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

  • Fun With Alice And Bob

    I moved my SSH and PGP certificates to my new machine, and setting them up meant visiting a few cryptographic sites (to remember how to do it, and also just because). That means I spent a lot of time in that world, where “Alice” and “Bob” (and so on, alphabetically) are the main actors in usage scenarios: Alice sends a message to Bob, but maybe Clara intercepted it, how does Bob know the message is secure? Well, Alice encrypts her message and signs it with… Tedious, tedious, but now it’s done, and I can securely access my online accounts as well as send/receive encrypted email, which is sort of like being the only person with a phone — who can you call? — but still: I once thought it was cool, and now I have it back.

    Auld Acquaintance

    This past weekend was sort of the end of the holiday season for us: we saw friends we’d missed during the holidays. Friday night we did some bar-hopping with Doug & Lori, then Saturday was a “Festivus party” at Eric & Kris’s place (where we saw D&L again) lots of catching up and the usual merriment, it was a really nice night.

    Movie Night

    We saw “Uncut Gems” the other night. I don’t recommend it: the acting and the cinematography were all good, but the characters (especially the protagonist) were annoying and unsympathetic, and the plot, as Anne put it, was “a 2-hour panic attack.” Ugh.

  • Divorce Story

    We saw Marriage Story last night over at SteelStacks. I’d heard a lot of good things about it, and it was really a good movie, but it was not a feel-good story. The basic gist is that it follows one couple through their divorce and custody battle, always a knee-slapper…

    Basically a character study (of the couple as individuals, and as a couple), the movie had some really good acting, fueled by serious star power — Scarlet Johannson and Adam Driver, plus Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta and Wallace Shawn (that guy from The Princess Bride). Unfortunately, the movie tended to “showcase” the actors at times, almost as if it were a vehicle for a break-out star, or multiple ones.

    The plot itself was a bit boring. Conflict is at least the precursor to drama, or should be, and conflict was baked into the story, but this thing moved like a sporting event you couldn’t care less about: sooner or later it will end, with some final score, and everyone will move on. And that’s what happened — the lawyers even advised their clients that this would be so.

    In the end, I’m glad I saw this, but my final take-away is that its makers think it’s better than it really is.

  • Not Quite The Borg

    One more piece of software I added: Jaspersoft Studios, a program to design and generate reports from various data sources. I use this because — unlike other report programs I have tried — it works well with PostgreSQL, the database I like to use, but it can be a bear to use since it has a lot of moving parts.

    There are two ways to use Jasper Reports: one is as a standalone program, and the other is as a plug-in to the Eclipse IDE, which I happen to like using, and which I use nowadays for almost all my coding. I downloaded the standalone program first, but it looked so much like an Eclipse product it reminded me that there was a plug-in — this would be just one more thing that I could run from my single IDE to rule them all. So, I installed the plugin.

    What I got, plug-in and standalone package, was version 6.10, and it really looked beautiful. Unfortunately, as soon as I started to use it, I found that it was too broken to use… Jasper Reports is mostly like a graphical page layout program, where text and other elements can be moved and resized on the page, but the elements here wouldn’t move or resize. Which is bad.

    It took me a day to find information on the problem. I never did find a solution but I did find a workaround: just use an earlier version. That’s what I did, installing standalone version 6.8; Eclipse will have to wait until I learn how to add older plug-ins.

    Anyway, the program works fine now, and still looks beautiful. I used it today to make a table of bike rides from my database, natch.


    I just got the latest Jeff VanDermeer novel, Dead Astronauts. This is set in the same story-universe as his Borne and A Strange Bird, and some of his short stories, but it is supposedly far more complex and experimental. More on this after I get through the first page…

  • Pigbag? Pigbag!

    I remember, mid-eighties or so, whenever I went into an unfamiliar NYC club, there were a few songs I might hear when walking in that would immediately let me know that it was the right kind of place. One song in particular was ubiquitous, but I never knew the name, haven’t heard it in years — I expected to never find what it was. They just played it on the radio: the band was called Pigbag, and the song: “Papa’s Got a Brand New Pigbag.”

    Happy Thanksgiving, everybody! And may all your dreams come true…

  • Some Recent Books

    The Rook by Daniel O’Malley

    This was the first book by the author of Stiletto (my review here), and set in the same story world: a secret British agency, whose supernaturally gifted and specially-trained agents battle supernatural threats, is itself under attack. The protagonist, Myfawny Thomas, is a low-level member of the agency leadership who wakes up in a park in ominous circumstances, but with no memory of who she is. She never does recover her memory, but a letter in her pocket (written by her “old self”) helps her put her life back together and track down who, or what, is threatening her and the agency. Like the sequel, this was another fast-paced thriller, but it seemed darker, more serious and thriller-like, than Stiletto. I think I liked it better.

    The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

    This is the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, which depressed me no end when I read it. I found The Testaments to start the same depressing way — the world that’s built here is not a pleasant or happy one — but the book slowly morphs into an action/suspense/thriller. The first half took a while, but I finished the second half in about a day. I’d recommend this to anyone who liked the first book, or who liked the TV series, or Margaret Atwood’s writing.

  • I Heard You Paint Houses

    We saw The Irishman on Saturday night. More than three hours long, but we (with the exception of my bladder) hardly even noticed — when we got out of the theater we were amazed to find that it was midnight. Great movie.

    The story itself was compelling: Frank Sheeran, aged and living in a nursing home, tells his story through many flashbacks, how he went from trucker, to hit man, to being Jimmy Hoffa’s bodyguard/enforcer, and eventually to being Hoffa’s murderer. A true story, or mostly true — it’s based on a biography of Sheeran, a sort of “as told to” kind of thing written just after his death, and though many of the historic events were real, his involvement in them may have been embellished or fabricated. Compelling, but controversial — let’s just call it “historical fiction.”

    This story was supported by some great acting too: Robert DeNiro as Sheeran, Joe Pesci as his mentor Russel Bufalino, Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa, and a bunch of really solid supporting actors. (Frank’s daughter Peggy has a role in the movie, and the actress — Lucy Gallina — who played her as a child looked so familiar… I looked her up, but she’s not been in anything I’ve ever seen. It was also kind of unnerving to see, and hear, these characters: they all seemed weirdly familiar to me, since many of them had backgrounds similar to, and reminded me of, the parents of grade-school friends back in Manalapan.)

    Anyway, two thumbs up. Plan your fluids, but go see this.

  • Vacation Reading

    I picked up two more of Iain M. Banks’s “Culture” novels: Consider Phlebas and Player of Games. CP was the first “Culture” novel, and PoG was also one of the earlier ones. Both were reasonably big books, but I basically inhaled the both of them, hardly even breathing (according to Anne) until they were done. That shouldn’t be too surprising, considering that I was staying in a mountain cabin with three readers and a bunch of books, but they were both captivating and really, really good. Strangely, their reviews, and the blurbs on their backs, were, strictly speaking, accurate, but the stories themselves caught me by surprise — I suppose I expected them to be boring or twee, and they were neither.

  • Readings

    I brought two books along on vacation our travels: Jeffery Pomerantz’s little gem Metadata, and Mountains Piled Upon Mountains, a collections of stories, poems and essays about nature in the Appalachians. I finished Metadata yesterday, which was a quick re-read, and started Mountains last night.

    Whoo, what an intense book! I’ve always found Appalachia — people, places, plants and animals — to be deep: primal, spooky and beautiful. These writers obviously feel the same way, and are more than capable of evoking the feeling in their work. I’ve had to read it in little sections…

    Meantime, my sister-in-law just finished the third book of the Cormoran Strike mystery series (by Robert Galbraith, aka J.K. Rowling). There are four books in the series; I read the first three over the past few weeks and Anne has the fourth on Kindle so I may check it out. It may be a while though, since I burned myself out with the first three: the first two were page-turners, but by the third — which was also a lot creepier than the others — I was spotting some plot formulas and other common bits that kind of detracted from the story, and struggled to finish. Still, they were all pretty good books.

  • Readings

    Posted on by Don

    We went down to visit Ben & Candace in Philly on Monday. We took a walk around Bartram’s Garden, grabbed some lunch downtown, and made our traditional trip to Penn Books — they may not be there much more longer, so it was good to get in one last visit. I got a few SF titles, and already finished one: Jeff VanderMeer’s The Strange Bird. This is another story in the “Borne” universe, and I think it’s by far the best story in that universe, though it probably can’t stand on its own – it needs those other stories to make sense. Still, it’s got my recommendation.

    Last night was a poetry reading at the library: a public reading of Leaves of Grass in honor of Walt Whitman’s birthday. Anne read a poem, as did our friends Matt (poet/librarian), and Sarah, and many others. Very fun!

  • Readings: Mr. Shivers

    Another book from the library; I finished this one a week or so ago. This was by Robert Jackson Bennet, the same guy who wrote Foundryside, but it was a very different book: set in an almost post-apocalyptic, Depression/Dustbowl-era America, it’s the tale of strangers who join together to hunt down a killer. It’s full of stories within stories, as they, and the people they meet, tell their tales — very Americana Gothic, with a bit of Cormac McCarthy thrown in.

    There’s an element of fantasy, or the supernatural, thrown in just at the very end, and I think it actually detracts from the story, but not enough to ruin it. I really liked this, it was world-building as historical fiction, and world-building at its best.