Dec 092013
 

Imagine a country in which small children are given coloring books figuring a leading politician.

Coloring books that describe the politician in “non-partisan and fact-driven” terms. A lengthy speech becomes a “magnificent feat”, during which the dear leader spoke with “clairvoyant precision”. The goals of political opponents are “worse than any war”.

This coloring book is “approved by teachers and educators”. It is “designed to be a fun, educational tool”. Parents are encouraged to “Tell the truth – Tell it often – Tell the children”.

If you thought I was describing a North Korean coloring book featuring the “Great Successor” King Jong-un or his daddy or granddaddy, think again.

That is because the abomination that I just described was in fact published in the great United States of America. Its title: “Ted Cruz to the Future™ – Comic Coloring Activity Book“, published by Really Big Coloring Books®, Inc.

And it is available at Amazon for the bargain price of $5.69. Or it was, anyway; presently, it is shown as “Temporarily out of stock.”

 Posted by at 2:56 pm
Nov 072013
 

I have been collaborating with John Moffat on his modified gravity theory and other topics since 2007. It has been an immensely rewarding experience.

John is a theoretical physicist who has been active for sixty years. During his amazingly long career, John met just about every one of the iconic figures of 20th century physics. He visited Erwin Schrödinger in a house where Schrödinger lived with his wife and his mistress. He was mentored by Niels Bohr. He studied under Fred Hoyle (the astronomer who coined the term “Big Bang”). He worked under Paul Dirac. He shared office space with Peter Higgs. He took Wolfgang Pauli out for a wet lunch on university funds. He met Feynman, Oppenheimer, and many others. The one iconic physicist Moffat did not meet in person was Albert Einstein; however, Einstein still played a pivotal role in his career, answering letters written to him by a young John Moffat (then earning money as a struggling artist) encouraging him to continue his studies of physics.

Though retired, John remains active as a member of the prestigious Perimeter Institute in Waterloo. I don’t expect him to run out of maverick ideas anytime soon. Rare among physicists his age, John’s knowledge of the science is completely up-to-date, as is his knowledge of the tools of the trade. I’ve seen physicists 20 years his junior struggling with hand-written transparencies (remember those, and the unwieldy projectors?) even as John was putting the finishing touches to his latest PowerPoint presentation on his brand new laptop or making corrections to a LaTeX manuscript.

More recently, John began to write for a broader audience. He already published two excellent books. His first, Reinventing Gravity, describes John’s struggle to create a viable alternative to Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, a new gravity theory that would explain mysteries such as the rotation of galaxies without resorting to the dark matter hypothesis. John’s second book, Einstein Wrote Back, is a personal memoir, detailing his amazing life as a physicist.

John’s third book, which is about to be published, is perhaps his most ambitious book project yet. Cracking the Particle Code, published by the prestigious Oxford University Press, is about the decades of research in particle physics that resulted in the recent discovery of what is believed to be the elusive Higgs boson, and John’s attempts to explore theoretical alternatives that might make the Higgs boson hypothesis unnecessary, and provide alternative explanations for the particle observed by the Large Hadron Collider.

I had the good fortune of being able to read the manuscript earlier this year.  My first reaction was that John took up an almost impossible task. As many notable physicists, including Einstein, observed, quantum physics is harder, perhaps much harder, than relativity theory. The modern Standard Model of particle physics combines the often arcane rules of quantum field theory with a venerable zoo of particles (12 fermions and their respective antiparticles, four vector bosons, eight gluons and, last but not least, the Higgs boson). Though the theory is immensely successful, it is unsatisfying in many ways, not the least because it fails to account for perhaps the most fundamental interaction of all: gravity. And its predictions, while exact, are very difficult to comprehend even for trained theorists. Reducing data on billions of collisions in a large accelerator to definitive statements about, say, the spin and parity of a newly observed particle is a daunting challenge.

Explaining all this in a form that is accessible to the interested but non-professional reader is the task that John set out to tackle. His text mixes a personal narrative with scientific explanations of these difficult topics. To be sure, the technical part of the text is not an easy read. This is not John’s fault; the topic is very difficult to understand unless you are willing to invest the time and effort to study the mathematics. But John’s personal insights perhaps make the book enjoyable even to those who choose to skip over the more technical paragraphs.

There are two points in particular that I’d like to mention in praise. First, John’s book is amazingly up-to-date; as late as a few weeks ago, John was still making small corrections during the copy editing process to ensure that everything he says is consistent with the latest results from CERN. Second, John’s narrative always makes a clear distinction between standard physics (i.e., the “consensus”) and his own notions. While John is clearly passionate about his ideas, he never forgets the old adage attributed to the late US Senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan: John knows that he is only entitled to his own opinions, he is not entitled to his own facts, and this is true even if the facts invalidate a theoretical proposal.

I hope John’s latest book sells well. I hope others will enjoy it as much as I did. I certainly recommend it wholeheartedly.

 Posted by at 1:11 pm
Sep 032013
 

One of the giants of the golden era of science-fiction, indeed a co-author of one of the most influential science-fiction novels of all time, The Space Merchants, passed away yesterday, just a few weeks shy of his 94th birthday.

I think it would be a fitting tribute if a future space probe took his ashes to Venus and scattered it in the planet’s atmosphere.

 Posted by at 11:12 am
May 082013
 

Many years ago, I came across a strange miniseries on the Canadian science fiction cable channel Space. I could not make heads or tails of it, but its atmosphere was captivating. Later, when all four episodes were broadcast in a late night marathon, I taped them all (yes, taped them; it was that long ago). A few weeks later, I came across that same tape, began watching, and I was forever hooked.

This is how I first encountered Mervyn Peake’s remarkable trilogy, Gormenghast.

Needless to say, I soon bought the book and read it in no time from cover to cover. It was an amazing read. There are only a few books that I can think of in my (admittedly limited) reading experience that I found as profound as this one: for instance, Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, or Marquez’s 100 Years Solitude.

The omnibus edition of the Gormenghast trilogy that I read contained more than just the three novels. It also contained a brief fragment from a fourth novel. A novel Peake never had a chance to write, due to his debilitating illness and eventual untimely death.

Nonetheless, the fourth novel, Titus Awakes, did end up being written. Not by Peake but by his wife and life partner, Maeve Gilmore. Shortly after Peake’s death, Gilmore attempted the impossible: she tried to finish the novel that her husband was not able to complete.

The remarkable thing is that she succeeded. In every respect, Titus Awakes is a true continuation of the Gormenghast cycle. It is a poignant novel that even incorporates a marginally autobiographical element, an attempt by Gilmore to turn back the clock to happier times and to tie the story of the protagonist, Titus Groan, to that of her own family.

This manuscript sat hiding in an attic for decades until it was recently found by Peake’s descendants. Gilmore herself passed away almost thirty years ago. What are the odds that a manuscript of such significance is found after all this time? Yet it is here, and for fans of Gormenghast, it is well worth reading.

I have read the Gormenghast trilogy twice already, and undoubtedly I will read it again. But the next time, I’ll not stop reading at the end of the third novel; I will also re-read Titus Awakes.

 Posted by at 5:30 pm
Dec 252012
 

Deforest_Kelly_Dr_McCoy_Star_TrekI am so not into “franchise” novels, novels that are written-to-order, set in the universe of an established franchise like Star Trek. Like franchise computer games, franchise novels tend to be hollow, weak, transparent attempts to capitalize from the success of the original work.

I like Star Trek. Over the years, I did read the occasional Star Trek “franchise” story, but they did not leave much of an impression. So I was not particualrly motivated to read another.

That said, when I recently read about Provenance of Shadows by David R. George III, a franchise novel written to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the series, for reasons I can no longer recall I became sufficiently intrigued to read the sample chapters on Google Books. They were enough to get me to buy the book. I do not regret doing so.


Spoiler alert


This book tells the story of an alternate timeline. Namely, the alternate timeline created by the events in the famous Star Trek episode “The City at the Edge of Forever”, in which Dr. McCoy finds himself in 1930 and, as we later learn, by preventing the death of a social worker, gravely alters history. The social worker, Edith Keeler, is a devoted pacifist; in the alternate timeline, she launches a pacifist movement that becomes powerful enough to delay the entry of the United States into World War II. This gives Hitler a chance to achieve victory on the Eastern Front, Japan a chance to conquer much of the South Pacific including New Zealand and parts of Australia, and most alarmingly, gives the Nazi atomic bomb project a head start.

I find this “alternate history” timeline compellingly believable. We tend to think that the defeat of the Nazis was a historical inevitability but it was by no means preordained. Suppose the United States adopts a different posture in the Pacific in the late 1930s and early 1940s, so that Japan has easier access to raw materials and oil, and feels less threatened by the US Navy. Suppose this convinces Japan that defeating the US is not a priority. No Pearl Harbor in 1941 means no opportunity for Stalin to move a huge, well-equipped and experienced winter fighting force from Siberia to Moscow, and the first successful Soviet counteroffensive never happens. There is a good chance, then, that Hitler would have captured Moscow in early 1942 and after that, Stalin’s government may have collapsed. With the resources of the Soviet Union secured, Hitler would have finished “pacifying” Western Europe, including Great Britain. Had this happened, the world in which we live would be a very different place today.

McCoy’s struggles to avoid altering history and later, to understand how he altered history, and his struggles to come to term with his own demons both in this alternate history and also, back in the 23rd century in the original timeline, make this book a compelling read. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

 Posted by at 2:58 pm
Dec 142012
 

There were many short science fiction stories I read in my misguided youth, like Van Vogt’s Dormant, that left a lasting impression.

Promise Them Anything, by Dean McLaughlin, is a delightful “first contact” story. Impeccably polite aliens arrive and tell the United Nations that they’d like us to vacate their property, for it was them who created the Earth and they are now here to mine it. The protagonists, who are diplomats, successfully explain to the aliens that humanity does not have the ability to remove itself from its planet of birth, as it lacks the know-how and the technology. The aliens, ever polite, respond by installing a supercomputer that contains all their collective knowledge, then they leave. Subsequently, not all the protagonists live long enough to meet the aliens again (some were too old already) but several of them are still alive a thousand years later when the aliens show up again… but they never come closer to the center of humanity’s growing interstellar empire than tau Ceti.

Another great story was Evensong by Lester Del Ray. It is about an individual being chased by a relentless opponent that wishes to imprison him. The chase takes them to a planet that the fugitive recognizes as the place where it all began. Ultimately, the Usurper corners him; there is no escape. “But why?” asks the fugitive, “I am God!” – “I know,” replies his pursuer. “But I am Man. Come!”

galaktika24Finally, Hungary once had a world-class science fiction anthology, Galaktika. Volume 24 of this anthology was dedicated to Spanish science-fiction. In it, I read a story attributed to a “J. M. Lois”, titled Anticuerpos (Antibodies). (I can’t find anything about a writer by this name online.) It is about a time-traveling lifeboat of sorts on an otherwise barren planet that we soon recognize as future Earth. The protagonists were sent forward billions of years to find out why humanity was set to die out just after its greatest triumph: defeat of a cosmic danger that threatened the existence of the entire universe. Slowly we learn the answer: humanity was the universe’s response much as a biological organism produces antibodies to fight off disease. When the antibodies are no longer needed, they wither away. And indeed, the technological marvel of that temporal lifeboat lives on as a bright point of artificial light for a little longer… but the planet on which it is positioned is now truly lifeless.

I don’t read science fiction stories that much anymore. I’d like to think that it’s not because I am older, but because the Golden Age of Science Fiction is no more, and great stories like these just don’t get written that much anymore.

 Posted by at 5:14 pm
Dec 042012
 

I spent a lot of my misguided youth reading science fiction. I particularly liked short stories.

Dormant, written by A. E. Van Vogt, is set in the years immediately following the end of the Second World War and the first atomic explosions. The hero (if it can be called that) of the story is a giant slab of rock, which turns out to be a sentient machine that has lain dormant at the bottom of the sea for untold millions of years until it was woken by trace amounts of radioactive energy as a result of nuclear fallout in the ocean. When this 400-foot slab of rock climbs out of the sea and up a hill, it attracts the attention of the US military, which ultimately decides to destroy it with an atomic weapon. The sudden flood of energy was all Iilah (for the rock had a name) needed to wake up fully and remember its mission; after which, it destroys itself in a gigantic explosion, dislodging the Earth from its orbit and causing it to plunge into the Sun. For Iilah’s purpose was to destroy a solar system. And even if it had known that the war it was designed to fight ended eons ago, robot bombs are not designed to make up their own minds.

This story was written by Van Vogt in the 1940s but much to my delight, I just came across a sequel published on the Web in 2012. Written by a Bruce Munro and titled After Dormancy, it gives humanity, in the author’s own words, “a slightly happier ending…”

 Posted by at 4:01 pm
Nov 192012
 

One of the best known Russian science-fiction authors from the Soviet era, Boris Strugatsky, died today at the age of 79. Together with his brother Arkady (who died in 1991), they wrote some astonishing, unique novels, including some of my favorites: Monday Begins on Saturday and It’s Hard to be a God. But they are perhaps best known for the short story Roadside Picnic, immortalized in film by Andrei Tarkovsky under the title Stalker.

 Posted by at 5:10 pm
Nov 172012
 

The other day, creators of The Big Bang Theory (the television sitcom, not the cosmological theory) accomplished something astonishing.

They managed to replace in my mind the iconic number 42 (the answer to the Ultimate Question about Life, Universe and Everything, from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams) with the number 43.

I am still reeling from the shock.

 Posted by at 12:03 pm
Sep 082012
 

Here is a scary story: after a university professor referred jokingly to two absentee students as “spooks”, he became the subject of allegations of racism despite being well-known for his previous work on civil rights and racial equality. It so happened that the two missing students were African American, a fact of which the professor was unaware.

This Kafkaesque nightmare was the inspiration of a novel, “The Human Stain”, by author Philip Roth. Yet the novel itself became part of a Kafkaesque story on Wikipedia recently. That is because the Wikipedia entry falsely stated that the novel’s inspiration was a New York writer. When Roth asked for the article to be corrected, he was told by a Wikipedia administrator that “I understand your point that the author is the greatest authority on their own work, but we require secondary sources.”

Wikipedia’s goals to have facts backed by sources and to not contain original research are laudable. But sometimes, they go a tad too far (to say the least), a situation I ran into myself when contributing minor edits to entries about certain television series. Original research is one thing, but when prima facie evidence that is available for all to check contradicts a “secondary source”, shouldn’t it be obvious that the secondary source is simply wrong?

The story does have a happy ending, though. Now that Roth published an open letter in The New Yorker, the letter itself qualifies as a “secondary source”, and the Wikipedia entry is now updated. But if anything, this resolution just adds to the Kafkaesque surrealism of the story.

 Posted by at 6:06 pm
Sep 042012
 

Speaking of books… A couple of weeks ago, I received my copy of The Hunger Games on Blu-Ray. I knew more or less what to expect but I was still amazed. I am trying to imagine that conversation somewhere in a movie company boardroom where the producer made the pitch: “I am planning a movie in which two dozen children brutally murder each other…” It’s a near miracle I think that this movie was made, and a genuine miracle that the result was not sweetened up by Hollywood.

The brutality of The Hunger Games is not self-serving. Its dystopia teaches a young audience a lot more than what a first kiss is like or how to survive a life-and-death game with a bow and arrows. It teaches them about choosing and betraying (or be betrayed by) friends. It teaches them about choosing when all your choices are evil and immoral. It teaches them how not to trust any authority. How life can be lethally unfair. How the protected world in which children live is merely an illusion. And the sequels, if possible, are even better. Yes, I now read them all, and I cannot wait to see them come to life on screen.

 Posted by at 1:13 pm
Sep 042012
 

I just finished reading a chilling Swedish dystopia: The Unit, by Ninni Holmqvist. Its title caught my eye when Google Play on my new tablet offered it at a discount, for only $1.99. I read the first few chapters for free and I was hooked.

The Unit paints a frightening picture of a society in near-future Sweden, in which childless people past childbearing age are sent to state-of-the-art facilities, Reserve Bank Units, to live out the rest of their lives in perfect comfort… as dispensable subjects of medical experiments and organ donors, submissively awaiting the day of their “final donation”.

I just hope that the mentality depicted in this book is not in any way representative of the way people think in present-day Sweden.

 Posted by at 12:58 pm
Aug 232012
 

Ray Bradbury would have turned 92 yesterday. Were he still alive, perhaps he would have appreciated this birthday gift: the landing site of NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars was just named in his honor.

And Curiosity is now leaving tracks in the Martian dirt at Bradbury Landing.

 Posted by at 10:35 am
Aug 042012
 

I admit I read Ayn Rand’s magnum opus from cover to cover several years ago. I may not be an adoring fan, but… I get Ayn Rand. I think I understand her and I certainly appreciate her message.

She was trying to create an intelligent ideological counterpoint to radical collectivism. Her novels always suffered from heavy-handed, preachy writing; it’s sometimes hard to decide if the author meant what she wrote or if it was a clumsy attempt at satire. Still, the message of Atlas Shrugged is not to be shrugged off (pun intended). It is a magnificent defense of free market capitalism, enlightened selfishness as the driving motor of a successful society, but dragged down by collectivism, entitlements, corrupt politics and lobbying.

One thing Atlas Shrugged doesn’t represent is populism. In fact, it is the antithesis of populism. Which is why I found it ironic that some of the support for the recent movie adaptation came from neo-conservative circles such as the Tea Party. Perhaps they don’t realize that their views are almost as contrary to Ayn Rand’s teachings as the presumed “socialism” of Barack Obama. Ayn Rand’s enlightened capitalist heroes are not ignoring facts that they find inconvenient. They aren’t advocating off-loading hidden (e.g., environmental) costs onto the rest of society. They simply do not believe that anyone has a right to demand their self-sacrifice. They do not owe anything to society. They have a right to what they own: their assets and their ideas. Okay, Ayn Rand sometimes took it a bit too far; some of her heros, after all, turn to overt terrorism in order to defend their ownership rights.

Anyhow, I just finished watching Atlas Shrugged Part I, courtesy of Netflix. It’s not a great movie by any means, but it was better than I expected. As a matter of fact, it was less preachy than Ayn Rand’s book, which certainly helped. I am not sure I approve of the idea of moving the story’s setting to the near future. Ayn Rand’s original story had a sense of timelessness. Keeping its timeframe ambiguous, but with a kind of 1950s, early 1960s atmosphere also could have helped avoid a somewhat artificial explanation behind the importance of railroads. Still, the rewrite wasn’t clumsily done, and I am actually looking forward to the sequel, if it is actually produced. (Supposedly, it is in the works.)

Yes, I am looking forward to watching Atlas Shrugged, Part 2… even as I am rooting for Obama’s re-election. Does this mean that I am delusional?

 Posted by at 10:51 pm
Jul 282012
 

I first read Mervyn Peake’s astonishing Gormenghast trilogy years ago, shortly after I discovered the eponymous 4-part BBC miniseries, shown back-to-back one late night on Canada’s SPACE channel.

It was a case of instant love. The book is one of my all-time favorites.

Now I re-read the trilogy, in all its glorious 1000+ pages. Gormenghast is a unique book, genre-defying. It is a Gothic novel without ghosts or much by the way of horror. It also turns into a genuine science-fiction story, but in which the futuristic background is just that, a background, a vehicle for storytelling, nothing more. It has humor and tragedy, even macabre comedy in unexpected places. It is also surreal; the castle Gormenghast may be on this Earth but it probably isn’t, it may exist in the present but it probably doesn’t. In fact, at one point I began wondering if it actually may be hiding somewhere in the near infinite landscape of Larry Niven’s Ringworld. Its monsters are thoroughly human and its heroes are flawed. Its language is very rich… indeed, from time to time, I paused occasionally and re-read a sentence or two (or three or four) aloud, just enjoying the words.

Somewhere I once read that Gormenghast is The Lord of the Rings for adults, and there is some truth to that, although Gormenghast is not really a fantasy story at all.

The saddest part is that Gormenghast is unfinished. The author was already struggling with a debilitating case of Parkinson’s disease while writing the third novel; the fourth was never written, only some barely legible scraps remain, written in shaky, undecipherable handwriting.

But now, the fourth book (a version of it anyway) is out there after all. It was Peake’s widow (who worked closely with his husband throughout the writing of the trilogy) who took it upon herself to finish the novel. Sadly, she also died but her notebooks were found, and the family decided to publish the result. I just ordered the soon to be available paperback version. I don’t know what to expect… posthumous sequels are often disappointing, but there are exceptions.

 Posted by at 10:14 pm
Jul 202012
 

43 years ago today, the lunar module (nicknamed Eagle) of Apollo 11 touched down in the Sea of Tranquility, fulfilling a centuries-old dream of humanity.

Too bad that the 40th anniversary of the last Moon landing is rapidly approaching. That, if you ask me, is four wasted decades of manned space exploration.

Incidentally, the book The Eagle Has Landed, by Jack Higgins, was the first English-language book I ever read, sometime in the late 1970s. It was given to me by my aunt (the one who, sadly, is no longer with us) when I complained to her that I was having a hard time improving my English. That particular book, along with several others, was lost when the post office lost a parcel from my Mom. Thanks to Amazon, I managed to replace them all, with one exception: an English-language collection of 11 science-fiction stories that was published in Soviet-era Moscow.

Reading books is a good way to learn a language. My French leaves a lot to be desired (being able to utter a meaningful sentence would be nice) but what little I know I was able to improve by trying to read Jules Verne’s De la Terre à la Lune in French. I first read that book (in Hungarian, of course) at the age of six, in 1969… just as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the Moon.

 Posted by at 12:45 pm
Jun 062012
 

The author of the Martian Chronicles, Fahrenheit 451 and many other classics is no more; Ray Bradbury died today at the age of 91. Maybe one day his ashes will be taken to Mars, where they really belong.

 Posted by at 11:51 am
Mar 202012
 

I am holding in my hands an amazing book. It is a big and heavy tome, coffee table book sized, with over 600 lavishly illustrated pages. And it took more than 30 years for this book to appear finally in English, but the wait, I think, was well worth it.

The name of Charles Simonyi, Microsoft billionaire and space tourist, is fairly well known. What is perhaps less well-known in the English speaking world is that his father, Karoly Simonyi, was a highly respected professor of physics at the Technical University of Budapest… that is, until he was deprived of his livelihood by a communist regime that considered him ideologically unfit for a teaching position.

Undeterred, Simonyi then spent the next several years completing his magnum opus, A Cultural History of Physics, which was eventually published in 1978.

Simonyi was both a scientist and a humanist. In his remarkable, unique book, history and science march hand in hand from humble beginnings in Egypt, through the golden era of the classical world, through the not so dark Dark Ages, on to the scientific revolution that began in the 1600s and culminated in the discoveries of Lagrangian mechanics, thermodynamics, statistical physics, electromagnetism and, ultimately, relativity theory and quantum physics.

And when I say lavishly illustrated, I mean it. Illustrations that include diagrams, portraits, facsimile pages from original publications decorate nearly every single page of Simonyi’s tome. Yet it is fundamentally a book about physics: the wonderfully written narrative is well complemented by equations that translate ideas into the precise language of mathematics.

I once read this book, my wife’s well worn copy, from cover to cover, back in the mid 1990s. I feel that it played a very significant role in helping me turn back towards physics.

Simonyi’s book has seen several editions in the original Hungarian, and it was also translated into German, but until now, no English-language translation was available. This is perhaps not surprising: it must be a very expensive book to produce, and despite its quality, the large number of equations must surely be a deterrent to many a prospective buyer. But now, CRC Press finally managed to make an English-language version available.

(Oh yes, CRC Press. I hated them for so many years, after they sued Wolfram and had Mathworld taken off-line. I still think that was a disgusting thing for them to do. I hope they spent enough on lawyers and lost enough sales due to disgusted customers to turn their legal victory a Pyrrhic one. But that was more than a decade ago. Let bygones be bygones… besides, I really don’t like Wolfram these days that much anyway, software activation and all.)

Charles Simonyi played a major role in making this edition happen. I guess he may also have spent some of his own money. And while I am sure he can afford a loss, I hope the book does well… it deserves to be successful.

For some reason, the book was harder to obtain in Canada than usual. It is not available on amazon.ca; indeed, I pre-ordered the book last fall, but a few weeks ago, Amazon notified me that they are unable to deliver this item. Fortunately, CRC Press delivers in Canada, and the shipping is free, just like with Amazon. The book seems to be available and in stock on the US amazon.com Web site.

And it’s not a pricey one: at less than 60 dollars, it is quite cheap, actually. I think it’s well worth every penny. My only disappointment is that my copy was printed in India. I guess that’s one way to shave a few bucks off the production cost, but I would have paid more happily for a copy printed in the US or Canada.

 Posted by at 4:38 pm
Feb 202012
 

I just finished doing our taxes. It’s not very complicated (I keep good books) but it still took a few hours. I feel drained… and not just in the wallet. Groan.

Speaking of Groans, I am re-reading the story about the 77th Earl of Groan, Mervyn Peake’s incredible trilogy about the mysterious castle of Gormenghast and its inhabitants. I became aware of this book some 10-odd years ago when the Canadian cable network Space showed the eponymous BBC miniseries; I had no idea what I was watching, but I got hooked by its atmosphere. Later, I bought the book and read it, and what a read it is! Now I decided to read it again, taking my time this time, enjoying every sentence, every turn of phrase. After spending hours with tax software, retiring to my bed with Gormenghast will be quite the relief.

The tax software I use is GenuTax. It is decent, perhaps not the best, but it has an advantage other tax packages lack: it does not require Activation nor does it incorporate other Draconian DRM technology. This is why I switched to this software many years ago. I am disgusted by software companies that treat us all like would-be criminals. Unfortunately, GenuTax is not doing well; their business model is a losing one (lifetime free upgrades) and I worry that they won’t be around much longer, which will be a pity.

 Posted by at 10:48 pm
Feb 202011
 

Years ago, back in 2002 to be precise, I had an idea. Having just re-read Tolkien’s immortal The Lord of the Rings trilogy, I suddenly realized that there may be two sides to this story. That the book, which I enjoyed so much and read so many times, may just be an overly simplistic version of the history of Middle Earth, as told by the victors. So what if I tried to write down the history of the One Ring and the all-encompassing War of the Ring between Gondor and Morder from the perspective of a Mordorian orc?

I actually sat down and began writing the story, but I never got past the first page. No author, I.

Little did I know that the story I wanted to write was already written, published by a Russian author, Kirill Yeskov, in 1999. In it, just like in the version I envisioned but never wrote, Gandalf is a great manipulator; Aragorn is little more than a highway robber turned usurper; and the “evil empire” of Mordor is, in fact, a land of industry, science, and technology, despised by the magic-wielding but oft illiterate feudal lords of Middle Earth’s West.

In short, Yeskov wrote the story I wanted to write, only he did it much better than I could or would have. And Yeskov’s book is finally available in a (very) decent English translation, as a free download. I downloaded it yesterday, printed it, even bound it in the form of a little book, and now I am enjoying every page of it. Yes, surprisingly, it is actually a page-turner! And also an eye-opener.

I have no idea yet how the story will end. The ending will probably be a lot less neat and tidy than the ending of Tolkien’s version. But, it may also be a lot closer to “reality”.

I think it’s a fitting irony that Yeskov’s book was never officially published in English, as publishing houses feared the wrath of the Tolkien estate. When we say that history is written by the victors, what we really mean is that the victors are usually successful at preventing any version of history other than the official one from reaching bookshelves. It seems that the situation is no different in the case of Tolkien’s fantasy world.

 Posted by at 9:50 pm