Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Real Life Mystery of My African Ancestors

23andMe, which I had analyze my DNA not so long ago, recently re-classified a tiny fraction of it from "undetermined" to "of West African origin." (99.6 percent was termed "Northern European," no surprise.) Specifically, "less than or equal to 0.01 percent" of my DNA is traceable to West Africa.

You have to go back at least 14 generations to get that kind of percentage -- say to the early to mid-1600s. Fourteen generations means more than 16,000 ancestors. (Probably less in actuality, since for most of history folks never ventured farther from their villages than 20 miles and thus inevitably married distant cousins. Certainly less in my case, since -- scandal in the family -- two of my great-great-grandparents were first cousins, it being rather lonely out on the Indiana prairie in the mid-1800s.)

How cool is this? What a great mystery. Who was this African? A slave girl at a Virginia plantation? A freebooter on some Caribbean pirate ship? The son of a West African chief sent to London to get an education? (I just read the other day that this was fairly common.) I'd love to solve the mystery, though I'm sure it's next to impossible. One just has to let the imagination roam.

I've learned quite a bit about some of my ancestors in the last decade, thanks to the Internet and Ancestry.com. I found out about the life of my mother's father, though he had disappeared from view since the 1930s. Recently a distant cousin in Norway got in touch and provided even more info on my father's side of the family. But this snippet is something I would never have known without the DNA analysis.

In my more pretentious moments, I like to point out that we are all Africans, since all of us whose ancestors later called Europe or Asia home are descended from the same small group of individuals who left Africa some 50,000 or 60,000 years ago. Finding out that I have a more recent connection with sub-Saharan Africa just makes the point more solidly that humanity is just one large, genetically mashed-up extended family.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Suckiness of Sci-fi

My daughter has me reading Ender's Game. So far, I am unmoved and mostly uninterested, and have actually finished three other books as I ponderously make my way through this tale of a kid trained as a super-warrior against "buggers." (Given the author's apparent homophobia, one wonders if the aliens are all supposed to be evil Sodomites out to recruit the young boys in training to their nefarious "lifestyle"; I haven't gotten far enough to know why they're called "buggers." Maybe they're insects? What is this, a reprise of Starship Troopers?)

Anyway, to the point. I rather like sci-fi as a genre of speculation. I even watched "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" for a season or two. Some of my favorite movies are sci-fi -- Alien, Terminator, Road Warrior. I even enjoyed the campiness of Starship Troopers. But I've never read a sci-fi novel that impressed me as a literary effort, or even entertained me much -- unless you count Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five as sci-fi.

I know, I know, I should read Isaac AzimovRay Bradbury, Ursula Le Guin. Done, done, done. I've slogged through them all, but without enthusiasm, like a neurasthenic Victorian woman fulfilling her wifely duties by lying on her back and thinking of England.

The most boring of them all? Arthur C. Clarke.

I am not sure why this should be. I think it may have to do with how much space is devoted to explaining the ins and outs and backstory of the alternate reality in which the story takes place and I don't have the patience for that. Then again, I liked reading J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit even though I'm not a fan of the "fantasy" part of "science fiction and fantasy," and certainly there was a lot of explanatory Shire-, hobbit-, elf-and-etc.-related verbiage in that.

OK, all you sci-fi geeks can now weigh in to tell me what an ill-read ignoramus I am.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Government of Poltroons

The last time there was a government shutdown, I was the consul at the U.S. embassy in Vilnius, Lithuania and fortunate enough to be considered "essential." So I continued to get paid. I had very little to do except think about the enormous backlog of visa applications we were building up, so I straightened up my office and played a lot of games on the computer.

Our junior political officer, however, was not deemed "essential" and didn't get paid. He had a wife and two toddlers to support. I wound up lending him $3,000 or so to get past the 17-day shutdown. (That was back when I had money in the bank.) I'm sure he found it humiliating that he was forced to ask me for money.

The cowards in the House of Representatives don't seem to understand, or care, about the human pain they are causing, not just to federal employees and their dependents, but to others whose income or well-being depends on them -- small restaurants that cater to workers at lunchtime, mortgage lenders who can't close deals because the FHA is shut, vendors at national parks whose livelihoods are threatened and so many others. Literally millions of people are having their lives disrupted by this nonsense. And I do mean "literally."

A friend asked me the other day whether I thought the Republicans, especially the Tea Party types, actually thought they could repeal or delay Obamacare in this way. I don't know. I don't know whether they're delusional or cynical, or both.

What I know is this is no way to run a railroad.

You want to get rid of Obamacare? Fine, win the House and Senate and presidency and repeal it.

In the meantime, stop wrecking people's lives and screwing up the economy.

Friday, August 30, 2013

The Funniest Book I've Ever Read

Hands down, the funniest book I've ever read is Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods.
 
I can say this with some certainty because I recently re-read it, and even though I knew what was coming, I still heaved out gobs of laughter, aloud, sometimes so much so that tears were streaming down my face.

I can only recall two other authors whose work ever caused me to laugh out loud, P.G. Wodehouse, whose inimitable tales of the ineffably dense but lovable Bertie Wooster and his man Jeeves fill several howling volumes, and Carl Hiaasen, whom I'd never heard of when I checked one of his novels out of the USIA "library" in Vilnius, Lithuania, and who prompted a gaspy laugh when one of his characters quite suddenly shot someone in the foot. (I'm still a Hiaasen fan, but know what to expect now, so don't laugh out loud anymore.)

If you don't know much about Bryson, he's an American expatriate who first scored success in the UK, where he lives, and where he is a big deal, though nowadays he has a considerable following in the U.S., too. As far as I know, he writes exclusively nonfiction which is a shame, because I'd love to read a Bryson novel.

Who's the funniest author you've ever read? Did you have to wipe away tears before you could turn the page?

Friday, August 9, 2013

Have E-books Jumped the Shark?

Could the e-book revolution be over already?

Here's an interesting commentary on what seems to be a flattening-out of e-book sales and what it may, or may not tell us about the future of publishing (or lack thereof).

What do you think?

Monday, August 5, 2013

Enough Stalling, Already -- Get Organized.

The QueryTracker blog has an interesting post today on using the table function in Word to plot your novel. I confess I didn't even know that Word had a table function. I have tried any number of things over the years to plot out characters and scenes over the years. I was probably most successful using FreeMind mind-mapping software, which is, indeed, free. But maybe I'll give this Word table thing a try. Heaven knows I need all the help I can get.

What works for you?

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Toot My Own Horn Time

Thank you, R.G. Sciandra, for your review of Tainted Souls on Amazon: "One of the best mystery books I've read. More twists and turns than a mountain trail with endless dead-ends. Brilliantly written, fast paced and almost impossible to put down."

Doesn't get me any closer to being dead-tree published, but still . . .