Books from the attic: “TOM SWIFT in The Race to the Moon”

We were looking for something in the attic and came upon a stash of books from long ago. Tom Swift Jr., Chip Hilton, the Hardy Boys… This one is from 1958.

Tom Swift is in a race to the moon against his rivals, the evil Brungarians. “We’re not going to let any hostile country like Brungaria beat us to the moon!” Tom’s buddy Bud Barclay remarks grimly.

But Bud is worried. “How are you going to beat ’em in this space jalopy?” he wants to know.

Bud, who is kind of an idiot, is unaware of Tom’s Swift repelatron, which will drive his space ship forward by pushing back against the Earth or the sun or what have you.

Needless to say, the Brungarians have many dirty tricks up their sleeves, but I’m pleased to say they’re no match for young Tom, with his blond crew-cut hair. Genius boy is how Bud often refers to him. If my pal called me “genius boy” I’d sock him right in the jaw. But Tom doesn’t let anything bother him, even when the Brungarians drug him and steal his secret plans or he’s running out of oxygen in outer space.

Comic relief is provided by the cook, Chow Winkler, who says stuff like “Brand my skillet, I don’t savvy a word you’re sayin’, but it sure sounds bad!”

Two girls show up, Sandy and Phyl. Phyl has long dark hair and laughing brown eyes and is Tom’s favorite date. Sandy is Tom’s sister and is paired off with Bud. They are there to remind the boys of the big party that evening. Of course, Tom had forgot, what with the Brungarians and the repelatron and all, but they forgive him. Needless to say, there are many crises that night and he never does make it to the party.

Of course I have left out a lot that happens in the book’s 180 action-packed pages. Every chapter ends with some amazing crisis that genius boy is going to have to meet. And meet them he does.

One strange detail: halfway through the book Tom’s space jalopy is christened. It’s name: Challenger. Not sure what to make of that coincidence. Anyway, stay tuned for more great adventures from my attic.

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Of serial killers and grammar

I recently listened to the audio book Evil Has a Name about the Golden State Killer, the guy whose rapes and murders terrorized California in the 1970s and 1980s. The book is essentially an audio documentary, featuring interviews with investigators, victims, and others.

Here’s the grammar issue: Not one person in the book gets the lie/lay distinction correct. And this comes up a lot: The victim was laying in bed, She went to lay down next to her husband, etc. I’m beginning to think this is a lost cause.

OK, I’ve got that off my chest. Now, about the serial killer: the suspect’s name is Joseph James DeAngelo. They interviewed a few of the guy’s neighbors and co-workers. And none of them said anything like: “Oh yeah, I could totally see him being a serial killer.” He didn’t sound like the nicest guy in the world–just an old guy with a temper. So what’s going on? One would have expected the serial killer to be a loner, a drifter, in and out of jail, an obvious creep. Maybe his crime spree ended because he was murdered or committed suicide.

But no. He was married all through the crime spree. He had three kids. He paid for their education. He had a steady job as a mechanic for Save Mart supermarkets from 1990 until his retirement. He owned a home. He took care of his lawn. Apparently he had no criminal record. The book, alas, doesn’t get anywhere close to making sense of this particular set of facts. As far as I know, the ex-wife and children haven’t said anything publicly. Did they know anything? Suspect anything? If not, how did he manage to compartmentalize this aspect of his life?

We’ll know more eventually, I suppose. But right now it’s pretty darn puzzling.

“A Theory of Justice” and me

One of my post-election vows was to read A Theory of Justice by John Rawls.  I just wanted to commend myself on my good work in completing this task.  It only took me five months!  I have to say that it wasn’t easy.  The book is 514 pages worth of dense, arid political philosophy that I am ill-equipped to judge.  And yet…

I keep thinking about Rawls’s concept of the veil of ignorance:

Imagine that you have set for yourself the task of developing a totally new social contract for today’s society. How could you do so fairly? Although you could never actually eliminate all of your personal biases and prejudices, you would need to take steps at least to minimize them. Rawls suggests that you imagine yourself in an original position behind a veil of ignorance. Behind this veil, you know nothing of yourself and your natural abilities, or your position in society. You know nothing of your sex, race, nationality, or individual tastes. Behind such a veil of ignorance all individuals are simply specified as rational, free, and morally equal beings. You do know that in the “real world”, however, there will be a wide variety in the natural distribution of natural assets and abilities, and that there will be differences of sex, race, and culture that will distinguish groups of people from each other.

Isn’t that the way we should think about all social policy?  Imagine that you don’t know if you’re white or black, rich or poor, male or female, healthy or sick, talented or mediocre, a Muslim or a Catholic or an atheist.  How would you think about immigration policy, about health care, about taxes? The veil of ignorance doesn’t give you answers, but it encourages you to ask the right questions.

Richard Adams

Amidst all the dispiriting deaths in 2016, that of Richard Adams didn’t get a whole lot of attention.  But his Watership Down was a masterpiece, I think.  In it, he created a world so vivid, so completely realized, that it rivaled Lord of the Rings.  And it was about, you know, rabbits. Forty years later, I still look at a rabbit nibbling on some grass and I think of the word silflay.

I read his second novel, Shardik, and I thought it was just okay.  I didn’t bother with The Plague Dogs.  But Watership Down is forever.

“Would that the dead were not dead! But there is grass that must be eaten, pellets that must be chewed, hraka that must be passed, holes that must be dug, sleep that must be slept.”