Archive for September, 2014

Review: Tales of Pirx the Pilot

Sunday, September 28th, 2014

Tales of Pirx the Pilot is a collection of short stories by a giant of SF, Stanislaw Lem.  It’s the first Lem I’ve read, and definitely held my interest in many ways.  Lem does a great job of moving the tropes of being a working pilot into an SF world.  The jargon and technology is all extrapolated, but the feel of being a line pilot is very contemporary.

“Contemporary” has a bit of a timeless connotation here.  Lem wrote most of these stories before I was born, but the rhythms of flying for hire echo through the blog posts I read today about flying for the airlines.  One can see the details and assumptions that underlie them come from the 1960’s, but the beat is clearly timeless.

The stories themselves look like pulp science fiction from afar, but when the reader engages, they turn out to be a door into another more timeless fictional tradition.  There are stories that turn on the workings of a predicted technology, but this isn’t hard SF.  There is the wonder of faraway places and other planets (or moons, anyway), but the stories are all very human.  There’s a ghost story in here, and a locked room mystery. The trappings are rockets and astronauts, but the stories are all about people who are pilots.  Or people who are long distance truckers.  Or people who are sailors on wooden ships.  Or 21st century container ships.

Pirx and his fellows are not the first ones into a new world, but the ones who make a living travelling that world and seeing the odd corners of it. Consequently these are moody universal tales of walking the mundane unknown.


Keeping on Truckin’

Sunday, September 28th, 2014

I’m still working to balance my love of the bicycle with my love of not being in the hospital or on crutches.  I was officially allowed off the crutches and back to the active life on 15 September, and I’m trying to take advantage of it without overdoing it.  That can be hard, but, on the other hand I take a lot of joy in being able to just carry things from room to room.

I have picked up and begun riding the Surly Long Haul Trucker.  It’s easily the most I’ve ever spent for a bike, and worth every penny.  Just jumping up on it to ride makes me happy, and it seems to be a rock solid platform for getting around.  I’m still making tweaks to it – the rack goes on today – but so far it’s been everything I wanted.

I have gotten back to swimming, and that has been humbling.  I’m barely swimming a third of the distance I’d like to be doing, and forget about performance.  But there are bright spots.  I’m beginning to see improvements.  And I’m certainly tired and certainly sore in all the right places.  I think this will be a good plan in the long term.  Frankly the humbling parts of it are just as important as the physical improvements.  I feel like I grow as a person when I do things that are difficult for me.  Swimming is definitely an opportunity there.

For no good reason, I had a professional barber shop that fronts a speakeasy shave my beard.  It was an expensive evening of personal grooming, but an great experience I’ll remember a long while.  Jim and Sabrina Geldmacher shared the experience and pronounced the cocktails at the speakeasy excellent.  If you like fine grooming or fine drinks – or both simultaneously – take a trip to Blind Barber.

Finally, the support and love of all the folks out there still amazes me. Thanks all!

Review: Backroom Boys

Saturday, September 13th, 2014

Francis Spufford’s Backroom Boys is a quirky little collection of pieces on British engineering in the late 20th and early 21st Century. I’m not a dedicated anglophile, but I found plenty to like in his lively and unusual descriptions of the men and the challenges they faced.

British engineering is an odd subject in and of itself.  There are certainly great examples of it, but as Britain’s influence and empire contracted after WWII, so did the ambition and scope of its engineering projects.  Rather than leading the world’s efforts in creating transports and munitions, British engineers work at a smaller scale.  This adds a bittersweet tone to Spufford’s tour.

In addition to the wide-sweeping historical forces, from the 1980’s on British engineers were also blown by the winds of Thatcherism.  That government believed in small government and privitization of services in all aspects of service.  Keeping the funding flowing for, say, a space exploration agency going in that climate is well nigh impossible.  Spufford calls his government out on that pretty much continually across the periods when they are in power.

This adds up to a rich tale of little known efforts – some successful, others quixotic – set against a backdrop of historical sweep and villainy.  It’s delightful reading, perhaps because being an American gives me some distance. Spufford lets the reader see the great in the small as he describes some genuinely fascinating technological tinkering.  One of the strangest chapters is the description of the Concorde SST, which mostly revolves around the economic and marketing battles fought by British Airways to keep the plane flying, rather than the tech to make it go fast.

In addition to the big picture, the book entertained me because of its British audience.  If you’re writing for Brits, you certainly use a different set of homey analogies when describing technology.  Still, it was an unexpected pleasure to reverse engineer the analogies from the technologies.


Review: Perfect Circle

Sunday, September 7th, 2014

Sean Stewart’s Perfect Circle is one of the best ghost stories I’ve read in a long time.  It’s another one of those books recommended by Jo Walton that doesn’t fit into a particular genre.  If you come at it expecting a fantasy novel set in contemporary Houston, you won’t be disappointed.  If you come looking for a character study of a young man becoming an old man among the working poor of Texas oil towns, you won’t be disappointed there either.

What is unambiguous is that William Kennedy is a haunted man.  He sees ghosts throughout the city and his life.  That’s about where the definitiveness on ghosts ends, though.  Perfect Circle is perfectly consistent whether you decide Kennedy can can see the dead or hallucinates and has an active subconscious.  But whether supernatural or chemical, the past keeps reaching out and twisting Kennedy’s life.

Stewart describes the haunting brilliantly.  Sometimes a ghost will intrude and wrench the story in new places.  Sometimes a casual observation will pull a haunted flashback out of Kennedy’s memory. And always, always, the haunted moments are real moments: a relative killed by their own foolishness, or by corporate greed, or by the failings of someone who loved them. We all get to see death and misery, and Stewart makes it explicit without robbing it of universality or power.

That probably sounds like a pretty oppressive book, but Stewart doesn’t just beat the reader down.  His protagonist is full of faults, but is a genial person to spend time with.  He’s got that whistling-past-the-graveyard sense of humor that so many outcasts adopt. It also helps that his good heart is evident early on as well.  Stewart shows us Kennedy at a dramatic time, but it’s easy to see why Kennedy has friends.

Perfect Circle is a ripping, spooky yarn with an interesting protagonist and excellent writing.

Strongly recommended.

I passed the audition

Saturday, September 6th, 2014

Today Brenda was kind enough to drive me out to meet the folks at Topanga Creek Bicycles and have my interview and fitting.

It all looks pretty good.  The shop was great with friendly and knowledgeable people who were both laid back and professional.  They collected a fair amount of info about what I was expecting out of the bike and my health and history.  I’m not sure what they’d do if I was determined to buy the wrong bike, but I think we were pretty much in agreement about what I want and what the Long Haul Trucker will do.  They took a bunch of measurements and they’re off to build a bike for me.

The place had a very relaxed vibe.  They had just baked banana bread and offered us some of that and some coffee, introduced us to the dog, and got all that sort of stuff out of the way before getting to the measurements.  The guys we talked to were able to answer the couple questions I had in ways that made sense, and I’m feeling very confident about the purchase.

I’m expecting to get the bike in about 2 weeks, and be on my feet for it, so more to come.

Review: Their Life’s Work

Monday, September 1st, 2014

Gary Pomerantz has put together a nice piece of sports journalism in Their Life’s Work.  Sports journalism, by its nature only matters to you if you care about the sport, and in this case the team, involved.  Because the topic is the late-1970’s Pittsburgh Steelers,  it’s probably the team and era I most care about in sports.  Pomerantz covers the emergence of the 1970’s Steelers with a raconteur’s touch, spinning out the yarns well known to football fans of the era with fresh aplomb.  All the largest figures of the era, management and players, are brought to life – most in their own words from interviews.  He retells the myths without completely overshadowing the blemishes.

In the second half of the book, Pomerantz looks at where these men and the Steelers institution have come 40 years later. Those monumental days have cast long shadows into most of the lives involved, and he does a good job capturing the many paths that led from being one of the greatest football teams in history. Some have been destroyed by the game – Mike Webster’s life after leaving the NFL was a prime driver for the current crisis in understanding traumatic brain injuries.  Some have flourished in ways that the game never touched.  And many are still part of NFL.

As interesting and important as following the players is, I was equally interested in the state of the team itself.  How the sons of storied owner Art Rooney came to terms with deciding who would run the team and how held my interest and I generally couldn’t care less about boardroom politics.  Keeping the Steelers as a franchise that conducts its business in a way that fans can be proud of is essential to the team’s appeal.  It’s revealing to see the difficulties involved with doing that when egos collide.

Many people will not care about any of this.  I do primarily because watching these men perform heroic feats on the field was a key part of my childhood, reinforced by my family’s closeness with the city and football culture there.  I idolized these guys, and some of my earliest reading was biographies of key players.  It’s equally interesting to look back on those times from a more mature perspective, and to see what became of these men after they fell off my radar.  Pomerantz brings it all to life.

Strongly recommended if you have any interest in the era.