Friday, April 30, 2010

Book Review: The Einstein Intersection

Samuel R. Delany
Awards: Nebula
Rating: ★ – – – –

SPOILER ALERT (Not that it matters)

Samuel Delany published his first novel at age 20, which earned him a reputation as a prodigy. The Einstein Intersection, which he wrote at 24, seems like a desperate effort to hold on to that reputation. Everything about this book – the ambitious but half-resolved plot lines, the trippy sentence structure, the trendy 1960s themes, the inclusion of his own writer’s journal in the quotations that start each chapter – gives the impression of a writer using every technique he can think of to impress us with his brilliance without having the content to back it up.

The story takes place 30,000 years after humans have disappeared from Earth for unspecified reasons. Aliens from “the other side of the universe” have colonized the empty Earth and have somehow taken human form in an attempt to adapt better to the planet. But the human form doesn’t work quite right for the aliens, so every generation has a lot of mutation. Those who are mutated range from “functionals,” who can mix with “normals” in everyday society, to “non-functionals” who have to be kept in a “kage” and tended all their lives.

The characters keep talking about how there is a lot of prejudice towards anyone who is considered “different.” You are “different” if you have a mutation of any kind, whether it is a harmful mutation or a special ability like telepathy or telekinesis (like the X-Men). According to the book’s publicists this is supposedly one of the most powerful elements of the book, but we never run into any situations where this prejudice is really manifest or where it has any major impact on the story.

The main character, Lobey, is “different.” His difference is that he can hear the music that is playing in somebody else’s head and he can play it on his flute. Lobey falls in love with a “different” woman, Friza, who is telekinetic. Friza is mysteriously killed and Lobey is told by the elders of his village to go discover what killed her and kill it.

Through a series of hallucinations and/or visions he learns that Friza’s murderer is another “different” person named Kid Death, who can look through other people’s eyes anywhere they are and see what they see. When he gets bored with looking through their eyes, he closes their eyes permanently and thereby kills them. Lobey leaves his small village, joins up with a group of dragon herders and travels with them to the big city where the Kid is. Eventually he does manage to kill the Kid with the help of the herders and manages to also learn some life lessons in the process.

There are several bothersome things about the book, not least of which are the bold but half-explained and semi-developed themes.

One of these central themes is myth. Lobey is a rough parallel to Orpheus, who was a musical genius (on the lyre) and who traveled (unsuccessfully) to Hades to bring the woman he loved back from the dead. A modern retelling of a myth is a good device in theory but Orpheus’ story seems kind of pointless to me – his lover dies, he goes to Hades to go get her, he isn’t able to bring her back so he comes back home. I’m afraid that Lobey’s journey seems equally pointless.

Another theme of the book is the convergence of rational and irrational thought (whatever that is). One of the elders explains to Lobey that long, long ago, Albert Einstein defined the rules of the rational world and Kurt Gödel came as close as anyone can to defining the rules of the irrational world. At the intersection of the two… well, this is where the explanation kind of peters out, but it has something to do with society reaching a pinnacle of both scientific and spiritual development. It’s not really clear how it relates to Lobey’s journey, but it certainly sounds very cool to talk about.

Myth also shows up in the cheesy references to 1960s pop culture which have supposedly become lore in Lobey’s world – the tale of the Myth of Ringo, the swearing in Elvis’ name, the referring to death as “returning to the great rock and the great roll.” These might have been funny when the book first came out but seem trite now.

Delany starts each chapter with a quotation or two. Most of the quotations are from a self-consciously eclectic mix of writers from Bob Dylan to Thomas Chatterton and the Marquis de Sade, which is annoying enough. But some of the quotations are also from the author himself, from the journal he kept while traveling through Europe and writing this book. The entries always casually mention his current exotic location while talking about how he’s struggling with telling Lobey’s story: Oh, I’m having a devil of a time expressing Lobey’s pain while sitting in a small tea shack on the Bosporus with a group of Turkish sailors with whom I’m conversing in French.

At the very end of the book, he signs off the story with “— New York, Paris, Venice, Athens, Istanbul, London / Sept. ’65 – Nov. ’66.” Almost makes you feel like he wrote the book just so he could show off where he went.

In keeping with the era in which it was written, this book uses a psychedelic vocabulary and sentence structure. This sometimes works (“Chills snarled the nerves along my vertebrae”) but often doesn’t (“My ear is funnel for all voice and trill and warble you can conceive this day”). I think the main times that it doesn’t work are when Delany himself hasn’t fully thought out what he is trying to say, as in: “Music is the pure language of temporal and co-temporal relation.” What?

Delany is self-conscious about this writing style, which also makes us too conscious of it. In one of his journal entries, Delany says, “In a week…I can start the meticulous process of overlaying another filigree across the novel’s palimpsest.” I think if your novel needs to be multi-layered and obscure, just write it that way – you don’t need to tell us that’s what you’re doing so we’ll be impressed.

One thing I do have to give Delany credit for is that he gave the people in this book three sexes – male, female, and androgynous. And this book came out two years before Ursula K. LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness, which was considered groundbreaking for its treatment of androgynous characters.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Book Review: The Forever Machine

Also published as They'd Rather Be Right
Mark Clifton & Frank Riley
Awards: Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –

I have read several reviews of this book that say it is trite and clichéd. But I mainly enjoyed it.

The main character is a telepathic man who grew up ostracized and isolated because of his abilities. He doesn’t want to be so lonely so he builds a machine that can make other people into telepaths.

The book’s premise is that everyone has the potential to be a telepath. But our prejudices and judgmental natures prevent us from being one.

When you’re telepathic, of course, you know what everyone else is thinking. This means that telepaths have to be the most understanding, least judgmental people on earth. It would lead to a great deal of upset and disorder if telepaths were unable to handle knowing the bad things that even the best of us sometimes think.

In order to make you telepathic, therefore, the machine strips out all your preconceived ideas about what is right and wrong and rebuilds you, cell by cell, from the ground up…

…which has the nice side effect of making old people young again.

Which means that once the machine has been run on its first person, an elderly woman, and she is transformed back into a beautiful twenty-year-old, everybody on earth wants it.

The catch is that the machine won’t work on anybody who is convinced that they are absolutely right about something. If you are not flexible enough to be removed of all your assumptions and prejudices, then you will come out of the machine unchanged.

I especially liked the first third of this book, when the telepathic man is a young boy. As a child, he reacts not to what people are saying but to what they are really thinking, which of course makes everyone think he is crazy. He learns, painfully, that it is better to disguise the fact that he can tell what people are thinking.

In the second third of the book, the boy grows up and goes to college and teams up with two professors to create the telepath-making machine. Throughout the project the three of them are alternately reviled and revered by the public, because the public is both terrified of what the machine means and also greedy for it. Eventually popular opinion turns totally against them; they become the target of a witch hunt and have to go into hiding. This part was good too.

After the machine has actually been built, however, and its three creators start doing demonstrations of the machine for the public, the book kind of loses its way. It becomes far too heavy-handed in its lesson about how we all need to be more flexible and realize that we’re not always right. I also thought the solution for what to do with the machine in the end was dissatisfying.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

I think I'm a bad dumpster diver

The other day I saw a mess of two-by-fours in the dumpster at a home that's being renovated around the corner from us. I grabbed a set of them that had been nailed together three different ways and spent about 45 minutes ripping them apart with a tiny little pry bar and a 6 or 7 ounce hammer, until, finally, I broke the hammer. I got all the nails out of two of the boards, which are eight footers, and the third one is still riddled with nails. Seems like a lot of trouble for wood that would have cost me $5.42 cents. At least I didn't hurt myself.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Book Review: Slow River

Nicola Griffith
Awards: Nebula
Rating: ★ ★ – – –

I was generally impatient with this book.

It is set not too far in the future, when all of our sewage is processed and recycled by bioengineered microorganisms. The main character, Lore Van de Oest, is one of the heirs to a wealthy family that made money by creating and patenting many of these microorganisms.

At the beginning of the story, Lore gets kidnapped and the kidnappers demand ransom, but her emotionally-removed, dysfunctional family refuses to pay and basically writes her off as dead. Lore manages to escape from her kidnappers but ends up badly hurt in the process, lying an alley in the bad part of town. She is rescued and nursed back to health by a small-time cyber-crook named Spanner with whom she inevitably becomes romantically involved.

While recovering at Spanner’s apartment, Lore decides that this is her chance to escape from her family and all the baggage tied to her famous name. Spanner helps Lore get a new identity and for a while the two of them live a grimy life of cyber-crime.

Eventually Lore decides to investigate why she was kidnapped and why her family refused to pay her ransom. In order to figure it out she has to go undercover in one of the sewage treatment plants that uses her family’s microorganisms. This was the best part of the book. The water treatment plant uses a multi-stage ecological system to break down the sewage naturally, from pools of toxin-eating algae at the beginning down to fish farms at the end of the line. The technology behind it was really neat and not all that far off from what we could do today.

Unfortunately, I just didn't get into the rest of the book. Spanner is a pretty harsh and unappealing person who is willing to do just about anything for money including sell out her lover. And I didn’t really feel all that sorry for Lore as the poor little rich girl who is so beleaguered by her wealth and fame (even if she does uncover an awful history of abuse in her family).

Blackbaud Corp. Smoking Policy

Thursday, April 15, 2010


This morning I passed a small pile of recently-pruned cherry tree branches at the Arnold Arboretum. Some of them still had flowers on them. I thought about taking a big fat section home to make into spoons, but then I remember the stack of curing maple and wild cherry wood I have already waiting for my attention, and I took a small branch instead.

I took the smallest piece--about finger-thick--and stripped the bark off with a paring knife. Then I whittled away the dark, moist outer layer, leaving just the inner wood. Then I used a handsaw to cut off the sharp ends where I had snapped the branch into dibble-sized pieces.

I feel like I should know what that middle layer is called--sapwood? Cambium? Or is it simply the inner bark?

At any rate, I know have two lovely, handmade dibbles that I plan to use (tonight if I can get myself organized) to start seeds for my new garden.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Oreilles Gauloises (Dead Air Edition) - OFF UNTIL FRIDAY APRIL 16th

Due to a couple of work-related deadlines, I was unable to write my weekly music album review this past Friday. I will be back this coming week. My apologies. To make amends, and to pay homage to Mr. Alex Chilton who recently passed away, I am posting this Big Star classic, from their timeless debut #1 Record

- Karlissimo del Banco

Friday, April 09, 2010

Book Review: Ender's Game

Orson Scott Card
Awards: Nebula, Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –


Before I read Ender’s Game for the first time, I had heard a lot of hype from others about how life-changing this book was for them. It didn’t live up to the lofty expectations that the hype had set up and I was disappointed.

I read it again recently, though, and this second time I think I was able to appreciate the book much better for what it is.

The story is set in the future, when we on Earth are nearing the end of an 80-year break in an interstellar war against another species, the Buggers. The Buggers’ original two invasions were brutal and all of humanity is united in preparing to defend Earth against the expected Third Invasion. Governments have begun genetically engineering children to be soldiers in the coming war; they run them through a series of tests when they are little to see if they will be good candidates for Battle School (when they are elementary-school age) and then Command School (when they are teenagers). In school, they run the children through battle simulation after battle simulation, teaching them how to fight and kill.

The main character in the book is Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, a six-year old military genius (who is good at many other things as well). He is lonely at Battle School, ostracized and sometimes hated by many of the older students who are threatened by his skill. They do everything from not eating with him at meals to trying to kill him in the hallways. But he is so good that he still rises rapidly through the ranks at Battle School, leading first small groups and then whole battalions of his fellow students, entering Command School several years early.

Ender enjoys what he does. He is creative and adaptable. He learns his opponents’ patterns quickly and exploits them. The problem is that he doesn’t like to kill. And the more successful he becomes, the more agonized he gets inside about what he is doing. He knows he is being used as a tool and it makes him miserable.

What he doesn’t realize until it is too late is that the humans don’t just want to defend themselves against a Third Invasion – they want to completely annihilate the Buggers and their home world. And that at some point, the battles he is fighting have changed from simulations to real encounters with the enemy that he is commanding by remote control.

He does, finally, lead the human forces to victory over the Buggers, with huge loss of life. When he finds out what he has done he goes through a profound breakdown and decides to completely redirect his life and honor the memory of those he has killed.

It is a very good story and Ender is a very likeable character. I definitely identified with his loneliness and I liked the way he was always able to think his way into succeeding against huge odds. I just had a couple problems with the book.

One was that the ending seemed too abrupt. It was very quick. I guess I thought that Ender would eventually be on the actual battlefield himself, or that we would actually meet a Bugger, and when neither of those things happened, it was a bit unsatisfying.

The other was the more minor story of what was going on back home while Ender was at school. Ender’s brother Peter and sister Valentine are geniuses in their own rights, but Peter was too aggressive and Valentine too pacifistic to make good military leaders. Left out, they begin writing columns and editorials in global political nets, widening divisions between political factions (mainly between America and Russia). I didn’t really get into their story as I did Ender’s.

After reading Ender’s Game, I read the sequel, Speaker for the Dead. I just loved it. It was moving and complex and I enjoyed seeing what Ender had become as an adult, after he had turned away from the military. Later I read that Orson Scott Card originally meant both stories to be in the same book, but that when he got into it, he realized that it was too much and he should split off what was then just a backstory about Ender’s youth into its own book, which would then be a set up for Speaker. If that is indeed what he intended, it totally worked for me.

Thursday, April 08, 2010


For my first attempt at knitting in the continental style, I decided to make felted pot-holders.

I made a pair, one in all knit garter stitch and one in all pearl garter stitch. (I even did a few rows of pearling in the "Portuguese style," [with yarn tensioned around neck, which I think would be more properly called Arab Style], which was amazingly fast and easy for pearling. It's a bit tricky for knitting but I think maybe worth learning.) It turns out garter stitch is not great for felting pot-holders, but they work fine as hot pads for warm serving dishes on the table. And the felting process did a nice job of evening out my sketchy first-time-ever-knitting-this-way tension.

I have also been using them as a bottom layer of insulation underneath the warm jars of fermenting milk when I make yogurt.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Oreilles Gauloises (Travis Bean Guitars Edition) - At Action Park (Shellac)

I don't remember why I bought my first Shellac album. I don't think I'd heard their music before. It could have been that I was intrigued by the art on the cover of the album Terraform. In any case,  I did walk out of Mars, a record store that was once located on Mass Ave between Central and Harvard Square, with their album in my hand. This was back in the mid 90's. Great album, but not as great as this one. This one is what sealed the deal for me.

Steve Albini is a relatively well-known recording engineer and producer. He's done work with all sorts of bands, including Nirvana, the Pixies, The Stooges, and Robert Plant/Jimmy Page. He's also a musician in his own right. His band Big Black had a couple of great albums that are highly regarded in the punk/indie music community. Shellac, his current band, has been around for about 15 years, and they release albums every 4-5 years (the members have day-jobs, so-to-speak, and they're not under pressure by their record company to put out music every 6 months, which is the way it should be if you ask me). Albini is also a very polarizing character because of his strong views on the record industry, his recording techniques, and his often-shocking song lyrics. People seem to either worship him, or hate his guts. Me, I just like a lot of the songs he's written, and the way the man plays his guitar.

If you're like me, and are a big fan of Travis Bean guitars, you'll love this album. They're made out of really hard wood, with a metal neck - practically indestructible - and they have that metallic tone that makes them really unique. Many jazz and rock musicians have used these guitars in the 70's and 80's, including the Rolling Stones, PiL, and the Grateful Dead, and more recently, The Jesus Lizard....and Shellac. They stopped producing the guitars in 1979, so there are a limited number of them floating around, and owning one is a real privilege, and the envy of many.

This is the album that reminded me how amazing guitars can sound, and gave me back my faith that guitar-based music still had a lot to offer. If you know a band that uses Travis Bean instruments, go see them live, and you'll hear what I mean right away.

Book Review: The Progress of a Crime

Julian Symons
Awards: Edgar
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –

This book is not a stereotypical murder mystery with a lot of drama and gore. As advertised, it follows the progress of a crime very closely and realistically, from the murder to the trial of the chief suspects. You experience the investigation from the point of view of several people trying to figure out what happened – reporters, policemen, and lawyers. Sometimes they get information through good detective work, and sometimes they get it accidentally. You find out what they know as soon as they know it, and you put the story together with them.

The story had twists that I did not expect, precisely because the twists were caused by what would happen in real life – people being confused, people saying things inarticulately, people not knowing quite what they want or what they are doing.

The story is set in a small city outside of London. A gang of youths acts rowdy and gets thrown out of a dance by a prominent local citizen. A short time later, amid the confusion of a Guy Fawkes Day fireworks and bonfire celebration, the youths come back and manage to stab the prominent local citizen to death. It so happens that Hugh Bennet, a reporter for the local paper, was covering the Guy Fawkes Day bonfire when the murder happened. He thus simultaneously becomes not only an investigator of the crime but also a witness to it.

Bennet isn’t a typical lead character; he is unsure of himself and gets confused like any normal human being. He is a relatively new reporter and tends to romanticize his editor, his job, and his co-workers. He becomes disillusioned with them when a big-time reporter from a London paper comes out to cover the case and gives him a little more perspective. Then, in turn, he gets disillusioned by the big-time reporter as he learns more about his world.

Bennet’s girlfriend is a real person as well; she gets frustrated and doesn’t always act in the best or most attractive way.

The lead detective on the case, Twicker, mishandled a previous case and Scotland Yard has given this one to him as a sort of a test. I thought the whole time it was going to be a stereotypical Hollywood-type story where he was going to pull it out of his hat and dramatically redeem himself to the Yard but, as with everything else in this book, things don’t always go exactly as Hollywood would have you expect.

The lawyers for the prosecution and the defense are charismatic characters but they're not superhuman or brilliant like the ones on Law & Order. They have moments where they shine and moments of trouble, and none of them care particularly about the boys they are prosecuting or defending; they care primarily about their jobs and reputations.

The case does make many of the characters reevaluate their lives and their careers, especially Bennet. But it doesn't tie up neatly or end terrifically happily for everyone. Things come out better for some, worse for others; some find their resolution depressing and others try to make the best of theirs. Just like real life.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

P.J. Woods & Co. Insurance Calendar Weather Forecast Report Card: March 26-31, 2010

Forecast for March 26 - 31
“Sunny and dry – rather windy – gusty winds at times”

Observations at Logan Airport (via Weather Underground)

Date Conditions Precipitation Wind Speed Avg / Gust
March 26 Light rain 0.17" 14 / 32 mph
March 27 Partly Cloudy 0 12 / 24 mph
March 28 Overcast 0 12 / 28 mph
March 29 Rain 1.96" 12 / 39 mph
March 30 Rain 2.93" 21 / 41 mph
March 31 Overcast 0.04" 13 / 20 mph

The forecast was wrong — spectacularly wrong in the case of “sunny and dry” — during a six-day observation period featuring over five more inches of rain that pushed the total for the month to a record-breaking 14.87." On the plus side, it was fairly windy.


Cumulative GPA

What is This
A periodic check-up on the weather forecasts printed at the bottom of a nice big calendar from the P.J. Woods and Co. Insurance Agency, Peabody, Massachusetts.
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