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Canister

When we got back from our trip Sunday, one of the first things I noticed was that damn canister is still sitting there next to the curb just a few feet from our house. The canister doesn’t directly impinge upon us, but it kind of junks up the area. I had hoped against hope that someone would have taken responsibility for disposing of this thing properly while we were gone. Alas, not the case.

(You do remember the mysterious canister, right? I wrote about it a couple months ago.)

As I was unloading the car, I happened to notice Maria Santana was visiting her rental properties. I caught her attention, pointed to the canister, and asked her: “Is that yours?”

“No.”

I shrugged and carried on about my business. On my next trip out to the car, I asked her a follow-up question: “Do you know whose it is?”

It seemed like a reasonable question to me. But she responded by biting my head off. She told me to mind my own business and dressed me down for a good minute. I could hardly get a word in edgewise, but I tried. Eventually she asked me why I would think she had anything to do with the canister. I pointed out that the canister appeared to be full of white paint, and it materialized right next to a house that she owns on the same day that it was painted white. Purely circumstantial, of course. I didn’t mention some of her tenants had fingered her as the culprit — she evicted those folks, so I could imagine her response.

She denied any wrongdoing, but she continued to yell at me so vociferously that I only tended to suspect her all the more. In any case, it became abundantly clear that she is not a very nice person. Maybe she’s still mad about her confrontation with Xy three years ago.

The canister is still there and shows no signs of moving. I really don’t know what to do about it at this point. It’s too heavy for me to move, and I don’t know where I’d take it anyway. I guess it will just sit there forever.

Guess Who’s Back?

Posting’s been a little thin here lately because we were on a two-week vacation, visiting friends and family in Indiana and Tennessee. But I’m back now and hopefully will get caught up soon.

In the meantime, here’s a bit of fresh good news to chew on: Xy had an interview lined up for today — we got back yesterday afternoon — and now she’s got a job. She’ll be teaching at the Andrew H. Wilson School in the fall. She was starting to get worried after a couple opportunities didn’t pan out. But now she’s back in the game. Watch out kids!

Sixteen Months

Dear Persephone,

I mentioned it last month, but since then your nascent love of books has exploded into an all-out obsession. You will sometimes go into your room and close the door behind you; we find you sitting by the bookshelf, going through your books one by one. You love to have books read to you, first thing in the morning, last thing at night. It’s really something.

In part I think your extreme interest in books may stem from the fact that we haven’t played you any baby videos. I’ve been somewhat leery of those things, and vowed before you were born that we would try to adhere to the recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics to stay away for the first couple years at least. So, without videos to watch, books are really your main form of entertainment. But of course there must be more to it than that. You have all sorts of toys, but you often prefer books. Who knows? Maybe it’s genetic. Maybe it’s just a phase.

These days you want to get into everything, and you don’t really understand concepts like “no.” If you see a button you’ve got to press it. If you see a drawer you’ve got to open it. It’s endless.

The doctor prescribed a ten-day course of antibiotics to get you over a sinus infection. That put an end to your cough that’s worried me for many months, but it was rough on your digestion, despite the yogurt we fed you. Then, a week later, you somehow scraped up your toe and it just wouldn’t seem to heal up on its own. We certainly don’t want to give you too many antibiotics, but nevertheless you’re in the middle of another ten-day course right now. Doesn’t quite seem fair.

Last year when we made an extended car trip courtesy of Hurricane Gustav, you were too young to walk or even crawl. You didn’t mind being immobile for extended periods. Now it’s a little different, as we discovered when we made a trip up to Indiana to visit family last week. I remarked to some friends: “My baby isn’t the best traveling companion. She gets carsick, she’s constantly whining, and she throws temper tantrums when she doesn’t get her way. Also, my infant daughter isn’t much better.” (Get it? That was a joke.) You made a big impression on my sister and both sets of grandparents. You even got a chance to visit your great-grandmother in Indianapolis. And I think the first person you’ve identified by name would be your cousin Ella.

That reminds me that you’ve said your first two-syllable word: bottle.

The Long Hard Summer

I’ve been in a book club for eight years now. We read science fiction and meet on the second Saturday of each month at Octavia Books. It’s a lot of fun. We select our books by a simple method which was established by our club’s founder, the late Scott Speake. Each person takes a turn selecting three books on a theme. Given the current size of our group, two years or more may elapse between turns. But at last my time has come again.

For my theme, I chose hard sf. This is often labeled a subgenre but might best be understood as a tendency or continuum within speculative fiction. A lot of people don’t like the term for a variety of reasons, many of which I consider legitimate. The label conjures up a kind of macho mystique which isn’t very helpful. But I do think the concept has some value in understanding the history and breadth of “our special literature,” as Poul Anderson calls it.

The “hardness” of any given fiction can be understood in two different ways: 1) how seriously the story takes its science, or 2) just how “hard” that science is, physics being “harder” than psychology, for example. Thus hard sf will rarely feature people zipping around the universe at speeds faster than light.

(A brief digression. Explicating the above concept has led to some interesting conversations. When we took my boss out to Drago’s for her birthday, we talked about this in the context of two very popular and iconic franchises. I opined that Star Trek is an example of “soft” sf, while Star Wars is not sf at all, but a fairy tale with sf trappings. That’s not a dis to either, but I’m willing to defend this distinction extensively over beers to anyone who cares to foot the tab.)

After making my choices, I was surprised to discover an entry in an old journal of mine, from ’85 or ’86. I was living in Sweden at the time, and my parents had sent me a care package containing the novel Sentenced to Prism by Allen Dean Foster. “Hard sf,” I complained. “It figures.” I preferred New Wave stuff then; I still do, but I’m at a point now where I take a bit more interest in hard sf, as I discovered when we read Blood Music.

Which leads me to the following three selections. We already discussed the first book in June, but please feel free to join us for books two and three as the summer gets hotter.

Title: Mission of Gravity
Author: Hal Clement
Published: 1953

The only way you can get Mission of Gravity is in the anthology Heavy Planet, a print-on-demand book which is only available thanks to the efforts of the New England Science Fiction Association.

I chose this book because it’s an undisputed hard sf classic. The story concerns a huge planet which spins very fast on its axis; gravity is three times Earth normal at the equator but something like 700 times at the poles. There are some humans visiting, but they are offstage or peripheral for the most part, with the main players being the small centipede-like natives who are perfectly at home in gravity that would crush us. One might assume such creatures would be very strange and alien, but in Clement’s story they play out like humans in disguise. That seemed rather unlikely to me, but this is not a work of great psychological depth. Indeed, many traditional literary elements such as character and style are somewhat underdeveloped; the plot chugs along and unfolds at a steady pace, but it’s all in service to something else, namely, speculation on high-gravity physics. Clement’s reverence for the scientific method is palpable.

This is one of the geekiest books I’ve ever read. (Slide rules are deployed with reckless abandon.) It’s somewhat quaint, rather strange, even charming in its way. While I can’t recommend the novel solely on its merits, I have no reservations recommending it to anyone interested in the history of science fiction. It’s a seminal work. It represents an early effort to distinguish science fiction as something more than adventure fiction with ray guns, something more than space opera. Clement injects a healthy dose of intellectual rigor into the genre. I especially enjoyed his essay “Whirligig World” (included in this volume) which is about the process of writing Mission of Gravity and reveals some of his underlying motives.

Title: Beggars in Spain
Author: Nancy Kress
Published: 1993

By way of contrast, I chose Beggars in Spain for the book we’ll discuss in July. It’s set in the near future, on Earth, and revolves around genetic engineering rather than planetary physics. It’s also of considerably more recent vintage and written by a woman, both of which might serve to counter Clement’s perspective (masculine, 50s). I am only a few chapters in, so I can’t comment on the book as a whole, but so far it is engaging and nicely paced. Indeed, she wastes no time in unfolding the main premise: What if we could flip a few genetic switches and make babies who don’t need to sleep? From such simple speculations can great sf grow. There are less-than-subtle hints of Randian philosophy, which could grow tiresome, but this story won both a Nebula and a Hugo, so I figure it’s gotta be at least a decent read. My advice: Buy it, read it, and join us to talk about it on July 11th. You could do worse.

Title: Revelation Space
Author: Alastair Reynolds
Published: 2000

Our August selection brings us into the new millennium. I haven’t even cracked the cover yet, and I’m not sure what it’s about. I actually wanted something by Greg Egan, who is probably the primary exponent of hard sf writing today, but his most recent novel seems to have underwhelmed reviewers, and his better recent work is out of print already, sad to say. But Alastair Reynolds is supposed to be pretty good, pretty hard, and a scientist to boot.


It’s my hope that by reading these three books I’ll not only visit some strange and interesting imaginary futures, but that I will broaden and deepen my appreciation for speculative fiction. It’s my belief that sf is simply the most interesting and relevant literature of our day, and understanding hard sf is key to understanding the genre as a whole. Let the hard times roll!

Twitter Bridges the Gap

Twitter has become such a faddish phenomenon it’s almost embarrassing. Amidst all the hype of celebrity tweeters and whatnot, it’s easy to lose sight of the flexibility and just plain usefulness of this tool.

This was driven home to me when I was recently visiting with my sister. She’s not very cyber-wired and wasn’t really familiar with Twitter. This despite the fact that she’s been using the service for over a year.

Mother, Wife, Daughter, Sister

Back in late 2007 or so, my mom was frustrated in trying to communicate with her daughter and granddaughter. Mom liked e-mail while my sister and niece preferred text messages. Sister and niece didn’t spend much (if any) time in front of a computer, and Mom didn’t have a cell phone.

It occurred to me that Twitter could bridge this gap. It would allow my mom, my sister and my niece to stay in touch with each other via their tech of choice. Mom could post up from her computer and the girls would get it on their cell phones. They could text back and Mom could receive that on her computer.

Working through Mom we finally got it going in early 2008. So my sister had a Twitter account and was sending and receiving messages, but thought of it as a private communication channel with Mom. Little did she know I was following her updates too. But she wasn’t getting my updates until our recent visit, when I set her up to follow me.

I’ve hooked a number of friends into Twitter without ever sitting them in front of a computer. It can all be done via phone using The Official Twitter Text Commands. Unfortunately there are a few glitches. For example, my sister had to text both “follow editor_b” and “on editor_b”, the first command to subscribe to my updates and the second to turn device notifications on, i.e. to get those updates sent directly to her phone. This seems a little redundant to me; if you send a message from your phone to follow someone, I’d think it would be implied that you want to get their updates on your phone as well. Indeed, Twitter’s documentation even says “using follow/leave username from your phone is the same as using on/off username” but it didn’t work that way for us.

The important thing is that we enabled the communication. Now my sister, who lives over 800 miles away from me, can be a little more connected into my life. This blog can’t do that, and neither can e-mail or Flickr or Facebook or any of these other crazy services that I use. Only Twitter bridges the gap from the net to phone so easily.

My sister is hardly aware of the overheated hype surrounding Twitter, and I’m sure she couldn’t care less about it. She just wants to be in the loop when I get a speeding ticket in Cullman County or when I find my missing earring or when my daughter says a new word.

And now she is.

Suddenly Sickness

Woke up this morning about 3:45 AM and felt distinctly unwell. I stumbled into the bathroom and puked my guts out. Then I puked again. My first thought was to wonder: Did I have too much to drink? But no — it didn’t feel like that. Then around 5:00 AM Xy barfed as well. Both of us were sick as dogs, and the day proceeded to unspool itself in a haze of fatigue and anguish. This was my nightmare scenario — both of us sick, trying to take care of an energetic toddler. Actually, I suppose the true nightmare would be if the girl was sick too, but that wasn’t the case. In fact we think we may have gotten whatever bug she had a few days ago. That gave us some indication that it wouldn’t be a long-lasting illness, and indeed we started slowly feeling better as the day went on, and by nightfall we’re almost back to normal. We spent much of the day napping in shifts and spelling each other from parental responsibilities. It sucked, but at least we’re feeling better now.

J on 1370

I’ve been converting old cassettes to digital when I get a spare moment. Is that still called “ripping” as with a CD? Anyway, here’s the latest.

April 13, 1994, Bloomington, Indiana — Tom Gulley hosts Afternoon Edition on AM-1370. The topic of discussion was “J&B Get Baked” and the issue of marijuana legalization. J phoned in and eventually came into the studio. It was a two-hour show, but we caught only part of it on tape, and after removing commercials and news updates, it’s about an hour’s worth of audio.

Holidays in the Sun

This morning I walked to work, as I will be doing all week because my damn bike got stolen. It’s hot, so I bring an umbrella to fend off the rays, and a nice big 32 oz. bottle of iced tea, brewed in our refrigerator. I load up my phone with music I haven’t heard recently and listen as I walk. I like to not scrutinize the playlist too closely, so each piece takes me by surprise.

I was just making my way up the Jeff Davis overpass when “Holidays in the Sun” came on. I was immediately transported back to a time 24 years ago or so, in Stockholm I think, when I heard the same song as I descended an escalator in a shopping mall.

I wasn’t listening to headphones then — it was playing over a sound system. Then I was in the frozen north, now I was sweating in the subtropics. Then I was going down, now I was going up. Then I was a teenager, now I’m middle aged.

And yet the reaction I felt was just the same. As those initial chords crashed down, I felt a tingling sensation run up my spine and sweep over my whole body. Waves of chills. Nothing subtle about it.

Every time I hear that song it happens. I would have thought by now it would be worn out — but it’s not.

What is it about that song that gives it such visceral power? Does everyone hear it the same way, or is that just me? I suppose other songs do it for other people. That would make a great compilation: Music to Give You the Chills.

Hike & Bike

So how many people came out for our hike? Can we call it 200? The Times-Picayune did. So if you’re keeping score, the annual breakdown looks like this:

2005: 3
2006: 18
2007: 17
2008: 60
2009: 200

2009Walk-Hikers6

Photo by Charlie London

See also the video on WWL.

Our budget for publicity? More or less exactly zero. Word spread mainly through online means. It was listed on Meetup.com, for example.

The weather was beautiful, and that surely helped. But obviously this is an idea whose time has come, and the people of New Orleans are hungry for it. The voluminous turnout demonstrates that amply.

I was delighted and more than a little overwhelmed. It’s strange how you can be with such a large group and still feel mostly alone with your thoughts. That’s because I was usually out in front, trying to guide us the right way. After all, the path isn’t there yet — you have to use your imagination.

I enjoyed myself and still managed to take a few pictures, but such a large crowd did generate logistical challenges. I was worried we wouldn’t have adequate transportation back to the point of departure. We’d been planning on a modest increase in number, maybe 75 hikers. Our sponsor, Massey’s Profeesional Outfitters, scrambled to get extra food for lunch, but they had only chartered one bus.

Last year I said we might need to register people in advance, but we didn’t. Perhaps we should have. We will have to consider some major modifications to the game plan next year. If we break ground on this project at this time next year (could happen!) we might have 400 people or more.

It all worked out in the end, though, and I was pleased with the event as a whole. We had a number of speakers address the group at key points along the hike, which I think added a much-needed dimension of educational richness. A megaphone would have been handy.

I think this will go down in my books as one of the coolest days of my year, if not my life, except for one little blemish toward the end:

My bike got stolen. It was locked to the fence in front of Armstrong Park. Right there on Rampart Street. In the middle of the day. Someone must have had a pair of boltcutters and some big balls.

Summer Is Cool

Unseasonably cool weather again today, something we’ve been enjoying off and on for the last couple weeks. Nevertheless I feel that summer is here. Xy’s done with school, not just teaching but also the extra days teachers have to work after classes end. (In fact she’s cleared out her classroom and brought home a huge quantity of materials. Good thing we have lots of storage space.) Our daughter’s out of daycare, and Xy’s taking care of her, so my daily routine has completely changed. And to top it all off, after a week of caffeine-free living, I’m drinking iced tea again. So yes, summer is definitely here, and I like it.

I realized recently that for the majority of my life I have been either in school, or working at a school, or married to someone who’s working at a school. That means my life has been divided into a series of academic years, interleaved with summers. Maybe that’s why I like summer so much. It’s a special in-between time, a time out of time. Or maybe it’s just that my body doesn’t retain heat so well, so I enjoy the warm weather — though as noted, it’s been pleasantly and surprisingly cool here in New Orleans lately. It’s supposed to warm up a bit tomorrow but should still be lovely weather for a hike.

J&B on Howard Stern

Yo, big props to Ian Cognito for unearthing this little snippet from Howard Stern’s show of April 19th, 1994.

Believe it or not, I’ve never heard this before. For the complete run-down on all the media hype of those heady days, see J’s Baked Log.

I can’t help but note that Howard and his crew manage the not inconsiderable feat of making us sound even stupider than we really were.

Job Hunt

Xy’s job hunt is in full force. She had a interview at a nearby elementary school last week. Yesterday I came home for lunch to look after the girl for an hour while she did a phone interview with another school. And this morning she went in to teach a sample lesson at the first school.

I’d say it’s fairly important to Xy’s self-esteem to find a job, and teaching is what she knows. So I am hoping she’s successful.

But, boy howdy, is our education system messed up. Over the years — for generations now — we’ve piled all our hopes and dreams for a better future on the education system, to the point that we’ve totally overloaded it. It’s like as a society we expect education to solve all of society’s problems — and it can’t.

Teachers are asked to do the impossible, anymore. Sometimes I think it’s impossible for teachers in our current system to find fulfillment and satisfaction in their work. I’ve watched Xy try for years. She is an excellent teacher, and I am proud of her. But it’s like watching someone bang their head against the wall.

I believe very much in the value of education, but I also recognize that deep societal issues won’t necessarily be solved in the classroom. In fact, it’s fair to say that the classroom will mirror the problems in society. Education can surely play a crucial role as we strive together for a better world, but it is no panacea. We need something more.

A Decade Up in Here

Today makes ten years I’ve been working here at the University.

Somehow this seems more significant than marking ten years in New Orleans. Not sure why. Maybe because we’ve moved around to different houses and neighborhoods in the city, but I’ve been working in the same place the whole time — coming into the same building, sitting in the same room, looking out the same window.

Or maybe it’s just that I’m amazed to be working at the same place for such a long time. Certainly this is the longest I’ve ever held down a job. Then again, I consider this the first and only real job I’ve ever had.

I never have any trouble remembering the precise day I started because it was a small point of contention. I was finishing up grad school and wanted to push it back a month or a few weeks. But my (future) boss’s boss said that June 1st was “pretty much written in stone,” a phrase which has stuck with me to this day. So June 1st it was, which I now know as the beginning of hurricane season. Didn’t think much about that at the time.

I don’t have any pictures from my first day, but here’s one from a few months later, looking scruffy and conducting one of my first web seminars. It was a Saturday morning workshop on Netscape Composer. I believe this is the earliest extant photo of me “on the job,” so to speak.

B at the Board

I recall only one detail from my first day on the job. I came in bright and early, eager to make a good impression and start off on a good foot. I asked my boss what time, as a rule, I would be expected to arrive at the office? He thought for a moment, and said, “Whenever — just be responsible.”

I knew right then I was going to enjoy working here, and I’ve been doing my best to be responsible ever since.

I remember my job interview even more clearly. That was in February of ’99. I had purchased a new pair of shoes for the occasion, only they weren’t new — they were from the Salvation Army. Much to my chagrin, they began to disintegrate during the day of interviews and meetings. Little chunks of sole were crumbling off and littering the carpet of the office suite. I was probably hired because they felt sorry for me.

Granted, faculty development is not exactly a career I ever envisaged for myself. But even after ten years the work is still interesting, more so in fact. I’m constantly learning, constantly being challenged. I guess I could do another ten if they still want me.