Sunday, December 16, 2007

Best movie yet about an Israeli clairovoyant 14-year old girl

I'm watching a movie called "Saint Clara," from Israel. It's about a Russian girl named Clara in an Israeli high school who has the ability to tell the future, as kill she uses to tell all the other kids what problems are going to be on the math tests. Needless to say, the administration gets suspicious when every student in the school gets 100% on the test. The movie begins with an interrogation designed to expose the conspiracy.

And there is a conspiracy. A bald-headed punk-rock kid named Rosy and his two friends Tikel and Libby are using Clara to spread the answers to the test, something that another student reveals right away. But of course the attempt to figure out how she stole the answers doesn't get anywhere. But it's revealed early on that when Clara falls in love she will lose her power.

But that is only the start of this insane movie, which has a lot more going on than that. The main thing about the movie is that the dialogue is brilliant. Here's a sample, a conversation between the punk-rock kids who are spying on a siesmographic station (no, I don't know why):

"Why is is called the Monroe Seismographic Station?"
"Marilyn Monroe. He was Richter's whore. The guy who invented the seismograph."
"You know the scientists love it when there is an earthquake. The machines draw Marilyn Monroe naked. They tell how big the earthquake is by the size of her tits."

It's a very culty film, and a lot of it doesn't make much sense. It's violent and Jen considers some of it misogynist. It spends as much time on Rosy, Tikel and Libby than it does on Clara.

The movie is very much about power, failed dreams, exploitation and people who will never be satisfied with what they have and who they are. The movie doesn't directly adress any of the things most Americans think about when they think about Isreal, like the idea of the the holy land, the struggle with the Arabs and Palestinians for land or dealing with terrorism. Instead it's about the same thing that a lot of American movies are about: being a horny teenager, cometing for a girl, and the need to be prove you're better than everyone else.

But the movie addresses these questions in a way that no movie I have seen addresses them. There is a sense of being on the edge, of being willing to do anything that I don't see in even the most violent, intense American movies. A scene of Rosy smashing in a neon-lit store window for nothing more than a single chocolate truffle is, to me, the epitome of the film.

Oh, okay, now i get it. The seismographic station represents scientific rationality competing with Clara's supernatural power. I also just figured out that Libby is a girl. This is the sort of thing that happens when you blog a movie while you're watching it (the better part of a big bottle of Chimay doesn't help). But I'm not going to go back and edit.

What makes the movie brilliant is the combination of completely off-the-wall concepts with the elements of a run-of-the-mill teen romance. Rationalism versus Russian mysticism is undecided, but the right girl ends up with the right guy. I'm posting this with the Hebrew credits. Don't ask me if I regret it in the morning.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

If it's Tuesday, this must be trigonometry, or why HS math sucks

I've been reading Steven Hawking's God Created the Integers lately. This is a book that is likely to end up decorating the bookshelves of a lot of people who expect it to be a popularization, like "A Brief History of Time." In fact, it's Hawking's commentary on some of the mathematicians he considers most important in history, from Euclid through Turing, with the majority of the text being simply the text of the mathematician's work.

It's slow going; I'm not even through the Euclid yet. I admit to skimming some too, especially in the part about ratios. It's really hard to slog through all the unfamiliar old Euclidean terms for things that we have better words for today, or to decipher the difficult verbal descriptions of things that can be described much simpler using algebraic notation. Which makes more sense to you, this:

If there be any number of magnitudes whatever which are, respectively, equimultiples of any magnitude equal in multitude, then whatever multiple one of the magnitudes is of one that multiple will be of all.

Or this:

ma + mb + mc... = m(a + b + c...)

Of course, as a math teacher I think it is also good for me to spend time seeing familiar concepts described in unfamiliar ways; it helps me to remember what it's like for many of my kids, for whom the algebraic description of the first theorem of ratios would be as confusing as the verbal version.

And then there are the really beautiful parts, like re-reading Euclid's proof of theorem i.47, more commonly known as the Pythagorean Theorem. I've read the Elements a few times before, including that proof. But I had forgotten the exact elements of it, just remembering that it involved congruent triangles using the Side Angle Side postulate. But I had forgotten some of the most beautiful steps in the reasoning. For example these congruent triangles are of the same measure as the triangles based on the diagonal of the rectangles composing the square of the hypotenuse, being on a parallel base. I was trying in my geeky way to explain to my wife, who is a poet and author of a this amazing book, that it was like reading a particularly sublime poem, like an Emily Dickenson.

To a lot of people, math is entirely pragmatic. Not just people at a cash register punching in sums of christmas shopping. Engineers might have to learn Differential Equations and epidemiologists might have to learn incredibly complex statistical analyses, often far above anything I can do. But there is no need for them to appreciate the beauty of these procedures in order to use them. Not to say that many of them don't, just that even at that level math is often taught for the purpose of getting some real-world result.

Let me point out now that I am not by any definition a mathematician. Some people, knowing my job, have mistakenly called me that; in response I wave my hands and say, "No, no, no! I'm a high school Algebra teacher. Believe me, there is a difference." I am a mathematician in the same way that the neighborhood softball coach who practices swinging his bat like Mark McGwire is a major leaguer, or the family piano teacher who tinkles along in the style of Glenn Gould is a concert pianist.

But I do love math, not just for its astounding practical applications (and really is there any other branch of human thinking that has produced such amazing results?), but because it is one of the great towers of human achievement. The graph of a quadratic equation, which I have always been tempted to have tattooed on my arm, is as deep a penetration into the nature of reality as a Shakespeare tragedy or a Beethoven sonata. It took millenia of proofs and deductions, from the conics of Appolonius to the Principia of Newton, to understand how that one shape explains so many changes in the world. Which of course is only a drop in the unfathomable ocean of human reasoning that math is today. Standing at the edge of it, looking out over the horizon, one can be so overwhelmed with the beauty of it that it's difficult to speak.

And the real agony is that in my teaching I do not know how to get across the slightest bit of the beauty in math to my students. Actually, that is not entirely true. I have an idea how it might be done. But given the constraints I am under, it simply seems impossible.

It is not, let me emphasize, because of the condition or weaknesses of my students. I teach in the South Bronx, and when I say that people will chuckle and ask me if I wear a bulletproof vest to school, etc, etc. In fact, my students are nearly all good kids with high moral standards who come from families that want them to succeed and do well like most families do. I teach a larger number of kids with serious problems, from foster care to poverty to homelessness to being teen parents. Drug use, contrary to what people would expect, is not a top problem. I teach a few stoners, but I taught a lot more in the upper-middle class suburbs of Albuquerque where kids could afford the drugs. The biggest problem I struggle with is a sort of learned helplessness, the tendency of a minority, but a significant minority, of my kids to give up on anything hard before they even try. "Mister, I don't get it," they'll say. "What part don't you get?" I ask. "I don't get all of it," they reply, not even having looked yet at what they are supposed to do.

If I taught in Suffolk County on Long Island, or in a Manhattan top prep school, that would not be such a problem. Many more of my kids would be able to solve the problems I gave them, and be able to pass the dreaded Math Regents that tails so many urban kids through their high-school years. More would do their homework, and less would be tempted to hurl their calculators' plastic covers across the room at each other.

But they would nevertheless see math as a means for graduating high school and getting into college. It would be an entirely practical necessity to be taken care of and gotten out of the way. Beyond a few units in Geometry, they'd never have to deal with a mathematical proof, or put more than a moment's thought about why a^2 + b^2 = c^2, or what that means.

To do that, one would have to slow down, and spend some time on a topic, dig deeply into it. Imagine a class that, in talking about the Pythag. Theorem, explored how the Greeks from day one had doubts about the parallel postulate (at least that's what Hawking thinks), but had to use it because they couldn't prove the P.T. or much of anything else without it. And how the undecidability of that theorem led eventually to non-Euclidean geometry, Reimannian geometry, which led to Einstein's Theorem of General Relativity, and less directly to the nuclear bomb. They wouldn't have to understand all of the math (lord knows I don't) to see the beauty of the fact that from early on people sensed that hidden in the struggle to settle on the provability of that postulate was, quite literally, the key to the shape of the entire universe.

But slowing down is most definitely something a high school math teacher can't do today. The New York State Math curriculum, which is based primarily on the Regents exam, is so crammed with topics that one must as quickly as reasonably possible get students to where they seem likely able to solve the kind of problems they're likely to be confronted with, then speed on. In the freshman year alone they cover algebra from linear through quadratic, including inequalities, as well as probability, statistics, a little bit of logic and basic trig.

But why do you have to make such a big deal of covering everything in the curriculum? you might ask. It's a nice thing to think that coverage isn't so important until the kids get to the regents and don't even recognize half the problems on it. But wouldn't the kids do better if they had a deep understanding? Absolutely, but deep understanding takes time and is far more unpredictable and harder to measure.

I don't ever want to say it can't be done. If Jaime Escalante was doing my job perhaps he could have them all ready for pre-calc by the end of the year and appreciating every bit of it. And if he walks in my classroom and wants to take over, I'll hand him the chalk and sit in the front row and listen.

Instead I'm just another urban teacher struggling to get my kids to where they can graduate, and I pray go on to some kind of post-secondary and succeed. I'm just someone who loves math, and loves teaching, but hates the way I have to teach math. And I know something has to change, but I just don't know how or what yet.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

PKD mundane?

D.N. Drake of The Courier: The Mundane Science Fiction Ezine responded in my comments to my previous post. I was happy to get any readers at all, and he was quite polite about my unfair dismissal of his just-created journal. He did suggest that I was "confused as to what mundane SF is." He also suggested that Anthony Burgess and Phillip K. Dick were examples of two good mundane sci-fi writers ("not all of their stuff, obviously.")

My first snarky response to the suggestion that I was confused about what mundane is would be to say "and until I actually see an example of it, how couldn't I be?" But Drake's comment was very measured and civil, and I'd like to be as well.

I think that part of what Drake meant, perhaps, was that mundane sci-fi is not just "a list of negations," as I overheatedly put it. The idea behind mundane sci-fi also involves a very strong social consciousness. Mundane sci-fi should at least suggest at ways to live on our planet into the next few centuries if warp drives, nanotech and personality uploads don't bail us out. Regardless of my aesthetic judgements, I couldn't agree more that we need to start thinking about how to live responsibility with the technology we have rather than expect that some future tech will come along and save us. For example, we continue to irresponsibly blow the tops off mountains for coal and drive 17 mpg three-ton behemoths around, assuming it will be okay because nuclear fusion and fuel cell cars are just around the corner. Only problem is, those technologies have been twenty years down the road since the late '50s, and the goalposts keep retreating.

I think the social consciousness issue is why Drake suggested PKD as a possible model for mundane sci-fi. (I don't think it's fair to draft dead authors into your movement, except in the sense of "we want to write like x.") It can't have been primarily about "the rules," so to speak. Clearly Dick's deskside toolchest featured a number of mundane no-nos, including strong AI, alien intelligences, interstellar travel (FTL is never specified, but Palmer Eldritch travels to faraway places too fast for it to be any other way), and flat-out unapologetic psychic-power mumbo-jumbo. A lot of the other mundane taboos, like personality uploads or nanotech, hadn't really been thought up back then, but if they had I'm sure he'd have toyed around with them too. When he wrote a story that contained none of these, it was probably more of a coincidence than a conscious decision. Technical implausibility, a major deal-killer both for mundane sci-fi and in the sci-fi world in general today, just wasn't really that important to Dick (or a lot of other great authors in his time). He was thinking more in the classic spec-fic mode of "what would people act like if we could do x?"

But, and this is where he was different back then, PKD chose to write about the Starship Academy rejects, the losers left behind on the wreck of the planet after eveyone else had hopped off to stars unknown. And he made it very clear that by then we'd have f***d the place up but good. The world of "Androids Dream" is so radioactive people have to wear lead underwear to keep their sperm alive, while in "Three Stigmata" the world is prophetically overheating (and this as far as I know is years before anyone mentioned the greenhouse effect).

So one could argue that he had a very mundane POV even when his stories weren't technically mundane. Which is fair enough, but if you're going to do take that attitude you might have to expand what mundane sci-fi is about, and make it less a list of things you can't do and more about what you're trying to do with your story.

I agree with Julian Todd & Geoff Ryman that sci-fi today needs a kick in the ass. But they seem to feel that it's because most sci-fi authors today see a problem and wave their artifically intelligent nanotech time-travel magic wand and fix it. It's true that really bad authors do that. But any really good authors understand that new tech fixes some problems and creates others. For example, the issue of the rights of replicants in "Androids." In Alastair Reynolds' Inhibitors universe, nanotech fixes a lot of problems, but it also makes possible the horror of the Melding Plague, forcing many people to abandon it.

There's plenty of examples of that in the real world. The success of antibiotics against bacterial infections would have seemed like science fiction a century ago. But as a result of overuse we're getting antibiotic resistant bacteria. The availability of food today, at least in western nations, means that even the poorest people in countries like ours won't die because they can't get enough calories. But as a result many poor people end up being both overwieght and malnourished from bad diets, while being slender is something that wealthy aspire to. If PKD had been alive a few centuries ago, I could see him having predicted this.

So what kind of new injustices would we have if we did have interstellar travel, or personality uploads? It wouldn't be mundande sci-fi, but it could be just as socially conscious. Look at how H.G. Wells turned imperialism on its head with "War of the Worlds."

And if mundane sci-fi has a carrot as well as a stick, perhaps its proponents could shift the emphasis. Maybe more people would want to write mundane stories if there was more talk on what the stories should be about, and less about what they shouldn't. I think I would.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Interzone's upcoming mundane issue: does this movement have any clothes?

Pretty amazing how a month and a half can slip by when you're distracted by details like work and parenthood and such. I've written a lot of beautiful long posts in my head and not bothered to sit down and type them in. So here's one I'm actually writing.

I noticed that Interzone has a forthcoming issue on mundane sci-fi. Though I am not interested in being restrained by any of the mundanistas' rules, I think this is a good thing. I also think it is fair to treat this as a bit of a put-up-or-shut-up moment for the movement. Or as Uncle Walt from Minnesota once put it, "Where's the beef?"

Imagine someone who knew nothing about genre fiction were to come along to me and say "I've heard that there is this movement called Singularity in science fiction. What's that all about?" I'd say, "Oh, check out Charles Stross' Accelerando, or anything by Vernor Vinge." What about that cyberpunk thing back in the '80s and '90s? Start with Gibson's Neuromancer, then move on to Bruce Sterling and Snow Crash. What about urban fantasy? Try Neil Gaiman's Nevewhere and China Mieville's King Rat. Slipstream? Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet has a whole new anthology out. Paranormal romance? Anne Rice would be the prototype, and I suppose Laurell K. Hamilton the modern exemplar, for better or worse. By reading one or two books from any of these authors you could very quickly get an idea if a movement of fiction interested you or not.

And, my subgenre exploring fantasy friend might ask next, what is this mundane sci-fi movement about? Well, I'd respond, there's this Wikipedia entry, see? And a blog. I think you can see the problem here.

From the bottom of the wiki page I linked to a magazine titled "The Courier - A Mundane SF ezine", to find a blog with three entries and a hit count that makes mine look good by comparison (that's bad). I scrolled down the mundane blog, which is actually a very good blog, to see if goatchurch has any references to any stories I should read. The first post (and only recent one that was about a story) referred to a novel by a woman named Sarah Hall, who won a recent literary prize with a near-future "literary" novel, that fits the mundane rules no doubt by accident. But he is not actually saying this is an exemplar of mundane sci-fi, but rather a warning of what could happen if people don't start writing the way he wants us to.

This is exactly what I've warning you about, boys and girls. Mainstream literature is doing an end-run around the outside of SF to connect with the real future of life as we will come to know it.

Based on the description of Hall's novel, it would be fair to point out that it seems to occur within an already existing subgenre of literary fiction, the feminist dystopia/utopia that has been explored, among others, by Marge Piercy in Woman on the Edge of Time and of course Atwood in Handmaid's Tale. So goatchurch might be just a little alarmist about this.

But if he's not, and mundane sci-fi is the only thing that can save the whole genre, it's about time that we saw some stories to show for it. The Wiki says the movement was started in 2004, by Geoff Ryman and Julian Todd. I can't find the link for it but I understand this was the aspiration of the Clarion class from that year. That means an entire cohort of Clarion alumni has had more than three years to work on this concept by now. We should see mind-blowing mundane stories shooting up like fireworks left and right. I'm not saying they're not out there, but I haven't seen them.

Curiously enough, as it happens, I found a story that seems so far to fit all the mundane rules in one of the least predicted places, the opening of the January/February Analog. I think I got this back in October, according to their usual schedule (hey, it is a magazine about the future), but only forced myself to read it recently because I didn't have anything better to look at. In truth, Analog has a lot of stories that fill all the mundane checkboxes, which isn't surprising for a manifesto that is really just a string of negations. This story, "Marsbound" by Joe Haldeman, is about a family that is going to Mars because they won a lottery.

But I don't recommend that goatchurch run out and make the link just yet. In the first twenty pages of the three-part series, here's what happens: the narrator, a college-age daughter of the family, rides to the space elevator with her parents and brother. The kids secretly sneak some beer. The pilot of the spaceship that will be flying them there talks to the narrator, and he might be hitting on her, but probably not. She sees the earth from space. They play penny poker. A micrometeorite strike makes a small hole in the elevator ribbon, but it's okay because it gets fixed by ribbon repair robots (not nanos - check!). She starts to feel weightlessness. And lots of people have conversations about how space elevators work that are incredibly mind-numbing even for a geek like me. Let me just point out, as a person desperately trying to get the interest of a book agent, that if an unknown like myself sent an opening like this in a query it would get sent back with a form rejection so fast I wouldn't have to step away from the mailbox to pick it up, and rightfully so. Can anyone who is reading this really wonder why Analog's subscription rates are plummeting?

In the opening of Alastair Reynolds' Chasm City there is also a space elevator scene. But by the tenth page the cable gets blown up by a nuclear bomb, and the car's about to shoot off into space, leaving the hero to make a desperate escape. As believable? Hell no. More fun to read? Damn straight.

"Marsbound," of course, should not be taken as representative of mundane SF, since as far as I know Joe Haldeman has nothing to do with the movement. But until we start seeing some good stories under the movement label soon, stuff like this will be all they have. Within half a year or so, we'll see if the emperor is wearing any clothes.

Mary Robinette Kowal pointed out that the Courier only opened their doors a couple of days ago. I didn't look to see when the journal started, so that wasn't fair. My apologies.