Monday, January 25, 2021

Adventures in Technology

It’s been an interesting week in technology here in Our Little Town, in the liberal arts sense of the term, the way three-headed frogs are … interesting.

Last week I was on the phone with our Internet Company trying to get a different question answered when, for some reason, the person on the other end of the line suggested I do a speed test on our service. “Huh,” he said. “You are paying for a lot more than that. We need to get a tech there to take a look at this.”

Say what you will about their billing department, but the tech support has always been top notch.

They also said they’d send a new modem, which never quite happened and eventually Kim had to go to the Internet Company’s office here in Our Little Town and pick one up directly. It turned out they had no record of this but cheerfully admitted that this did not mean that Kim was wrong and they gave her a new modem anyway, which it turned out did not actually solve the problem.

So last Friday an amiable tech fellow showed up at my door, took a thorough look at everything coming into the house and out of the splitters, replaced the modem again, and said that as far as the Internet Company was concerned everything was fine. He even had me download a speed test app for my phone which showed me getting exactly what I should be getting.

“The problem is somewhere between the router and your computers,” he said. “I think your router’s probably fine, but if you want to check without spending the money for a new one you can rent one from us for a month for $5, and if it solves things you can either keep it and keep paying rent or return it and buy your own. And if it doesn’t solve things you can return it and it’s probably the fact that your computers are So Old.”

Sometimes you can hear the capital letters.

Not that he was wrong, mind you.

So Kim took the old modem back to the Internet Company and the next day she went back and got a new router and we plugged that in and it solved things for Kim but not for me. So the problem was kind of both problems, and if we get a new router for ourselves we can return the Internet Company router and why does this begin to sound like an electronic version of three-card monte? Guess where the connection speed is! This machine? That one? Oooh, sorry, mate – maybe next time?

I do get enough speed to do what I need to do, though, so that’s good, even if my computer is objectively old. So am I, after all.

Which brings us to our second tech crisis, which is that for some time now I have been unable to update my Office software. Microsoft forces you to do that periodically, because if you don’t then you can’t actually use the programs to do anything. I can’t tell you how much I enjoy getting messages saying that I don’t have permission to access files I actually created. But for the last month or so I’ve been getting other messages saying that I can’t update these programs because my OS is too old.

It was, admittedly, three generations back from the current Mac iteration.

I did a little research on macOS11, which is the one that Apple is flogging now. It’s new! It’s wow! It’s shiny! It has no back compatibility with things that are 32-bit! Your bits must be 64 in number! 64 is the number of the bits, and the number of the bits shall be 64! 65 is right out!

I have a lot of older programs, much to nobody’s surprise. I’ve known for years that I need to upgrade my email program, for example, because it hasn’t been supported since 2013 or so, but it took until last week for me to figure out how to transfer all of the thousands of messages over to a different program that would be updated from time to time now. Format changes and all that. But I got it done! It works!

Kind of.

I can read my old emails and receive emails in one program, but I can’t figure out how to send them from there. So I have a different, also updating program, that sends them.

With this I have kicked the can of this problem down the road and can worry about it some other time, probably in 2026.

Also, half the meetings I go to these days are on Webex, which does not function with my old OS anymore. The crashing every 8 minutes or so thing kind of tipped me off about that, and it turns out that this was a known issue.

Why if something is known is it not fixed? I don’t know. Ask the IT guys.

I didn’t really want to upgrade to macOS11, since it is new and therefore not terribly well tested. But it turns out that when you go to Apple’s web page and click on the links to take you to either of the two OS versions between mine and 11 you get taken to either iTunes (if you click on it in Firefox) or the App Store (if you click on it in Safari) and in neither of those places are you actually allowed to download those OS programs that Apple insists are there.

So OS11 it was.

I bit the bullet and downloaded it on Friday. I probably should have done this two weeks ago, prior to the semester starting, but so it goes.





It downloaded and tried to install and kept getting hung up and I went to bed convinced that I had bricked my computer at the start of the semester and trying to figure out how to work around that. This is not a good place to be. Fortunately the next morning the computer had figured things out and was happily booting up just fine.

I’ve been using OS11 since Saturday, and so far it’s been okay. Not many changes that I can tell, which is a recommendation coming from me. The alert sounds are different and I’m sure there are all sorts of features that I am pointedly ignoring, but otherwise it looks and acts mostly like my old computer, which is really what I wanted.

Except that every video chat software program I own (and I have to use three different ones for my various jobs) forgot how to access my mic and camera and screen and required a restart to fix that, including once in the middle of a class I was teaching.

And the program that the Mother Ship Campus uses to allow us to get access to work files from home is incompatible with OS11 – another “known issue” that somehow hasn’t been fixed. So that has been entertaining.

All I want is for it to do what I want. I don’t need it to do everything. Just certain things.

Every time I upgrade, it is a constant struggle to get back to where I was.

We’ll see.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Four Days

It’s been four days since Joe Biden was inaugurated.

Four days without a Constitutional crisis. Four days without the fear of whatever damned fool authoritarian cruelty the previous president would no doubt have spouted in that time period. Four days of knowing that there are adults in charge of the government, that they are giving actual serious attention to the problems this nation faces, and that they intend to pass this nation on to their successors in better shape than they found it.

All of which is a refreshing change.

Honestly, even the air feels cleaner.

Law enforcement is arresting the treasonous insurrectionists who staged the Trump Coup. Various radical right-wing groups, including the Republican Party itself, are either tearing themselves apart or attacking other various radical right-wing groups. The second impeachment trial – this one to be conducted by a Senate that might hold an actual trial rather than simply dismissing the charges without a hearing like the last time – is scheduled to begin shortly, and if our former president is called to defend himself under oath there won’t be enough popcorn in the world.

There are still problems, of course. The pandemic is getting worse and Biden’s administration has to start from scratch in its efforts to fix things because as it turns out there was no plan whatsoever under the previous administration for doing that – none at all. Der Sturmtrumper apparently felt we could all just go ahead and die and quit bothering him for all he cared. The economy is teetering and if things don’t improve soon may well collapse – something that I have no doubt the GOP is actively working toward so they can blame the current administration. Tom Brady is going to another Super Bowl, which in a just society would not be allowed. All sorts of problems.

But there are, as noted, adults in charge again and if they can’t solve everything all at once at least they’re making serious efforts to do so rather than creating more problems to distract us.

I’ll take that. It beats a sharp stick in the eye.

I have no idea where things will go from here.

But for the first time since November 2016 I am going to allow myself to think that maybe, just maybe, things will get better in my country. Maybe not soon. Maybe not everything I want to happen. But a start, at least.

And after four years of overt Fascism being rammed down my throat, yes indeed I will take that.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Truck Stop Memories

Sometime in August 1993 I found myself in a rented truck in Peru, Illinois, with my dad, my brother, and all of my worldly possessions.

This made sense at the time.

The day before my dad and I, along with a couple of my best friends, had cleaned out my Pittsburgh apartment and loaded up the truck in preparation for me moving out to Iowa where I would begin my doctoral program. I had an apartment lined up and ready to go in Iowa City, but there remained the difficulty of getting all my stuff from where it was to where it needed to be.

I had a lot of stuff, much of it books – and if you think books are just paper and therefore ought to be light, you really ought to reconsider and start thinking of them as finely sliced lumber and therefore not light at all. But we got it all into the truck and then hung out in the echoing space of my tiny apartment for a while.

The next morning my dad and I got up early, drove out to the airport to pick up my brother, and then headed west.

The plan was to stop somewhere about two or three hours from Iowa City and spend the night there before traveling on. The midwest was flooded that summer and there was only one bridge open over the Mississippi between Minneapolis and St. Louis – the one we needed on I-80. We figured if we stopped before the floodwaters we would have a better chance of finding a hotel. Plus we’d have the whole day once we got to Iowa City rather than trying to unload in the evening.

Peru was – and for all I know still is – a truck stop town, the kind of place that exists for weary travelers to spend a night before moving on. It has hotels, gas stations, and the sorts of restaurants you’d expect in a truck stop town. There may well be a prettier and more residential Peru somewhere beyond the immediate neighborhood of the interstate exits, but we never found it. Can’t say we looked for it either. We were, after all, weary travelers, and all we needed was a hotel, a gas station, and the sort of restaurant you’d expect in a truck stop town.

The hotel was sufficiently full that they had to open up a wing that had been tightly sealed in order to put us somewhere. They never did turn on the ventilation system that night. It was a hot night. But we gassed up the truck, unloaded our overnight bags, and wandered across the parking lot to a steakhouse called The Pine Cone for dinner.

The Pine Cone had $4 steaks, greasy hash browns, and a teenaged waitress who spent a good portion of the evening at her station a couple of booths over loudly discussing with her colleagues the guy she had fallen asleep under the night before. It was entertainment, I suppose.

We sat there, the three of us, enjoying our meal and our time together.

At some point my dad looked around at the place, paused, and then said to us, “You know, sometimes you just have to stop and ask yourself – how the fuck did I end up here?”

It was a fair question.

We end up in all sorts of places, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not. We go where we need to be to do what needs to be done, or sometimes we just end up there. Sometimes it’s a combination of all that.

But in the end there is the story because that’s all there ever will be, and those who remember the story are part of it for as long as the story is told.

My dad would have been 82 today.

Happy birthday, Dad.

Monday, January 18, 2021

News and Updates

1. Less than two full days before der Sturmtrumper is tossed out on his seditious ass and onto the trash heap of history. He leaves behind a diminished nation, a fragmented system of alliances, a faltering economy, a raging and deadly plague that he actively made worse, a treasonous and growing right-wing extremist movement that has already staged one failed coup and is eagerly working toward the next, the lowest job approval of any president since recordkeeping began, a desperate desire to destroy everything that is worthwhile about the United States that will have him actively sabotaging this nation’s future right up until the nuclear codes are ripped out of his palsied hands and replaced with subpoenas from half a dozen active criminal investigations, and a culture of slime and corruption that will take decades to remove. Naturally his base continues to worship him. It’s going to be a long few years coming up, yes indeed.

2. Now you know why companies escort fired workers from the premises immediately and don’t give them time to wreak havoc. We may need to amend the Constitution (again) to make the inauguration of the next president happen much, much faster.

3. In the meantime, life goes on, as it must.

4. The semester is about to start for at least one of the campuses where I teach. Another never stopped. The third one doesn’t start for two weeks. It has been very difficult to maintain a focus on class prep when there is treason in the air, I have to admit, but I have my nearest classes ready to go and my other class is just waiting for a bit of information that someone else needs to provide, so all in all it’s not a bad position to be in.

5. I’ve managed to get through about half of the bookshelves in my office for my weeding project. I have now conceded that I will never get a tenure-track position – that the adjunct life is for me, whether that was my goal or not – so a lot of books that “might be useful someday” have now lost their “someday” and can go to someone else. I’ve got eight boxes of books in the mudroom waiting to be donated to somewhere and honestly you can’t really tell. I consider that a sign of a life well lived, to be honest. I still need to go through the other half of the bookshelves, but as noted the semester is about to start and there will be precious little time for such projects.

6. Which is a shame because my computer has now reached the point where I must update the OS if I want any of the other programs to update. I had planned to make that change over break, but of course never did. So now I’m sitting here thinking about whether I want to go from macOS 10.13.6 to macOS 11 at the beginning of a term and what the odds are that this will convert my computer into a shiny paperweight. I threw this problem out to my Facebook friends and got some good advice, so perhaps I will follow it. We’ll see.

7. I did manage to get my email transferred over from Entourage (which hasn’t been supported since 2013 or so) over to something that will actually get updates for a while. I consider this a victory. Someday I will figure out how to archive these things, which will make me happy even if most people have no idea why anyone would want to do that.

8. While there were some very nice gifts exchanged among us this holiday season, perhaps the one that has gotten the most use so far is the pet heating pad that we got for our 16-year-old cat. It’s always on at a nice low temperature so it’s not a fire hazard, and the cat has barely moved from it in weeks – “sitting there like a gas station hot dog,” according to Oliver. I’m thinking of changing her name to Ballpark.

9. For several nights last week we had pretty thick fog and below freezing temperatures, which meant that you’d wake up and everything was rimed with ice. It was really beautiful. You need that these days.







10. I took Oliver back to Small Liberal Arts College yesterday. On the one hand, it was nice to spend the time with him in the car, and he’s happy to be back with his group now. On the other hand, it means that we’re down a person here. Also, I had to stop in some tiny little town on the way back to get gas and use the restroom and there wasn’t a single person in that place wearing a mask and seriously what the hell, people? Oh well. I did get to see a bald eagle fly overhead – the second one in less than a week, in two different states – so that was cheering.

11. Now that Lauren is 18 she has officially reached the point where she can make some decisions without us, and the one that she had most been looking forward to making was getting her nose pierced. I realize that I am Old and Uncool but I think it looks nice, really.



12. It’s amazing how many people still have their Christmas lights up. I think people need them more than usual these days.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Thoughts on the Trump Insurrection

On January 6, 2021, the United States of America was attacked by internal enemies.

A violent mob of insurrectionists, called together and urged forward by a seditious president, stormed the Capitol and attempted to overturn the legitimate results of a free and fair election in order to install the defeated president in power against the will of the American people. It is the first time in this nation’s history that the peaceful transfer of power was assaulted.

This attempted coup is treason. It is precisely why we have laws, courts, prisons, and armies.

Right-wing mobs roamed the halls of Congress on that day, intent on assassinating elected Representatives, Senators, and the Vice President because they would rather live in a Fascist dictatorship than see the Constitutional process of installing the next president play out. They shit on the floor, stole equipment and artifacts, and demonstrated a level of barbarity that should embarrass any rational adult.

It is telling that at no point in this insurrection did the defeated president consider leaving the White House, a mile and a half away. He knew very well that this was not a threat to him, after all. He refused to do anything to fix the problem for a long time as well, for the same reason.

Every single insurrectionist who set foot inside the Capitol is guilty of treason and subject to arrest, trial and punishment.

The Capitol Police were overwhelmed – at least some of them seemed to welcome the assault – and one of them was killed by an insurrectionist while resisting it. That makes every single insurrectionist who set foot in the Capitol guilty of felony murder and subject to arrest, trial, and punishment.

Every single individual who encouraged the insurrectionists, starting with the outgoing president of the United States, is guilty of sedition at the bare minimum and treason if their participation can be shown to extend to more than just verbal encouragement, and is subject to arrest, trial and punishment.

The more we find out about this assault on the United States, the worse it gets. The tentacles of treason reach far higher than the brute mob that broke into Congress, and as information trickles out it is clear that the mob was simply the most visible sign of a deeper attack on democracy and the American republic itself.

There must be consequences.

These consequences must be swift, thorough, and harsh. Every single insurrectionist, seditionist, and traitor must be made to feel the full weight of justice. They must be face the cold determination of American patriots. They must be reduced to where they will never again trouble the peace of Americans.

During the previous treasonous uprising against the United States, General William Tecumseh Sherman declared that “those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out.” This is a lesson we must heed today.

There must be no pause in the pursuit of justice against this right-wing insurrection against the United States. Insurrection must be crushed and those responsible for it brought to heel.

There are more American troops defending Washington DC today than there are in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. This is what you get when you tolerate Fascism for too long.

The tide turns here, however.

We say to the Fascists, you will not win.

We say to the Fascists, you will not intimidate us.

We say to the Fascists, your time is over.

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

We Were Warned

Eleven months ago, the man who had been Donald Trump’s personal lawyer testified before Congress that Trump would not turn over power peacefully to his successor.





He was roundly dismissed for this as being alarmist.

Today the United States is in the middle of a right-wing coup led by its outgoing president and supported by a disturbingly large portion of the Republican Party and much of his base. The Constitution, the law, and the survival of the United States as a republic hang in the balance.

Trump has repeatedly sought to overthrow the election in the courts, but when the courts demanded evidence of his delusional accusations and received only further delusions they threw out his challenges in some of the most scornful decisions I have ever read, many of which were written by judges Trump appointed. Trump then turned to hysterically tweeting conspiracy theories, fleecing his supporters for donations, shaking down state officials like some third-rate mafioso, openly calling for violence from his right-wing extremist base, and demanding that his vice president simply appoint him to a new term in office.

His minions in Congress have sued to allow the vice president to do this, only to have the courts throw that out as the stupid and seditious nonsense that it is.

And now 12 Republican Senators and over a hundred Republican representatives are going to try to have Congress overturn the freely expressed will of the American people at an event where they have don’t even have the authority to ask questions, let alone take action.

Today Congress and the vice president have exactly three tasks laid out for them by the Constitution.

The Vice President opens the envelopes containing the certified electoral votes sent in by the states and attests that these are the votes sent by the states. It is the states, after all, who control this process under the Constitution.

Congress then verifies that those are indeed the votes certified by the states.
 
The votes are then counted and the winner reported.
 
So long as one candidate has a majority (clearly true in this case), that is ALL they are empowered to do.

In the absence of any controversy within the states (and there is no such controversy in existence since every state has certified one slate of electoral votes in accordance with their state laws at the time of the election) Congress has no right whatsoever to question those votes or to disenfranchise the majority of American citizens who voted. The vice-president, contrary to Trump’s delusional assertions, does not have the authority to decide whether to count the votes or not. The people have voted. The states have certified. The electors have voted. There are no legitimate controversies. There is nothing actionable for Congress to base any demand or motion on. For Congress to do anything other than accept these results and report them out is a clear violation of the law and the Constitution and a treasonous assault on the legitimately elected government of the United States of America.

18 US Code Sections 2384 and 2385 prescribe penalties of fines and up to twenty years imprisonment for such crimes. Just pointing that out for future reference.
 
This didn’t start with Trump. It goes back a long way and is just the culmination of a trend decades in the making.

The right-wing fringe of the Republican Party has been very clear for nearly half a century that it has little use for democracy that the only legitimate votes are Republican votes, the only legitimate candidates are Republican candidates, and the only legitimate victories are Republican victories and in recent years that fringe has become the mainstream of the party. We saw that with decades of systematic voter suppression by Republican legislatures and officials. We saw that when the GOP legislatures of Wisconsin and North Carolina threw toddler-level tantrums at incoming Democratic governors in the last few years. We’re now watching the GOP legislature of Pennsylvania refuse to seat a Democratic state senator despite the fact that his victory has been certified by both Republican state officials and the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court, the only bodies who have any say in that matter.

There are Republican officials who have realized that this has gone too far. Who are belatedly fighting back against the Trump Coup. There are Republican voters who understand that their candidate lost and that's just what happens in a democracy. But they are fighting against their own party and their own leaders, and how that will end is an open question. It is late in the game and the outcome for the United States is not certain.

This is an attempted coup against the United States of America by Trump and his supporters.

It must be opposed by all patriotic Americans, across the board. It must be put down, firmly and utterly. And there must be consequences for those who brought rebellion to this nation.

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Books Read in 2020 - Part IV

Books, Part 4 and Last.

Happy reading to all!

--

Italian Neighbors (Tim Parks)

This is, as Parks explains in a brief afterward, not so much of a travel book as an arrival book, a book about someone who has reached a comfortable end to his travels and has made a new home in a place far from the one where he was raised. An Englishman married to an Italian woman, Parks and his wife are moving into their new flat at 10 Via Colombare in Montecchio – a small village within the general orbit of Verona – when the story opens, and the book follows them over the course of a year as they slowly learn the ways of their neighbors and the village around them. It’s all a bit of a culture shock for him (presumably not so much for his wife). The picture that emerges is of a complex, rather formalized culture of simple and often ad hoc practices, a messy contrariness that endears itself to Parks and makes him want to be more a part of it. He discusses the laws and how they are both revered and ignored. He bottles prosecco with one of the neighbors in his four-flat building and slowly gets friendly with the woman who owns the building – and claims to own his own flat. He and his wife eventually have a baby, which is the ultimate door opener in this insular village where strangers are not particularly unwelcome but not quite accepted either. He grows to love his patch of Italy, and he does a pretty good job of showing you why.

[A Book About My Old Museum] (The Former Assistant Director of that Museum)

This is the second edition of the little history of the museum that I used to run, and like the first it is chock full of photos of the place and provides a nice narrative of the events and people behind it. It’s been long enough since I’ve given a tour that I’m forgetting some of the details so it’s good to have a refresher. And since the last edition they’ve found out a lot more about one of the key historical figures who made the place museum-worthy and it was nice to see that all here. It’s still strange to read a book that has your photo in it and quotes you, though.

After Silence (Voces8)

This is a throwback to an older genre – the album booklet, a genre that is now almost extinct here in the age of the mp3. After Silence is a two-CD collection of both previously released and here premiered works celebrating the 15th anniversary of Voces8 as a vocal group, and it is divided into four sections: Remembrance, Devotion, Redemption, and Elemental. The music itself is gorgeous – I discovered Voces8 shortly before the coronavirus shut everything down in the US and was fortunate enough to see them live just before that happened, and their #livefromhome series was one of the things that made quarantine more bearable as the spring wore on. I even signed up for their At Home Choir project in order to sing their arrangement of Caledonia, though the weight of the semester made that impossible in the end, much to my regret. They are, as I discovered talking with them after February’s concert, kind and gracious people, and I’ve enjoyed getting to know them on Instagram in the one-sided way that this implies. This hard-bound booklet begins with the full Aldous Huxley essay from which the title quote was taken (“After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music”) and then spends time discussing each piece of music in a broader musical and thematic context, as well as providing lyrics and photographs. It’s one of the most impressive examples I’ve seen in this particular format (and it’s not the shortest work on this year’s list of things read), so I thought it was worth putting down here.

Touch (Claire North)

In a train station in Turkey, an assassin kills the young woman that is his target in cold blood yet fails in his mission because the woman was simply a host – a person taken over by another who inhabited her body and who jumped to another body before she died. The jumper needs only the barest touch of skin to make that leap, and they are old – unfathomably old. Thus begins a cat and mouse game as the jumper – referred to as Kepler – and the assassin, who goes by Coyle, first confront each other and then use each other to confront a larger threat: another of the ones who jump, though in this case one who has become a murderer worse than Coyle. Throughout the story there are further stores that Kepler tells – of lives and bodies inhabited, stolen, returned. Hosts can be voluntary or not, but they remember nothing of the time they are inhabited. They simply regain consciousness in a new place, with no idea how they got there. Kepler, at least, prefers to reward hosts if possible – money, clothing, degrees, careers – but isn’t above just using them and fleeing if necessary. There are a lot of Keplers out there, and they will bounce off each other and those who wish them dead throughout this action-packed novel of identity and loss. Who are we really, and what does it mean to be someone else? North’s thoughtful, melancholy prose and deft character building carry you along, and by the end you are immersed in her world even if the questions asked remain unanswered.

The Lord of the Rings (JRR Tolkien)

The Fellowship of the Ring; The Two Towers; The Return of the King

2020 was a year of comfort reading, of returning to old favorites and well-worn pages, and for me there is no book better suited for that category than The Lord of the Rings. I stumbled into The Lord of the Rings in junior high school and got completely absorbed into the lore and history of Middle Earth – nobody does backstory like Tolkien, and it is probably in no small part due to this fact that I became a historian since once you realize that events often have deep roots in time it isn’t that much of a leap to seek them out in the real world as well as in fiction. There was a time when I read this annually, though it has been over a decade since the last time now – the last time, in fact, was when I read it to Oliver, and tucked inside the back cover of my one-volume edition is the map he made to keep track of where everyone was. With all that is on fire in the world at the moment, it seemed a good time to pull it out again. On the surface the story is simple – the One Ring, a talisman of immense power lost millennia ago by its malevolent creator Sauron, has made its way to the Shire and into the hands of Frodo Baggins, a quiet hobbit. He learns that this needs to be destroyed and the only place where that can happen is in Mordor, the heart of Sauron’s domain. He and his companions – Sam Gamgee, Merry Brandybuck, and Pippin Took – set out for Rivendell and there become the heart of the Fellowship of the Ring. The Fellowship heads off toward Mordor, and adventure ensues. But the surface story is just that and there are deeper currents here. This is the last great story of a world thousands of years old, with a multitude of species – Elves, Dwarves, Ents, Hobbits, Orcs, and so on – who are doomed to fade regardless of the outcome of events as the Age of Men dawns (and it is men – women barely seem to exist in Middle Earth). It is therefore a strikingly bittersweet tale of inevitable loss, and in these plague times that is in some ways a comfort.

Ciao, America! An Italian Discovers the US (Beppe Severgnini)

It’s always interesting to see what people from other places think of your own country, and the US has inspired travelers to do this since Francis Trollope and Alexis de Toqueville published their own very different impressions of the country in the 1830s. Beppe Severgnini is an Italian journalist who moved to Georgetown – a quiet western neighborhood of Washington DC in 1994 – and spent a year there learning American ways and filtering that experience through his “Italian head.” He finds Americans to be polite, rational, and in many ways inscrutable, and he seems to enjoy his time in the US. It’s strange reading these impressions of a quarter century ago – the technology has changed significantly, for example, and I doubt he would describe Americans as being quite as enamored of science and practical, functional politics in our current age of Dominionist frenzy and ideological fanaticism – and even his postscript only extends to 2000. He’s an astute observer, though, and if you can put your mind back into that time period it’s a refreshingly lightweight journey through an America that in some ways we no longer inhabit but which remains, in others, there underneath. I read this during the slow-motion right-wing coup attempt that followed the November presidential election and it was a pleasant break from current events.

Life in a Medieval City (Joseph and Frances Gies)

This is an older book, first published in 1969, but it remains a fairly good social history of what daily life was like in the medieval city of Troyes in 1250, in what would eventually become France. It walks you through the basics of city life – church services and the building of the cathedral, family life, education, town governance, business small and large – and then goes through some of the more extraordinary things, some of which are specific to Troyes such as the giant fairs that gave the city its prosperity and some of which are more general such as warfare and other broad disasters. It’s a popular history meant for a general audience so it reads through pretty quickly, and it was a nice way to spend some time in a world so removed from our own as to be almost wholly alien and yet disconcertingly familiar.

What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained (Robert L. Wolke)

This book is exactly what it says it is – a collection of questions regarding food preparation and kitchen appliances that the author answers in an engaging and scientifically sound manner. It started out life as a newspaper column, apparently, which is why the answers tend to be short and punchy, and Wolke is a former chemistry professor at the University of Pittsburgh so you know his answers are more than just the usual food blogger nonsense one has to wade through to get to an online recipe these days. The answers are grouped into chapters on sugar, salt, fat, “chemicals in the kitchen” (a huge pet peeve of a phrase to any chemist), meats, beverages, and kitchen equipment, and even after cooking for myself for the last thirty five years I managed to learn a few things and be entertained in the process so it’s definitely a book worth reading.

Only in America (Harry Golden)

Harry Golden once described himself as a simultaneous member of three different minorities – a Yankee, a liberal, and a Jew – all of which he wore on his sleeve in post-WWII North Carolina. He was the editor and sole contributor of the Carolina Israelite, a more or less monthly paper that he filled with stories of his upbringing in the Jewish neighborhoods of early 20th century New York City where he and his family had emigrated to from Eastern Europe in the early years of the 20th century and with his thoughts on the current issues of the day, as well as his views on literature (Golden was a friend of Carl Sandburg, who wrote the preface for this book, and had some interesting things to say about Shakespeare), education, politics, and humanity in general. This collection of pieces from the Israelite reflects those concerns. There is a lot on the Situation of the Jew in a world not all that far removed from the Holocaust. There is even more on the Negro Question, as it was often delicately phrased in the Jim Crow South of 1958, when this book was published – it is, in fact, the largest section of the book. Golden was a tireless needler of bigots of all kinds, as his “Vertical Negro Plan” demonstrates (he noted that Southern whites didn’t seem to have any problems with black people who were standing up in public places, so perhaps if the chairs were removed from schools and other such institutions then desegregation would be less controversial). There are a surprising number of positions he takes that might as well have been written today. His complaints about modern students – that they don’t read books, that they don’t know what his generation considered to be important things to know, that their parents no longer fear teachers but instead make the teachers fear them – could have been pulled off any news site today, for example, and his description of the eager willingness of conservatives to support authoritarianism so long as the people they hate were being hurt (“The conservatives nearly always tolerate the demagogue while he is destroying liberals”) even if they were themselves also being hurt is as apt a description of the Trump years as any I’ve read. This particular copy of the book was purchased as a gift and inscribed from the giver, which I always find fascinating to read.

Saturn’s Children: A Space Opera (Charles Stross)

Freya Nakamichi is an android – don’t say “robot,” it’s considered a slur – who was designed as a sentient sex doll for human masters except that humans went extinct centuries ago, so she and all of the other androids have just had to create their own society to compensate. Before humans died out they had created colonies throughout the solar system, and none of the action of this noirish novel happens on Earth. The story opens with Freya sitting on the edge of a floating colony high above Venus contemplating suicide before being goaded back into living, if only for spite or revenge, by an arrogant aristo – one of the android elite who hold most of their kind in slavery. From there Freya’s story takes her from Mercury to Mars and beyond, sometimes one jump ahead of her pursuers and sometimes not. As with any noir there are deceptions, double-crosses, and occasional interludes of violence. One of the interesting things about this novel is that Stross doesn’t bother creating new ways to travel – interplanetary travel takes weeks or even years, which creates strains on the characters as they are often out of touch for long periods of time. Stross namechecks a number of people and concepts in here so there are always a few easter eggs for the interested – both John Scalzi and Robert Heinlein get places named after them, for example. It’s a fast-moving plot with some interesting things to say about free will, sex, and social stratification, and while it’s not one of his best novels even middling Stross is worth reading.

Neptune’s Brood: A Space Opera (Charles Stross)

This is a follow-up more than a sequel to Saturn’s Children, and a much better story than the first one. It’s set in the same universe – a post-human cosmos populated by androids, though in the millennia since Saturn’s Children humans (“the Fragile”) have been recreated (not that they play any particular role here) – and it has the same overall noirish tone, but the storytelling is sharper and the events more interesting. Krina Alizon-114 is a mendicant scholar researching arcane forms of lost debts when we meet her. She’s just arrived at one planet and is eager to move on to the next one. And from there the story spirals out into deceit, betrayal, history, piracy, and a surprisingly large amount of Stross explaining what money is and how it works, particularly how it could work across the immense interstellar space of the cosmos where distance implacably eats up time. It is a testament to Stross that he keeps that interesting. There is a vast unclaimed debt out there, possibly the result of the universe’s greatest fraud. Krina and her sibs are trying to track it down. Her lineage mater – a powerful and vindictive sort – does not want this to happen. And therein hangs a tale. As with Saturn’s Children there are a lot of allusions for those able to catch them, my favorites being 1) the Bezos worms, which are parasites living off the bodies of others, and 2) the Permanent Crimson Branch Office Five Zero, a piratical firm of spacefaring robot accountants that any Monty Python fan will find amusing. Nobody is who they appear at first, and Krina will bounce from planet to cathedral to pirate ship to the watery depths of an alien world and off again in pursuit of, well, probably the debt, though more the story around it. Stross manages to put a lot of goofy action into a story with a lot of serious economics and it is a strangely charming tale, mostly due to Krina, whose first-person narration is always engaging, and Rudi, the leader of the Permanent Crimson, a rogue and a gentleman.

Running With Scissors: A Memoir (Augusten Burroughs)

Augusten Burroughs was systematically let down by every adult in his life as a child. His father was an emotionally abusive alcoholic who mostly ignored him while his mother was a selfish psychotic prone to mental breakdowns, and they loathed each other until – and probably after – they divorced. Eventually at 13 he was sent to live with his mother’s psychiatrist, a man who should probably have not been allowed anywhere near children but who collected them along with other former and current patients in his big ramshackle house where rules were non-existent. Burroughs details the chaos of living there in fine detail – the friends he made (particularly Hope, the most stable of the residents, and Natalie, with whom he seems to have been closest) and his coming out as gay and falling into a sexual relationship at 14 with a much older man. As a parent this was a difficult book to slog through because I spent much of my time wanting to club every so-called adult in this book with a baseball bat, and even Burroughs eventually comes to the realization that none of this is doing him any good. There’s no particular redemption arc for anyone in this book with the possible exception of Natalie, though you suspect that Burroughs himself ended up at least somewhat okay. Enough to write a memoir, anyway. It’s well written from a literature point of view, but I can’t say I found it as hilarious as the reviewers on the back cover did.

Clanlands: Whisky, Warfare, and a Scottish Adventure Like No Other (Sam Heughan and Graham McTavish, with Charlotte Reather)

Sam Heughan and Graham McTavish are actors, and if you’ve ever seen the show Outlander you’ll recognize them. I haven’t actually seen that show (or read the books), so I was at somewhat of a disadvantage with this book, but honestly not much of one – while they reference the show a great deal (and Diana Gabaldon, author of the original Outlander books, wrote the forward for this one) it’s not really about Outlander so much as it is about what Outlander was based upon and the adventures of two Scotsmen trying to reconnect to that here in the modern world. The basic setup – which eventually became a television show called Men In Kilts – is that Sam and Graham would spend several weeks touring the Scottish Highlands in their small RV (a vehicle whose purported model name becomes progressively more varied and entertaining as the book wears on), visiting sites that appear in the Outlander series while providing both actual Scottish history and context as well as some serious buddy comedy. The book is told in multiple first-person sections (Charlotte Reather did an astonishingly good job of weaving together each Scotsman’s narrative into a coherent whole). Sam is younger, more impetuous, ever eager to mess with Graham’s head in a very British “taking the piss” sort of way. Graham is grouchy, more cautious, and gives as good as he gets. You can tell that they genuinely like each other, and that they probably spent much of the time breaking each other’s balls and then laughing about it. They visit quite a few amazing places – the chapter on Culloden Field is worth the price of the book itself – and meet all sorts of interesting people along the way, but the real joy of the book was listening in on, as Gabaldon put it, “two good friends banter (and bicker) their way across the Scottish Highlands, risking life and limb in that casual way that makes men attractive.” This book was a Christmas present from Kim, and a lovely way to spend a quiet holiday. Now I want even more to go to Scotland and stay there for a good long time.

Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things that Happened (Allie Brosh)

I found Allie Brosh’s cartoons when everyone else did, back in 2012 or so, and I missed them when she decided to leave the internet for most of the following decade. She’s back now with a new book of her delightfully off-kilter and deeply introspective illustrated stories so it seemed a good time to reread her first one, and what a long strange dive into another human being’s mind it is. Brosh was apparently a strange child and she struggles with depression, but she has a talent for viewing the world from a different angle and translating that experience into stories that make you laugh and wince at the same time. I’m glad she is back on enough of an even keel to write more of these and I will no doubt find her second book soon. But reading this one was more than enough to remind me why I enjoyed her stories so much and why I wish her well.

Morris (Mary Daniels)

If you are anywhere near my age, you remember Morris the Cat – the big orange tom who starred in any number of commercials for 9 Lives cat food back in the 1970s. Given the era, it was perhaps inevitable that somebody at 9 Lives would commission a celebrity tell-all biography as a PR stunt, and this is what resulted. It’s quick (less than a hundred pages), breathless in the style of the genre, and it straddles the line between cringy sincerity and spot-on parody so effortlessly that it’s hard to know which side it falls on or whether that distinction is meaningful at all. It has back-cover review quotes from Rona Barrett, Doris Day, and Rex Reed, interior photographs with Betty White (who was old even then), Burt Reynolds, and Dyan Cannon, and – tucked away beneath the over-the-top celebrity glitz – a short little biography of a memorable cat. Rescued from a shelter in Hinsdale, Illinois for a one-time job in a mattress commercial, he found his big break selling cat food. As a kid I was just fascinated with Morris and, for the princely sum of a few labels from 9 Lives cat food cans and a self-addressed, stamped envelope, I ended up with this book. I think it came with a t-shirt, too, which I have long since lost. I found the book in my office the other day, and it was a pleasant reminder of a simpler and sillier time.

The Lathe of Heaven (Ursula K. LeGuin)

What if you really could change the world by dreaming? Would that be a good thing, or a bad thing? For George Orr, it is something that has driven him to drug abuse and, from there, to court-ordered therapy. It’s 2002 – roughly thirty years after this book was published, so the near future as far as George is concerned – and the world is not in a good way. Overpopulation, climate change, and general resource depletion have made the world in general, and Portland OR in particular, a much poorer and more crowded place. George simply wants his new psychologist, Dr. Haber, to help him stop the “effective dreams” – the dreams that change reality – but Dr. Haber wants to use them to make the world a better place. But what is better? And for whom? Every time George has one of these dreams, reality changes – and not just in the present. It’s always been different, and only George can remember anything otherwise. It’s definitely not an accident that George’s last name is Orr – LeGuin does make the obvious “Either/Orr” comment at one point – and it’s probably not an accident that his first name is George, as there is a strong undercurrent of Orwellian Newspeak in the book. Eventually it becomes hard for George to keep up with the multiple realities and overlapping memories, as every attempt by Dr. Haber to improve the world runs into George’s innate resistance and the law of unintended consequences. In some realities there’s a love interest as well – a lawyer named Heather – and in others (some overlapping) there are aliens, and for a short book there’s a lot here.

Solutions and Other Problems (Allie Brosh)

One of the great joys of marriage is that your partner gets to know you pretty well, and thus as if on cue this book came to me as a Christmas present from Kim. In some ways this is a continuation of Brosh’s earlier book – the same off-kilter artwork, the same perspective that comes at the world from a rather different angle than the one most people take – but in others it’s very different. It’s more thoughtful, and while there are some laugh-out-loud moments, there are also some heartbreaking ones. Brosh’s life has not been gentle in the interval since her last book, and she writes about it with the deadpan honesty of someone who has been through the wringer and is still working her way back toward acceptance. If there is a theme to the book it is that life is unfair and pointless and we should learn to accept it that way, which is pretty heavy for a book centered on cartoons and commentary but which works because Brosh seems to have taken that to heart herself.

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Total Books: 73
Total Pages: 22,460
Pages per day: 61.4

Happy reading!