Saturday, October 27, 2012

Ready for Christmas in September?

One of the best parts of being a Word Nerd(*) for a significant amount of time is having been exposed to and remembering many excellent books and writers in a variety of genres. Whether it's classic literature, science fiction or non fiction, if it's well written I love it.

This also means that when friends peeve about things, chances are I just might know of a book someplace that touches on a similar topic. So in the year 2012, with friends righteously bemoaning the fact that Christmas decorations having been available since early October WHEN IT'S HALLOWEEN'S TURN, DAMNIT, it brings to mind a story that I read a long time ago.

When I was in high school, Ballantine Books produced a series of books showcasing some of the best work of science fiction's luminaries, both the rock stars and some early pioneers. Frederick Pohl is an author who is both, with a career spanning some 70 years. He earned both Hugo and Nebula awards and his "Best of" collection contains some truly amazing writing. The particular story that the "Christmas in October" theme brings to mind for me is "Happy Birthday, Dear Jesus". If you can lay your hands on this book or buy it in eBook form, I hugely encourage you to do so. READ THIS STORY!

One thing that a really outstanding writer can do (cue Joss Whedon reference) is take a story whose premise is appealing/fun and which creates certain expectations... and then surprise the reader by turning it into something else entirely. In the case of this story, the setup is easy: it's a satire told from the point of view of a rising executive in a big city department store, dealing with the stress of the late Christmas season...on September 8th.

Here's an example of a song sung by that executive:

"'Tis the season of Christmas, and all through the house St. Nick and his
helpers begin their carouse. The closets are stuffed and the drawers
overflowing With gift-wrapped remembrances, coming and going. What
 a joyous abandon of Christmastime glow! What a making of lists! What
 a spending of dough! So much for the bedroom, so much for the bath,
So much for the kitchen -- too little by half! Come Westinghouse, Philco!
Come Hotpoint, G.E.! Come Sunbeam! Come Mixmaster! Come to the
Tree! So much for the wardrobe -- how shine Daddy's eyes. As he reaps
his Yule harvest of slippers and ties. So much for the family, so much for
the friends. So much for the neighbors -- the list never ends...". (And it goes on)

The setup is funny but if it had stopped at cleverly written "late Christmas season in September" satire, it would have only been a pretty good story. Where Pohl made it a great story is by taking that cracked beginning and gradually morphing the story into a sweet and deeply affecting love story. You see, our hero hires a woman to work for the season who he ends up falling for, like a rock. Only, she's not from around here...she has been living in Borneo with her missionary father and sisters and she is just weirded out by this lengthy, consumerist celebration of Christmas.

That "Season of Christmas song"? Our executive sings it to her family when having dinner at their house (still in September) and is quickly asked to leave. More hijinks ensue and the plot keeps you guessing. But the overall story is one of the best love stories I've read, one that I still think of warmly, many years after I first read it(**). Now you, READ THIS STORY

(*) Term "word nerd" used courtesy of Uppercase Bookshop, my *favorite* area bookshop. A highlight of the town of Snohomish!

(**) Now that I got all that mushiness out of my system, I have to go compensate by being insensitive, insulting people on the Internet and riding a motorcycle like a hooligan. (Manly grunt)

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Roller Derby - Give it a Try!

I'm one of those guys who just never appreciated team sports all that much. Maybe it's because of all the standing around doing nothing in football/baseball...what are they doing, composing a mission statement? Maybe it has something to do with coming from Buffalo and having the Buffalo Bills repeatedly flub 4 Superbowls in a row. Disappointment like that can break a man. In any case, I like some sports with more continuous play like hockey but don't even follow that very consistently.

This Winter, though, I discovered a sport that I enjoy tremendously: Roller Derby! A buddy from the motorcycle community and his wife participate (she plays for Camaro Harem, he is a ref). On a lark, I went to watch a bout on the night that Seattle's January Snowpocalypse was just getting underway. I've been to every game since and plan on volunteering in some capacity.

Here are a couple photos from that first event:
 Camaro Harem and the Pink Pistols...

...skating past the hardworking refs and other officials. Outside, the Snopocalypse has begun...

In case you haven't been to a roller derby bout, the basic idea is that 4 players from each team enter play as blockers, with the goal of preventing the other team from scoring. Behind them, the lead jammer from each team tries to get through and score points by skating laps past opposing team players. That's the dummy's guide version, here is a link to a YouTube video that explains the game play in much more detail.

What is it about roller derby that makes it so much fun? I can think of a few things:
- the action is continuous, with none of the "board meetings" and dorking around you have to waste time on when you watch football or baseball.

-  There's a carnival (or CarnEvil, as the case may be), "fishnets and derby names" aspect to the sport but you can also tell that a lot of the players are serious about competing and are very athletic. Baseball players wanking and being deceptive about whether they use steroids and hormones are just lame. These women are very very serious.

- The atmosphere at the roller derby events I've attended is just neat. Very friendly, very supportive of the players. Fans are there smiling and having a good time. Derby nights in Everett include raffles and winners tend to donate back half of their winnings. It's very pleasant social environment.

This final picture, while not literally from derby, embodies for me a lot of the superficial contradictions and actual awesomeness of the roller derby phenomenon. The rider in this picture has styled her bike with pink and a teddy bear, which is great. But she's clearly at home on her KTM Adventure, the most hard core adventure bike out there. She's feminine and a very serious player, charting her own course. It doesn't get any better than that.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Geek Book Porn #3 (The Codebreakers)

The pictures below are of the front cover, spine and back cover of a first edition copy of David Kahn's 1967 book "The Codebreakers". This is THE pioneering book about the history and principles of cryptology, which made them available to ordinary longer reserved for the purposes of government.

I found this book in a neighborhood bookstore about 10 years ago. Also have the updated version in eBook form, covering modern inventions such as public key cryptography.

Take a moment and look at the bottom picture, the rear cover table of gives a good idea of the rich awesomeness of this book. The history of cryptology and secret messages has been a rich and fascinating one, with some succeeding due to strong secret messages (e.g., the US's Navajo code talkers in World War 2) and death and ruin caused when secret communication is broken:

  • Mary, Queen of Scots, doomed to execution because her secret message was broken by Queen Elizabeth's agents
  • The Zimmerman Telegram, captured and broken by intrepid Britons, Helping to bring America into world War 1.
  • Breaking the German Enigma allows the reading of German military communications during World War 2.
  • US victory at Midway and the assassination of Admiral Yamamoto allowed by the breaking of Japanese cyphers

This book is also one of the first publications ever to mention the National Security Agency and it is one that they tried to suppress. Wikipedia link

Geek Book Porn #2 (history, English language)

Various views from:

"The Grandest Century in the World's History" published 1900. Looks at the 19th Century in detail (exploration, invention, etc)

"The American Pageant" published 1956.

"The Development of English Literature and Language" 1882.

(Teaser for the Codebreakers)

Geek Book Porn #1 (Hidden Treasures)

We've had a discussion of cool older books on Twitter today, so I'm posting up some pictures of some of my coolest old books and some of their stories.

Hidden Treasures is a book published in 1887, with the purpose of presenting role models for success to young people just starting out. There's a neat inscription on the inside from a father to his son.

(Purchased by me for $4 at an antique store in a church in Ransomville, NY)

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Hurtling Moons of Barsoom

A quote from Robert Heinlein's Glory Road that kind of sums up life:

What did I want?

I wanted the hurtling moons of Barsoom. I wanted Storisende and Poictesme, and Holmes shaking me awake to tell me, "The game's afoot!" I wanted to float down the Mississippi on a raft and elude a mob in company with the Duke of Bilgewater and Lost Dauphin.

I wanted Prester John, and Excalibur held by a moon-white arm out of a silent lake. I wanted to sail with Ulysses and with Tros of Samothrace and to eat the lotus in a land that seemed always afternoon. I wanted the feeling of romance and the sense of wonder I had known as a kid. I wanted the world to be the way they had promised me it was going to be, instead of the tawdry, lousy, fouled-up mess it is.

I had had one chance - for ten minutes yesterday afternoon. Helen of Troy, whatever your true name may be - and I had known it - and I had let it slip away. Maybe one chance is all you ever get.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Geek Tattoo Idea: Forbidden Planet

OK, I'm a geek and keep thinking of new geeky tattoo ideas. This one is a salute to the 1956 movie Forbidden Planet, a K00L movie about a ship visiting a planet inhabited by a scientist, his daughter...and a mysterious menace. It starred comedian Leslie Nielsen (Airplane, Police Squad) in an early dramatic role, as well as the stunning and talented Anne Francis.

I combined the elements that I'd think about incorporating in the tattoo in the schlepped screen shot above. There's a cool 1950s science fictiony background of the ship landing on the planet. On one side, the Monster from the Id is menacing the two main players. Leslie Nielsen is facing off with it but as Frank Drebin from Police Squad, with a .38 instead of a laser. Beside him, Anne Francis' character is also firing at the Monster but has had the good sense to take cover behind the robot...

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Awesome Palahniuk Quote

Old George Orwell got it backward. Big Brother isn't watching. He's singing and
dancing. He's pulling rabbits out of a hat. Big Brother's holding your attention
every moment you're awake. He's making sure you're always distracted. He's
making sure you're fully absorbed... and this being fed, it's worse than being
watched. With the world always filling you, no one has to worry about what's in
your mind. With everyone's imagination atrophied, no one will ever be a threat
to the world.

-From 'Lullaby' by Chuck Palahniuk

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

For Kristen Wiig

somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond
by E. E. Cummings

somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully,mysteriously)her first rose

or if your wish be to close me, i and
my life will shut very beautifully ,suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility:whose texture
compels me with the color of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands