In Which Greatness Is Not Thrust Upon Very Many

20 August 2003

It is Wednesday now. Now, now, now. Not yesterday. Now. I spent all of yesterday with the feeling that it was Wednesday then, and that we were leaving on Thursday. When in fact, it was Tuesday, and we don't leave until Friday. Which is good: I have way too much to do in one morning. I may have too much to do in one morning and two whole days. But it's a nearer thing.

And I kept feeling like I was having a horrible writing week. I kept thinking about what I'd gotten done and thinking, sadly, that it really wasn't very much. And it still isn't my most productive week ever, so far, but it's a lot more reasonable for two days' worth of work than for three.

The abundance of opening lines, titles, and random ideas continues. Need more short story time. Not going to happen soon, not in general. Sigh.

I woke up way too early this morning, wondering about conversations with the realtor. Visions of mortgage stuff dancing in my head. "Way too early" was only half an hour early, but I also went to sleep late. Ah well. I can worry about timing and financing and family and friends and career and the careers and health problems of family members and friends and all of those things half-awake just as well as I can awake. Worrying doesn't take a lot of mental acuity.

Actually, running some more calculations on the next few months is a decent way not to worry about timing and financing. Because we genuinely will be fine, and mapping out exactly how we'll be fine is a good idea. So many variables, though. So many ways for things to go in particular. I'm not sure I'm going to be able to squeeze the worry entirely out of that.

But you probably wouldn't recognize me if I wasn't worrying about something anyway.

The Merc is running a copy of the same poll about the recall that they have been for almost a week now. The tiny print indicates that the survey in question was taken August 11-13, but I think that running it with pie charts and tables for people to glance at so many days in a row runs the risk of the numbers seeming stable, when in fact they're just repetitive. In a news article, they could write, "In a poll taken August 11-13, 58% of Californians said they were for the recall," and could go on with news about different candidates' actions, statements, and campaign events. But to run the pie chart over and over again allows casual readers to glance through and get the impression that they were seeing relevant current data. I don't even think it qualifies as "lying with statistics." It's just not very good journalism.

The comments section that's blown my mind in the last few days is this one from Teresa Nielsen Hayden's Making Light. If I'd popped up as a wild-eyed schismatic Prot girl and said, "Roman Catholics don't think their sacraments are important! It's really no big deal to them to take them or not!", I would have expected someone to jump down my throat. Instead, it was a defender of the Roman church who claimed that excommunication was really not that bad, because it's only not being able to take the sacraments, and if we'd understood that, we wouldn't think it was such an awful thing. Other gems...abound. There were several times when I thought, oh no, that person couldn't have meant that. But it's all there. I opened my mouth once, and I'm kind of proud to have kept my mouth shut and left it be since then, only marveling at the things people are actually claiming with apparently straight faces. On more than one side.

Another Nielsen Hayden related post that's interesting me, especially in its comments section, is this one from Electrolite, with lists of the top twenty figures from the twentieth century. We discussed it a fair bit last night, and Timprov even posted a list of his own in the comments section. The predominance of military and political figures says a lot about the attitudes on the "left-wing" and "right-wing" list (never mind how much it says to have the very concept of asking left-wing and right-wing people to compare lists). I think that one of the best and most interesting things that happened in the twentieth century was the rise of genres in most arts, both "high" and "folk" arts, and that makes it harder to pick the One True Greatest. And in my mind, that's a very positive thing. Personally, if I can pick a One True Greatest in a field of the arts, it means that I don't know enough about it or am not thinking very carefully about it. There's too much breadth, too many ways to write a book or make a sculpture or compose a song that really is wonderful. Is that too sunshine-and-roses? Maybe so, but I really do have that sense of the world, that it doesn't have just one wonderful thing but many, many wonderful things that are better for not being the same. And while I don't really think Louis Armstrong should be on the top twenty list, he's the one who's singing the soundtrack to it in my mind.

I think you could ask physicists to name the top twenty physicists of the twentieth century and have fairly firm agreement on the top ten. (And Niels Bohr, dammit, would make the list! Einstein had a fabulous hat trick year; I don't want to downplay Einstein in that regard. But he backed off the implications of his theories. He didn't want them to mean what they mean. Whereas Bohr jumped into the weird with both feet and invited all the young punks to come splash around the weird with him. Do not underestimate Bohr.) You might even get through the top fifteen before the current fields of physics started fracturing the practicing physicists' perceptions of importance, before the cosmologists were ranking their own above the condensed matter folks and so on. On the other hand, if you asked speculative fiction readers for their top twenty list, I'm not convinced you could agree on two.

Part of that is that spec fic people are ornery (whereas physicists are charming and easy to get along with, pleasant in every way...) and have all kinds of axes to grind. And I can see why: you people don't read enough Kate Wilhelm! Seriously, it's very hard to make a list like that without getting into who's overrated and who's underrated, and by whom, and while that's possible in the sciences, it's less possible in the sciences to argue that in a complete sense. Anti-Einstein folks can argue that other people did a lot of the work of figuring out his theories' implications; anti-Heinlein folks can go for the gusto and claim that his entire body of work was totally worthless, and it's much harder to prove them wrong, to demonstrate beyond reasonable shadow of a doubt that it was worthwhile. Art is all about shadows of doubt.

It'll be interesting to me to see how genrefied physics gets over my lifetime, and to see if I can make any kind of comparison with other science and engineering disciplines over time. I think that's part of the appeal of political and military figures in lists like this, is that one has to deal with their "genre" or category less clearly and less consciously -- although the comments section on Patrick's post is certainly displaying several different schools of what types of political thought and regions of action are important. Nobody is listing Paasikivi or Kekkonen or Mannerheim in their twenty greatest, but keeping a tiny country on the Soviet border from authoritarian rule, even when it was also threatened on the Baltic by Nazi Germany, is not a political achievement to be downplayed. And yet some people think it's more noteworthy to wrest one's people from the grip of tyranny than to work one's ass off to make sure they never have to live under it.

Don't misunderstand me -- I think both are worthwhile achievements. And also don't misunderstand: I don't expect anybody else to be as rabid a Finnophile as I am. I didn't used to be this rabid a Finnophile. It's a little bitty country on the north end of the world, and its people can be extremely quiet, so there's not a lot of reason for people to know who did what there. But that doesn't mean it wasn't amazing work.

Is a list like this ranking fields or genres within fields? Determining that politics, say, is worth eight spots, war worth three, literature worth one, drama worth zero? I think often it is ranking fields, or at least that's one way to make this type of list. I think that may be part of why the twentieth century was the beginning of film and television as major art forms, and yet not a single producer, director, writer, or actor for movies or t.v. made either the left- or the right-wing list, unless you want to count Billy Graham as a media figure rather than a religious one. Think about that: entire new ways of dealing with art forms in that century. Totally ignored. No cartoonists, either, animated or still. It might just be an inability to agree on which person contributed the most in those art forms; it might be that many of them feature a team of people working towards a final result, and no one wants to single out one contributor to the exclusion of others on his/her team. But if Watson and Crick (or Watson, Crick, and Franklin, depending on where you fall in that discussion) can count as one, then maybe something of the sort could happen with some flavor of moving pictures. I don't know. My guess is that the "can't pick just one" attitude combined with the "it's mere entertainment" attitude to leave those fields off.

Ah well. The spam/virus/worm keeps trickling in. For other people (Mark included), it's not a trickle at all in the last few days, but a deluge. Ick. This reminds me of my advice to people who want to write to journal-writers for the first time: do not give your e-mail the title "hi." Don't leave it without a title, either. Give it the title of their journal, or of the topic of the entry you want to write about; then they'll know that it's about mooing at cows, or opening jars with or without their cleavage, or any of the other classy and fascinating topics I've you may happen to encounter in the world of online journals.

I'm still reading the first Year's Best Fantasy and Horror. I was reminded, in my reading yesterday, that horror stories don't have to have a speculative element at all. They can just be horrific, quasi-realistic things, possible things that aren't very likely. They can just make your stomach crawl; they don't have to come up with anything magical or otherworldly to do so. They're perfectly within the bounds of their own genre if they do so. But still, it makes me feel cheated: I put up with the crawling stomach, and all I got was some guy who has it in for bag ladies/convenient store clerks/people whose middle name begins with S? And I can't tell, in a collection like this one, which those will be. Ah well; hazards of reading, I guess.

It's still Wednesday. Definitely Wednesday. And we're not leaving tomorrow, we're leaving Friday. Right. Got it. I hope.

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