• Category Archives cultural ramblings
  • Books, movies, music…

  • Playing Catch-up: Reading

    I haven’t posted much lately about what I’m reading. That may be because my recent reading list has not been especially interesting, but there were a few gems in there:

    • Pastoralia, by George Saunders: I got this while we were in Vermont, but I had to put it down for a bit, it was just too intense and disturbing. It’s from about 2000 and is basically a bunch of short stories, one of them more like a novella, that start out in the stressed-out mundane but then take a turn into surrealism or horror. Really good, very intense; not for reading just before bed.
    • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Phillip K. Dick: Another vacation purchase, but I finished it while we were away. A fast read, and the inspiration for “Blade Runner” (though it was very, and surprisingly different), this was the story of yet another dystopia, and though parts seemed hokey and dated, the story stuck with me.
    • The War of the Gods, by Poul Anderson: Not a gem. I got this at the library and am almost done, and I can’t wait for it to be finished. It’s supposed to be a retelling of some Norse saga, but it manages to be incredibly tedious. The book is also inconsistent: it drags out, for pages on pages, with some things that should have been covered in a paragraph, then cuts some crucial scenes, down to a sentence or two, that would have been been better served by a few pages of elaboration. I’m now down to about 30 pages and will finish, but it’ll be a chore.
    • Foundryside, by Robert Jackson Bennet: I’m just starting with this one, and it seems OK so far though it reads like YA literature. At least it’s not a chore…

  • At The Library

    I’m blogging from the library right now, where some doofus keeps making noise by moving his chair and bumping into the heat vents, another keeps coughing, and there’s a constant chatter from somewhere near the front. Whatever happened to quiet??

    Meantime, my book quest continues. I got a recommendation for local author Carmen Machado, but the library doesn’t have her, so I picked up War of the Gods by Poul Anderson and Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett; neither book is on my “recommended” list, but both authors have books on the list, so I guess that’s close enough… By the way I returned Surface Detail today, mostly unread.

  • Readings

    I’ve been on another sci-fi binge lately, going through the “suggested reading” list I keep on my phone, and getting what books I can from the library (or, failing that, checking out books by the same authors). So far it’s worked out pretty well:

    First on my list was Daniel O’Brian’s Stiletto, which read like a more comic version of China Mieville, or a supernatural detective/spy thriller, or even a “buddy movie” kind of story: a quick, fun, “chewing gum for the brain” kind of read. (“Fast-paced romp” is also a phrase that comes to mind, and I might have even seen it on the book jacket.) It’s a sequel, which I didn’t know, and it seemed a disappointment to reviewers who read the first book; maybe that means I have another, even better book on my radar.

    My next recommendations were books by the author Iain M. Banks. The library did not have any of the specific books recommended to me, but I found a few others (Transition, Look to Windward, and Matter) and really liked them.

    I am now reading his Surface Detail, and unfortunately I don’t like it nearly as much as the others. Some of this may be that I read so many of his books at once that they became too much of a good thing, or maybe it’s just that some of the premises of this book are annoying — the story involves people whose personalities have been posthumously uploaded into a digital afterlife, including punishment in a digital “Hell,” and I have never been able to suspend my disbelief that a copy of someone, no matter who it thinks it is, is the original person: the transporter on Star Trek is a killing machine, and Roko’s Basilisk is a meaningless thought exercise. Surface Detail does seem to have a theme, or motif, of people being punished for the crimes of others, so I still have to see where this all goes.

    I’ve also been doing a bit of nonfiction, including a bit of local history as well as some STEM things (data science, etc), though these have been dryer and less interesting than I expected. All in all though, it’s all been better than the hate-read of H.P. Lovecraft’s collected works I put myself through last month.

  • SuperWolf BloodMoon

    We watched the lunar eclipse the other night, going out every half hour or so for quick peeks — it was cold out! — until just a little after midnight. We used binoculars to get more detail, and we had a perfect view. We caught the very first appearance of the shadow, watched the gradually growing coverage until it was complete and the Moon was a dark red ball, and finally saw the shadow begin its retreat before we called it a night. (We saw photos later where the occluded Moon looked blue, but for us it was red, a deep and rusty, almost brownish red.) The show was awesome in all senses of the word, and “Superwolf Bloodmoon” sounds like a great name for a band — maybe names for two bands…

    Updating The Databases

    I’ve been updating my Sals trail map in QGIS, and I think I now have most of the new trail name/blaze changes, definitely all the changes I could verify on the ground, documented. I’m working on actually making a big paper map from all my data, which requires that I now learn some actual cartography skills. I put that project away to let it simmer for a while, and went back to my list of trail amenities.

    In terms of actual, usable data, that list is a hot mess: restaurants and bars have closed or changed names, new establishments have opened, many long-established places were still missing from the list (because they were never on OpenStreetMap, my primary source), and, worst of all, most of the amenities had no other information than name and location. I spent a good part of the last few days adding and removing establishments, and finding phone numbers and other contact info, and generally updating the list. I still have a ways to go, but Bethlehem is starting to look complete.

    The final database update was for my family tree, which I maintain in GRAMPS genealogy software. (The problem was that I might have “intercalated” an imaginary person into the tree: there is a Dorothy Murphy in my database, a distant cousin who might have had a niece Dorothy Mahoney, and either Dorothy Mahoney married Tom Hagenberg, or Dorothy Mahoney never existed and it was Dorothy Murphy who married Tom Hagenberg. My database had the “Dorothy Mahoney is real” version.)

    This issue came up a few years ago in conversation with my parents, but I never got around to fixing it in GRAMPS, and eventually forgot which version was correct. I happened to be looking at old photos the other day though, and there was Dorothy Hagenberg, handing out cake at a child’s birthday party in the late 1940’s, and the whole thing was back in my face… A little email correspondence this week with Mom got the family tree straightened out, and fixing it in GRAMPS was surprisingly easy — Dorothy Mahoney is no more. There’s a lot of missing information in this database as well, but at least that one known error has been corrected.

    Cello Time

    My cello playing has been coming along, not in leaps and bounds but I am progressing… I’ve got a few songs under my belt now, and I am working on possible duets with Anne, and my lessons are starting to get beyond the very basics — I’m now working on the regular basics…

  • Cognitive Drift: Avalon

    The Roxy Music song “Avalon” just started playing on the radio, just as I was drifting through Wikipedia from Arthurian legends (mentioned as a 13th-century development in that Medieval Europe book I’m reading), to Celtic Languages, to Hallstatt and La Tene cultures. I was looking at the city of Hallstatt, Austria and thinking “what a lost paradise that must have been,” when the song came on, and it reminded me of the scene in World War Z where the college students held out against 10,000 zombies. Nothing really special or insightful, just some things that came together to make a moment.

  • Some Photos

    We got out for some walks a few weeks ago, and one of the walks took us through Nisky Hill Cemetery. This is one of the places where our friend Deb does her “walkabouts,” hiking around town and taking photos — she’s a prodigious walker with an enormous stride, and she has an incredible, artist’s eye for great shots. I might not have her skill or her eye (I don’t even walk that fast), but if you put me in the right place with a camera, even I might come home with a couple of keepers. Here are my favorites from that walk:

    The old Bethlehem Steel mills and blast furnaces look like they’re practically on top of the cemetery, but they’re on the other side of the Lehigh River. (By the way, this “looking down the hill at a giant industrial site, in a valley by a river” is a very Pennsylvania thing for me.)

    We took another walk a few days later, up the hill and through the University, up stairways past ancient stone buildings and frat houses, and at the top we explored Mr. Imagination’s sculpture garden, now starting to fall apart in the woods.

  • Pay Dirt

    For the past few weeks, I’ve been in a sort of dry spell when it comes to books; everything I’ve picked lately up has ranged from unsatisfying (Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology) to downright unpleasant (The Complete Works of H.P. Lovecraft). That all changed with today’s trip to the library, where I found not one but four intriguing reads:

    Ghost Stories of the Lehigh Valley, by Charles J. Adams III and David J. Seibold. This is probably the only real B-lister in the lot, but it’s still not that bad, and full of local lore.

    Professional WordPress: Design and Development, by Brad Williams, David Damstra, and Hal Stern. I’ve read a bunch of beginner books on using WordPress; this one delves into the WordPress architecture and underlying software.

    Medieval Europe, by Chris Wickham. Medieval history is not new territory for me, but the author here makes it new by looking at it from a “structural,” maybe even a Marxist analytical viewpoint, tracing the economic, social and cultural underpinnings of medieval society, including the world lived in by peasants, and women, and ordinary people as well as the usual knights and kings.

    Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, by Cathy O’Neil. Written “from the inside” by a mathematician and former Big Data professional, the title basically says it all.


  • Getting The Band Back Together

    Well, I did it — I started taking cello lessons again. I was flirting with this for a while, but only made the decision last week, and I called my old teacher over the weekend. She’s is no longer taking students, but she did have an alternate for me, a woman named Marge who teaches at Twin Rivers Music in Easton. (As a former NJ resident, and former Easton resident, I’m going to cringe every time I hear that name.) Today was my first lesson.

    Despite its unfortunate name, Two – er, Twin Rivers is pretty legit: music and instruments on the sales floor, studios in the back; it was busy, and bigger than I expected, and my new teacher seems really pleasant. We talked a bit about my goals, my reason for wanting to play cello — basically so I can play for fun, with Anne and others — and she explained her teaching approach and how it would address those goals. In terms of playing? I’m not exactly starting over, but the situation is pretty close to that: I picked things up today about halfway through my original first lesson book.

  • Trail Summit

    So Sunday (last Sunday, not yesterday) was a recreational day for the Eastern PA Trail Summit, and I had an invite — a free pass really, courtesy of the D&L — to the whole event, so I rode to Easton to check out the Canal Boat ride and the industrial history tour. Both were awesome despite my stubbed toe…

    (Both events were informative, but while anyone can get a picture of canal boat life from what’s currently on display, and it’s common knowledge that there were once many factories along the canal, it was truly eye-opening to have someone point and say, “right there was a giant textile mill, and in that empty field there was once a blast furnace, in fact that boulder is what’s left of its foundation.”)

    Very cool, and here are some photos from Sunday:

    Scott S was also at the park that day, doing a kid’s bike ride with the Easton Police. That was pretty cool, and nice to see some cycling friends there with their kids.

    The Trail Summit proper was Monday and Tuesday. I had no real idea of what to expect — I actually had to look up what a “breakout session” was, and what the difference was between “keynote” and “plenary” speakers — but they were two awesome, informative and inspiring days.

    I learned a new term – “inland port,” sigh — from Northampton County Executive Lamont McClure, who spoke of it as one of several competing visions for the Lehigh Valley (as opposed to “nice place with trails,” I suppose), and the keynote speaker, a woman who thru-hiked the AT and spoke of it as a life-changing experience, made me realize that the Lehigh Towpath changed my life as well. There were morning sessions on redesigning roads to accommodate trail sections, and afternoon sessions on marketing your town to trail users, and a cyclist, the speaker for Tuesday’s lunch, said we need more amenities and signage. Amen brother!

    There was a dinner Monday night at the National Museum of Industrial History, so of course we all toured the museum. Here are a few photos:

    Not everyone was an awesome speaker, even if their ideas were good, and not every session was informative — there were a few I actually disagreed with — but all in all, it was an awesome conference.

  • Readings: A Look Back

    We stocked up on books for our vacation trips, and picked up more along the way, so I have quite a backlog of book reports:

    Solar Bones, by Mike McCormack. Anne borrowed this from the library and liked it a lot, so I borrowed it from her to bring to Michigan. This is a novel, written in a sort of internal monologue — there is a definite structure or format based on paragraphs, but there are no periods and the whole book might technically be a single sentence — of an Irish engineer reminiscing about his life, his work and his family. It’s built on plenty of flashbacks and a growing feeling of tension or dread, and has a surprise twist at the end. The unusual writing was interesting (until it became second nature and faded into the background), and the characters were interesting as well, but the story itself did not really grab me. I’m glad I read it, but this book was a chore to finish.

    You Are Here, by Hiawatha Bray. Another one from the library. Subtitled “from the compass to GPS, the history and future of how we find ourselves,” this was nonfiction, an account of the history of navigation. The first chapter or two covered that history up to about 1900 — ancient navigation, the Problem of the Longitude, and so on — and the rest covered the development of radio and radar navigation, satellites, and GPS, from there looking at the ubiquitous use of GPS in smartphones. I found this on the library shelf while I was trying to find something — anything — on GIS or cartography as an art, so it really wasn’t what I was looking for, but it was well written and interesting; the only complaint I had was that it was more the story of the people involved in the discoveries/inventions, especially the more modern ones, and came across as if they had been interviewed for the book or something. It read a bit like a long piece of journalism, and I wasn’t surprised to find that the author is primarily a journalist.

    The Boy on the Bridge, by M. R. Carey. I bought this one at an Ann Arbor bookstore; it’s by the same author as The Girl With All The Gifts, and happens in the same postapocalyptic, fungus-zombie storyworld. Like The Girl With All The Gifts, it reads like young-adult fiction — and also like The Girl With All The Gifts it features a highly gifted, but also seriously flawed, young protagonist, someone a young adult might identify with — but it was a fun, fast read. I guess I just like zombie apocalypses…

    The “Imperial Radch” Trilogy, by Anne Leckie. We were home for a few days between trips and I was really at a loss for a good new book, so I read these three again. One a day: Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy, all really good reads and I’m surprised I never reviewed them before. The basic story follows Breq, an “ancillary” — an augmented human, a soldier whose previous mind has been destroyed and replaced by a link to an interstellar battleship’s AI. Ancillaries are the battleship’s crew and combat troops; Breq was once a part of the Justice of Toren, but the ship was destroyed by treachery and she is the ship, all that’s left of it, and she seeks revenge. Her nemesis is Anaander Mianaai, who inhabits hundreds of cloned, mentally-linked bodies, and who for three thousand years has been leader of the Radch. But now the Radch is in decline, and civil war explodes as Anaander’s hive mind fragments into warring factions… The story is part swashbuckling space opera, part meditation on identity and gender (the Radchi do not differentiate between genders), and it’s a page-turner across all three books.

    The Genius Plague, by David Walton. Another fungus-zombie apocalypse story, I bought this one at a late-night bookstore in Columbus, Ohio. I think the basic premise here is good — a fungus from the Amazon starts infecting human brains, making them super smart but also driving their behavior, linking them into a vast, mind-controlled army trying to take over the world — but the storyline has too many coincidences, the ending is too pat, and the protagonist is a young, somewhat dickish prodigy, someone an immature audience is likely to identify with. (It didn’t really read like YA literature though.) I have my complaints, but it was a fun read.

    The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guinn. I also got this at that late-night bookstore, and I’m still working my way through it. I won’t get into the basic story, since it’s a classic and reviews can be found everywhere, but I will say that I’m surprised at how modern it feels for a book that came out around around 1970. The midgame is a bit slow compared to how the story started, but I am enjoying it.

    The Rise of Yeast, by Nicholas P. Money. Another non-fiction book from the library, subtitled “how the sugar fungus shaped civilization,” and I am really not much past the introduction but it looks good so far. Another mind-altering fungus story?