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

  • 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?

  • More Nashville

    We did a bit more sightseeing yesterday, and managed to go out to the Parthenon replica they have here. It was built for the Tennessee Centennial, and I’m guessing it was part of the same impulses that influenced the Greek Revival type buildings throughout the town. It was a pretty impressive building, and the inside (the basement, really) is now an art museum.

    Nashville Parthenon
    A full-scale model of the Parthenon in Nashville

    After that, the group split up, with some going to Reese Witherspoon’s store while the rest of us went on a brewery tour, in a section of town called “The Gulch.” The first place we went was Yazoo Brewing, and — we planned it this way — I met my old Manalapan friend Scott and his family. (They live nearby and were going to a College football game.) Really nice to catch up, and meet his wife and kids in person rather than just Facebook.

    After Yazoo Brewing, we went to the Jackalope brewery where the Reese Witherspoon crowd caught up with us. Again, awesome place and really good beer — it was kind of strange to see so many breweries with serious local cred that I’d never heard of, but it was also kind of fun… BBQ dinner after that, then we split again, the youth among us heading back to the honk-tonk part of town, while us olds checked out the free concert.

    The less said about that the better: we are probably a bit too old but it was loud, and crowded, and the act we saw — Matt and Kim — was just plain horrible. They seemed to be a cartoon parody of  a bad techno act.

    Today we’re going on a hike at a local park, and the wedding is tonight.

  • Memorial Day Fly-By

    Posted on by Don
    old cemetery with city in background
    St Michael’s Cemetery, with Bethlehem Steel in the background and Martin Tower in the distance.

    Took a rest day today, as Anne did a road ride with Julie G. I had my party yesterday, when I joined a few friends in an MTB pub crawl: Riding up the hill through South Bethlehem and into SMB, out to Lost Tavern and Hop Hill in Hellertown, then taking Black River Rd and SME to Yergey’s and Funk’s in Emmaus. We did some more riding in Allentown, but the bars were closing — it was Sunday afternoon — so we took the towpath home. Here’s the first half, before my Garmin died:

    Pretty good time, even if I did feel sketchy and tentative in the more technical offroad stuff. Cheers!

    three men drink beer at outdoor table
    Dave, Scott and Lou enjoy some samples.

    Reading: I’m almost done with Jeff VanderMeer’s book of short stories, The Third Bear. This is working out a bit like N.K. Jemisin: after reading an awesome trilogy, I picked up the author’s freshman effort and found it a chore to read. I’m finding that VanderMeer is big on weirdness — I’d read before bed, and every night I’d finish one story and say “Well, that was fucked up.” — but he isn’t really into closure or answers, and in a short story format, where things keep starting over, over and over again, it wears thin.

  • Moar Books!!

    Posted on by Don

    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.

  • Two Books And Some Living History

    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.