Archive for the 'Reading' Category

Apr 07 2014

Peter Matthiessen

He died on Saturday. He wrote my favorite novel: the Mister Watson trilogy that culminated in Shadow Country. He lived a remarkable life. The first striped bass of 2014 will go back with a kiss and an ave atque vale for Peter, who thankfully has one more novel at the publisher, his final words.

Here is the remarkable New York Times Sunday Magazine profile, published the day before he died.

I've blogged here about Shadow Country and I am very proud that my Amazon review of the novel is ranked #1 by other readers. I have pressed more copies of Killing Mister Watson into more friends' hands than any other book with the possible exception of Barry Hannah's Geronimo Rex.

Here's what I wrote on Amazon:

"For nearly twenty years I've been obsessed by Edgar Watson, the Everglades Planter known as "Bloody Watson" and "Emperor Watson" for the 50-odd murders attributed to him by a century of legend and myth.

Peter Matthiessen was way more obsessed than me, writing four novels about Watson. I read the first in 1990. The last just this past December. It, Shadow Country, won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2008. It is Matthiessen's masterpiece, and I have no qualms saying it is among the top novels in all of American literature, a book I would stack against Moby Dick, Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, Gravity's Rainbow, White Noise ....

Matthiessen does several important things that won my admiration. First, his voice, his writing, is a very spare, zen language that is short on embellishment but poetic in its nature. Second, the structure that he brings to the narrative is very inventive. The first part of the novel is the tale of Watson's death at the hands of more than two dozen of his neighbors who gun him down after a hurricane in the fall of 1910, hitting him with 33 bullets. That part, which formed the basis of Killing Mister Watson, is an succession of reminiscences by those on that Chokoloskee beach, a backwater Rashomon that bring some amazing vernacular, history, and drama. The book starts with the killing -- and what follows is an utter mind-twister of why Watson was killed.

The second part of the novel is the story of one of Watson's sons, Lucius, who tries to reassemble the facts and seperate them from the myths about his father, who, among other legends, was the reputed murderer of outlaw queen Belle Starr. Lucius compiles a list of those on that beach, a list which makes him a very suspicious figure to the survivors and their descendants, back-water plume and gator poachers who would prefer that Lucius not be asking so many questions. The detective work, the sheer genealogical complexity of Lucius' quest is a reminder to the reader -- this is a true story. Matthiessen's research and attention to detail would shame a historian.

And finally, the true masterpiece in the three tales is the first person account by Watson himself, a story that begins with his childhood in the post-Civil War Reconstruction of South Carolina (in the most violent county of the state), and his subsequent abuse at the hands of a drunken white trash father, his flight to north Florida and from there a descent into the American frontier, and Watson's lonely home on Chatham Bend, the only house between Chokoloskee and Key West, literally the end of America.

Read it. Matthiessen won my respect decades ago with Far Tortuga, The Snow Leopard, Men's Lives, but Shadow Country is my candidate for the Great American Novel."

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Mar 04 2013

Sterling Hayden: An Appreciation

One of the most influential books in my youth was Sterling Hayden's autobiography: Wanderer.  For a young writer restless to get out of the confines of college and into the "real" world, his life's story was an inspiration of boot-strapped pluck, luck, and determination to find some meaning on the deep blue sea. That he was a leading man during Hollywood's Golden Era, married to starlets, called before the Communist witch-hunts of the House Un-American Committee, then revived in  the 60s and 70s as an actor's actor in Dr. Strangelove and the Godfather was mere trim and icing on a life spent before the mast on a Gloucester fishing schooner and tall ships. Sterling Hayden was the real deal, a manly man who deserves a revival.

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Hayden wrote two books: Wanderer is still in print and a very worthwhile read. His one and only novel, Voyage: A Novel of 1896 is out of print, but worth tracking down from a used bookstore. It is one of the better maritime novels on my bookshelf. As for his films, other than Strangelove and Godfather, his other big contemporary film was The Long Goodbye. His early stuff -- beginning in 1941 after he was discovered by Hollywood on the deck of a Gloucester schooner because of some newsreel footage shot at the annual schooner races in Boston -- is pretty obscure, B-movie stuff. He hated the studio system which cast him as a pretty boy/beefcake but he put up with it to finance his expensive tastes in wives and boats. Hayden was a self-admitted bad actor.

He spent World War II in the OSS, working behind enemy lines in Yugoslavia with Marshal Tito's band of resistance guerrillas fighting Nazis. That built some admiration for the Communists which got him into hot water after the war during the Hollywood witch hunts, a period in his life he long regretted after he uncharacteristically named names.

I met him once, in Sausalito, California in the early 80s, shortly before his death in 1986, when I was tending bar in San Francisco and writing as the Bay Area stringer for Soundings, a weekly boating newspaper. I read a profile of his first mate, Spike Africa, in the San Francisco Chronicle, learned Hayden was in Sausalito and tracked him down. I was 22 and the two interviews I had with him were my first experience with true hero worship. I never wrote the profile, the editors at Sounding weren't interested and I was too flaky to freelance the piece elsewhere, a mistake I kick myself for.

There is a great appreciation of Hayden, the sailor and writer, by Captain Paul Watson at Sea Shepherd International's blog. I'll borrow his quote of Hayden's because it was the kind of sentiment that fired me up as a confused and rudderless young sophmore:

“To be truly challenging, a voyage, like a life, must rest on a firm foundation of financial unrest. Otherwise, you are doomed to a routine traverse, the kind known to yachtsmen who play with their boats at sea… cruising, it is called. Voyaging belongs to seamen, and to the wanderers of the world who cannot, or will not, fit in. If you are contemplating a voyage and you have the means, abandon the venture until your fortunes change. Only then will you know what the sea is all about. I’ve always wanted to sail to the south seas, but I can’t afford it.” What these men can’t afford is not to go. They are enmeshed in the cancerous discipline of security. And in the worship of security we fling our lives beneath the wheels of routine – and before we know it our lives are gone. What does a man need – really need? A few pounds of food each day, heat and shelter, six feet to lie down in – and some form of working activity that will yield a sense of accomplishment. That’s all – in the material sense, and we know it. But we are brainwashed by our economic system until we end up in a tomb beneath a pyramid of time payments, mortgages, preposterous gadgetry, playthings that divert our attention for the sheer idiocy of the charade. The years thunder by, The dreams of youth grow dim where they lie caked in dust on the shelves of patience. Before we know it, the tomb is sealed. Where, then, lies the answer? In choice. Which shall it be: bankruptcy of purse or bankruptcy of life?”

- Sterling Hayden

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Jan 07 2013

The Recent Reading List

Published by under Reading

William Boyd is one of those English novelists who seems to simmer under the surface of fame and motors along an acquired taste and favorite of readers who love great writing. I was introduced to him by Charles Dubow (who's first novel, Indiscretion, is to be published next month) in the 1990s when we were colleagues at Forbes.com and ever since I've pressed Boyd's novels onto my friends who appreciate the good stuff.

Boyd sets his books in the past -- he seems most comfortable in the late 19th and early 20th centuries -- and his protagonists, generally Englishmen, are wonderfully vivid characters, artists and dreamers beset by the world.

His latest, which I am still reading, is Waiting for Sunrise, set in Vienna before World War One. a story of a young man seeking "the talking cure" for his inability to achieve an orgasm.

The first Boyd novel I read, one that remains one of my favorites, is The New Confessionsthe story of John James Todd, survivor of the trenches of France, cameraman, silent film director and auteur, who sets out to audaciously film Jean Jacques Rousseau's "Confessions". From WWI to Hollywood, it remains the best novel about cinema I have read.

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Nov 20 2012

Current reading list

Published by under Books,Reading

I've been juggling the usual reading list, relying primarily on my Google Nexus 7 tablet as my Kindle delivery device. Good tablet. I highly recommend it.

BurrI've never read any Gore Vidal, and on the occasion of his passing away earlier this year bought a paperback edition of Burr, his fictionalization of the life of Aaron Burr. Burr shot and killed Alexander Hamilton in perhaps the most famous duel in history; was Jefferson's vice-president, a hero of the Revolutionary War and, in Vidal's portrayal, a licentious, thoughtful, and scheming political survivor whom history has tarred and feathered while deifying Hamilton. I recommend it.

Proud TowerIf I could write history I would want to write like Barbara Tuchman. Her Guns of August, and Distant Mirror are personal favorites. Taken in the same vein of other historical authors who manage to make history sing (e.g. David McCullough and William Manchester), Tuchman is the best. Proud Tower is a look at the decline of aristocratic power structures in the two decades before World War I - with exquisite cameos of the best and the brightest in Parliament, Congress, and even the anarchist bomb throwers that presage our modern terrorism crisis.

DeadheadNick Baumgartner at the New Yorker has written a great personal account of being a Deadhead, a compulsive collector of the band's trove of user-shared bootleg taps of their shows, the fate of the band's archive and where it stands today in a warehouse in Burbank California. Which reminds me to do something with the two cases of 90 minute Maxell cassettes sitting in my attic.

Readwrite on Outing Trolls: interesting piece in ReadWrite (where the Fake Steve Jobs, my buddy Dan Lyons is now editor in chief) on the use of social media to "out" trolls and racists.  I confess to being a fan of the troll subculture -- finding some of the old USENET trolls to be among the more demented disruptors  and jokesters ever known. The rise of 4Chan, Reddit, etc. has given birth to an entirely weird subculture (my favorite being the SecondLife griefers "W-hat"). The example of the Tumblr blog devoted to outing adolescent racists who used Twitter and Facebook to express their ignorance after the recent election is depressing.

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Nov 19 2012

Relentlessly Self-Improving

I confess I haven't rowed on the water once this calendar year. My only excuse is a shitty start to the season with the torn bicep back in January and the five months of rehab. Now it looks like that same arm has a "slap tear" at the top of the bicep, and that means some specific movements are both painful and very weak, including lifting the shell out of its rack and getting it over head.

The winter injury happened just in to time to knock me out of the 2012 CRASH-B sprints (the "world championships" of indoor/erg rowing) and I never got motivatedenough  to wake up extra-early for the calm water and portage my scull down Old Shore Road to the harbor.   Crossfit and the tedium of physical therapy had my full attention and now, with Thanksgiving holiday ahead, it's time to start hyperfocusing on the indoor rowing season which traditionally begins for me with the Concept 2 Holiday Challenge (200,000 meters between Thanksgiving and Christmas) and ends with the Crash-B's in February.

This is my last year in the 50-54 men's heavyweight division. In 2011 I tanked after going out too fast from the start and bonked in the last 500 meters, blowing a nice pace and finishing 14th with a 6:39.9.  I had won the Cape Cod "championships" at the Cranberry Crunch the month before with a 6:42 and was all full of myself and cocky at the Crash-Bs and went out too fast. I learned my lesson and left the arena at Boston University determined to come back better in 2012. I signed up for Crossfit Cape Cod the next week and have been training with an eye towards getting faster on the erg.

Today I did my first 2,000 meter test to set the baseline for my training over the next three months leading up to the race on February 17.  I climbed on the erg, stripped off my shirt, set the monitor for a 2,000 meter piece and decided anything under 7 minutes would be a good place to start. I made it. Barely, with a 6:58.8.  That meant an average 500 meter pace of 1:44.7. Respectable, but a long way from where I need to be in 12 weeks. Ironically, focusing on Crossfit has made me slower on the erg -- proof that randomizing my exercise the Crossfit way between metabolic and strength conditioning isn't as effective as my tried-and-true model of putting in tons of meters and shifting to short sprint intervals as the races grow near.

I logged my time on Concept2's online ranking page and now stand 39th out of 616 heavyweight men ages 50-59. The winning time in my division last year at the Crash-Bs was a 6:11.4. The world record is 6:07.7 set by Andy Ripley in 1998. The world record -- period -- for men is 5:36.6.

Breaking seven minutes is a great goal for any guy in good shape, but being the competitive egomaniac I am, of course I am going to obsess on the winning times in my division and have my eyes on the next age group's record of 6:18 set by Harvard/Olympian legend Dick Cashin.    As for this year. I would dearly love to get under 6:30 in 12 weeks. That means shaving 30 seconds between now and then. It's improbable, if not impossible, but it is at least aggressive. The question is how to develop a training plan that will get me there while allowing me to do the daily Crossfit workouts, and taper in time for the big event?

If I pull one 2K per week -- say every Saturday. I should be shaving 3 seconds off every week if I want to break 6:30 on February 17.  I bet if I were to attack a test piece now with the same intensity a race requires -- "emptying the tank" -- and leaving nothing to spare at the end, I might get to 6:45 with a superhuman effort. The question is how shave the last 15 seconds knowing full well the law of diminishing returns that sets in as one gets closer to the goal.

Developing a training plan to get from here to there is not a simple matter of plotting a line from 7 minutes on November 15 to 6:30 on February 15 and hoping a miracle will happen somewhere along that line. It won't. Physiological adaptation doesn't work that way.

In fact, to be more geeky about it. The best way to look at the challenge is not by gross finishing time, but the specific pace that has to be maintained to get there. For that I turn to the Concept 2 online pace calculator. The rowing machine has a monitor that counts down the meters, notes the strokes per minute and most prominently displays a big bold number -- the erg's equivalent to the speedometer on a car -- the current pace for 500 meters. In Saturday's baseline piece, my average split was 1:44.7. I didn't row a a flat 1:44.7 every one of the 200 or so strokes it took to tick off 2,000 meters. I started with a 1:33 and gradually degraded to as slow as a 1:50 at one point. Fortunately, the monitor also displays an estimated finish time that one can improve by pulling harder, so having sat down with a sub-7 minute performance as my goal, I was able to keep the predicted time under 7 minutes and not let things decline and get out of hand.

Split strategies are essential to a great 2,000 meter performance. Using the Concept2 calculator and entering in 2,000 meters as the distance and 6 minutes, 29.9 seconds as the goal. I hit pace and it tells me that I would have to maintain a 1:37.4 pace on every stroke. Alas, I am not a machine so I start strong, fade, and then comes back to sprint to the finish. Hence my splits are all over the place. The experts say the trick is to pull negative splits -- meaning go progressively faster every 500 meters and not do a "fly and die" and rush out of the start and go like mad until something goes very wrong (which it always does in a fly or die situation). The discipline required, not to mention the conditioning, is massive.

As Mike Tyson said, "everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face." All of my pre-2k battle plans go out the window the second I start whipping myself back and forth trying to get the flywheel up to speed and realize the adrenaline is pushing me way too fast out of the blocks. After I settle down to my planned pace, and do my power-tens on the 500 meter marks, the dreaded visit to the pain cave begins about 750 meters or three minutes into the race, then comes what my friend Dr. Dan calls the "talk with Jesus" in the third quarter following the half-way point. All sorts of bad thoughts creep into the mind in during the 500 meters when the lactic acid is flaming, tunnel vision begins, and one's head starts to roll around. This is when the debate between survival and simply continuing and just stopping and puking happens. In a boat you can't stop. If you stop it is a disaster like an eight car rear end collision on a foggy highway. No one stops in a rowing race. It just can't happen. Rowing is all about the inner debate between the survival part of the brain and the more noble "because it's there" part. To hell with winning. The third quarter of a 2K race is about continuing. The last quarter is the realization that in 50 strokes the agony ends and the realization that anyone can do anything for two minutes.

I just need to figure out a practical path to get my numbers down in what should be an interesting test of the "quantified self." It is a very profound psycho-physiological-spiritual question to ponder: if hope springs eternal as the cliche says, and if one is a "relentlessly self-improving" man (to quote Doctor Evil in Austin Powers), at what point does the aging ego accept the fate of all flesh and realize that the wheels have started to come off and indeed, as we age, the rower's adage of "the older we get, the faster we were" is the bitter awful truth?

A 18-year old, prime-of-life specimen of immortal perfection can look at next year and rationally expect, with hard work, training, supplements, steroids, whatever .... to go faster. Athletes peak in their 30s. Most Olympians are in the 20s, some in their 30s, (depending on the sport of course. )The oldest successful Olympic rower is Sir Steve Redgrave, who won five gold medal in consecutive Olympics. He won his last in 2000 at the age of 38 and then retired, was knighted, and was the guy who ran the torch from the motorboat into the Olympic Stadium during London's open ceremonies this past summer.

The best way to show the reverse parabola of progress would be to plot all the erg scores from the Crash-B's against the age of the competitors. It would show a quick improvement from the teens up through the 30s, then a steep decline that accelerates through the 50s.   Masters rowers -- 40 years and up-- are  generally Type-A personalities, well funded, and obsessively competitive on and off the water.  I suspect not one of them accepts the truth that they are going to get slower next year, and most, like me, are throwing themselves into training plans, double-session workouts, expensive fish oil, post-workout protein supplements, weight regimens, and new boats (a new high end single scull costs well over $10,000 for 18' and 35 pounds of carbon fiber). Speaking for myself -- we're fighting the clock.

To end this disquisition on age and improvement .... there is nothing like an ergometer to give one the naked lunch* truth that in the end, everybody has to slow down and stop some day. Eventually everybody runs out of water, has to check oars, and back down before slipping over the spillway and cascading, lifelessly over the foaming precipice. To that I call bullshit and hope to be the toothless cackling codger who walks out on the floor of the Agganis Arena in 2052 at the age of 94 and pulls a sub-ten minute piece and gives time and deterioration the middle finger.

*: defined by the William Burrough's novel Naked Lunch, where "Burroughs states in his introduction that Jack Kerouac suggested the title. "The title means exactly what the words say: naked lunch, a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.""

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Apr 23 2012

Lit’ry Life – April 22

Published by under Books,General,Reading

I have some catching up to do with my reading recommendations. A lot of my time has been spent in marine diesel and electronics manuals the past week as I get ready to recommission my sloop for the summer season. If you want to know how to bleed the air from a diesel engine's fuel system or replace an AC shore power circuit, I am your man. Rather than dig through every thing I've read over the past two weeks -- and there have been some great long-form reads -- I'll devote this edition of the Lit'ry Life to:

Digital Behavior Modification

Stephen Marche's piece in the Atlantic Monthly, Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?  is a good companion to Sherry Turkle's oped in the New York Times Sunday opinion section, The Flight From Conversation and Gary Wilson's TedX talk on The Great Porn Experiment. Taken as a trifecta of content, it is a compelling and depressing sociological attack on the behavior modification the Age of Information Overload is having on our relatively slow-to-evolve brains.

Many other better informed critics have written at length on the alarming rise of a technically driven dystopia.   The argument that social/communication technologies from Twitter to text messaging are making us  more alienated from each other, not more connected is gaining empirical steam. Technology is blamed for everything from driving attention deficit disorder diagnoses through the roof to making men weird hairy-palmed porn addicts.

At my advanced age (soon to turn 54) I'm ready to plead guilty to technical senescence and invoke my AARP status as an aging luddite who just doesn't get it anymore. Just as my parent's generation was confused by blinking VCR clocks and the concept of "right click/left click" it may be my turn to lag the tech curve when it comes to location sharing, status updates, incessant liking, linking, curating and filming my skateboard disasters with a GoPro camera strapped to my hoodie. I may tag a food truck with my Google Glasses in a couple years, but ....if you haven't noticed already, I've all but given up on Facebook as am astounded by my friends who post every beer, every Kony viral video view, every I'm-On-Vacation-And-You-Aren't photo in the hope that someone will take notice and comment. I could care less about my Klout score. The only time I read Twitter is to check out some vile new comedian's inappropriate 140-character quip. Going to LinkedIn is an exercise in who's-viewed-my-profile narcissism.

The good news is I sense my own kids are indifferent to technically driven communications. One doesn't have a Facebook profile and vows he never will. The other two dismiss Facebook as a 40-something loser haven. Only one has a Twitter account. They prefer text messages over phone calls and email. For the most part they look at technology as a platform for entertainment -- be it a game or a song or a movie/tv show. So there is hope.

Read the depressing tales above then step away from the screens and get outdoors.

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Apr 09 2012

Lit’ry life: April 9, 2012

Published by under Books,Reading

I missed last week, so a little catching up to do.

New Yorker, April 2 issue: Robert Caro's account of the swearing-in of Lyndon Johnson on Airforce One following JFK's assassination is a strange, almost non sequituresque reminder of a day in history I remember vividly from my very impressionable five year-old's memory bank. I grew up in Texas, outside of Houston, and recall being strangely ashamed of the state I had come to consider my own, despite the best efforts of the neighborhood kids to pummel me in the sandbox for being a Yankee.

Economist:  the special section on the future of Cuba was fascinated.  I figured it was time to get ready and smart about some big changes after the Castro brothers fade away and Venezula's Chavez ends his paternal support of the island in the vacuum left by the Soviet decline. This section is a good solid primer. The most recent issue takes a look at the rise of China's military.

Newsweek: the commemorative issue on the 50th anniversary of the Beatles was .... meh.  I have the usual baby boomer's sentimental investment in the Fab Four but am not what would consider a rabid fan.

Sunday New York Times: April 8. The front page piece on the friendship between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and would-be GOP Presidential nominee Mitt Romney was pretty profound on an unspoken level in terms of expatiating the unique role that business education and the management consulting culture is having on global politics and leadership. Where the military or law were once the most common crucible for a politician's career (see John McCain and President Obama/Clinton),  the rise of the technocrat in the age of the Davos Man is becoming more and more inescapable a trend.

Books On the Kindle:  I finally finished Fermor's Roumeli, a great travelogue of northern Greece from one of the best Hellenicophiles since Lord Byron and have indulged myself with another baseball book from Padre's pitcher Dirk Hayhurst (The Bullpen Gospels) -- Out of My League.  It's a slow starter, but I will abide.

Longform.org: I discovered a chilling 2000 New Yorker piece by Alec Wilkinson about Hadden Clark, the cross-dressing-cannibalistic-serial killer who used to call Wellfleet his home. For some reason the outer Cape's unsolved murders really creep me out. From Tony Costa, the 1907s In His Garden lady-killer whom Norman Mailer drew from in Tough Guys Don't Dance, to the Christa Worthington murder in Truro in 2002 -- the Outer Cape, in all its scrub pine remoteness, has one other big unsolved mystery: the case of the Lady in the Dunes. Clark copped to that murder, but it was never conclusively pinned on him. Now the current theory is she may have been done in by Whitey Bulger.  Wilkinson delivers a great piece of crime writing which reminds me to buy his book about his year on the Wellfleet police force.

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Mar 19 2012

Lit’ry Life: March 19

Some good stuff passed before my eyes in the last few days but there is never enough time to read it all.

Sanctuary

Starting with an obscure journal only available to members of the Massachusetts Audubon Society -- Sanctuary -- is the spring edition devoted in its entirety to the 50th anniversary of the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, the book credited with kicking off the eco-movement, banning DDT, and leading to the restoration of avian species such as the Osprey (which, come to think of it, must be ready to return to Cotuit Bay any day now).

Carson took on the chemical industry and government regulators with a bleak ringing of the alarm that pesticides and rampant pollution were trashing the environment. A resident of Duxbury on Massachusetts' South Shore, her insights were local ones and led to massive reforms, and a lot of personal attacks.

 

Mass Audubon is a quintessential Massachusetts non-profit, founded in the early 20th century to stop the devastation of the tern population by the fashion industry which keyed in on the particularly stupid notion that sticking a bird's wing in a ladie's hat was a good thing. Sanctuary is not available online and is one of those member only things. I have been a long time member because Mass Audubon owns Sampson's Island/Dead Neck in Cotuit, manages it as an Arctic Tern rookery, and have rangers who come around checking for membership cards if they find you lounging on the sand.

The Atlantic

The April issue is a strong mix of sweet and sour. On the sweet side is a piece by Blackhawk Down author Mark Bowden on the man who broke the banks of several Atlantic City casinos without resorting to card counting or other tricks. Don Johnson is a veteran gambling industry manager who took advantage of the economy's effect on the Casino's policy to discount a gambler's losses from 10 percent to 20%. I was unaware that the heavy hitting gamblers, aka "whales" can negotiate a break on their losses or a stack of free chips to get them to the high roller tables. Johnson knew the casinos were greedy, wasn't known as a particularly successful gambler and therefore wasn't regarded as dangerous to the bottom line, and then just swooped in and played smart blackjack and took them down on the order of $10 million.

On the sour side: a lengthy cover profile of Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke with the provocative teaser "Ben Bernanke saved the global economy. So why does everyone hate him?" Big macro economic policy pieces are rough going for me. I don't have an appetite for the dismal science, but Roger Lowenstein is the master of making financial matters palatable and even exciting. The former WSJ writer's biography of Warren Buffett remains one of my favorite business books. Anyway, if you want to get smart on the state of economy, Bernanke, and how he pisses off both sides of the aisle with the Fed monetary policy, this story is for you.

Finally, a look at Rahm Emanuel's first year as Mayor of Chicago. I thought he brought a lot of intelligent f-bomb dropping testosterone to the Obama White House during the dark days of 2009 and this piece presents a hyper, hands on, technocrat in action in  the City That Works.

The New Yorker

I've only found the time to read John Seabrook's story [behind the paywall, sorry] in the March 26 issue about hit making song writers and producers and how they churn out number one "smashes" with great precision for big name artists like Rihanna.  The process is fascinating, involves a Blackberry and a "box" running ProTools, and a strange process of mumbling out phrases to hooks and rhythms. Somehow, at the end of the conveyor belt, a song emerges.

End note: ever wonder why magazine dates are so far in the future? The dates aren't for the readers as much as they are the day newsstand vendors are supposed to take their copies off the rack and replace them with the next edition. Hence I am reading a March 26 New Yorker on March 19. On March 26 the news vendors pull this issue and replace it. Now you know.

New York Times:

I like David Carr's column this Monday morning on how reporting by people with an agenda used to be called propaganda. He tackles the Foxconn/Apple manufacturing abuse one-man-show fiasco at NPR perpetrated by monologist Mike Daisey who prevaricated and committed many calumnies in his quest for entertainment. Hey, the issue isn't whether or not Chinese electronics factory workers are abused or work too much for too little so we can dote on our shiny Apple toys: it's about Daisey fibbing and blowing it at the expense of good journalists like the Time's Charles Duhigg who actually reported and sourced the same story, albeit without the drama that makes for good theater and podcasts. Carr deftly co-indicts the poor guy who made the Kony 2012  "documentary" and then folded under the attention and scrutiny to the point where he had to take off his clothes and dance naked in a sidewalk while committing felonious mopery.

 

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Mar 07 2012

The Lit’ry Life: week of March 7

Published by under Books,General,Reading

Fans of the longform are probably aware of Instapaper, but in case you haven't, I'd highly recommend installing this useful utility which lets you save web pages/articles for consumption later.

The New York Times extols the virtues of Amazon's Singles program -- low priced, long essays from known and unknown writers.  Lawrence Lessig on campaign finance, Jeff Jarvis on Leonard DaVinci, and much more. Prices are usually under $2.00. Check out the catalogue, I am even tempted to write up my church adventures and submit it to Amazon versus a classic book publisher.

New to the coffee table this week is filmcomment, a bi-monthly journal of film criticism published by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and an unexpected benefit of membership in that august society of wanna-be auteurs. The M arch/April issue has a piece (unavailable online) on two of my favorite film makers, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne: the Flemish brother duo who have won more Cannes Film Festival awards than any other film makers in history.

"...the Dardennes have come to be the most acute observers of the new European proletariat, deprived of all protection by the implosion of the Eastern Bloc and the weakening of traditional social safety nets, as churches and unions become less and less powerful for their constituents. Without the support of these institutions, the Dardennes' characters are reduced to a state of vulnerability."

In the men-wh0-climb-mountains genre, Atlantic Monthly has American climbing legend Ed Viesturs recount his first oxygen-less ascent of Everest, the 1990 "Peace Climb"

" Climbing without oxygen and sleeping without oxygen, I didn't think I could spend the night at 28,000 feet. The "Death Zone" simply means that above a certain altitude, you can't live forever. You could lie in your tent, flat on your back, eat a bunch of food, drink water, and your body would still slowly wither away, because there's not enough oxygen to build tissue. "

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Dec 06 2011

And So It Goes: the Vonnegut biography

I just finished Charles Shield's  biography of Kurt Vonnegut: And So it Goes: Kurt Vonnegut:  A Life  largely on the strength of Christopher Buckley's  review in a recent New York Times Sunday Book Review.

I've read most of Vonnegut's novels, but wouldn't necessarily put anything other than Slaughterhouse 5 on a list of must-read literature.  Cat's Cradle, Breakfast of Champions, God Bless You Mr. Rosewater: I read them, enjoyed some, didn't enjoy others, but would not rank Vonnegut among my favorite authors of the late 20th century's post-modernist school.

I'm not a big fan of literary biographies because they tend to be so predictable  in their accounts of misfit personas, alcohol consumption, failed marriages, alienated children, ambiguous sexual preferences, and the simple bleak fact that most authors go quietly insane over the course of their lifetimes thanks to sitting alone for hours at a time at their typewriters.  Dysfunction sells books. Normalcy does not. Read enough literary biographies and you'll come to believe that all authors are miserable human beings, and other than some rubbernecking urge to watch them self-destruct, there is little in their lives that is commendable. Any biography of Cheever, Fitzgerald, Hunter S., Jack Kerouac, Hemingway usually is a catalog of misfit urges and terrible behavior.

Vonnegut smoked too much, drank too much, divorced his wife after 30 years of marriage, and was petulant when reviewers trashed his work.  He fooled around, screwed over his agents and publishers, and preened a little in the 1970s as a modern Mark Twain after Slaughterhouse made him rich and famous. He was also fairly prolific, wrote some good novels, was a hero to the counterculture and very much a man of his time. That he died old and unhappy - well, I would argue happy 84-year olds are fewer than ill and unhappy ones.

Although Shields enjoyed "official" status and access to Vonnegut in the writer's final months, Mark Vonnegut wrote one reviewer to assassinate Shield's account as a fabrication:

"I'm happy to reassure you that Kurt did not die a bitter man who kept thinking he was a failure.

Charles Shields spent very little time with a much diminished 84 year old who right up to the end showed more flashes of brilliance and warmth than most. There's a ton of evidence, including his art and writing that he fought hard and largely succeeded to overcome PTSD from WWII and a quirky, but not altogether unloving childhood to have mostly loving and supportive relationships with his siblings and children and even his allegedly distant father. Shields had to ignore most of what I and other people who knew Kurt and most of what he read in the letters to come up with these shocking truths about a beloved writer.
It's too good a bit to go away, but Kurt had next to no interest in investments or expensive things and never bought Dow stock.

Why don't people employ a modicum of critical thinking before buying into the truth of a book whose existence is completely and utterly dependent on a picture that Shields would have made up out of whole cloth if he had to. Not a perfect man or father and I'll grant you two failed marriages.

My best regards to someone whose affection and respect for my father shines on."

I met Vonnegut in the late 1990s at a big Forbes event. He was quite avuncular and we sp0ke a few minutes about life in Barnstable Village here on Cape Cod in the 50s through the 70s. Vonnegut moved to Osterville in the early 50's, rented an office over the Osterville Package Store on Wianno Ave., mentions Cotuit Bay as the place where Eliot Rosewater's mother died in a boating accident (aboard a Cotuit Skiff I like to imagine), and then moved to the northside, to Scudder Lane in Barnstable Village where his wife Jane raised their three children and his late sister's four.

Vonnegut owned the first Saab dealership in the U.S. -- which failed -- but when I drove a 900 purchased from Hyannis Saab I always liked to think it had some psychic connection to Kurt.

Vonnegut bailed on Cape Cod in the 70s, shacked up with the photographer Jill Krementz (whom he eventually married), bought a townhouse on West 48th Street, and then a place in the Hamptons -- transforming him from a "Cape Cod Writer" (of which there are very few) to a classic New York Literary Luminary. He made some returns to Barnstable, but never called it home again after leaving.

His books were popular with my parents and their friends in the late 60s and 70s, and I recall the excitement whenever a new Vonnegut novel was published. Again, they didn't do as much for me as Barth, Pynchon, and Heller. All of whom faded when the new realism emerged in the late 70s with Raymond Carver and his ilk.

As for the biography, well, if you want to get a little depressed, then by all means, go right ahead. If you're a writer looking for some profound life's lesson, then it comes down to this the guy worked his ass off and found success when he figured out how to tell the story of how he survived the fire bombing of Dresden as a prisoner of war. Other than that -- it's petty stuff.

 

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Feb 12 2010

What I’m Reading: Depths of Farch

Published by under General,Movies,Reading

Farch: the mythical month invented by Tony Perkins long ago when Red Herring missed a month and he decided to combine February and March -- which in New England is the nadir, the pits, the lowest point of the annual cycle when the blizzards roll through, then the  winds follow, the landscape turns grey, and slowly, as St. Pat's draws nearer, the dog shit starts to surface through the grey snow  banks.

  • Red Sox Equipment truck left for Fort Myers -- this is good. There are two halves to the year: the baseball half and the non-baseball half.  Truck Day is my personal Groundhog Day and now, with some luck, I'll be blogging about the blooming of the crocuses, the planting of the sugar peas, and even -- dare I tempt the gods -- the launching of the boat for some clamming.
  • Reading. I've been busy on the Kindle and in print.
    • The Best Short Stories of Mark Twain: worth a read, definitely worth a read. How these escaped me is a mystery, but it takes a strong sense of humor to make a reader laugh out loud more than 100 years later.  I'm reading the Modern Library edition edited by Lawrence Berkove.
    • Istanbul: Memories of a City, Orhan Pamuk won Turkey's only Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006.  This memoir of growing up in Istanbul introduced me to him. I will definitely visit his novels next. It has been the perfect coda to the recent Turkey expedition.
    • Europe Central, William Vollman. Lyrical history of the Eastern Front in WW II as seen through the eyes of various luminaries from the artist Kathe Kollwitz,  the composer Dmitri Shostakovich to the Wehrmacht General Freidrich Paulus.
    • The Book of Basketball, Bill Simmons. I couldn't finish it, but the beginning is great as he relives the glory dynasties of the Boston Celtics as only a true Masshole of my generation could. The rest of it -- especially his "what-if" scenarios are confusing and indulgent.
    • Baseball America: monthly rag out of Durham, NC devoted to inside-baseball and minor league prospects. Feeding the inner baseball geek.
  • Watching. Lots of art film. In the past couple weeks ....

That's it. Lots of things happening at work, still engaged with the church thing, thinking about social devices, emerging market internet usage behavior, censorship issues in Iran and China .... the usual and not enough time to blog about it all cogently.

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Jul 29 2009

Random vacation thoughts: July 2009

Published by under Reading

I decided to take the last week of this month off to recharge some batteries and sooth my stressed nerves. Ishmael's remedy for burn-out applies here:

"Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off - then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball."

New Boat

This is the first week of full use of the Bald Eagle Too – a 1985 Endeavour 33' sloop – that I gained use of last fall when my brother's business partner and childhood friend, David Rowe, decided to sign the boat over to me rather than consign it to a charity auction. The boat had been beloved by his dad, Brian Rowe, a close friend of my late father's, and when Brian passed away a few years ago the boat began to sit, out of the water, unused. So … one day last November, while I worked in my home office, I heard a commotion out of Main Street, heard the back-up horn of a large truck, and said, "Shit. It must trash day!"

It was John Peck, owner of the boatyard of the same name, and master at yacht haulage, delivering the Bald Eagle to my yard for winter storage next to the garage.

I spent the winter crawling around inside, reading all I could on 12 volt electrical systems, marine diesel engines; the sort of things that I haven't messed around with since I delivered sailboats up and down the East coast in the early 1980s. An adolescence spent on the water, particularly as a deckhand on the Nantucket ferries, inculcated me with a respect for the maritime version of Murphy's Law, but I took some comfort in knowing the was well-loved and owned by an engineer.

I was ready to launch in April, but mooring regulations and the incredibly impossible situation of getting a new mooring in Cotuit Bay had me stymied. I filed a "change of vessel" request with the town's mooring officer to upgrade a 75-lb. mooring for a 14' Cotuit Skiff into a 500-lb. mooring for a 33-foot sloop. The issue wasn't the permit. It was space. And I had to wait until the mooring field filled in until the mooring officer could find me a spot.

Finally, after the Fourth of July, my polite pressure paid off and I was given permission to launch. I broke out the pressure water, blasted the decks, and John Peck returned to pick her up and launch her at Prince's Cove in Marstons Mills. Fisher and I used the Tashmoo (my outboard skiff) as a tugboat, and pushed her, unrigged, through the Mills River and North Bay to a temporary mooring in Cotuit. The following week Oyster Harbor Marine, the boatyard in Osterville, took her in tow, stepped the 50-foot mast with a crane, topped off the diesel, re-commissioned the engine, and by the middle of the month I was underway.

The best part was taking David and my brother out for a maiden voyage and getting the insider's guide to how she sails. That led, of course, to the impulsive decision to quickly take some vacation. Now I take the Cotuit launch out to the mooring field, and spend my day tinkering away, looking at the boat as a triage project. For example. First thing before slipping a mooring is the man-overboard situation. The decks are at least three, maybe four feet above the water. How do you get a person back into the boat? The swim ladder on the transom? A life ring? What if that person is a fat-whale like me and the only person who can haul me back aboard is my poor wife? From there the triage leads to fire extinguishers, radios, life jackets.

All clichés about money and boats can be inserted here.

Baseball:

I was scoring the Cotuit Kettleers-Chatham Anglers game last night at Lowell Park and became confused by a mysterious hit that was showing on the scoreboard but not on my card. The couple sitting behind me were obviously seriously into the game – from what I could overhear – and the woman seemed to be scoring, but freehand, without a card. I asked her to help me clarify the play – she held up her hand, she needed to see the next pitch (an obvious sign of a good scorer is undivided attention) and she told me where the hit came from. I asked her if she was a parent of a player, and indeed, she and her husband were there from Kentucky to see their son, Zach Cox, play. Cox won the MVP in the Cape League all-star game last week at Fenway for his two RBIs and last night he had three hits and an RBI as Cotuit moved into second place in the League's western division going into the final stretch. Good thing earlier, when Reverend Jeremy came by to tell me about his pilgrimage to Cooperstown for Jim Rice's induction to the Hall of Fame that I answered "Cox" when he asked me if I had a particular favorite on the team.

Reading:

Vacation is about the reading, and I've loaded the Kindle up with some weird stuff. First, I've never really worked my way through Dickens, and lo and behold, one can score some massive free stuff from Amazon. So I downloaded the complete works of Dickens and am now working my way through it in chronological order, beginning with the Pickwick Papers.

Having a restless need to jump around, I am immersed in The Economist and New Yorker, and also reading the legendary How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. This is one of the original self-help books. The ones our grandfather's read in the 1930s and 40s along with Rev. Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking. Given that Carnegie was arguably one of the greatest pop cultural influences of the pre-war generation, I figured what the hell. Tedious going, but refreshingly American in its optimism and emphasis on "hail fellow, well met."

Based on the Willam T. Vollmann profile in this morning's NYT, I ordered Europe Central for the Kindle. Also waiting in the wings, Paranoia by Yale classmate Joseph Finder, The Baseball Economist by J.C. Bradbury, and The Food of a Younger Land, by Mark Kurlansky (Cod, Salt)

Miscellaneous:

Lance Armstrong is the man. His podium showing and his performance on Mount Ventoux was stunning. He makes me miss the bike in a big way.

WordPress continues to amaze. Chris Murray showed me the site he built using WordPress, and all opensource tools. This is where small media sites are headed. Check out directorship.com

 

 

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May 13 2009

Identity in the Age of Cloud Computing: J.D. Lasica

Published by under Reading

Thanks to Mitch Ratcliffe for suggesting I read Identity in the Age of Cloud Computing, by J.D. Lasica, the result of a roundtable on the topic convened by the Aspen Institute. I strong suggest downloading and reading by anyone who is involved with cloud strategy, Web 2.0, or social media. There are some very strong kernels and insights I'll share as soon as I finish the piece.

It gives an excellent set up of what the cloud means, what its implications are, but gets very interesting when it talks about personal definition online, and the extent to which we can control and not control our personal identity. One great anecdote: a guy who made his fortune in online porn hired some PR people to create content about him to bury the porno past deep in the Google results. Ta da -- identity management.

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Feb 11 2009

Winter Beach Walks

Published by under Books,Cape Cod,Reading

Winter is the time of year when my wife and I take back Cape Cod, the only time of year when we can visit the corners of the peninsula that are over-run in the summer months. Traffic is sparse, parking is abundant, and the parking lots at the various town beaches aren't closed to all but the town's residents. Spring and fall may find me on the ocean beaches surfcasting for striped bass, but that takes place in the dark, on beaches deserted by everyone but the skunks and foxes rooting in the spindrift for dead fish, and the occasional fellow surf fishermen standing stolidly in the wash, waiting for a tug on the other end of their line. Winter is for beach walking.

The beneficial effects of a stroll on the ocean beach are well known, and have been described as far back as the 1850s by Cape Cod's first literary tourist, Henry David Thoreau, who wrote in Cape Cod:

"The white breakers were rushing to the shore; the foam ran up the sand, and then ran back as far as we could see (and we imagined how much farther along the Atlantic coast, before and behind us), as regularly, to compare great things with small, as the master of a choir beats time with his white wand; and ever and anon a higher wave caused us hastily to deviate from our path, and we looked back on our tracks filled with water and foam. The breakers looked like droves of a thousand wild horses of Neptune,
rushing to the shore, with their white manes streaming far behind; and when, at length, the sun shone for a moment, their manes were rainbow-tinted. Also, the long kelp-weed was tossed up from time to time, like the tails of sea-cows
sporting in the brine. "

Thoreau's beach is just as he left it, but at the same time it is completely changed. The dynamics of littoral drift, storm driven waves, erosion, and the absence of any man-made impediments like groins, jetties or seawalls means the outer Cape is a single uninterrupted strand from the southern tip of Monomoy Island (Malabar, to the first explorers) to Race Point, 40 miles north, in Provincetown. Thanks to the protection of the Cape's forearm by the massive eminent domain creation of the Cape Cod National Seashore during the Kennedy administration, the outer Cape is essentially frozen in terms of development, with no foolish condos or towers daring the Atlantic to wash them away. This is a place of great endings and beginnings. This is the first place in America to see the new day, but also the end of the road. It's a wild shore, unfriendly and treacherous, and it has its moods – from clement coconut oil scented afternoons in July to terrifying nighttime fogs filled with apparitions, imagined monsters, and auditory hallucinations than can send a spooked surfcaster like me running for his car.

Beach walking exemplifies the verb "to trudge" and the art is finding that exact latitude of berm where the going is firm and movement isn't wasted sinking into soft sand. The footing of a winter beach walking, especially on bitterly cold days, can be relieved by a band of frozen sand, but for the most part the firm going can be found either at the edge of the wash (where wet footware is always a risk) to the driest reaches above the high tide line near the base of the bluffs and dunes. The beach is not a place for speed walking, a Harry Trumanish pace of 120 paces per minute. It can aggravate and build some sour psychic resentment as the walker bogs down and mires, perpetually slanted by the angle of the sand and shingle and that makes one wish for a shorter leg on the "up-beach" side, or a longer limb towards the sea. Walking backwards from time to time will even out the discrepancy.

Beachcombing is part of the art of the beachwalk, and provides some diversion from the monotony of the trudging. With the wind in one's face, stolid trudging follows, a head down posture that makes one feel a little abject and pentinent. Walk on the right strip of sand and keep an eye open for nests of monofilament, and sometimes a fishing lure can be unearthed. I see old men with treasure finders sweeping the sand for change or lost jewelry, but they never seem to shout "Eureka!" For me, filling an empty garbage bag is reward in itself, and I can annoy my wife to no end as I roam in the beachgrass looking for plastic water bottles, Mylar birthday balloons, and shreds of commercial fishing flotsam. Grim must have been the findings in the days when shipwrecks cast unidentifiable bodies onto the sand. The graveyards of the Outer Cape bear anonymous testimony on headstones for "Infant – Girl" and "Sailor - Unknown." Legend has it that body parts washed ashore during the torpedoing of World War II; femurs and such poked up out of the dunes.

A shipwreck will occasionally surface from the sands, lazarus-like, and draw a crowd as one did last winter at Cahoon's Hollow in Wellfleet. I tried to visit the ribs, but so did about 400 other rubbernecking victims of winter cabin fever. The British revolutionary warship, the Somerset, has been known to emerge from the sands of Race Point, and the wreck count, on the Peaked Hill Bars is huge – this beach being the place where the Lifesaving Service was formed in the 19th century which lead to the formation of the modern US Coast Guard. Those early surfmen – with last names like Snow, Cahoon, and Mayo – were the consummate beach walkers – patrolling the sands every night with an eye to the outer bars for a ship unlucky enough to ground on the lee shore. Thoreau writes of meeting "wreckers," the legendary mooncussers who salvaged wrecks for their cargoes and timbers, eking out a marginal life on the margins of the country in the 1850s, the days before the railroad joined the remotest ends of the Cape with the rest of the state.

While I am not a birdwatcher, but the winter duck population is amazing and I understand, from my reading, that the Outer Cape is one of the best places in the world to observe warblers, sea birds, and the occasional "erratic" blown off course from Europe and the Arctic. Winter walks are also good for dogs – as there aren't any nesting birds in the grass who would be badly disturbed – as long as I remember to bring some plastic bags so I can get really up close and personal with their contributions to the shifting sands and leave nothing behind but footprints (dog poo contributes to nitrogen loading in estuaries and is a bad thing aside from being unneighborly).

Here's a reading list for the inveterate Cape Cod beach walker. Suggestions, as always, are welcome.

  • The House on Nauset Marsh, I discovered this collection of essays written in the 40s and 50s by Harvard Medical School professor Wyman Richardson and ordered a used copy. The essays were originally published in the Atlantic Monthly and are a great series of glimpses into life in Eastham during the 1930s through the 50s in an old farm house near the present day site of the Nzational Seashore headquarters. Richardson was a duck hunter, bass fisherman, crabber and clammer. So his point of view is a lot like my hunter-gatherer ethos. He also knows his birds, weather, and natural hstory. Reprinted in the 90s by one of my favorite publishers, Countryman in Woodstock, VT.
  • The Outermost House, Harvard graduate Henry Beston, wrote a beloved account of a year living in a dune shack on Coast Guard Beach, the north spit that protects Nauset Marsh. That shack and his account of life on the booming shore is a beloved Cape Cod classic but the shack washed away in the Blizzard of '78
  • Cape Cod, Henry David Thoreau. The great Transcendalist wrote the classic work of Cape walks, and while not as spiritual as Walden, it is widely regarded as one of his best works. I need to re-read it soon.
  • A Guide to the Common Birds of Cape Cod¸by Peter Trull, is a nice slim volume with good sketches of the birds one is likely to spy on a winter beach walk. I can't tell a sand piper from a piping plover, a grebe from a loon, but I could if I spent more time with Trull.
  • In His Garden, this is a super creepy true story of a Outer Cape serial killer,  Tony Costa, who killed and buried four women in the dunes of Provincetown, Truro and Wellfleet in the late 1960s. Read this and those woods walks start to take on some very bad vibes.
  • Mourt's Relation: this is a first-hand account of the Pilgrims' experiences on the outer Cape in December 1620 when they first made landfall on the backside beach and pulled into Provincetown Harbor. After marching up and down the forearm for a week, stealing the Nauset tribe's cache of winter corn and robbing the graves, the Pilgrims under military leader Miles Standish fired on the Nauset's at Eastham's First Encounter Beach.
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Jan 28 2009

Amazon gets ready for second-generation Kindle – USATODAY.com

Published by under Books,Reading

Amazon gets ready for second-generation Kindle - USATODAY.com.

Stand by for an announcement in early February.

I took some guff yesterday for remaining a Kindle fan. Then I read this Frost & Sullivan report on consumer electronic in the "economic winter" and this jumped out at me:

"The Amazon Kindle, a wireless reading device was the number one selling item. Due to heavy customer demand, Kindle is currently sold out. There is hope for eBook readers (see Inside Mobile, Sept. 8, 2008)"

My compatriot's beef against the Kindle (other than its semi-plastic crappy design) is its uselessness during takeoff and landing. Hey, I want to crash as much as the guy in the next seat, so I make sure the Whispernet radio is turned off so the pilots' won't start reading Grisham on their instruments during the foggy approach.  In four months of frequent flying I have yet once to get told by a maurading flight attendant to turn off the book. Secret is keep it in its leather moleskine-ish cover and act like it is a book and not let the attendant get a good look at it.

Still, with a new model on the way (which I will not buy as I have a year or more before I amortize the hardware cost of V1 through e-book discounts (which generally are 40% off the paper version), I'd say Amazon has finally staked out, with eInk, the elusive electric book. And for that I am glad. Now if they would open up the platform and let other device manufacturers sic their best human factors engineers on the task, we might end with some truly ergonomic advances in reading technology.

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Jul 26 2007

What I’m Reading — Billy Budd

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Billy Budd

"The hull deliberately recovering from the periodic roll to leeward was just regaining an even keel, when the last signal, a preconcerted dumb one, was given. At the same moment it chanced that the vapory fleece hanging low in the East, was shot thro' with a soft glory as of the fleece of the Lamb of God seen in mystical vision, and simultaneously therewith, watched by the wedged mass of upturned faces, Billy ascended; and, ascending, took the full rose of the dawn."

Melville is my favorite tragic author (from a personal basis) -- Billy Budd -- arguably his most accessible work, wasn't published until well after his death when it was discovered in some papers and brought to the public in the mid-1920s. As a stylist, he could turn a beautiful phrase, and I am especially hit with the force of repetition in emphasizing the tragic execution of the hero with "Billy ascended; and ascending, took the full rose of the dawn."
Verbal pearls like this put me in awe of great writers.

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Mar 30 2007

LibraryThing | Catalog your books online

Published by under Reading

LibraryThing | Catalog your books online

"LibraryThing is an online service to help people catalog their books easily. You can access your catalog from anywhere—even on your mobile phone. Because everyone catalogs together, LibraryThing also connects people with the same books, comes up with suggestions for what to read next, and so forth."

I like LibraryThing. I like it a lot. You catalog your library and it compares it to other libraries. Reviews, tags, 200 books for free. $10 for unlimited. $25 for an unlimited lifetime. The T I will try to do a widget out of it to the sidebar to show what I'm reading.

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Jan 04 2007

What I’m Reading — Beowulf

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Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf, landed under the Christmas Tree (which has been stripped and now lies in the burn pile behind the tin shed), courtesy of my mother-in-law who has excellent taste in literature.

Everyone knows the story. Warrior Beowulf comes to the aid of the Danes who have been getting raided by a nocturnal monster that invades their gilded mead hall and eats everyone up. Beowulf steps off his longboat, tells the Danes to chill, settles down with his men, the Geats, and awaits the evil beast. Beast arrives, chows down on one of Beowulf's Geats, Beowulf wrestles the beast, one Grendel, and manages to rip its arm out of its socket.

Grendel limps off, to die in the swamps, and the Danes party down and give Beowulf his due and lots of bling. Ah, but Grendel's mom isn't pleased with the affair, so she pays a visit and kicks some more butt, taking off with Grendel's amputated claw and depriving the Danes of their trophy.  Beowulf shrugs it off, puts on his chain mail and helmet, tracks mom down in the bogs, slays a nasty bog monster in a pool of water, and dives into that same pool to sink down and have it out with mother.

Mom dies, loses her head, the blood corrodes the blade, and Beowulf pops back for more a party with the Danes who tell him he ought to be the king of the Geats.

 

But wait, there's more ....

Heaney pulls off a magnificent translation -- his introduction is worth reading on its own for its discussion of language and the role the legendary story played in the development of Nordic and ultimately Anglo-Saxon literature. This is a creepy campfire story the told around the peat fire to freak out the kids -- a Dark Ages version of Three-Fingered Willy -- and is well worth a good read. It's not every day one of the touchstones of modern literature gets translated by a Nobel Prize winner in Literature, so go to it and really bum out your seatmate who is reduced to reading the SkyMall catalogue. If you want to know where Tolkien got his inspiration (Tolkien was the critic who "discovered" Beowulf) then this is the source.

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Jun 14 2006

Sesquipedalianism

Why isn't there is great online dictionary? Wikipedia is a great online encyclopedia, but there just isn't a great dictionary, at least, nothing on the order of the OED in terms of total coverage, but also, most important, that capability to explore randomly and discover cool new stuff. True, there is dictionary.com and ObjectGraph has a nice and convenient Ajax dictionary, but I want something that can quickly find words such as these:

  • Propinquity: proximity, nearness
  • Facinorous: atrociously wicked
  • Saponaceous: having the qualities of soap
  • Treuhand: German trust officer
  • Obnubliate: to obscure
  • Autochthonous: originating where found, indigenous
  • Procellous: stormy
  • Fisc: the treasury of a kingdom

I've subscribed to the Word of the Day email list for ten years, and every so often it delivers a good one, and I've long been in the habit of maintaining a list on my Treo or Palm device of words I come across (such as the list above) that deserve a lookup. In prep school, in Mr. Ward's English class, we played Word of the Day, and everyone was expected to come in armed with a submission that the rest of the class would discuss, consider, and vote to the exalted position of WOTD. I appealed to my classmate's baser instincts (all 15 year-old's sense of humors are centered in their groin) and introduced them to such schoolboy classics as smegma, merkin, coprolite, and meconium (cheesy substance found you-know-where; pubic wig; fossilized feces; and an infant's first bowel movement). The last term was so wildly popular that it became, in shortened form, my nickname for a while: Mec. Classmates who arrived bearing good words such as sedulous (Persevering and constant in effort or application; assiduous) never stood a chance, so Mr. Ward had to ban medical terms and excuse me from further participation. That, and I was caught making up the definition to a word, tampion, which in reality is the plug stuck in the end of a cannon to keep dirt and water out of it, but which I provided a new definition for, being a ball of dirt and spit used by hibernating bears to keep ants and other insects from climbing inside of their bums while they slept. Lacking Google in 1974 to settle the argument, I was unable to prove this variation, and was banned from further participation. Then, this morning, I found the wonderful Uterine Fury Records which is so kind as to provide a cartoon strip of how a bear constructs and deploys a tampion.

But being of the habit of reading with a pen or pencil in my hand, I have a hard and fast rule of never glossing past a word I don't know. Down it goes, into the flyleaf or the Treo list,to be retrieved later. Never to be used in conversation, but just filed away for future reference and the appropriately pompous sesquipedalian moment (given to the use of overly long words). Now I will never rise to the level of a William F. Buckley, the god of vocabulary, and I wouldn't dare throw one of these tongue twisters into a conversation, let alone a written sentence, but it was kind of fun to fire off a letter to the editor of the Barnstable Patriot yesterday, the kind of grumpy-old-man screed one writes when someone threatens to erect a brothel next door to a church, and drop in the word eleemosynary (related to charity) just to let them know I had some big punches in my word arsenal.

My current favorite word, and a pretty one, is petrichor, which describes the way the world smells after it rains.

Yes, I read the dictionary cover to cover as a kid. And yes, I ate paste.

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May 23 2006

What I’m reading

Published by under Reading

I've been through a bit of a dry spell on the reading table, but that's changed with a couple deliveries from Amazon and a recent birthday present or two.

First, one I picked up for the plane ride to Paris, is David Foster Wallace's Consider the Lobster, a recent collection of his non-fiction (there are those who say he is finished with fiction, but I digress). The opening essay, an account of his visit to the Adult Video News Awards -- the Oscars of Porn -- had me laughing so hard on the flight over that the hostess mistook my laughter for an off-base appreciation of her banter with the person across the aisle over the intricacies of the in-flight entertainment system. Wallace is the master of the footnote -- indeed, as readers of Infinite Jest and his other works will attest, the real joy in a Wallace reading lies in the pica-point footnotes. Good stuff, and my son Eliot agrees, Wallace is a true genius.

Bless my wife, she gave me Glass Plates & Wooden Boats: The Yachting Photography of Willard B. Jackson at Marblehead for my birthday a couple weekends ago. A true coffee table book, this one is not only photos of beautiful yachts and working boats of the North Shore of Massachusetts at the turn of the century -- the golden age of Corinthian yachting in America -- but the accompanying text is great maritime history. One of the most beautiful collections of yacht photography in my collection.

I went through a few China books last month. Gate of Heavenly Peace by Jonathan Spence and the excrable Mao: The Unknown Story. Also blew through Hannibal on the flight from Beijing to San Francisco, but airplane novels leave me unhappy in general.

In literary sightings, Jimmy Guterman, former editor in chief of Forrester's now defunct eponymous quarterly (to which I contributed) Forrester, is contributing to the front of the book for Fortune. He has a piece on telephones and airplanes in the issue with John Lassiter of Pixar on the cover. I can't find the story on the Fortune (read CNN Money) site, otherwise I'd be linking.

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