Thursday, March 26, 2015

Flyboy Action Figure Comes With Gas Mask: A Book People Should Read

A couple of months ago, my friend dan recommended Flyboy Action Figure Comes with Gas Mask, a book I'd never heard of by some Canadian guy I'd never heard of. I'm glad he did, I'm glad I read it, and I'm glad to upgrade author Jim Munroe to the short list of Canadian Guys I Have Heard Of.

Authentic Canadian Cover for Purists

Cover for the American Release

Flyboy is about Ryan, a Toronto college student whose secret power is that he can turn into a fly. He meets Cassandra: she's a waitress, a single mom, and the former singer for a famous-in-certain-circles punk band. She can make things disappear.

It doesn't take much reflection to figure out that Ryan's superpower kind of sucks. Flies are annoying, but powerless; they can be fairly easily swatted, or trapped, purposely or accidentally. This is underscored from the first scene in the book, when one of Ryan's roommates smashes a fly on Ryan's bedroom wall, leaving behind a bloody smear that never gets cleaned up. To further complicate things, Ryan returns to human form buck-ass naked, and, if he's been a fly for very long at all, covered from head to foot in a layer of viscous green slime.

On the other hand, it takes Ryan and Cassandra awhile to figure out just how awesomely powerful she is. They join together as Superheroes for Social Justice, and lend their powers to the social and political action they're already part of, a community of young activists who deface offensive billboards and attend hastily-organized political meetings in the damp basement where they also attend terrible poetry readings when they're not busy organizing this year's Take Back the Night March.

As someone who was part of a community just like this back in the 90s, when the book takes place, I found Ryan and Cassandra's community very familiar and comfortable, and would hand it to my kids to read with the introduction, "Just imagine that everyone in this book is a lesbian, and, except for the superpowers thing, this is exactly what my life was like in my 20s."

Cassandra and Ryan don't want to hurt anyone; their goal is something more like civil disobedience, and shaping creative punishments to fit the crimes of the powerful. For instance, angry that the police did not respond to the organizers' request that officers assigned to the TBTN march be female and unarmed, they march the route, Cassandra disappearing each officer's gun as they come into sight. They then introduce themselves in their thrift-store superhero costumes and make a statement to the press

The news coverage, when it comes, focuses on Cassandra's looks, and they punish the newspaper's sexism by driving around late at night, disappearing newspaper boxes. Ryan drives, and after awhile Cassandra slips into inattention, looking up quickly and doing her thing when Ryan tells her they've reached the next box.

This inattention is how she accidentally disappears a mailbox.

R & C are so conscientious that the disappearance of the mailbox bothers them on its own merits: "What if there were personal letters in there?" one of them says. But from there, the "what-ifs" pile up. What if instead of a mailbox, there had been a person there? Cassandra already knows she can disappear people; her power manifested when she accidentally disappeared an uncle who was trying to molest her when she was six. She and Ryan start speculating about the limits of her power. "Could you disappear the sun?" Ryan wonders. Cass doesn't want to think about it.

The superhero storyline is fun, and thoughtfully played out: Ryan's relatively weak power makes him, inevitably, the sidekick, and it's a lovely thing when a straight white guy ends up the sidekick to a bisexual woman. As a fly, he can observe (he helpfully retains his brain and ability to read), but his power to act is very limited, and there is a tense scene in the book when he is witnessing something terrible and can neither escape from having to see it, nor stop it. Cassandra's power, on the other hand, is almost infinite. She is ultimately faced with knowing she can stop a terrible thing, but only by doing a terrible thing. Can she do it? Can she live with herself if she does?

I don't love this book for the superhero stuff, though. I love it for the way that Ryan and his male friends are trying to navigate their relationships and their place in the community they've chosen. They are white guys trying to be decent white guys, and their efforts are touching. They want to be supportive of each other but aren't sure where the lines are; they want to be decent to the women in their lives, but aren't sure they know how. Ryan's friend Jack gives him The Female Eunuch to read at one point, and I admit that touched my crusty old battle-hardened feminist heart.

I love a moment, too, when Ryan, just getting to know Cass, is so overwhelmed by her vocabulary and intelligence that he has to curl up in a ball for a minute. A few pages back, he was admiring her looks, but it's her brain that renders him speechless. Ryan and Cass meet with one of her exes, who is territorial and hostile with Ryan. Later, Ryan wonders out loud what it means that he didn't feel threatened by her behavior, whereas he thinks he would have if she'd been a man.

Cass says, "It means you don't see a woman as a realistic competitor for a sexual partner. It means you're a little bit sexist, and a little bit homophobic."

Ryan thinks, "Ah. Good to know." (paraphrased from memory here)

I have three sons, and I would give them this book to read because they would be into the humor of it, and the superhero stuff. But I would really like them to see, too, the way Jim Monroe portrays male friendship, female friendship, community, and romantic relationships. 

I did roll my eyes at Cass's Perfect Fiction Baby. As is so often the case in books and movies, Cass is a single mom who rarely suffers the real challenges of single motherhood. She says, "Just let me put the kid to bed and I'll be right back," and emerges from the bedroom a peaceful five minutes later. When adult conversations need to happen, the child entertains herself endlessly with toy cars; when an adult conversation has to happen in a restaurant, the child interrupts only once, and then only briefly, despite having nothing to entertain herself with but a napkin and a pair of chopsticks. Cass's apartment comes equipped with a Child-Loving Older Woman Who Lives Alone In The Apartment Downstairs, and who is so delighted to watch Cass's child that neither Cass's job, nor her social life, nor her political activism, have to suffer; Cass can set her own schedule and be relied upon to keep it, while the grandmotherly neighbor picks up the extensive slack.

I get that these kind of fictional children are an expediency that allows writers to include children in characters' lives while telling stories that are not primarily about parenthood and children. Along with everyone's bathroom habits, most of the meals they eat, the haircuts they never mention getting unless it's central to the plot, and the bills they must be sitting down to pay at least sometimes, most childrearing challenges take place off-stage so as not to bog the story down. I'm still in a stage of parenting, though, where I'm very aware of the enormous disconnect between these fictional children and the real thing, and so I can be forgiven an eye-roll or two.

You can buy copies of the book at Jim Munroe's website, No Media Kings, and I recommend you do. Munroe offers a pay-what-you-can ebook option as well. dan also recommended Munroe's book Angry Young Spaceman, if I recall correctly, and I look forward to reading that next.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Book Report: Queers Dig Time Lords

Sometimes I can't let go of a book until I've written about it. If it gives me ideas, I have to work them out a bit before I feel done. I have a few books that have been languishing on my table because I haven't had the time to do this. I tried just putting them back into the library bag anyway, and they made little sad noises, and the knowledge that I had unfinished book business hurt my brain. I'm going to try to write about them, but quickly, because I have other stuff to do.

First up: An anthology called Queers Dig Time Lords, a "celebration of Dr. Who by the LGBT fans who love it." Like all anthologies, this one includes too much and is wildly uneven. Its 27 essays include far too many that are essentially autobiographical anecdotes about the role Dr. Who played in lives of young queer people. The first few are interesting and invoke at least some shared memories; probably every queer kid who was exposed to books and TV has this same relationship, if not to Dr. Who, then to some other work that aroused interest and hinted at possibilities. Ask any lesbian of about 50 about Harriet the Spy, Jo on Facts of Life, or the wonder that was Cagney & Lacey, for instance.

The trouble with these familiar stories, of course, is that they're familiar. I found that the fun of reading about a shared experience shifted quickly into impatience. It didn't take me long to start skimming any essay that started with a quick precis of the author's childhood circumstances, not willing to invest in a full reading unless I saw some hint that this one was managing to say something new, or different, or unusually insightful.

The strongest essays in the book are the ones that deal less with an individual's relationship to the show, and more with questions of what it means to perform a queer reading, and what it means for a show to allow—or, sometimes, to disallow—that queer reading.

It's been my experience that this idea of queer people actively engaging with creative works in order to situate ourselves and our experiences within them, and to use them in our formation of self, is one that straight people have a hard time grasping. One time on Facebook, I mentioned the Holy Trinity of the pre-coming-out teenage lesbian of the late 70s and early 80s: Jodie Foster in anything, the aforementioned Jo, and Buddy on the show Family. A straight friend of about my age commented, "Huh. I don't remember that plotline." I wanted to shake her and say, "Don't you get it? It wasn't a plotline. Nobody gave us plotlines. They gave us girls who were just the least bit less girly than all the other girls, just a little bit tougher, who had something of a way about them that spoke to something in us we hadn't so much as named yet. We turned them into role models and objects of affection."


Hell, yes:

Oh, hell yes.

Two out of three of these actresses are out lesbians now, by the way.

It's been my experience that heterosexual people not only struggle to understand how very important the possibility of queer readings are to us, but that they can be actively hostile to the possibility. Last year, in a MetaFilter conversation about this essay on Harriet the Spy, it took only until the third comment for people to start denying the possibility of a queer reading of Harriet or the Boy with the Purple Socks,  or suggesting that claiming a queer reading was akin to thinking Bert & Ernie on Sesame Street are gay. As a queer person, it's hard to hear people denying something that nobody is claiming as a fact. Nobody says, I don't think, that Harriet M. Welsch or Janie is a lesbian. What so many of us experienced in the late 60s and early 70s, as 11-year-old proto-queers ourselves, was that Harriet, changing out of her school clothes and into jeans and ratty sneakers, and spending her afternoons going to places she wasn't supposed to be, called to us. And what we understand now is that she called to that part of us that was queer.

I remember loving the illustrations in that book. When I was in early elementary school, girls were still being forced to wear skirts to school, though by the time I was in late elementary school this was no longer true. I have friends who remember forced skirt-wearing as traumatic, as a denial of their identify and self-expression (myself, I liked skirts except for the need to hold them up when hanging upside down on the monkey bars). But then there was Harriet, who came into the world in 1964—just one year before I arrived—looking like this:

I didn't know which I wanted more: to be her, or to be near her.

The thing straight people seem to have trouble understanding is that a queer reading of a work doesn't foreclose any other readings. If you loved Harriet the Spy because it included a girl who was a scientist or a sweet, nurturing boy who cooked or, like a whole generation of writers of assorted genders and sexual orientations, because you really understood what was up with Harriet and that notebook and her need to observe and to write down what she saw, that's fine and good. It doesn't take anything away from you for little pre-pubescent lesbians to grab onto Harriet and hold on tight. But for those little lesbians, it can mean everything to have a hint, here and there, that who they are and what they want exists in the world. Harriet the Spy was one of those hints.

Louise Fitzhugh, by the way? A lesbian. A butch lesbian, my hand to god. And she wrote a book, Amelia, that was about two girls falling in love. She couldn't get it published and the manuscript is lost. But it existed. She wrote it. I'm glad to know it.

My point is that we had so little. And so many young people coming up today still have less than you might think in terms of access to stories, role models, images of the erotic that speak to them. Queer readings allow us to take that little and make much of it. In a good essay in Queers Dig Time Lords, "Bi, Bye," Tanya Huff writes:
There are complaints from the, shall we say, straighter parts of the world, that if you're queer, you're always trying to find the queer subtext. To that I say, 'Well, duh.' Everyone wants to find the 'me-shaped door' that lets them into the story. Unlike those straighter parts of the world, we have to search for it because if it's there at all, it's usually buried deeper than the pea in The Princess and the Pea. (p. 87)
In addition to Hoff's essay, which focuses on Jack Harkness, I very much enjoyed Amal El-Mohtar's essay "Sub Texts: The Doctor and the Master's First and Lasts," which, among other things, explores the way that the Stephen Moffatt Dr. Who closes off expansive queer readings of subtext by providing explicit, but limited, queer text. She writes:
...when you're a queer woman of color...consuming film and telelvision and books is often like being handed beautiful, elaborately sculpted meals with bits of cockroach poking antennae and carapace out of the sauces and souffles. You try to eat around the bugs...but you can't quite get away from the fact that they've flavored the dish and will probably make you sick. But you have to eat, or go hungry.... 
If consuming media was like picking bugs out of impressively prepared food, subtext was like a waiter slipping me some ingredients on the sly with a knowing wink and suggesting I make something myself. 
In many ways, it was even more freeing to me than explicit representations of queer desire, because it allowed, even depended, on my participation and imagination. By drawing me into a world of potentials which I could have a part in determining, it gave me power. (pp. 63-64)
For El-Mohtar, there is something to be preferred about the old Dr. Who, when he was portrayed as a more-or-less asexual being; no story about his loves or his sex life could be denied, because none were being told. Everything was still possible. "Since Stephen Moffat became showrunner," she writes, "the reboot has favored token explicitness over the vastness of subtextual potential, especially where men are concerned.... To take Series Six as a case in point, Canton Delaware III has a black male lover whom we never see, and the existence of whom is delivered as a punchline; we get a gay male couple...who have no names besides 'the fat one' and 'the thin one,' also presented as a wry joke." (p. 65)

She's naming an important phenomenon here: that, on the one hand (and not just in Dr. Who), it's exciting, almost dizzying to have so many explicitly named gay and lesbian characters show up in our media. On the other hand, most of the time explicit naming is all we get. El-Mohtar writes, "Ultimately, I long to be shown as well as told about queer relationships. So often we only get one or the other—shown same-sex desire that dare not speak its name, or told about same-sex desire that dare not show its face.... Russell T. Davies in Torchwood has given us a lot of queer sex without meaningful queer relationships; Steven Moffat has given us queer characters in relationships who never so much as hold hands on screen." It's a complicated trade-off between having almost no representation at all, but the freedom to imagine what isn't named, or having representation that falls short of what is needed and simultaneously, by telling a story, forecloses some of possibilities of the collaborative queer audience.

Brit Mandelo takes the idea of collaboration between audience and work even further in "Torchwood, Camp, and Queer Subjectivity." Her essay opens, "the first thing I saw of Torchwood was a clip excerpted from the opening episode of the second season." If you are a fan you know immediately which scene she's talking about:

If you don't care to learn by clicking, I'll tell you that this is the scene where Captain Jack Harkness is reunited with Captain John Hart, and they demolish a bar in a passionate eruption of kissing, fighting, and drinking. Mandelo says it's camp. And not only that, but so is everything else in the show. And this is important for queer folk because we get camp. She says, "The interrelationship of camp and gay culture hearkens back more than just a few decades, and...some of the first stuff we may have seen that looked a little bit like us came in the form of campy, over-the-top comedies." (p. 157)

It's hard to define camp for folks who aren't familiar with it, and I think it's impossible to ever define it briefly, but Mandelo does a pretty good job:
...the sense of camp in Torchwood is part of its distinctly queer ethos, part of what makes it speak directly and understandably to me. If we take camp according to the terms I've been applying to it throughout—exaggerated, theatrical, parodic, ironically nostalgic, over-the-top in reference and performance alike—it's pretty obvious where Torchwood fits on the continuum; John Barrowman's performance of Captain Jack Harkness alone dings every point on the checklist. (p. 158)
This is a nifty point, that queerness is not just about content but about style. ("Of course it is, dear," my inner gay man says, saluting me with a martini glass and sardonically raising one perfect eyebrow.)

I thought, when I started this, that I was going to crank out a quick three paragraphs so I could finally return the damn book to the library. That didn't happen, obviously. Probably because this question of queer readings is more important than you might give it credit for. It's not just a game. It's a survival strategy.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Throwback Thursday: My Wedding Day

I recently pulled a bunch of old files off a computer that was being retired, and it's been kind of fun to dip into them. Today, for Throwback Thursday, I share a write-up of Raider's and my wedding day, which happened when I was about five months pregnant with the Lego Savant. I was a grad student at  the time, and was taking an expensive anti-nausea medication because I was very sick during that pregnancy. I ran out of prescription coverage, and we hoped I could do without the meds. That turned out not to be true, so we decided to get married to get me on Raider's health insurance.

I remember that Raider proposed to me on the stairs, which I had made it only halfway down before being unable to proceed. I called to him and he brought me saltines and applesauce. In my memory, I felt like I might throw up. In Raider's memory, I had thrown up, and since he's the guy who had to clean up, we might trust his memory over mine. We had a running joke earlier in my pregnancy where, after a bout of upchucking, we'd say something like, "At least if I had to throw up in the living room, I made it to the wastepaper basket!" Then that had to be downgraded to, "At least I made it off the rug and onto the hardwood floor," like a cat with a hairball. And so on.

What we both remember is sitting on the steps, feeling discouraged that my nausea had come back so quickly after I went off the Zofran, and we remember the words of Raider's proposal: "I think it's time for that shotgun wedding we've been planning."

This report was written to friends and family.

The Romantic Engagement, February 4, 2001

Really, this will be quick. I just want to let people know that I've now been off my anti-nausea meds for six days, and after several days of feeling worse and worse, I started throwing up again yesterday. I feel like all I did yesterday was cry. Today I feel more cheerful, though still nauseated.

I talked to my practitioner about less-expensive medication options, and it turns out that I have very few. Apparently most of the available ones are related to compazine, and my bad reaction to compazine back in December means I can't take any of them.

Therefore, Raider and I are going to get a marriage license on his lunch hour today. I called the district court for information about civil ceremonies, and it turns out it's so simple that by the time I got off the phone I had made us an appointment for Friday afternoon. That's a weird thing to put in your calendar: "Wedding, 2:30 Friday." Especially since I picked Friday afternoon instead of Friday morning because I already have an appointment on Friday morning, and this way I don't have to cancel it. And then, of course, I should add: "Pharmacy, 3:00 Friday." My coverage under Raider's insurance is effective as of the date of the wedding. Woo-hoo.

It struck me funny that the scheduler at the district court didn't blink at all when she asked me when we wanted to get married, and I said, "Um, sometime in the next week, I guess? Is that possible?" I wanted to say, "Really, we're not rushing into anything. We've been together 7 1/2 years, it's just that I'm taking this really expensive medication my insurance won't cover anymore." How's that for a good reason to get married? Perhaps we should work it into the vows.

I don't feel very good about getting married this way, but it seems like the best choice right now. And Raider keeps framing it as "once this is done, we'll be legal next-of-kin," which does feel very positive. Perhaps we should work that into the vows, too: "Raider, I hereby take you as legal next-of-kin, with all the rights and obligations pertaining thereto, including the right to take a very expensive drug and have it paid for by your health plan." Then I throw up into a nearby potted plant, and then Raider says, "Su, I hereby take you as legal next-of-kin, in sickness (obviously) and in health (someday, with any luck)." And then the magistrate pronounces us, and the waiting ambulance rushes us to the Sparrow Professional Building pharmacy, where I fork over $800+ for my medication and pop one on the spot; then we rush to Human Resources at CoreComm Formerly Voyager.Net, slam the license on the desk, and say, "Sign us up, and by the way may we please have a claim form?"

The Ceremony, February 9, 2001

I think the baby might have had hiccups this morning. I felt movement that was very regular in exactly the same place for 2-3 minutes, which is not something that has happened before. Cute.

I wrote a huge long e-mail yesterday all about the Wedding Day, and just as I was finishing, lost it in a computer crash. Sigh. Normally I’m really good about saving as I go, but of course you have to get zinged every now and then. I suppose I could just write a short version for you now, since re-writing a thing that has already been written is so tedious. I think the short version would be something like this:

License gives my last name as "Pen" (but my father's as "Penn") and states Raider’s birthplace as the imaginary town of Bismarck, South Dakota. These errors are corrected. Quick drive from county clerk office to courthouse. Glamorous lunch at Arby’s on the way. Romantic ambiance at the courthouse: Guy in handcuffs, many lawyers, and disgruntled people involved in lawsuits share the waiting room. Many tedious jokes about "last chance to back out." Ceremony: 27 seconds flat. "Raider, you may kiss your bride"--blech. Vows otherwise unobjectionable. Also unmemorable. No ID requested from any party involved, bride, groom, or witnesses, at any time during entire process. Bride, groom, and witnesses convinced there is a lucrative scam in that fact if only we can figure it out.

Let’s see…what is worth expanding in that? Cora found a blue marble in the parking lot at Arby’s and we decided that counted for my something new and something blue. When it became clear that neither Raider nor I had brought any cash, we thought for a moment that the 10 bucks for the wedding might have to be the something borrowed, but fortunately the court takes checks. When I got my receipt from the clerk, it read "Received from Su Penn. On behalf of Penn, Su," which struck me funny. The clerk then yelled "Hey, Mike, feel like doing a wedding?" which made all four of us laugh.

Since we did not want to repeat vows or exchange rings, the service consisted of Raider and I holding hands, each being asked a short question to which we replied "I do," and then Toots and Cora signing the wedding certificate in triplicate, two copies for the county clerk and one, with a gold seal, for us. The question we were asked was quite acceptable to both of us, though the whole thing happened so quickly that we have some trouble remembering it. On the way out to the car, we were trying to recreate it, and I said, "I remember we promised to support and encourage each other in all the conditions of life, but there was something else…I just can’t remember it…what was it?" Toots said. "Uh,  love." Oh, yeah. I find it interesting that a purely civil ceremony requires us to promise love, support, and encouragement. I mean, we've been loving, supporting, and encouraging each other for 7 1/2 years. But I guess now it's a legal obligation.

The wedding was sandwiched into quite a busy day. I got up in the morning with 4 pages of my 5-page paper still to write, and suggested to Raider that if he drove himself to work I could re-claim the round-trip drive time to write. At 9:50, I went into the kitchen for a glass of juice, and noticed the time. At that point, I had 6 pages of my 5-page paper written. "Why was I worried about finishing this?" I asked myself. "We have three hours before we have to leave for the wedding."

Back at my computer, I suddenly remembered I had a massage at 10:30. OK. So I wrote for another 20 minutes, put on my coat, and reached for the car keys. No car keys. Ever since the key broke off in the ignition last year, there has been only one useable key for our car, so it's very important that people not leave it in their pockets but hang it on its special hook by the door. Imagine my disgruntlement upon discovering that Raider had not left the key hanging on the hook. "That darn Raider took the key!" I said to myself. Then I remembered that he had, of course, taken the key because he had, at my request, taken the car. Great.

I stole Toots's car, hoping that this would not be the one morning in 20 when he had an appointment or an errand to run before noon. My massage was lovely, and left me with a very pleasant feeling of physical and emotional well-being. It also left me with massage hair, a special oily, spiky look I get after she finishes massaging my scalp. This ended up being my wedding coif, as I had to use the hour between the massage and leaving for the wedding to finish my paper, print it, proof it, and print it again, leaving no time for hair-washing. My paper was coming off the printer just as Toots was thundering damply down the stairs after his shower which was just as the clock was chiming 1 p.m.

Toots and I quickly discovered that one of the problems with quickie weddings is that there is so little time to think through the details. For instance, Toots and I knew we were supposed to pick our friend Cora up at 1, but neither of us had been told whether we were collecting her at home or at work. We guessed work, and were fortunately correct. Then we discovered that no one had told Toots that we were also picking Raider up, so he had had no opportunity to clear out the Supplemental Storage Area in his car so that a 4th person could sit there. This was quickly accomplished in the parking lot at CoreComm Formerly Voyager Dot Net, in the steady rain which had by that time been falling for over 12 hours.

The rain made us grateful we had decided against the outdoor wedding in the park.

After the wedding, we dropped Cora back at work, put my paper in Dr. Arch's mailbox, and went for ice cream. Then we decided it might be a good day to finally get my birthday present, a $50 CD shopping spree I had been promised in October but had been too sick to take advantage of. So Toots, Raider, and I wandered pleasantly in and out of used CD shops in East Lansing (in the rain), picking out CDs. "What a pleasant day we're having!" we kept saying to each other, meaning that we had enjoyed eating ice cream and were enjoying wandering around town together.

When we got home, we discovered that, not only had Raider's 120 megabytes of memory, ordered only the day before, arrived days before he expected it, but the new computer books he had ordered from and anxiously awaited all week had also arrived. "What an exciting day for you!" Toots gushed enthusiastically, knowing how much fun Raider was going to have installing his memory and reading his new books ("Programming the Perl CGI" and "Learning Red Hat Linux."). We kept laughing at ourselves because we kept saying what a great day it was, completely forgetting that we had been married in the course of it.

Of course, we weren't feeling romantic about the wedding and it didn't represent a new level of commitment for us. Raider and I commented that it didn't feel much more significant than the last time we were in the county seat, last August, to execute a quit-claim deed. But one significant thing is that I did, on Friday morning, re-fill my prescription and start taking my medication again. If past experience is any guide, I should start feeling better today or tomorrow.

I will say this about the last two weeks: although I have been nauseated all the time, my stomach has hurt, and I have, on occasion, thrown up, it has not been nearly as bad as it was in the fall. I've been able to have pretty normal days, to continue to go to classes, run errands, do my housework, do my animal chores (and some of Raider's, since he's been sick with a cold all week). But it has also been two weeks of feeling steadily worse each day, so who knows how bad it might have gotten--I am very glad to have my little pills back.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Edison Robotics: Early Review

Quick recommendation for the Edison robot. I kickstarted the project ages ago, and got our robot just in time for Christmas, but you can now order from the company website. Edison is a little two-wheeled robot with built in sensors. He comes pre-programmed with several typical robot programs like obstacle avoidance, clap-controlled driving, line-following, light-following, and being controlled by your TV remote. In a very nifty innovation, these programs are activated by having him drive over barcodes, so it's easy to get started without having to hook him up to a computer, and it takes only a second to change from one program to another.

This means that Edison is very nearly instant gratification, because figuring out how to get him doing these cool things is easy peasy lemon squeezy; the Tiny Tornado, for instance, is Edison-independent after about ten minutes of practice with me. TT is building mazes for Edison to navigate with his obstacle sensors right now.

But! Edison is also programmable with free downloadable software, for kids who are into that. I don't know the limits of his programmability. And he has stud and tube connectors that are Lego-compatible.

There are three downloadable books for Edison. The first is You're a Controller, and teaches the basics of using the preset programs; this is what TT and I have used, and it's well-designed and clearly written. The second is You're a Programmer; there's a draft on the Edison website. And the third, which is forthcoming, is You're a Builder, which will focus on Edison's Lego compatibility.

The website also has a free downloadable mat to print, about 24x36", which includes a line-following maze and the preprogrammed barcodes.

I strongly recommend Edison if you've got a kid interested in robotics. It costs only $49. For $89, you can get two, and make them interact, for instance with the robot version of Sumo wrestling. It avoids both the cost and the start-up challenges of Lego Mindstorms, so it's great if you're just into casual robotics play, but seems like it could be a great first robot for a kid who will develop a more serious interest.

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.