Thursday, March 31, 2011

Rambling Brandon Sanderson Post

I feel like I should write some kind of post about the Mistborn series, seeing as how I went through the effort of reading it, and I sort of feel like I have some decent ideas to write about, and I'm pretty sure that the people reading this blog out of a sense of obligation or friendship tend to read more fantasy books than they do Andrew Sullivan anyways. But I haven't really settled on one big master theme for my Brandon Sanderson/Mistborn Trilogy post that I'm happy with, so I'm going with a hodge podge instead. (Also, there might be spoilers, but I'll try to stay away from super explicit spoilers).

Gender Issues: At first, I thought one of the strengths of the series was that it was one of the better examples I've seen of a story with a female main character and then a male love interest who was interesting and believably attractive, but very definitely a supporting character. By the end of the first book though, that all changed. Pretty dramatically actually. Almost to the point that I suspect that someone who actually had control over the plot was bothered that the male love interest was a supporting character, and thought there needed to be dramatic plot twists to pull him out of that role. I would have much happier if they had left him there.

Cultural Diversity: So, not to put too fine a point on it...but Brian Sanderson is from Utah. And if you're vaguely familiar with other things that are also predominantly from Utah, there's enough correlations with the book that you're left feeling fairly confident that he doesn't just live in Utah because of its spectacular geology. He's also the guy who took over the Wheel of Times series, and I think it's interesting that I only noticed how un-explicit and even vaguely conservative that series has been all along* (compared to say, Game of Thrones, or Kushiel's Dart) when I came at it from that perspective. I'm not really sure where this takes me, besides "interesting," and the realization that the audience for fantasy is pretty heterogeneous.

Magic Systems: If you're the kind of person who is bothered when fictional works, and possibly even fantastical situations (say, dragons flying) don't obey the laws of physics...the Mistborn series at least aspires to be for you. The magic is described in extreme detail, as is the world that it happens on, and the society the characters live in, and just about everything else. I happen to have also just read another fantasy-type book, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which is completely the opposite. It's set in Napoleonic England, so the author can assume a baseline familiarity from her readers, and then the magical system that's superimposed on top of that is alluded to without ever really being explained. It has something to do with books (This leads to an awesome invented murder). So basically, you have two completely different strategies, both of which have their strengths and their adherents. I think you could classify a lot of other fantasy literature along this spectrum, or even different parts of different series. Why you would want to classify it, I don't know, but I generally like trying to understand things...including the reasons why I like certain writers.

Half-baked generalizations: Speaking of looking for patterns in the universe, here is the theory that I'm working on right now: all the standard caveats about generalizations not being hard and fast rules, etc....but I feel like I've been noticing a difference between how male and female fantasy writers write romance. Male writers (Brandon Sanderson, Robert Jordan, Ken Follett, Jim Butcher) tend to write all on or all off love stories. The people who are in love stay in love, they're faithful to eachother, and the love is straightforward. Female authors (Charlene Harris, Jacqueline Carey...ummm, other people) seem to be more likely to write about doubt in relationships, or divided loyalties. Like I said, this is half baked. I'm not really basing this on a huge range of authors, and there are definitely authors who defy my supposed patterns (J.K Rowling, for one). But I am generally interested in how female fantasy writers add something to literature that you might not get from reading all male writers, and the element of doubt is definitely something that stands out at least in Charlene Harris' work (and the lack of it was pretty glaring in Ken Follett's). So I'd be interested if anybody else had any thoughts. (Probably shouldn't have put this at the very end of a super long post...but oh well).

*Think about Berelain and Morgase. And now think about Charlotte in Sex and the City. Compare and contrast. Wheel of Time is pretty conservative.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Trains & the Central Valley

Continuing on the Merced theme I've had lately (maybe Merced themed blog is an untapped market), I thought I'd share a post Megan McArdle had earlier this week that rang kind of uncomfortably true to me. If you're too lazy to read it, basically she's pessimistic about the future of high speed rail in the United States...mostly because she is a libertarian and is contractually obligated to tell us that everything the government tries won't work, but also because there are some very legitimate reasons that it might not. Her point is that in the high density, developed areas that it's most feasible to take a train to and not need a car on the other end, it's nearly impossible to get the land needed to build new railroad tracks. And in the places where obtaining land and building tracks is less of a, say, the stretch of the Central Valley, including Merced, where they say the first portion of the California high speed rail system will be built...there's no clear demand, particularly because of the impediments to getting around in any given city once you get off the train.

Like I said, this rings kind of uncomfortably true to me. I can't remember if I actually voted for high speed rail funding when it was on the ballot...I think it's very likely that I did not, because it would have violated my "voting yes on propositions" principal, and I'm not really sure I can jump on the bandwagon of high speed rail being the solution to all our problems. High speed rail would be the solution to one problem: the amount of pollution created by business travelers ferrying between LA and the Bay Area every day on airplanes, but there are a lot of other problems that there are much simpler solutions to. A lot of traffic could be eliminated if people would just concede the importance of living close to where they work. For the people who really find it essential to live at one end of the Bay Area and work in another, fully funding Caltrain (or Bart) and expanding the number of shuttles going between the stations and major employment hubs would go a long way for a lot cheaper. And for routes where there is no existing rail system, there's really nothing wrong with buses. Honestly, I kind of wonder if a big part of the appeal of high speed rail as a political issue is that it lacks the stigma of other forms of public transportation. Buses are for poor people, high speed trains are for sophisticated international types. Like round-abouts.

All that being said though, I'd have to know a lot more about the economic dynamics of the Central Valley before I decided that a high speed rail system here would be useless. It's important to remember that the primary market for public transportation isn't wide-eyed idealists trying to reduce their carbon impact, but people for whom maintaining a car for each working member of the family in running condition takes up too much of their income. There isn't exactly a shortage of people on bikes around here...maybe a lot of them would happily bike to a train station here, and then bike to whatever job they could get two towns down the tracks. That'd depend a lot on the cost of tickets and the frequency of the trains though. And on whether there are actually better jobs the next town over than there are here. Quickly looking at Amtrak, right now it would take $17 and 35 minutes to get to Modesto, or $21 and just over an hour to get to Fresno from here (Modesto & Fresno being the nearest bigger cities). If high speed rail could be about half as expensive and twice as fast, I bet people would use it. Maybe. (I'm trying to look up predictions of what the fares will be with little luck...but it does seem like less than Amtrak is pretty likely)

Friday, March 18, 2011

Still trying to figure out Libya

Figure out is probably the wrong word. I don't like the idea of trying to figure out something like that, because that kind of implies that I want to look it at it just long enough to plop a nice little label on it, or maybe if it's really complex a summary statement, and then file it away. Probably the better attitude to have is to see yourself as constantly gathering information, but with no delusion that it's ever going to be summed up and filed away.

Turns out though, this kind of thing isn't really an area where I feel confident about my ability to gather information. International relations was my least favorite of the Intro to Poli Sci course series, despite being taught by a guy with an awesome Bulgarian accent (it is possible that the guy himself was awesome, and the Bulgarian accent was just awesome by association, but there's no real scientific way to test that)...I didn't like all the talk of war and death.* So I didn't take any upper division IR classes. My bloggers aren't exactly a huge amount of help either. Turns out, when I go to's international page, despite the fact that Atlantic bloggers make up a big bulk of my's mostly articles by people I don't read regularly. Or people I used to read, but stopped, because I was finding I wasn't really all that interested in their viewpoint. (James Fallows would be the exception, but Northern Africa isn't exactly his specialty and he's writing a book right now anyways.) It might be interesting to consider why that is, and how information gathering works in general...but that isn't really the point of this post. Maybe I'll tackle that later.

Anyways, all that is to say that I'm only managing to barely sift through this, but I did want to share two articles that I did find pretty useful:

I am still completely and utterly without useful opinions

*see also, reasons why I will never be able to successfully write a fantasy novel

Tuesday, March 8, 2011


Moving from San Francisco to Merced (as, I am not sure if you have heard...I have just done), you find yourself rolling downhill* into one of two basic conversations. Either you have to talk about how much there is in San Francisco that you'll miss in Merced, or you have to express what a relief it is to be away from San Francisco and it's crazy cost of living/traffic/general city-ness. Ideally, you combine the two, but tweak the balance just slightly enough to validate the life choices of whoever you're talking to.

When I feel a little less like just accepting the societal slope though, here are my shocking inner thoughts: I think it is possible to be the kind of person who would want to live in either San Francisco OR Merced, maybe even equally much. Maybe I even am that person. I didn't move here because I hated the cost of living, the traffic, or anything city-ish. I moved here because I thought I might like it here also.

I think it's worthwhile to try to let go a little of the us & them mentality people have about places to live. It's a pretty safe assumption that if you take any location on earth, there is somebody who lives at this very moment loving the snow/the warmth/the bustle/the quiet/the something about that place. And I'd kind of like to be that person. I guess it's also nice to be able to label yourself as a city person or a small town person or whatever, but those kinds of labels are exactly the kind of downhill slope that I'm talking about. And right now, something I seem to be fighting.

For an especially intriguing iteration (I think) of people liking the place they live, see here and here. I probably won't get a chance to really get to know half of the places that I think would be really fascinating places to get to know, but maybe if I just specialize in places in California...

*I think this is a great metaphor, but it's possible that it'll just confuse people. What I mean is that feeling of that place that you always end up if you stop making any effort to be anywhere else...the low point in the tent where you'll inevitably wake up in the morning.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The World

So, things are still in transition what with the 134 miles of moving, the new job, and not having internet the past few days. It's my intention at least not to completely give up posting here though.

Not having internet though means that I'm less informed than I've been in years, and with the major political turmoil going on in Northern Africa, which I know very little about (Tunis sheep are awesome and have fat tails....that is what I know about Northern Africa), I'm not going to touch having an actual opinion about anything with a ten foot pole. That, and it kind of seems like a time to respectfully watch, and realize that from our smug position of peaceful government turnovers and mostly academic debates about security vs. liberty it's just not our drama to share. The dynamics are fascinating though. Since it happened pre-move, I feel like I had at least a novice level grasp on the situation in Egypt. I don't have much background in non-democratic politics, but I'm much more interested in them now than I was. Libya seems to be a completely different kind of animal though. I assume that Libya has about the same proportion of rational, self interested people as any other what is the rationale behind keeping a leader who does not seem to be within even a standard deviation or two of sanity?

Ironically, since we've moved, and I haven't had internet or access to the public library, I've been reading whatever is at hand...which has included the following:

Only six people in the Galaxy knew that the job of the Galactic President was not to wield power but to attract attention away from it.  
Zaphod Beeblebrox was amazingly good at his job. 
 - Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
Non-democratic politics are pretty fascinating. The world is a very big place. Douglas Adams was ten kinds of badass.