Monday, January 31, 2011

Second Foundation (Book)

“There is an endless cycle of double-double-double-doublecrosses.”
Second Foundation, the third book in Isaac Asimov’s Hugo Award winning Foundation Series, is filled with intrigue, keeping the reader guessing until the very end. Like Foundation Empire, Second Foundation consists of two stores. The first ties up loose ends from the storyline in Foundation Empire concerning the Mule, the unaccounted for variable in the Sheldon Plan. The second answers many questions pertaining to the Second Foundation and the Sheldon Plan. The introduction of a precocious fourteen year-old girl, the granddaughter of the heroine in Foundation Empire, adds to the interest of the story.

The concept of the Sheldon Plan also made me think, my criteria for good science fiction. The basic premise is that Hari Sheldon could make galaxy wide predictions into the distant future based on psychohistory and the use of complex mathematical equations. It wasn’t a precise science, but rather a statistical model. He couldn’t predict the fate of particular individuals or small groups, but rather predict the trend of the larger populations. Somehow this makes a lot sense to me. When I read news stories, I wonder what a particular factor—like the possible extinction of honey bees—means to society and political structures.

Yes, yes, I was glad that I read the Foundation Trilogy. It was fun and interesting. Next up Foundation’s Edge, written almost thirty years after Foundation Empire.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Foundation and Empire (Book)

Infallibility. An unexpected variable. Foundation and Empire, the second book in the Hugo Award winning Foundation Series, is even better than the first. This time the book is divided into two stories, both originally published in the mid-nineteen forties. In the first, Asimov shows the complete faith that the people of the Foundation have in the Sheldon Plan. (See my discussion of Foundation.) In the second, an unanticipated variable comes into play. When Hari Sheldon appears via the time-capsule video, his description of the crisis point is no longer accurate.

Perhaps because these stories are longer than the ones in Foundation, they are better developed. To me, Asimov has grown as a writer since the first book. He allows the reader to become more acquainted with the major characters. He also includes a female character for the first time in the series. As with the first book, the stories are compelling and easy to read.

Foundation and Empire ended with a cliffhanger. I can’t wait to read what happens in Second Foundation.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Fourth Tai Chi Class of the Semester

Last week subzero wind chills convinced me to stay home from Tai Chi. This week my Tai Chi lesson began as soon as I stepped out the door. The predicted snow that we didn’t get last night evidently was instead light rain. A thin coating of ice covered the sidewalks. I had a hard time getting traction to walk the half mile to the bus. So, I lowered my center of gravity—which is a lesson that Bob, our Tai Chi instructor, has harped on for years—and barely raised me feet off the ground as I walked, a type of skating movement. Years ago I took a class on Ba Gua Zhang from Bob which used that same movement. It worked; I didn’t have an issue with slipping when I stayed focused on the movement.

The actual Tai Chi was very helpful too, as always. We again focused our attention on different things as we did the form: neck and shoulders, arm and leg joints, ligaments, shifting weight from leg to leg, the fullness of each posture, and staying in sync with the participants around us. I realized I don’t have a lot of sense of my ligaments. The tightness in my neck and shoulders are my bane. Sometimes when I focus on them they relax. Other times they seem to be giving me the raspberries: “Yeah, you just make us relax. Na, Na.” Anyway, I have enough old and new things to keep me busy in practice this week.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Foundation (Book)

Cunning. Cleverness. Political Savvy. Trickery. Foundation by Isaac Asimov is the first book in the Foundation Trilogy, which won a special 1966 Best All-time Series Hugo award. Four of the five major sections of Foundation were originally published as short stories in the 1940’s and 50’s. This is a classic. When I told one of my cousins I was going to read Foundation’s Edge—possibly without reading the three books that preceded it—he told me that the Foundation Series was his all-time favorite, and he loaned me the trilogy. [Family doesn’t let family miss the Foundation Trilogy. His wife now has absolutely no doubt that we share DNA.] Needless to say, I was concerned that I wouldn’t like the books. So far, so good! Foundation is timeless and intriguing.

The basic premise for Foundation is that Hari Seldon, a Psychohistorian, determines that the Galactic Empire is going to fall into ruins and that there is a high statistical probability a type of Dark Ages that lasts 30,000 years will follow. In order to shorter the length of this period to a thousand years, Seldon sets up an organization, The Foundation. He dies of old age shortly thereafter. Supposedly his expertise in Psychohistory allowed him to predict each of the major crisis points that The Foundation will undergo. [Every several decades Seldon pops up as a video from a time capsule.] The first section of the book sets up the premise. The subsequent sections each tell the story of one of these crisis points.

I enjoyed the sections of Foundation for the same reason I enjoy mysteries: I found myself wondering how each crisis would be resolved. On to the next book in the series.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Big Time (Book)

An odd little book. The 1958 Hugo Award Winning Novel The Big Time by Fritz Leiber feels like it could be an episode of the Twilight Zone. The setting reminds me of a USO hall in purgatory.

In the world of The Big Time, two warring factions go back and forth through time trying to change history to the advantage of their side, while also creating a lot of odd repercussions. The soldiers of the Change War are plucked from various times in history. Describing the context takes up almost more time in the book than the actual action of the story, which takes place in a recuperation facility-- part entertainment facility, part hospital – where a handful of these soldiers have gone to rest for a brief time.

The introduction to the book indicated that Leiber drew extensively from his experience in the theater when writing this book. In addition it was written barely ten years after WWII. I missed some of the allusions, references, and slang. I didn’t and still don’t know what to think of the book. While it contains a few deep, thoughtful moments, much of the book was lost on me and would, I guess, be lost on many other modern readers.

This is the beginning of my 40’s and 50’s reading week+. I feel like I am in my own personal time warp.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Uplift War (Book)

One of my favorite Hugo Award Winning Novels so far. On the surface, the 1988 Hugo Award and Locus Science Fiction Award winning novel The Uplift War by David Brin is the story of an alien invasion on Garth--a planet being restored by humans after a holocaust by other aliens left it in ecological runes--and how the inhabitants strike back. But The Uplift War is also a story about becoming a grown up and dealing with parental expectations, whether by biological or metaphorical parents.

The Uplift War follows Startide Rising in the Uplift Universe series and is as brilliantly written. Brin again uses multiple threads to tell the story, but this time almost all of the characters are non-humans. I am still amazed by how intricately Brin develops their personalities and describes their behaviors, particularly the neo-chimps. [Neo-chimps have been uplifted-- genetic engineered and selectively bred--by humans.] He creates a complex alien culture for the Gubru, the aliens who invade Garth both for political gain and also as part of a complicated mating ritual. The major good aliens are likeable and interesting. Brin includes plenty of action, while still developing relationships between characters and adding a healthy dose of humor.

Another reason that I have enjoyed Startide Rising and The Uplift War is that they are reader friendly. I could enjoy the story without getting lost or confused. Both books include Glossaries and A List of Characters. While they have multiple plot threads, section headings help the reader quickly know what part of the plot is being described. Story-related concepts and terms are well defined, particularly helpful for those who have not read earlier books in the series.

The Uplift Wars also hints at some ethical issues related to uplift. To me the mark of a good science fiction story is that it makes me think, and this one did.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

New Year’s Resolutions (Quote)

I found this quote in Words that Matter which is taken from Oprah Magazine.

Instead of waking up New Year’s morning and saying, “I’m going to do X now,” then berating yourself a month later when that resolution didn’t work, remember: You’re doing nothing less than rewiring your brain. Approach change as if you’re learning a new language or new instrument. Obviously, you’re not going to be fluent or play symphonies instantly; you’ll need constant focus and practice.

Rebecca Skloot

Monday, January 17, 2011

Startide Rising (Book)

Fascinating. Absorbing. Enjoyable. Winner of the 1983 Nebula and 1984 Hugo awards, Startide Rising by David Brin is the type of novel that made me fall in love with science fiction. The plot has multiple strands. The characters have interesting, complex personalities. The world that Brin creates is unique and well-developed. The novel contains some interesting science and technology. [Note: Startide Rising is the second in a series. I didn’t read the first book but I felt like I didn't need the backstory.]

Very briefly, the crew of the Streaker makes a discovery that upsets the older, dominant alien cultures. The ship is attacked, and the crew tries to repair it and hide on a planet that is composed primarily of water.

The characters in the novel consist of arrogant aliens, humans, neo-dolphins, and a neo-chimp. An idea that threads its way throughout the book—and the other books in the series—is the concept of uplift. Sentient species are uplifted through genetic engineering, selective breeding, and even a little bit of grafting. The dolphins and chimp are the products of uplift by the humans. They serve as more or less equal members of the crew of the Streaker. On one level, it is easy to forget the differences because the characters behave like humans in most novels: making mistakes; being heroic, wise, selfish, angry, insecure, silly and amorous; being loyal and mutinous. On another level, the differences produce some of the most interesting parts of the novel. The dolphins use languages that are based on poetry, creating beauty and some poignancy in the novel. The dolphins bring their own cultural issues, religion, and social customs into the mix. The book also touches a bit on racial and species prejudice.

The book has some interesting science and technology. Streaker is built so that it can be habitable both by humans and dolphins, air breathing water dwellers. Both humans and dolphins have to have adaptations. The dolphins are continuing to be uplifted, and some of the genetic tinkering doesn’t turn out so well. Brin also brings up an ethical issue; while something is gained, something is also lost with each genetic change. The planet that the crew lands on also has some surprises of its own.

I didn’t want Startide Rising to end. A sequel, The Uplift War, is also a winner of multiple awards but has a new set of characters. Later in the week I will see if I like it equally well.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Second Tai Chi Class of the Semester

Matching Another Person’s Pace.

Again this week our Tai Chi instructor, Bob, had us pay attention to our bodies as we did the Tai Chi form: the small movements our hands made, the alignment of our backs, the twisting of our bodies, the micro-movements within the major movements of the form.

Somehow I managed to find a spot on the far right hand side of the group. There are a couple of people who are bit rusty, so they had me to watch when they forgot sections. The only problem was that I tend to rush through the form when I practice at home. When we turned to the right, I couldn’t see Bob and could only see a few other people out of the corner of my eye when I needed to check how far along we were in the sequence. My mind tried to problem-solve. Shouldn’t I be able to gauge myself with my breath? Was I out of cadence with the group? With Bob? On a number of occasions in the past, he has said that some of the issues we encounter in Tai Chi apply to other aspects of our lives. I thought about how in Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP),  pacing is an important factor in developing rapport with another person. Is the universe nudging me to pay more attention to my pacing in relationships? Or, do I just tend to rush through the form?

I again have plenty of ideas to work on when I practice this week and beyond. Unless the weather changes from the current reports, I am not going to wait for the bus in the frigid cold and turn into a studentcicle next week. I instead plan to be under an electric blanket, reading Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Series—oh, and practicing at home later in the day.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Yoga for Anxiety (Book)

A Kinder, Gentler Approach to Anxiety.

In Yoga for Anxiety, Mary NurrieStearns, LCSW, RYT and Rick NurrieStearns offer a gentle, compassionate approach to handling anxiety and share wise insights based on their experiences. I originally picked up the book because I thought I could benefit from some Yoga postures that specifically target the fight or flight —anxiety—response. The book delivered on that and a whole lot more. Using the philosophy of Yoga as a foundation, the authors discuss the causes of anxiety and how to calm the mind, providing meaningful questions and exercises. Some of the tools they offer to ease anxiety are mantras, different types of breathing techniques, and awareness/witnessing techniques.

Scattered throughout the book were tidbits that made me think “why didn’t someone tell me this a long time ago!!”  For example, many of us have had plenty of insights into what may have originally caused our anxiety, but then feel stuck about what to do next. The authors offer a simple, yet powerful phrase to say to ourselves when old material comes up in the present: “such an innocent misunderstanding.”  Another powerful insight is the concept of samskara, grooves created in our minds from reoccurring thoughts. It helped me understand some of the frustrations I have had over the years when trying to deal with anxiety. A much smaller, but useful tidbit was the idea of doing mantras—which rightly or wrongly I associated with affirmations—beginning on the out breath, thus engaging the parasympathetic, relaxation, response. Similarly, the authors indicated that people tend to be more relaxed when they inhale through their left nostril. Yet, another major “wow” for me was the idea that we do violence to ourselves by our inner criticism.

Anxiety is a complex disorder, which often requires a multiple-part solution: medicine, diet, exercise, psychotherapy. Yoga for Anxiety never suggests that it has the answer. What it does have are some wise insights and useful tools that can be utilized immediately. The authors understand how to gently coax anxiety out of our lives.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Neuromancer (book)

Disturbing. Brilliant. Trail-blazing. I won’t even pretend the 1985 Hugo and 1984 Nebula Award winning novel Neuromancer by William Gibson was my cup of tea. It is filled with violence, drug use, disturbing images, and perverse sexual references. The pages also are woven with invented slang that left me lost at times. On the other hand, Case, the antihero cyber-hacker, has enough redeeming qualities that I wanted to know what happened to him. I also admired Gibson’s ability to create an original, vivid world.

Neuromancer is a classic, a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the larger genre of Science Fiction. It helped to popularize cyberpunk and is reputed to be the inspiration for the direction of the Internet and Web. Gibson coined the term “cyberspace,” and Neuromancer was the vehicle for exposing the term to millions of people.

My commitment to reading all the Hugo Award winning novels between 1959 and the present has been an interesting path. Neuromancer was another one of those novels that took me outside of my comfort zone. What it rewarded me with was a sense of history, an example of brilliant writing and an example of a human being’s capacity to imagine.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

First Tai Chi Class of the Semester

Like Coming Home. I had to take two buses this morning with a wind chill in the single digits to get to class. I am not sure how to explain the experience to people who don’t have a similar point of reference. Yes, I could have been doing Tai Chi at home, maybe even trying something new from a book, but it wouldn't have been the same thing. After class Mary was kind enough to drop me off at a bus stop, so that I didn’t have to make a transfer on my way home, and she referred to the group as her “Tai Chi Sisters.” Many in the group have been together for over ten years.

On our first pass through the Tai Chi form this morning Bob, our Tai Chi Instructor, had us focus on how we felt. I am sure he had something different in mind when he gave the instructions than what I noticed. First, I became aware of what was stiff and hurt. I then became aware of how different it was practicing with a group than by myself, having to pay attention to the pace of the other women—and one man—around me. I became aware of a certain vulnerability welling up inside of me as I realized how tentative and fragile the experience of being together as a little community is.—Earlier this week, after I received news that a once close friend had passed away, I had spent time thinking about the close knit groups I had been involved with in another state.— Lastly, I became aware of a global body energy: a circle around me, the farthest reach of my hands and my knees, and of my feet when I kicked.

Bob talked about going into the void, into the unknowing. This seems to be a theme in my life lately, including some of the books I have been reading. New ideas and learning come up from that void. So, as the class progressed and we did parts of the form, we were instructed to focus on specific parts of our bodies and just pay attention without thinking about them conceptually, without any preconceived notions, being open to what came up. Our last time through, we were instructed to focus on foot, ankle, knee, and hip. I started running into a paradox, because I needed to have some way of homing into those parts. I tried to imagine dots on each part, which created a layer between my attention and my direct awareness. I am beginning to feel much more camaraderie with all those old Zen masters and their convoluted sentences.

As we left class, Mary echoed my sentiments. This year's classes has been some of the most challenging and most rewarding.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Downbelow Station

War. Politics. Alliances. Loyalty. Betrayal....Political Players. Military. Clones. Merchants. Space Station Citizens. Refugees. A Governing Family. Cute Critter-people.

In the 1982 Hugo award winning novel, Downbelow Station, C. J. Cherryh tells the story of a neutral space station caught in the middle of a war. I admired her fresh spin on the science fiction, war theme. At the same time, I got bogged down in all the politics at the beginning of the novel. The middle and ending of the book were much more enjoyable to read. The Konstantin family, who governs the space station, is likable. The plot is relatively fast paced and complex. The ending was satisfying.

Cherryh comes back to the same universe in Cyteen, the 1988 Hugo award winning novel. This should be interesting.

2010 Final Reading Tally

In 2010 I read 79 fiction books—77 novels and 2 books of short stories. In the beginning of the year I read mostly mysteries. The rest of the year I read mostly science fiction and fantasy, particularly the Hugo winning novels. But I still took time to read new novels by some of my favorite writers. I also read 42+ non-fiction books. The non-fiction numbers get fuzzy because I reread favorite books and read some very old books on-line.

Two men came to my home this summer trying to talk me into installing cable television. I looked at them blankly and tried to explain that I didn’t fit into their demographics. “But you could watch television in every room in your house. You could record up to four programs at a time.” Why would a person want to do that when there are libraries filled with books?

I feel so, so blessed that I have been able to read to my heart’s content the last few years. I know there may come a time when I have to go back to the pace of a novel or two a month. That will be okay too.