Friday, May 29, 2015

First Things First (Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge)

Photo by Charli Mills of Carrot Ranch
The following is paraphrased from the introduction to Ken Cumming's memoir, Meant To Be Here. I am helping him write the book, and I wrote the preface, so it's fair to use it here:

Happiness, in my opinion, is overrated; find a way to be satisfied with the small benefits along your path, and you will look back over your journey and see that you were very happy after all.

For my spouse and me, this has found expression in a phrase we recite when one of those little triumphs occurs. We pull up to the restaurant we have chosen, and the parking space right at the door is open. We walk into the store and discover a clerk, who is substantially repricing most of the items in our shopping list. We chat idly with someone in line at a shop, and it leads to an invitation to an incredible party.

Or: We pull into the empty parking lot of an obviously closed roadside attraction on a remote road in coastal California just as the genial operator is making his once-a-fortnight rounds. Beguiling each other with stories, we get a personal tour of the Sturgeon’s Mill steam sawmill that money could not buy.

Or: Car-camping in late winter in Colorado, we chat with a fellow out walking his dog and wind up with a summer job any other Mines student would kill for.

Or: Independently, we each choose to go to a party where neither of us knows anyone else there very well, and wind up encountering the one other person who will complete us for the rest of our lives.

When these things happen to us now, we turn to each other, and one or both will say, “Well, we were obviously meant to be here.”

Being open to that opportunity for happiness is our secret to longevity, and it mates well with the introductory post from the Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge this week:

In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story, using the above photo as a prompt. You can make it a garden party or an international spy thriller. Who is there and why? Does the backdrop scenery make an impact or is it ignored? The place is on an island, if you wish to make use of that. Go where the photograph leads you this week.


First Things First

Eric stood off from shore to inspect his work. Was the patio inviting enough? It would need to be enticing to overcome the legacy of misanthropy his late uncle had invested in the place.

The mansion where Reid Simonsen had lived his miserable life was uninhabitable. Eric wondered if he would ever reclaim the excitement he'd experienced when he learned he'd inherited it and the beautiful island it occupied.

Satisfied, he began to paddle his kayak back to the ladder. The dock and patio were a good start. He could live in a tent; he could not live alone.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Consuming Posterity

Review: Singer From the Sea, by Sheri S. Tepper

Sheri Tepper‘s The Singer from the Sea is a strongly-stressed parable about consuming: eating, spoiling, using up and undervaluing resources from nature and human society.

The base story is engaging; as we follow an upper-crust maiden through her “prep-school” training and her debut at court, we learn that Genevieve has powers not possessed by other girls in her society. This foundational tale is almost like a Regency novel, complete with evil old suitors for the young girl’s hand, a deceased mother and an heroic (though unqualified) young man who strives to help Genevieve as he falls in love with her.

One by one, the author pours additional, darker flavors into this stew: a king collects precious treasures, then consigns them to a rubbishy pile; men are made widowers over and over as each wife dies tragically; an addictive substance consumes more and more of the attention and prosperity of the land.

Tepper’s work is always richly seasoned with ecological, religious, sociological and feminist arguments. It is ironic, then, that The Singer from the Sea can be read as a warning of the dangers of fetal stem cell research.

The desire to live longer and better lives is a basic human yearning. Tepper’s story warns us that “mining” the wombs of women and the lives of our children to sate the hunger for long life will lead us, in the end, to barrenness and death.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Rape, Revelation, and the Stranger in the Mirror

Review: The Business of Strangers with Stockard Channing and Julia Stiles

When we deal with strangers, we accept the façade they offer. Only with longer acquaintance do we see through the lies to encounter the truth beneath. For the stranger we see in the mirror, however, sometimes a lie is more revealing.

In The Business of Strangers, the revelatory lies involve Julie Styron, a brittle single woman of power, so recently promoted to CEO of her company that it “hasn’t sunk in yet.” Brilliantly portrayed by Stockard Channing, Julie at first is convinced that she is going to be fired when the board goes into a secret meeting while she is away on a business trip.

Terrified that she has been betrayed by the company she has made the center and sole purpose of her life, she contacts a weaselly head-hunter, Nick Harris (played by Frederick Weller). Julie begs Harris to assure her that he isn’t looking for her replacement; Harris oozes unbelievable insincerity as he promises he isn’t—and we see Channing’s brilliance in the way Julie accepts what she is certain is a lie without believing it.

Julie’s assigned tech-assistant, Paula (in another wonderful casting decision, played by Julia Stiles), is fired when she shows up late to the presentation which Julie has, cooly, given anyway. Once Julie learns about her promotion, however, she apologizes to Paula, and offers to pay for her hotel room. And now the business of these strangers really begins.

Stuck in layover-mode together, the two women begin to explore each other’s lives. Beginning with the superficial (“
Where did you go to school?”), they swap lies, defend mental territory, and easily drop into quasi-best-friend behavior. Julie drinks far more than such a guarded woman would in the presence of a rival. Paula is exposed as a mental-manipulator par excellance. In their bathing suits, in an elevator otherwise full of men, she leads the older woman into a teasingly sexual conversation involving a “black strap-on.” Introduced to the oily Harris in the hotel bar, Paula tells Julie privately that he had raped her best friend years ago at college—then calmly invites Harris into Julie’s suite for drinks.

From there, the film descends into a tensely-drawn exploration of power, control, and the truths that lies let slip. We see the steel under Julie Styron’s brittle exterior; we learn the chaos that underlies Paula’s outward calm. The story twists and turns, providing glimpses of each woman’s past. And Harris is, in the end, only the palette on which these two women depict their own desires and regrets. The brief tenure of such art (and the rejection of the self-revelation involved) is made clear in the movie’s penultimate scene.

Even with the sinuous twists that came before, the final surprise of the story left me saying, “Hey! What happened?” The haunting image of Julie Styron in her CEO’s office, in the last few frames of the film, simply underscored the question mark.

Fasten your seat belts for this one, guys. It’s a trip with a lot of unexpected course changes—but definitely one worth taking

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

History and Mystery of an Ancient Addiction

Review: New Tea Lover’s Treasury by James Norwood Pratt

It was at Copia, that museum-like celebration of food, wine and California culture which at one time was to be found in Napa, California, that I first encountered James Norwood Pratt, the amiable author of the New Tea Lover’s Treasury. Pratt was there to speak about the cultural aspects of enjoying tea.

Instead, with an enthusiastic audience to encourage him, he began an extempore presentation about the history of tea and its impact on the world stage. Merchantilism, British Imperialism in China and India, Yankee Clippers and the beginnings of caffeine addiction all rose from the trade in this ancient plant, relative of the camellia.

The New Tea Lover’s Treasury is the printed version, with copious illustrations, of that engrossing presentation. Pratt’s expertise in tea trading, culture and history shines in every section of this book, from the introduction: 

Just as wine is the Christian sacrament, tea is the Taoist/Buddhist communion and its story illuminates all Asian life and culture, not to mention much else besides…

to the clipper races:
Regardless of the real quality, everybody who was anybody in England wanted to offer their guests a sample from the cargo of the year’s fastest and most famous ship… To the public at large, the excitement of the tea clipper races was rivaled only by the Derby.

to the end of Communist isolationism:
It was on Wednesday, 22 October 1958, exactly three hundred years after China tea had first been tasted in London… that China tea came under the hammer again in Mincing Lane and, for the first time, the producers themselves sold their tea in the West.

Pratt gives us a lucid view of tea history in the first half of the book. The second half is devoted to detailing the varieties of tea available today, and how to infuse and enjoy them. Whether your taste is for making and drinking tea, or reading about it, the New Tea Lover’s Treasury satisfies. I recommend reading it beside a fire in winter, with a mug or cup of your favorite infusion close to hand.

Surely everyone is aware of the divine pleasures which attend a wintry fireside: candles at four o’clock, warm hearth rugs, tea, a fair tea maker, shutters closed, curtains flowing in ample draperies to the floor, whilst the wind and rain are raging audibly without. —Thomas de Quincy, Confessions of an English Opium Eater

Pratt’s publisher, PTA, is a small San Francisco house. As a result, the books are not easily available, even from Amazon. Give them two weeks to deliver, or order directly from Pratt’s Tea Society. As a companion volume of fiction for that winter’s night, I recommend Tea With the Black Dragon by R. A McAvoy.

Liner Notes:

  • The Treasury is not available for Kindle. Tea With the Black Dragon is.
  • Jane Chord: Tea Ultimate.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Fictional Prophets and Jihads

Essay: Science fiction, like any literature, seeks to explore the human condition, and nothing is as central to human life and thought than the desire to know what comes next. 

The prophets I explore here, though, are not writers who have successfully predicted the next step in technology, but science fiction novels with themes of religion and the soul's rightful life, with characters who became prophets.

These religious leaders are Shak Lin in Round the Bend (Nevil Shute), Michael Valentine Smith in Stranger in a Strange Land (Robert A. Heinlein), and Paul Muad'Dib in Dune (Frank Herbert). Each crosses through life in an arc of development, moving from ordinary mortal to revered prophet.

Round the Bend: Shak Lin

Nevil Shute himself thought Round the Bend was his best novel. The messiah-figure of this story is Shak Lin, a Western-educated Malayan aircraft mechanic, who begins life as a Bristish boy named Connie Shaklin. His message is the moral imperative of good maintenance of the machines upon which others’ lives depend:
...we are not like that, we engineers. We are men of understanding and of education, on whom is laid responsibility that men may travel in these aeroplanes as safely as if they were sitting by the well in the cool of the evening.

Or, as is quoted within the introduction to the paperback where I first read it:
…Not as a ladder from earth to Heaven, not as a witness to any creed,
But simple service simply given to his own kind in their common need…
Rudyard Kipling, The Sons of Martha

The religious movement that grows up around this inoffensive and admirable dictum eventually leads to Shaklin’s martyrdom—and the quiet growth of a new religion. The story shows the way a religious meme grows; in seemingly-barren soil, fertilized by the religions that precede it—and watered by the blood of martyrs.

The narrator has the last word:
I still think Connie was a human man, a very, very good one—but a man. I have been wrong in my judgments many times before; if now I am ignorant and blind, I’m sorry, but it’s no new thing. If that should be the case though, it means that I have had great privileges in my life, perhaps more so than any man alive today. Because it means that on the fields and farms of England, on the airstrips of the desert and the jungle, in the hangars of the Persian Gulf and on the tarmacs of the southern islands, I have walked and talked with God.

Stranger in a Strange Land: Michael Valentine Smith

Heinlein’s Stranger In a Strange Land explicitly considers the making of a messiah. For those who have not encountered this novel in either the original release or the 1991 uncut version (all three of you), Stranger is the story of Michael Valentine Smith, a young man raised by the puissant Old Ones of Mars, who then returns to Earth to spread the Gospel (and related powers) they taught him. 

Heinlein uses the story to jab at the tabloid and mainstream press, fringe and established churches, courts and lawyers, and (of course) the government.
"Do you really think they're shadowing us, Ben?" Jill shivered. "I'm not cut out for a life of crime."
"Pish and likewise tush! When I was on the General Synthetics scandals I never slept twice in one place..."

But along the way, the story—maybe inadvertently, although I doubt anything ever appeared in Heinlein’s work that he didn’t plan with glee—underscores the original message of the Christ: love each other. 

It also tells us in a less-brutal way (perhaps because it is fictional) than Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, the consequences of preaching love to those focused on money and power—or scripture.

Dune: Paul Muad'Dib

The first reading of the novel Dune reveals Herbert’s empathy with the nomadic Arab of pre-mandate Palestine. (Remember, Herbert was British.) But to reread this book today is to experience the spooky realization that the Fremen are also eco-terrorists.

The power to destroy a thing is the absolute control over it. You've agreed I have that power...

More to the point, the conversion of Paul Atreidies to the messianic Muad’Dib—from conservative ruling-class heir to fundamentalist jihadi leader—maps the slippery path of proselytic education, leading to perception of all who believe differently as evil and deserving of death. 

Whether you see echoes of mujahideen, urban rioters, or red state/blue state bomb-throwers in the story may depend more on today’s headlines than on Frank Herbert’s words.

Art Gracing Science in 24 Essays

Review: Dance for Two by Alan Lightman

Essays are an esoteric art form, and as E. B. White remarked, the most egotistic. Partaking of poetry, prose and process, they often capture only the fringe audience for each. Alan Lightman is one of the art’s most graceful modern performers, bringing literary and scientific concepts into harmony. In Dance for Two, twenty-four of his best essays are collected.

"A Day in December" chronicles an otherwise ordinary day in 1979 when Alan Guth, a 32-year-old physicist, discovered mathematical proof of the Big Bang. "Time for the Stars" uses Halley’s Comet, Newton and Galileo, Darwin and the Cro-Magnon cave paintings to argue for the value of investment in pure science research. "Is the Earth Round or Flat?" challenges us in a direct, illuminating—and entertaining—way to verify for ourselves even the most basic premises.

"If Birds Can Fly, Why, Oh Why, Can’t I?" evokes man’s yearnings for flight to explain the mechanics involved in the flight of birds. 
In many ways, human beings circumvented the difficulties of aviation long ago, at Kitty Hawk… But in our dreams, when we soar into the air to escape danger, or to simply bask in our strength, we fly as birds, self-propelled. It may be awkward, to imagine ourselves installed with one hundred feet of wing, but that’s what Nature asks, to fly like a bird.

Readers may have encountered Lightman’s work in the “science fiction” novel Einstein’s Dreams. This book is less a story with a discernible plot than a series of essays centered on Einstein’s explorations of the nature of time. Lightman is uniquely equipped to illuminate Einstein’s musings—he is professor of both physics and writing at MIT.

My favorite essay in Dance for Two is the first in the book. "Pas de Deux" beautifully describes the delicate interaction of forces between gravity and the trained muscles of a ballet dancer:

In soft blue light, the ballerina glides across the stage and takes to the air, her toes touching Earth imperceptibly. Sauté, batterie, sauté. Legs cross and flutter, arms unfold into an open arch. The ballerina knows the easiest way to ruin a good performance is to think too much about what her body is doing…
  While she dances, Nature is playing its own part, flawlessly and with absolute reliability. On pointe, the ballerina’s weight is precisely balanced by the push of floor against shoe, the molecules in contact squeezed just the right amount to counter force with equal force. Gravity balanced with electricity…
 For an ending, the ballerina does a demi plié and jumps two feet into the air. The Earth, balancing her momentum, responds with its own sauté and changes orbit by one ten-trillionth of an atom’s width. No one notices, but it is exactly right.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Hematite and Franciscan Melange

Review: Skeleton Sea by Toni Dwiggins

I love Cassie Oldfield and Walter Shaws, the forensic geologists Dwiggins introduced in Badwater. Taking the geology, mineralogy or geomorphology of a crime scene as evidence is a fairly new idea in criminalistics, and this series does a great job of spinning it into a good yarn.

In her latest novel, Cassie and Walter get a call for help from a cop in Morro Bay, a small fishing community-slash-tourist destination on the California coast west of San Luis Obispo. Detective Tolliver has an anchovy-fishing boat with a missing owner and little in the way of evidence, beyond some grains of sand. Cassie is

Grateful for a cop who recognized rocks as evidence, who treated them with the same respect given to fingerprints or cigarette butts or bloodstains or what have you.

Like any fishing community, this village has a rumor mill that soon informs the residents of the reason for their presence. Sandy Keasling, the spiky captain of a whale-watch tour boat, with her deckhand Lanny, Jake "Captain Kayak" who runs a paddle-rental service, and the sinister Oscar Flynn with his two PhDs and giant chip on his shoulder, and Tolliver himself, will all become enmeshed in the net of rumor and speculation.

As the geologists dig deeper, the mystery blooms. Hematite smears on boats far above the waterline, a strand of kelp with its roots wrapped around a distinctive pebble, and various samples of beach sand help the experts Tolliver has called find the "crime scene". 
But has there even been a crime?

We have an injured scuba diver, yes, and a suggestion of foul play in some squid ink stains, but perhaps there is no criminal. There is a red tide, and plenty of creepy clues in the water. Cassie and Walter will need to bring all their abilities to bear, researching and making connections outside their area of expertise, to solve the mystery of Morro Bay.

As humans, we like to find someone to blame. One of the greatest appeals of anthropogenic global warming is that it gives us a party or category of actors on which to land the guilt for the consequences of climate change, and narrows the list of events that are still considered an "act of God." Lava flows, for example.  

Dwiggins has given us yet another mystery that blurs the lines between the true act of God and the criminal deed.

Childhood with Tear Gas and TNT

Review: Dancing Naked in the Mind Field by Cary Mullis

I knew The Emperor of Scent was jogging my memory about something, and finally recalled the flavor of thought from Nobel Laureate Kary Mullis' autobiographical Dancing in the Mind Field. There it was again—that joyful sense of discovery you remember from your childhood explorations of the world, the belief that you can learn it all if you just keep your eyes and mind open. 

Of course, not many of us have childhood memories that include compounding tear gas or keeping laboratory refrigerators stocked with radioactive isotopes. 

Kary Mullis was awarded the Nobel for chemistry in 1993, but even before the prize ceremony in Stockholm, his discovery was changing lives. Before Mullis, DNA evidence had to be fresh and abundant in order to be useful in forensic science. Mullis uncovered a way to replicate DNA, expanding the existing sample of whatever size until you have enough to be useful. Move over, Gil Grissom—Kary Mullis is the real star of CSI! 

Mullis doesn't hesitate to discuss the use of his discovery—one essay titled Fear and Lawyers in Las Angeles covers the multi-layered part he played in the sensational trial of OJ Simpson. But the collection of essays in the book is more about that journey of discovery than it is about the road signs along the way. Don't look to learn how to put together a polymerase chain reaction. You might learn how to survive the bite of the brown recluse spider, choose nutritional foods, determine which scientist is telling the truth in a debate. 

Or you might simply trip the light fantastic with Kary Mullis. He's a marvelous dancer! 

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Paradigms Up the Nose

Review: The Emperor of Scent by Chandler Burr

What if the political process applied to scientific inquiry? Truth would be determined by vote, and the scientist with the most side-boys would carry the day. Conferences would be raucous with chants: "Birkowitz Lied, and Bean-Plants Died!" "Bee Hives Matter!" Picketers would demand a recount on the human genome. 

That the reality of scientific inquiry and publishing lies somewhere south of ideal Apollonian dispassion (but maybe somewhere north of party politics) is brilliantly set forth in Chandler Burr's The Emperor of Scent, an inside account of a paradigm shift in the field of the human sense of smell. 

Luca Turin, an affable fellow with a nose for a mystery, has parlayed his ability to discern and describe the scent of perfumes into a recognized position as a man who knows what he smells. When he follows his nose into a cross-disciplinary inquiry into how we do this
how we tell sulfurous smells like rotten egg and onion apart from floral scents like iris and violetand further, develops a theory that challenges the accepted "religion" of how our senses operate, he runs head-on into the politics of science. 

Burr tells the story with all the rich aromas and foul odors needed to create the bouquet. For those with multimedia needs, a great companion piece is the BBC production A Code in the Nose, which illustrates the first part of the book, and gives us the advantage of hearing and seeing Turin's arguments. 

That Turin's company Flexitral has been able to use his theory to create scents to order (read: make money) is one of the strongest arguments that his idea accords closely with reality. Realists should not need further argument to make the paradigm shift. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Between the Studs (Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge)

People who mine old buildings for the materials in them often find interesting things in the walls. Old railroad stocks used as wallpaper. Copper pennies dropped through a slot in the paneling. Jewelry and silver utensils hidden behind long-forgotten secret doors. Sometimes odd things were used for insulation. For instance, old clothes and lingerie. 

Not much R-value in undies.

Far more common, of course, are wadded newspapers and the skeletal remains of commensals whose meal-ticket expired when the human residents of the building moved away. 

In the Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge this week, I "flashed" on these hidden treasures and mysteries waiting in the walls of abandoned buildings:

May 20, 2015 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write about an old mystery in the current time. Is it a discovery? Is it solved? Does it no longer matter, or does it impact innocent generations in between?

My mystery is probably unsolvable, given the lapse in time. Still, it's interesting to think about.


Between the Studs

We drove up to the old Koober place; its weathered siding and shingles were the reason we bought the ramshackle house. We set to work right away, ripping out planks, saving hand-made 19th-century nails for other projects.

I was taking down the wall of the only bedroom when I found it: an infant's skeleton wearing a tiny bracelet. I shouted to my partner, "What did you learn about the Koobers?"

"Nobody's lived in this place for ninety years," he replied. "And it was just old man Koober and his dog for decades before that." 

Then who was this infant?

No Hope, No Dominion, No Clue

Review: Solaris with George Clooney, Jeremy Davies

And death shall have no dominion. Dead men naked they shall be one with the man in the wind and the west moon. When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone they shall have stars at elbow and foot. Though they go mad they shall be sane. Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again. Though lovers be lost love shall not. And death shall have no dominion. —From a poem by Dylan Thomas

Chris Kelvin sees dead people.

George Clooney stars as Kelvin in Solaris, a 2002 remake of a moody Russian film (1972’s Solyaris) based on a story by Stansilas Lem. Clooney’s character is a depressed psychiatrist, barely more stable than his patients. When he gets a request to travel to the mysterious planet Solaris, he seems willing enough to leave his disconnected life behind.

Wait a minute! This is a future flick? No clues in the movie… Good thing I saw the poster. And maybe the reason it’s raining all the time isn’t just to set the mood.

Next thing, Kelvin is debarking from a small ship into the Solaris station. No one is there to greet him, but he notices blood: smears on the deck grill and corridor ceiling, a bloody handprint on a door-jamb. He walks into a room (medical station? lunchroom?) to find two bodies in bags on the tables. More blood. He opens one, and sees the frozen face of the friend who asked him to come to Solaris.

Creepy is good.

When Kelvin does locate the crew, they’re down to three people. One is a spastic fellow (subtly played by Jeremy Davies) who drops broad hints about the coming terror for Kelvin: “How long can you go without sleeping?” Another is the doctor (Viola Davis), who refuses to come out of her room, but confirms the first crewman’s report. Kelvin’s friend Gabarian committed suicide. The third is a child who runs away when Kelvin approaches. “Gabarian’s son,” he is told.

When he does finally fall asleep, it is to dream of his wife—and wake to her presence beside him in bed.

Wasn’t any wife in evidence in the opening scenes—clumsy Kelvin cut his finger making a lonesome dinner for his solo self, just before he got on the ship to come to Solaris. Maybe she had left him, and that’s why he was so depressed.

We gradually learn, through a series of dreams and flashbacks, that Kelvin’s wife is not just left behind on Earth, she’s dead. So, presumably, was Gabarian’s son, and the brother of the squirrely fellow. Their appearance on the ship has something to do, obviously, with the force fields that surround Solaris.

The movie is claustrophobic, with excessive jump cuts and dizzying flashbacks little distinguished from present-time, all interspersed with agonizingly-slow pans and frustratingly weird camera angles. The screenplay tries to conceal, but still manages to telegraph the “big reveal” (two actually): one character who we think is real is dead. One character who we believe is living is dead. Same twist, two different characters.

And what’s up with the black doctor? First she won’t open her door at all, and then she’ll meet with Kelvin, but only outside her room. And there are bumps behind her while she’s at the door—is she not alone in there?

Clooney’s verge-of-tears portrayal of Kelvin is nowhere near as convincing as Haley Joel Osment’s stiff upper lip in 1999’s The Sixth Sense. Osment’s terror was palpable; we can passively observe Clooney’s. Likewise, Kelvin’s willingness to play Orpheus to his dead wife’s Eurydice is a theme better served by Robin Williams in What Dreams May Come.

In fact, the movie Solaris reminded me of most was another life-after-death exploration, Jacob’s Ladder. In that 1990 film, the bizarre jump cuts and constrained camera moves served the purpose of the story, to bring the viewer into the nightmare of life after Vietnam for Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins). I stuck with Clooney, waiting for a payoff similar to Jacob’s Ladder to reimburse me for the directorial roller-coaster ride. I stayed with it even past the cutesy Michelangelo Sistine Chapel moment.

When the credits rolled, I realized I had argued myself into wasting over an hour and a half, time that could have been better spent digging my copy of the Lem story out of its box, and rereading it. Maybe some amonst us would be willing to spend this time with George Clooney, but I hope I can save the rest of you from making this error.

Whole-House WiFi with TP-Link

Review: TP-LINK RE200 AC750 Universal Wi-Fi Repeater

We are happy to live in a split-level house, built into the side of a hill, widely separated between the active daytime spaces of the living area and the quiet nighttime side downhill from it.

Mostly happy. Except that when we changed from a direct-cable Ethernet modem to a WiFi modem so we could run multiple devices, we discovered that the distance and insulation between the daytime and nighttime sections of the house also made WiFi connection problematic.

That's why I was excited to read in a Google+ post about a problem getting WiFi signals in the user's backyard, for which the solution was an inexpensive repeater that plugged into a wall socket. I checked it out on Amazon, and took a chance that the device was as easy to install as the G+ poster had claimed, and that it was as universal as the product description cited. For less than $50, it wasn't too terrifying a gamble.

The TP-Link device arrived a few days later (shipped free via Amazon Prime), tightly packaged in an elegant box with a slide-on lid. I knew as soon as I opened the box that it would be all I had paid forthe box was carefully engineered to exactly accommodate its contents. The inside lid was a folded card that enclosed the installation instructions.

The second clue that this device would be simple to install was the instruction set: a folded broadsheet poster, liberally illustrated. I followed the 9-step installation with the repeater plugged into the wall close to the modem, then moved the device to a wall socket in the enclosed breezeway between the two sections of the house. 

Voila! Less than ten minutes' work gave me a solid WiFi connection for my Kindle, even in the furthest end of the house, diagonally opposite from the corner where the Wifi modem sits. Guests using the porch room under the oak tree at the back of the house can connect their WiFi devices and post their cycling and guest experiences directly to WarmShowers. They won't need to hunt all around the building to find a place with enough bars to work!

Best of all, the Chromebook will now connect to the Chromecast in the living room without needing to be perched on a sideboard in the corner in order to get the strongest WiFi connection. I can sit comfortably at the dining room table and listen to music from Amazon Prime while I write.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

What Book Today Is What Atlas Shrugged Was Then?

Retrospective: Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

First published in 1957, Atlas Shrugged is fiction that still provokes reflexive love/hate responses. Like Dune, Ayn Rand’s magnum opus influenced a large segment of the populace. Like Catch 22, it hit some nerves. Like Stranger In a Strange Land, even its flaws resonated with readers of its day.

Rather than go on about the book’s length (the 1996 anniversary edition is still over 1000 pages) or its improperly-perceived “right-leaning philosophy”, why not try to think of an equally-seminal work that is currently hot and fresh?

What book will we be picking apart 25, 50, 75 years from now that is IT today?

Atlas Shrugged followed Ayn Rand’s first novel by 20 years, and came on the heels of two decades of seeing her newly-adopted country, the US, become more like the Soviet Russia she had fled. Remember, this was the late 1950s, and McCarthyism was the political correctness of the day.

I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine. –John Galt, from Atlas Shrugged

That’s the philosophy Rand takes 1000+ pages to embody. I defy anyone to place that in either a right or a left corner.

John Galt and the others who “shrug” are creators, thinkers, swimmers against the collectivist, censoring, small-minded stream. It does not take too narrow a squint to see them recast as the bloggers of their day.

Do I feel that Atlas Shrugged is perfect, or even the best book I ever read? No, far from it. The novel is deeply flawed as a narrative, chiefly by Rand’s urge to pontificate and preach. Her characters are sometimes wooden, and she has little sympathy for the good but peripheral actors in the tale. And Rand seemed constitutionally unable to concede a scrap of goodness to any character she had assigned to the “evil” side of the ledger.

But like Stranger In a Strange Land, Dune and Catch 22, this book transcends its shortcomings by the sheer power of its message. That’s why in 1991, 35 years after its first release, Atlas Shrugged could be cited as the “second most influential book for Americans today” after the Bible (according to a joint survey conducted by the Library of Congress and the Book of the Month Club).

What book are we discussing today that will fill this role in 2050?

Ripley Revealed

Review: Ripley’s Game with John Malkovich

Patricia Highsmith has been lauded for her creation of the sociopath Tom Ripley, but her novels have sometimes been poorly adapted to the screen. While both Matt Damon and the screenplay were brilliant in The Talented Mr. Ripley, Highsmith’s tense tale of the conscienceless killer as an older man became a vague wandering saga of pointless violence and weird camera angles with Dennis Hopper in The American Friend.

Fortunately for all lovers of the successful psychopath, there is Ripley’s Game, starring John Malkovich as Ripley. We recognize Ripley, even in a new body, even after so long. We know him instantly, that hair-trigger temper and murderous violence immediately masked by the quiet charm and creepy calm in his voice.

Ripley is in Berlin as the story opens, associated with a homosexual thug in an art scam. (There are hints throughout the story that Ripley’s connection with Reeves, played by Ray Winstone, has been more personal in the past.) The deal goes sour, and Ripley’s calm flashes into deadly offence when Reeves' client refers scornfully to “you people.” Ripley bludgeons the man’s bodyguard to death, and then calmly walks out with both the art and the cash that had been intended to pay for the art.

This brief scene, which occurs before the credits run, establishes both Ripley’s role and Reeve’s in the game to come. It also reminds us of the brutality that lurks, shallow beneath Ripley’s veneer of civilization.

After the credits, we are told that three years have passed. Ripley is back in Italy, living in a beautiful villa, with a talented wife who plays the pianoforte. We think that he must be living quietly, content. Invited to a party by an English expatriate picture-framer, Jonathan Trevanny (Dougray Scott), Ripley walks in on a devastating insult delivered by the man. “He’s restored that villa until it has no life left,” says Trevanny. “The problem is, he has no fucking taste.”

There is an uncomfortable exchange between the two as Trevanny realizes that Ripley heard his insult, and we almost expect an explosion from the American. (But when did Tom Ripley ever expose his nastier side to a crowd?) Instead, he plots a deep revenge. When Reeves comes to him with a proposition to kill some business competitors in Berlin (other mobsters, one assumes), Ripley recommends the “innocent lamb” Trevanny for the job instead.

As with the earlier movie, there are twists aplenty, but all these twists are in Ripley’s head. Once again, an actor has succeeded in portraying the complex, despicable—but somehow sympathetic—Tom Ripley. Even when we know he will turn in an instant to reveal the monster, we still are on his side. We want him to win. And we want Jonathan Trevanny to win too.

And that’s the deepest suspense of all in this tale, because we know they cannot both win.

Stunningly filmed, beautifully adapted and excellently acted, Ripley’s Game is one you will want to have in your DVD library. Or perhaps on your bookshelf next to the collected novels of Patricia Highsmith: It is worthy to share the space with them.

Monday, May 18, 2015

We Work the Black Seam

Review: Coal, A Human History by Barbara Freese

In the summer of 1306, bishops and barons and knights from all around England left their country manors and villages and journeyed to London. They came to participate in that still-novel democratic experiment known as Parliament, but once in the city, they were distracted from their work by an obnoxious odor. 

These nobles were used to the usual stenches of medieval towns—the animal dung, the unsewered waste, and the rotting garbage lining the streets. What disgusted them about London was something new in the air: the unfamiliar and acrid smell of burning coal.

Freese’s Coal attempts to tell the “story of coal” and how its use has fueled progress and pollution at the same time. Freese has marshaled a number of intriguing facts to illustrate her story, but many of her more blatant claims are unsupported in her text. The result is a fascinating look at a mineral and an industry, seen through a window fouled with more than coal residue.

The booming coal industry was a leader in the brutal treatment of children [in 1834], and the steam engine just seems to have increased the ways children could be exploited.

History, opinion and sermon are inextricably intermingled, but Freese’s treatise is still fascinating, more so in those sections of the book where history is given emphasis. She covers the pre-fuel use of coal by Roman jewelers, and details the ways in which coal fueled the Industrial Revolution and the age of industry. Her description of the early American settlers and their dread (and conquest) of the vast forest and vaster coal fields they found in the new world is another strong note.

The author explores some of the ways in which the world (or the industry) might be able to remediate the problems of using coal, but then shoots each one down. In this, she uses the same technique as in her social commentary on Industrial Age Britain: state an opinion flatly, then use the statement as a fact:

Since the dawn of the industrial revolution, we’ve burned enough fossil fuels to increase the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by about one-third, already bringing it to a level probably not seen in the last several million years… That is why environmentalists, regulators, and the coal industry all tend to see efforts to prevent climate change as the beginning of the end for coal.

Freese does not restrict her view to the use of coal in the Western world, but concludes with a look at coal-burning Third World societies. In this, she is honest enough to do what many who promote the Kyoto Accord do not: address the fact that China still is largely fueled by coal, that the country’s growth and industrialization would not have been possible without its use, and that as long as China is not a signatory, there is little point in the US signing the accords.

Whether you agree with Freese’s contentions or not, the book is still a fascinating and thoroughly-researched look at a very dirty topic. I enjoyed it.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Reality on Redial

Review: Dead Lines by Greg Bear

For those who would dine on old, dead dreams of glory, Hollywood is always willing to set a place at the table. In his house in the Glendale Hills, Peter Russell has been dining for years on his defunct dream. 

A one-time creator of “nudie films” and Playboy cartoons, he planned novels, plays, short stories that somehow never were completed. Peter’s creative stream was first diverted by the easy sex of his heyday, and then dammed up by the murder of one of his twin daughters.

Now he retains just enough charm to get by. He provides the likable “face” of business for a misanthropic millionaire, and charms the trophy wife of his employer, his remaining daughter, and just about every woman he meets (except his ex-wife). And even though he is not in the movie business anymore, he does still have connections.

Those connections bring him an innovative new cell phone, a hefty commission check, and an exciting chance to get back in the game. He will create a complete marketing campaign for the Trans, an eerily clear communication device that, according to the inventor, taps into a space “below our world, lower than networks used by atoms or subatomic particles, to where it is very quiet.”

What if some of the things you see every day aren’t really there? What if they just look normal? You seldom compare notes with anybody, do you? You don’t bring along a video camera and record every minute of your daily life to see what you might have seen that wasn’t there after all.

Even as he dreams of revived glory, the spirit of Rod Serling is waiting to detour him into nightmare. Peter’s “signpost up ahead” is a phone call to let him know his best friend is dead. After that call, his life becomes more like a Twilight Zone episode with each passing day. His dead daughter, his deceased friend, and a host of other “ghosts”, living and not, begin to haunt his life.

Peter’s efforts to understand these things take him from one memorable extreme to another: he consults a charismatic psychic, takes a funereal road-trip to San Francisco to dump his friend’s ashes in the sea, and visits a famous prison-turned-office bloc where the death chamber is now the server room for a telecommunications startup. Phone calls from Prague and an invisible chess opponent come to seem equally mundane in Peter’s new world, as the tale moves in increments from creepy understanding to real horror, ending in a crashing climax of fire and discovery.

Greg Bear’s Dead Lines is truly spooky, in the way ghost stories seldom are after we enter our cynical middle years. Peter, like most of Bear’s readers, does not believe in psychics, ghosts or paranormal powers. He may not be happy, but at least he is content with his life and himself. The power of Bear’s story is that we understand how Peter loses both that easy contentment and his disbelief.

We travel with him on his downhill path to the queasy realization that Hamlet was right. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies. And if we’re lucky, none of them have our cell phone numbers.