Thursday, November 20, 2008

Is constant distraction covered by the ADA? I'm a librarian. I should be able to look that up, but...

I'm so distracted.

Monday, November 10, 2008

You know you've been playing too much warcraft when a co-worker facetiously suggests that your six year old could farm gold for you, and you think... hmmm, we could level up an Alt, and...

Found this in the Random House Treasury of Best-Loved Poems -

Disgusting


At the boarding house where I live
Things are getting very old.
Long gray hairs in the butter,
And the cheese is green with mold,
When the dog died we had sausage,
When the cat died, catnip tea.
When the landlord died I left it;
Spareribs are too much for me.

-Anonymous

I kind of understand why they want to keep anonymous, but they have my sense of humor.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

I went and voted yesterday. Curiously, nothing in the world, not parenting, not supporting a family, nothing, makes me feel quite so much like an adult as voting.

Sarah Palin is nowhere near the presidency. Excellent. Let's hope she gets no nearer.

To piss off my Republican friends, I think I'm going to tell them that everything that goes right in my life in the next four years is due to the Obama presidency. Lost some weight? Must be Obama!

Friday, October 31, 2008

I loves me some Halloween. Rarely do I feel more comfortable than when I am in costume, and I have been feeling much the clothes horse the last few months. I would be such a dandy, if only I could afford it. Which I suppose means I should try to afford it.

I remember one of my favorite Halloweens, going to a friend's party in Jersey. They gave me Rennie Garb to wear, and a string of bells to put around my ankle. I felt so free with bells around my ankles.

Today I am dressed in a very bad imitation of Ash Ketchum, because my daughter fell for a Pikachu costume at Toys R Us. Most of the staff thinks I'm just trying to get away with using Halloween as a casual day.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

One of the big reasons I have not been blogging recently is also one of the reasons my writing has slown to a crawl. I have been playing with dolls made of light.

Oooh, I can hear you say. Ahhh! How cool! When I tell you that I am playing World or Warcraft, you will be less thrilled. Because it is a video game, and that is wasteful.

You would be right, of course. World of Warcraft is wasteful. You spend a lot of time doing things that get you nowhere. But you are doing THINGS. One of the attractions of MMPRPGS, for me, anyway, is that they have perfected the illusion that you are doing stuff. And sometimes, at 40, I feel like I have not done nearly as much stuff as I wanted. So I waste even more time doing imaginary stuff.

Anyways. Playing alot of Warcraft. Pretty pretty dollies made out of pixels. Sounds creeepy coming from a 40 year old dude, doesn't it? Get over yourself. GI Joes were fucking dolls, Star Wars figures was dolls, Transformers are dolls, Matchboxes are car dolls. Dungeons and Dragons is dolls made out of imagination (and lead) instead of PVC. Until you buy the new collectible minis. Then it's PVC. And we kit them out with "cool" stuff. GI Joe gets guns and togs, Star Wars figures get Millenium Falcons and AT-ATs. I loved my AT-AT. Duneons and Dragons characters and Warcraft dollies get magic flaming swords. "Cool" is "pretty" said a few octaves lower. Boy dollies are a bit more object oriented than girl dollies, is all.

So I can play with my Warcraft dollies and (try to) not sound defensive at all.

Anyways, I am here to share. Just like show and tell at school! And because gaming stories are boring if you do not play, I will share pictures.


Here is Frigit. She is my "main" character, a 43rd level undead (zombie) Warrior. I don't play her as well as I would like. Her name is Frig It... I wanted to see if it would get past the auto-censors on Warcraft. My daughter started pronouncing it Fri-jit, like Bridget, so it stuck. She is a miner and engineer. I took the screen capture of her in goggles because her current mining helmet makes her look like a dork.I think the thing that really engages me about Warcraft is the widgety professions, collecting stuff to make other stuff. Go figure.

Sometimes she runs with Nellirubina, Ruby's much higher level main character.





Liposuxia is a character I settled on for Alt play. She's a 21st level blood elf rogue. I saw a character named Frostitute, and was immensely jealous of the punesqe obscenity of the name. I fiddled around with similar names: Liposuxia isn't as good, but I liked it because it reminded me of the Blood Elves, who look like scary cheerleaders. Also, I wanted to play with the enchanting and tailoring profession, and I figured a cheerleader paper dolly would be the best way to do that. Sometimes, she runs around with Poppy Tiger, one of my daughter's characters.





Malagrieve is the character I play with Ruby on Wednesday nights. She is a 31st level Draeni Mage. I have fun playing the mage in concert with another character, especially in PVP, because I can freeze and slow other characters, then run away and blast them. Ruby plays Azurothos, a 32nd Hunter.

Ruby and I have consolidated our characters on two servers: Anetheron for Horde and Aegwyn for Alliance. We play alot more Horde than Alliance. If you are a friend of ours and thinking about starting Warcraft, drop me a line, or just use one of those servers. I'd be happy to roll a low level character and run around with somebody.

FOR THE HORDE!

Monday, October 27, 2008

So, I'm at the writing workshop on Saturday, and we are watching fan made music videos for television show. I'm thinking I could do this, it looks like a fun hobby. I'd love to do it.

But I probably won't. Too much shit to do.

Anyways, two of the videos are to the same song, using different movies/shows. One was Iron Man, the other, I think, was Dr. Who.

The song was Handlebars, a hip hop video by a group called the Flobots. I'm not much for hip hop. All rhythm, no melody. But after the third time I'd seen it, I realized what a creepy little tune it was. Also, the horn goes a long way towards adding some melody.

The song is sitting in my head now. It has colonized my brain. I've listened to it four times this morning, added it to one of my Youtube playlists. I'm partial to this acoustic cover, although the performer's commentary is self conscious and unnecessary.

There's something about the increasing urgency of the atonal delivery that makes it really unnerving. Good Halloween music, I think for some reason.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

I have been ravenously social lately. I haven't felt like this since I was a young man. Honestly, I never felt quite this socially omnivorous, even as a young man. As much as I want to be around people, it's all because I want to enjoy them. I was a little more utilitarian about my relationships with people when I was younger.

This weekend, I attended an informal writers retreat. I hung out with eight other genre writers at a cabin a little North of Kalamazoo for two days. The whole experience was so much fun. It's always nice to get away. The drive was lovely, and the view out the back of the cabin, which looked out over a lake, was fantastic.

My fellow writers were polite, kind, and hugely funny. They were all very familiar with a certain cross section of fandom, and everybody except me knew everybody very well. The level of in jokes was staggering and pleasantly bewildering. I got very edumicated about FanFic, FanVids, and other kinds of new subcultural hybrids. It was like getting a free pass to somebody else's life.

I would have liked to get more writing done. I found it distracting to listen to a bunch of other people type, oddly enough. There was something hypnotizing about the patter of eighty other fingers on keyboards. But I still got nine pages done and reviewed some stories I'd been noodling with, and so felt good about that.

The organizer of the retreat seems to have a habit of collecting writey people that she likes and condensing them into a group. That's a great formula for a fun weekend: activity based socializing. I'm wondering how I could duplicate that locally without a cabin.

I liked every body there, which was very nice. Mer has a knack for collecting really nice people. As I mentioned above, I've been doing a bit of people collecting myself. What seems really strange to me is that my taste in people hasn't really changed in thirty nine years. People with marginal interests, often similar to mine, especially young women. Actually, I've been getting interested in young men, too. As a young man, I often felt like I was in competition with other young men. I don't, now, and their energy is often as good as young womans.

Why young people? Well, for the same reason I like hanging out with people who have marginal interests. They are doing things that they are passionate about. Largely, the passion of people in their twenties has to do with newness fo the things they are doing, I think. Much like I like my kid because she finds everything new. The newness that twenty somethings get exposed to is the newness of responsibility and discipline, of finding security. I like watching how other people handle those things. They are invariably better at those things than I was. I like to applaud people their new skills.

Anyways, huge fun.

Monday, October 20, 2008

One of the nice things about the current election is that it has brought the hate back to politics for me. Many of my fellow America Hating liberal Democrats have been very upset by the Bush administration, but I've become lackadaisical. When Bush was first elected in 2000, I couldn't get upset. I mean, how much damage could the poor bastard do in 8 years?

Now, I am saying this late in the election because 1) I have hardly any readers anyway, 2) I am lazy, 3) I am just bad at politics. Obama doesn't excite me. That's probably some kind of epic fail for a liberal. I mean, he's polite, well spoken, and intelligent, something that we haven't really had in politics as long as I've been aware. I like Carter, but everybody else seems to think he was a washout.

I'm not on the cutting edge of anything politics. As the map above shows seems to indicate, and scholastic corroborates, it looks like Obama will probably be winning the election.

My real problem is that no candidate is liberal enough for me. No candidate will come right out and say that creationism is a form of mental illness and that DOMA's are a totalitarian barbarism. I was even fussing one of my beloved friends who does work for the Democratic party by telling him that I was thinking of voting for McCain, the rational being that his tax plan is fucknuts crazy, and I like social chaos. This is back when I thought he was supporting the Fair Tax. Also, the Republicans tend to give me money. I'm a good Democrat, pay my taxes, don't complain, but Bush cut me a fucking check, man. I gotta stack cheese. I even have kind of a good impression of McCain, from the days when he defended his friendship with John Kerry.

Then he took on Palin as a running mate. Now, I'm not going to say anything calm, reasonable, or well intentioned about Palin. My good friends Sarah Zettel and Judy Blume have already done that (I'm not really good friends with Judy Blume). I'm sure lot of other people have done so.

Palin is a crackpot, and I mean that in the nicest way possible, which is exactly what it sounds like. I know Americans like her because she is folksy and outdoorsy, and Americans have this pervasive mythology of ourselves as folksy and outdoorsy, no matter how long ago we stopped really making a living off the land. Also, Americans love mommys unconditionally, and Sarah is a Mommy, so she gets that unequivocal aura of morality that comes with motherhood for Americans.

Even that wouldn't bother me too much. We live in a pluralistic society. Although the religious right hates that, they are part of it, so I can cut them some slack for being batshit crazy about evolution and homosexuals. They got a right, although I won't be responsible for voting that trash into the White House.

And make no mistake, with McCain as old as he is, voting him into the White House is pretty much voting Palin into the White House.

Anyways, the thing that really bothered me is that Palin's mouth added only mush to the race. I think McCain, Biden and Obama (especially Obama), have been fairly measured in their remarks (although I think McCain treads close to Willie Horton territory with his remarks about Ayers).

The very first thing Sarah Palin did was tell every liberal in the country that they were fucking idiots in her RNC acceptance speech via her condescending remarks about Obama's good intentions. "What does he actually seek to accomplish, after he's done turning back the waters and healing the planet?" She's a wanna be book banner, and uses her influence to further her means (the librarian offends me, I could care less about the cop). And now, of course, liberals are communists again, because we think that rich people should pay for the benefits they receive from the government. While both Bush and McCain, and presumably Palin, favor the corporate welfare that will bail out banks' free market fuckups sans consequences.

So fuck Sarah Palin. The woman, even after her paltry executive experience, should know better than to shovel shit to get her way. She is a hothead and a moron. The only bright spot of a Palin candidacy is that, if she is elected, she will make the Republicans look worse than Dan Quayle ever did, and hopefully re-energize the left with her over the top rhetoric. But I hope my theory is never tested.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Pieces of posts that never jelled into a coherent thought strung together into one long re-entry post.

8/22

Kid Rock to Internet: "You Kids Get off my Lawn!"

This interview: "There's a real problem with this Internet thing and everyone thinking they have a voice," he said. "This is where freedom can get out of hand." Is hilarious. Largely because Kid Rock is saying, in essence: "I have no capability to think critically at all. And neither should you."

That completely turns the rock stereotype of the iconoclastic thinker on it's ear. If not comedy gold, it's at least, I dunno. Comedy uranium, maybe. Dense and highly energetic in poisonous, unseen ways.

9/25

Ah, tasty melancholy. I am tired, from driving to and from my writer's group in Ann Arbor last night. I have a mysterious ache in my shoulder, and another in my knee. You try to ignore the passage time, but it is like the world's most annoying sycophant, tugging at your robes.

On the positive side of the ledger, I started a short story that I thought about last night. What I thunked up.

I feel like Max, King of All the Wild Things.

10/3

I'm going to try to bootstrap my blog into existence yet again. I have some interesting things going on in my head.

I have been making a survey of Urban Fantasy in preparation for writing one. I have read several of them, and am surprised at what I like.

Nymphos of Rocky Flats by Mario Acevedo didn't appeal to me. I thought the main character was a bastard and an idiot.

Undead and Unwed by MaryJanice Davidson did. Despite the shoe-talk, I found the brainless protagonist oddly charming.

Storm Front, the first Harry Dresden book by Jim Butcher, was great. Rich character and background. Great faux-hardboiled style. Solid pulp fun.

I should have loved Stolen, by Kelly Armstrong. The basic premise was great: evil software tycoon is collecting witches, werewolves, and half demons to study and hunt. Like Buffy meets Oz. But the characters never rose above stock and the plot was the antithesis of climactic.

10/10

I have since taken a break from reading Urban Fantasy, reading the thoroughly noxious but somehow hypnotizing Average American Male, Haunted, a book about a fucked up writer's retreat recommended to me because I'm going to a writer's retreat, two manuscripts by friends, and A Thousand Splendid Suns, which I am covering for my Library's writer's group.

I feel like worshiping Cthulhu, now.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Post Vacation Run Down

The week before last,Last month, Aaaarg! The first week of August, I went on vacation. We dropped Poppy off at her Grandparents and went to visit friends. The week after, I felt very tired and very run down. the two months following, I played too much Warcraft. However, I had such a lovely time on vacation that I must tell somebody about it. So, dear interwebs, it is you.

We drove down to DC on a Sunday to visit our friends Cathy and Gary. They had set up a Sunday evening dinner with their friends Terry, Tom, and Heather, which made my vacation. It was so nice to talk with smart, weird people out of the earshot of children. Subjects ranged from guns to polygamy. Hot damn! And Terry was a fine cook.

On Monday, Cathy took us on a leisurely little tour of Georgetown and... some other yuppie/college neighborhood. The art fag neighborhoods. I love art fags, kinda being one myself. We ended up browsing this lovely little book store called Kramer's Books, that had a whole restaurant called Afterwords in the back of it. Actually, we had lunch (crab cake sandwich for me... total yum!), and then browsed. I wouldn't go there looking for a specific book, but it was such a nice place to browse. Smelled booky, had good books on the shelves and all over everything else, lots of copies you could page through. Definitely a five senses kind of place. They also had a bar. Bet it's a great place to people watch. The bead shop next door had some very pretty glass beads and little Indian statuettes, and the shop girls were cute.

That evening, we went to a tappas bar that had a funny little wine bar in the back. You put money on a card, and dispensed 1 to 3 ounces of a wine into a glass. Just for wine tasting.

Tuesday morning was taken up by a bus tour for the spy museum... totally cool. Lunch after the tour was Gordon Biersch, a really tasty burger.

The museum itself was great. It's not so interactive that small children would do well, but the things they have on display: spy equipment, spy weapons, spy pop-culture, are way cool for older kids interested in things, and for adults. I thought the history was fascinating, and I was interested to learn that most of the biggest leaks in U.S. intelligence security have been in recent years. I wonder if they will do an exhibit on Valerie Plame when the sitting Prez is no longer sitting.

In the shop, I saw T-shirts that said "Deny Everything." I like the statement on it's own. It implies excitement, that one has something to deny, a feeling which illuminates my drab suburban middle management existence. I was hoping that they had a stylish mug. I love coffee mugs. They did!

We went home, Cathy made some yummy pizza dinner, and we watched a movie, 49 Up, a BBS documentary which is part of a series that has been following a group of brits from the age of 7 and up. This one dealt with their life at 49, thus the title. They include clips from previous movies, and it is interesting to see how people change over time.

Wednesday we went to walk around the National Cathedral. Can you imagine me in a church? Well, I have a taste for stained glass and old stone structures. It was rather dungeony, which appeals. And Darth Vader is a gargoyle, so that made me feel right at home.

Mmmm. Gargoyles.

Wednesday night we took everybody to Clydes, a gorgeous art deco restaurant with excellent appetizers. I was thinking about the seared tuna martini for a week afterwards. Thinking about it two months later makes me salivate.

Afterwards, because I was all worked up over spies, we saw Breach, which is about the Robert Hanseen, one of the guys they covered in the spy museum. Very excellent movie, great study of a tragically flawed character.

Mmmm. Seared Tuna martini.

All in all, it was so much fun. Especially the restaurants. I love being in a city with a really healthy restaurant economy. We missed Poppy, although I don't think she missed us much. She conned her Grandmother into buying her every toy in the universe while they were traipsing around eastern Michigan tourist traps.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

I'm looking at Anne Coulter's newest. In the cover flap it says something about this being her most devastatingly witty book. I noticed that it seems to be about 95% quotes.

I flipped through, looking for something to really piss me off. Unfortunately, the zolft is interfering with me getting a really good mad on. What I did notice was a lot of dorm room rhetoric, careful framing of issues, and straw men.

As a ferintance, she bitches about Hollywood memorializing the trivial effects of McCarthyism and racism, as if there were no serious repercussions, while bemoaning a single Polish Priest who was shot by communists. Which, you know, everyone is entitled to their opinion. And let's not trivialize the horrors of Soviet Communism.

I could note that by making that comparison she seems to weigh every lynching in the US against one Polish Priest and find the Polish Priest more tragic. But that would be kind of a straw man argument in itself.

But I will comment on her reflexive habit of guilt by association: as if the starlets and writers and counter culture types who dabbled with communism in the fifties also shot dissenter's in Stalin's USSR. As if disgust with McCarthy's fear mongering somehow caused the death of that Pole. It's a kind of argumentative photoshopping, sticking the black and white heads of disgraced B-List actors onto the bodies of 80's KGB.

In addition, she complains bitterly that she is not allowed to generalize about liberals, while bemoaning the generalizations liberals make about Conservatives. Does anybody yell more about being marginalized that a republican pundit?

Those of us who live in the real world have to make some concessions to live side by side with people we disagree with. We have to recognize our co-workers and neighbors who have differing opinions. Those who live in Ivory Towers manufactured by their own bloated opinions have to find some grist to feed the mill. Or at least re-hash their old grist.

I don't hate conservatives. I hate the hack pundits that fuel conservative paranoia to line their own pockets.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Transparent Society - a review

The Transparent Society, by David Brin

It used to be that I only had to worry about Santa Claus watching me.

When I was in London a couple of years ago, however, I noticed cameras everywhere. We're not just talking in the 7 Eleven... there were cameras on the street corners! This trend apparently began in a British Burg named King's Lynn, where sixty remote controlled cameras were installed to scan known trouble spots. In or near zones covered by surveillance in King's Lynn, crime dropped to 1/70th of the former rate. The success of this experiment has been greeted with much enthusiasm. There are plans for similar systems in NYC.

People are often less happy that cameras are being installed in their own workplaces. Or that their phone calls, coffee breaks, and bathroom trips are being timed. And their keystrokes measured to determine their efficiency. Or that their email is being read.

The proliferation of computers, cameras, and other surveillance devices ensures that you will be watched more and more closely as time goes by. They become more affordable, more portable, and less detectable each year. Sony already sells a digital color camcorder the size of a passport... and researchers have suggested air born cameras the size of gnats.

Sound scary yet? Is this the dawning of the age of Big Brother?

Although the cameras are sure to come (think of anyone trying to stop the spread of television), author David Brin suggests that the way to escape from drowning in cameras is to let them watch... and to watch back. To watch the watchmen.

Some hackers suggest legally enforced anonymity and unbreakable encryption as a way to save ourselves from ubiquitous electronic eyes. If we can block the electronic view of our government, then we should be safe from intrusion. But what about big business, such as the employers mentioned earlier? Ultimately, given the immense resources and often atrophied ethics of our own aristocracy, the average person's private lives will be open books to the mighty.

However, if we can watch back, those who can be caught may not be so eager to spy. Brin quotes a fellow writer as saying: "An armed society is a polite society." Only this time, we are arming ourselves with cameras and laws that make the rich and powerful as visible as we are.

He envisions citizen truth squads, tribes of interested amateurs who correct mistakes and foil mischief even as it occurs, on the internet, in public life, or even in your home.

Imagine a scene a few years into the future, say 2 AM on Saturday, as a cop pulls over a young man for a traffic violation. The cop worries about a potentially violent encounter. The youth has just been to a party.

The patrolman approaches the vehicle. A lens on his badge sends images straight to HQ.

"Would you please get out of the car, sir?"

Standing, the teen reveals the light of his lapel camera, winking away, transmitting the encounter home to his own inexpensive home computer/VCR.

Will either of them be likely to jump the gun?

Transparency is bigger than our future, though. Brin extrapolates the Transparent Society to global proportions. What will happen when personal computers become so cheap that citizens of the poorest Third World nations will have readier access to data than food or clean water?

The Transparent Society helps us see that future a little more clearly, so that we can plan for it.



This review was originally published several years ago on the Electric Well website. There are minor edits for punctuation and spelling.

Monday, August 04, 2008

A Prayer for the Dying - a review

A Prayer for the Dying by Stewart O'Nan

"No blood on his filthy undershirt, no bullet holes, no bowie knife slipped between his ribs. His cuticles are purple, like he's dipped them in wine, and you wonder how long it's been. You'll have to talk to Doc, see what he says."

"You" are Jacob the constable, Jacob the preacher, Crazy Jacob the undertaker. The narrator of A Prayer For the Dying, by Stewart O'Nan. Jacob wears a lot of hats in friendship, but he doesn't mind. He loves friendship, loves the people, and sees each of his jobs as a way to take care of "his" town.

"It defines you, this willingness to hear all sides, love everyone. You've stopped believing in evil. Is that a sin? You know what your mother would say, but justice needs to be fair handed, the dead deserve your compassion. It's your job to understand, to forgive, not simply your custom."

Friendship, however, is about to be taken away from Jacob. Diphtheria has come to Friendship in the form of a nameless tramp. Austin Phillips, Millie and Elso Sullivan, Jim Brist, Hilma Tockstad, are all dead within the span of two days. Besides Diphtheria, a fire on the plains is eating up Wisconsin in big gulps. Devouring whole towns.

"Just outside of town, a swallow drops from the sky, plummets into the sere cornfield beside you. You turn in time to see a whole flock falling, bending the dead stalks, thumping into the dust like hail, a rain of stones. They come down around you, their soft bodies pelting your back. They cover the road, dead yet perfect. When you bend to touch one, its feathers are hot, it's eye boiled white."

A Prayer for the Dying
leaves you on the railroad tracks of causality, with the freight train of God's Will bearing down on you. Like the certainty of an anvil hammering Wiley Coyote into the desert floor in a Road Runner cartoon. Like poor Job, struck with boils, ruined financially, his family slain. All to prove the point of a bet. In both the Book of Job and the Warner Brothers cartoons, however, the protagonists get up after their punishment and dust themselves off.

There's no magic in Jacob's world. No wishes granted, no mistakes unmade. Jacob lives in a real world, lovingly rendered. There are more than four colors, but fewer than infinite choices. His world is circumscribed by mortality and fire and disease and weakness.

"Clytie reminds you of those horses you owe your life to, the ones your regiment ate raw from the inside out those long weeks, sleeping between their empty ribs while the Reb shells whined all night. Clytie makes you think of the nameless friends you had to load into wagons like sides of meat, of how small you are, how weak."

Is Jacob's faith made greater by this juxtaposition with harsh reality, or more barren for it's lack of fruit? Jacob can't afford Job's passive acceptance of God's will. Jacob has to make choices. Whether to quarantine the town, whether to send his wife and child away. Who to save when the sky is raining ash and par broiled birds. What to do when the town next over blocks him from doing so, standing in the road with guns and masks while the fire rages around them.

"You can't bargain with God, buy him with pieties. This is what you've found out-that even with the best intentions, even with all of your thoughtful sermons and deep feelings and good works, you can't save anyone, least of all yourself."



This review was originally published several years ago on the Electric Well website. There are minor edits for punctuation and spelling.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Y: The Last Volume

Having Tuna Fish, Veggies and Dip, and Cottage Cheese for lunch this week.

I just finished reading the last volume of Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughn. I wish I had time to go back and read all of it. This series is my third favorite comic book of all time. For reference, the first two are Neil Gaiman's Sandman and Watchman. If you were ever interested in comic books, you should make time to pick up the volumes of Y: The Last Man at your local library or comic book shop. Especially if you were ever interested in gender. You can get the first issue for free here.

An action packed but still thoughtful look at the way men and women relate, the conceit of Y: The Last Man is that all men in the world die at the same time. Except for one. Oh, and his monkey. Then things get crazy.

This weekend, I got to spend some good times with good friends. Two of the folks in my game got married: Kim and Chris. This is the second wedding in my current gaming group this year. A third follows next year. But this is the first time two members of my game have gotten married. I am a love God! J/K. They did it all themselves.

The wedding was very pretty, with candles and cheesecake (the cheese and um, cake kind. Not the pin up calendar kind. You knew what I meant, right?). I got to talk to my buds and my buds' buds. I met a very nice young man with tattoos from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. And dice! That's right... they are both so hard core they had Chessex make dice as wedding favors. Too cool.

{Picture here}

Also: What I want for Christmas



Not Really. Got too many Tchatkes already. But damn, those look cool.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Light of Other Days - A review

The Light of Other Days by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter

Spoilers be found ahead.

"Many true-story versions of historic events - the Cuba missile crises, Watergate, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Euro - while of interest to aficionados, have turned out to be muddled, confusing, and complex. It is dismaying to realize that even those supposedly at the centers of power generally know little and understand less of what is going on around them."

"And worse than that, the truth generally turns out to be boring."

-Clarke and Baxter, The Light of Other Days

The Light of Other Days isn't boring. It's a big think piece of science fiction that takes the concept of "truth" and runs it through the science fictional wringer by postulating one small technological advance.

What if someone invented a machine that allowed you to see anywhere, anytime, with almost no hope of blocking it?

Hiram Patterson, ruthless industrialist, has managed to produce just such a machine. The WormCam passes information through tiny holes in the space time continuum. What does this mean? It means no more satellites or radio waves or fiber optic cables. No more information conduits to be blocked. No more cameras or bugs or wiretaps, either. Want to get the real scoop on cheating by wives or beating by cops? Poke a hole through space-time and look and listen to your heart's content. Walls or distance or cryptography or protections from electronic surveillance mean nothing to the WormCam.

In fact, because you're poking holes in space and time, you can even look back in history, so that you can watch past indiscretions, too. Uncover political cover-ups. See for sure if there was a crash at Roswell. Or a Moses.

The science behind the WormCam is fun. Hiram uses buckyballs and squeezed vacuum to generate anti matter to stabilize the wormholes. It's fun-er if you know some physics, but quantum science is so reminiscent of eighteenth century pseudo-science anyway that it comes off as charmingly pulpy. And hell, buckyball is just a fun word.

On the whole, the WormCam technology seems realistic, with appropriate flaws. For instance, you can't send information back in time through a wormhole because the feedback will collapse the hole. And what you see is limited to what the WormCam operator looks for.

Also, WormCam technology seems to evolve rationally. At first, wormholes can't transmit sound or see in the dark. Eventually they can do much more!

What does any of this technology have to do with truth? There's the obvious: people can't hide from their actions for long. The WormCams can look anywhere, at any time.

To a certain extent, The Light of Other Days is about the benefits of transparency (a social philosophy that believes openness to be more beneficial than secrecy in the long run). Why commit a crime or lie a lie if it can be uncovered so easily?

Not even Hiram can hide from the WormCam's exposure of his own unethical activities. For instance, dosing his favorite son with mind control drugs so that he won't succumb to the religious impulses of his "older brother." Or that the favorite son is, in fact, a clone of Hiram.

And if history was transparent? It's written down. It's in the record. How wrong could history possibly be? Well, the implications are staggering.

In the Clarke/Baxter history of the world, there are no supernatural events. No Roswell. No ghosts or UFO abductions to be found anywhere by looking back in time. Many heroes are struck down or revealed to be amalgamations of historical figures. Robin Hood was a figure from a ballad; the legend of Moses constructed from the lives of several Israeli patriarchs from that age.

Despite it's skeptic tendencies, The Light of Other Days is hardly anti-religious. The authors do mention, frequently, the shortcomings of religious culture: the violence and the mythologization of history. On the other hand, several of the main characters are deeply religious and struggle with the implications that history has for their religious beliefs and organizations. I think this is the strongest possible testament to their morality.

To digress.

Can you imagine what a relief it would be to separate historical truth from wishful thinking? No more jerk-off hate mongers claiming that the Holocaust was a hoax. No more mindless nattering about the government covering up UFO crashes.

There is the icky possibility that these myths could be revealed as truths... but given the wealth of evidence about the Holocaust, and the dearth of information about Roswell, I tend to doubt it. Call me practical.

The flip side of this is that, as thinly documented as any of the conspiracy theories are, people still manage to "keep the faith". So an extra dose or reality probably wouldn't phase any sizable community of believers.

Digression fini.

Besides rampant mythologization of fact, history in general is a mess.

"The WormCam, after all, does not deliver its history lessons in the form of verbal summaries or neat animated maps. Nor does it have much to say of glory or honor. Rather, it simply shows us human beings, one at a time - very often starving or suffering or dying at the hands of others."

Seeing the horrible things your ancestors did first hand is uncomfortable. You can distance yourself from the sheer awfulness of history when it is consigned to books, but when Clarke and Baxter's characters see it in front of them, they empathize with the victims of old crimes as much as they do with new ones. History is much more complex, and more personal, than the history books make it out to be.

"Greatness no longer matters. We see now that each human being who dies is the center of a universe: a unique spark of hope and despair, hate and love, going alone into the greater darkness. It is as if the WormCam has brought a new democracy to the viewing of history..."

"Now, what matters most is my story-or my lover's, or my parent's, or my ancestor's, who dies in the most mundane, meaningless of deaths in the mud of Stalingrad or Passchendaele or Gettysburg, or simply in some unforgiving field, broken by a life of drudgery."

Playing out in the background of The Light of Other Days are the disasters of the future: the ecology is finally collapsing from many years of human abuse, and a giant comet from outside the solar system that may once have been a moon of Neptune is going to hit the earth (in five hundred years). The comet, Wormwood, is named after the doomsday moon from the Book of Revelations.

These background events aren't necessary to fuel the illusion of a living future. Instead, I think they actually serve to put a cap on history, of sorts. The comet puts doomsday at a comfortable reserve, providing an end to human history as the whole human race use the WormCams look back through the entirety of history like a massive family photo album. The comet and failing environment remind them that all the effort and suffering could be for nothing if they don't get cracking. It highlights the fragility of our ecosystem on earth, the preciousness of striving (though some might say the hopelessness of striving).

The prose in Light of Other Days is smooth, and although the characters are not drawn with finesse (everybody is pretty much what they seem to be), they are likable and thwart stereotypes. The plot meanders through the effects of super transparency and "history shock" on all the main characters: Hiram, his sons, and people connected to them, and is often sidetracked by digressions on the nature of history or culture, some of which I quote above. It was these faux-scholarly digressions on the tenuous connections between history and reality that made the novel most entertaining for me.

All in all, The Light of Better Days is an intellectually exciting read. The only explosions are conceptual, and the action comes from following a culture racing to keep up with technology driven cultural change. If you want submarine rescues or car chases, you can read Tom Clancy or watch TV. But if you want to see deeply into history, you can do it in The Light of Other Days.



This review was originally published several years ago on the Electric Well website. There are minor edits for punctuation and spelling.

Friday, July 25, 2008

I was hopped up on B12 Wednesday night, so I decided to check out a local bar called Cruisers. It has a lousy website, and a theme that I am not interested in: it's supposed to cater to the classic car crowd. However, it turned out to be a servicable dive bar.

They had a truly awful band playing in one half of the club. I should probably be greatful that I came in halfway through their set. But, if they have one bad band, they might have good bands. It was poorly lit, smokey, tackily decorated, and drink prices were reasonable. The crowd was fairly middle-working class, but I can people watch anywhere.

I miss dive bars. I spent alot of my yound adulthood in dive bars around Detroit, Ann Arbor, and New York City, listening to bands try to get better or get noticed. I smoked a little, drank a little, watched a lot of people, horsed around with my friends, had great conversations. Dive bars are not pick up bars. They are places to soak in the textures of the world.

It was a good place to be in the world. I will probably return, hoping to catch a good band this time.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Driving myself to blog. Any writing is good writing.

It occurs to me that the best blogs are largely consistent to a field or subject. So people who are narrowly specialized, or people who have a bunch of time to read would be best at that sort of thing. Unpublished/writers part time writers not so much, largely because the time that we could be reading, we spend writing. Catch 22.

So I sometimes think about giving the blog up, so that I don't worry about updating it and have more time to write. Other stuff.

But then there are months like these when my dream head is in a Sargasso and I am not writing much, when it seems like a blog would be a better, more informal venue to write in.

Oy.

I sometimes think, and have said as much in these posts, that I would like to some autobiographical writing. But I'm not sure I have the guts to be that open. I mean, I'm not hiding murders or anything, but, you know, it's personal. I have thought of starting another blog, one specific to autobiography, and dating with entries with the approximate times/dates of the events. If I did that anonymously, I could be as open as I wish.

Getting by on a half a nights sleep, and I will be going to a bachelor's party (albeit a low key sounding bachelor's party) tonight. Woke up with nightmares. It's one of my recurring nightmares. I've had recurring nightmares of various strips my whole life. So this is the nightmare: There's this site that if you visit it, you start getting visits from people reminding you to visit it. This time, the people were stocky goth kids with prosthetic arms, and I had to chase them away from the house. Not especially scary, but still had me up checking my daughter's room.

When you become a parent, that's the first thing you check after you have a nightmare. Parenthood makes everyone superstitious.

Jesus and the Lost Goddess - a review

Jesus and the Lost Goddess by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy.

While I was hauling this book around work with me on my lunch hour, one of my coworkers commented that the title seemed engineered to appeal to a particular kind of trendy new age holism. Not having finished the book, I agreed, because for the most part, the book reads like a pop-religion or pop-psychology screed along the lines of "You can feel good if you just DO THIS!"

I picked it up as a sort of exercise in background, trying to dig up information about Gnostic cults in history and in historical practice. Jesus and the Lost Goddess actually has very little in it about either. Mostly, it concentrates on the beliefs of the ancient Gnostics, and I get the impression that even this information has become, in the authors' hands, a highly synthesized blend of several Gnostic traditions.

Before reading Jesus and the Lost Goddess, I read a very rigorous (and kinda hard to plow through) history of Gnosticism titled A History of Gnosticism, by Giovanni Filoramo, so I couldn't help comparing the two. In contrast, Jesus and the Lost Goddess is sort of lacking in meticulousness even with its extensive footnotes. It reads with an ideological slant, and indeed the authors freely admit that they're arguing for you to think about religion and Christianity in a different way.

Freke and Gandy begin in a gushy way, extolling the virtues which the mystically oriented Gnostic Christians possessed over the rigid hierarchical church that followed. I distrusted it automatically, because it played to my least civilized atheistic prejudices about organized religion.

I also distrusted it because the authors stated that they were uniquely qualified to write this book, being mystics in addition to academics. This intimates, of course, that anybody who isn't a mystic couldn't understand the subject matter as well as they do, or to go even further, that anyone who doesn't believe just doesn't "get it". I've always thought the argument that spiritual feelings are unique to the believer to be a dodge used to explain away lack of precision.

Lastly, they use the word "whilst" a lot. I mean, a lot. As trifling as that sounds, it really grated on my nerves. It sounded precious to me, as if the authors were trying to achieve a sense of authenticity through outdated language usage.

Around page ten or so, though, the author's academic training finally started to kick in, and provided me with some interesting points that kept me reading.

The first thing that really drew me into the text was their definition of trends within religious traditions as Gnostic vs. Literalist. I think by "Gnostic" they mean "Mystic", but they used the word Gnostic because they were connecting their entire premise to the practice of Gnosticism, a brand of Christianity that was pronounced heretical early in church history. Specifically, Gnostics tend to view their religious training as allegorical, and seek points of commonality with other faiths, whereas literalists believe their religion's mythology is historical truth, which leads them into conflict with nonbelievers.

The next points that interested me were their support of the non-historicality of Jesus and their discussion of the non-literalness of Christian myth. I had never actually read any scholarship to support this particular (and widely shared) prejudice of mine: that Jesus sounds very like a lot of his contemporary pagan mythical figures in the particulars of his story (or his history, as it were). It was interesting to see their concise and convincing (if not exhaustive) look at the subject in this way.

The main point of this text is that all myths - Pagan, Christian, and Jewish - are at their root teaching tools that describe the nature of reality to us, and that Pagan philosophers and radical Jewish theologians created a Jesus myth by combining aspects of the myths of Joshua, Mithras, Ra, Dionysius, Orpheus, and other dying-and-resurrecting godmen that suited their social goals. Later, this very successful Jesus myth was co-opted as historical truth by the new Christian (and once Jewish) literalists, who suppressed (sometimes violently) dissenting versions of the myth as heresy.

"For Plato the Demiurge is not a negative figure," say Gandy and Freke, "but the original Christians pointedly distanced themselves from Jewish Literalism by deliberately portraying the demiurge Jehovah as an ignorant deity under the higher authority of Christ and Achamoth." pg 153

The authors draw connections between thematic elements, plotlines, and the language in various versions of the Jesus myth and the myths of the previously mentioned Godmen. Put in the context of the sophisticated Pagan philosophy of the times, which eschewed literal interpretations of myth, and a cosmopolitan trading culture that extended beyond the Mediterranean, trading and commingling ideas, their hypothesis doesn't seem out of the question. In fact, in their footnotes, they note that it isn't even original, having existed in one form or another for a couple of hundred years.

To me, the nature of Jesus' reality is a moot point. Six of one, half-dozen of another. The definition of who the real Christians are, the cool hippie Christians who use Jesus as a teaching tool or the square, institutional-man Christian who insist on his historical reality, reminds me of the familiar doctrinal squabbling between the Protestants and Catholics about who the bestest Christian is.

Who had the best intentions? Well, it will never be known at this point, because the hippy Christians lost out and the power structure that evolved created the history we have. Why did the hippy Christians lose out? Maybe because while Gnosis is good soul food, most people would rather have a full belly, and a working power structure is better at achieving that end than a feel good philosophy. Maybe it was because they drove themselves to ideological extinction by splitting philosophical hairs.

But that's editorializing.

Would the Gnostics have built a better Christianity, as Freke and Gandy seem to think? Who knows? I'm not convinced, as oddly convincing as their distilled argument here is. But then, I'm a skeptic.

But, after reading both books on the Gnostics, I found their worldview curiously enticing, I think because it is so structured when talking about things that we rarely have a handle on. Freke and Gandy portray them as unabashedly positive:

"Time is the evolving cosmos, which is 'ever laboring to bring about the ideal, planning to lead all to an unending sate of excellence." - Plotinus, pg 137.

"Love is what happens when we connect deeply with another sentient being because love is the way we experience the mysterious paradox of being the One appearing to be many. Love is the mystery aware of the mystery..." - Freke and Gandy, pg 182.

As interesting as their historical and philosophical arguments are, Jesus and the Lost Goddess is ultimately another polemic about the best way to be religious. The essential message is "Be eclectic and intelligent and undogmatic, like the Gnostics, and then everybody will be kinder to each other because their natural goodness will naturally rise to the surface."

The authors recommend no ethics or behavior in particular (although various Gnostic cults recommended many particular things, often conflicting). They bring a don't-worry-be-happy sort of gospel that I regularly employ merely to keep myself sane.

But I don't misunderstand my coping mechanisms as either scientifically or academically based.

In the long run, insisting that God wants us to "not worry and be happy" just seems like a new literalism. A kinder, gentler literalism, stressing cooperation between competing religious traditions - but ultimately a literalism because it ignores the very fact that some people just need old-time religion to get by. Some people need routine and structure and hard and fast rules. As long as we're being tolerant, I suppose we need to be tolerant of them, too.

The Gnostics' (and the authors') utopian message in the end leaves me cold - because if anything, uncovering utopian hippies in the ancient Middle East simply proves that the utopian urge is as old as civilization. Yet it's never succeeded in creating the perfect Star Trek world where no one fights and nobody goes hungry, because utopias ignore the animal nature of human beings. One of the stress points of this kind of Utopianism is that nature is a good thing, but not if it's red in tooth and claw. Which is how nature, including humanity, really, really is. Especially when backed into a corner. Should I be comforted that everybody, in their heart of hearts, means well, if I am a casualty of war?

Although I share the authors' distrust of fundamentalist religion, and even felt strangely nourished by their shrewish diatribes against the doctrinaire and the humorless, I think examining how different religions negotiate their interrelationships is a more worthwhile strategy for peacemaking than insisting on yet another modus operandi for belief.

I am ultimately grateful, however, that the authors have given me permission to feel reverence for mythology, to treat it as serious business in the same way I try to learn from literature or history, no matter how tongue-in-cheek the story is, or how insane the reality. I have often thought it curious that as much as I distrust religion and its institutions (and, sometimes, it practitioners), I find no real fault with the New Testament. I loved Jesus Christ Superstar! It's nice to be able to feel like I am able to claim a use for the story without having to claim the baggage that comes with its history.



This review was originally published several years ago on the Electric Well website. There are minor edits for punctuation and spelling.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The last couple of weekends, I seem to have finally got time to take care of life and writing chores. It seems like the first half of the years as been about playing catchup to writing chores, between finishing my book, looking at Ruby's, and joining a new writer's group.

But the last couple of weeks have been fun. I got to have lunch with a very new friend, saw Hellboy 2 and Batman 2, both of which were solid fun.

Last weekend, we had dinner at Chuck E. Cheese's. Surprisingly, when I was talking to a friend, she said it was expensive. But I thought it was a good value: games, Pizza, drinks, for around $20. Taking three people to a movie with snacks would have run at least fifty.

I've been having long conversations with myself about getting my life to do more of what I want it to, lately. I'm too old to be fucking around. I think I decided I needed to start cooking again. I might try to take some classes in September, stupid adult ed stuff, but something that will allow me to be able to think creatively about food.

Today, I am making a pasta salad for lunches this week. I fried a couple of chicken breasts, cut them up. I'm making penne, steaming green beans, and cutting up pitted Kalamata olives. The last part, after the pasta cools, will be the crumbled goat cheese. I'm going to test a small portion with Baslamic Vinaigrette. This was inspired by a pasta salad my mom bought at Costco. Tasty and light. I hope.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Ethel and Ernest - a review

Ethel and Ernest by Raymond Briggs

Let's get one thing straight. Ethel and Ernest is a comic book. Like Barefoot Gen is a comic book about the aftermath of Hiroshima, using pictures to heighten the impact of words. Like Maus is a comic book about a concentration camp survivor that uses funny animals as a metaphor to emphasize the moral distinction between the Jews and the Nazis. Like Batman is a comic book about a guy who dresses up like a bat and kicks the high holy crap out of muggers and clowns.

Like Barefoot Gen and Maus, Ethel and Ernest showcases no spandex, contains not a single batarang or ray gun. Not that this is necessarily a recommendation. I happen to have a giddy adoration of spandex, batarangs, and ray guns.

Ethel and Ernest
is a comic book. It's also a luminescent illustrated biography of Raymond Briggs's parents, from their first chance encounter in the twenties until their death in the seventies. In Ethel and Ernest, Raymond Briggs fuses his family photo album, anecdotes passed between generations, and the narrative of a turbulent century.

Comic book literati call this genre the Graphic Novel, as if that legitimizes to American audiences the practice of illustrating chunks of text and dialog. Sort of as if Dr. Seuss had written The Old Man and the Sea.

Graphic novels are more akin to epic poems that use pictures to fine tune and add dimension to the stories they support. Like the Book of Kells. Or the Gutenberg Bible. Comic books are logovisual. Words and pictures function in unison to create a single idea. While our head interprets the words, our heart interprets the pictures.

Mr. Briggs' simple, texturally rich illustrations and vivid, lush backgrounds have the uncanny ability to isolate a moment of time, while still letting it move within the frame, making each comic panel achingly temporal. There is a liquid, holographic quality to such preserved moments. They transcend the rigidity of photographs and abrogate the pushy rush of text to press on to the next description.

Ethel and Ernest is a triumph of hybridization, bringing past moments alive, complete with their attendant humor and tragedy. Using history as a backdrop, Ethel and Ernest defines its subjects by how they react to the world, intertwining history and humanity until they are indistinguishable.

"This bloke, Adolf Hitler." Ernest begins a conversation. "It says they're publishing his book over here. Mein Kamph, it's called. All the profits are going to the Red Cross."

"Oh, that's nice of him." Ethel replies.

After they struggle to bear their single child, with the certain knowledge that there won't be more, Et and Ern must struggle again with the knowledge that they must send Ray away from a London under siege in order to protect him.

"One and a half million children are to be evacuated," their boxy old radio states.

"They're not taking ours away!" Exclaims Ethel.

"'Course they are!" Ernest rebuts.

"Oh, no they're not! Over my dead body!"

"It will be over his dead body then! Is that what you want!"

That argument makes the jagged speech balloons of their shouts, and the reds and yellows that make up the pallet of their complexions, into flames that foreshadow the bombing of London by the Nazi's.

Ethel and Ernest
is filled with logovisual hieroglyphs that float the dialog past, each picture a word that describes the accumulation of a life. The garden that they fill with flowers and bomb shelters and pear trees. The Valentine's Day cards Ernest makes Ethel. The shards of their bombed out home. The crouched imp of a telephone that appears sometime in the fifties.

The last pages are hollow with loneliness. Of course. Where else do lives end, but death? In the stark white of hospitals. In the dingy shadows cast by middle of the night phone calls. Through a combination of text and color and line, Ethel and Ernest manages to place you in the great depression, in a London being mercilessly shelled by the Nazi's. Finally, it will bring you into the heart of a son who has lost his parents, which is a place as real as any orphanage.



This review was originally published several years ago on the Electric Well website. There are minor edits for punctuation and spelling.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Monday, July 07, 2008

Declare - A review

Declare, by Tim Powers

Tim Powers is a big, fat tease.

What I really mean is that Tim Powers is an intriguingly opaque writer who uses a wealth of historical detail to obscure the fact that his fantasy novels are richly over the top.

Powers sets fantastical stories in historical venues, making his novels a sort of history a-go-go. This makes for an immensely refreshing take on fantasy. There are, at the very least, no anemic Gandolph seemalikes. In addition, fitting historical fact to a folkloric/fantastic framework fires curiosity in a most satisfying way. You begin to wonder: how much of this is true? It's an enjoyable puzzle.

His newest novel, Declare, is a rich tapestry of crossed genres, mixing the convolutions of the spy novel, the cover story and double cross, with the odd angles, the pacifications and perambulations, of middle eastern folklore. It's about Gilgamish and Genies and Immortality and Spies and Communism and The Berlin Wall and Baptism and Foxes with Ghosts in them. In describing his supernatural ecosystem, Powers even finds a way to make The Soviet Union even creepier than it actually was.

It's hard to talk about one of Powers' books without describing his entire Oeuvre. He always dabbles in eccentric concepts: The Drawing of the Dark is about a magic beer that safeguards western civilization. Last Call is about Las Vegas gamblers competing to be the Fisher King of America. On Stranger Tides is about Pirates seeking out the Fountain of Youth.

His books mine the elaborate network of superstitions people navigate their lives by: the nervous ticks of gamblers, the trademark personality quirks of pirates, the double blinds of spies. He layers them onto a supernatural pseudo-physics that takes you for a wild ride, mostly because it sounds almost possible in a really bent kind of fashion.

Tim Powers doesn't give you everything up front. The quirks of his supernatural creatures, ghosts and elementals, vampires and djinn, sort of unwind as a novel goes on. By the end, you'll feel you know enough to become a sort of latter day Solomon/Van Helsing.

What he gives you until he gets to that point is a rich background of character and history to set his flights of fancy in.

For instance, Kim Philby, the antagonist of Declare, was a real person. He spied for the British between 1940 and 1963, though it was revealed towards the end of his career (when he defected to the USSR) that he had been counterspying for the Soviets the entire time.

Declare paints an interesting emotional portrait of this non-fictional individual and exploits the most curious parts of his real life. Powers' after word is tantalizing, revealing that Philby did indeed own a fox that smoked cigars and drank whiskey, and which he mourned in a drunken stupor for three days after it was murdered in cold blood. After reading Declare, you might be drawn to read the many biographies and histories written about Philby the spy.

Andrew Hale, the protagonist, just seems real, carrying a decades-long unrequited lust for a fellow spy that he met as a communist in Paris. Tim Powers has masterfully executed a portrait of a man whose emotions are closed off and hampered by his conflicting loyalties. Declare is mostly Hale's story, and at some point it becomes clear that the title refers to Andrew Hale's overarching decisions: He must decide between, and declare his intentions towards, his emotional loyalties, his spiritual loyalties, and his patriotic loyalties.

Though used the most sparingly of any character in the novel, Elena Teresa Ceniza-Bendiga, Hale's romantic declare-ee, is maybe more intriguing because of this. Hale falls in love with her as a British Mole in the Soviet Secret Service infiltrating Nazi occupied Paris, even though she declares herself a "bride of communism."

Her evolution from a communist following her parents murder by the right wing in Spain, to her rebirth as a Catholic after she finds out exactly what kind of supernatural master she is serving in the Soviet Union, becomes the pivot around which antagonist and protagonist turn. Superficially she is their romantic involvement. More specifically she becomes an illustration of the perils and rewards of faith. Philby and Hale's fascination with her crystallizes Philby's cynical opportunism and undoes Hale's near-bovine absolutism.

Declare is powerful reading, pun intended. It is easily one of his more ambitious, complex, and engaging novels, one of a long chain of curiously evocative historical fantasies. Tim Powers understands how to roll out a mystery carefully, and the travails of his quietly passionate characters leave pieces of themselves behind in the reader. The immense scope of Declare, encompassing both history and wonder, human frailty and otherworldly immensity, will interest everyone who cares about the human spirit.



This review was originally published several years ago on the Electric Well website. There are minor edits for punctuation and spelling.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

So... fourth of July was a sublime exercise in the beauty of chaos. Host had a truckload of fireworks, neighbors down the street brought a bunch of them. Some of these were footlong bricks of one firework.

Half the fun of fireworks is the packaging. The ones Host brought back had great art: cracked out Vallejo style dragon centaur chicks in chainmail bikinis with spastic, half literate product names like "Revenge of Godness."

Dude.

Host was lighting them off even before dark. I got to see a firework tumbling a hundred feet in the air before it let off tracers of smoke. The officer from down the street brought out a couple of M-80's. The dialog involved there was great.

Host stuck the quarter sticks of dynamite into a watermelon. The noise so thrilled Poppy that she was screaming "Thank you!" from the porch.

A plumber neighbor brought over a blowtorch, so we started lighting sparklers, which the girls had a lot of nerve wracking fun with. Not for them... they weren't paying too much attention. It was nerve wracking for me.

We watched for an hour and a half as he lit them off. Some of them were truly awesome, covering the parts of the sky I could see with crackling golden webs of stars.

Enough good energy to kick start my writing and exercise habits again next week.

Food was excellent. Company was excellent. Good day to be alive.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Our own adventure!

Last night, while I was working the desk, the sky put on a show. Lightning sheeted, rain bucketed down thick as mist, the lights flickered. It was a frankly creepy display, for one because the thunder rumbled nearly constantly for an hour or so, sounding just like the description the bowling angels Rip Van Winkle. And I suspect wrangling patrons in a lightless Portage District Library would be less than fun. Very Apocalyptic feeling. Everything cleared up after an hour or so, but I got home to find a muggy, candle lit house. The power had gone out. It stayed out the next morning.

Calling from work, the power company said that we would be off the grid until late Saturday. So I worked through the morning, asked my staff and boss if I could leave early (Vicki had been hollering at me about my leave accrual topping out anyway), walked home, cleaned out the fridge while Ruby packed, and took off to the east coast of Michigan, to hang out with the 'rents. Who had air conditioning and hot water.

We are refugees, Nomads in search of electricity. It all feels strangely invigorating.

Will be here through the fourth, then I go back to work on the fifth. Power will still be out, probably. So... I guess I will have to console myself by going out on the town. Shame, that.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

I now understand the definition of "luck."

Luck is when you leave your bag at a friends house for a month.

Then, you carry the bag around with you for another couple of weeks after you have retrieved it, without properly cleaning it out.

Then you discover a bag of carrots that you had left in it, sort of simmering in a yellowish green slime, STILL SEALED.

That, my friends, is luck.

On other fronts:

I don't know how many gamers actually read the site. I believe the email this is based on has gone to the other two. But this is my two cents on the 4.0 thing.

I have at least one friend who really dislikes the game, and I understand all his reasons. They mostly center around the character classes, and how modular and generic the skills seem to be.

I've been playing Dungeons and Dragons 4.0 for about two weeks now: my friend Chris is running Keep on the Shadowfell, and I am running some short adventures for a few kids I know through the library. I also played in some demos at my game store.

I'm having fun. I've played about 13 hours of the game. I find the system to be pretty elegant, and I feel like there is a large difference between the classes despite a decreased dependence on BAB.

I also think cooperative play is radically increased by increasing the scope of individual class roles. This is largely because you can depend on every player to be able to add to the combat every round.

In the games I played in, my group stopped and planned our approach to each combat. We figured out which players would take which tasks. All the classes have a distinct footprint. The Cleric and Paladin act as tanks and offers minor buffs, the wizard and rogue offering ranged back up and area attacks.

Our roles weren't much different than they would have been in 3.5: my paladin and the cleric went in first, and the rogue and wizard stood behind them and shot. But I did feel like I had a choice of things to do. Instead of hitting each opponent in turn with my optimized weapon, I had to think about whether I used Holy Strike or Valiant Strike (I used Valiant Strike when I was surrounded, and Holy Strike one on one). My wife's wizard never ran out of stuff to do, but had choices each combat.

I'm finding the kids I'm running on Tuesdays are reacting pretty much the same way.

At the end of the day, it's a game. It's a set of numbers and assumptions with a skin on it. I would like to try running Celestial Wastelands in d20 again, maybe use d20 for another modern era game. I will read Pathfinder when I have a moment. But for FRPG, I will probably stick with 4.0 for awhile. 3.5 was so widgety, involving so many steps for preparation, especially high level, that I couldn't cope with it anymore.

I've of course heard the comparisons to Warcraft: DND 4.0 is somehow soul-less because the similarities to roles, and the slimmed down choices, are similar to a CRPG (specifically a MMRPG).

As an aside, playing 6-8 hours of Warcraft a week for the past two months or so (Yes, way too much), it's not the "system" that's the problem with Warcraft. The problem with Warcraft is that there's a computer running it. It's a grindy, number crunching system with limited personality behind it. I like the look, and I like playing a simple game with my wife or daughter, but I don't like it so much when I play on my own. If 4.0 were run by a machine, it would be just as sucktastic as Warcraft. But then again, 3.5 was, too, when you get right down to it. I played Baldur's Gate once. Would I play it again? Nah. But with a person running it, especially a person a hard-rockin' cool as me or my friend Chris, 4.0 is kind of cool.

edit: 7/3

One of my preferred bloggers notes that he is not fond of 4.0 for reasons my friend would appreciate.

I was interested in this quote:

With earlier MU's if I ran out of spells it forced me to come up with lots of on-the-fly shenanigans to beat the baddies. To understand the brave new world of 4e imagine a magic missile crushing the darkness, forever.


I laud the sentiment, and I've had alot of fun extemporizing when my character is in resource poor situations. But I know that I've had GM's who can't make that fun, and make sure that unoptimal choices are punished. I've had players who feel like they are being punished if the GM puts them in an unoptimal situation. So I wonder if most players see much difference between various methods of eliminating options: limited spell choice versus no spells at all sometimes.

It's six of one. The GM makes the system, not the other way around. Running out of spells can't be the only way to encourage players to extemporize.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Darwin's Radio - A review

Darwin's Radio by Greg Bear

Darwin's Radio is a good read, though, a solid hard science fiction novel. From the cover and marketing campaign, I thought this would be a dyed in the wool thriller. Although it starts out with thriller elements (opening on eccentric characters in exotic locations looking at the bizarre pieces of a scientific puzzle), it doesn't maintain the pace of a thriller.

Not that this is a bad thing. The science is clearly explained and sounds plausible. The characters are complexly drawn, if a little uniformly cold for my tastes. The social events that arise from the crises our protagonists are dealing with (a mysterious disease affecting fertility) seem likely, given how hysterical people can get over reproductive issues.

The book is fun more because it is smart than because it is scary. Mr. Bear makes you curious and keeps you curious: first, about what's happening to the people, and then about what will happen to the world.

Though there is tension, this novel isn't so much about the tension. It's more about the science: how the author puts together a bunch of scientific fact into a very clever scientific possibility. There is no pulse pounding finish, but the main characters react to the "disease" catching up to them in a very human fashion: with curiosity and compassion.

For all the fun, Bear just leads you to a scientific possibility. No matter how convoluted, he doesn't take you past that... doesn't show you what a new "technology" really means to human beings or the nature of the universe. It's a sign of subtlety that he leaves you to speculate on your own, I guess... and a sequel definitely isn't required. I just think that a few ruminations of what this new kind of evolution means to the future of mankind would have been welcome.



This review was originally published several years ago on the Electric Well website. It has been edited for clarity.

Since I wrote this review, a sequel, Darwin's Children, has been published.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Our daughter's very first fanfic is about her mother's Warcraft character.

*snif*

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Excellent. James Dobson says it's okay to be teh gay.

"In the comments to be aired Tuesday, Dobson said Obama should not be referencing antiquated dietary codes and passages from the Old Testament that are no longer relevant to the teachings of the New Testament."

I was just thinking the other day that I seemed to remember somebody saying somewhere that the New Testament repealed the Old Testament. (Here: "Of course, these people may or may not realize that the ban on eating of shellfish was part of the Mosaic dietary law which was set aside by God when Jesus Christ instituted a new covenant through His shed blood.)

I would assume that that includes Leviticus' famous condemnation of homosexuality. Both of the examples I quoted above don't say anything of the sort, of course.

Looking up "homosexuality New Testament", it looks like Paul gets pissy about teh gay stuff. This site says Romans 1:26-27 specifically references female homosexuality. But, uh. It seems pretty slack to me.

Like I give a damn, anyhow. I freely admit I am no biblical scholar. I just like hearing James Dobson say it: "Leviticus is whack, y'all. Leviticus is bullshit."

Edit (6/26/2008): As usual, Jon Stewart says it funnier.

Monday, June 23, 2008

"The more devout they are, the more they see murder as being negotiable." George Carlin.

So, I had a great time this weekend. Shot little girls with water pistols, and got blasted in return. They made great use of their tactical environment, drawing water while they were underwater so that they were never unarmed on the surface.

I hung out with my inlaws and actuals at a graduation party. All great people.

I talked to my brother in law about his fascinating career in preparation to begin writing a thriller later in the year.

I wonder how hard it would be to make a career change into journalism?

Anyways, I had a good time.

One of the best times I remember in my life was coming across George Carlin's seven words you can't say on television. In college? That routine broke me up. I laughed until I had tears in my eyes. And there were bunches of others. But George had his last good time sometime during the time I was having my good times this weekend. I'm sorry about that. There will be better obituaries. I will miss George Carlin being in the world.

Bringing Out the Dead - A review

Bringing Out the Dead by Joe Connelly.

For reference, The Nicholas Cage movie of the same title was based on this novel. I don't know how they compare, because I never saw the movie.

Bringing Out The Dead is an exciting, if flawed, novel: A series of semi-hallucinatory, caffeine and booze fueled slice-of-life vignettes about a burnt out ambulance driver suffering agonies of guilt because he wasn't able to save a young girl's life. As a result of his failure, he sees her ghost everywhere.

Bringing Out The Dead is a sort of hymn to the ongoing chaos and organic mess of the world. The ambulance drivers do furious battle with accidents and biological malfunction, but ultimately seem to have little effect. The protagonist cruises through the novel looking for a good day, a day when he saves somebody's life, because there are too many days when he doesn't. The novel starts spectacularly, with the protagonist and his partner furiously trying to resuscitate a heart attack victim.

The wicked humor of the ambulance-vignettes is both painful and exhilarating, and descriptions of the chaos of an ambulance trip, street crazies, and the effects of life saving drugs on the body are stellar. This novel is frightening because it has the handi-cam patina of reality television. There's a staccato texture to the prose that makes you think of war reporting. You imagine your own body lying unconscious on the concrete or in your bedroom. You want the person who comes to save you to be fired up, hopeful, an ambulance saint. Not overworked, disillusioned, seeing ghosts and grasping at superstitions.

That said, I though Bringing Out the Dead ended on a wishy washy note. The narrator is chronically drifty and manic depressive. He makes a lot of his own problems. Descriptions of his personal history do not arouse sympathy or create a connection with the reader, and the book is just sort of clumsy overall when it comes to personal events. The descriptions of ambulance workers trying to save lives, and the late night activity in the hospital emergency rooms of the hospital, ultimately have more character than the character describing them, and because of this I failed to care much about the rest of the novel.



This review was originally published several years ago on the Electric Well website. There are minor edits for punctuation and spelling.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

My birthday weekend continued into the week, with a gift of a battery operated personal fan and a $20 bill. Everybody has been very nice. Both made me feel young. I wanted to sneak up behind people with the fan and blow their hair around. And I haven't gotten a $20 bill in a card since I was ten.

I am excavating some personal issues of late. Birthdays do that, sometimes. Something grabbed my attention the other night, though. I was looking at the blog of Caitlen Kiernan, a horror fiction and comic book writer. She was writing about paganism:
Spooky's looking at local Pagan gatherings associated with the Solstice. Part of me wants to become involved with a nearby coven or circle — I've never liked the solitary practitioner thing — and part of me knows it would just be asking for trouble. All this foolish nattering about "dispelling negative energy." Whatever happened to paganism as a road to balance? Never mind that the word "energy" should be forever stricken from the pagan lexicon, for the perpetual abuse and complete lack of definition it endures. One reason I came to Providence was to find like-minded pagans, hopefully Wiccans, but I fear they'll all think I'm some spooky left-pather, a bĂȘte noire to be avoided lest my "negative energies" taint their rituals "of light and purification." Pfft. Sometimes, it seems to me so many American Wiccans are devolving into happy-crappy, pseudo-Xtianity, afraid of their own shadows, struggling to recreate the religion that drove them to paganism to start with. But I rant. Don't fear the darkness, kiddos. It's one half of the equation. Without it, there can be no balance. And balance, I believe, is the key, here.

Now, I'm an atheist, but I sympathize a great deal with the sentiment that I read there. I have joked with people that I was goth before goth was goth. I'm a social introvert. I present a pretty tame face to the world, but my morbidity is legend. It's tough to find company, sometimes. Who wants to hang around with the pensive, terminally ironic, gloomy bastard?

I understand why people cherish images and philosophies that enshrine the optimistic drives, but I'm pretty sure some people just aren't tuned in that direction. Most of us manage to contribute anyways. I think we should form a "spooky people" minority identity block.

Anyways, while chasing ideas around in my head, I came across a reference to Cybele. Who seems like exactly the kind of goddess I would worship: "fertile Earth, a goddess of caverns and mountains, walls and fortresses, nature, wild animals (especially lions and bees)." Lately I've been running across religions that I wish I had grown up in, like the form of Thai Buddhism that sets up casinos at funerals to keep the ghosts of the dead company.

Monday, June 16, 2008

I had a lovely birthday weekend, running from approximately Thursday to yesterday. I met my friends Scott and Jessie for dinner in Lansing, played some Warcraft with my daughter, finished overhauling the start of my novel, got calls from my friend Cathy and my sister, was gifted with mix tapes of very cool tribal and anti-folk music by my friend Eric, and given Minis by Chris and Kim. Toys! Today I brought pie to my co-workers, as is our habit here.

Thanks, everybody!

Biological Exhuberance - a review

Biological Exuberance by Dr. Bruce Bagemihl

Biological Exuberance
has it's faults. In addition to being long winded, it's more of a polemic than a purely scientific work. I personally am a little uncomfortable with the almost New-Agey gushiness the author lavishes on aboriginal "wisdom" and some edge science (particularly Gaia theory).

That said, this is a very sensitive reading, and an impressive (even exciting) articulation, of a very real body of marginalized scientific data.

One of the criticisms that cultural conservatives level against homosexuality is that it is Unnatural (tm). I think Dr. Bagemihl will single handedly put that old chestnut to rest with this very thorough catalog of homosexuality in the natural world.

More than half of Biological Exuberance's 665 pages consist of case studies of homosexual, polygamous, or non-reproductive behavior in creatures ranging from great apes to parrots.

Sounds dry, you say? Sometimes. Dr. Bagemihl makes exhaustive lists of sexual activity in animal species, and repeats them a bit too often.

The wealth of detail can hardly be faulted, though, because this is information that rarely appears in this kind of concentrated form. And it's just fascinating to read about the variety of sexual activity in various animals. It's also a little eerie to realize that identity is probably variable for animals as well as humans.

Bagemihl can be downright entertaining when he describes examples of ascientific prudery among naturalists. One scientific (?) article is titled: "A Note on the Apparent Lowering of Moral Standards in the Lepidoptera (Butterflies)." Do butterflies even have morals?

Even funnier is his description of how direct genital contact in same-sex animals is described as "food exchange, social bonding, or greeting" behavior... not SEXUAL behavior! Talk about missing the forest for the trees!

Does this book explain the biological roots of homosexuality? Not really. But it does enlighten us as to the variety of its expression, and make said information available in a way that I think is stunningly new.

Bagemihl isn't a shoddy philosopher, either. Though much of the last chapter reads a lot like "I Sing The Body Electric" on a cosmological scale, it also outlines an empirically based ideology for valuing diversity in many forms. Bagemihl combines an abundance of rigorously gathered fact and elegantly progressive theory to highlight the effervescent abundance of existence. "Each life," He states, "Whether procreative or just creative, is fueled by the generosity of existence." Pre-industrial societies recognized the ambiguity of gender in nature and incorporated it into their magical worldview. Maybe modern society should take off the blinders and recognize the fact of homosexuality in nature - and incorporate it into our rational worldview.



This review was originally published several years ago on the Electric Well website. It has been edited for clarity.

Monday, June 09, 2008

The Amber Spyglass (His Dark Materials Book 3) - a review

The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials series)

The Amber Spyglass is the third and last book in Philip Pullman's His Dark materials series.

Lyra, our spunky pseudo-Victorian girl heroine from the first two novels, and Will, her traveling companion from modern London, who has mastered a knife that cuts through the walls which separate dimensions, have been separated. They are being hunted by the heavenly host and representatives of "the church" from dozens of universes. It seems Lyra, by any other name, is Eve, and the church wants to stop her from falling by any means necessary.

This is the basic premise of The Amber Spyglass. It unfolds from there, and makes full use of themes developed in the earlier novels. I'm not going to divulge any other plot details, mostly because they are so delicious in the uncovering, and I would never deny a reader the pleasure of finding them on his or her own.

I will tell you how I felt about the book, however, which I think is important because the His Dark Materials series is so rich and varied in emotional texture.

As I noted in a review of the second book in the series, each of the books has a distinctly different feel, mostly because, I think, Mr. Pullman is trying to do different things with each book. The first book introduced and connected readers to the main character. The second book was a bridge, introducing a range of supporting characters and laying out a framework to hang the conclusions of the second novel on.

Pullman moves from a very exciting adventure in Golden Compass, through a more thoughtful novel hung more on ideas than action in Subtle Knife, to a final novel that starts out looking like a Fellini war novel and ends up being a rather quiet pronunciation of faith. Which is a trick, for a novel and novelist so pointedly skeptical.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing. By switching gears in the middle of stories like he does, the author also gives you opportunities to be surprised. I was, on several occasions, pleasantly surprised by narrative elements which felt new to me. I have to admit, that sometimes I felt like the slam bang Gotterdammerung conclusion promised was denied me. But The Amber Spyglass was ultimately very thought provoking in the way it dismissed as legerdemain antagonists who had been developed over the run of the series. The author seems to be saying "Forget all the lurid pyrotechnics. Here's the real issue, and it's much closer to home."

Pullman continues his thematic distrust of higher powers, sketching them in with a bleak and uncomforting world of the dead straight out of the Greek mythology, and heavenly powers that are both as arrogant and sheltered as their great power would make an earthly counterpart.

This leads, I believe, to his asking epic questions about self-worth and purpose, and answering them without resorting to God's love. I think he creates a stable argument for living a fulfilled life without reliance on higher powers. My favorite part of the novel is where he reclaims joy from the obsessive compulsive Judeo Christian "hierarchy of acceptable bliss."

As well as being eloquent, The Amber Spyglass is lusciously lurid, so that fans of high fantasy won't be disappointed. In some ways, it's his richest helping of fantasy-pudding yet, expanding the steam punk venue of his first world into a multiverse inhabited by venomous bug people, armored bears, rebel angels, and a very deft reworking of Frank Baum's wheelers. He threads the story with a battle comparable to Milton, and love stories, both parental and romantic, worthy of Orpheus.

Amber Spyglass is a lot of things: an adventure, a romance, an allegory. It's a wonderful cap to an inventive series, and worth reading the series merely to get to the end result.

This review was originally published several years ago on the Electric Well website. It has been edited for clarity.