All the good names have been taken


Space Station Middle Finger

So much beer, so little liver.

You may have noticed a trend to give strange names to beer. (Wines, too.)

For example:
Arrogant Bastard Ale,
Great Big Kentucky Sausage Fest Imperial Brown Ale,
Sexual Chocolate Imperial Stout,
Bitzkreig Hops Double IPA.

Does this help sell beer? Maybe the first purchase. I wanted to buy a six-pack and I saw Space Station Middle Finger. I like science fiction. It sounded like fun.

The carton said: “From the dawn of time, humans have looked to the sky for answers. Space Station Middle Finger replies to all from its eternal orbit. Behold and enjoy Space Station Middle Finger, a bright golden American Pale Ale.”

So I bought it, and it was a fine brew with a citrus-like tang, not as highly hopped as some American pale ales, and overall very satisfying. As I drank, I admired the artwork on the label, which could have appeared in an episode of Red Dwarf, and that was a pleasant thought.

Tasters at Beer Advocate also had a good opinion of the ale.

Would I buy it again? Sure. But wandering through a beer aisle or perusing a display cooler yields no shortage of tempting fermented adventures. A brand has to find a way to stand out. A strange name helps, I guess, but what happens when all the strange names are taken?

My Goodreads review of “Radicalized”

RadicalizedRadicalized by Cory Doctorow

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book isn’t a novel, it’s four novellas – but I like short fiction, so that’s fine. The stories are all united by “our present moment,” as the cover says. I think some are more successful than others, but they all capture a truth about what’s happening now.

“Unauthorized Bread” explores the ways that technology and laws can control poor people and take from them what little money and freedom they have. They fight back, and the story dives deep into exactly how they rebel with a satisfying level of detail. The happy ending, though, seems a bit strained, although I want to believe it.

“Model Minority” has one big plot hole the story can’t successfully explain away. How did the superhero American Eagle, who is not stupid, spend so many years on Earth in the United States and not know the basic facts about racism? The lectures to get him up to speed seem didactic – which doesn’t make them any less true. He learns there’s no super-strength shortcut to justice.

“Radicalized” left me with one question. In the story, people who have been screwed over by health insurance companies decide to take revenge against the executives who sentenced them or their loved ones to needless suffering and death. My question: Why isn’t this happening now? The anger is out there and easy to find.

“The Masque of the Red Death” is a modern retelling of an Edgar Allan Poe story. A rich guy holes up in a bunker to escape the ravages of a catastrophe. He and his friends are arrogant asshats, and they get what’s coming to them. It’s a brutal kind of fun to watch them fail while the key to survival lies elsewhere.

View all my reviews

Chernobyl thirteen years ago


Welcome sign to Chernobyl. Photo by Sue Burke

I’ve uploaded a new article to this site, Chernobyl: the half-life of war. I visited Chernobyl in 2006, twenty years after the disaster, then I came home and wrote about what I’d seen and learned.

Despite all my pre-visit research, the site wasn’t what I expected. It was grim, but not entirely: flowers were blooming at the Visitor’s Center, the forest was thriving, and the charm of the abandoned city of Pripyat was still apparent. During my visit, I learned that much of the radiation had sunk into the soil, where it was brought up by trees. A forest fire would release the radioactivity, so the forest rangers had to closely monitor the area, ready to act. It was neither a wasteland nor a fit place to live.

A recent HBO miniseries, Chernobyl, has dramatized the disaster. A bigger question remains: Why did it happen? In my article, I conclude that it was caused by desperate energy policies as the Soviet Union tried to win the Cold War. The Cold War ended, in part because of the Chernobyl disaster, but energy policies around the world remain desperate and misguided, and the world is still preparing for war. Fresh disasters hulk on the horizon.

My translation of “Techt” by Sofia Rhei: one tricky little success and one lingering failure

Sofia RheiAqueduct Press recently released Everything Is Made of Letters, a collection of short stories by Sofia Rhei. She’s an accomplished author with an engaging personality, and we became friends while I was living in Spain.

I originally translated her short story “Techt” for the anthology Spanish Women of Wonder. Sofía tells a thoughtful, touching account of an old man living in poverty in a hostile future. Language has become debased as well — or perhaps as a consequence — and can no longer express complexities. He strives to maintain what literature and “long” language have to offer humanity: sophisticated ideas, beauty, and a life of richer meaning.

Aqueduct Press put up a sample of its book, and it includes the full text of “Techt.” You can read it here.

Overall, I’m satisfied with my translation. I think I handled one tricky little detail effectively. A chart on Page 17 of the book shows “Alphabet 100,” a simplified form of communication using symbols, and the text explains what some of the most frequently used symbols mean. In the original Spanish:
@ – a, K – que, Ð – de, & – además

indexLiterally translated, it says:
@ – at, K – that, Ð – of, & – also

I saw that the meaning of @ and & are the same in English, so I didn’t need to change them for the translation. K presented a problem that was easy to solve: K is used in English as an abbreviation for OK, and I could substitute that meaning without doing violence to the original text.

Ð in Spanish has been used, especially in old documents, as an abbreviation of DE (of), but the symbol has no common use in English. I could have asked for the symbol to be substituted for something else in the original chart in the text, but I knew it would be so much easier to find some sort of adaptation. I researched until I discovered one.

It turns out that Ð is a letter in Old and Middle English, and it represents the sound of “th” in “the.” That substitution would work. Problem solved!

I couldn’t figure out how to solve anothe problem, and I feel bad because I failed. The original text features debased oral language: “Ké zer nau?” “Yob’m film!” “Nvío urgent. Krtera decir tú sign.”

My translation: “Wat du nao?” “Job’n film!” “Erjnt mes. Caryer say yu ident.” (They make more sense in context, don’t worry.) I think that’s a reasonable translation except for one thing. The original, you might notice, is Spanish heavily influenced by English.

English. It has a growing hegemony in the world, imposing itself on other languages, and its presence in debased discourse in the story implies something significant to Spanish-language readers. English is cool, thus Spanish is not as cool, so English is used needlessly in Spain these days in a way that doesn’t always advance or enrich communication, which breeds resentment among some Spanish-speakers. This article published by an important watchdog of the Spanish language, Fundéu BBVA, tries to refute the idea that English is the “enemy” of Spanish. The fact that the idea needs refuting tells us it exists.

I could not figure out how to express the subtext in the story that English has helped deteriorate Spanish, since English is the culprit here. Sometimes it can be hard to see the forest for the trees. The story “Techt” stands strong even without that missing detail, but my instinct as a translator is to bring you everything a reader in the original language would have understood and everything the author was trying to say. I failed, and it bothers me.

My father: some of his little-known, not always licit, achievements

My father, Richard Burke, died in 1996 of complications from prostate cancer.

Here are few things not everyone knew about him:

DickBurkeFootballSmallHe played on the defensive line of the Marquette University’s Golden Avalanche football team during the late 1940s. To earn a little money on the side, he also briefly (and secretly, since it was forbidden by college sports rules) fought as a professional wrestler under the name “Tiger Dick.”

When he was cut from the team, he was drafted into the Marines, where he served as a Marine sharpshooter and MP. He was also a semi-professional gambler at the time, and he and some fellow Marines opened a clandestine casino on base — but only for about a month because “that’s how long the bribes lasted.”

(I’m not a great card player, but he taught me some useful strategies that I don’t share with potential rivals, so don’t ask.)

He never had occasion to face combat, but as an MP he once stopped an attempted rape. He warned the perpetrator, “Halt or I’ll shoot!” and, since the circumstances required it, he would have shot to kill. He recalled that incident with pride at his resolve to do what he had to do without hesitation. The perpetrator wisely halted.

DadHe went on to work in supervisory positions in heavy manufacturing. He eventually held three patents. He also raised four children, adored his wife, enjoyed pro and college football, could fix anything as a handyman, and was an excellent sport fisherman.

Later, he capitalized on his long experience in manufacturing to do some industrial espionage. He said the spy work wasn’t especially sneaky. He would simply observe what a company was doing during a public factory tour, for example, and since he understood manufacturing processes so well, he could deduce their secrets.

When he retired, he volunteered to lead tours at historic Fort Concho in San Angelo, Texas, headquarters to Pecos Bill and the Buffalo Soldiers.