Friday, October 27, 2006

It's a bird! It's a's a lovely Cloud!!

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, clouds, cloudspotting

Clouds are the Rorschach inkblots of the sky. Seen from above, or upside-down while lying flat below with your head tipped back, they are fantasy landscapes. Sunrise or sunset in a cloud-wracked sky is the most soothing of experiences.

It didn't surprise me to find that there is a well-established taxonomy of clouds, with ten genera, about thirty species, many named varieties—all in Latin—and lists of diagnostic criteria. The Cloudspotter's Guide: the Science, History, and Culture of Clouds by Gavin Pretor-Pinney begins with a one-page taxonomic summary, and each of his first ten chapters begins with a detailed page about each genus, including explanatory images. The author is founder of the Cloud Appreciation Society, which is certainly worth a look.

The real value of the book is the narrative: great stories, as of Lt. Rankins's near-miraculous descent through a powerful thunderstorm in 1959, during which he rose and fell with the hail for a half hour or more, or the author's own (succesful) quest to view the unique Morning Glory roll cloud in northern Australia; cloud-inspired poetry, folklore, and lyric prose from sundry cultures; historical vignettes from the entire range of literate time; and the author's own experiences as someone still enthralled, amazed, and captivated by seeing clouds.

Did you ever look out the window of an airplane, and spot the shadow of the plane on clouds below? If you did, there's better than half a chance it was surrounded by a bright rainbow halo. This is a "glory", and from a mountain, with the sun at your back, above the right kind of cloud, you'll see a similar glory around the shadow of your head. The bodily shadow is called a Brocken Specter, from a famous German mountain where it is frequently seen. The specter plus glory probably provided the inspiration for the around-the-head haloes in much medieval religious art.

Do you love sunbeams cast through broken clouds, as I do? These specular rays are an effect of perspective, but knowing this doesn't blunt their beauty to me. Knowing the geometry of the hexagonal ice crystals that produce the big halo about sun or moon, or the light pillars one might see above bright lights on sharp winter evenings, doesn't diminish my pleasure and wonder.

And sunsets. Pretor-Pinney writes, "What, after all, is a sunset without the clouds? A bright ball disappearing behind a line, that's what." Sunsets are among nature's most beautiful displays. They are useful also. Most weather systems move from West to East. If the sunset has a good mix of cloud and open sky, chances are the next day or two will be pleasant. If instead, it is obscured or overcast, expect rain. Several layers of cloud, lit by the sun's differently-colored rays, sorted red below, yellow between, to white above, indicate a front on the way, with windy or unsettled weather.

My father is a painter. I saw a book at the library, some forty years ago, titled Look at the Sky and Tell the Weather by painter Eric Sloane ( informs me it can still be found). I promptly got a copy for my father. I was much impressed that Sloane wrote that he strives to have the minimum amount of blue sky in his paintings, in favor of the greater beauty and drama of cloudscapes. My father's landscapes improved also.

Each of the book's first ten chapters discusses one genus of clouds, classified by height at their base, from Stratus (including ground fog) up to Cirrus at the top of the Troposphere. An eleventh chapter covers "accessories", such as Tuba, which Midwesterners call a funnel cloud, a tornado "seed"; or Virga, the rain or snow that doesn't reach the ground, but makes a cloud look more like a jellyfish. The twelfth is on Contrails, the new, human-caused clouds of the jetways, which are probably contributing to climate change. The author urges us to adopt a Pascalian philosophy, which I'll summarize.

Pascal stated that believing in God is a one-sided bet: if you believe wrongly, you lose nothing, but if you disbelieve yet God is real, you lose everything. Believing is the only rational stance. In the same way, it may be that jet contrails won't have much effect on climate. If we take steps to reduce their prevalence, there is at most a minor economic impact. But if they do have a major impact, as many climate scientists now believe, and we do nothing to reduce it, we could lose a very great deal. We won't go to hell, of course, but we may find we've come close! Taking the economic hit is the more rational choice. Sad to say, my experience leads me to believe few people are rational, either about God or about economics.

Finally, the thirteenth chapter narrates the author's quest to view the Morning Glory, a truly enormous roll cloud that forms over the Gulf of Carpenteria off the Cape York Peninsula of Australia. It shows clearly on satellite photos, being about the size of the California coast from San Diego to Eureka. Fortunately, unlike many quests, his was rewarded, not just with a look at the cloud, but a ride above it with a Cessna pilot.

You may wonder why I've included only one photo. I'd prefer you begin by clicking here, where you'll get better pix than I could legally acquire on short order. Not only is this Guide a fantastic book, it reminds me to look up more.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Round-the-Corner Stories

kw: book reviews, fiction, fantasy, anthologies

A well-known author once attended a lecture about his own writing. The speaker made some surprising and specific claims about what the author had been thinking and about his character. Afterwards, the author introduced himself to the speaker, and remarked, "You realize, I wasn't thinking any of those things as I wrote, and I am a very different person than you have portrayed." The speaker replied, almost with a sniff, "What do you know, you are only the author."! Since that time, the author (Initials I. A. if you're the guessing type) put his own notes with many of his stories, and analyzed them in his columns in various periodicals. He may not've been able to get an arrogant reviewer to believe his own version, but at least he got in the first word...and usually the last, because reviewers don't get re-published. He wasn't the first to supply Author's Notes, but it seems he was a catalyst; many more now do so.

Some authors put notes ahead of the story, some after. I prefer after; I want a story to take me somewhere, and when (if) I get back, a note by the author is then welcome. Jeffrey Ford, in The Empire of Ice Cream, puts afternotes. They reveal that, as fantastic as the stories often are, they are rooted in experiences or speculations he's had in the very real world.

I read the title story a couple of years ago, in a Nebula Awards collection. Synesthesia is a rare condition, but less rare as an occasional phenomenon. Extreme psychological states, brought on by exhaustion or certain drugs, have synesthetic effects, causing a mixing of sensations that are usually separate: adding colors to musical notes, smells to certain words, and so forth. Here, Ford extends a synesthetic experience to a reciprocal hallucination between two synesthetes, or so it seems...

The kind of engaging stories Ford excels at result from "what if" questions and extensions of mundane experiences. What if a model-train model of your town began to reflect the real town...and if you change the model, the town changed? How closely can a single person's history repeat itself? Can really tiny beings really live unseen by us...and how long would they live? Do giants live in fear of bigger giants? And the eternal magical question: Can words really do more than simply convey meaning?

The answer to the last is, Yes, the pen is mightier than the sword, and the tongue can be even mightier. The most powerful forces known begin as ideas.

Monday, October 23, 2006

FFF - another word for unfettered

kw: book reviews, fiction, fantasy, world-building

Some time ago, I reviewed Silver Screen by Justina Robson, which I'd liked quite a bit. I promised to look for more of her books. The next I found, Living Next Door to the God of Love, is even more imaginative than the last, but a difficult read, because graphic, explicit sex is the fabric of the work. So, rather than read it all, I skipped here and there, gathering ideas.

Ms Robson is a master of world-building, and continually explores the meaning of identity and consciousness. In this novel, in a genre I call FFF, for Far-Future Fantasy (and it stretches the bounds of both Science Fiction and Fantasy), identity is a very slippery thing. The "real" Earth is accompanied by "sidebars", constructed environments, that may or may not be virtual or simulated; they can be rapidly created and destroyed, or "eaten", by 7-dimensional creatures aware of an 11-dimensional realm, in which "ordinary" 4-D (i.e. "real" to us limited folk) universes are embedded.

People come in numerous varieties. It was hard to determine which word went with what concept, except one: the Forged are genetic creations with specific endowments, such as great size and strength for law enforcement "Angels", who also have really cool weaponry and propulsion.

So much is left ambiguous in the novel, it seems it is the author's little intelligence test for those of us who like a little more reality in our reading. There is little enough in this book.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

A rainbow of lovely, sparkly things

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, gemstones, mineralogy, history

Strictly speaking, jewels and jewelry are not limited to gems, but without gemstones, jewelers would need to be a lot more creative. In Jewels: A Secret History by Victoria Finlay we find the author on a nine-part quest, to learn the history, mythology, mineralogy, and some gemology for the four "precious stones": diamond, sapphire, ruby, and emerald, plus five other gem materials that, at one time or another, have been deemed precious enough for a king's ransom.

Basically, "precious" gems are those that are harder than the tip of a penknife (for durability), clear enough that faceting (rather than form into a cabochon) enhances their beauty, and rare enough that the market for their production can be cornered by a small number of powerful folks. These days, we add one more proviso: stones formed by natural means carry a better cachet than those formed in the laboratory.

Interestingly enough, some gems violate these guidelines yet retain popularity and value. For example, Amber, Jet, Pearl, and many Opals are softer than a Moh's hardness of 5.5, so a pocketknife will scratch or cut them; Jet and Pearl are partly or wholly opaque; and Diamonds are more common than Garnet, Spinel, and Zircon. The four "soft" gemstones are just too beautiful to pass up, and ditto the opaque and semiopaque ones. Diamond's rarity is artificially maintained by a cartel of mining-and-distribution companies, who have recently even begun producing laboratory-grown gems in an effort to enclose that market also. Without the cartel, diamond values would be in the few-hundred-dollar-per-carat range...and that's about what they go for at a pawn shop.

Ms Finlay's travels took her from Poland to Yorkshire to Sri Lanka to Africa, and quite a few other places (nice work if you can get it). In nearly every case, she found that the historical mines have been supplanted by newer, better ones, which has usually led to a decreased market value for the gems in question. Today, many "middle class" folks can afford gemstone jewelry, forcing richer folk who wish to display their riches with some "bling" to obtain ever-more-extravagant large stones in imaginative settings.

It is still the case, however, that those who actually mine the more precious stones are among the poorest people, working in abysmal conditions. Only diamond miners have had a meaningful improvement in their work conditions and prosperity in recent years. Most mining is still carried out by poor men (and a few women) working in hot, wet (or both) holes that frequently fall in on them.

The book is arranged by hardness of the gem material, from soft amber to diamond. The traditional precious gems are all hard, 7.5 and harder (diamond is 10, but on a more "true" scale would be about 40), so they come in a cluster in the end of the book. Topaz, also an 8, is not mentioned. I guess I don't find this strange. It cleaves too readily, and is hard to cut without getting "pull marks" on the table unless one REALLY knows how to set the crystal axes beforehand.

Jewels is a lot of fun to read. I am a rock junkie. Though my personal interest is in semiprecious stones, mostly the incredible range of chalcedony gems, I've known a few hobbyists who produce faceted gems. None that I know try to do diamonds; most do quartz in various colors, and a few have done sapphires. It takes a certain, almost obsessive, personality to produce a faceted stone. Me, I like the "natural facets," the crystal faces, of well-grown mineral specimens. I'll "silver pick" any clear gems I might wish to own.

Monday, October 16, 2006

What's worse than wrong?

kw: ideas, opinion, theories, testability

In his most recent column in Scientific American, Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic, writes about ideas that are "wronger than wrong."

First, an intermediate idea. Wolfgang Pauli said of a proposed theory that made no predictions and couldn't be tested that "it isn't even wrong." He meant, there is no way to determine if it is right or wrong. You can't even call such an idea a theory, for that word is reserved for ideas that can be tested by experiment or observation.

We know, as scientists, that every theory we have is a model, and that it describes some phenomenon, and makes predictions about reproducing that phenomenon; yet that it will be found to "miss" if taken too far. That is because a model is always a simplification; something is of necessity always left out. A theory may be very, very precise (Quantum Electrodynamics makes predictions that have been tested to a numerical accuracy of something like eighteen decimal places). But at some level (maybe the twentieth decimal) its limit will be found. Taken beyond that limit, the theory is "wrong."

To a scientist, "wrong" means testable, provable, and found wanting at some level. Thus, there are degrees of wrongness.

For example, the idea that the earth is flat cannot be sustained once you determine that a vertical plumb line a few miles away isn't parallel to the one next to you (you can see the difference through a telescope). The idea that the earth is a sphere is very ancient, and a rough measurement of the earth's size was made 2,400 years ago. So, most people who know the earth is "round" (a nice, imprecise term) think of it as a sphere. With a little thought, we realize it is a bit lumpy, and so is not really a perfect sphere, but the sphere model is "less wrong" than the flat model.

I was taught when quite young that the earth was an oblate spheroid. That just means the equator is a circle, but the meridians are slightly flattened ellipses. That's a little "less wrong" yet. Later, the term "pear shaped" was used, and so forth.

Now, at some level, every model of the earth's shape is "wrong". However, Shermer makes a great point here: the notion that the "wrongness" of the sphere model is equal to that of the flat model, is "wronger than wrong." With a modicum of thought, we can realize that the sphere model, though a little inaccurate, is much closer to reality than the flat model. It is a lot "less wrong." The kind of thinking that would equate these models in terms of their relative wrongness, is just too wrong to permit discourse.

That is really the problem, here. If someone's thinking is wronger than wrong, you can't talk to them. They can't understand you, and can't even understand why you are bothered.

I remember the very old "black/white versus shades of gray" distinction, impressed on me from way, way back. To a B/W thinker of the pessimistic sort, a single non-white spot makes everything BLACK; an optimist thinks the slightest glimmer means "it's all good." Both are too wrong for reasoned discourse. One must understand, or at least admit, levels of light or dark to get anywhere.

Later, I had a Rorschach test that moved me in a better direction yet. You may know that a few of the blots are multicolored. After my test, the shrink pointed out that, on the black blots, I had lots to say, and tended to pick them apart, like looking for images in clouds; but I had very little to say about the blots with more than one color of ink. I don't know what he said from that point, becuase I began to think furiously, and realized, "There's not just black, white, and gray. There's a rainbow out there."

Let me confess, I was considered almost autistic before that point in my life. Not since. Now, no matter what the issue, I don't only see the "either/or" question, not even the axis between the poles, but I get ideas in all directions perpendicular to that axis. Life may not be "it's all good," but it's better than it once was!

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Only the impossible happens around here

kw: book reviews, fiction, fantasy, horror, anthologies, world literature

The Dedalus Book of Finnish Fantasy edited by Johanna Sinisalo, translated by David Hackston: 23 stories from the past 14 decades (the entire range) of Finnish fantastic fiction.

The literature of the Finns reflects the geography of a society not far from the Arctic Circle, a sparsely populated land where nature is still very close; a nation often conquered but a countryside barely subjugated; of nearly sunless winters and nightless summers.

Many of the stories seem to go nowhere, to have been written for literary effect only. I think in part it reflects the timeless and often purposelessness of a land at the crossroads of history, that took little part in that history.

Themes of the 23 stories:

  1. Obsession
  2. Redemption through Suffering
  3. Obsession
  4. Mysterious Dream
  5. A Talking, Flying Dog; metaphor for coming of age
  6. Post-apocalyptic Vignette
  7. Death as a minor transition
  8. Obsession; consumed by it
  9. A new take on "To Serve Man"; leading the parade
  10. Possession of an empty shell
  11. An aging dragon re-vivified
  12. Health for sale
  13. Pre-emption of Virtue in the service of Oppression; prelude to "1984"
  14. Animal metaphors for Human suffering
  15. Mystery machinery
  16. Peri-apocalyptic Vignette
  17. Prose-poem Vignettes
  18. Wish Fulfillment: death of a perpetrator by a wooden bear
  19. Hidden life of a furniture piece
  20. Self-discovery
  21. "Fantastic Voyage" redux
  22. On the trail of dashed hopes
  23. Wish Fulfillment: the world shifts to what it ought to be

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

A rather one-sided prophet

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, politics, sociology, polemics

The man who made "misery index" a household term has become one of the most prolific political writers of his generation. In Jimmy Carter's twentieth book, Our Endangered Values: America's Moral Crisis, he agglomerates around a dozen of his earlier themes into a polemic that will no doubt give plenty more ammunition to the anti-conservative candidates running for election, now just four weeks distant.

Early in the book, the author states, "As a Southern moderate and former career naval officer, I espoused a conservative fiscal policy and a strong defense." A paragraph later he refers obliquely to the animosity against him by Ted Kennedy. Carter is indeed moderate, even conservative, compared to Senator K, and any defense is "strong" by comparison to what Ted would do. But the skyrocketing misery index of the Carter years, and the nose-thumbing the Iranians engaged in until just prior to Reagan's inauguration, give the lie to both claims by any objective measure.

This is not to say that Jimmy Carter is always wrong. He is right the way any gadfly is right: one-sided truth is often better than no truth at all, but acting on it is compellingly risky. He proudly quotes Jefferson's "Not a drop of blood on my watch" statement. He ought to be shamed that a few drops of foreign blood that ought to have been shed were left for later presidents to take care of, at much greater cost.

In two things I agree with him, with at most a tiny grain of salt. Firstly, it is visibly true that the rightmost wing of the Republican Party has been subjugated to the "religious right", to the "fundamentalists" of the most procrustean sort. They truly wish to make the U.S. a theocracy, with them in charge of course. We would then become a Christian version of Iran or the Talibanic Afghanistan. By the way, if you know the "rules" in force in many "conservative" congregations, the destructive subjugation of women would be just as severe.

Secondly, I am an environmentalist, and I am almost wholly at odds with the Rush Limbaugh/Sean Hannity/whoever else position on these matters. We don't need the ANWR (Arctic National Wildlife Refuge) oil nearly as much as we need an unspoiled ANWR; the Bush White House is grossly negligent to discard the Kyoto agreement, stronger CAFE mileage standards, and proposed improvements to the Clean Air and -Water acts; and human-caused Global Warming is now an established fact, such that the only remaining uncertainty is in how much extra warming our CO2 emissions will cause. Within the next two or three decades, several Micronesian island nations will most certainly vanish beneath the high tide line. It is less certain how much of Florida and other low-lying coastal regions will follow, and how quickly.

It is unlikely that Orlando (current elevation 31 m) will become a coastal city within this 21st Century, but not impossible. It is much more likely that Cape Canaveral (3 m or so) will vanish by 2040. The best estimate we have of the amount of warming, and sea-level rise, that would occur without our CO2 interfering, is a degree Fahrenheit, and one meter by 2040 (not three). That's enough to endanger some Micronesian islands, but many fewer than we now expect.

On other issues, Carter seems to me to be of the "negotiate at all costs" school. It never occurs to him that we need to actually fight against the Islamic radicals who have stated clearly, over and over and over, that they will not stop while American culture or American power exist; that they believe God rewards them for killing infidels, especially Americans; and that no law is valid but Shari'a (however it is spelled or accented).

I'd say, "Dr. Carter, watch any old Western, any old Cowboys-n-Indians shoot-em-up. Try identifying with the oft-betrayed Indians. Imagine you and they are Infidels trying to negotiate with guys on horseback who have all the swords and rifles, whose favorite saying is, 'The only good Infidel is a dead Infidel.' Every movie ends with all the Indians dead and all the Cowboys whooping it up in celebration. Can you really talk to these guys? Will they honor treaties and promises any better than your (and some of my) ancestors did the thousands of broken 'Indian' treaties of the 1800s?" While I have ancestors who came to America aboard the Mayflower, I also have a few who probably met the boat. They soon wished they'd burned it in harbor!

I don't like the war in Iraq. I don't like the war in Afghanistan, either (yes, it's still going on). I don't like war at all. Neither do I like surgery, but it has saved my life, twice. I don't like war, but I prefer it to the alternative. One more swipe. Carter states that Americans killed 100,000 Iraqi civilians. Wrong. We did kill about 50,000 Iraqi troops in combat. We did also kill some smaller number of civilians, the euphemistically-termed "collateral damage." But terrorists, some from Iraq but many more who have entered Iraq during and after the war (the insurgents), have certainly killed well over 100,000 Iraqi civilians. It is these we war against now, in Iraq and in Afghanistan.

Sad to say, it is blind "negotiate at any cost" folk like Jimmy Carter than we also must battle at home, if we are to retain any freedom worth living for in America and the West.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Frozen Dreams

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, quests, the arctic

Right away I learned something: "Thule" has two syllables. It's been in my reading vocabulary for decades as "thool". Now I find (see the entry in TheFreeDictionary) that the classical "utmost north" place is spoken "thoo-ley", while the Thule Air Base and nearby Inuit village in Greenland are spoken "two-ley". I once knew someone with the last name Tooley. I wonder if an ancestor of his spelled it Thule?

The frontispiece map in The Ice Museum: in Search of the Lost Land of Thule by Joanna Kavenna makes it clear we are in for a lengthy quest. In her introduction, Ms Kavenna describes leaving her job to go hunt the Arctic for the "real" Thule. In the Acknowledgements among the afterleaves, more of the story is revealed. No quest is cheap, and the author was favored with a number of complaisant editors who published the freelance writing with which she replenished her finances from time to time.

No dates are given, but I suspect the "wall clock" period of the quest is quite a bit longer than the two or three seasons implied in the narrative. However, if she did perform the travels all at one go, my hat's off to her, for endurance at the very least!

The places visited, with one exception, each have a champion among 19th and early 20th Century explorers, as the location for the classical Thule, first mentioned by Pytheas in the 4th Century BCE as lying six days sail beyond northern Scotland. That exception is the metaphysical Thule of the Thule Society, purported progenitor of the Nazi party. While the book devotes a couple of chapters to that bit of Germanic insanity (unfortunately still going on), for me, more than enough said.

In order, the Arctic places the author visited are the Shetland Islands, Iceland, northernmost Norway, Estonia, Greenland, and the Svalbard (Spitzbergen) islands. Of them all, I find the Estonian location the most intriguing. Former Estonian President Lennart Meri, noting that "tuli" in Estonian means "fire", and that Kaali crater on the large Estonian island Saaremaa resulted from a large meteorite fall just a few generations before Pytheas sailed, believes this crater to be the origin of the legend. Excited Germans, who live West and Southwest of Saarema, telling Pytheas of the day the sun fell in the East, are a likely source of an enigmatic passage he wrote regarding Thule.

Whatever Thule may have been physically, the idea of Thule has had the greatest impact over explorers of the past two or three centuries, and over others, both benign and evil, who see it as a prize to be won, an ideal to emulate...or impose.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Famous writers behaving badly

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, visual arts, cartoons, caricatures, biographies

"Caricature" is used two ways. Most frequently, one says of an image, whether visual or verbal, that it is a caricature when it oversimplifies by discarding the valuable for the derogatory or the ridiculous. The frequently-seen image of Charles Darwin with a very ape-like look is just such a caricature, intended to impugn to his reputation.

Less frequently, but more accurately and positively, "caricature" refers to simplification in the service of understanding. While no portrayal can include everything, some are richer than others, and somewhere between the photo-image and the raw cartoon, lies the caricature that illuminates.

I am frankly puzzled by Edward Sorel's popularity. His drawings are mediochre at best, and frequently inferior. It is his satirical wit rather than artistic merit that wins him devotees. Thus, I must admit, his most recent little book Literary Lives kept me sniggeringly entertained for the half hour or so that it took me to get through it.

Here he skewers ten literary icons: Tolstoy, Rand, Proust, Yeats, Hellman, Jung, Sartre, Eliot, Brecht, and Mailer. This in itself is not particularly hard; they are very easy targets. None of the men could be trusted with your daughter, your pocketbook, or your reputation. The women were equally venal; indeed the ten range from the bad side of venal to downright evil.

So why to people read them, even idolize them? Barnum has the apt phrase: "There is a sucker born every minute."

The key religious cliché (or caricature) is the preacher who can't practice what (s)he preaches. The Bakkers come to mind. While speaking—or writing—what you see but cannot quite attain is the occupational hazard of all public figures, the ten writers Sorel skewers are among the ten worst examples of the trait.

So, this is really a gossipy little book about famous people who mostly managed to hold on to fame in spite of grossly decadent private lives. Easy targets, indeed.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Backing up to (electoral) glory

kw: opinion, politics, logical fallacies

The old fallacy of guilt by association has taken a new twist. You know, "So and so has evil friends, so he must be evil also." The argument typically has force only if there are several of these evil associates, particularly if they outnumber the "non-evil" ones.

Former Congressman Foley is no doubt the evil friend to all Republicans these days. However, rather than a few or several evil friend implicating one person, one person is implicating an entire body of about three hundred members. Let's see, is the part-for-the-whole metaphor a metonymy? I forget, but it takes the old fallacy to new levels!

Members of both parties need to recall that Jesus said, "It has been said of old that the fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge. But I say to you that each shall die for his own sin." It is entirely predictable that desperate members of both parties will get their arguments exactly backwards, flailing for a few votes. Pity.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Gorging for fun and profit

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, competitions, eating, gurgitators

In my college years, I got the nickname "Monumental Mouth" because of a scheduling problem that made it quite hard for me to eat more than once daily. I would eat dinner at my dorm, then run to another dorm and eat another dinner with friends. On occasion, when cooking for myself (which consisted of warming an unopened can in a saucepan on the stove), I would shovel in a 3 pound can of spaghetti. My friends thought that a lot.

I'm glad I never tried a contest. It never entered my mind. By the time I first heard of eating contests, the winners were eating upwards of ten pounds of "food" in ten or twelve minutes. More recently, a few really big eaters are approaching twenty pounds. Yow!

Jason Fagone, a journalist working freelance out of Philadelphia, was sent to cover an eating contest, sort of as a rest stop between more "serious" stories. He got to know a few eaters, and became fascinated (today he'd say, "morbidly..."). His book Horsemen of the Esophagus: Competitive Eating and the Big Fat American Dream chronicles a year he spent following the eating circuit, getting to know many major players, both eaters an promoters.

What can be told about a tiny Japanese guy who eats, bun and all, fifty hot dogs in twelve minutes? A tinier Korean-American woman who eats (not bones and all!) 160-plus hot wings in that same time period? Or a score of folks weighing up to 400 pounds that try their best to outeat one another, and especially these two Asians?

Author Fagone tells us as much as he can. Some folks, like Coondog O'Karma, "el Wingador", or Crawfish Nick, self-promote. A few, like "Eater X" Janus, are more retiring and serious. The most mysterious, both self-promoting and self-hiding, is Takeru Kobayashi, the Japanese marvel (eventually, Fagone learns that "Koby" trains with much larger masses of food than he expects to consume in a contest. None of the other eaters comes close).

Big-time competitive eating didn't start that long ago. There have been informal speed-eating contests for a very long time; one fellow claims two guys in a prehistoric cave had to try to out-consume each other as a survival tactic. You never know when the next mastodon will come along... But mass-marketed and -promoted competitive eating began in the US in the early 20th Century, or perhaps more in the middle...the early part of the backstory depends on the memory of just a couple of notoriously unreliable gents, the Shea brothers.

George Shea promotes IFOCE (International Federation of Competitive Eating), which he and his brother created just over ten years ago. Many contests run under their aegis, including the biggest, the Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest at Coney Island, which is now covered by ESPN.

So is eating a sport? There is certainly money in it, now. The author is ambiguous. He seems to be bemused by the idea at first, then lean in favor, and finally lean away, or conclude it doesn't matter.

Late in the book I noticed certain palindromic structures: "Comedy equals tragedy plus time, and maybe tragedy equals comedy plus time" [p 240], or "Eating seemed like a highly entertaining but empty vice, its very emptiness made terrifying by its intensity, and its intensity made terrifying by its emptiness" [p 243]. Whenever I've seen such before, their vacant profundity indicates the writer is running out of ideas.

In the end, perhaps more than many endeavors, competitive eating exists for itself. It doesn'nt need to have meaning. People strive for recognition, and this is one way some folks achieve it. For them, I am glad; for the destruction it can cause to their health, I am not so glad, but I understand. For eaters, eating big is worth it.