Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving

I hadn't looked at my Amazon recommendations in a while, so I was a little unprepared to find that many of the book recommendations it found for me were things I had recently checked out from the library or read using the reference libraries available through work. The tool basically predicted the future based on my past reading events. The one that was the weirdest was that it recommended The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick, and that was the first Dick novel I've ever read. A little spooky.

My first turkey: Alton Brown's roast turkey recipe was idiot-proof and amazing. You brine the turkey overnight and then roast with apples, onions, and herbs stuck in the cavity. It was moist and delicious, mission accomplished. The only thing that went wrong was that I bought too small a turkey. I won't make that mistake again.

I finally finished Charmed Life, (Diana Wynne Jones) which was quite good. The eerie similarities to Harry Potter continued to the end of the novel, which cements my opinion that it is basically source material for the series. I mean, two thirds of the way through, someone starts insisting that they not call the enchanter Chrestomanci by his name, to avoid summoning him, but instead call him... wait for it... You Know Who. Capital letters and all.

We had a nice Thanksgiving cooking together. Sarah's sweet potatoes were just divine, and even though the turkey was small, our little family of 3 barely got through a quarter of it. We have lots of leftovers. We did the wishbone, said what we were thankful for, and watched football while peeling potatoes. These were practically my only requirements for a successful day. Then we all fell asleep at 4:00. It was our first Thanksgiving away from everyone's relatives, but Sarah and Alex did videoconferencing with the Utah fam (with iChat; we are also set up to do it over Skype, but other programs are possible) so they got their fix.

There are some great poems about being thankful, so I will just let one take over. But first, I am thankful for life and love, for wife and son, for food and song, for walks and books, for every short, eternal day.

Welcome Morning

Anne Sexton

There is joy
in all:
in the hair I brush each morning,
in the Cannon towel, newly washed,
that I rub my body with each morning,
in the chapel of eggs I cook
each morning,
in the outcry from the kettle
that heats my coffee
each morning,
in the spoon and the chair
that cry "hello there, Anne"
each morning,
in the godhead of the table
that I set my silver, plate, cup upon
each morning.

All this is God,
right here in my pea-green house
each morning
and I mean,
though often forget,
to give thanks,
to faint down by the kitchen table
in a prayer of rejoicing
as the holy birds at the kitchen window
peck into their marriage of seeds.

So while I think of it,
let me paint a thank-you on my palm
for this God, this laughter of the morning,
lest it go unspoken.

The Joy that isn't shared, I've heard,
dies young.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

If you're like me

You got temporarily distracted from Lord of the Flies by Journey Through Genius: The Great Theorems of Mathematics. Along the way, you learned about transfinite numbers and how they used to have math-offs in the Italian Renaissance. You also picked up a new book by one of your favorite authors: Spook Country, by William Gibson. As the jacket says,

Spook: Specter, ghost, revenant. Slang for "intelligence agent."

Country: In the mind or in reality. The World. The United States of America, New Improved Edition. What lies before you. What lies behind.

Spook Country: The place where we all have landed, few by choice. The place where we are learning to live.

Last, but certainly not least, a desire to deepen your professional awareness led you to begin a thousand page journey through a computer science textbook: Compilers: Principles, Techniques, and Tools.

You have over twenty things checked out of the library. Five of them are the first season of Stargate SG-1, which you were surprised to learn is a true sequel to the movie. You have about fifteen CDs checked out, and today you heard Born To Run for the first time. You also listened to more Talking Heads songs than ever, a new Ozomatli album, and the latest Decemberists.

You took your first turkey out of the freezer on Sunday night and stuck it in a mixing bowl to thaw. Tomorrow, you will be dunking it in a five-gallon bucket filled with saltwater. Thursday, you will have your first Thanksgiving away from your parents and your in-laws.

Friday, you plan to laugh at insane shopping from the comfort of your living room, enjoying hot cider.

You've been playing the drums with your son lately. He likes rocking out on the xylophone. You have been listening to the drummer from Radiohead a lot. You also have been trying out guitar effects on the computer. You even played for half an hour straight at the guitar store, on your knees, with headphones with a short cord, just messing with one low-end effects pedal.

You brought homemade banana bread with chocolate chips inside to a Thanksgiving potluck at work, and every single person who tried it essentially asked you, "Chocolate in banana bread? Can you do that?" in between bites.

Yes. Yes, you can do that.

If you're like me.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007


I've been posting less. I'm not sure if this is because I've run out of long thoughts for now (which is certainly true, except for an ongoing conversation I've been having with my mom about the erosion of privacy and the demonizing of dissent in the post-9/11 America. I've written about this before, but we're all adults here and this is not the year PNE 6. For better or worse it's 2007 and we deserve a post-post-9/11 America.). It could be that my mind is more or less exhausted by work and home life, which is another half truth. Work is exhilarating, and for the most part I don't bring it home, which is good.

I never got around to Lord of the Flies in high school. I mentioned to my mom that we skipped a lot of the British white guys in IB. Sure, we had to have our Shakespeare and Dickens, but it was very international overall. Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, The Sound of Waves, Things Fall Apart, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (what's the name of that one? I can't remember... oh, it's Chronicle of a Death Foretold), and so on. So I somehow missed this book about the savagery of school kids, about the apocalypse, about the heart of darkness, about everything under the sun, according to the jacket cover.

I read an essay recently that said that nerds were doomed to be cynical about high school because it is your whole world for a while, but it doesn't mean anything in the long run. He had read Lord of the Flies, and he said that he wished someone had made the connection between the book and the environment it was being taught in.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

iPod madness

I finally figured out how to get my music collection onto my brand old iPod. It was a gift from my father in law quite a while ago. It had all his old music, and I didn't have cords to get my music from the PC onto the iPod, and I didn't have the wherewithal to laboriously burn several gigabytes of music onto several more 800 MB CDs, so it became this amazing jukebox that I took, especially on flights and mowing the lawn.

It turns out all we had to do was set up a network between the Mac and the PC, start a new Mac account for my music, share a few folders, then copy several gigabytes over the air. It still takes a while, but you don't have to keep switching out physical media, so you can get up and go to Home Depot to buy your first rake while Beck, Radiohead, the Beatles, Nickel Creek, and a motley crew of others worm their electronic ways into your heart.

I am quite excited. For the first time, I will have better music on the iPod than I can find on the internet, and thus, a reason to take the iPod in to work.

I also watched Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior. I was going to, well, not pan it, but at least compare it to its superior predecessors, Drunken Master 2 and Fist of Legend until I read on the internet, just now, that there were no wires, CGI or camera tricks in this movie. Wow. It's just the brutal ballet, if the ballerinas all ganged up on the one little ballerina... and then the crunching started. And I thought all the elbow and knee strikes were getting a little repetitive. I actually might have to watch this thing again. Its plot is virtually nonexistent, but this is one of those movies where it would just get in the way.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Still more entertainment

I read The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick this week. He's the (departed) guy maybe most broadly known for writing the stories that got made into Blade Runner, Total Recall, Paycheck, and Minority Report, and more recently, you probably didn't see A Scanner Darkly and Next.

This book came out in 1962. It's the alternate present of America in 1962, 15 years after the Allies lost World War II (owing to, among other things, the assassination of FDR). The west coast is run by the Japanese, the east coast is run by the Germans, and the middle of the country has become a shadow of its former self. It's well-depicted and eerie. More than that, it's a novel about the Tao and about living inside and outside the flow of the world. It's also a novel about art, where the characters all seem to be reading an alternate history bestseller, banned in the Nazi countries, called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which depicts the Allied victory in World War II. It's also a stylistic tour-de-force, with each focus character narrated and talking in their own dialect and from their own peculiar points of view.

This truly appears to be my year of the novel. I also picked up a novel omnibus by Ursula K. LeGuin. If anybody has some more recommendations, I am all ears.

Vince brought up recently that our reading lists do not intersect much because I read a lot of fiction and he reads a lot of non-fiction. I love stories. I don't necessarily learn facts from them, but consider this: facts are true, but often irrelevant; theories are relevant, but often untrue. That is my philosophy of science, cribbed from a linguistics professor in undergrad. One day he was trying to explain a fundamental problem with Chomsky's linguistics and he put it this way: they keep trying to extend the theory to cover more and more cases, but by doing that, they lose the power of their original generalizations.

This appears to be a fundamental problem of the pursuit of knowledge: knowing how important the details are. This is so important that researchers routinely eliminate as many details as possible, by controlling the environment. To find important implications, you have to match valuable behavior with significant control.

Living as a human being, perhaps fortunately, does not provide us with similar control of our environment, with similar eliminations of variables, except perhaps to the insane, the Wall Street executive, the alienated... but I repeat myself. Instead of tearing our lives into constituent parts, I am convinced we try to tell ourselves a story with some integrity, some unity of action. And reading fiction, or even non-fiction stories, I think, gives us a chance to respond to our world, to another human being, not with a little part of ourselves, but with our hearts in our teeth, our minds engaged, our blood pumping through the pages. I have rarely been shaken or moved by non-fiction, or rather, by arguments. But I want to be moved when I read. I want to be someone else when I'm done.

Madeleine L'Engle said recently about Harry Potter that there's no underneath to the stories, and I think there is something to this. The Harry Potter books are interesting depictions of flawed heroes, and they are epic and fun, grand and entertaining, but ultimately, they are not meant to shake you up the way I'm talking about. They do not point to deeper meanings, do not exploit the power of ambiguity. They are safe. Impotent. Sterile. I hope for JK Rowling's sake that instead of writing the Harry Potter encyclopedia (she is currently suing a website that plans to make a similar product with her characters) and getting stuck in the safe world, she sits down with her pen and her knife, and creates a new story with a few more razorblades sticking out of it.

If you watch TV, point yourself toward the other best show on television. Yes, yes, there's Heroes, which you should still be watching (first season on DVD, quite poignant and epic, dangerous and potent), but the antics of the cheerleader have gotten boring, and the dead hand of the painter that depicts the future is choking the plot. All in all, things are a bit tedious at the moment. So why not watch a show about a dude who brings people back from the dead.

It's Pushing Daisies. In Pushing Daisies, Ned, a pie-maker in his mid-twenties, has been living with a strange power for more than a decade: touch a dead thing (animal, person) once, and it comes back to life. But touch it again and it's dead forever. Also, the catch, if the reanimated thing is not returned to death within a minute, something else dies in its place.

The backstory: when the guy was ten, he discovered his power when his mom died by accident, he brought her back to life. His girl-next-door's father died when, 60 seconds later, he hadn't returned his mom to death. Then his mom touched him anyway, and she died again, this time permanently. Afterwards, Ned's dad sent him to boarding school, but he never forgot Charlotte Charles, nicknamed Chuck, the childhood sweetheart whose father he had inadvertently killed.

The front story: Ned, now a full-time pie maker, falls in with a private investigator. The PI solves mysteries by talking to the dead for 60 seconds, using Ned's ability. Charlotte (Chuck) gets killed on a cruise and Ned goes in, ostensibly to touch her and solve the mystery of her death. But when she comes back to life, he is unwilling to see her dead again. So, 60 seconds go by and a grave-robbing funeral director nearby dies in her place.

Charlotte (Chuck) and Ned fall for each other instantly, but they cannot touch, or Charlotte will die. Nevertheless, they make the most of their second chance together, and therein lies the story. It is completely spell-binding. It's an urban fairy tale, still more evidence that the geeks have won. It is by turns surreal and kooky in the extreme, darling, hilarious, philosophical and heavy, and heartbreakingly romantic and beautiful. And, I just saw the episode where they do a They Might Be Giants song, which, unexpectedly, is germane to the content.

You can watch the show online if you like. ABC's player contains all the episodes to date; just click on the link that says "Watch Online Now."

Last off, here's a Radiohead concert in two acts. If you want to hear what they're all about, get it while it's hot. It's from Berkeley in 2006, so they play stuff from most of their catalog, including their newest album, excluding their first album. One thing that might impress you is how different the songs sound, even though it's always and only been the same five guys. They are a bit paranoid about contemporary Western society, but I for one am glad that someone is. It's dense, poetic, symphonic music.