Thursday, October 19, 2017

Read It, October 2017

Today is Monday, October 9th, 2017.

The leaves are beginning to fall and the weather is really getting comfortable. In a few days Grace and I will celebrate our sixteenth wedding anniversary. This month three of our children have birthdays, two on the same day. I’ve had some kind of lingering cold or sinus infection that is leaving me tired and listless and slightly feverish. Usually when I finally give in and go to a doctor, the doctor examines me and says “well, it doesn’t look that serious; your lungs are clear. I’d say just get some extra rest and fluids and give it a few more days.” I don’t want to take rounds of antibiotics if my condition isn’t actually life-threatening, in part because oral antibiotics just often don’t really work that well for sinus infections.

I tried the “getting some extra rest” thing this weekend. Grace and the kids picked up a lot of the slack when I wasn’t cooking or doing dishes. That was nice. I did get a little more rest than usual. But I just find it really hard to nap with any noise happening at all. This means, basically, that I can rarely really get a nap, even if I desperately need one, when the kids are home. Nearly fasting, and drinking a lot of hibiscus tea with honey, helped. As did a little whiskey. A good peaty Islay scotch seems to be at least as effective for a sinus infection as an over-the-counter cold medicine, if not more.

Yesterday’s Pottscast turned out to be more work than we planned. Grace and I recorded a long chat — almost two hours. Because, apparently, I was not as alert as I usually am, I managed to merely imagine that I got Logic to start recording. Instead, it was playing. So Grace and I spoke while the computer looked like it was recording, and we listened to our monitor mix. The computer didn’t record anything at all.

Later in the evening we basically staged the whole conversation again upstairs, in our bedroom, using a portable recorder. I think we got just about everything out that we said originally, although I was noticeably tired and hoarse.

I still have something like six or seven blogs. Every once in a while, I consider deleting one or two of them completely. But then I get a comment on something I wrote years ago, and it’s a real comment, not spam. So I reconsider.

I’ve been chipping away at a number of different books, in my usual disorganized way. But first I want to mention that we watched Doctor Strange (the 2016 movie).

Doctor Strange

I was never a big comics fan, although I used to read my stepbrother’s leftover comics, back in the late 1970s to early 1980s. I vaguely remember Doctor Strange as, well, strange (go figure), in that he explicitly used magic and sorcery, instead of vague science-based powers and abilities.

The movie comes very close to being very good. At no point is it really a bad movie, and it scores a lot of points for outlandish visuals (although, it seems to me, sometimes quite derivative of the effects in Inception). It’s also quite funny in places. Strange is an arrogant young doctor, a neurosurgeon. After a terrible car accident, Strange has surgery that repairs most of the visible damage to his hands. But he has damage to the nerves that leaves them weak and trembling. Trying to save his career, he travels to Nepal, hoping to find a way to restore his hands. He’s following a lead — his physical therapist knew of a man with a severe spinal cord injury traveled to Nepal and found a way to restore his ability to walk, and even to play basketball.

Strange is a materialist and an atheist, but when he meets the “Ancient One” (Tilda Swinton), she punches him right in the chakras so hard that his astral body blasts out of his material body, and he finds himself staring down at himself in shock. Then she opens his third eye, and it’s an acid trip on the screen. Strange wants to blame it on the tea, or a drug, but he can’t; he’s just been shoved through a door into the undeniable knowledge that the universe is stranger than he could have imagined. And so he flips immediately from a materialist atheist to a mystic who wants to master it all, as quickly as possible.

Swinton is quite good (although an odd casting choice). I agree with the filmmakers who, in interviews, noted that since the original characters were often based on very negative Asian stereotypes (“Fu Manchu” and “Dragon Lady” tropes), they were afraid of being accused of racism for re-creating any of those characters. Instead, they chose whitewashing. I’m not sure this was the best way to navigate that particular minefield, but I am glad that the Asian characters are, at least for the most part, free of these stereotypes.

The weaknesses of this movie have little to do with the visuals and acting, and everything to do with the screenplay. The film feels a little long, but it feels long because by the halfway point, we’re able to guess how it all will end. The symbols are pretty heavy-handed. There’s a scene where Strange breaks into the library of forbidden sorcery books, and as he pulls down the forbidden book, he takes a bite of an apple and places it on a desk, center-screen. It doesn’t take an English degree to realize that he is eating the fruit of the forbidden tree, and what will happen next. I actually stopped the movie here and explained to my kids this symbol and its significance, and told them “by the way, here’s what’s going to happen next.” I explained, based on the setup so far, who would die, how the plot lines would play out, and where the various relationship issues would end up. I took no great joy in being right. If it had been a better movie, I would have been guessing right up to the end. That predictability, together with a number of characters one doesn’t really feel all that interested in, make the movie feel longer than it is.

Angelica Jade Bastien has a review here on She makes a number of good points in her review. She writes:

One of the most glaring sins of “Doctor Strange” is how quickly Strange masters magic. There isn’t much tension in his arc. While he struggles briefly at first to keep up with other students The Ancient One has taken under her care, he’s soon stealing sacred books out from under Wong (Benedict Wong), the sharp-eyed master who protects the texts at The Ancient One’s behest. Strange plays by his own rules, growing far beyond the skills of those around him. He even goes as far as bending time, secretly reading from forbidden texts and wielding the Eye of Agamotto. When Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) remarks that Strange seems destined for this, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. Of course he was.

Bastien also points out that Swinton’s character “seems to be from another film entirely — one that would truly embrace the weirdness of the premise beyond the trippy visual effects.” Yes — I’d like to see that movie.

There is the promise of at least one sequel. I enjoyed this one enough that I would probably go see that sequel on the big screen.

On a final technical note: I watched this movie on a Blu-ray disc, playing the audio through an old Onkyo receiver into a pair of bookshelf speakers. This was a mistake. The audio track contains a huge amount of low-frequency energy — when the sorcerors fire off magic spells, the audio is made to show off the gut-shaking capacity of a movie theater’s THX sound system. My poor speakers looked like they were going to fire their woofers across the room, and the thundering sub-bass frequencies came out sounding like a wet fart.

I’m not quite sure how to fix this — maybe I needed to set the Blu-ray player to play the stereo track instead of the 5.1 track? My Blu-ray player doesn’t seem to have an option to apply a high-pass filter to the audio output. Maybe I need to protect the speakers with a capacitor network that rolls off low frequencies.

In any case, be cautious if you are going to listen to this movie on ordinary stereo speakers. You might well blow them. Mine are still working, but one sounds a bit damaged, and may not be long for this world.

Alastair Reynolds

I picked up a copy of Alastair Reynolds’ story collection, Deep Navigation. This is a lesser-known story collection, available only in a NEFSA (New England Science Fiction Association) Press printing. I ordered a used copy from Alibris, and it arrived damaged, shipped only in a plastic bag. This always enrages me — the whole book was bent, as if someone placed it across a gap between two chairs, and stood on it. It is still readable, but why couldn’t the seller ship it with a little more protection? (Cost, of course).

But anyway, how is it?

So far it is confirming my initial guess — that this collection represents the bottom of the barrel of Reynolds’ output, and is for dedicated fans only.

The first story, “Nunivak Snowflakes,” involves a teenager with an artificial arm who can do healing magic, and receives strange messages on pieces of paper inside fish that fall from the sky. After a weird setup like this, and the introduction of several intriguing characters, I was ready for a surreal novella. But this is only a short story, and next to nothing happens before the story abruptly ends. This was his first published story and it shows — the setup is imaginative, but he didn’t really build it into anything.

The next one, “Monkey Suit,” fits more-or-less into the Revelation Space universe. It’s a decent enough story, a little creepy. It reminds me of the Doctor Who two-parter, “Silence in the Library” and “Forest of the Dead.” I can see why it was left of of other collections that contained Revelation Space stories, though — it’s just not quite strong enough, or dark enough, to fit in with the other RS material.

“The Fixation” again has a fascinating setup involving the restoration of the Antikythera mechanism, and some mumbling about quantum mechanics and the many-worlds hypothesis, but then, like “Nunivak Snowflakes” it ends, without ever really getting the story arc to, well, arc up off the ground. It’s another atmospheric disappointment. Honestly, it probably should have stayed on his hard drive until he found a way to flesh it out.

I’ll continue, but so far what I’ve read is largely discouraging, so I may not even keep this book in my permanent collection. And I’ll be hesitant in the future to buy any special limited editions released by NEFSA Press. Sometimes unpublished material really is unpublished for good reasons.

The Compleat Enchanter

This volume collects three novellas, collaborations between L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt, with the first two stories dating back to 1940. Stylistically, they feel a bit dated at times — an unmistakeable ambient sexism flows through them. But they are also quite funny, and I can detect a very strong through-line between these stories and the writing of contemporary authors such as Jim Butcher. They are sort of a hybrid between low fantasy and high fantasy, and the bridge between the two levels, that keeps the conceit working, is their humor.

I think Heinlein may have had homage to de Camp and Pratt in mind when he created The Number of the Beast In that book (not Heinlein’s finest, but an interesting failure), there is a finite, but very large, number of universes, some of which closely match the worlds sketched in famous science fiction and fantasy stories — for example, Oz, Barsoom, and Pellucidar — and some don’t. In Heinlein’s story a technological device is used to travel between universes.

In de Camp and Pratt’s formulations, the original authors of myths and legends were so crazy that their brains ran on alternative logic, so their minds could “jump the tracks” to these next-door universes and experience these alternate realities. Harold Shea learns to travels to parallel universes via a “syllogismobile,” not really a vehicle, but a mathematical model of the rules of these alternate realities, which he simply studies. Each of the universes in question embodies a literary world.

In “The Roaring Trumpet,” Shea sets out to enter the world of Irish myth, but makes a mistake, and winds up in a world of Norse myth, while the gods get ready for Ragnarok. The gods are real, and very powerful, and very dangerous, and the humans live in uneasy alliance with them, trying to avoid getting trampled. It’s a greasy, cold place:

The meal consisted of various meats, with beside them a big slab of bread, looking as though it had been cut from a quilt. There was no sign of knife, fork, or any vegetable element. The meat he picked up rather gingerly was apparently a boiled pork chop, well-cooked and well-seasoned. But as he was taking the second bite, he noted that the shield girl, Aud, was was still standing beside him.

As he looked round Aud made a curtsey and said rapidly: “Lord, with this meal as with all things, your wishes are our law. Is there aught else that you desire?

Shea hesitated for a moment, realizing it was a formula required by politeness and that he should make some remark praising the food. But he had had a long drink of potent mead on an empty stomach. The normal food habits of an American urged him to action.

“Would it be too much to ask whether you have any vegetables?” he said.

For one brief second both the girl and Thjalfi stared fit him. Then both burst, into shrieks of laughter, Aud staggering back toward the wall, Thjalfi rolling his head forward on his arms. Shea sat staring, red with embarrassment, the half-eaten chop in his hand.

There are quite a few funny scenes, and the story moves along quickly. This is a world of magic. But while some fantasy authors lazily use magic as a generic plot device, capable of doing anything that is needed at any time, “playing tennis with the net down,” de Camp and Pratt set themselves the challenge of trying to come up with a magic that is not just a set of recipes and spells to learn, but which has rules, that the characters can learn and exploit to create the effects that they desire. For example:

“The law of similarity may be stated thus: Effects resemble causes. It’s not valid for us, but primitive peoples firmly believe it. For example, they think you can make it rain by pouring water on the ground with appropriate mumbo jumbo.”

The first novella moves along quite speedily, but the authors were writing a novella, and were not interested in the challenge of portraying Ragnarok to the bitter end. So, wisely, they end the story, and pull the fish-out-of-water Shea back to his own world before he gets himself killed.

In the next novella, “The Mathematics of Magic,” Shea travels with his colleague, Chalmers, to the world of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (an epic English poem from 1590 which, sadly, I have not read). Chalmers takes to magic like a fish to water, and actually likes life as a magician in the land of faerie more than life as an elderly psychologist in New England. And Chalmers is quite powerful, as a magician, although apparently one must learn how to carefully calibrate spells, or they can easily produce results that are multiple powers of ten bigger, or smaller, than expected. When Chalmers summons a dragon, he and Shea are delighted to find that the spell worked! But then:

A second draconian head was pushed through the smoke. This one was squirted out in a few seconds. It looked at the three men, then wandered over to a clump of bright-colored flowers, sniffed, and began to eat them. Now a third and a fourth head were already in sight. As fast as the dragons were extruded, more followed them. The field down to the very confines of the trees was crowded with them, new arrivals butting the others to make room or scratching their sides on trees. Shea was counting: “Thirty-three, thirty-four…”

I have not yet finished the third novella, “The Castle of Iron,” but I will be done with it soon, and I will decide whether I want to track down more of the novellas. de Camp and Pratt collaborated on “Wall of Serpents” and “The Green Magician.” But after the fifth one, I believe that Pratt unfortunately died. de Camp then continued working on several more stories in the series, collaborating with Christopher Stasheff and other authors. I have no idea if these later stories are as good as the original collaborations, but I suspect that they are not.

While I’ve characterized these stories as funny, I have to admit that funny is not always enough. Reading them in 2017, they seem to have a sort of “neither fish nor fowl” aspect. They aren’t serious or epic enough for me to really sink my teeth into, like E. R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros. But they also aren’t quite silly and energetic enough to make good bedtime stories for the kids, and the aforementioned sexism and mild dirty jokes make them unsuitable for bedtime reading:

“Now, what I want to say is that this here is a very useful little collop of jewelry, both for the lady and her knight. It has a double enchantment on it. For the lady, it makes her ten times fairer the minute she puts it on, and it also, it won’t stay around the waist of any wench who’s not perfectly chaste and pure. That’s for the benefit of the knight. The minute this lady can’t keep her belt on he knows she’s been up to tricks.”

Although I definitely acknowledge that these are historically significant and can see their influence all over modern fantasy, I’m not sure they are really going to be among my favorites. Writers like Butcher that they influenced, directly or indirectly, to me seem like they have clearly outdistanced the original concept, keeping the humor while also creating compelling characters and plots.

And despite reading dozens of fantasy novels in my youth, in general I’m not really a big fan of most fantasy. It really takes the very exceptional stuff, the best of the best, to convince me. Generally, I’ll forgive science fiction that is written at a mediocre level, if it contains fascinating ideas, while in fantasy the ideas are rarely very original, and so the writing has to be compelling.

In the case of The Compleat Enchanter the ideas are refreshed, and I love the idea of trying to build a scaffolding of rules under traditional magic, a bit like what Whitehead and Russell attempted to do for mathematics with Principia Mathematica. But they just don’t seem meaty enough to re-read.

Maybe I’m just getting more jaded, as at 50, if you hand me a new (new, or new to me) work of science fiction or fantasy, the odds are that I’ve read something like it before, something that does what the new book does, but better, and maybe even does it backwards and in high heels. There’s a river of new work published every year, and ain’t nobody got time for all that.

I’ll finish these, and maybe I’ll continue. Maybe they’ll seem better to me then. Time will tell. Maybe they’ll become your favorites. Or maybe they already are?

Non-fiction and Fiction On Deck

I’ve got a lot of books in piles around my bed. There’s Unspeakable by Chris Hedges and David Talbot. Hedges is a very challenging thinker. This book is an extended interview with Hedges, carried out over several days. You can dip into it out of order, but if you read the sections in order, it forms a sort of autobiography of Hedges.

There are many more non-fiction books piled up, and I’m not going to list them all now; some of them will be mentioned in the podcast.

I’ve also dug out a book that was very significant to me in childhood — The Sword in the Stone by T.H. White. Speaking of “neither fish nor fowl” — it’s an Arthurian romance, a fantasy, set in medieval Europe, but also, dripping with anachronisms. It was reworked slightly and toned down to serve as the first part of The Once and Future King, a considerably darker story, which I also read as a child. I also read the separate, sad finale, The Book of Merlyn. I probably bought my paperback copy of The Once and Future King at a Waldenbooks in Erie, and bought a copy of The Book of Merlyn, I believe, via the Scholastic Book Club, probably in sixth grade.

The Sword in the Stone is very, very funny. I’m now reading chapters from this book to my children at bedtime. I’ve been running around the bedroom pretending to be King Pellinore in his massive suit of armor with padded helm:

“Traitor knight!” cried Sir Grummore.

“Yield, recreant, what?” cried King Pellinore.

They fewtered their spears again, and thundered into the charge.

“Oh,” said the Wart, “I hope they don’t hurt themselves.”

But the two mounts were patiently blundering together, and the two knights had simultaneously decided on the sweeping stroke. Each held his spear at right angles toward the left, and, before the Wart could say anything further, there was a terrific yet melodious thump. Clang! went the armour, like a motor omnibus in collision with a smithy, and the jousters were sitting side by side on the green sward, while their horses cantered off in opposite directions.

“A splendid fall,” said Merlyn.

The two horses pulled themselves up, their duty done, and began resignedly to eat the sward. King Pellinore and Sir Grummore sat looking straight before them, each with the other’s spear clasped hopefully under his arm.

“Well!” said the Wart. “What a bump! They both seem to be all right, so far.”

Sir Grummore and King Pellinore laboriously got up.

“Defend thee,” cried King Pellinore.

“God save thee,” cried Sir Grummore.

With this they drew their swords and rushed together with such ferocity that each, after dealing the other a dint on the helm, sat down suddenly backwards.

“Bah!” cried King Pellinore.

“Booh!” cried Sir Grummore, also sitting down.

“Mercy,” exclaimed the Wart. “What a combat!”

This is another book that has been hugely influential on modern fantasy. If you’ve seen Peter Jackson’s portrayal of Radagast in The Hobbit, you might have a shock of recognition when you read White’s description of Merlyn the magician:

Merlyn had a long white beard and long white moustaches which hung down on either side of it. Close inspecpection showed that he was far from clean. It was not that he had dirty fingernails, or anything like that, but some large bird seemed to have been nesting in his hair. The Wart was familiar with the nests of Spar-hark and Gos, the crazy conglomerations of sticks and oddments which had been taken over from squirrels or crows, and he knew how the twigs and the tree foot were splashed with white mutes, old bones, muddy feathers and castings. This was the impression which he got from Merlyn. The old man was streaked with droppings over his shoulders, among the stars and triangles of his gown, and a large spider was slowly lowering itself from the tip of his hat, as he gazed and slowly blinked at the little boy in front of him.

And if you’ve ever enjoyed Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, with its singing teapots and candlesticks, you might raise an eyebrow as you read about Merlyn’s mustard-pot:

“Have some mustard,” said the magician, when they had got to the kidneys.

The mustard-pot got up and walked over to his plate on thin silver legs that waddled like the owl’s. Then it uncurled its handles and one handle lifted its lid with exaggerated courtesy while the other helped him to a generous spoonful.

“Oh, I love the mustard-pot!” cried the Wart. “Whereever did you get it?’ At this the pot beamed all over its face and began to strut a bit, but Merlyn rapped it on the head with a teaspoon, so that it sat down and shut up at once.

“It is not a bad pot,” he said grudgingly. “Only it is inclined to give itself airs.”

This Potts is also inclined to give himself airs as well, and could write about the books that wrote him all night. But it’s time to go have dinner with my family. Perhaps there will be mustard.

Ypsilanti, Michigan
October 9th and 19th, 2017

Monday, September 25, 2017

The End of My Forties

Today is Monday, September 25th, 2017.

Tomorrow is my birthday. I’ll be fifty. It will be the end of my forties, but also it means tomorrow I will have completed my fiftieth year. A few years back it was the twentieth century, until the end of 2000, not the end of 1999. There was no year zero. Does that mean I’ll be in my forties until my birthday in 2018, when I’ll turn 51? No, because I had a “year zero,” my first year, from my birth to my first birthday. I find this endlessly confusing. Maybe it’s only confusing to old people.

It feels like age has been catching up to me recently, with a bit of a vengeance. I’ve certainly felt myself aging, gradually and relatively smoothly. But lately it has seemed to be accelerating. The stress has been catching up with me. It’s been a couple of stressful years. The situation with our old house in Saginaw, empty and unsold, is weighing heavily on me. Living in Saginaw was stressful in its own way, what with repeated periods of unemployment, but I was getting regular exercise, and my diet was better. Here the family is in one place again, but we are not fully settled. I’m not really in a sustainable daily routine. A lot of things are on hold until we resolve the situation with the old house. For example, we still don’t really have furniture in most rooms in the new house. I am trying to carefully keep as much cash in reserve as I can, every week, spending money only on critical items. Most of my books are still in boxes, because I am waiting to set up custom bookcases; ordinary bookcases from Ikea or elsewhere are just not going to cut it for our library of almost 4,000 books. I am looking forward to the day I can have everything shelved; it may take some time, but it will be glorious. On the day that everything is shelved, I intend to have a party. But that is still in the future.

We have surprises. For example, the water coming from our softener was not up to snuff. We had a guy come out to look at our iron filter. He told us that it’s meant to last for ten years, and it’s now in year fifteen. Surprise. Changing it out cost seven hundred dollars. When we set up the appointment, I put a line item in our spreadsheet, “water system service (TBD),” for $250. Oops. Well, it’s hard to regret spending that $700, because our water now looks, smells, and tastes substantially better. It should also help keep our water heater from clogging up and corroding. But we didn’t have the information that the water system was way overdue for an expensive filter replacement. I’m also trying to keep a balance set aside for the next big water system expense, which will probably be the water heater itself.

We also didn’t expect the water leak in the ceiling of the garage, or the washing machine blowout upstairs. Ultimately I’m grateful that I’m now earning enough, and setting aside enough, that we can absorb these shocks without crashing our bank account. But there’s no way I can earn enough, or set aside enough, to handle a worst-case scenario with our old house in Saginaw, just as very few people would have the cash on hand to pay for a baby’s open heart-surgery out of pocket. (I’ve been watching the paperwork go by, as our insurance company negotiates and pays portions of the bill. It’s like watching Godzilla jockey for a wrestling hold on Megalon, and vice-versa. The amount our insurer has already paid for her hospitalization, after surgery, was almost as much as our asking price for our old house. I don’t know what the final bills will look like, all told; there are dozens of Explanation of Benefits, each of which is the tip of an iceberg of bills and line items. All us civilians can do is hope we don’t become collateral damage in the fight, crushed under a falling giant).

Big Plans, Small Steps

I’m pleased to announce that Grace and I have managed to stick to a podcast schedule for eight weeks running. The “big plan” is to grow the podcast as best we can, and add in more content and guests via Skype. The “small steps” are just more of what we’ve been doing — continuing to do our best to get a show out each week, whether we have a lot of material prepped, or not, whether we are feeling our best, or not. I announce the episodes on our project blog, here:

On to the reading.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling

I finally, finally, finally finished reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire to my kids. I’m so glad we finished. Book 4 is a slog. It has some great moments, and great scenes, but it’s just too long; there are too many sub-plots, and for every exciting chapter or scene, there are three that slow down and drag out the story. There are several villain monologues worthy of the James Bond franchise. Because there are so many plot strands, right after the climax of the book we have a long denoument, and a series of infodumps. One of them is a confession. Barty Crouch is given veritaserum, and spills his guts. It goes on for pages. You might find, reading it, that you are pleased that everything eventually fits together and makes sense, but at the same time, feel as if you no longer really care.

I’m not in any big hurry to move on to book 5. For one thing, as our three most avid bedtime story listeners are 12, 10, and 8, I think we might be getting ahead of their ages.

Absolution Gap by Alastair Reynolds

After finishing up Redemption Ark, it was pretty natural to segue directly ingo the sequel, Absolution Gap. In this book, Reynolds has to keep ratcheting up the strangeness and the darkness, but has to keep the reader interested in an active, human-centered story. So we have a major character tortured to death, because morally, in context, it’s the necessary thing to do; we have a woman killed horifically, by an accident that saves the life of her partner; we have a child brought into existence around a neutron star and modified to be a conduit for information from the future.

In Reynolds’ worlds, technology is always a little frightening, and the higher the technology, the more terrifying. But despite a narrowing, dangerous future, the people in his world often still have the wiggle room to make moral choices, and some of them are inspiring.

Meanwhile, his world-building of a future religious sect on the moon Hela is breathtaking, and very, very cyber-punk. As the moon slowly turns, almost, but not completely, tidally locked with the gas giant Haldora, a convoy of giant cathedrals must crawl in an endless convoy around the moon, staying in view of Haldora so that legions of religious pilgrims can watch the face of the planet, around the clock, waiting for it to — for just a fraction of a second — vanish.

This book, though it is a big, sprawling story, moves along a little quicker than Redemption Ark. It’s complicated, intercut in time and space, but it’s a fitting ending to the Revelation Space books, and sets up events that are continued in the stories in Galactic North. I should probably re-read Galactic North and The Prefect and Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days, but in a day or two I should be receiving a copy of the story collection Deep Navigation, containing Revelation Space stories I haven’t yet read, so that will come first. There’s another collection, Beyond the Aquila Rift, that I don’t have, but I’m scratching my head a bit because it looks like this collection consists mostly of material already collected in his previous story collections, and so I’m wondering if I need it.

Finally, I’ll note in passing that a sequel to The Prefect, called Elysium Fire, is due in 2018, and a sequel to Revenger, called Revealer, is due in 2019.

A Pile of Non-Fiction

I’m reading and skimming several non-fiction books: A Fighting Chance by Senator Elizabeth Warren; Our Revolution by Senator Bernie Sanders; Demagoguery and Democracy by Michael Signer; False Choices: the Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton edited by Liza Featherstone, and What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton. I probably won’t finish all these, but I’m using them as fodder to create notes and articles for eventual inclusion in the Pottscast.

And… Stories!

One of my finds from the Blueberry Book Barn is a collection called Fifty Years of the Best Science Fiction from Analog. They copy I got there is unfortunately pretty foul-smelling, and I spent some time cleaning bug poop of the page edges and letting it dry out. It still sets off my allergies a bit, but it contains some great stories. Last night I read the kids two of them: (“—And He Built a Crooked House—”)[], by Robert A. Heinlein, first published in 1941, and “The Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline” by Isaac Asimov.

“Crooked House” is sexist in execution but still hugely entertaining. An arrogant young architect, inspired by the purely mathematical object known as the hypercube, wants to build a house that would take up only a very limited volume in our three-dimensional space, but actually contain much more space. Unable to realize this in three dimensions, he satisfies himself with building an “unfolded” hypercube, a net of the 4-dimensional hypercube. The night before the owner is to see the house for the first time, there is a minor earthquake, and the house folds up, collapsing into a quote-real-unquote hypercube. The story is a great example of a science fiction story that requires the reader’s disbelief to be suspended only about one particular question: could such a structure, that occupies four spatial dimensions, exist in our normally accessible three-dimensional space, in such a way that we could enter it, and traverse through it? The answer is undoubtedly “no,” but if you’re willing to say “maybe” for a few pages, you’ll love this story, in which the premise is fully explored.

I first read “Thiotimoline” in a paperback copy of The Early Asimov, Book 2, which I came across back in grade school, when I was at the Erie Day School, somewhere between grades 4–6. This story is written in the form of a paper, published in a journal of chemistry. It starts out innocently enough, explaining a series of experiments in purifying (resublimating) an unusual compound called thiotimoline (note that this compound is fictional). We learn that in the process of measuring the time it takes thiotimoline to dissolve, the author discovered that in some cases the compound dissolved before the solvent was added — that is, it anticipated that the solvent would be added in the future and so dissolved in negative time. In one of the greatest jokes every contained in the fewest possible number of words, the author notes that while he tried to fool the compound by getting it to dissolve without ever adding the solvent, it was too smart for him, and would only dissolve if he eventually added the solvent.

I remember laughing uproariously at this story back when I first read it as a kid. I “got it.” Reading it to my kids last night, a couple of them “got it” and also started laughing and yelling “what???” and interrupting the story to express their disbelief.

There’s a little more to the story-slash-scientific paper. Apparently the speed with which thiotimoline dissolves is dependent on the exact nature of the solvent, and any compounds already dissolved in the solvent. This implies that the compound “thiotimoline” is somehow “smart” enough to know “in advance” not just that it is about to be dissolved, but in what solvent it is about to be dissolved, implying even more strongly that either it somehow knows the future, or it can do instant analytic chemistry on its own as the beaker of solvent approaches.

Thiotimoline is kind of like Shrödinger’s Cat — just as Shrodinger’s Cat is a thought experiment about what quantum uncertainty looks like, “scaled up” to an observable size, thiotimoline is a thought experiment about what quantum causality violations look like, “scaled up” to an observable duration. And it raised hilarious philosophical questions as well: does a chemical compound have free will? Do we? All this popped into my head in a single “flash” as I read the original story.

What I also remember, from reading it, is just how alienating it could be to “get” something that is well beyond your grade level, as a gifted child — to understand an elaborate intellectual joke, but also to realize that there was no one around me — not a parent, not a teacher, not a sibling — who would find it funny, even if I could make them understand it, because the humor of it required that you “get it” in a flash of insight; if it’s explained, and you have to slow-walk through the counter-factuals, it isn’t funny.

My universe will end someday, perhaps sooner than I hoped. My kids will carry pieces of it forward and use them as building blocks for their own unique voices and points of view.

On my way out, today, I’ll just leave this here for you to peruse, at your own convenience.

Ypsilanti, Michigan
September 25th, 2017

Saturday, September 9, 2017

The End of Summer

Today is Monday, August 28th, 2017. (Well, that was the date when I started writing this piece — but it has been taking me increasingly longer to finish these little essays, and so here I am on September 5th, and I haven’t come close to capturing everything on my mind this week).

Summer in Michigan is not like summer in Ohio. After hot weeks in July I still find myself gritting my teeth waiting for things to really heat up in August — but then, it mostly doesn’t happen. And by the end of August, it is often time to break out long-sleeved shirts and some extra blankets to throw on in the middle of the night. Google tells me that the summer temperatures peak, on average, on July 19th.

As I write this, the stalled-out Tropical Storm Harvey, previously known as Hurricane Harvey, is flooding parts of Texas. Today sites like Weather Underground are reporting that “total rainfall could reach 50 inches in Texas.” That’s terrifying, and it is not finished. Long-term, this kind of massive horizontal build-out, across hundreds of square miles of concrete and soils with poor drainage, in hurricane zones, is simply not going to be sustainable. Whether you believe in anthropogenic global warming or not, internally displaced “climate refugees” are already a real phenomenon, and the number will increase every year for the rest of your life.

Closer to home, our new house in the woods south of Ypsilanti is serving us admirably. The kids can play in the woods. We have not really furnished it much yet, so we’re lacking a lot of things, like a couch in the family room. We don’t have a television, although we occasionally watch a TV show such as Doctor Who on my iPad or on a laptop. I find that I really like it this way, living with a sort of minimalism, although we are planning to have a couch eventually. It’s a bit like being on vacation in the woods, every evening and weekend. I don’t love the amount we had to finance, to buy this home, but I do love the house, and I’m glad we held out in our house search until we finally found a place we could look forward to coming home to.

At long last, we’re getting very close to the end of our work at our old house in Saginaw. I’ve been making round trips each weekend to bring carloads of stuff, while Grace has been taking the kids up there during the week to work on cleaning things, out, sorting stuff, taking things to Goodwill, and packing. It’s been a real slog. I’ve tried to calculate the number of times I’ve made the drive between Saginaw and Washtenaw County, and it’s a very large number. I’ve put almost sixty thousand miles on the Element since June of 2015. It’s held up really well, fortunately. I think it helps that most of those miles have been freeway miles, although freeways in Michigan, with constant construction and potholes, can still be awfully hard on a car.

To help motivate myself to make the drive, on the last couple of trips I’ve taken a side trip to Russell’s Blueberry Farm and Book Barn, which I usually abbreviate in my head to just the “blueberry book barn.” It’s a you-pick blueberry farm with a used book store on the premises. They’ve got a pretty impressive collection of science fiction and fantasy books, although I have picked it over quite a bit over the last few years, and they don’t restock that often. As the building is not air-conditioned, unfortunately the books tend to suffer over time from too much exposure to humidity.

I’ve had to pass over a lot of books that I’d like to have, because they have mildew spotting and strong smells. I’ll take a book home if it is just a little musty. In my experience, after a few days in a dry environment, and maybe an hour or two in the sun, those books will dry out and smell better. If there are some bits of powdery mildew on the cover, those will generally wipe off with a damp cloth. But if the pages are stained or spotted, I pass them up.

I’ve got a particular weakness for Science Fiction Book Club editions. They are widely available and usually not considered highly collectible, and so you can often get them at reasonable prices. They aren’t really well-made hardcovers, though, so aren’t much more rugged than a paperback. In general, the older ones are better-constructed. I found an SFBC hardcover edition of J. G. Ballard’s The Drowned World bound together with The Wind from Nowhere, from 1965. Aside from a little bit of fading and browning on the edges of the dust jacket, it’s in quite good condition, and less fragile than many of the much newer SFBC editions that I own. I also found a copy of Radio Free Albemuth, which is particularly nostalgic for me because, if I recall correctly, I received this book from the SFBC back in 1985, when I had a membership. That copy is long-gone, but it’s nice to have it again.

I also found a copy of Galactic Pot-Healer, the book club edition from 1969. This copy is a little worse for wear, but still pretty clean. Back in the late 1980s through early 1990s, before Philip K. Dick’s novels were reprinted, the only way to read them all was to track down brittle old paperbacks. I owned pretty much every one of his novels in old editions, including some of the odder rarities like The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike. I had to sell most of those years ago, during various periods of unemployment. But these days just about everything he wrote is in print, and with the forthcoming release of the Blade Runner sequel, his reputation seems secure.

Other authors are less secure, and harder to find these days. I love story collections, and I’ve brought home a number of them from the Blueberry Book Barn. I once found a copy of Nine Hundred Grandmothers by R. A. Lafferty, which is a somewhat scarce book. I have been collecting books from Donald A. Wollheim’s Word’s Best Science Fiction series. Those aren’t particularly scarce. I also found a single-author collection, The Best of Cordwainer Smith, edited by J. J. Pierce, from 1975, and another, The Best of C. M. Kornbluth, edited by Frederick Pohl, from 1967.

When I skim through these books I’m inevitably happy to run across a story I remember reading before, usually decades ago. This time it was the story “The Little Black Bag,” by Kornbluth. Kornbluth was apparently a strange guy, and he died tragically of a heart attack at the age of 34, but his stories remain brilliant. I have no idea just when I first read “The Little Black Bag,” but it must have been back in my own “golden age of science fiction,” about age twelve. (The original jokey phrase, “The Golden Age of science fiction is twelve,” is apparently (at least, according to Google’s algorithms) due to Peter Graham, but it has been widely quoted).

I was twelve in 1979–1980, and trawling through libraries. I don’t remember where I came across “The Little Black Bag,” but it was probably in an anthology. I also remember reading Kornbluth’s other famous story, “The Marching Morons,” which was published in Omni magazine in the October 1980 issue; I had a subscription, as proper nerds did.

I was pleased to find that “The Little Black Bag” has been turned into an episode of Escape Pod

The Grace and Paul Pottscast

Grace and I have been releasing a new podcast episode every Sunday for a few weeks, and hope to continue that schedule (although with six young kids at home, life does tend to intervene in our plans). I announce the podcast episodes on a blog, here. The blog posts have direct links to the MP3 files, or if you use a program like iTunes to manage your podcast listening, you can subscribe to the feed here.

In order to get episodes out more regularly, I’ve been working to make my production process easier and less time-consuming. To make this work well, I need to be able to go from a recording of our conversation to a finished podcast quickly, completing the production the same day we record. I’d like to be able to complete all the post-recording steps in under an hour, ideally, and that includes the time needed to transfer the audio file across the network, generate the completed audio file, convert it to MP3 format, and upload the MP3 file. The process should be simple enough to let me finish it without having to backtrack and fix technical mistakes even when I’m tired and distracted and rushing, late on a Sunday evening. I need to be able to drop the two-channel recording into a Logic Pro project, and export a finished audio file. I can’t take hours to edit the conversation, even if it cries out for editing; I just don’t typically have enough free time in a given week. It’s either get-it-done and shrug at the flaws, or wallow in my usual obsessive-compulsive perfectionism and don’t-get-it-done-at-all.

Once I’ve got a finished audio file (a WAV file), there are a lot of fiddly steps remaining. I need to convert it into an MP3 file. I need to tag the MP3 file, so that it shows up properly in iTunes or other programs that folks use to manage their podcasts. Then I need to upload that file to my web hosting company’s server.I need to write a description of the episode. I need to upload that file to my web hosting company’s server. I need to then create an entry in the podcast feed file. The feed file is in XML format. Links require Percent-encoding (also known as URL- or URI-encoding). The feed file entries require the file size in bytes, the running time in seconds, and the date and time in an RFC 2822-compliant format.

Then I also need to write a post on the podcast’s blog. Rather than write my blog posts directly on Blogger, I’ve developed the workflow of writing them in Markdown format and using the wonderful program Pandoc to turn it into HTML. This lets me edit my own files on my own computer in Markdown, which is much nicer for simple writing, while still getting nicely formatted HTML that lives up to my standards for typography, with proper accented characters and curly quotation marks.

A lot of the different pieces of text to assemble all the pieces — the file name, the MP3 file tags, the XML feed file entry fields, and the blog post — are identical, or similar. Typing out dates and file sizes and file durations and percent-encoded URIs is extremely tedious and prone to error. A typo in a link in the feed file or the blog post means that the podcast will not work right for a potential listener. So I’ve long wanted a nice clean way to automate this process as much as I reasonably can. I’d like to be able to write the title, short summary, and long description of each episode once and save it in a text file. I’d like to have everything else — all those other steps — happen pretty much automatically, by running a script.

I have finally put some work towards such a script. I have a BBEdit shell Worksheet for the podcast. The BBEdit shell worksheet is a wonderful invention — an homage to the user interface used in the old Macintosh Programmer’s Workshop (MPW). The worksheet is a text file that you can edit and save, but it is also a sort of interactive shell script. You can select lines from the file and press the Enter key, and they will be executed in the context of my shell, which is bash. The results will appear right in the worksheet. Long-running commands animate a little spinner in the status bar at the bottom of the window. So I’ve come up with commands I can run right in the worksheet to encode and tag the MP3 file exactly as I want, and generate the percent-encoded link, and create the properly formatted date and time. There’s a set of commands for each episode, and they are saved in the worksheet right along with the audio projects, so if I want to change the source files and re-generate everything, I can.

Here’s the section of the worksheet for Episode 13. Some of these lines are the commands, and some are their output:

# EPISODE 13: Dude, Do You Even Protest?

EPISODE_TITLE="Conversation #13: Dude, Do You Even Protest? (September 3, 2017)"
EPISODE_MP3_FILENAME="Conversation #13_ Dude, Do You Even Protest? (September 3, 2017).mp3"
EPISODE_SUBDIRECTORY="Conversation 13 - Dude, Do You Even Protest?"


EPISODE_SUMMARY="Grace and I discuss protest, using as a jumping-off point Nathan Heller's book review article from the August 21st issue of _The New Yorker_. We start off a bit incoherently, cherry-picking some points made and quotes included from the books Heller is reviewing, before settling on a real critique of the author's actual take on the issue, which is surprisingly vacuous. Nevertheless, questions of whether and how to protest, and whether it is effective in the modern era, still interest us, so we try to come to grips with them. Along the way Grace and I recount a little bit about our own histories of activism and dissent, in marches, on picket lines, and in our work, and try to answser the question 'you criticize a lot of other people about their politics -- but what are _you_ doing to make a difference?'"

EPISODE_SUBTITLE="Grace and I discuss the question of whether public protest is useful and meaningful today."
if [ ${#EPISODE_SUBTITLE} -ge 255 ]; then echo "subtitle field must be 255 characters or less"; else echo "subtitle field length ok"; fi

echo "File size in byes:"

File size in byes:

echo "Current date/time:"
php -r 'date_default_timezone_set("America/Detroit"); echo date(DateTime::RFC2822);'

Current date/time:
Mon, 04 Sep 2017 01:27:05 -0400

echo "File duration:"
ffmpeg -i "$PROJECT_PATH/MP3/$EPISODE_MP3_FILENAME" 2>&1 | grep "Duration" | cut -d ' ' -f 4 | sed s/,//

File duration:

echo "URI-encoded filename:"
ENCODED_FILENAME=$(php -r "echo rawurlencode(\"$EPISODE_MP3_FILENAME\");")

URI-encoded filename:

pandoc --ascii --smart --old-dashes -f markdown_strict -t html -o "$PROJECT_PATH/blog posts -- pottscast/generated_html/2017_09_04_conversation_13_dude_do_you_even_protest.html" "$PROJECT_PATH/blog posts -- pottscast/markdown_ascii_source_accented_entities/"

That’s a mess of different little tricks. For reporting the file size, I use the standard “stat” command. To get the date and time in the right format, I call out to execute a tiny program in PHP. To get the file duration, I use ffmpeg, and feed its output through grep and sed. Ideally it would round to the nearest second, but I can do that adjustment by hand. To get the URI-encoded filename I use a PHP one-liner again. Then as part of the same worksheet, I generate the HTML for the blog post.

It won’t yet upload the MP3 for me, or write the entry to the feed file and update the file on my web host, or publish the blog post. This is by design, since I want to make sure I get a good look at each of these things before I publish them. The next step is to generate the whole feed file entry that I can copy and paste into the feed file.

Because the process is so prone to error, I use two feed files. One is the “staging” feed. I add the podcast entry to the staging feed, and then tell iTunes to update my subscription to the staging version of the podcast. I verify that the new podcast entry shows up correctly in iTunes, that I can download and play it. I check that the MP3 file is complete, and that all the tags and metadata fields look just the way I want. Often I double-check the feed files using the free feed validator. And I frequently find errors — for example, apparently the subtitle field in my latest feed entry was too long (the limit for the itunes:subtitle field is apparently 255 characters, and I exceeded that). So I fixed that, and added a length check to my script to avoid running into that problem in the future. When it all looks good, I add the feed entry to the “official” feed file. All this is time-consuming but it avoids breaking the feed.

Like many standards that were originally designed when computers were more resource-constrained, the podcast feed format is archaic and ugly. This 2008 blog post from Coding Horror still applies today. It’s hard to write, and it’s hard to read. It’s increasingly hard for me as I get older and my eyes get worse. You can argue that files like this are meant to be machine-generated, but I think that’s a weak argument. It also imposes a burden on anyone writing code to generate this kind of file. And the standard is so fiddly and full of arbitrary limitations, like the 255-character limit I mentioned, that people do in fact often have to debug their feed files. A new simpler feed format would be a nice start, perhaps in JSON or YAML. But there’s a huge chicken-and-egg problem.

Many people apparently use tools for handling podcasts that just allow them to upload a source file, and handle all the rest. I’ve seen those feed files. They are horrible. The generated MP3 file podcast tags are horrible, too. I’ve been asked on several occasions for help un-fucking someone’s podcast feed because these tools make such a hash of it. I hear horror stories from podcasters all the time who use a service or web site, and when it does wrong they find out the hard way that without tight control of their feed, they are at the mercy of an indifferent hosting company. And so it’s 2017 and I’m doing it the hard way, because it seems to me like the hard way is still easier.

Oh, and there are gratuitous compatibility issues everywhere, even in 2017, even between programs that are the de facto standards for podcasting, LAME and iTunes. To make my new workflow generate files that are fully compatible with iTunes, I had to actually compile my own version of the LAME encoder. I describe how I did that in a blog post here.

As I get older, I’ve got less and less patience for this kind of thing; but at the same time, I want to do my work the way I want to do my work. And I’m cranky and persistent enough to plod along at solving the problems that stand in the way, even if they require ugly hacks… and they do.

Anyway. That’s a long, long explanation that nobody asked for. On to the books.

Proxima by Stephen Baxter

I have mixed feelings about the work of Stephen Baxter. I love his Xeelee stories. I love many of his short stories and novellas. But he writes a lot of other books. Many of them show a basic competence and some imagination, but they just aren’t inspired. So when I first came across Proxima in bookstores, I did not jump on it. I waited a while. And then bought it in paperback.

Proxima is a planetary colonization and planetary exploration story in the mode of some of the old masters; think Clarke and Asimov. Baxter clearly has a lot of respect for the old school.

The premise of Proxima seems pretty convincing. A political prisoner named Yuri (not his real name) has been sent to Mars. He has gotten himself into some sort of trouble, and was put into cryogenic sleep. As the story opens, he’s just woken up, and finds himself on a ship carrying colonists to Proxima Centauri. There’s a space race and the powers that be need colonists. Even prisoners. Baxter makes a nice historical parallel with the colonization of Australia because one of Yuri’s fellow unwilling colonists is actually a crew member named Mardina, an aboriginal Australian forced to stay behind with the colonists at the last minute.

These seems like promising characters, but while Baxter does some nice things with Mardina’s character, he doesn’t seem to ever get around to giving Yuri much in the way of drives, or personality, or indeed, characteristics of any kind. Yuri has a vague drive to keep surviving and keep moving — to keep going through one door after another. And he’s curious. He never seems to enjoy Mardina’s company very much, nor does she enjoy his. But there’s a robot, which humorously references Robbie the Robot, and although Yuri is not very kind to him, together they learn a lot about the planet and the indigenous life. The life on Proxima is deeply strange. Baxter’s work here is excellent, and welcome. It fits into that Asimov/Clarke tradition, even channeling some practitioners of harder science fiction like Robert L. Forward and Hal Clement.

This all goes along in a pretty engaging manner, although Baxter glosses over an awful lot. The biochemistry on Proxima isn’t compatible with human biochemistry, but where Kim Stanley Robinson in Aurora makes this a critical plot driver, Baxter pretty much ignores it. He reserves a lot of thought for the role of artificial intelligences in this future. That part is quite fascinating, and quite dark. There’s an intelligent space probe that is vaguely reminiscent of Lieserl, the originally human AI sent to live inside the sun in Baxter’s novel Ring.

There’s also another technological MacGuffin, the “kernels,” discovered under the surface of mercury. These are tiny energy sources, perhaps wormholes of some kind. They seem to be artificial, planted there at some point in the solar system’s past. I would have like to see more development of the kernels, since Baxter is good at this sort of thing.

Where I start to lose interest in the story is, unfortunately, where I start to lose interest in several of Baxter’s stories: it’s the point where he gives up on any scientific plausibility and introduces magic. Or, if you prefer, it’s the point where he introduces such a “sufficiently advanced” technology that I lose my ability to maintain suspension of disbelief. This seems to be a pattern. He’s scrupulous about his technology — until he reaches the point in the story where suddenly, he isn’t. In some of his other books, it’s the introduction of ghosts from parallel universses. In this book, it’s the introduction of magical portals. Oh, and parallel universes. You can’t have portals without parallel universes. And then, as if Baxter doesn’t feel like he has enough of a story to tell, he decides to raise the stakes very, very high. And then we meet some ancient Romans, or something.

It’s all set up for a bang-up sequel, and it’s available — I could buy it and read it. I’d satisfy my curiousity as to how it all comes out. A few years ago I definitely would pressed on, to get that information. But you know what? I just don’t care very much. Baxter hasn’t given me a whole lot to care about in this book. It’s a little too epic, spinning out rather than in. So at least for now, I’ll skip it. The review on mentions Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden. Maybe I’ll check that out. Or maybe I’ll order up a copy of Xeelee:Endurance. Meanwhile, if you’d like to read a much more character-oriented story that deconstructs the generation starship sub-genre, I recommend Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson.

Redemption Ark by Alastair Reynolds

Sometimes when I feel skeptical of new releases — and rightfully so, it seems — I just want to go back and read something I enjoyed before. So I dug into a box (most of my books are still packed, but catalogued so I can find them), and pulled out Redeption Ark, the next book in the Revelation Space series.

I’ll finish up this book in a day or two. It has been fun to refresh my memory about this story. We learn some interesting things about the deep history of the Conjoiners, and the Inhibitors. I just criticized Stephen Baxter for introducing science indistinguishable from magic into his story. Reynolds gets a little close to that at times. We learn that the Conjoiners have actually changed their future by sending information back through time. All I can say in my defense is really that I like the way Reynolds introduces magical technology a lot more than I like the way Baxter introduces it. In Reynolds’ work, it’s deeply scary stuff, even to his most badass characters who themselves are deeply scary like Skade.

In many ways, Reynolds’ space opera is very visual and very heavily influenced by the horror genre. There are several really grim and gruesome injuries and deaths in Redemption Ark. I don’t intend to point that out as a flaw, just an observation. These stories could give a person nightmares, although ultimately they are not nihilistic per se, and are even hopeful about the future. But getting there requires a pretty dark ride.

I can see the books translating pretty brilliantly to film — but telling the story arcs of the Revelation Space universe properly would require multiple films, and each would probably be monstrously expensive. It’s hard to imagine a project like that coming together anytime soon. But meanwhile I can still enjoy them on the IMAX screen inside my head. I’m reminded that while I’m re-reading Reynolds, I should definitely re-read his story collections, Galactic North and Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days. They are terrific. I should also track down a copy of Deep Navigation, which I haven’t read yet.

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin

Casting around for more books to read to my children at bedtime, I pulled out an omnibus edition of The Earthsea Trilogy. I had this trilogy as a child in a paperback boxed set. My father gave it to me, I believe. I’m not quite sure what age I was at the time. I don’t think I fully appreciated the quality of Le Guin’s writing at that age; I remember completing the books, but don’t recall that they were particular favorites. I appreciate this work much more now.

Those copies are long-gone, sadly. But I’ve been reading A Wizard of Earthsea to the three older children at home, ages 12, 10, and 8.

Their reaction is mixed. It’s a very vividly-described book, but in some chapters the protagnist, Ged, goes for many pages without much in the way of dialogue or action sequences. So I might be reading along enjoying the beautiful language myself, while they are yawning. But then Le Guin will abruptly — sometimes very abruptly — introduce something quite shocking:

The shapeless mass of darkness he had lifted split apart. It sundered, and a pale spindle of light gleamed between his opened arms, a faint oval reaching from the ground up to the height of his raised hands. In the oval of light for a moment there moved a form, a human shape: a tall woman looking back over her shoulder. Her face was beautiful, and sorrowful, and full of fear.

Only for a moment did the spirit glimmer there. Then the sallow oval between Ged’s arms grew bright. It widened and spread, a rent in the darkness of the earth and night, a ripping open of the fabric of the world. Through it bladed a terrible brightness. And through that bright misshapen breach clambered something like a clot of black shadow, quick and hideous, and it leaped straight out at Ged’s face.

As I read that last sentence, the children actually screamed. So they were definitely paying attention.

The themes of the book are quite deep and quite dark. Le Guin doesn’t make a soft or cuddly world for younger readers. There is no reason why the Earthsea books shouldn’t be considered a major work of fantasy for readers of any age. The kids loved Ged’s encounter with the dragon:

No creature moved nor voice spoke for a long while on the island, but only the waves beat loudly on the shore. Then Ged was aware that the highest tower slowly changed its shape, bulging out on one side as if it grew an arm. He feared dragon-magic, for old dragons are very powerful and guileful in a sorcery like and unlike the sorcery of men: but a moment more and he saw this was no trick of the dragon, but of his own eyes. What he had taken for a part of the tower was the shoulder of the Dragon of Pendor as he uncurled his bulk and lifted himself slowly up.

When he was all afoot his scaled head, spikecrowned and triple-tongued, rose higher than the broken tower’s height, and his taloned forefeet rested on the rubble of the town below. His scales were grey-black, catching the daylight like broken stone. Lean as a hound he was and huge as a hill. Ged stared in awe. There was no song or tale could prepare the mind for this sight. Almost he stared into the dragon’s eyes and was caught, for one cannot look into a dragon’s eyes. He glanced away from the oily green gaze that watched him, and held up before him his staff, that looked now like a splinter, like a twig.

Le Guin’s writing here is some of the most terse and beautiful I’ve ever read, in any genre. Really, I find it humbling to read. It does seem like she’s not quite as facile in world-building as one might hope; I find myself longing to know more about the setting. Earthsea doesn’t have a lot of gratuitous detail in it, at least not so far. But the deceptive minimalist music of the language itself, and the measured pace of the story itself, keeps the reader thoroughly engaged.

I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett

I had been reading bits of this to the kids, but I’m setting it aside. The themes are just a bit too mature for them. There’s infanticide, and attempted suicide, and the like. Maybe I’ll finish it myself, but for now I’m not going to continue reading it at bedtime.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling

I’ve been trading off, reading chapters from A Wizard of Earthsea some nights, and chapters from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (or at least half-chapters, since many of the chapters are very long) on other nights.

This Harry Potter book is really dragging. Reading it out loud reveals this; I read it years ago and don’t remember it as being so weak and scattered. There are fun episodes — for example, the scene with Potter in the Prefect’s bathroom, visited by Moaning Myrtle. But there are a lot of parts that feel muddled, and some scenes don’t make a lot of sense, with detail apparently pulled out of thin air and abandoned. For example, we learn that the village of Hogsmeade apparently is right next to an un-named, and previously un-mentioned, mountain. Rowling seems to have created this so she would have a place to put a cave, the cave where Sirius Black and Buckbeak are hiding out.

Rowling also describes a stile and I had to look that up, as I was initially imagining a turnstile. There’s not much sense of place. It’s just a location somewhere vaguely in space near Hogsmeade, sort of like when you walk past all the scenery in a video game.

Meanwhile the plot is dragging, and although there’s a vague sense of menace from the goings-on with Barty Crouch, Mad-Eye Moody, and Snape, it doesn’t seem to be taking us anywhere. This one really needed some more editing. It’s one of the episodes where the movie is actually better than the book.

I was mentioning something about The Goblet of Fire on Twitter and got a recommendation to listen to The Quibbler Podcast. The show’s description reads:

A Harry Potter book club for grownups. Heather Price-Wright and Alex Dalenberg make their way through the Harry Potter books, chapter by chapter. We analyze avada kedavra. We dissect Dumbledore. We question quidditch. And we hail Hermione. Join us as we go as deep as you’ve always wanted to into the books that defined our childhoods. Alohamora—the door is open.

I’ve listened to a couple of episodes. It’s two nerds having fun talking in excrutiating detail about the books, literally chapter-by-chapter — what’s good, what’s bad, and what’s an interesting reference or call-back. It’s well-produced. Interleaved with the discussion are clips from the audiobook. It just so happens that they’re releasing episodes now that correspond exactly to where I am in my re-reading of Goblet. I’d like to play some of the episodes for the kids, but they aren’t quite for kids. As the description says, these are for adults re-reading the books, who want to go deep down the rabbit hole.

I really admire the effort that the creators are putting into the podcast, but the truth is that I am just not quite a big enough fan of the originals to love this podcast the way it deserves to be loved. The Harry Potter books did not define my childhood. The first one wasn’t even published in the United States until I was thirty, and I don’t recall hearing about them at all until the start of the year 2000. As a result, I don’t love them uncritically; while I think the first one is unimpleachably a great, well-paced and fun book, I tend to look at the later ones with a pretty jaundiced eye. More’s the pity, honestly. I would love it if I had more books that I could simply love uncritically, but my mind doesn’t work that way, especially as I get older.

The Glen Carrig Remastered

Now that I have a reasonably good-sounding recording studio setup for podcasts, I’ve started to chip away at a project I’ve wanted to do for a long time: re-recording The Boats of the Glen Carrig. In 2006 I recorded a reading of Hodgson’s novel and mixed it with music that was available under a Creative Commons license. The original episodes are still available and you can read the blog post for the first chapter here.

I was never really happy with the audio quality I achieved in that project. I’ve written at exhausting length in the past about all the technical problems I had with various microphones, and I won’t rehash that all here. I do still like my choice of music and the atmospheric combination of music and narration I achieved back then. Listening in 2017, I know I should be able to do better, both in technical quality and in my performance.

So, I’ve started re-recording the narration. It’s hard. Here’s a little bit of the text:

We had gone a little way among the trees, when, suddenly, one who was with us cried out that he could see something away on our right, and we clutched everyone his weapon the more determinedly, and went towards it. Yet it proved to be but a seaman’s chest, and a space further off, we discovered another. And so, after a little walking, we found the camp; but there was small semblance of a camp about it; for the sail of which the tent had been formed, was all torn and stained, and lay muddy upon the ground. Yet the spring was all we had wished, clear and sweet, and so we knew we might dream of deliverance.

Hodgson uses a deliberately archaic style in the book, since the text it presents was supposedly written in 1757. His sentences are crazy. Try reading that out loud and getting all the pauses and breaks in the right place. How do you even pronounce “determinedly,” anyway?

I’m not sure if I’ll be able to complete this project anytime soon; after all, it took me months, back in 2006, and back then I had both more time to myself, and more stamina. But we’ll see.

On the Horizon

I’ve got a heap of books from the Blueberry Book Barn, including more story collections, and some Ballard. I also picked up a recent edition of E. R. Eddison’s Zimiamvian books: The Worm Ouroboros, Mistress of Mistresses, A Fish Dinner in Memison, and The Mezentian Gate. I have read The Worm Ouroboros before, and it’s an amazing book. I’ve long wanted to record it. A couple of nights ago I stayed up reading part of it to my wife, Grace. But although I’ve owned old copies of the other three books before, I’ve never really gotten a foothold on the so-called Zimiamvian Trilogy. It’s time to give it a shot.

Ypsilanti, Michigan
August 28th - September 9th, 2017

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Read It, Late July 2017

Today is Thursday, August 3rd, 2017.

Elanor is back home, and doing well. She’s on a somewhat daunting regimen of different medications, delivered orally, in little eyedroppers. The regimen is complicated because some of them are supposed to be given every eight hours, but some can’t be given together. So she gets medications every four hours, and we are a little bit sleep-deprived. These are specially compounded pediatric formulations that are not available at your average pharmacy, and our insurer will only cover one of them if we buy it mail-order from the single source they approve. So we actually need to get Elanor’s medication from three different sources. We will be very glad if some of these can be dropped from her regimen. That will probably happen after another month or two.

It has been some time since I posted an update on what I’ve been reading, so it’s time.

My reading has unfortunately been a bit scattered. I have been trying to figure out what I might have to give up in order to free up time for recording projects, and unfortunately my reading might be on the list. In the past, like around 2006, I was able to record audiobooks like my version of The Boats of the Glenn Carrig by William Hope Hodgson. Unfortunately, to find quiet time for recording, I had to stay up very late, often doing my best recording between 1 and 3 a.m. I was a decade younger then and I had a shorter commute and fewer children. I don’t think I can do that now. I might be able to record first thing in the morning, before anyone else is up and making noise. I’ll have to do some experimentation. My voice (and brain) just may not be in working order that early. But I need to figure out something, if I’m going to work on any recording projects at all.

This also applies to the songwriting contests. I’d love to participate in those again, although blocking out time to work on songs was enormously difficult for me, and for my family. I’m hoping that by January 2018 I’ll have gotten back to playing guitar regularly and have a recording space set up and working, although I have to admit that there are a lot of things standing in the way right now.

Now that Elanor seems to be almost back to her old baby self and we are a bit less worried about her, we have been trying to turn our attention back to the Saginaw house. My parents contributed an enormous amount of work towards getting the house packed up and ready for sale, but there is more to do. There are several more carloads of loose things to sort, pack, and move, and a small truckload of furniture waiting. We’ve been pulling things out to have hauled away. Once again we’ve run up against the same kind of problem we always had in Saginaw. People just won’t show up to do the job they’ve agreed to do. I can’t take any more days off during my work weeks — I have no days left to take. And Grace has her hands full.

Last Saturday, I drove to the house in my car and Grace came later with the kids in her car. She ran over a small piece of plastic debris, a couple of inches across, probably left on the road after a fender-bender. This piece of plastic somehow tore right through one of the Tahoe’s tires — resulting in an instant flat, not just a small leak. Fortunately she had just gotten off the freeway, so wasn’t moving at high speed. If this happened at freeway speed, it could have been a rollover crash with Grace and six children all in the car. There was nothing wrong with the tires — they were only two years old, quality tires, recently rotated, and recently checked for inflation.

This is not our first breakdown on the road — when Grace was pregnant with Pippin, we had an awful day in which we got a flat, Grace’s water broke, I cut my scalp open trying to change a tire (don’t ask), we got the spare on, then the spare went flat — that was memorably bad. It all worked out eventually (Pippin will be eight this fall). But this flat is sobering and it has spooked us a little. It’s a reminder that despite our best efforts, a combination of crumbling infrastructure and bad luck could put an abrupt end to our plans. I think about this a lot — perhaps too much — during my daily commute on I–94.

We got everyone home safe on the spare, but in the confusion, we left one of Elanor’s medications in the house. Grace spent hours Saturday night and Sunday morning calling around, to see if we could get a refill of her specially compounded pediatric formulation. She was getting nowhere with this. While she continued to try, I finally just jumped in my car and made yet another round trip to Saginaw, driving 3 hours and 40 minutes on bad roads under construction to go pick up a damned bottle of medicine. One can have deep and abiding concern about carbon emissions and anthropogenic global warming but if your infant daughter’s heart is at risk, you’ll put Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago in the CD player, pound a coffee, and head out. There’s some kind of lesson in that, too.

For Emma, Forever Ago

For Emma is an amazing album. I’ve always heard about certain albums that inspired people to become musicians. Brian Eno famously said, of The Velvet Underground and Nico, that while it didn’t sell very many copies early on, “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.”

I can’t trace my interest in playing and recording to one single point of inspiration like that, but a few, including Jonathan Coulton’s work, which convinced me that a geek like me really could take my long-standing interest in guitar, bass, and Chapman Stick — I played casually for many years and was well beyond the beginner stages, although I didn’t really know it — and become a performing, recording singer/songwriter.

I had never quite been able to make the leap from playing guitar and singing to playing guitar to accompany my own singing to perform a real song from beginning to end, before I started working on songs like Coulton’s “Skullcrusher Mountain,” and gradually it came together — I could sing, although not beautifully, and accompany myself. My guitar-playing is still far better than my singing, but I’ve worked on it. And the songwriting contests gave my efforts some shape that forced me to compose and record songs in a compressed time frame. The results have been mixed, but the stuff that came out well has been good enough to convince me that I should keep working on it.

For Emma is a strange album. Justin Vernon recorded the basic tracks in a hunting cabin in Wisconsin, in isolation. His recording setup was relatively primitive, and you can hear a great deal of room reflections and stray noise. From a technical, recording quality point of view, the album is terrible. There is some fascinating material written about the recording. Amanda Lewis wrote an essay called “Microphone Practice on Bon I’ver’s ‘Skinny Love’” and you can read it here:–2/

Lewis writes:

He recorded all but a few of the vocal and horn tracks which appear on FEFA using only a single Shure SM57 dynamic (moving coil) microphone, a Pro-Tools “Mbox” digital-audio interface, and a laptop computer loaded with the Pro Tools “Mpowered” DAW that comes bundled with the purchase of every new “Mbox” interface (ibid). Though all of his tracking choices ultimately influence FEFA’s overall sonic character, Vernon’s unconventional use of a single dynamic microphone to transduce all of his vocal and acoustic guitar tracks is of particular importance.

There’s a longer version of her paper available as a PDF file here:

But aside from the academic analysis, how does it sound? The answer is “strange and beautiful, and occasionally stunning.” One of my favorite moments starts about four minutes into “The Wolves (Act I and II).” While the guitars drone, a sort of crashing chaos of drums starts, and you hear Vernon start piling on falsetto vocals, forming a big chord, and the chaotic drums start to sound like the wheels of a speeding train, with the layered falsetto vocals forming the mournful sound of a train whistle sounding out across a lonely snow-covered lanscape late on a winter’s night. Then the tracks cut out, and we hear a disjointed, misaligned, gradual rebuilding of the vocal to a brief coda.

The tracks on “For Emma” often include the noises you “aren’t supposed” to record and are “supposed” to ruthlessly edit out — pick scrapes, squeaking chairs, the taps of a hand or arm on the guitar’s hollow top while Vernon keeps time, buzzing strings, distortion, a siren passing outside, and a lot of hiss and noise from a cheap preamplifier. The drums are indifferently recorded, with little clarity. Vocal and guitar tracks often don’t quite line up, popping in and out with a careless feel.

I’ve recorded some of my songs in an small attic room, with wood-paneled walls and a hardwood floor — literally inside a wooden box, and it sounded that way. At the time, I hated the sound of the room, and eventually was pleased when I could put up enough foam and acoustic panels to absorb most of the room reflections. Should I have instead tried to use the sound of the room? It wasn’t what I needed for some songs, but maybe for some songs? It’s certainly something to think about.

On some of my songs, I spent a lot of time using Logic’s Flex Time feature to adjust vocal phrases so that they align as closely as I can make them align. Was I misguided? I don’t think so. That was for a different kind of song — a song that started out with a click track, and got a drum track, and bass track, and because most of it is aligned to a strict beat, when tracks don’t align, they stand out like a sore thumb. I know from experience that recording multi-tracked parts on a song that has a rubato, or flowing and changing, beat is hard. Vernon’s amateur-sounding recording technique on this album really is harder to achieve than it might sound at first listen. But I can also feel it inspiring me, pushing me to be a little less of a technocrat and perfectionist, and a bit more of an experimentalist.

I could go back and re-record my earliest attempts. Vernon could have gone back and re-recorded the songs on “For Emma” in a pristine studio environment. The result would be a lot cleaner, a lot clearer, and more radio-friendly. But I think for either of us to do this would be a mistake. Vernon knew full well that it is far better for a musician to keep playing, to perform, to experiment, and to move forward, feeling his or her uncertain way towards his next moment of inspiration, than to try to re-create an old one.

Hodgson, Again

One fringe benefit of having almost all my books packed in boxes in the basement is that if I want to go pick out something to read, I have to do it consciously and deliberately. I’ll look it up in the database, figure out the box number, and find it. If it is buried deep in the tall, deep wall of boxes, I might just decide to do without it for a time.

I took the trouble to un-bury the box containing William Hope Hodgson’s collected fiction and over the last couple of evenings I’ve been reading my children some of his Carnacki stories. I thought I’d try “The House Among the Laurels” because I remembered it as being spooky and gross but, eventually revealing the haunting as a man-made, rather than supernatural, phenomenon.

These books are out of copyright and so you can get a taste of Hodgson’s writing; here’s the Project Gutenberg version:

I expected that the kids might be bored by the slow build of the story and the somewhat archaic language, but I was wrong. They loved it. It seems I’m constantly under-estimating what my children will enjoy hearing. In my reading, I was also amused to pick up on some subtleties that I didn’t notice before. Here’s a little gag about Catholics and Protestants:

…both he and Dennis the landlord of the inn, tried their best to persuade him not to go. For his ‘sowl’s sake,’ Irish Dennis begged him to do no such thing; and because of his ‘life’s sake,’ the Scotchman was equally in earnest.

The kids loved the scary bits:

The men were all standing now, holding their clubs, and crowded together. And no one said a word. Wentworth told me he felt positively ill with fright. I know the feeling. Then, suddenly, something splashed on to the back of his left hand. He lifted it, and looked. It was covered with a great splash of red that dripped from his fingers. An old Irishman near to him, saw it, and croaked out in a quavering voice:—‘The bhlood-dhrip!’ When the old man called out, they all looked, and in the same instant others felt it upon them. There were frightened cries of:—‘The bhlood-dhrip! The bhlood-dhrip!’ And then, about a dozen candles went out simultaneously, and the hall was suddenly dark. The dog let out a great, mournful howl, and there was a horrible little silence, with everyone standing rigid. Then the tension broke, and there was a mad rush for the main door. They wrenched it open, and tumbled out into the dark; but something slammed it with a crash after them, and shut the dog in; for Wentworth heard it howling as they raced down the drive. Yet no one had the pluck to go back to let it out, which does not surprise me.

I can’t really do the Irish accent justice, but I give it a try.

Hodgson reveals that he really can’t do math, when he describes the construction of a defensive magic circle:

I got my tape measure then, and measured out a circle thirty-three feet in diameter, and immediately chalked it out. The police and Wentworth were tremendously interested, and I took the opportunity to warn them that this was no piece of silly mumming on my part; but done with a definite intention of erecting a barrier between us and any ab-human thing that the night might show to us. I warned them that, as they valued their lives, and more than their lives it might be, no one must on any account whatsoever pass beyond the limits of the barrier that I was making.

After I had drawn the circle, I took a bunch of the garlic, and smudged it right ’round the chalk circle, a little outside of it. When this was complete, I called for candles from my stock of material. I set the police to lighting them, and as they were lit, I took them, and sealed them down on the floor, just within the chalk circle, five inches apart. As each candle measured approximately one inch in diameter, it took sixty-six candles to complete the circle; and I need hardly say that every number and measurement has a significance.

The circumference of a circle is pi times the diameter, so if the diameter is 33 feet, the circumference is about 104 feet, or about 1,244 inches. Candles an inch in diameter spaced five inches apart have their centers spaced six inches apart. It would take about 206 candles, not 66, to complete the circle.

When I read the original description, I didn’t come up with those precise numbers, but I have enough of a sense for numbers to know that his numbers were way off. How far off? Well, to arrange 66 candles in a circle with a diameter of 33 feet, they’d have to be spaced about 18 inches apart, not 6, so that their centers were spaced about 19 inches apart, so Hodgson got the center-to-center spacing between candles wrong by a factor of three.

It’s pretty clear that Hodgson probably meant to describe a circle “thirty-three feet in circumference.” Of course I believe the error must have been Hodgson’s, not Carnacki’s.

Last night I decided to read another Carnacki story, “The Thing Invisible.” This one was not quite as exciting, since Carnacki’s description of his night spent in vigil in the ancient chapel is over-long:

“An hour passed, of absolute silence. The time I knew by the far-off, faint chime of a clock that had been erected over the stables. I was beastly cold, for the whole place is without any kind of heating pipes or furnace, as I had noticed during my search, so that the temperature was sufficiently uncomfortable to suit my frame of mind. I felt like a kind of human periwinkle encased in boilerplate and frozen with cold and funk. And, you know, somehow the dark about me seemed to press coldly against my face. I cannot say whether any of you have ever had the feeling, but if you have, you will know just how disgustingly unnerving it is. And then, all at once, I had a horrible sense that something was moving in the place. It was not that I could hear anything but I had a kind of intuitive knowledge that something had stirred in the darkness. Can you imagine how I felt?

“Suddenly my courage went. I put up my mailed arms over my face. I wanted to protect it. I had got a sudden sickening feeling that something was hovering over me in the dark. Talk about fright! I could have shouted if I had not been afraid of the noise…. And then, abruptly, I heard something. Away up the aisle, there sounded a dull clang of metal, as it might be the tread of a mailed heel upon the stone of the aisle. I sat immovable. I was fighting with all my strength to get back my courage. I could not take my arms down from over my face, but I knew that I was getting hold of the gritty part of me again. And suddenly I made a mighty effort and lowered my arms. I held my face up in the darkness. And, I tell you, I respect myself for the act, because I thought truly at that moment that I was going to die. But I think, just then, by the slow revulsion of feeling which had assisted my effort, I was less sick, in that instant, at the thought of having to die, than at the knowledge of the utter weak cowardice that had so unexpectedly shaken me all to bits, for a time.

“Do I make myself clear? You understand, I feel sure, that the sense of respect, which I spoke of, is not really unhealthy egotism; because, you see, I am not blind to the state of mind which helped me. I mean that if I had uncovered my face by a sheer effort of will, unhelped by any revulsion of feeling, I should have done a thing much more worthy of mention. But, even as it was, there were elements in the act, worthy of respect. You follow me, don’t you?

“And, you know, nothing touched me, after all! So that, in a little while, I had got back a bit to my normal, and felt steady enough to go through with the business without any more funking.

Here the shifts in meanings (“funk” has a much different meaning now) renders this passage odd and slightly silly; Carnacki spends a lot of words narrating how he felt during his “dark night of the soul.” The deliberate self-deprecating humor of Carnacki wearing armor with his night-shirt over it (“I felt like a kind of human periwinkle encased in boilerplate and frozen with cold and funk”) gets buried a bit under his repetitive self-indulgent descriptions of how “disgusting” he felt. But there is in all this, still, the sketch of a very vivid, human, and quite funny, narrator character. Reading it again, I kept thinking how good it could be as a radio drama.

And in fact Big Finish Productions, best known for Doctor Who radio dramas, has produced six Carnacki stories, available for $18.00:—-the-ghost-finder–1416

I have not listened to them yet, but the trailer sounds very promising, and it makes me want to get back to my own recording projects.

One of the stories, “The Gateway of the Monster,” is available free of charge:–1465

Although you will need to create an account to download it. I have listened to this one, and it is quite well-done, although I think an adaptation into a full-cast production, rather than a simple reading with music might also be very effective.

My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard

My big reading news this time is that I’ve finished volume 5 of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. This brings me completely up to date, until volume 6 is released in translation next year.

If you’ve started My Struggle and are having trouble with it, I want to offer some encouragement — it gets better, or rather “easier to read.” I still admire volume 1, but volumes 3 and 4 are more linear and flow with fewer interruptions. Volume 3 is about Knausgaard’s childhood years. This volume in particular contains many passages that are simply gorgeous. Things get darker in volumes 4 and 5. Young Knausgaard in these volumes has a serious problem with alcohol, like his father. This isn’t news, because he wrote about his drinking back in volume 3. He describes going out to a discotheque and finishing four or five bottles of wine in an evening. That’s an astounding amount of alcohol. What gets darker, though, is that he’s starting to act out while drunk, committing petty property crimes, and becoming violent.

Knausgaard is about my age. Although he grew up in Norway, our childhoods were in some ways very similar, and I identify with him quite a lot, especially his sensitivity, intellect, depressive moods, and difficulties in social situations. We loved many of the same bands. I never became a big drinker, fortunately.

Despite our differences, apparently our minds are similar enough that in completing the last few volumes, in which he faces at age 25 several crises about his identity and vocation, I felt myself falling into disturbing emotional and mental states — reading Knausgaard’s compelling account of his life, I found myself running his program, to an extent, holding the 25-year-old Knausgaard’s consciousness in mine as a sort of parallel awareness.

I started to feel his bouts of nihilism, and his self-destructive impulses; as I read about him working through his imposter syndrome, in which he felt like an inept failure at his writing, I also started to become obsessed with a sense of failure about my writing. As he worked through his sense of incompetence as a musician, I also started to feel incompetent as a musician. I’m twice his age, but I haven’t really completely resolved some of the contradictions in my life: I’m a sofware engineer, but I always wanted and hoped to do more writing for a living, and have for a number of years tried to work on side projects involving music and audio production, often to be frustrated because my daily responsibilities to my family take precedence.

The troubling part was that for several weeks, I wasn’t really aware of why I was starting to obsess so much about my choice of vocation, my sense of failure, my difficult relationship with my father, and other things Knausgaard wrestles with. But it became clear as I got to the end of volume 5 and these obsessions lifted, and I started to feel more like myself again — while, perhaps, still carrying a fragment of Knausgaard’s 25-year-old world view and personality.

I don’t know exactly what this means about Knausgaard, or about me. I think it means that my identity isn’t, and perhaps never has been, quite as rigid and impermeable as I might hope. I do have a tendency I’ve been aware of, since childhood. to take on other people’s “programs” as my own, absorbing bits of their personalities and belief structures. I suppose this could be called “gullibility” in some contexts, but I’d prefer to think about it as a form of susceptibility that I maintain, deliberately, in order to stay empathic. But I think it also says a lot about Knausgaard, and how convincing and compelling his story is, that I went into it so deeply. I wonder if other readers have felt themselves having the same response.

I don’t mean to imply that the books are, perhaps, as dark as I’ve made them out to be. Knausgaard himself starts to experience, at the end of volume 5, success in his career, with the publication of his first novel. His life seems to stabilize, and become something he can live more comfortably in, as mine has. But it’s still a fairly pessimistic story. It also struck me, again and again, how even an autobiographical novel running to thousands of pages could elide and gloss over so much of his life, but that’s exactly what it does. I’m sure with his writing ability and remarkable memory, Knausgaard could have many more engaging pages. So I am looking forward to volume six, which is rumored to run over a thousand pages.

More Reading

I’ve been doing more reading. I’m still reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire to the kids, but I’m getting a little tired of reading these books aloud as they become longer and longer. The chapters are now so long that I can’t complete on chapter a night; I think they would take well over an hour to read, and that is a strain both on my voice and on the kids’ attention span. Honestly, I don’t think I’m going to try to read the rest of these out loud. I’ve maintained since first reading the whole series that Rowling needed to make much better use of an editor in the later volumes.

I’m also still somewhere in the midst of I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett, and I need to get back to that one.

I’ve been reading the kids more stories from The Complete Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino. These remain some of my absolute favorite short stories. Some of them are a bit difficult for children due to their degree of abstraction. For example, the story “A Sign in Space” is at a surface level about the narrator Qfwfq and his attempt to leave a marker in space so that he could mark off rotations of the galaxy. But it quickly turns into an extended metaphor about reading and the search for meaning and symbols in texts, as Qfwfq’s world piles up with things that may, or may not be, signs signifying other things. I feel that they “get” these stories on some level, but might get more out of them when they are older. They definitely get Calvino’s humorous account of the development of the universe, as in “Games Without End,” when Qfwfq played marbles with hydrogen atoms and complained that he would rather play with shiny, new atoms than old, dirty ones. The kids know enough about chemistry and physics to laugh hard at that.

A while back I finished reading Ted White’s Secret of the Marauder Satellite by Ted White. In a previous post I wrote about how this book was significant to me as a child, in part because it was about an adolescent boy named Paul who gets to work in a space station. The story ends quite well. Paul is a little whiny, but the conclusion of the book gets fairly serious as the importance of what Paul has discovered becomes clear. It’s dated and sexist in the sense that roles for young women are in extremely short supply, but I think the story is interesting enough that it’s worth overlooking the fact that it won’t past the Bechdel test.

Upon the recommendation of a friend, I read Essentialism by Greg McKeown. I read this in the form of an unabridged CD audiobook, read by the author. My friend recommended it when I wrote to him of my frustration with the sheer numbers of nearly-random things that we had to sort through to finish moving. I wrote back after finishing it:

I finished listening to Essentialism and found some useful advice in it. The author’s voice is generally appealing, and I appreciated his anecdotes about failing to properly prioritize. That is often me. It was occasionally strangely loaded with half-baked parallels, like casting Gandhi as “essentially” the same as a Stanford Business School graduate, and equating studying Dickens in your spare time with studying the Koran (both sola scriptura, I suppose?)

The author also seems to think that his audience is mostly just like him. So for example he gives an example of the executive who physically exhausts himself with international travel to the point of organ failure, and his solution is to get real about his limitations and spend a couple of years recovering with his family in the south of France. Maybe it’s meant to be aspirational — if you pare your life down to the essentials, you too can be a millionaire — but I am still scratching my head a bit at his tone-deafness towards any potential audience not in, or a graduate of, business school. No essentialism for the working class?

One of the Amazon reviewers wrote “this is a book about business, not about life. It’s not about downsizing, minimalism, downshifting, stepping back from capitalism and consumerism etc, it’s just about how to work more productively - something that doesn’t really interest me… it might be applicable to high earners in the tech industry, but its usefulness for a lowly wage slave or, say, a housewife, is hard to see. I LOVE the idea of talking back to your boss the way he suggests - try that on a zero-hours contract or if you work in fast food service or on a minimum wage! It’s quite entertainingly and wittily written, but I also found the constant focus on tech celebs very wearing, as if I should care what any of these people think.”

I think that is a valid criticism, although despite constantly mentioning people that work for Twitter, or Uber, or whatever, it isn’t so specific to business in general that I couldn’t think about how to apply it to other personal projects. It’s got me thinking about what I really need to give up in order to work on my creative projects.

There is more I’d like to write about. I have a backlog of audio files that I want to listen to, containing sketches of reviews. This summer there is a sort of slow-motion film festival in which our local theater is showing Studio Ghibli films, one per month. I took the kids to see My Neighbor Totoro, which is perhaps my favorite animated films, and indeed one of my favorite films of any kind. I have thoughts about it, but they will have to wait. In July Grace took the kids to see Kiki’s Delivery Service, a coming-of-age story that is her favorite film. In August they are showing Castle in the Sky, in September Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, in October Spirited Away, and in November Howl’s Moving Castle. We have all of these on DVD or Blu-Ray, but there really is nothing like seeing them on a big screen. I’ve seen several of them on the big screen, but the one I really want to see in the theater is Nausicaä. I am constantly baffled and dismayed to find that these films aren’t better known in America.

And… Shaving (Really)

I have a small observation, or perhaps a “life hack” or “pro tip.” I’ve always had some difficulty settling on a good way to shave. For a few years, before I grew a beard, I used electric shavers. My favorite was the Braun Micron Vario 3, a beautifully designed device. At some point I started using Gillette products for shaving instead, for my neck and cheeks. I probably stared with the Sensor, and later started using the Mach 3. I’ve always had trouble with cutting myself, when using blades, especially on my neck. I had just become accustomed to scrapes and nicks.

At some point Gillette products just became too damned expensive. In most drugstores now a 10-pack of Mach 3 Turbo refills goes for $30.

I’d started reading the “wickededge" sub-Reddit [](]. It sounded like a traditional double-edged blade was, well, quite tricky to use correctly, and might be even more likely to hack up my face than the blades I’d used for years. So I hesitated.

The breaking point for me was when I tried a Harry’s product instead. Target stores have started carrying Harry’s shaving products, so I tried a set. They are quite a bit cheaper than the Gillette products, but the 5-blade Harry’s shaving heads really hacked my neck to bits, despite my best efforts at skin prep. I had terrible razor burn that lasted for days. I had to take a couple of weeks off to let my neck heal up before I was willing to try again.

Fed up with these expensive multi-blade disposable shaver heads, I bought a razor from Van Der Hagen, just a stainless steel safety razor and a set of blades and some soap in a tube.

This is a pretty basic razor and pretty basic blades and I’m sure there are better ones available, but it works great. I’ve shaved my neck with it a dozen times. I adjusted very quickly to the required light touch. I now shave with the grain and then against it, and get a pretty smooth, although not baby-bottom-smooth, shave.

Pretty smooth is good enough for me, if it doesn’t leave my neck red and bloody. In fact I haven’t drawn blood, even a tiny bit, even once. And my neck is far less irritated after shaving. I haven’t even changed blades yet, although I think the first one is getting a bit dull.

Double-edged razor blades cost considerably less than replacement blades for the Gillette products, and when they are too dull to use, I have to only a very small blade to dispose of, not an assembly of plastic and metal.

I don’t expect to ever use a Gillette product again, unless by chance I wind up buying their double-edged blade. I should have leanred to use a razor like this one years ago.

Ypsilanti, Michigan
July 21st - August 3rd, 2017