan (green paint) and Branph (white) look over to see that Ethridge has gotten sidetracked. He is going through the wastebaskets again. 
"We have all noticed that Lieutenant Ethridge seems to think it is his mission in life to go through wastebaskets," Sergeant Shaftoe says in a low, authoritative voice. "He is an Annapolis graduate." 
Ethridge straightens up and, in the most accusatory way possible, holds up a fistful of pierced and perforated oaktag. "Sergeant! Would you identify this material?" 
"Sir! It is general issue military stencils, sir!" 
"Sergeant! How many letters are there in the alphabet?" 
"Twenty six, sir!" responds Shaftoe crisply. 
Privates Daniels, Nathan and Branph whistle coolly at each other. This Sergeant Shaftoe is sharp as a tack. 
"Now, how many numerals?" 
"Ten, sir!" 
"And of the thirty six letters and numerals, how many of them are represented by unused stencils in this wastebasket?" 
"Thirty five, sir! All except for the numeral 2, which is the only one we need to carry out your orders, sir!" 
"Have you forgotten the second part of my order, Sergeant?" 
"Sir, yes, sir!" No point in lying about it. Officers actually like it when you forget their orders because it reminds them of how much smarter they are than you. It makes them feel needed. 
"The second part of my order was to take strict measures to leave behind no trace of the changeover!" 
"Sir, yes, I do remember that now, sir!" 
Lieutenant Ethridge, who was just a bit huffy at first, has now calmed down quite a bit, which speaks well of him and is duly, silently noted by all of the men, who have known him for less than six hours. He is now speaking calmly and conversationally, like a friendly high school teacher. ... "If some enemy agent were to go through the contents of this wastebasket, as enemy agents have been known to do, what would he find?" 
"Stencils sir!" 
"And if he were to count the numerals and letters, would he notice anything unusual?" 
"Sir! All of them would be clean except for the numeral twos which would be missing or covered with paint, sir!" 
Lieutenant Ethridge says nothing for a few minutes, allowing his message to sink in. In reality no one knows what the fuck he is talking about. The atmosphere becomes tinderlike until finally, Sergeant Shaftoe makes a desperate stab. He turns away from Ethridge and towards the men. "I want you Marines to get paint on all of those goddamn stencils!" he barks. 
The Marines charge the wastebaskets as if they were Nip pillboxes, and Lieutenant Ethridge seems mollified. Bobby Shaftoe, having scored massive points, leads Privates Daniels, Nathan, and Branph out into the street before Lieutenant Ethridge figures out that he was just guessing.
I love all the lead-up to the Stencil Issue, which illustrates perfectly Shaftoe's lot in life: to competently and thoroughly carry out orders which he has no context for understanding. No one is going to tell him—or likely Lieutenant Ethridge either, which is some consolation—why they have to re-paint all their gear with the numeral 2. Shaftoe's story is good, if heartbreaking, and I love that Stephenson devoted the space to telling it. But he is no more an agent of his own fate than either of the Waterhouses. Only Goto Dengo, of the four protagonists, takes deliberate action on his own behalf.

I'm not sure what it says that Stephenson likes narrators who are, in some ways, more observers than participants. Part of it must be simply that he likes people like Randy and Lawrence Waterhouse, and enjoys seeing the world through their eyes. I think, too, that part of it must be that some of what happens in the book would be unsupportable if viewed through anyone else's. Avi, for all of his importance in Randy's life and in the story, is not a very deeply-drawn character; I think it would be hard to like him if we knew him better. The Sultan of Kinakuta, the mix of thieves and rogues at his table, John Cantrell and Tom Howard, and the data haven they're creating: all of these things are softened by Randy's basic decency. It matters that we watch this libertarian fantasy play out through his eyes, that he is the only point-of-view character for the 1990s portion of the book. Randy is in the thick of things, but he's somehow too clueless to be complicit in it, and our sympathy for him, perhaps, colors our reaction to Epiphyte's very iffy undertaking.

It hasn't made me want to fling the book away from me in disgust, but I see the point this reviewer was making. Cryptonomicon is a fantasy: a fantasy where self-appointed heroes can take the law into their own hands, and somehow be trusted to do good with it. Read this way, it's not that much different from an action movie in which a hero outdoes the police, or a superhero story where one powerful and good person delivers justice, sidestepping untrustworthy institutions. I'm only about a third of the way through this read-through; I'll have to see what I think as I continue. But so far, even as I've devoted all this time to thinking and writing about it, I can't seem to get bothered by it. This libertarian element seems irrelevant to whatever this book is to me; I can see why someone else would care, but I don't.


Monday, November 10, 2014

How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read by Pierre Bayard


This is a picture of How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read by Pierre Bayard. As you can see, I tape-flagged the bejesus out of it when I was reading it; each of those tape flags represents a passage I found thought-provoking, or a pleasing quote, or something that struck me as profound.

It's a library book. It was due back three days ago. I am now paying 20 cents/day for the privilege of having it sitting around on my table. I can't take it back to the library until I clean out those tape flags; I can't clean out the tape flags until I've processed them, thought about what they mean, tried to integrate Bayard's words and ideas into my mental picture of the world of books.

I want to do this even though Bayard himself would call it a futile undertaking:
When we talk about books…we are talking about our approximate recollections of books… What we preserve of the books we read—whether we take notes or not, and even if we sincerely believe we remember them faithfully—is in truth no more than a few fragments afloat, like so many islands, on an ocean of oblivion…We do not retain in memory complete books identical to the books remembered by everyone else, but rather fragments surviving from partial readings, frequently fused together and further recast by our private fantasies. … What we take to be the books we have read is in fact an anomalous accumulation of fragments of texts, reworked by our imagination and unrelated to the books of others, even if these books are materially identical to ones we have held in our hands. [quote lifted from Goodreads]

Futile or not, I want to think a bit about why I love this book so much that I have now read it twice, and may well read it again.

The title is a playful one, and Bayard's playfulness is part of why I love the book. One of his arguments is that it isn't necessary to have read a book to have an opinion about it, and he creates a shorthand for his relationship to books, and footnotes each book with this shorthand the first time it's mentioned. A book can be UB, SB, HB, or FB: unheard-of, skimmed, heard about, or forgotten. Where is RB, "a book I have read"? It doesn't appear in the list of abbreviations that preceded the text. This is him being deliberately contrary:

It will be observed that this system of notations is valuable as well for its omissions, specifically RB (book that has been read) and NRB (book that has not been read), the very notations one might have expected, which will never be used. It is precisely in opposition to this kind of artificial distinction that the book is organized, a distinction conveying an image of reading that makes it hard to think about the way we actually experience it. (xix)
I think we'd agree with Bayard if we reflected on it for a moment. We regularly form opinions of works we haven't read or seen, in part to help us decide whether it's worth reading or seeing them, but also based on the opinions of others we trust, or the previous work of the creator, or our knowledge of how the work fits into what Bayard calls the "collective library." Although he is only talking about books, the collective library contains movies, TV shows, music, comic books, and more. If you have ever chosen not to read a book that all your friends are raving about because it's not the kind of thing you normally like, you're forming an opinion without reading it.

Bayard, of course, is interested in the literary canon, to the extent it still exists, and he references a game among faculty in literature where the winner is the one who confesses to not having read the very most canonical work. I think the winner in the game he describes claims not to have read Hamlet. But Bayard thinks it's perfectly OK not to have read Hamlet; he says that it is possible to know everything you need to know about the play without having read the whole text. The thing you need to know most about Hamlet is where it fits into the "collective library," how it is positioned culturally and in relation to other books.

Again, there's truth in this, and here Bayard is doing serious work, in thinking about the sociology of books and the cultural capital of books, as something separate from the books themselves. A book's position in the collective library is sometimes more relevant than the book itself: it matters to know who Gertrude Stein was, and what she was trying to do, if you want to understand early 20th century culture, but there is little pleasure to be had from simply reading most of her work, which is strange and tiresome. The experience of reading Stein is enhanced by knowing who she was and what her intentions were, her cultural position. But there are few people, I think, who can sincerely say they read Stein for pleasure (and here's a place I'd add another element to Bayard's shorthand rating system, to account for how you can have a high opinion of a writer and her work, as I do for Stein, without actually liking the work very much).

My relationship to certain works—Moby-Dick comes to mind, and Joyce's Ulysses—is very much a relationship Bayard describes: I know just about everything it is necessary to know about these books, but I have never read either of them. I know who the authors were and what movements they were part of; what inspired them and why they wrote as they did; who was, in turn, inspired by them. I can tell you, in detail, what the books are about, and I can even quote passages from both (and not just "Call me Ishmael" and "yes I said yes I will Yes," either). Especially with Moby-Dick, I am capable of having a very informed conversation about these books. Which I haven't read. (Again, I need another classification: PB, a book I plan to read someday. Moby-Dick: SB, PB++; Ulysses PB+.)

It often seems to me that it is necessary to know things about a book in order to appreciate the book at all. I am disdainful of lists of books aimed at creating culturally knowledgeable people, because it isn't enough to have read, say, The Grapes of Wrath or The Yellow Wallpaper or Mrs Dalloway's Party (FB++, RB+, RB-). To read for pleasure, what's between the covers is all that's needed. But if a person wants to read as a way of participating in culture, they need to know where these books are shelved in the collective library at least as much as they need to know what's in them.

I read nearly the complete works of William Shakespeare as a middle-schooler. I liked more of it than I understood. My impetus was a burning desire to be a part of the culture of literature, to have read what it was most important to read (and to be precocious about it, to boot). But I didn't begin to appreciate Shakespeare until a high school Shakespeare class and a couple of visits to the Shakespeare festival in Stratford, Ontario. As an undergraduate in English, I learned more about how Shakespeare fit into the literary culture of his own time, and how he influenced the future. As an undergraduate in Women's Studies, I learned to look at his work and his influence in a more complex way. As a graduate student in literature, I was absolutely blown away by a course in Renaissance Literature in which, instead of the usual Heaping Dose of Will Shakespeare With a Side of Faustus by Christopher Marlowe,  we read slave narratives, the journals of European explorers, advertisements meant to attract colonists and investors, a long poem about how to manage your plantation in the West Indies (apparently how-to poems were a whole genre at the time; who knew?). And then, our professor gave us The Tempest. We'd all read it before, of course, but this time, steeped in that context, the play turned into a bomb that exploded all our prior understandings.

It is always good to read The Tempest, and if you read it as an adventure tale and a source of poetry (Full fathom five thy father lies! Our little lives are rounded by a sleep! O brave new world, that has such people in it!), that is good. But it is best, perhaps, to read it knowing something of the shelf it sits on in the collective library. If you want to be a citizen of the library and not just a reader of books, it can matter more to know where the book is on the shelf than to ever actually take it down and open it.

Bayard takes on other questions that I also find very fruitful: What does it mean to read a book, if you will ultimately forget most of what you read? If you have forgotten a book, can you still claim to have read it? What does it mean to read a book if you know from the outset that what you read is not the same book the author wrote, or the same book that another reader reads? But I don't suppose I have time to go into all of that. This is a short book but very densely packed, and it is witty all get-out:

Chapter XII. Speaking About Yourself
(in which we conclude, along with Oscar Wilde, that the appropriate time span for reading a book is ten minutes, after which you risk forgetting that the encounter is primarily a pretext for writing your autobiography)
I could write about this book for days, but I don't have time for that, and someone has placed a hold on it and wants me to return in to the library so they can read it. I will satisfy myself with browsing through my tape flags as I remove them, and sharing a few quotes and letting Bayard speak for himself for a bit. The challenge has been to not include too many, and I have failed: I have included too many. But I have fallen short of re-typing the entire manuscript, so that's some consolation.

There is more than one way not to read, the most radical of which is not to open a book at all. For any given reader, however dedicated he might be, such total abstention necessarily holds true for virtually everything that has been published, and this in fact this constitutes our primary way of relating to books. (3) 
Reading is first and foremost non-reading. Even in the case of the most passionate lifelong readers, the act of picking up and opening a book masks the countergesture that occurs at the same time: the involuntary act of not picking up and opening all the other books in the universe. (6)
As cultivated people know (and, to their misfortune, uncultivated people do not), culture is above all a matter of orientation. Being cultivated is a matter not of having read any books in particular, but of being able to find your bearing within books as a system, which requires you to know that they form a system and to be able to locate each element in relation to the others. (10-11)
Breaking with that critical tradition, [Paul] Valery posited that despite appearances, an author is in no position to explain his own work. The work is the product of a creative process that occurs in the writer but transcends him, and it is unfair to reduce the work to that act of creation. (16)
The logical implication of this theory—that cultural literacy involves the dual capacity to situate books in the collective library and to situate yourself within each book—is that it is ultimately unnecessary to have handled a book to have a sense of it and to express your thoughts on it. The act of reading is disassociated from the material book... (32)
[Umberto] Eco's novel [The Name of the Rose] illustrates that the books we talk about are only glancingly related to "real" books—indeed, what else would we expect?— and are often no more than screen books. Or, if you prefer, what we talk about is not the books themselves, but substitute objects we create for the occasion. (44) 
Even as I read, I start to forget what I have read, and this process is unavoidable. It extends to the point where it's as though I haven't read the book at all, so that in effect I find myself rejoining the ranks of non-readers, where I should no doubt have remained in the first place. At this point, saying we have read a book becomes essentially a form of metonymy. When it comes to books, we never read more than a portion of greater or lesser length, and that portion is, in the longer or shorter term, condemned to disappear. When we talk about books, then, to ourselves and others, it would be more accurate to say that we are talking about our approximate recollections of books, rearranged as a function of current circumstances. (47-8) 
But fear of repeating himself is not the only embarrassing consequence of forgetting his own books. Another is that Montaigne does not even recognize his own texts when they are quoted in his presence, leaving him to speak about texts he hasn't read even though he has written them. (55) [Note from Su: I love this because it happened to me recently. I ran into someone who remembered me from the days when I was regularly performing my stories on stage. "I always especially loved your story about X," she said, and I had no idea what story she was talking about. It's possible that she was confusing my story with someone else's story or poem, or projecting her own interpretation onto a story I remember but don't recognize in her description, but it is equally likely that I have completely forgotten a story I used to perform, which is to say a story I had written and which I very likely knew well enough to recite from memory. It wouldn't be the first time it happened, and apparently I'm in good company with Montaigne.] 
Every writer who has conversed at any length with an attentive reader...has had the uncanny experience of discovering the absence of any connection between what he meant to accomplish and what has been grasped of it.... It might then be said that the chances of wounding an author by speaking about his book are all the greater when we love it. Beyond the general expressions of satisfaction that tend to create a sense of common ground, there is every likelihood that trying to be more precise in our exposition of why we appreciated the book will be demoralizing for him. In the attempt, we force him into an abrupt confrontation with everything that is irreducible in the other, and thus irreducible in him and in the words through which he has attempted to express himself. (98-99) 
 The acknowledgment that books are mobile objects rather than fixed objects is indeed destabilizing, since it reflects back our own uncertainty—which is to say, our folly. (148) 
The paradox of reading is that the path towards ourselves passes through books, but that this must remain a passage. It is a traversal of book that a good reader engages in—a reader who knows that every book is the bearer of part of himself and can give him access to it, if only he has the wisdom not to end his journey there. (178) 
To become a creator yourself: this is the project to which we have been brought by the observations drawn from our series of examples, and it is a project accessible only to those whose inner evolution has freed them from guilt completely.... How can one deny...that talking about books you haven't read constitutes an authentic creative activity, making the same demands as other forms of art? Just think of all the skills it calls into play—listening to the potentialities of a work, analyzing its ever-changing context, paying attention to others and their reactions, taking charge of a gripping narrative—and you will surely find yourself convinced. (182-3) 
To show [students], instead, that a book is reinvented with every reading would give them the means to emerge unscathed, and even with some benefit, from a multitude of difficult situations.... As we have seen exemplified by numerous authors, the entirety of our culture opens up to those with the ability to cut the bonds between discourse and its object, and to speak about themselves. 
The key, in the end, is to reveal to students what is truly essential: the world of their own creation. What better gift could you make to a student than to render him sensitive to the art of invention—which is to say, self-invention? All education should strive to help those receiving it to gain enough freedom in relation to works of art to themselves become writers and artists. (184)
Denuded, and ready to be forgotten.


Wednesday, October 29, 2014

What It Was Like the First Time I Was Pregnant

Yesterday, I went looking in my old journal folders for something I wanted to share with a friend. I found what I was looking for, but I also found this. I was 8 or 9 weeks pregnant when I wrote this to some friends, and still living in hope that my nausea and vomiting would end with the first trimester. It didn't. Although I got some relief from anti-nausea meds later in my pregnancy, for all intents and purposes I didn't feel well again until the baby was born. Bless him for coming three weeks early. I was a grad student in English Literature at this time, and would probably have dropped out of school except that I needed my fellowship stipend to live on. When I think of that academic year, I see myself sitting at a seminar table, dull and blank-faced, with a baggie of saltines in front of me. One day toward the end of my pregnancy, I had a surprisingly lively couple of hours in class, and one of my friends said, "It was like the old Su was back, for just a little while, and then gone again."

Caring for me during my pregnancy was so encompassing that Toots told me later he had something like mild PTSD after the baby was finally born. And I think it's possible the dirty knives referenced in this post didn't get washed until after the baby, either.

Our plumber, Jim, had begun a bathroom remodel that was supposed to take about two weeks on the first day of my last menstrual period. Because of defects in the tub that was first delivered to us, it eventually took nearly 14 weeks to complete. Jim ended up rigging us a shower in the middle of the basement, near the floor drain, and his business was nearly bankrupted by the fiasco that was our new bathroom. Poor guy.

Anyway, enjoy!

November 2, 2000

I am sorry to have to tell you that last Friday's feeling of happy well-being is but a distant memory. I have had a very difficult week, augmented by the intensification of some symptoms and the appearance of a couple of entirely new ones, including excessive saliva (you will forgive me mentioning), which doesn't sound too bad when you read about it in a book, but which, it turns out, is unpleasant and troublesome when experienced. Raider believes that I am slowly turning to liquid; he says my stomach is squishy (I think so too). According to his reading on pregnancy, by the time the baby is delivered, I am going to be completely of a gelatinous, amoeba-like consistency.

What good news do I have? Despite having to call Raider to come pick me up at school this afternoon, I had this weird idea that I might be able to eat some sesame chicken. Sesame chicken being fetched for me, I succeeded in eating about a half-dozen small pieces with rice. It was very delicious. If all goes well, I intend to have some more for lunch tomorrow. I am amazed repeatedly by my ability to eat even when actively nauseated; it's a unique feature, in my experience, of pregnancy nausea. I have never been able to do more than suck popsicles when I've had an upset stomach before.

We told our plumber about the baby today. Turns out he has training as a naturopath and delivered two of his five children at home with no assistance from anyone but their mother. We have been joking about enlisting him as our midwife. He says it's natural that my joy in pregnancy should be suppressed by being sick, but assures me that I will begin to feel the "spiritual aspects" of pregnancy in the second trimester. "It's a whole little soul in there," he says. He also says we pick our parents, based on the karmic lessons we need to learn. The best either of us (the plumber or me) could say about the lessons of our upbringing, was that it taught us what not to do to our children; I have been thinking since our talk about what karmic lesson Junior might be seeking in choosing me and Raider. Scary.

Do you remember the TV show "Murphy Brown" and her house painter Eldon who came to paint the walls and stayed for, like, 10 years? I feel that way about our plumber, like he's been living with us for two months. I get to the point of wanting to say to him, "Jim, why don't you run the trash to the curb while you're up," or "Hey, Jim, put a load of dishes in, will you?" or "Hey, Jim, how about a ginger ale in here?" He did show up one day with a 12-pack of Vernors because he had noticed that we were almost out, and he understands how much I need it.

The representative of the bathtub company came today to inspect the tub; it can be fixed, he says, but he also says that the flaw in the pipe was so evident that it should not have passed inspection at the factory. He seemed quite indignant and promised to be very active in getting the repair done as soon as possible. We'll see.

Speaking of dishes and stuff: I have not lifted a finger around the house in a month (except during scheduled housework times on Saturday morning; last week I sat down more than I worked, but did succeed in tidying some things and dusting some other things while Raider and Toots cleaned the whole rest of the house). Raider and Toots have been terrific, doing all the shopping, doing dishes, scooping cat litter. Toots has taken over my job of feeding the cats, and also backs me up on dog care, checking to see whether I have fed them and doing it if I haven't been able to. I am enormously grateful, and yet am experiencing the frustration of having things done not by me and therefore not as I would do them. For instance, neither Raider nor Toots will generally do the hand dishes until they are quite scandalous; actually, not even then. As a consequence, every wood-handled knife in the house is dirty, and an archeologist could determine all the meals we've cooked (a very small subset of meals we've eaten) in the last few weeks by excavating the pile of pans to the right of the sink. Also, there is a tupperware container growing a culture in the fridge; no one else has dealt with it, and I have felt that it would be ill-advised of me to try it. I really want the fridge cleaned out and the hand dishes done, but I feel I can hardly press the point when they are already both doing so much. And I feel I can hardly use what little energy I have in a day in knife-washing when I have, for instance, a paper which was due yesterday and which is no farther forward than a list of possible source materials I have been too sick to go the library for.

I have to say, though, that it is a good feeling to have people in my life who will so patiently and cheerfully add my responsibilities to theirs, as well as the work of bringing me beverages and preparing me food (Raider packs me a Snack Kit whenever I have to go anywhere), over a period of weeks, with nary a complaint worse than, from Raider occasionally, "Can I finish this first or should I go get it right now?" (Although, truth to tell, he did get a little snarly last night between 12:30 and 1 a.m. when, first, I wanted the foam wedge to sleep on because I had heartburn, and then I wanted the window open and the fan on because I was hot, and then, after [our cat] Baby threw up, I wanted him to get out of bed immediately to clean it up because I needed to go pee and was afraid of stepping in it. But after that I slept straight through til morning, so what does he really have to complain about?)

The two of them have even agreed to go to the library and photocopy articles for me, since I keep saying that I feel I could work on my papers if only I had the materials here at home; if I can't manage the library tomorrow, I will take them up on it. In any case, I will probably take at least Raider with me to help with retrieving things from the stacks. And they are driving me everywhere, even when it means, on some days, six different trips in one day to drop me off and pick me up various places. I am in imminent danger of throwing up whenever I am in a moving car, and am much more comfortable in the passenger seat with a plastic bag in my hand than behind the wheel.

I have repeatedly been congratulating myself on having visited Montana when I did (and also on having visited my friend Julie the next weekend; by then, I was already constantly nauseated, but only mildly, and I don't think I had started throwing up yet). I feel like I did my traveling at the last possible time; I couldn't bring myself to get on a plane now, or to undertake a car ride of longer than 12 minutes.

One last thing: in all the pregnancy books, they say that labor and delivery are like orgasm in being an involuntary bodily response. But yesterday, I had a long and violent bout of vomiting (in the late morning; it is always worst in the late morning) during which I thought, for instance, that my eyeballs might explode*, and I realized how much of the body is engaged in throwing up; I had never really noticed the extent to which, for instance, opening your mouth to throw up is involuntary, and I swear I believe now that my vagina can get big enough for a baby because I'm pretty sure one could have come easily out my mouth yesterday. I felt exactly like those scenes in "An American Werewolf in London" in which David Naughton turns into the wolf. I couldn't believe when I looked in the mirror afterward that there wasn't some permanent sign. Anyway, in the middle of the worst of it, I thought, "I bet this is what labor is like." It wasn't like orgasm at all; it was too violent and all-encompassing and, interestingly (I've had a lot of time to think philosophically about retching), it's sort of neither pleasant nor unpleasant while it's going on; it just takes over. In between, in those little rests you get, hanging over the toilet wondering whether it's over yet or not, it's very upsetting, but during the actual vomiting, it just sort of is. I will let you know on or about June 11, 2001, whether my insight holds up. [Note: my labor with the Lego Savant was relatively mellow and not at all overwhelming, though it was difficult at points. Some of the vomiting I did while pregnant was much, much worse.]

*A couple of years ago, Toots had a bout of vomiting that left him with two black eyes; it was amazing. I keep half expecting that to happen to me, and when it doesn't, I think, "Good God, what Toots must have suffered!"

I have to say one more thing about throwing up: Last week, I experienced the most unpleasant vomiting-related thing that has ever happened to me. I haven't told anyone what it was, because it's just too gross and no one but me should have to be haunted by the vision of it, but I can't help telling you just that it happened. If you remember that I was once, in fact, sick in the hallway outside the door of my classroom while teaching a class, you can imagine that this must have been unpleasant indeed, although I was alone when it happened. Ugh. I won't say more, except, "Pity me! Pity me!"

Although I am physically very unwell, my spirits are improving. I think one can only be miserable so long, and as the weeks pass it begins to feel that I can endure the weeks ahead (how many? Perhaps as few as three, though I'm not counting on it), and, although I am keeping up with the reading in my classes, and making some slow progress on papers, I am ever more indifferent to school and am not letting my descent from the fabulous student I was all last year to a very indifferent performer distress me too much. On Friday, I thought singing in the shower was the mark of how well I felt, but today I have felt very sick all day but I still sang in the shower, just a little (the shower is one of my favorite places; the warm water on my stomach seems to really help. If only the basement drain weren't sluggish, so that showers have to be quick to avoid flooding the room, I would probably stand in there for an hour). And I have been very rewarded by small adventures in food; as well as the sesame chicken today, on Tuesday Raider, in response to an idea of mine that I might be able to eat some home fries if they were fried with only a very little oil, made me a wonderful bowlful of diced potatoes. A welcome variant from my usual assortment of yogurt, fruit, applesauce, Carnation Instant Breakfast, homemade ginger spritzers, peppermint tea, and, of course, saltines. [Later in my pregnancy, I began to live almost entirely on Peppermint Stick ice cream. I couldn't brush my teeth without vomiting, and so it freshened my mouth a little and was cool and creamy both going down and, if necessary, coming back up.]

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Gender-Related Name Change Rant

I ranted a little on Facebook today, and then realized I might as well blog it as well.

I'm doing a lot of paperwork this morning, including getting the Tiny Tornado's petition for a legal name change filled out and printed. In Michigan, you can change your name for any non-fraudulent purpose, and when I changed mine, I was only asked whether I was doing it to evade debt or any other criminal sort of reason.

Unless it's for gender change reasons. In which case, you need a letter of support from an expert, cause god forbid *you* be the expert on your own name. It's so stupid! We could have named him Guyname Manlyman Lastname at birth and nobody would have stopped us, but now he's 7 and has CHOSEN HIS OWN NAME and we need a letter.

*grump, whine, complain*

Of course, we had no trouble getting a letter. The doctors at the Lurie Children's Sex & Gender Development Clinic have a form letter. "It is common that social transitioning for gender dysphoric children will lead to a dramatic improvement in social and psychological functioning, as Name_of_Child has experienced. There is no question that Name_of_Child was struggling with gender dysphoria and has benefitted from social transitioning."

But that it was easy for us to get the letter is not the point. The point is that people who don't fit the gender binary are unnecessarily subjected to additional scrutiny. AND THIS IS WRONG!

And the point is also that people who don't have the privilege of access to one of the THREE children's gender clinics in the whole country, or other knowledgeable and compassionate care providers, might find it difficult-to-impossible to get such a letter even though their child would also benefit from having a legal name that matches the name they use. THIS IS ALSO WRONG.

/end of rant

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Why Gymnastics Will Never Be a Popular Spectator Sport

My youngest kid, the Tiny Tornado, started gymnastics just over a year ago. After his very first class, his coach told us, "I think we have a real gymnast on our hands." In June, he joined the competitive team at his gym as a Level 4, the lowest competitive level, and it looks like he'll have his first meet in November.

So now, we're fans of men's gymnastics. Gymnastics is one of the most popular sports at the Olympics every four years, but most people don't pay any attention to it in between. This is because being a gymnastics fan is hard work. Most gymnastics events, even the big international ones, aren't broadcast on TV. Fans have to get their fix via live scoring updates on the USA Gymnastics webpage, and twitter updates from people in the audience. Often, it's not possible to see video until after the fact. This year, for the first time, it was possible to watch the qualifying rounds from the world championships on a live feed, but even the men's team final was broadcast without commentary in the US. You have to be dedicated.

On the one hand, I think this is too bad: following the sport this year has given me a much better understanding of what's going on with all that flipping and spinning, and I can now evaluate a routine with just a bit more sophistication than, "hey, he didn't fall off, and he stuck his landing!" I look forward to the Rio Olympics in 2016, when for the first time in my life, I'll know who the gymnasts are before they walk into the arena. I'll know their strengths and weaknesses. I'll know that Danell Leyva uses headphones and a towel draped over his head to avoid getting overstimulated with the noise around him; I'll know that it's worth calling inattentive family members to the TV for  Donnell Whittenberg's vaults and Leyva's parallel bar routine; I'll know that John Orozco is talented and capable but lets his nerves get the better of him sometimes. I'll know who's not there, but might have been, and why they didn't make it.

On the other hand, I have some ideas about why gymnastics is a quadrennial treat for most people rather than perpetual fandom.

It is Too Far Removed From Our Own Experiences

This theory is not original with me; I read it somewhere, and it stuck with me. Basically, the forgotten writer of the piece I read suggested that fans of most sports that have strong followings, like soccer, baseball, football, and basketball, are games that fans can identify with because they can imagine themselves playing, too. Probably they have played, whether in gym class, a neighborhood pick-up game, a family match during halftime on Super Bowl Sunday, or in a league. What the players are doing on the field is different in intensity, quality, and skill, but it's the same game.

On the other hand, gymnasts of four years old (and even less) are already doing things the vast majority of us will never be able to do, at all. When we're watching gymnastics on YouTube, my gymnast son takes breaks to practice his handstands, presses, hollow-arch-kicks on the pull-up bar. But the rest of us? Ha! There's no gymnastics equivalent of taking a ball out back and tossing it around for awhile, and this, the argument goes, makes gymnastics too distant from our own experiences for most of us to spend a lot of time on it.

It's Repetitive

For the most part, in a given season, a gymnast is going to work up a routine on each apparatus, and stick to it. If you're paying a lot of attention, you might know that they have, say, an upgraded release skill on high bar that they're considering bringing to the competition. A year ago, I saw a short interview in which Sam Mikulak talked about working on his airflair as a skill upgrade on floor. I got to see him compete it (poorly) at a couple of college meets, and then really well at national and world championships. "Yay, Sam!" I thought. But if you're not paying attention, these little dramas and differences won't be apparent to you. "So-and-so took the extra twist out of his Tsukahara on vault today; he must not have been feeling confident" is pretty insider-baseball stuff.

So: you get to see the gymnasts do more-or-less the same things over and over, with variations that you have to be kind of an expert to recognize. I like this! But not everyone will.

There is No Head-to-Head Competition

Sure, the gymnasts are competing against each other, but not directly. Each of them has a routine they're trying to perform as well as they can, and, except for maybe psychologically, nothing any of the competition does can directly affect a gymnast's performance. There's no offense, no defense, no direct confrontation. In baseball, a great hit can be thwarted by an even greater catch, but there's nothing like that kind of drama in gymnastics.

It is Almost Impossible to Actually Watch a Whole Meet

During a men's gymnastics meet, there are athletes simultaneously performing routines on six apparatuses. When you watch on TV, the camera is always ignoring five other athletes to concentrate on the one you're being shown. Even when you're in the stands, you can't see it all. You miss an amazing vault because you're watching a mediocre floor exercise; the dramatic moment when the favorite to win falls off the pommel horse happens in the corner of your eye because you're watching somebody on rings. A meet lasts close to three hours, and to see all of it you'd have to watch it six times from six different perspectives.

Toward the end of a meet, when it's clear who's likely to win and who their competition is, the crowd will get excited and start to focus on those athletes. But for most of the meet, not even the people in the audience are watching the same event at the same time. Some of them are sending up a rousing cheer for a well-executed skill on the bar while some of them are sighing at a disappointment on rings, and some of them are checking their e-mail because their team is out this rotation on a bye. There's no single focal point, so you're always missing something.

Until Near the Very End, It's Almost Impossible to Know Who's Actually Winning

Throughout a gymnastics meet, individual and team scores are posted continuously (this only applies to team and all-around competitions; it's different in individual event competitions, but I'm not going to get into that right now). But for most of the meet, these scores are largely meaningless, except to the extent that you know how a specific team is doing relative to its usual performance.

One reason for this is that scores vary from apparatus to apparatus: the pommel horse is deadly, and scores there are usually lower overall than on other apparatuses. So whichever team starts the meet on pommel horse will very likely end the rotation in last place, but they have a good chance of closing the gap as the other teams rotate through their pommel routines.

In addition, teams and gymnasts have strengths and weaknesses. Teams A and B may both be great on floor, and only OK on high bar. Team A is going to pull ahead if they have an early rotation on floor while Team B is on bar, but that doesn't mean much until they've both finished both apparatuses.

Finally, if there are more than six teams competing, each team will take a bye on some rotations. So, at the end of a rotation, some teams will be far far behind because they've only been scored on, say,  three apparatuses, while other teams have already done four.

Predicting the outcome of a gymnastics meet in progress is an exercise in branching possibilities and if-thens that rivals a game of chess.

Scoring is Complicated

It's pretty easy to understand a home run, a touchdown, or a goal in soccer, and to do the math as the points pile up. In gymnastics these days, it takes a slide rule to keep up. I have to admit I don't fully understand it yet, and I may well be wrong about what I think I do understand.

Each routine gets a score for difficulty, and one for execution. The D score is based on the difficulty assigned to various elements in the routine, and the E score starts at 10 and then deductions are taken for various things, like not completing skills, falling, poor form, and so on. This means that the potential score for each gymnast varies; a gymnast with a D score of, say, 5.2 could earn 15.2 points if he executes his routine perfectly (not that a perfect execution ever happens). A gymnast with a D score of 6.4 has a ceiling of 16.4.  One reason Japan's Kohei Uchimura is favored to take Gold in the All-Around again at this year's World Championships is that nobody else has D-scores like his, and you can't beat him if your best possible score is still a losing score.

The Gymnastics Code of Points describes skills, and assigns them point values on a scale. "A" skills are worth a tenth of a point—my little guy's Level 4 routines are chock full of A skills. At the other end of the scale are a handful of F skills that are worth .6. When gymnasts talk about an "upgrade" skill, they mean they're working on something that will increase their D-score.

So, to understand a gymnast's score, you have have some kind of idea of their D-score, which determines the ceiling, and how many deductions they got, and how that stacks up in the context of the rest of the competition. Is 14.88 good? Bad? Mediocre? It can be hard to tell. For the broadcast of the national championships in August, the TV network invented a red-yellow-green symbol to cue the audience in about whether the gymnast had few deductions, some deductions, or lots of deductions. Green=Good, they told us, and Red=Bad. Because that's the kind of scoring we can understand.