Here in Massachusetts the day to day temperatures have been close to those in Pune, India, my recent home away from home. Humidity is much greater here … yesterday outside doing some errands the feeling was like being in Mumbai, 33 degrees C and 75% humidity. Hereabouts weather often resolves itself sharply. Around 6 pm the skies quickly darkened and as if a switch was flipped suddenly we had heavy rain and cannon-shot thunder, for about 30 mins. After all was cool, calm and lightly breezy, the cloying touch of high humidity gone from the air. This harsh weather was a pleasant diversion for myself and Kim; we sat on our back porch relaxing, sipping wine while the downpour drenched a few backyard grillers in our immediate neighborhood, or set dogs to yowling whenever the thunder cracked.
Weather on the other side of the world can do much worse than drench your cookout or scare the family pet. In India and Pakistan the monsoon is not yet done and this past week more than 200 people perished in floods from powerful rains. I still follow India and South Asia news and so I see these things as they happen, but I daresay most westerners know the danger the extremes of weather pose in that part of the world, perhaps remembering the Bangladesh floods of 1974 and 1984.
It’s common sense that variations in weather are more dangerous for people in rural India and for people in USA. But, how much more dangerous exactly? I came across an interesting paper on this very thing, Weather and Death in India (Burgess, Deschenes, Donaldson and
Greenstone, 2011). The paper is math-intensive and I’ve only done a cursory reading, yet the methodology seems interesting. The authors related day-to-day mortality reports to temperature (and other factors) and related variability in temperature to variability in mortality. Here’s one of their graphs:
A baseline day has a temperature of 22 – 24 degrees C. The blue line shows how mortality in the USA goes up or down, on average, on days of higher of lower temperatures. This blue line is pretty flat; your chance of dying in the USA stays the same no matter the temperature.
The red line is rural India. Lower temperatures have broad effects on mortality, but not at all levels. But look at the higher side of the chart. As the temperature increases to 26, then 30, and finally 36, mortality rate increases consistently. (Note that the units here are the natural log of the mortality rate, not the mortality rate itself, so a change of 0.01 means quite a lot.)
Well, everyone seems to complain about the weather but no one does anything about it. That’s not the Salazar way, though. We’ve already taken initial steps towards getting a photovoltaic solar system for our home; in fact this coming week we have scheduled site visits from two contractors we are evaluating. This expected PV system will certainly save us a lot of money and, I like to think at least, in a tiny way will lessen the risk of extreme weather for everyone. More news on this when we get the detailed proposals.
Back to the weather and particularly the plight of farmers in India and South Asia I believe the proper way to think about this is based on a single word: Freedom. In the USA we talk about freedom all the time; I need to be free to shout out whatever blather I wish, to own massive amounts of weaponry, to pay my workers as little as I can get away with, even to pollute because I think it is cool. But the Indian farmer lacks a fundamental freedom we Americans have forgot we have: Freedom from weather. Amartya Sen, the Nobel prize-winning economist and native of Bangladesh, speaks about this at length in his book, Development as Freedom. His argument there is the world’s poor suffer from “unfreedoms”; while ostensibly free to do what they want they are in fact without choices, they must labor in pre-determined ways or die; they are in fact if not in name, slaves: slaves to hunger, slaves to bosses, to bureaucrats, and to the weather. At the end of his book, he cites famous lines by William Cowper:
Freedom has a thousand charms to show,
That slaves, howe’er contented, never
The “thousand charms” are choice. For me I can be soaked by rain or not, depending on my mood. Everyone deserves the choice of watching the weather – or not – without fear.
Afraid further pic-posts from our London trip will have to wait, as I am later today off to the US for our yearly Collaboration-Services Conference, IBM Connect 2014. There among the things I will do is present an hour-long session in video-panel format, with 10 developers from my worldwide team answering questions and sharing insights about IBM Sametime. Though I have no fears about the software holding up, networking at these events is always tricky, so wish me luck.
But before I go I wanted to award a Mighty Marvel No-Prize to my good friend Tom, who correctly identified the location of the crowd-shot in my last post as The Rosetta Stone. The shot above is closest I could get and was taken 1-handed with camera aloft. I guess seeing as this is an artifact at the British Museum that virtually everyone has heard of, it’s not surprising people would cluster round. But for those of us who read neither hieroglyphics, nor demotic, nor ancient Greek (the three languages used on the stone) I can only say it is a nice stone indeed, of impressive heft and neatly done carving, and one that would be a great conversation starter if displayed in the family den.
Now, back to a few hours of work, including some rehearsal for my talk, and then at 6:30 pm my time I embark to Mumbai to begin the journey towards Orlando and all things Collaborative and Mousey. I should land in Florida around 6 pm Saturday local time, for an elapsed travel time of about 35 hours. Such are the joys of international business life.
Amiante said to Ghyl in a voice Ghyl would never have recognized, “Take the papers. They are yours. Keep them safe.” He went into the square and sat upon a bench.
Ghyl hid the portfolio under the roof-tiles. An hour later welfare agents came to take Amiante away.
When he returned after four days, he was bland, easy, indifferent. A month later he fell into a dull mood and slumped into a chair. Ghyl watched him anxiously.
Amiante dozed. When Ghyl brought him a bowl of gruel for his lunch, Amiante was dead.
I first read these words over 30 years ago. Since then I have re-read them … 10 times? 15? They are from Emphyrio, one of my favorites of all the works of Jack Vance, who died this past Sunday. The book tells the story of Ghyl Tarvoke. Inspired by the legend of the hero, Emphyrio, and by the courage and lonely death of his father, Ghyl overthrows the “lords” who economically and spiritually oppress his world. His weapon: Truth. Along the way Ghyl experiences love, loss, the infuriating futility of religion, the bleak helplessness of totalitarianism, and a whole host of human weaknesses.
One reason I enjoy the words above is because of the author’s control. Up to this point we know the young Ghyl has tremendous respect and love for his father, Amiante. Yet Vance spares us the tortured outpourings of feeling so typical of today’s writing, instead choosing to make his message with the very starkness of the scene. Later in the book we reflect on the life of Amiante in one of the ironic twists Vance is so famous for. In Ghyl and Amiante’s society, duplication (or “duping”) of any kind is forbidden; the social and economic rule of this planet is that duplicates are inherently worthless and only unique handcrafts command enough value to trade with. Amiante is a wood-carver; earlier in the book we see him execute a carved wooden screen he names “Remember Me”; for this work he receives a pittance, what we would call minimum wage. Later, when Ghyl escapes the planet and travels to other worlds, he comes upon his father’s screen in a shop:
The screen had been carved to represent a lattice festooned with vines. Hundreds of small faces looked earnestly forth. Remember Me, read the plaque. Near the lower right-hand corner Ghyl found his own childhood face. Close at hand, the face of his father Amiante peered forth.
He entered the shop; a clerk in a black and white robe of a mercantile functionary approached him. “Your will, sir?”
“The screen in the window — the price is four hundred and fifty bice?”
“Correct, sir. Somewhat costly, but an excellent piece of work.”
Ghyl grimaced in puzzlement. Going to the cabinet, he inspected the screen carefully, to learn if it might have been damaged or misused. It seemed in perfect condition. Ghyl peered close, then all his blood turned cold and seemed to drain to his feet. He turned slowly to the clerk. “This screen is a reproduction.”
“Of course, sir. What did you expect? The original is priceless. It hangs in the Museum of Glory.”
To try and sum up Emphyrio in a few sentences is as futile a premise as trying to “recover an elixir … inadvertently spilled in the sea”, to use another Vance image. Rather than attempt either feat, I will instead essay a few observations on Vance and why I find him so engaging. This seems to me a nervelessly easy task – ‘”Simplicity itself”, as Cugel would confidently declare.
No writer of SF&F can match Vance in the number and impact of his imaginings. His earliest work, The Dying Earth, is an invention of incredible power: An Earth, billions of years in the future, where every possible achievement of science and magic has been made and forgotten countless times, and where the Sun is feeble and almost extinguished. For many writers this would have been a career in itself.
But Vance’ well of ideas seems endless. Consider The Moon Moth. Just a short story, yet in a little space he crafts a wondrous society where communication is done via music and the medium of economic exchange is strakh, or prestige. Again, for other writers this would be an entire franchise; for Vance it’s almost an after thought.
Then there’s Rhododendron Way, a sort of religiously-mandated system of prostitution instituted by the chillites, a sect Vance presents in The Anome, first book of the Durdane trilogy. It is on Rhodenderon Way that Dystar the Druithine (a kind of philosopher-troubadour) encounters the indentured woman Eathre and fathers Mur, who later takes the name Gastel Etzwane. Again in a little space Vance puts forth an idea that captures at once the full force of the hypocrisy of religious fundamentalism, and also the bittersweet nature of the human condition as well.
Vance’ ideas are not the mechanistic kind so often associated with SF; Vance has no equivalent of the 3 Laws of Robotics, for example. As far as I’m concerned, that’s good; Vance’ ideas are not algorithms or scientific cleverness, they are reflections of human nature – as when he articulated the principle of magic in the Dying Earth, where the very words of a spell are so potent and fraught with power that a human brain can only recall a limited number at any one time.
Thinking of Vance’ characters here’s what occurs to me … Kirth Gersen, Cugel the Clever, the Mad Poet Navarth, Shimrod the Magician, Aila Woudiver, Madouc, Suldrun, Wayness Tamm, Magnus Ridolph, Rhialto the Marvellous, Viole Falushe, Lens Larque, Traz Onmale, Ankhe at afram Anacho, Iuconnu the Laughing Magician, King Casmir of Lyonesse, Hildemar Dasce. In my mind is a picture of every one of these – should I meet any one of them I feel I know what they will say.
Any Vance reader can rattle off a similar list of names and I daresay can visualize their favorites just as I can mine. This is because as effortlessly as he envisages new worlds, Vance creates memorable characters, each invested with style, substance and feeling. Vance brings these people to life with actions, as when the boy Traz Onmale first saves Adam Reith – at the cost of his place as tribal leader – in The City of the Chasch; and with words, like these from The Palace of Love:
Gersen interrupted one of Navarth’s dissertations. "Is it here we can expect Viole Falushe?"
"Where else but here?" demanded the mad poet, now somewhat drunk. "Where the heart of Earth beats the thickest blood! Thick, purple, smelling of must: like crocodile blood, the blood of dead lions. Never fear! You will see your man! … What was I discussing? My youth, my squandered youth! At one time I worked for Tellur Transit, investigating the contents of lost suitcases. Here, perhaps, I gained my deepest insight into the structure of the human soul … "
Vance does get criticized for his female characters. It is true he has no real female protagonists, but there’s no law that says a male writer must do so. And the female characters he has created should not be discounted. In fact it is female characters who lead all the action in the Lyonesse Trilogy: Glyneth, Madouc, Twisk, Tatzel, Melancthe/Desmei and, tragically, Suldrun; in a certain sense Aillas, Shimrod and Dhrun, the male leads, are errand boys following the paths set for them by the women. Then there is Wayness Tamm, who has at least half the action in Ecce and Old Earth, where she takes the role of detective tracking down lost documents across a future Europe and South America.
Reviewers and critics often cite Vance as a “stylist”, by which they mean he uses long sentences and a lot of uncommon words. Indeed, reading Vance you will find words like “opprobrium”, “encomium”, “inveigle”, “bathos”, “nuncupatory”, “tremulous” (one of his favorites), and “cachectic”.
Vance is also famous for the words he has invented: grue (an unknown, darkness-loving monster of dire potency), strakh (the currency of prestige in the Moon Moth), rachepol (an outcast with cropped ears), the whelm (name for a miltary force), or deedle, gruff and wobbly (kinds of bulk-processed food, terms adopted for regular use in the Salazar household).
Yet, Vance is more complicated than all this. Take the spareness of Raymond Chandler, the whimsy of Wodehouse, the other-worldliness of Dunsany, the fantasy of L. Frank Baum, the settings and action of Hemingway, the sense of macabre of Clark Ashton Smith, and you will approach Vance’ style as a writer. Which is not to say he is derivative – not more than any successful writer. His synthesis is unique.
To me one of the best examples of Vance style is this, from Suldrun’s Garden:
In the garden the first day went by slowly, instant after hesitant instant, each approaching diffidently, as if on tiptoe, to hurry across the plane of the present and lose itself among the glooms and shadows of the past.
The second day was hazy, less breathless, but the air hung heavy with portent.
The third day, still hazy, seemed sluggish and drained of sensibility, yet somehow innocent and sweet, as if ready for renewal. On this day Suldrun went slowly about the garden, pausing at times to touch the trunk of a tree, or the face of a stone. With head bent she walked the length of her beach, and only once paused to look to sea. Then she climbed the path, to sit among the ruins.
The afternoon passed: a golden dreaming time, and the stone cliffs encompassed the whole of the universe.
The sun sank softly and quietly. Suldrun nodded pensively, as if here were elucidation of an uncertainty, though tears coursed down her cheeks.
The stars appeared. Suldrun descended to the old lime tree and, in the dim light of the stars, she hanged herself. The moon, rising over the ridge, shone on a limp form and a sad sweet face, already preoccupied with her new knowledge.
Isaac Bashevis Singer famously said that the purpose of literature was “to entertain, and to instruct”. The professor and great writer always put the two criteria in that order and when citing this dictum never failed to pause significantly between entertain … and instruct. Yet for something to be literature, the two always go together.
For me, Vance in all his works never fails this test. At his core he was a pulp writer, and I’m entertained by everything he did – from the mannered techno-comedy of Magnus Ridolph to the raw adventure of Tschai to the epic scope of Lyonnesse. But Vance’ works stay with you because there is something more there, something beyond the images, the excitement, the invention. His stories always have, in the broad, original sense, a moral.
The morals in Vance’ stories I am talking about are not always good things, or even terribly deep things. They are ideas like: Liberty is better than bondage, Equity is better than duplicity, Self-reliance is better than dependence, Justice is better than cynicism. As I said, not terribly deep, but still important … and they are there, which is more than I can say for most genre fiction today, which strives only to be shocking or superficially unique in its conceptions. In The Durdane Trilogy, Gastel Etzwane strives to overthrow the oppressive rule of the alien Asutra, who act through though their puppet, the Anome. In The Domains of Koryphon (published as The Grey Prince) and also The Cadwal Chronicles, the key question is, who is entitled to land, those who maintain and protect it, or an undifferentiated, unproductive invading populace? Even in The Eyes of the Overworld and Cugel’s Saga there is a message – what goes around, come around.
Now, Vance I’m sure would disclaim any such significances – he was famous for denying any meaning in his works. But he also said a piece should stand on its own and it is up to reader to discern these messages. I discern in his stories a sentiment that comes from the best of America – for all Vance is loved in Europe he is truly an American writer – Strength, Fortitude in adversity, Adaptability, Exploration of the new, and Compassion for the weak. All mid-century values and maybe a bit paternalistic, but to be valued nonetheless.
With his death there are many appreciations of Vance coming onto the web. Some useful ones are here:
Also if your interest is piqued you should look at Foreverness and Cosmopolis, websites devoted to Vance. A particularly affecting piece is Cosmopolis #41 which contains an article by Norma Vance, Jack’s wife of 62 years who passed away in 2008.
I have rambled on long enough, probably to little purpose – not very Vance-ian of me. I wish I could end things cleanly, like Vance himself ended his Demon Princes series in The Book of Dreams. The hero, Kirth Gerson, has spent his entire life from childhood on pursuing and dispatching 5 master criminals – the “Demon Princes” – who destroyed his home. The Book of Dreams sees the demise of the last and most idiosyncratic of the Demon Princes, Howard Alan Treesong. Vance ends the greatest of his space-operas quickly and cleanly, like so:
Alice put her hands on his shoulder. “And now, what of you?”
“What of me, how?”
“You’re so quiet and subdued! You worry me. Are you well?”
“Quite well. Deflated, perhaps. I have been deserted by my enemies. Treesong is dead. The affair is over. I am done.”
Done indeed. Till next time …
Been an excellent visit back in the USA, one of the first places I went was Wilson Farms, a favorite local market of ours. Back in Pune it is a prime time for mangos, I understand. Here in Massachusetts, our mangos come from Mexico and run about $3.50 – or Rs. 190 – the kg. We certainly have ample fresh veg back in India, but it is hard to find the variety of a place like Wilson Farms.
A good visit, with productive meetings at the Littleton lab, picking up daughter Alex from SUNY New Paltz, playing golf with friend Tom, and generally re-acquainting myself with my USA home. Tonight we dined on beefsteak, accompanied with 2005 Chateauneuf du Pape Chante-Perdrix, followed by a brief stroll outside to survey the grounds at 75 Hillside, and finally watching a movie in the library:
Tomorrow, leave at 5 am or so for a British Airways flight at 8:15 am to London, thence to Mumbai and from their back home to Pune, arriving 11 am or so Saturday. See you all on the flip-side …
Here’s some tips tip for those contemplating a stint as an ex-pat: #1, Plan to immerse yourself in local culture, food, shopping, sightseeing, travel, meeting and conversing with new people. Don’t be isolated – connect.
Tip #2: Get some video games.
Seriously, you and your family won’t be able to do the cultural ambassador thing 24 x 7. You need some downtime, some alone with your family time – you need games.
The game that has swept the Salazar household this past weekend is Dragon Island, free for iPad. This game is like Pokemon … turn based combat, with really cool monsters organized into the traditional air-water-earth-fire model. There’s a role-playing aspect as your hero character – a “monster trainer” – travels around doing the bidding of the Trainers’ Guild and piecing together the also-traditional story of a lost father and mysterious doings at the highest levels of something or other.
Who cares? It’s the planning and the combat that make this game. Seriously, once you start it is hard to stop. First, the monsters are very clever – thus far among the enemies I’ve faced are Bitewings, Mutations, Giant Crabs, King Penguins, Cult priests, Blood Priests, Baby Nessie, plus something called an “Abomination” that is animated as a fat opera singer. Second, your own monsters gain new abilities fairly quickly, and even “evolve” into new forms – for example, a “Fairy”, an innocuous Tinkerbell-like thing that puts 1 enemy monster to sleep, evolves into a “Fairy Queen” which puts many monsters to sleep, and is, shall we say, very attractively rendered.
Here’s another look at the combat screen:
There’s just the right amount of animation here, the enemies slowly floating up and down, with animated question-marks, or ZZs to indicate different conditions, and slashes or explosions to mark each attack. All this is squarely in the Dragon Quest style. and takes about 30 seconds to figure out.
Finally, this game is very forgiving. You lose lots of battles, but there’s no effect on your progress in the game. You just re-spawn in the last town you visited, your battalion of little horrors all healed-up and ready to try again. If you can’t get past a certain boss fight, no problem: Just wander around, level up your monsters, maybe capture some more, then after a while go back and try again.
Net-net: Dragon Island for iPad, super-game, get it. Now sorry, have to go – need to find out what my 20th level Bat Fiend is evolving into …
Ok, Shakespeare was a bit more final in his famous quote. Anyway, political life is lively here in India. From the Hindustan Times:
Police used water cannons against lawyers of Punjab and Haryana High Court here today as the advocates tried to break barricades while protesting the registration of case against some of their fellow members for allegedly manhandling a cop recently.
The full story is here:
The water cannon is a popular tool with authorities here. Here’s a much-circulated picture:
These protests occurred in the aftermath of the now-infamous bus-rape incident in Delhi.
Recently a Facebook friend posted a question on miracles: What were they, and could they be verified. I don’t believe in the traditional definition, loaves, fishes, all that. But I do agree with the poster who said that it is really the unfolding of the natural world by science that deserves the label “miraculous”.
What better proof than the video above. Home Sapiens … sometimes we get it right.