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Every so often a book comes along that literally changes the way I think about the world. Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions was probably the <cough> paradigm case for me.

Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined is one of these books.

His core thesis, supported by a huge array of data and documentation, is that violence has declined dramatically over time — not always smoothly, not always consistently, past performance does not guarantee future results — but there's a clear downward trend.

The kernel of insight is one of those really-obvious-in-retrospect ideas that changes perspective on a huge amount of history: if you look at conflicts and categorize them not by how many people they killed, but by how many people they killed per capita (i.e. divided by the world population at the time), then generally speaking, the fraction of people who die in armed conflicts has been getting smaller over time. A lot smaller.

Read more... )

Cross-posted to http://rantingnerd.blogspot.com/2012/04/review-better-angels-of-our-nature-by.html.

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I recently read Among Others, by Jo Walton, of International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day fame. (She blogs entertainingly at tor.com. She "live-blogged" re-reading the Miles Vorkosigan saga in publication order, which I found quite interesting. And I commend her post on The Suck Fairy.)

Among Others came out last year and got such effusive praise from other writers that I wondered whether it was a case of a book from "a writer's writer", who (similar to "an actor's actor" or "a comedian's comedian") is someone doing stuff that is interesting but not compelling to anyone other than people in the same field. I am happy to have been proven wrong. Or maybe what it is is that Jo Walton is "an SF reader's SF reader", and since I'm an SF reader, it really worked for me. I do fear that it would not work as well for someone who hadn't been an SF-steeped 15-year-old.

Among Others is the (first-person) story of fifteen-year-old Mori (Morwenna), who has fled her half-insane mother in Wales after an accident that killed her twin sister and shattered her leg. In the summer of 1979, she ends up with her father (who had abandoned them as children), because British law prevents her extended family in Wales from being able to take her in. She is sent to an English boarding school, where she is basically the designated outcast: Welsh, semi-crippled, academically talented, and constantly reading SF and fantasy, which buffer her from the pain of her life.

Oh, yeah — there are also fairies and magic. The magic is (usually) subtle and intertwines slowly through the story.

Half-autobiography (Walton explains in an afterward that getting her own childhood right was way harder than historical research), half-fantasy, this setup could have been a twee or treacle disaster. But Mori's whip-smart, clever-but-not-worldly, astringent voice is a treat to read. I laughed out loud multiple times and subjected everyone within earshot to (sometimes extensive) quoting.

You could argue that "not much happens" in the book — most of the action is interior, but that hardly matters. I enjoyed reading it immensely.

As much as anything, the book is a love letter to reading and interacting with other readers, and to libraries and librarians. A central part of the plot is Mori discovering an SF reader group in the town where her school is located; she had performed a small magic to find herself a group with which to fit in (a karass, in Kurt Vonnegut's language from Cat's Cradle), and it is an open question (for Mori herself as well as for us) whether the magic caused this or if it was just luck, or fate. We get to see Mori read, discuss, and analyze books that were just coming out (or just arriving in England), and there are occasional in jokes for those of us who have read the books she's reading (e.g. Mori wonders about the implication of some feature of a book that, which that book's [still-in-the-future for Mori] sequel will address).

If you've ever been fifteen and reading was an escape, or "merely" a joy, and especially if you were reading SF at that point, I strongly recommend Among Others.

Also of potential interest: Jo Walton's "Big Idea" post on John Scalzi's Whatever blog.

Places to purchase Among Others: Amazon BN Powell's Harvard Bookstore

(Cross-posted to http://rantingnerd.blogspot.com/2012/03/review-among-others-by-jo-walton.html.)
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We have a friend who needs to find a home for two adorable 1-year-old cats, Peaches and Larry. They're very friendly and human-oriented.

Pictures here: http://www2.interstel.net/~jdpaul/peaches_larry/
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I'm way behind the times, but the Hugo Awards Ballot is out. Like this year's Nebula Ballot, all but one of the novel nominees is female. And N.K. Jemisin is on both for The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. I'd vote for that, even over Lois McMaster Bujold. (I enjoyed Cryoburn, but it was no A Civil Campaign.)

And it makes me ridiculously happy that Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury (video, NSFW, obviously) is on the ballot for the Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form.
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"He was born Graf Heinrich Karl Wilhelm Otto Friedrich von Übersetzenseehafenstadt, but changed his name to Nigel St. John Gloamthorpby, a.k.a. Lord Woadmire, in 1914. [...] Lord Woadmire is not related to the original ducal line of Qwhglm, the Moore family (Anglicized from the Qwghlmian clan name Mnyhrrgh) which had been terminated in 1888 by a spectacularly improbable combination of schistosomiasis, suicide, long-festering Crimean war wounds, ball lightning, flawed cannon, falls from horses, improperly canned oysters, and rogue waves."
Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson

Yeah, I pretty much am Neal Steaphenson's target demographic.
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The Nebula Award Nominees are up. Five out of the six nominated novels are by women, and two of those women are African-American. Let's hope this isn't just a demographic blip.

The lone white guy in the group is Jack McDevitt, who consistently shows up on the Nebula ballot. I have no idea why. I've liked some of his books, but they're really not all that good ("workmanlike" is the adjective that comes to mind). There must be some constituency that likes McDevitt and doesn't read anyone else.

In the Dramatic Presentation, I'm not sure about Inception vs. Toy Story 3. Arguably the Toy Story movies are not really SF/F.
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"That noise. Like a cat on fire --"
"It is a surprise for your birthday," Veris explained.
"But what was she doing?"
"Singing, my lord."
"Singing!" Arioso stared at him. "Damiet has no interest in music. She can't wear it."

--From Song for the Basilisk, by Patricia A. McKillip
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I tested out xtranormal.com with some Haverford-related content:

http://www.xtranormal.com/watch/11051679
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I have an HP fax machine that works great except that the paper feeder messes up roughly one page in five and grabs 2 or 3 sheets instead of 1. So it's fine for faxing/copying a page or two, and great for receiving faxes, but it sucks when sending more than a few pages at a time.

If you're interested, let me know.
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For those of you on Facebook, this is a duplicate post. Sorry. :-(

I have a friend who is offering two free tickets to Rufus Wainwright's Boston show Tuesday, August 3rd, 7:30pm show, at the Boston Opera House (seats are Orch.,LC,Row K seats 1 & 2). Let me know if you're interested and we'll get you the tickets.
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