wish, hope, life

2011 Reading List - The Disappearing Spoon

Book Eight

The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean

One of the prettiest books I have on my shelves right now is Theodore Gray's The Elements, a visual collection of all the elements that make up the physical universe. "Everything you can drop on your foot," as he says. In it, he provides wonderful pictures and descriptions of the elements that we know, arranged as they would be in the periodic table. It's a gorgeous book, one that everyone should have - especially if you have children. If you want your kids to become interested in science and investigating the world around them, you could do far worse than to have this book on your shelves.

Eventually, though, they'll be old enough and canny enough to ask, "Well, how do we know all this? Where did we find these things, and how? And why are they in this order?" That's the point where you hand them The Disappearing Spoon, sit back, and let Sam Kean take over.

The story of the elements, and our understanding of them, is governed just as much by personality as by p-shells, as much by competition as by charge, as much by ego as by electrons. While the elements themselves don't pay any attention to human affairs, the quest to understand the building blocks of matter have sent us to the hearts of stars, the depths of the earth and, for various reasons, Ytterby, Sweden. [1]

Kean starts with how he got into the elements, with a story that would horrify modern-day parents: mercury. When he was a kid, his mother would collect the mercury from broken thermometers and keep it in a little bottle on a high shelf. If they were lucky, she would let her children play with it for a while, swirling it around and watching while this shiny liquid metal split apart and fused back together perfectly, never leaving a bit of itself behind. It was a metal that flowed like water, and it was fascinating. If he had known at that age that ancient alchemists thought there were spirits living in mercury, he would not have been surprised.

Keeping an eye out for mercury, he learned that modern scientists are able to follow the expedition of Lewis and Clark using mercury. The explorers carried with them a good quantity of Dr. Benjamin Rush's Bilious Pills, a "cure" for any illness that mainly contained mercury chloride. It was vile stuff, poisoning everyone who took it, but without an FDA around to stop this kind of nonsense, Rush made plenty of money. It probably didn't hurt his credibility that he was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. In any case, he gave samples to the Lewis and Clark expedition, and their latrine sites can still be found today by the unusually high levels of mercury that were deposited there as the men's bodies tried to get rid of the heavy metal as quickly as possible.

Mercury also taught Kean about mythology - the Roman god of communication, modeled on the Greek message-bearer. It taught him etymology - the chemical symbol for mercury is Hg, which is derived from the Latin hydragyrum, which means "silver water." It informed him on literature, especially the Mad Hatter of Alice in Wonderland, who was based on the poor crazies who used to breathe in the fumes of mercury while setting felt for their hats.

This one weird, eerie element was a door into so many other topics that he figured there must be others. And so he started work on this book, a collection of histories and tales, gossip and hearsay, all centered around the 118 physical elements that make up our universe. "As we know," he writes, "90 percent of particles in the universe are hydrogen, and the other 10 percent are helium. Everything else, including six million billion billion kilos of earth, is a cosmic rounding error." Within that rounding error, though, some amazing things have been found.

In the 19th century, the Russian Dimitri Mendeleev examined the common properties of different elements and was able to sort the elements in such a way that took advantage of their similarities. The violent alkalies along the far left, which will explode if given half a chance, and their cousins, the halogens on the far right, some of the most reactive elements in nature. Separating them are the noble gasses, which don't react with anything unless pushed to extremes. Without knowing about electron shells and the weird quantum things that happen on the atomic level, Mendeleev managed to put together a table so good that he was able to leave gaps in it that corresponded to elements that hadn't yet been found. And by telling the world that these gaps existed, the race to isolate and discover the elements was on.

Kean's book is a great look at the way science works on a human level. How the search for high-quality porcelain led to the discovery of an entire class of elements, how Marie Curie would get into trouble by dragging her (male) colleagues into dark closets to show them how radium glowed, how nitrogen kills with kindness and lithium quiets an unsettled mind. The competition to not only find these elements but to name them and find uses for them has driven science forward in all fields, from geology to neurology, for the last two hundred years. Those 118 squares on the periodic table have driven men to travel the world, to create economic and political empires, to love, to hate, and to murder.

If this kind of thing were taught in high school chemistry class, there would probably be a lot more kids interested in science as a career.

The book is very readable, even if it does drift from time to time into more technical areas. One of my colleagues, who doesn't have an extensive background in science, said she was a little slowed down by talk of electron shells and quantum jumps, which I guess were not aided by Kean's elevator similes. But it did get her asking the right questions - how do we know atoms exist if we can't see them? How can we be sure that what is in this book is true?

Those are the questions that Kean tries to answer in the book, but it's also the kind of book that may bring up more questions. It's "gateway science," one of those books that pulls away the cold, rational veneer of the scientist and his or her endeavors, and shows what an exciting, weird, messy and dramatic place science can be. What's more, it shows how science is deeply ingrained not only into our technology, but our language, history and politics. An understanding of science, even at an amateur level, is a wonderful way to open your eyes to the great, complex and bizarre world in which we live.

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"We eat and breathe the periodic table; people bet and lose huge sums on it; philosophers use it to probe the meaning of science; it poisons people; it spawns wars. Between hydrogen at the top left and the man-made impossibilities lurking along the bottom, you can find bubbles, bombs, money, alchemy, petty politics, history, poison, crime, and love. Even some science."
- Sam Kean, The Disappearing Spoon
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[1] The town has the distinct honor of having four elements named after it: yttrium (Y), ytterbium (Yb), terbium (Tb), and erbium (Er). What has your hometown got?
wish, hope, life

2011 Reading List - A is for Armageddon

Book Seven

A is for Armageddon by Richard Horne

You should know by now that if there's one thing I'm really looking forward to it's the end of the world. I don't know why, really. Maybe it's for that feeling that all bets are off, all bonds are broken and you can remake yourself in any image you want. Maybe I really believe that I'll be one of the heroes of the story, who make it through the End Times not only alive but victorious. Maybe I just long to see the world scythed clean of humanity and restarted so the squid can have a go at running things, I have no idea.

For whatever reason, I have a soft spot for armageddon stories. Whether it's Good Omens, The Stand, Swan Song, Crisis on Infinite Earths, or any other story that promises the destruction of a world, I'm all over it. I can't know if they're good, but I'll at least be willing to give them a shot. So when I saw this, I thought to myself, "I must have this book."

The book is based on an organizational system that has gained some popularity in recent years: The Periodic Table of X, wherein X is whatever topic you want to focus on. It was originally designed to accommodate the natural elements, but if you have a hundred or so items, you can probably make your own periodic table to sort through them. You've got the Periodic Table of Typefaces, the Periodic Table of Beer Styles, the Periodic Table of Superheroes, and even - prepare to have your mind blown - the Periodic Table of Periodic Tables of Things.

You never had it so good, Mendeleev....

This book is based on the Periodic Catastrophic, a listing of the many, many ways that the world can end. As with the "real" periodic table, this one is well-organized to keep the apocalypses in line. There are the Acts of God, Don't Mess With Nature, Universally Doomed, and It Was Like That When I Got Here, among other distinctions. Each disaster gets a couple of pages with a succinct explanation and an interesting or humorous illustration. Some of my favorites include:

Four Horsemen Motto: Come and have a go if you think you're hard enough. Direct from the Bible, the Four Horsemen of Conquest, War, Famine and Death will one day roll across the Earth, bringing down everyone in their paths. "Everyone," of course meaning everyone. You don't know when they'll come, but you'll sure know when they get here. Make sure you have your bags packed.

Ecosystem, if only for the picture of the panda strapped to a knife-throwing target. Those pandas have had a free ride for long enough, if you ask me....

Food Chain Collapse - this is one that I find pretty plausible, as far as some of these entries go. We all get mushy and sentimental about the whales and the dolphins, but what about the krill and shrimp and sardines? Without them, we run the very great risk of destroying an entire food chain just to have something to snack on during brunch.

The Gulf Stream Collapse is another one that kind of worries me, and it's my favorite card to play whenever someone comes out with, "Look at all this snow! So much for global warming!" canard. In a nutshell: The gulf stream brings warm water up from the Caribbean to the North Atlantic, which results in a rise in temperature for most of Europe. As polar freshwater ice caps and glaciers melt, all that cold fresh water will mix with the salt water, which could have the effect of pushing the upper end of the gulf stream south. This would mean a substantial temperature drop in Europe, and a general planetwide climate crisis up to and including a new mini-ice age.

Grey Goo is always fun, too. If we manage to build self-replicating nanomachines, which use the atoms around them to build copies of themselves, what's to stop them from just ripping apart every solid object they see? If they don't know when to stop eating and replicating, they could devour most of the world in pretty short order. Nasty, huh?

And of course there are sure-fire world-enders like The Death of the Universe, Sun (the death of) and the Collapse of Causality, the inevitable result of the invention of time travel.

It's an amusing book, with some educational points to make. Strictly speaking, not every one of the scenarios that it depicts has to do with the end of the world. Some of them, like volcanoes, earthquakes, and pandemics, are just natural disasters rather than planet-killers. Others, like obesity and an aging society, are more aimed at problems facing the human race that may inconvenience us, but probably won't destroy us.

And then there are the ones that I suspect were put in just to fill space - in The Solar System , Horne suggests that Jupiter could one day turn itself into a second sun, with disastrous consequences. But that won't happen - Jupiter is much too small to initiate fusion in its core. The same with Supernova - he suggests that Betelgeuse could go up (and it will), bathing us in gamma rays after "crossing millions of light years" to get to us. But Betelgeuse is only 640 light years away - much closer than "millions," but much too far to hurt us when it goes. So it's not so much that the scenarios are implausible - like Alien Invasion or Paradox or Satan, but that they're inaccurately implausible. It makes me wonder what other facts he fudged or guessed on just for the sake of making something sound scarier than it is.

It's got some good tongue-in-cheek humor, and is a clever reminder of all the ways that things can go wrong in this big world of ours. The pictures are very nice, often funny, and good companions to the text, which features helpful hints for surviving each scenario, as well as a guess as to when you should start to panic. All too many of them are labeled "too late."

An interesting note: there is a lot of British English in the book that may surprise readers of American English, such as myself. I had never encountered the adjective moreish (meaning so tasty that you want more of it) until I read this book and am forced to assume it's a British coinage. Also, some of the puns only work if you know the British pronunciation of words. Unlike the editors of Harry Potter, though, these guys did not bow to our American prejudices and re-edit the book. Kudos to them.

So, these are the ways the world ends. Now you know.

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"The only thing worse than a vengeful God is a fickle one."
- Richard Horne, A is for Armageddon
wish, hope, life

Of course, MY students are perfect....

There's been some news going around the teaching blog-collective about one Ms. Natalie Munroe out in Pennsylvania. The reason for this is that she posted on her blog a list of comments that she felt would be more appropriate to some of her students, rather than the canned "Lacks motivation" or "easily distracted." She came up with a list that she felt was more accurate, which included such comments as:

“Frightfully dim”
“Rat-like”
“Am concerned your kid is going to open fire on the school”
“I hate your kid”
“Seems smarter than she actually is”
"Just as bad as his sibling. Don't you know how to raise kids?"
"Dresses like a street walker."

Among other things.

It looks like basically a teacher who had reached her breaking point and decided to vent years of frustration all at once. Of course, she has been suspended from her duties as a teacher, and has become the center of a media circus, with defenders and detractors on both sides. Those who have her back say that there is too much of a burden placed upon teachers to be selfless, unflawed people whose only thought in the world is the betterment of their charges. When a child succeeds, the parents pat themselves on the back. When the child fails, they blame the teacher. Add to that the huge entitlement issues that come from a generation of kids who all got gold medals just for trying hard in gym class and you have a whole lot of pressure as a teacher just to keep these kids awake in class, much less to try and teach them anything.

On the other hand, there are those who wonder why, if she has such strong negative feelings towards these kids, she is even bothering to be a teacher at all? Obviously she's not enjoying her work, and the teacher who doesn't like what she does is not going to teach very well. Clearly she needs to find a career more suited to her temperament. Besides, perhaps the reason the kids aren't learning from her is that they can sense her disdain no matter how she tries to cover it up. They know she doesn't like them, and the feeling is returned in spades.

Here's where I come down on this: Every teacher has thought the exact same thing about their students at one time or another. Any teacher who says, "Why I just love each and every one of them!" is a liar. Maybe they've wiped their memory clean of the bad kids, but I guarantee there has been at least one student in their career who generated fantasies of a burlap sack, some bricks and a river.

But you just can't say these things. Not because you have no right to say them - of course you do - but because it will put you in a river of shit. Comments like this made by a teacher reflect badly on the school and on the other teachers who work there. After all, unless she's a lone sociopath, it's highly likely that there are other teachers in her school who think the same things about the same students, but still manage to slap on a fake smile before every class and pretend they care about how each and every kid is doing. Teachers are held to such a high standard that we are not allowed to air our true feelings in a public forum, lest those true feelings contaminate everyone else. And all it takes is one angry parent, one call from some kind of community group or - gods forbid - a lawyer, and the teacher who was just having a really bad day can find herself out of a job.

And you know what? It really isn't fair. Exhibit A: www.ratemyteachers.com

This is a site where parents and students can rate their teachers in terms of easiness, helpfulness, clarity and popularity, and then leave a comment. I looked up one of my old teachers, one that I rather liked, and found comments such as:

* "Can be a real jackass when you get on his bad side."
* "Okay teacher. Knows his stuff, but he's a little to into himself and doesn't seem to understand that students have lives too. He can put on a big tantrum and thinks his word is that of god."
* "...sometimes he's extremely disrespectful to students"
* "hes got an attitude he should drop it"

On another teacher I had and liked immensely:
* "Plays favorites like a 10 year old baseball coach."
* "Prone to little fits. Only really pays attention to kiss-ups"

On a teacher I picked randomly whom I have never met:
* "one of the most insanely idiotic classes I have ever had. At no point in his rambling, incoherent class was their anything even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought."
* a bullshit buddhist ******* who needs the stick pulled out of his ***"
* "creepy. went for extra help and he'd only talk to the girls..."

This, of course, is an egregious double standard. Students and parents are allowed to heap whatever kind of public abuse they want on teachers, who just have to smile and take it. When a teacher turns around and does the same thing, they get suspended, possibly fired. Thanks to the anonymity of the internet, people feel free to say the things that they would never say to a person face-to-face, and so have no problem loosing all kinds of vitriol against teachers. [1]

But gods forbid a teacher should let loose about what he or she feels. This is even though, unlike the teachers on Rate My Teachers who are being called out by name, Ms. Munroe stays very general and never names the students in question. As she says in a blog entry responding to this situation, "When my boss makes a general comment about something at a faculty meeting that is pointed at certain individuals but not all of us, I don't sit there and think, 'I can't believe he said that about me!' I know if it's directed at me or not. I ask myself, 'Are these things that I do? No? Then it must be for someone else.'"

Likewise, if you're a parent and you don't know if your kid is probably one of the ones she's talking about, then maybe you need to start paying more attention to your kid.

It's absolutely unfair, and not just to the teachers. Students need to be told when they are screwing up. They need to know what kind of behavior is appropriate and what is not. They need to know that what they're doing is not going to lead in any way to a better life, and if that means a teacher resorting to direct language, then so be it. In addition, parents have to be relieved of this myth that their children are all perfect little genius angels. As much fun as it is to try and shift the burden of raising your kids onto the shoulders of a low-wage public school teacher, the fact remains that you are the parent and you are who is ultimately responsible for raising a decent human being. If someone has to slap you upside the head from time to time so that you remember that little fact, then that's what has to happen.

I would truly love to see a "Rate My Students" website go up, available only to teachers, where they could post candid comments about kids and their parents. It would make my heart sing.... [2]

All that said, however, I still think that Ms. Munroe did the wrong thing. Yes, it's not fair, but as Grampa said in The Princess Bride, "Who ever said life was fair? Where is that written?" The fact of the matter is that a teacher just can't say those things in a public place like a blog. The current educational paradigm, wherein all teachers must automatically be selfless saints whose only concern is for the betterment of their students, is harmful and unfair, but that's how it is. If you really can't get through the day without telling someone what schmucks your students are, that's what paper journals are for. Write down everything, put it in a drawer, and feel better.

Once you've done that, you go back to work and try to focus on those reasons why you chose to be a teacher. Take note of the kids who thank you for helping them, who improve with hard work, who come up with well thought-out observations and answers. I felt a warm glow in what passes for my heart when I saw that some of my students had added the books we'd read to their favorite books on Facebook. Cherish those kids and know that there are far more of them than there are of the bad ones.

Still, maybe we need teachers like Ms. Munroe to take one for the team so that people start to think about what being a teacher is actually like. In her new blog, she writes:
"While I never in a million years would have guessed that this many people would ever see my words, and I didn't even intend them to, I stand by what I wrote and think it's good that people are aware now. There are serious problems with our education system today--with the way that schools and school districts and students and parents take teachers who enter the education field full of life and hope and a desire to change the world and positively impact kids, and beat the life out of them and villanize them and blame them for everything--and those need to be brought to light. If this 'scandal' opens the door for that conversation, so be it."

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[1] As an aside, Ms. Munroe's page on ratemyteachers has comments ranging from "No respect for students. Evidenced by her recent blog post scandal" to "Props for speaking her mind. Aren't there more than our fair share of students here who feel and act a bit too entitled? Stop b****ing and start working with your teachers...."

[2] A comment from The Boyfriend made me wonder if we will ever see a TV drama about high school from the teachers' point of view. Other than "Welcome Back, Kotter," nothing is coming to mind....
wish, hope, life

2011 Reading List - JLA/Avengers

Book Six

JLA/Avengers by Kurt Busiek and George Pérez

Everybody loves a good team-up. No matter who your favorite hero is, whether in the realm of sports, music, science, writing, art - you get a secret thrill from the idea of what they could achieve if they worked together. Sometimes it's brilliant, like when Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett teamed up to do Good Omens. Sometimes it's inspiring, like the pop music wonder that was "We Are the World." Sometimes it's overwhelming, like the 1992 Olympic basketball Dream Team. Sometimes it's Damn Yankees, and the less said about that, the better.

Regardless, we all love to play that game of "What if," pairing together not only the greatest talents we know, but sometimes the greatest talents in history. What if Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton could have studied the universe together? What if we could get Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy together to work on the problems facing the nation? What if Kurt Kobain and Jimi Hendrix were able to cut an album together? The team-ups are endless, and most of the time they're impossible.

Fortunately, that's where fiction steps in. The Justice League was created by Gardner Fox and Mike Sekowsky over at DC Comics back in 1960. The idea was to take the greatest heroes the company had in their library and team them up to fight battles that no one hero could face alone - Starro the Conquerer being the first among them, and thereafter many more. Aliens, mad scientists, evil kings, vengeful gods, all those who attempted to conquer, destroy, or devour the Earth were stopped by the League. Though the membership roster has changed many times over the years, as has the style of the books, the League has been a fixture in the DC Comics universe for more than forty years.

As Stan Lee tells the story, the publisher of DC Comics, Jack Liebowitz, bragged over a round of golf to the owner of Marvel, Martin Goodman, about how well his new Justice League title was selling. After the game, Goodman called Lee and told him to create a hero team to compete. Stan's imagination provided him with the Fantastic Four, and a comic book arms race had begun. Lee produced hero after hero for Marvel, conveniently housing most of them in New York City. From there, it made sense to have them get together to fight even greater menaces. With the pencils of comic book legend Jack Kirby, Lee created The Avengers, the mightiest hero team of the Marvel universe. They too have undergone a lot of changes in the last four decades, but they remain the elite team of heroes to which every costumed adventurer aspires.

Superman, Batman, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Flash, Martian Manhunter....

Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, Ant-Man, Hulk [1], the Wasp, Hawkeye....

These are names that every comic book fan should know, and deep down inside we all wonder: what would it be like if they could get together? What's more, what kind of foe would require the combined might of two of the greatest hero teams in comic book history? It could only be something on a monumental scale, something that endangers the existences of both universes. Something like... Krona.

If you're a long-time reader, you might remember that name. Krona was the reason for the Crisis on Infinite Earths - his obsession with seeing the beginning of the universe led to the fissioning of that universe into a nigh-infinite number of parallel ones. It was only after a titanic series of battles that the singular universe was put right, and Krona was transformed into pure energy and banished for his crimes. Or so we thought.

Obsessive to the core, Krona figured out how to escape his universe and started again on his quest to understand the beginning of all things, even if it meant destroying every single universe that defied him. Eventually he came to meet the Grandmaster, an immortal on the Marvel side whose limitless existence drove him to play cosmic games of chance with whatever other great powers he encountered. He knew someone who could possibly answer Krona's questions - the planet-devourer Galactus - and challenged him to a contest: the greatest heroes of each universe would compete to gather items of power. If the DC team won, Krona would leave and search elsewhere. If Marvel's team won, it would bring ultimate destruction to both cosmoses.

And so the teams met, and like all good superhero team-ups, it started with a fight. Something about the two worlds put the visitors on edge, and both Superman and Captain America were willing to pound their opposite numbers into the dirt if need be. Fortunately, as in all good hero team-ups, their differences were put aside in favor of battling Krona and saving both of their universes from utter annihilation.

It's a vast story, both in time and space, and manages to bring together pretty much everyone who has ever been part of the two teams, both in terms of the heroes that made them up and the villains they fought. Yet it feels fairly intimate - these aren't two whole universes that are battling for survival, but two teams, who manage to mesh together surprisingly well. A lot of the credit for this, of course, has to go to the writer, Kurt Busiek, who had the unenviable task of penning a story that made the best - and fairest - use of both teams. After all, never underestimate the partisan fans, the ones who would be utterly incensed by Superman beating Thor, or the idea that Captain America could possibly be Batman's equal in hand-to-hand combat. I'm sure there were people on both sides of the publishing divide who were keeping very careful account of which team came off "better" in this fight, but that's not the way this book was meant to be read. Busiek's mission was to create a threat that could only be contained by both teams together, which means that neither team by itself was enough to win, which means that you should shut up already about whether or not Superman should have been able to use Thor's hammer, dammit.

Even for all the care that went into writing this story, it never would have worked without an artist capable of handling that many characters and making sure they all looked their best. When you have a universe-spanning epic with a cast of far-too-many, there's only one person you can call: George Pérez. Not only can he handle a chaotic battle scene, making every hero look... well... heroic, hes just as good at the casualness of a Christmas party, or the masks-off teamwork that is involved in trying to build a reality-piercing spaceship. Whether facing off against great cosmic powers or chatting next to the coffee urn, Pérez knows how to make these people look damn good. There's just no one else like him. With outstanding colors by Tom Smith, I could just read this book for the artwork alone.

What I also found interesting was a look at how the two worlds are fundamentally different in not only their stories but their very makeup. The Flash can't run in the Marvel Universe because the Speed Force doesn't exist, while the Scarlet Witch's powers are multiplied to dangerous levels in the DC Universe thanks to the strength of the Lords of Chaos. The differences in the geography and the sizes of the Earths, the type of energy they receive from their suns, the fundamental forces that hold their universes together are a huge obstacle to getting the teams to work together, and as far as I know it is the first attempt to "scientifically" delineate how they are different.

There is also a bit of sociological analysis, too. Each team first notices how differently heroes are treated in their opposite worlds. The heroes of the Marvel Universe are tolerated, but not entirely trusted. The non-powered citizenry tend to be more afraid of superheroes, especially the mutants, and so the ability of groups like the Avengers to effect positive change on their world is limited. To Superman, this looks like Marvel's heroes aren't bothering to make their world better, but only remaining satisfied to hold the status quo.

On the DC side, heroes are beloved. Superman is a planet-wide hero, Wonder Woman is an ambassador of peace, and the people of Central City have built an entire museum to honor the Flash. These people revere their heroes as both celebrities and saviors, something that Captain America views as a step towards fascism - costumed gods with their pet people ready to do what they say.

Neither viewpoint is entirely right, but they do reflect a fundamental difference in the way each company approaches its storytelling. To put that editorial decision in front of the characters was an interesting choice, and allowing them to come to their own judgments was fun - if a little unnerving - to read.

All in all, JLA/Avengers is a truly great team-up story, one that should make the fans on both sides happy for a while.

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"Neural chaff. Hypnotic lights. Pre-programmed skills. Try fighting the Wehrmacht, mister - it teaches you focus!"
Captain America to Prometheus, JLA/Avengers

[1] Hulk gets almost no screen time in the story, which is very disappointing. I'm sure there are reasons for this....
wish, hope, life

2011 Reading List - Cosmos

Book Five

Cosmos by Carl Sagan

If you've known me for more than a little while, you know that one of my great loves in this world is science. Even though I tend to get stymied by the math, and I probably couldn't call up all the right data from my head at the right time, it is the idea of science and the stories of science that truly interest me. Just the fact that we live in a universe where it is possible to know how things work, where we can devise a way to look at the whole of creation, from things so large that they defy imagination to things so small that they can barely be said to exist at all. Science is imagination put into practice against the universe, and as much fun as stories and myths are, as hope and prayers may be, science is the best, most reliable way for us to come to grips with the Cosmos.

It is to Carl Sagan that I owe this love of what humans have done with ourselves.

When I was a kid, my father had a copy of Cosmos, and, since I was but a child, I never really read it. I tended more to flip through it for the interesting pictures - the speculative Jovian life forms on pages 42 and 43, the Viking photos of Mars in chapter 5, the gorgeous paintings of the views from other worlds around other stars, the photos of nebulae and galaxies, all of these things fascinated me, and if I had been a bit more patient I would have found out about them. But I was a kid, so that can be excused. What the book did for me was to open my mind to a universe of possibilities that were all within our reach, or at least would be someday.

As I got older, I saw the TV miniseries of the same name on PBS. Now the pictures that I had lingered over in the book were right before me, accompanied by Sagan's soothing baritone. His ship of the imagination somehow managed to take us unfathomable distances from our home and bring us back again. He talked to his viewers like we were intelligent adults, fully capable of understanding and appreciating the vast scope of scientific discovery rather than a bunch of attention-deficit teenagers who couldn't be trusted to keep watching without a jump-cut every ten seconds. Carl Sagan believed, despite the occasional evidence to the contrary, that human beings were capable of overcoming our barbaric pasts and forging a bright new future together in the stars.

The purpose of Cosmos, both the book and the TV show, was to educate. It was, as Sagan put it, "to engage the heart as well as the mind," perhaps to help shed the image of science as a cold and passionless pursuit. He wanted to show how science became what is is, from the ancient scientist/philosophers in Ionia and Alexandria all the way up to the engineers and astronauts working at NASA. It's all part of a long chain of knowledge that ties human history together and which engages one of our deepest desires: to know how the universe works.

Each chapter focuses on a different theme of knowledge - from the way the planets form and what they're like to the nature of the furthest reaches of space. He starts with how Eratosthenes measured the world with just a shadow and some math, and how the ancient thinkers of Alexandria were asking the same questions about the nature of the Earth that we ask today. He follows the tortured path of Johannes Kepler in his quest to understand how the planets move, the arrogant brilliance of Newton as he completely redefined the clockwork of the cosmos, and the casual miracle that Einstein pulled off when he told us that not only are we not the center of the universe but that there is no center. Each great mind led to another.

Unfortunately, each setback cost us what may be valuable time. For all his wonderment, he understood how petty and ignorant human beings could be. From the beginning, and at various points in the book, he reminds us of the millennium we lost with the destruction and corruption of the ancient thinkers of the Mediterranean. As far as we can tell, the men and women who made their home in Alexandria were investigating questions and scientific problems that would have changed the way we understand the world. If the library hadn't been burned down, if religious terror hadn't murdered scientific insight, who knows where we would be today? It's impossible to know, but it's tempting to think that we might have been well on our way to the stars by now.

The latter chapters underscore that theme pretty heavily, reminding us over and over again that we have one world, and only one world. Not only does Sagan fear that we could obliterate ourselves with the nuclear weapons we love and fear so much, but he also fears that self-annihilation may be a natural outcome to any intelligent civilization. Our search for intelligent life on other worlds may be fruitless, because they might be just as self-destructive as we are.

But we don't know. We can't know, at least not yet. Our understanding of the universe is still not clear enough, our technology is still not good enough, and perhaps it never will be. But for all our stumbles and failures, Sagan wants us to remember and understand just how much humanity is capable of, and how good we could be if we really put our minds to it. And in that sense, there is a lot of value to reading it now, thirty years after it was published.

While we have not eliminated nuclear weapons, we have made great strides towards controlling them and reducing their numbers. The hopes that Sagan had for future space exploration - Mars rovers, a probe to Titan, contact with comets - have all been made real, and with outstanding results. We know that the dinosaurs were wiped out by a meteor impact - something that Sagan is clearly unsure of at the time of writing. We have mapped the human genome and developed personal computers that have revolutionized the way we explore space. With the internet, any person on earth can catalog galaxies or explore the moon, there have been advances in nanotechnology and materials and bioengineering and evolution that would have made even Sagan's eyes pop.

Despite all our flaws, we continue to advance. We continue to build knowledge upon knowledge and to further our understanding of how the universe works. Maybe we will one day leave this planet ourselves, perhaps just for a visit or perhaps to start a new world. Maybe if we persist in our quest to comprehend the world we live in, to shut out the howling and screaming of the voices of unreason, we can make the world a better place for generations to come.

In the great argument that is raging these days between the rationalists and the believers, the faithful and the atheists, it has become fashionable to try and shout the other side down. To adopt a position that excludes compromise and promises only defeat for one side or another. Sagan never would have wanted that, and I think he hit upon a solution that needs to be revisited.

Rather than try to turn people to science through cold logic or heated words, through derision and coercion and fear, do as Sagan did: win them over with wonder. The cosmos is too big, and there is too much to know to waste our time with petty arguments and pointless feuds. If you want people to appreciate science, turn to people like Sagan, or Neil deGrasse Tyson, or Phil Plait, or Michio Kaku, or Bill Nye, or Adam Savage,[1] people whose enthusiasm and love of science will instill people with wonder, one person at a time. And it is in that way that we will go furthest towards ensuring humanity's place among the stars.

----------------------------------------------------
"Every one of us is precious in the cosmic perspective. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another."
- Carl Sagan, Cosmos

[1] In the interest of fairness, I tried to come up with female scientists who were at the forefront of popularizing science with the public. I drew a blank. If you know some, please let me know so I can put them on the list....
wish, hope, life

I dreamed I was in a cult....

And not one of the nice ones, either. Not one of the benign bother-you-at-the-airport cults [1] or the ones that quietly kill themselves when something weird shows up in the sky or that encourage you to buy Amway products.

No, this was a full-on Secret Murder Cult, with robes and a huge Aztec staircase and all that you could ask for in an evil, quasi-religious force. I don't remember how I got wrapped up in it, as I am not usually prone to murder, but here's how it worked: the facilities were billed as a retreat for the sick and dying, who would come and stay for a few days, get the whole shebang in terms of rituals and invocations, and eventually get brought to the top of this long, long staircase wherein they would be murdered. Men, women, children - everyone went under the knife eventually. And, of course, I helped.

Maybe it was because everyone seemed so sick and miserable that I thought, "Well, they're going to die anyway, so as long as their deaths serve our nefarious purposes I suppose that's all right. If I was sure what our nefarious purposes were...." Looking back on it, one thing I find interesting was the mixture of religious iconography that my brain threw together. The heads of the cult wore robes that resembled the brown robes of the Franciscans, but during ceremonial duties also wore the traditional Arab keffiyeh and spoke Hebrew. [2] The facilities had a distinctly Catholic look to them, except for the huge stone pyramid out back with the blood gutters. Not a traditional aspect of Catholic architecture, unless I missed something in CCD class.

The last group to come through before my cat woke me up [3] was from Africa. Their party consisted of a few morbidly obese, terminally ill, and fantastically rich people and their families. It was a big group, and I remember thinking, "This isn't going to work." We couldn't let any of them live, after all. That would undermine the "secret" part of our secret murder cult.

And while I tried to work out the logistics of disposing of forty or fifty people, it started to bother me on a more moral level. The few sick people looked up at me when I passed with great hope, as though they really thought we were going to help them. Their families were excited by the prospect of a cure, in some cases actually dancing and talking about how much better their loved ones would be. Which is when it started to dawn on me that maybe - just maybe - mass murder was wrong.

But how to get out of it? I had helped, after all. If I went to the head of the cult and told him I was having doubts, I knew he would either be able to sweet-talk or threaten me into staying. I knew that if I ran under cover of darkness to the police, I would be just as indictable as everyone else, and likely spend the rest of my life in prison. I was still searching for a way out when my cat gently clawed me awake and I thought, "I dreamed I was in a cult...."

Of course, one would be tempted to wonder what this says about me, that my dream-self would have to eventually work his way to the conclusion that murdering people who had come to you for help is wrong. Damned if I know what it means, other than that my brain has too much time on its hands.

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[1] Do they still do that? I imagine Homeland Security would probably take a dim view to that in this day and age.

[2] Or at least what my brain thinks Hebrew sounds like.

[3] With his usual unerring accuracy at 5:00 AM. On my day off. Bastard.
wish, hope, life

My Boyfriend thinks I'm weird

This should come as no surprise to anyone, really. But I did promise to blog more, and this popped into my head. Here's how it came about:

I was making dinner and had Real Time with Bill Maher playing on my phone. I had really wanted to hear this episode, because while I don't quite see eye-to-eye with Maher, I do occasionally find his show entertaining, and this week he had on Neil deGrasse Tyson as his special guest. I have long been a fan of Tyson, and I always enjoy seeing him on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report and his own show, NOVA Science Now. I got to the great moment where he threw a wobbly over how the financial crisis might have been avoided if the nation made teaching math and science - especially math - a priority, and I turned to The Boyfriend and said, "He is my favorite astronomer!" [1]

And he gave me a Look. It's the look that said, "Your favorite what? What kind of person has a favorite astronomer?" He was too polite to put it in those words, but I know a Look when I see one.

I tried my best to explain why I was so excited about the work he was doing, the way he was doing his best to expose the wonders of science and scientific education to the public, and how happy I was that there was someone taking up the job that Carl Sagan left when he died. I tried to explain why I thought it was so incredibly fantastic that right now we have verifiable evidence of planets circling other stars - thousands of them! And some small percent of those planets might harbor life, if not intelligence. I wanted to go on and on about the benefits that science funding brings to a population, why it's important to teach critical thinking to students, why one half of one percent of the federal budget is WAY too little to spend on NASA, and why people should get excited about the progress we're making in understanding the universe.

I wanted to figure out why it is that Justin Beiber is the most searched-for person on Google, while there are probably not one in ten people reading this who have ever Googled Norman Borlaug, much less know who he is. Granted, Bieber has better hair, but still.... This is a man whose research effectively saved a billion people from starvation, who revolutionized the way humanity grows food and eats, and who has won more and better prizes than that Bieber boy - or any of us - could ever dream of.

Anyway, I long for the day that people can talk about their favorite scientists without getting a Look. Until then, I suppose I'll just have to pretend that Lady GaGa and Ke$ha [3] are relevant, just to pass for normal. But secretly, I'll be admiring the big-brained types from afar.

Oh, Richard Feynman, you're such a scamp....

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[1] Running neck-and-neck with Phil Plait. Sometimes it's so hard to choose.

[2] Assuming there are more than ten people reading this...

[3] Who?
wish, hope, life

You know, it occurs to me....

I've pretty much just been posting reviews here for a while. My actual blogging has ceased, and I'm sure there are good reasons for that. The good old social media is always easy to blame, as is the fact that I have a job that takes up more mental energy than before.

In any case, I'll see about getting things in here that aren't just book reviews, as much fun as those are.
wish, hope, life

2011 Reading List - Soon I Will Be Invincible

Book Four

Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman

It ain't easy being Super.

You might be a hero, like Fatale. She is the latest in cyborg technology - a woman who was nearly destroyed in a freak accident, rebuilt by a mysterious corporation and made into the perfect living weapon. She is fast, she's strong, and for a while she was one of the U.S. government's best operatives. But now she's on her own, and life is tough as a cyborg. You have parts to deal with, the need to keep your power source going, and of course it's hard to enjoy a night out when everyone keeps staring at the half-metal woman in the booth near the window. Fatale wants to be a hero, though, and the re-formation of the Champions is just what she needs. If she can prove herself to this team, she can find a new purpose to her life.

If not a hero, you could be a villain. Doctor Impossible has certainly lived up to his name. In his many years of villainy he has come up with just about every nefarious scheme an evil, quasi-invulnerable genius can cook up in his twisted, malevolent brain. He's been to the past and the future, he's swapped brains with the greatest heroes of his age, he's escaped from inescapable prisons more than once. Of all the would-be conquerors on Earth, Impossible is the one who would be voted most likely to succeed. And yet he isn't happy. His life isn't what he thought it would be, and it doesn't take a genius to see that Doctor Impossible has a few problems that even his great genius cannot solve.

When Impossible breaks out of prison - again - the Champions re-form to hunt him down. With old and new members joining together to keep the flame of heroism alive in their world, the Champions are determined to find Impossible and shut him down for good. The only problem is that the person who has always succeeded against Impossible, a hero who calls himself CoreFire, is missing. Without him, their chances are greatly diminished. Against an evil genius like Impossible, who can defeat the team armed with little more than his wits and a false tooth, you want to throw everything you can at him. What's more, the internal tensions pulling at the Champions may defeat them before Doctor Impossible even gets the chance to try.

This book, like so many other modern renditions of super-heroes, has its roots in Alan Moore's Watchmen. While he was not the first to make his superheroes less than super, he was certainly the best, and his work is well-remembered for that. After Moore was done, it was hard to think of superheroes as entirely pure, good and noble. We could see the tensions between them, the neuroses that drive them to do what they do, and we began to understand that our heroes were just like us, only moreso. Ever since then, writers have been trying to de-super the superheroes and make them into regular people who just happen to be able to shoot lasers out of their eyes, break the laws of thermodynamics, or bend steel in their bare hands.

Grossman has taken full advantage of the work that has gone before him in this novel. The story is told from the alternating perspectives of Doctor Impossible and Fatale, and proceeds to deconstruct both the heroes and the villains in visceral, raw detail. What is it like to be a cyborg, something halfway between human and superhuman? And how can you join a team like the Champions, a team of legends among legends, and feel up to the task? What happens when you realize that the heroes you looked up to are just as human as you are? Or at least, as you used to be. On the other side, what makes a villain what he is? What happened to Doctor Impossible that put him on the ever-unfulfilled path to world domination? Was he destined for it, or was it a series of choices, insignificant at the time, that led him to where he was? How did his genius get turned to evil, and what, if anything, keeps him going?

The problem with deconstructing superheroes is that once you've deconstructed them, there's really nothing left. Being a superhero is a fundamentally irrational career choice. Watchmen hinted pretty heavily at this, since all the heroes in the story had been pretty well messed up by their days in tights. There are so many problems that crop up once the spandex and mask are put on that you may find it's not worth the effort. Legal issues, financial problems, time constraints and unstable relationships aside, what does this choice say about your state of mind? What kind of person can take up the job of costumed hero and stay sane? When you come right down to it, even if you have superpowers there are so many other ways you can use them that are less risky and more beneficial to humanity than getting into fistfights that destroy city blocks.

The same goes for villainy. So often you see bad guys with technology that is honestly amazing in its scope - Captain Cold's freeze ray, for example, would make him rich if he patented it and licensed derivative technologies. Much richer than if he ever succeeded at using it to rob jewelry stores. Doctor Doom builds machines that are so far beyond current science that he could rule his own country - oh wait, he does - instead of single-mindedly trying to destroy Reed Richards. Lex Luthor would be grinding his teeth in envy over the power that Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg or even Rush Limbaugh have. And none of them have a would-be Kryptonian conqueror to spur them on, either.

That's the secret heart of superhero stories - they rest on fundamentally irrational choices. Take away those urges to help or harm and you are left with simple absurdity. And that's kind of where this book falls down.

There's plenty of navel-gazing and deconstruction going on in this story, from all angles. Between Fatale and Doctor Impossible, they pretty much reason away any good reasons for getting into the game as a hero or villain, and yet - there they are. Impossible is the worse of the two, really. His narration shows him to be an insightful, intelligent, and fairly well-grounded man who probably could become one of the most powerful men on earth through conventional means. And yet, even knowing that it's probably a waste of time, he continues with his grand scheme - in this case, gravitationally manipulating the distance between the moon and the Earth so as to hold the Earth hostage. He knows he's going to lose. He knows there are better ways to be effectively evil that don't involve a metahuman punch to the face. He knows when he's acting in a stereotypically villainous way. And yet he persists, usually in the most cliched way possible. He spouts comic-book-villain monologues and even has an island fortress from which he operates.

Neither Fatale nor Impossible - nor any of the other good or bad guys we meet - seem especially happy doing what they're doing. And what's more, they know they're not happy. Doctor Impossible even goes so far as to state it explicitly during his moment of triumph - "For a second, I find myself at the fulcrum point of creation. God I'm so unhappy."

Well, if you're such a genius, perhaps you would be able to make better choices than this.

Therein lies the paradox of this book. The more human you try to make these characters, the less believable their story becomes. You can't be both human and superhuman at the same time - it takes a very skilled writer to pull that trick off, and I don't think Grossman is there yet. He tells an entertaining story, full of pretty much every comic book trope you can think of, which entertained me to no end. The problem is that by the time you get to the finale the unstable foundation of the story starts to show. How much you'll enjoy the story depends on how good you are at filtering out the deconstruction that's going on, which means missing the point of the whole book – that the only way to really enjoy superheroes is to accept them at face value and avoid deconstructing them.

So yeah, good luck with that.

----------------------------------------------------
"When you get your powers, you learn a lot about yourself. My professors called me mad. It was time for me to stop punishing myself, and start punishing everybody else."
- Dr. Impossible, Soon I Will Be Invincible
----------------------------------------------------
wish, hope, life

2011 Reading List - The Day After and Other Stories

Book Three

The Day After and Other Stories by Wil Wheaton

If you had asked me, back in 1988 or so, - when I was a Trek fan who hadn't quite figured out the real reason I liked seeing Wesley Crusher on screen - what Wil Wheaton was doing at any given time, it would have sounded like a completely irrational question. How should I know? He's probably doing whatever it is actors do in their free time, which my mind generally rendered as some sort of eternal cocktail party where all the famous people knew each other and none of them would be caught dead with a prole such as myself.

And this isn't just Wheaton - the idea that I could know what any of my favorite creative people were up to at any given moment was just impossible back then. It was just a fact of life. I am over here, and they are over there, and the chances of our two spheres of reality intersecting were precisely nil. They were members of America's elect, and I was, well, me.

Now it's the future, and we have connected our lives online to an extent that would have been almost unfathomable twenty years ago. Wheaton has greatly expanded his creative repertoire, and I am an Internationally Famous Podcaster and Book Reviewer. [1] For those who have access to it, the internet has democratized creativity in many ways. People who otherwise might have gone unnoticed in the world now have a chance to shine, and the daily workings of the famous are laid bare to everyone with a Twitter account.

Suddenly we can see that these people aren't as special as we thought they were - they're not living the eternal cocktail party of the gods. They're working and juggling their careers and their families. They're getting upset about politics and worrying about paying the bills. They're having great ideas that never quite work out and massaging small ideas until they bloom. The creative process is now open to everyone, and the potential for your work to be noticed is that much greater.

Of course, the caveat is that your creative work has to be that much better. If you're a short fiction writer, for example, you no longer have to shop around for agents and wait for the big publishing companies to take on your book. You can publish it by yourself and see what happens. But if that's the route you've chosen to take, then you'd better be damn good. There are a whole lot of fish in that pond, and you're only going to end up on the internet's dinner table if you are big, juicy and succulent.

Okay, I don't know where that particular metaphor came from. Nothing to see here. Move along.

Wil Wheaton is definitely one of those big, succulent fish. He's got his years of work in film and TV to support him, and he has become one of the stars of the 21st-century internet. As of this writing, he has over 1.7 million Twitter followers and runs a very successful blog. He's a darling of the summer convention season and probably the TV guest star that I most look forward to seeing. He makes a living writing and blogging and acting, has a gorgeous wife and two sons that have turned out to be fine young men.

So, with all that, why should he be scared to publish this book, his first collection of short fiction? After all, it's a limited print run, and if it fails then so what? It's not like this will be the end of the Vast Wheaton Empire, right? Why should this be so important to him?

It's because he understands the new dynamic between the creator and the consumer. He understands that his creative work must live or die on its own merits, and not just because it's Wil Wheaton putting his name on the cover. He knows that he's no better than anyone else who loves his craft and puts it out for the world to see.

The Day After and Other Stories is a very short collection of four stories that Wheaton has written - his first published collection of fiction. The title story takes its name from the movie of the same title, and is an exploration into what it might be like to be a survivor of the end of the world. Tim, a young man just out of high school, is living among the dead. The walking dead, that is. Zombies have taken over everything, and he and a few people from his town are holed up in a high school gym in the hopes that things might someday get better soon. Of course, they won't. Tim knows that, the girl he loves, Erica, knows that - everybody knows that. But they have to try and hold on anyway, because there's nothing else they can do.

"Room 302" is a bit of flash fiction, inspired by a photograph. Most of it is a pretty straightforward analysis of a mediocre photo, and an explanation of why it can't be used in a news paper. Fine, a nice scene and some good dialogue - with a creepy twist at the end that, much like "The Day After," makes me wish there was more story to read.

Wheaton tells us that "The Language Barrier" was inspired by a real event - overhearing a couple of ladies having a heated conversation in a mixture of Russian and English. In the story, the conversation is exactly that, but the eavesdropper, Mike, does what we wish we all might be able to do - he steps in and says what most needs to be said. It's one of those moments where l'esprit d'escalier is beaten to the punch.

Finally, "Poor Places" rose from Wheaton's love of poker. I never was able to get into poker, probably because I am really risk-averse when it comes to money, but there was a time in the mid-Aughts where poker was the trendiest game to be had. In this story, a couple of players in their local Hollywood bar proceed to fleece some tourists in a back-room poker parlor. It's probably the weakest of the four stories, but I grant that not knowing poker lingo really doesn't help.

All in all, they're four good stories. Wheaton has a good ear for dialogue and a way of making characters sound believable, even if the plot structure is a little weak in points, or the narration tries to carry more weight than it can bear.

Probably because it is the longest of the stories, "The Day After" is the most guilty of this - Tim is described by other characters as "kind of an asshole," but his actions don't really match that so much. He complains a lot, sure, but who wouldn't be a bit bitchy after human civilization has gone to the zombies? When he's told it's his time to fill the generator, he goes. When the girl he's crushing on offers a bit of apocalypse-sex, he considers turning it down, the way he did when they were in high school to protect her reputation. We don't see the guy that the other characters do, which makes me wonder what else we're not seeing. Internal conflict is a great hook upon which to hang a story, but the conflict between others' view of him and his view of himself isn't developed nearly as well as it should be.

In addition, his internal narrative tells us things that would be better shown, and overall the whole thing could stand to be tightened up. I also have some questions regarding the gas can (a full one left next to the generator? Who would have left that there?) and their discovery of Alvin (the guy camped out only about twenty feet from the school gym and never noticed that there were survivors living in there?) While interesting, adding a mini-quest to the story - get gas, then fill the generator - would have been fun, and the dead guy just served to heighten the sense of loneliness that was already there. A sense that was about to be mitigated once they got back into the gym with the other survivors. It's nitpicking, but sometimes that just has to be done....

All that said, it looks like the beginning of a much longer story, albeit a bleak one, which I hope he works on more. [2]

If you haven't bought this, you're probably out of luck - the print run lasted for a very brief window of time, but I reckon an electronic version of it will be up at some point. If it is, scrape a few bucks together and pick it up. It's a quick read, and I feel like it'll be something to hold on to if Wheaton decides to pursue more fiction. If he does, I'm sure he will approach it with the same honesty and humility that he had when he released this book, which means that I'll certainly be willing to pick it up.

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"I'm terrified that nobody's going to like it, but the goal isn't to be perfect; the goal is to be creative. I'm going to keep saying that until I don't feel like I'm going to throw up."
- Wil Wheaton, from his blog
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[1] Source: Me

[2] When I was in college, my creative writing teacher told me exactly that - the short story I had written was actually the beginning of a novel. The whole thing immediately dried up under my fingers and turned to dust, and the novel he thought I was writing never came to be. I hope Mr. Wheaton is made of sterner stuff than I was.