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Wandering in Poictesme
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Date:2009-06-14 22:37
Subject:hasn't been quite six months, but...

...I got a gripe or two. Y'know, architects live in houses just like everyone else. I'm sure every architect on earth has had to deal with a water heater that spontaneously starts leaking at some point in their lives, just like everyone else. So why don't houses come with, say, a built-in floor drain under the water heater and a three-inch-high concrete sill around the designated water heater area? Seems to me that it would be cheap to build in, and would be guaranteed to save a lot of trouble and expense at some point in the life of the house. A resident might not end up with a whole lot of sodden carpet and a thick stench of mildew, for instance.

My next house is going to be six feet off the ground. It'll be built on stilts. The floor will be made of chicken wire. I won't even have to vacuum.

On the job front... After a year at the new place, I can say it's by far the best job I've ever had and I still don't like it. Probably I just can't be satisfied. The place is a nonprofit, it raises cubic assloads of money for good causes, I see a lot of it pass through the office. We don't waste much of it on the way through, even. I occasionally get to use my skills and talents. Still, I've never seen any of it produce a result that I could put my finger on. However, unlike Big Bookstore, it's not going out of business by September 2010, so I'll stick until I find better.

Which could be soon. I'm now building iPhone apps on the side, partnering with an old friend. First one is about a month from ready to hit the app store. It'd be wild to see my own code actually be used by someone for a useful purpose. Root for us.

Haven't read or heard much that rocked me in the past year, but there have been a few good ones. Robert Holdstock's Celtika series turned out to be far better than I'd hoped. After Dark by Haruki Murakami is worthwhile. Levon Helm's CD Dirt Farmer is a masterpiece. Get it.

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Date:2009-01-18 22:50
Subject:semiannual blog post

Every now and then, I remember that I have a blog. The urge to post strikes me less often.

I'm enjoying a long weekend of hiding from the inauguration hoopla. Obama yes, hoopla no.

Been a lot more musically active this past year, which cheers me no end. It's probably a reaction to not having Big Bookstore at my service to feed my bibliomania. Shortly after starting my new job, I found a tiny, highly eccentric musical instrument shop within walking distance of work. Places like that are catnip to me. I started popping in on my lunch breaks, chatting with the owner. A few weeks later I bought a classical guitar. Then extra strings, then a tuner. Then, at the Maryland Renaissance Festival, bought Melinda the bowed psaltery that she'd wanted since last year. Needed a chromatic tuner for that. Can't have that without sheet music, of course, so the size of my score library has grown exponentially. Updated my copy of Finale PrintMusic so that I can compose and arrange at home.

Over the holidays, I went off the deep end and got an eight-course renaissance lute. Just spent three hours restringing it and getting it in tune. I assume my geek quotient is now fully off the scale.

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Date:2008-04-13 21:42
Subject:bad bad bad bad bad CGI

Just sat down with Melinda to watch Beowulf, which is all motion-capture CGI. We watched about five minutes of repetitive background textures, wonky lighting effects, cracked physics, and unnecessary rotation and bullet-time cuts, heavily salted with clothing that hangs just a bit wrong on bodies that just don't quite move like humans under Newtonian gravity. We turned it off. Mel summed it up perfectly; she said, "I thought this was a movie."

Note to Hollywood: if it sucks, don't do it.

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Date:2007-09-22 09:41
Subject:trying to tell me something?

So, I first recall coming across Alexander Woollcott in the Mencken bio I read a while back. Later noticed him popping up regularly in a collection of Dorothy Parker's work. Then he appeared as a major player in Harpo Marx's autobiography, being one of Harpo's closest friends throughout his adult life, and apparently a truly fascinating person. This past weekend I picked up a copy of The Woollcott Reader (a collection of short stories and novellas Woollcott favored) at a book sale. There's a piece of his personalized stationery taped inside the front cover, on which is written "with my compliments", and the flyleaf is inscribed to someone who Google says was one of Booth Tarkington's grandnephews. I assume his ghost is going to pop out of my closet sometime next week.

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Date:2007-06-01 12:32
Subject:weasel pinata! - pics, y'all - The Tempest

The phrase "weasel pinata" does not currently appear on Google, but it will soon, thanks to Melinda's inspiration and this post.

Hey, any of you guys who took copious digital photos of the wedding party, you could send them anytime now, hint hint.

And we saw The Tempest at the Folger this past Sunday, an excellent small-cast production. Prospero, Caliban, and Ariel were particularly well played. The absolute highlight, though, was Stefano and Trinculo, who were presented as being drunken hallucinations on Caliban's part, and who were played, respectively and with great feeling, by Caliban's left hand and a wine bottle. It runs until the 19th, don't miss it.

Will review several hundred books Very Soon Now...

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Date:2007-05-04 12:19
Subject:as of yesterday...

We are married!

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Date:2007-04-12 07:54

Well, Kurt Vonnegut is in Heaven now. Say hi to Debs and Asimov for me...

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Date:2007-02-10 14:24
Subject:too good

Yeah, I'm busy. Got stacks of books piled up to review. Most of those books aren't pushing me for a write-up; they're good, but not that good. This one, though, is that good, so good I can't help but mention it...

Harpo Speaks! by Harpo Marx with Rowland Barber - That Harpo, yes. I sometimes pick up books solely on the grounds that any book that still in print after decades without an ounce of hype must have something to it, and this is one of those.

This, I believe, is the best bio I've ever read. It's not so much, not flashy, not scandalous. It's just the life of a truly happy, kind, and generous man, who, despite living through some of the hardest times history has had to offer, got along just fine, fell backwards into great things, and loved all of it as much as any decent person could. It's as funny as you would hope for from a Marx brother, but that doesn't even begin to cover the charm of this book; I went into it expecting a handful of Hollywood anecdotes, and finished knowing that there was once a person who had a heart as big as the world. Not that the stories alone aren't worth the price of admission - it's worthwhile to know the details of vaudeville backstage, horse-and-buggy drive-bys, and pre-Cold-War document smuggling. But the stories are gravy, the meat of the book is the person himself, and he had a fine life and told it well. Go find this book and read it, you'll be glad you did.

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Date:2006-12-29 13:18
Subject:nothing new under the sun

Been reading too many books at once, will get around to reviewing any day month now. In the meantime, here's an eerily current passage from Mencken: The American Iconoclast by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, concerning the 1920 political conventions and presidential race.

The conventions had made it impossible for Mencken to generate enthusiasm for either candidate in the fall campaign. The dismal prospect before the voters led him to ask: what merit leads a man into elective office in the first place? If the candidate was a man of self-respect, the test was cruelly hard. "In the face of this singular passion for conformity," Mencken wrote, "it is obvious that the man of vigorous mind and stout convictions is gradually shouldered out of public life...This leaves the field to the intellectual jellyfish and inner tubes."
The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.
Mencken's hunch was subsequently borne out by the election of Warren G. Harding. At his inauguration, Mencken was appalled by the man's oratory. It was, he wrote, "the worst English I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights."
Mencken pulled a random sentence from the president's speech:
I would like the government to do all it can to mitigate, then, in understanding, in mutuality of interest, in concern for the common good, our tasks will be solved.
The New York Times praised Harding's "misty" language as "Presidential."

Heh. Heh heh. Hee hee hee.

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Date:2006-12-08 19:40

Just got a spam with the subject line "RE: To Stop Pie".

Foolish spammer, know that there is simply no way to stop pie. And there never will be.

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Date:2006-11-10 12:43
Subject:been reading...

...a lot of Twain recently, and also re-reading Albert Einstein's The World As I See It. With nods to Jimmy Carter, Nelson Mandela, and the Dalai Lama, reading those two really make me wish that the current era in history would produce a few more eloquent and cosmopolitan humanitarians of undeniable stature. We need some people who have the standing and ability to effectively shame entire nations.

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Date:2006-11-08 13:07
Subject:vindication day

Here in Virginia, it seems that every vote really does matter. Let's hope the recount sees the end of George Allen and keep our fingers crossed for Tester. That said, I don't think I've enjoyed an election this much in my life.

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Date:2006-11-07 04:45

As if there weren't already enough reasons to vote...

VA-Sen: Voter Suppression in Virginia

Yes, the people making these calls, putting out these fliers, and hosing these ballots really do think we're stupid. Go prove them wrong. And if you get the chance, send them to jail too.

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Date:2006-10-11 14:40

A few reviews, fiction first:

The Town That Forgot How to Breathe by Kenneth J. Harvey - Ugh. I picked this up purely because of the interesting cover art, and put it down for good about thirty pages later. There's the seed of a good story here, and the descriptive passages occasionally shine, but the prose is often barely first-draft quality. I started to lose interest very quickly due to nonsensical imagery such as slow actions happening suddenly. I slowed down even more in a thick patch of stereotypical characters. Finally ground to a halt on a ridiculous blob of expository dialogue, in which it was made clear that a doctor knew his patient well, then began asking questions that doctors only ask patients they've never treated before. Back on the pile with ye.

Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett - Better luck here. Third and possibly last of the Tiffany Aching books, and a worthwhile successor to the first two. Longtime Pratchett readers will recognize themes from other Discworld books, but I don't fault that because the themes deserve extended treatment, because these books are directed at a younger audience than the main series, and most of all, because the story works. For character fans, lots of Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg. Good stuff.

And non-fiction:

The Company of Strangers: A Natural History of Economic Life by Paul Seabright - A very lucid and wide-ranging framing of modern economic structures in the context of evolutionary psychology and environmental pressure, i.e. fascinating yet boring unless this your thing. I recommend this for readers who liked Freakonomics or The Undercover Economist and want to dig a lot deeper, or, coming from the biological side, fans of Desmond Morris and Franz de Waal.

The Complete Essays of Mark Twain edited by Charles Neider - What's not to like? About 80 pieces over 700 pages, everything from editorials to travel pieces to blasts at racism and organized religion, sometimes whimsical but often burning with the man's hatred of injustice and hypocrisy. Coincidentally, the short pieces make great bathroom reading, and it'll make your toilet look smart to boot.

Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World by Nicholas Ostler - More big, big history. Ostler follows the ebb and flow of major languages across the globe from Sumerian to the present, concentrating on the economic, cultural, and social conditions that led to their rises and sometimes their disappearances. Notable for its solid prose and sharp sense of connectedness, and fascinating particularly in its examination of diverse occasions where political and cultural dominance have not gone hand in hand.

The Telephone Booth Indian by A. J. Liebling - Ahh, the boundless creativity of slightly shady folks on the edge of starvation. Liebling was a lifelong spectator of con men, and some of his sharpest and most sympathetic pieces from the late 1930s are collected here. Liebling's voice is perfect; his prose established much of what we now think of as the feel of the Depression Era. Even if you don't care for the subject matter, these essays are worth your time just for the quality of the writing.

More soon...

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Date:2006-09-22 09:15
Subject:many kinds of stuff

It's all been a blur, with just way too many things happening all at once. The good news is that Melinda's mom, who was near death two months ago due to an extremely complicated stack of medical conditions, is on her way to a full recovery. Mel took leave of her job to do 24/7 home care, the rest of her family has been helping out, the doctors at Dewitt have been great (the doctors at Walter Reed have not), and much thanks is also due to the various nurses and occupational therapists. Mel's mom, by the way, is a very cool lady, and I've been enjoying hanging out with her through all this.

On a related note, our wedding date is set for May 3, which not coincidentally is Mel's mom's 85th birthday!

In between weekdays at work and weekends at Mel's mom's place, my copious free time has been devoted to the never-ending job search and to setting up a website for bro-in-law Brian's nonprofit organization, the Mid-Atlantic Regional Roasters Group. It's a work in progress, with a lot of things needing to be refined, databases to be constructed, etc, but is reasonably functional now. Stop by www.marrg.org if you happen to be on the East Coast and are interested in the finer points of coffee bean roasting.

And a quick book review:
Tales of the Golden Corpse: Tibetan Folk Tales, retold by Sandra Benson - Killer primo ancient folktale weirdness with a Bon/Mahayana Buddhist flavor. Twenty-five stories, each one just about as strange as possible, all framed within a larger story about one young boy's efforts to capture a wily flying talking cadaver that lives in a tree. Kudos for the meticulous translation work and the complete lack of adulteration. Quotable, too:

The musicians played the instruments so loudly that no one heard Lhaso Kunga's screams rising from the tent, but the stench of his burning flesh was everywhere.
And they all lived happily ever after! Except Lhaso Kunga, who didn't.

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Date:2006-09-02 08:34
Subject:more book goodness

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami is out, go get it, it's good. Twenty-four short stories, some reprints but plenty new. My only gripe is the title, which feels like a marketing brain fart. A lazy tag-along on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, maybe? I suspect that the American publisher came up with it rather than the author, as Murakami notes in the the intro that the five most recent stories were collected in Japan as Strange Tales from Tokyo.

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Date:2006-08-27 15:06
Subject:oh lord

Katherine Harris's latest blurt is making the rounds. She says that separation of church and state is a lie, and that God picks our elected officials (among other ravings). I thought that she picks our elected officials. And I very much doubt that she is God. What will she believe when she loses her current campaign, I wonder.

So, when a government official essentially declares intent to use their position to subvert the fundamental principles of our government on religious grounds, does it add up to anything but treason?

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Date:2006-08-22 17:58
Subject:a suburban coyote - a lost masterpiece

I saw my first real-life coyote a couple of days ago. I was sitting on a little balcony attached to an apartment in a condo complex. The balcony looks out on a small artificial lake (complete with built-in overflow drain, just like a bathtub), a highway, and a miniature golf course. The coyote trotted out of the tiny patch of woods at the end of the lake, went by the apartments as bold as brass (ignoring the lakeside joggers), disappeared around the next condo building, came back five minutes later with a McDonald's bag in its mouth, and trotted back into the woods, tail in the air and just as proud as can be.

Which brings me to the point where I have to say that some things are just too perfect to comment on. Which then brings me to the point where I say, 'yes, but some perfect things are so unknown, yet so wonderful, that they deserve what few poor words I can give them so that they will be better known, even if I sully them with my poor words.' Which might send me off on a tangent about how I don't actually say things like that, but which won't at the moment. I'm talking about...

Warlock by Oakley Hall - Fuckin' HOT!!!! Holy shit, this book is so good that I'm talking it up before I'm halfway done with it. If it weren't for Independent People (which I'll write about at some point soon), this would be the single best damn book I've read in forever. This book is so good that I don't care if it ends well, because just the first half is more than worth the time. It's so good that it takes an effort to talk straight about it, rather than just cursing and waving superlatives about it. And this surprises the hell out of me, because Warlock is a western and I hate reading westerns. I hate reading westerns because I have never read a western that didn't suck. I've never seen the least sign that, in print, the genre was anything but a barren field of white hats and black hats acting tough.

But this isn't that. It's a remarkable feat by Hall because it has all the hallmarks of a western without sucking like one. No color-coded hats here. Two hundred pages into this book, characters have staked out or declared allegiance to every philosphy of morality and action offered in the early pages of Plato's Republic, with anarchy, communism, and existentialism thrown into the mix. Hall manages to pull this off in a natural way, creating just the right backgrounds and personalities without blowing the setting or making the characters flat and trite, which I wouldn't have thought possible. He just quietly puts them all together in a pressure-cooker of an Old West town, gives them the usual guns (without any hint of the notion that correctness or strength of conviction offer an advantage in a gunfight), and lets them be themselves. Somehow it works on every level.

I'm enjoying it immensely, and at the same time, I'm jealous. I wish I could figure out how Hall did it, because he's managed to do about everything that I wish I could do when I try to write, and do it in a genre that I previously had no regard for at all. And I still have a lot left to read.

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Date:2006-06-01 17:43
Subject:relative distances

I'm enjoying the hell out of Halldor Laxness's Independent People (which surprises me a bit, since Icelandic sheep farming is not really an interest of mine.) Best line so far:

Two sons were drowned in a distant ocean, and one son and a daughter had disappeared to a land even more remote, America, which is farther than death.

Yeah, I feel like that sometimes.

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Date:2006-05-23 18:10
Subject:hmmmmm... - books of varying quality

Everywhere I go these days, I see the word 'apophenia'. Could it mean something, I wonder?

Another question, probably only tangentially related: what is the connection between travel writing and midlife crisis? A disproportionate number of travelogues seem to be written by middle-aged guys who use their travels as an excuse to mope excessively about how nothing is as cool as it used to be.

"A Hell of a Place to Lose a Cow": An American Hitchhiking Odyssey by Tim Brookes - Brookes hitchhiked the US in the early '70s and retraced his steps in the late '90s. Not much here, since he spends more of the trip gazing at his navel than seeing the sights. A few interesting observations on how American culture has becoming increasingly fear-driven over time, but these seem to stem more from his preconceived opinions than from anything he experienced during his travels. Pretty dull, and badly in need of closer editing for grammar.

Rat Scabies and the Holy Grail by Christopher Dawes - Much more enjoyable. Rat Scabies, former drummer for The Damned, drags his neighbor Dawes all over France and England in the course of completely failing to solve the alleged mysteries of Rennes-le-Chateau. Dawes' incipient midlife crisis plays a mercifully very minor role in this good-natured tour of modern kookdom. Also useful to anyone who wants to get up to date on the lunacy that forms the basis of The Da Vinci Code without actually having to read the crappy book or see the movie.

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