I picked up Authority, the second in Jeff VanDermeer’s “Southern Reach” trilogy, a few weeks ago at the library. This one sort of picks up where Annihilation left off, but focuses more on the moribund bureaucracy guarding and studying the mysterious region, and reads a bit like a spy story. The main protagonist is brought in to direct the Southern Reach as an all-around fixer, but he’s more of a hapless pawn in some an inter-agency turf war. Maybe it’s a spy-story trope, but this character reminds me of Milgrim in William Gibson’s novels: the same sort of wistful, daydreaming victim, with the same sort of personal weaknesses and demons, and the same sort of occasional, non-lateral competence. The book is nowhere near as creepy as the first one, but then in the final 50 pages or so it more than makes up the difference.
I also got Persepolis Rising, the latest installment in the “Expanse” series. I am having a bit of trouble getting into this one: compared to “The Southern Reach” it seems prosaic, the language is a bit dull or stilted, and the story, which will no doubt have a lot of plot twists, already seems formulaic. I put this on the back burner for now.
Acceptance — he final book in the “Southern Reach” trilogy — became available just before we went to Durham, and I read it while we were down there. Again, this book was a bit different from the others, in style and in theme, but it picks up where the second left off. There are also a few flashbacks, “explaining” the origins of Area X and the actions of the Southern Reach. Again, super-spooky, and also a great read.
(After having read all three books, I see where some of the things in the movie came from, but it still bugs me how poor the movie was compared to what might have been.)
NEXT UP: We made our traditional visit to The Regulator Bookshop while we were in Durham, and I now have two more books on deck: Ron Chernow’s Grant, and something called The Joy of Mathematics.
We just got back from a mid-week vacation to Colonial Williamsburg. Verdict: meh. The buildings and the grounds were nice enough, but for all the fuss I’ve seen it get over the years, I would have thought the place was much bigger, and much more active. We were there mid-week of course, and maybe also off-season, and that may have been all that was really going on, but it did seem somehow smaller than its reputation. (It didn’t help that the surrounding area was a sort of corporate/suburban strip-mall hell, with not particularly walkable streets — biking wasn’t much better, despite the faux “bicycle friendly” sharrows in the gutters — and a dearth of decent, non-chain restaurants.)
There was also a fairly strong whiff of self-congratulatory propaganda throughout the historic district, of the “we have inherited the virtues of our all-wise WASP ancestors” sort, which had to also contend with more modern understandings of Colonial history — slavery and the African American experience, Native Americans and genocide, and so on. This led to a Disneyfied narrative, with much use of the passive voice, and a defensive tone to gloss over the tough parts: “The colonists did this-and-that, and were welcomed by the Indians. But then war came… Did you know, a slave could buy his freedom? Also, slavery was OK in Africa…”
This may have just been the result of our off-peak visit, so that we were interacting with newer or less skillful guides. But then, we also visited the nearby Jamestown Settlement, which was basically an indoor-outdoor museum, with permanent exhibits, and the place was actually worse — it fairly dripped with that self-congratulatory/defensive tone.
Reading #1: Annihilation
I had Annihilation (by Jeff VanderMeer) on hold at the library, and it arrived in time for our trip. This book was much better than the recent movie, and so creepy and suspenseful it gave me — well, not nightmares exactly, but some very strange dreams… The story is a little more complicated, and a little more well-built than the movie (this parallels my experience with Altered Carbon), and there is more suspense (and less action/horror) than in the movie, but the plots pretty much follow the same outline: a group of women, on an expedition to a mysterious abandoned region in the southern US, are slowly overwhelmed by the weird phenomena they encounter. Great book, first in award-winning trilogy, and I am going to get the second book from the library today.
Reading #2: The Big Sleep
This was the first of Raymond Chandler’s “Phillip Marlowe” detective novels; I have it in an anthology that I bought around 1992. I’ve read it many times over the years, the last time being probably more than a decade ago: it has not aged well in that last decade. The novel is still a pretty good read, and because of the quality of the writing it’s a cut above your typical detective story, but the basic plot, the basic behavior of the characters, is outlandish by modern standards: blackmail and killings are involved as secondary crimes, but the primary criminalities are pornography and homosexuality. It’s almost quaint, and the underlying “of course it’s evil, he’s a fag!” tough-guy moralizing grates, and comes across — especially knowing something about the author, who was a bit of a mama’s boy — as a sort of Walter Mitty overcompensation. Looking back now, the most criminal activity (other than the shoot-em-ups) is all the drunk driving done by the protagonist. As Anne said — and this could apply as well to Williamsburg, reconstructed around the same time that The Big Sleep was written: different times, different mores.
It’s been pretty rainy, and cold again, for the past few days. The sun is out now, but it’s still a bit chilly; I just came back in from a short yard work stint, which has been the only thing I did so far today — no Canal Museum, no ride…
Yesterday I went over to CAT and did some work on b-i-l Ray’s bike, a 5-speed Raleigh (circa 1974) which is now almost roadworthy, and the past few days I’ve been grinding through a cleanup of my giant mail pile, tossing or filing things as necessary, paying bills as I find them. Both of these were exhausting work, my brain was fried, and I did something I thought would be restful: I watched the new NetFlix series Altered Carbon.
Big mistake. I loved the book(s), and found the dumbed-down TV version somewhat unsatisfying, but I couldn’t stop watching. I ended up binge-watching five episodes last night, and two more this morning. Plenty of violence, and sex (or at least nudity), and the basic outline of the story is still there even if the backstory has been uh, altered. I was up past midnight watching, so maybe that’s why I was so tired today.
I kind of fell into the same trap as before — leaning too heavily on categorization for my posts — and am now stuck, playing catch-up with things I wanted to talk about that really didn’t warrant their own posts. So…
Cali Weekend: I finally managed to go skiing this year. Julie G had an extra ski pass and a Friday off, so we went up for a morning on the slopes at Blue Mountain. She’s a bit of a neophyte (or maybe more like “haven’t skied since college”), and was more comfortable on the easier slopes, and I was too, to tell you the truth. We did two each on the Burma Road and Paradise trails, then I did two on the intermediate Lazy Mile, and we called it a day. It was surprisingly fun, especially since I had been worried beforehand, about getting hurt or whatever.
The next day I did a towpath ride, going the whole length to the waterfall in Easton, and on Sunday Anne and I rode the towpath to Easton for brunch at Two Rivers.
That was two weekends ago. The weather has been pretty crappy since then, but we did manage to get out, in one heavy spring snow, to attempt some cross-country skiing: too warm, and the snow was too wet. Oh well, at least we tried…
Reading: I read Ann Leckie’s new novel Provenance , set in the same story universe as her Imperial Raadch trilogy (but not within the Raadch itself). Fast paced and fun — especially for a book about the authenticity of venerated historical objects — I’d recommend this to anyone who liked her trilogy.
I also finished Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up The Bodies, her second novel about Thomas Cromwell, advisor to Henry VII. This one picks up where the first left off (at the execution of Thomas More), and continues through to the execution of Henry’s second wife, Ann Boleyn. It was just as absorbing, but seemed to move a bit slower than the first.
Next up was The Discovery of Middle Earth: Mapping the Lost World of the Celts, by Graham Robb. It had an interesting premise: the Celts were more sophisticated than we realize, and had a pretty advanced navigation system, based on astronomy and a system of survey points, which they used to build roads and locate their cities. That was the theory; in practice the book was a rambling mess, full of very enjoyable digressions and oddly useless maps and diagrams, that attempted to tell the story of the Celts. (The book reminded me, more and more as I plowed through it, of Robert Graves’s The White Goddess, and not in a good way.) There were parts I really liked, but I struggled to finish it.
And finally, I’m in the middle of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, a novel by Reif Larsen. This is the story of Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet, a 12-year-old prodigy (mapmaker, scientific illustrator) living on a ranch in Montana, who wins an award and a job offer from The Smithsonian Institution — who don’t realize he’s a child — and takes off for Washington DC via freight train. That’s as far as I got, but so far the story is compelling and multi-layered and, despite appearances, not a Young Adult novel.
Anne and I saw this last night. Meh — I was not impressed. I’ll grant that it was pretty close to (a simplified version of) the book, and that I am not the target audience for the movie (or the book for that matter) by about four decades, and that I did enjoy large stretches of the movie, but there were other large stretches that just left me annoyed. On the whole, the movie left me with the same, sanctimonious “oh the wonder of it all!” vibe of a 90’s era computer advertisement, one targeting parents for their kids’ education, full of photogenic kids staring rapt at math-ey and science-ey graphics. I was seriously rolling my eyes by about 20 minutes into the movie…
The casting was also kind of spotty, and in a weird way: the more likely I knew an actor, the worse they were here. That is, the kids were all pretty good, but Oprah was awful — more of that sanctimony, maybe.
Anne kinda-sorta agreed with my “meh, kid stuff” assessment, but she didn’t think it was as bad as all that. She read the book as an adult though, reading it to/with Ben and Emmi and seeing it through their eyes, so she may have been more sympathetic.
Anyway, it was a night out, and I actually would recommend it for tweens, especially fans of the book.
The last storm (on Wednesday) came with a lot of hype, and I was disappointed to wake up with no snow on the ground, just rainy surfaces rather than the advertised snowpocalypse, but then snow started falling midmorning and it came down all day. It was a heavy, wet snow, but there was nowhere as much as they were calling for: we got maybe 4″ on the ground rather than the expected 12″ — the storm tracked east of us, apparently, and we missed the brunt of it, though areas west and north of us got some accumulation. Go figure.
I got out Tuesday for a nice, pre-snowpocalypse ride on the towpath, which was in great shape — conditions had been improving, and I expected this would be the last chance this week for a decent ride. I rode down to the waterfall in Easton and back, really pleasant. After that I got my act together then went over to Southside — a little early, so I could get a few photos, for some OpenSteetMap mapping at the new parking garage — to meet Anne for dinner at La Lupita before going to see Colson Whitehead talk at Zoellner Arts Center.
That was really good: he started with “I was born a poor black child” à la Steve Martin, did several readings from The Underground Railroad, talked about his career, his writing process, and writing as a part of his life in general. The Underground Railroad was the subject of a number of workshops at Lehigh; the event was well-attended by students as well as the usual bookish crowd, and the Q&A afterward was pretty decent.
Wednesday was spent waiting for snow, watching snow from inside while I did computer stuff and Anne did her spinning, and then watching the storm peter out… I got in another bike ride yesterday after some trivial shoveling, just going over to the CAT office to help Scott move some shelves, the first step in his office reconfiguration project. It was a bit chilly, but the air felt fresh and very spring-like.
Today I woke up and looked outside — snow flurries.
I saw this one on Sunday, with John R and Brian & Katie. Verdict: pretty good, with an interesting story and some good visuals, but in the end it was a disappointment, especially after seeing Black Panther.
The story here is that, after a meteor crashes, in the middle of a state park in the southern US, the crash site becomes the center of a slowly-expanding area, with ominous, anomalous behavior and an odd rainbow-like light. The secret researchers call it “The Shimmer,” but no one and nothing sent into the zone has returned.
Except one guy, a soldier who reappears at his home, a year after his mission, with no memory of how he got there. He immediately becomes sick, he and his wife (a professor and cancer researcher) are taken to the secret base, and she becomes one of five women who are the next research team to enter The Shimmer.
From there, the story is a bit like a cross between Alien and Deliverance, with a bit of Solaris thrown in. The team is attacked by mutant creatures, find evidence that the earlier teams either mutated, or went crazy and killed each other, or both, and then they start losing it in the same ways. None make it out, except the professor.
As I think about it now, I actually liked the movie, and am definitely going to read the award-winning book on which it’s based.
Anne and I saw this on Saturday — wow. I am not a comic book, “Marvel Universe,” or big-budget movie fan by any stretch of the imagination, but this was one of the better movies I’ve seen in a while. It helps that the story basically stands by itself, without any need to know much else about the story world it inhabits, and it also helps that the big-budget effects were done both well and tastefully, but what really made this movie was that the story it told was actually really good.
Mapping: I had, and still have, a few technical issues to deal with, but the full Lehigh Valley database is now in PostGIS, along with elevation data — bogus elevation data, that’s one of my technical issues — and the demo map can now route with the new database. But it’s got the slows, it’s got the slooowws… With about 3200 road segments in the “toy database,” it could route in about 1-2 seconds, but the full-map version took about 6 seconds per routing task — and there may be multiple routing tasks in each route, from start point, to via point and then through subsequent via points, and finally to the endpoint. Unacceptable!
I did some searches online, and sure enough there are a lot of people complaining about pgRouting performance and looking to speed it up. The general consensus: there are a few things you can do, including tune your database, but the actual bottlenecks are the pgRouting algorithms. Some suggested using osm2po, another program that converts OpenStreetMap data for databases but can also do routing: tried it and it’s blindingly fast – d’oh! (Unfortunately, I didn’t see much there in the way of customized, dynamic cost functions, so I can’t see how to turn it into the the answer I’m looking for.) I tried a bunch f the Postgres/PostGIS performance-tuning tips anyway, and they did seem to help a little.
I eventually came across one potential solution: route only on a subset of the roads in the database, using a bounding box. For each pair of points to route between, I find the smallest rectangle that contains both, then expand it by 2000 meters in every direction (like a buffer zone); this is my bounding box, and the routing search is limited to the roads that touch or fall within that box. This seemed to do the trick: my routing times are back down to about 1-2 seconds.
Except near — wait for it — those confounded bridges. The valley is broken up by the Lehigh river, with occasional bridges, and if there are no bridges within the bounding box for a route that needs to cross the river, no route will be found. Meanwhile, when routing points are on a diagonal, the bounding boxes are fairly big, but routing points that run mainly east-west or north-south produce long, skinny bounding boxes. I found a few “dead zones” where routes couldn’t be found, especially east-west ones north of Northampton, routes with skinny bounding boxes where the bridges are a little sparser. My original bounding boxes were expanded by a buffer that was only 1000 meters; I went to 2000 meters in an attempt to alleviate the bridge problem. This didn’t solve it entirely, but it did help, and there was no real performance hit going from 1000 to 2000 meters. I’ll probably look at distances between bridges, and revise my buffer zone to be just bigger than say, half that distance.
Reading: I picked up Don DeLillo’s Underworld again, intending to just read the first part. I love the first chapter but never finished the book because I found the rest boring; now I am engrossed and don’t know what I was thinking back then.
Listening: WXPN has been playing “The 70’s, A-Z” this past week, every song they have in their library that was released in the Seventies, played in alphabetical order. We’ve been following along religiously, and it’s been fascinating and fun but they’re only up to “T,” and it gets wearing. Full disclosure: the radio is off right now…
The only time they weren’t playing the 70’s was for their Friday “Free at Noon” concert at the Word Cafe, which this week featured Russ’s band Cherry. So, we went down to Philly with Ray and Lorraine, where we met Frank and Patricia, and Ben, and Gabby, and we all watched the show and then went out to lunch with Russ at the White Dog Cafe. As always, we spent a few minutes at Penn Books before the ride home. All the talk in Philly, among us and overheard on the street, was about the upcoming snow on Saturday…
By the way, Saturday was Luminaria Night in Bethlehem, here is a photo of ours:
Just kicking back this morning, before going with Anne over to the Bike Co-op for the afternoon…
Reading: I just finished N.K. Jemisin’s debut novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. I took to it well enough at the beginning, but it actually became a chore to read: I put it down for a week, and read the last third in two sittings, closing the book with a sense of relief yesterday. Strange because I really liked her award-winning “Broken Earth” trilogy, and the style and voice were very similar; Anne said that maybe the author worked a few bugs out of her writing between her debut and the trilogy, and that may be so but I didn’t really see it. All I can say is that I really recommend the trilogy, but don’t feel the same about this one. I think it’s also first of two, but it’ll be a while before I read the sequel.
Two Hours Before The Mast: I did my usual Wednesday volunteering at the Canal Museum yesterday. The canal boat is now in dry-dock for the winter, and Scott E is trying to get as much maintenance done on it (especially things like painting) in the nicer weather as he can, so yesterday I helped prep the deck for staining. Mostly this meant sanding, and the sanding I did was mostly “trim work” with a small vibrating sander, near fixtures and in corners where the bigger unit couldn’t fit — I did this for about two hours until the little sander overheated and turned off. I thought of it as “swabbing the deck,” but showed remarkable restraint and did not talk like a pirate.
Mapping: The routing website is now essentially — well, not done done, but the functionality is pretty complete. It routes, with a few glitches (but I added error handling so it doesn’t just choke without apologizing), it modifies routes based on user preferences for hills and visible recommended streets, and it can export the route as GPX; the final steps for website usability are to add printing capabilities for the directions, and add some explanatory content. (Finishing the job means building the real database — and finding a place to put it online.) I’m pretty happy with how this came out so far, it’s actually fun to play with.
Listening: Not to eMusic, that’s for sure. I’ve used them for years to purchase music, and once they were both a good deal at a flat 49 cents a song (with no DRM: download it and it’s yours), and a good source for whatever I was looking for. Then in about 2010, they bought into some of the more mainstream catalogs, changing their price structure — more popular stuff became more expensive, some songs required you to buy the entire album — to accommodate the new sources. This actually drove away many of the better and more obscure labels, leaving eMusic no better than any other generic source, at least in terms of selection. Now the major labels are gone again (I think), and the catalogs are mostly things I don’t care about. So every month I pay $15, which gives me $17-$18 in credit to use or lose that month, and I hardly ever even check in anymore to see their new offerings — and whenever I go there to search for something specific, they don’t have it. It’s time to move on.
On the Home Front: We are busy researching ovens, in preparation for our new purchase.