24 December 2008

Killing Castro

Lawrence Block is one of the true masters of modern fiction. Hard Case Crime has featured FIVE of his novels in their line-up. With good reason--he's one of the best. The HC January 2009 offering (number 51) made it to my hands last week and I just finished it. It was a riveting story of a rag-tag band of assassins hired to hit the big fella himself. The book was written in 1961, just after Castro came to power but before the Bay of Pigs. Mr. Block intersperses the story with historical narrative, long italicized chapters giving background on Batista, Cuba, the Revolution, etc. These portions of the book are as exciting and well-written as the fictional parts. This novel was first released as Fidel Castro Assassinated by "Lee Duncan." Apparently it has been out of print for decades. What strikes me about the whole thing is how well Block understood Castro and his revolution even then. The idealism and noble sentiments of the Castritas were as quickly and easily corrupted by power as were the notions of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity during the Reign of Terror following the French Revolution. I think Monsieur Robespierre and Señor Castro would have a lot to talk about. The most amazing thing, of course, is that Castro is STILL alive and STILL the dictator of Cuba! I doubt that anyone in 1961 believed that to be possible. Killing Castro is a not only a great piece of history, but a terrific crime novel as well. If you want to understand the appeal of what we call noir, suspense, crime fiction, and/or thriller, read Block. And sign up for the Hard Case Book Club while you're at it. (Now that I've "caught up " and read the entire Hard Case line, expect to see a monthly piece here at TPP on each new release.)

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23 December 2008

The Blonde

Duane Swierczynski's 2006 novel The Blonde has an identity crisis. Is it crime fiction? Noir? Suspense? Thriller? Sci-fi? It doesn't matter. This book is one hell of a ride and the credit goes to Mr. S for humor, non-stop action, and great characters. Not to mention a trip to Philadelphia. The premise is a little ridiculous: high-tech nano-machines that mess with your head created by a shadowy international terrorist called "The Operator." Our heroine, the aforementioned blonde, is not very heroic, ensnaring our hapless Everyman ("Jack Eisley") in a wild hunter-and-prey scheme involving a professional killer. This killer, "Kowalski," has his own agenda, wreaking personal vengenance on Philly's Cosa Nostra. Kowalski supposedly works for The Department of Homeland Security, and he carries a flashy badge with holographic eagles that dazzle everyone he deals with. Kowalski's bosses aren't sure whose side he's on, and he soon decides the same about them. Jack, our unfortunate protagonist, spends the story trying to survive the night so he can meet his wife's high-powered divorce attorney in the morning (hence the trip to Philly), where he's certain he will be legally and financially castrated and forever barred from seeing his young daughter. The blonde, meanwhile, has a heap o'problems, not the least of which is a hopelessly far-fetched (but true) story that no one believes. She has to delude, deceive and manipulate everyone she encounters not only to save her own life but also to outwit the bad guys. If it sounds like a juggler running out of hands, that just points out Swierczynski's skill managaing all the plot threads and loose ends. Grab a copy and hold on for dear life!

I got this book--a new hardcover--for a few measly bucks at Edward R. Hamilton. If you don't get the print catalog, you are missing out.

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21 December 2008

Winter in Kourou

The European Space Agency launched an Ariane 5 rocket yesterday from Kourou in French Guiana. I got to thinking about winter in Kourou--the Winter Solstice was this morning (04:04 PST). The spaceport is only five degrees north of the equator, so I doubt they give much of a damn about the solstice. At home we are in the throes of winter with snow on the ground and freezing temperatures. I'm not sure I could live in an equatorial climate. I like the changing days and the travelling sun. Tonight is the longest night of the year. We can look forward to lengthening days from here on. I'm looking forward to putting on my skis. Another thing they don't give a damn about in Kourou.
-- -.-.

19 December 2008

Tempest in a teapot

Quite the stir created by our President-elect recently, eh? Seems a lot of his supporters don't like this Rick Warren fellow, and especially don't like that Mr. Obama asked him to deliver the inaugural prayer. I don't like bigotry. I don't like fundamentalism. I think LGBT folks get the shaft regularly in this country (and most of the rest of the world). I can't blame some of those folks for being pissed off. But this is a tempest in a teapot.

Obama is a "big tent" sort of guy. He means it when he says he wants to work with all Americans and wants to represent all Americans. Evangelical Christians are a large part of our country. Ergo, Obama will work--or at least attempt to work--on their behalf.

This is a prayer. Not a cabinet post. You want a prayer, you get a reverend/rabbi/priest/pastor/etc. Mr. Warren is some sort of reverend/pastor type. Mr. Obama is also a very religious man. (This is my least favorite part of his personality.) I don't have much use for religion, but apparently he does. So I expect we'll get some Executive Religiosity during his tenure as POTUS. I'm prepared to accept that--lots of folks are religious. Most Americans, in fact.

Mr. Obama is also his own man. He doesn't "owe" anyone. He has no political constituency, he is not beholden to any interest group. THIS IS WHY 65 MILLION PEOPLE VOTED FOR HIM. That means he's going to make decisions that he thinks are right, and the flip side of that independence means he's going to disappoint some people. Too bad. Get over it.

The President-elect is a smart, determined public servant. He wants to solve problems and get things done. He's not swayed by ideology. He's sick of the culture wars. I recently watched an episode of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart where Mike Huckabee was the guest. They engaged in a passionate and intelligent discussion of the "gay marriage" issue. Mr. Stewart profoundly disagreed with Mr. Huckabee, and told him so. Mr. Huckabee was the interloper, the odd-ball facing the strongly pro-Stewart (bordeline sycophantic) audience. You know something? They were polite. They were respectful. They shook hands like real men and showed a genuine affection for each other. That's a good thing. It's a model for how we should ALL conduct ourselves.

17 December 2008

Negative fourteen

-14 this a.m. Celsius, that is.

+6 on Mr. Fahrenheit's thermometer. Still, that's damn cold.

Mt. Shasta says they have 14 inches. (That's a positive fourteen!)

Mt. Ashland says they have 12-20 inches, not quite enough to open.

The NWS says it will snow tonight and tomorrow.

Looks like there'll be skiing over Christmas Break!

16 December 2008

From Mendeleev to MindHacks

This is cool.

I remember the Space Age. I was just a kid. Sure, we still launch rockets and whatnot. But these days it is all about the Information Age. I liked the Space Age. I think I'm diggin' the Information Age, too.

(link: http://www.wellingtongrey.net/miscellanea/archive/2007-06-23--periodic-table-of-the-internet.html)

-- -.-.

14 December 2008

Cruisin' for a Brewsin'

Cruising With Ruben and The Jets is the latest Mothers of Invention album featured on a bottle of Lagunitas Brewing Company beer. This one is a big, rich, black beer, somewhat like a sweet stout or porter. They call it "BoppaDooAyDoo Style Ale" and rate it at 8.6% abv. Yow-za! That's some kick-ass brew. (There's a note from 26 August 2006 on the Zappa website about the first beer in the series, Freak Out! I blogged about the Lagunitas--Zappa convergence on 23 Feb and 10 Aug of this year after we discovered Lumpy Gravy in the Ashland co-op.) "Cruising" is a potent drink, but not over-the-top undrinkable. I'm not a fan of high-alcohol beers, but I do like flavorful ones, and "Cruising" has plenty of flavor. We had to play the album and listen to the Mothers sing doo-wop. Songs like "Deseri" and "Jelly Roll Gum Drop" and "Anyway The Wind Blows" are as timeless as anything else in the Zappa canon. The label celebrates the 4oth anniversary of the record's release--looking forward to the whole collection!

-- -.-.

12 December 2008

Quis custodiet ipsos cutodes.

Who watches the watchmen?

Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, and John Higgins gave us The Watchmen more than twenty years ago.

The movie comes out 03-06-09.

A quick look at the film's credits and you see no mention of Mr. Moore, the writer of the series. Apparently he had a falling-out with DC over the rights to his work. (The same is true of Moore's V for Vendetta.) I don't know what it's about, or who the good guys and the bad guys are. My gut says "writers always get screwed," but that's the problem with the gut, eh? The facts may be something else entirely.

Yesterday and today I re-read the "graphic novel." The art, colors and letters are beautiful, of course, comics can't fly on story alone. But Moore is an exceptionally accomplished and brilliant writer, and that is what hooks you. Like his countryman Neil Gaiman, Moore is something of a literary genius. The Watchmen fuses fantasy and noir to tell a political tale with an anarchist slant. It is multi-layered, and holds up well to repeated readings. Much of it won't translate well to the big screen. But after spending today re-visiting this remarkable work, I'm starting to get excited about 03.06.09!

-- -.-.

11 December 2008

Our energy future

In February of last year the University of California at Berkeley announced a partnership with BP to create the Energy Biosciences Institute. This 10-year, $500 million dollar venture was viewed with skepticism by some, to say the least. One of the key players in the new project was Dr. Steven Chu, Director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The article in California magazine (Sep/Oct 2007) by Lisa Margonelli quoted Dr. Chu thusly: "We are seeking industry partnerships . . . We seek solutions. We don't seek, dare I say, science papers anymore." (italics mine)

Today's news is that Dr. Chu has been asked by President-elect Obama to head the Department of Energy. The Quantum Pontiff, my source for all things physics, likes the move. I do, too. One, we get a really smart, accomplished guy. Two, we get a really smart, accomplished guy. And three, well, he's a really smart guy. And has a C.V. to die for. (OK, so he's a Stanfurd guy. Go Bears!)

I want to wish Dr. Chu "good luck" with his new job in Obama's cabinet. I think he's a brilliant choice. We need all the brains, energy, vision, desire, commitment, inspiration and perspiration we can get when we tackle the issues facing us in the 21st century. After eight years of an administration that seemed hopelessly anti-science, we have a Nobel-laureate physicist with the ear of the President to look forward to. Check out something else he said in the aforementioned article: ". . . industry's strength is that they can make technology scalable . . . moving fast is better than maintaining purity. Monasteries are good places, but they're not good for science."

When it comes to energy, climate change, and the future, we have to get off our collective asses. Larry the Cable Guy says it best: "git-r-done!" I think Dr. Chu might be a git-r-done kind of guy.

08 December 2008

Fifty down

In September of 2004, an outfit called Winterfall LLC--who'd hooked up with Dorchester Publishing--put out a reprint of Lawrence Block's debut novel Mona (retitled as Grifter's Game). They called their venture Hard Case Crime. In February of 2006 I joined Dorchester's Hard Case Crime book club, and they started sending me two titles each month. You got that month's featured selection and one from the back catalog--such a deal! A year later they dropped the two-book deal, and I had to back order five books to complete the collection. All the books feature spectacular cover art reminisicent of the early days of the paperback crime novel. Lurid, splashy, provocative, juvenile, tawdry and brilliant, these covers are the line's signature. (Check out Glenn Orbik's work!) My bookshelf proudly features the first fifty. Number fifty-one comes out in January of 2009. Fittingly, it is a Lawrence Block reprint, and will be the fifth one of his books to be published in the series.

I have now read ALL fifty books in the series. This is the best stuff coming out of any publishing house anywhere in any genre. If you aren't hooked in to Hard Case Crime then YOU ARE MISSING OUT!

07 December 2008

More good stuff

Irish whiskey isn't quite the Rodney Dangerfield of whiskeys, that honor probably belongs to Canadian whisky--they certainly don't get enough respect. The once-moribund Hibernian spirit industry is putting out more and more good stuff all the time. Our latest? Tyrconnell. Several years ago we attended a whiskey-fest in San Francisco, an indulgence we greatly enjoyed. A distiller from Cooley, Tyrconnell's mothership, gave us presentation on pot stills and spirit-making. And he led us in a tasting of Cooley's brands: Tyrconnell, Connemara, and Kilbeggan. We had a blast, and we noted that the workshop was barely half-full. The scotch and bourbon sessions were packed, but attendees were lukewarm on Irish. They missed out. (We had a similar experience the following year, enjoying a nearly-empty session hosted by Canadian Club, where we first discovered their superb 12-year old "Classic".) The Tyrconnell, supposedly named for a famous racehorse, is a remarkably smooth drink that manages to have both depth and delicacy. Nothing at all like bourbon, rye, Canadian, or scotch, this Irish whiskey is its own thing. And that's what it's all about, eh?

05 December 2008

Raise a glass . . .

. . . to Repeal Day!

Don't worry, this won't be one of those ponderous diatribes about government and morality and freedom and individual behavior and history and etc.

I'm keeping it simple: raise a glass for Repeal Day. The 21st Amendment was ratified on this date 75 years ago.


03 December 2008

Rye on the rise

Rye whiskey, not long ago, was a rare thing on a liquor store shelf. Other than Old Overholt--a fine drink--there wasn't much. Both Jim Beam (yellow label) and Wild Turkey (green label) made ryes, but you couldn't always find them. If you went to a bar and ordered a rye cocktail, like a Manhattan, you got Canadian more often than not. Now, I like Canadian whisky, and they use rye in the grain bill up there, but that doesn't cut it! Fortunately we are in the midst of a rye renaissance, and lots of new ryes are showing up. This classic American drink is making a comeback. I'm a big fan of Wild Turkey's standard rye bottling, and it was a no-brainer to pick up the latest "Russell's Reserve" version of rye whiskey. Mr. Russell is the famed master distiller at Wild Turkey, so his name on the label means "the good stuff." This whiskey was smoother than I expected, with a tempered, well-blended feel, and way too quaffable. It had the unique spicy-peppery notes we rye-lovers love, and I think it will hold up well on the rocks and in cocktails. Mostly, I drink my whiskey neat, maybe with a few drops of water. I like the full fire-water experience when I'm having my nightcap. I think this one will be good for many more evening drams!

02 December 2008

The Pot Still

The Pot Still in Glasgow is a famous whisky watering hole. If you like single malts, and you are in Scotland, you find your way to Hope Street and The Pot Still. The pub also served the so-called "real ales" so favored by UK craft beer fans (and their American counterparts!). What could be a better place? One evening during our summer sojourn in Scotland, we drank pints and drams with a few local fellows until "last call." The featured sale whisky that night was Jura, a malt from the island of the same name. We never made it to the Inner Hebrides--Mull, Skye, Jura, Islay--all famed whisky regions. But we sure drank plenty of Jura, and our new local liquor shop recently had some on the shelf. Naturally we had to buy some and dive into it. The whisky has a rich malt flavor with a nice, dry bite on the finish. Lovely stuff, and great for memories.

30 November 2008

Mike Nomad

My old pal Marcus hooked me up with a noir treasure: daily and Sunday strips of the Steve Roper and Mike Nomad comic. The first set is from 1957, just after the introduction of the Mike Nomad character. The bulk of the material is from 1971-1973, when I was a youngster and happily addicted to the series. The storytelling (by Allen Saunders and later his son John) was full of dangerous he-man adventures, but the characters were sympathetic and well-developed. Mike and Steve were pretty dated by the 1970s, belonging more to pre-Sixties America, but they still seemed like real men. Mike was the tough, blue-collar counterpart to the urbane, well-educated Steve, but both were capable of getting into scrapes with mobsters, spies, femme fatales, and garden-variety crooks. The comics were often on the last page of the SF Chronicle Sporting Green when I was a kid, back when they actually printed it on green paper! William Overgard's exceptional artwork is vivid and powerful, Nomad being particularly iconic with his square jaw, blond crew-cut, chiseled features and ubiquitous cigarette hanging from his lips. Matt Cadd owes his existence to Mike Nomad. Just as an example, Matt has a Chinese landlady--Mrs. Chan--inspired by Mike Nomad's Ma Jong! Alas, the strip is no longer in existence, and I've never seen collections of the Nomad-era stuff. Blackthorne Publishing put out reprints of the "Chief Wahoo & Steve Roper" 1940s strips about twenty years ago. (Roper first appeared in the Elmer Woggon--Allen Saunders creation Big Chief Wahoo.) I don't believe anything else of the Roper-Nomad era is in print. Mike Nomad, action hero of my youth, is consigned to history's dustbin. That makes my collection of newspaper cut-outs a treasure indeed! Thanks, pal.

22 November 2008

Before their time

Thanksgiving Break. I'm on holiday. Tonight? American Rhythm with Craig Faulkner on Jefferson Public Radio, 89.3 MHz on the FM dial. And a couple of fingers of Woodford Reserve Distiller's Select Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (batch 284, bottle number 08847). Mmm-mmmm!

Tonight's theme is "Died Too Young." Sam Cooke. Patsy Cline. Buddy Holly. Bobby Darin. Charlie Christian. Too many others--it's a long list. Mr. Faulkner calls his program "The Gourmet Oldies Show" and refers to his source material as "American vernacular music."

Vernacular got WordMan™ fired up. Partridge says it is "of obscure origin," possibly Etruscan, coming to us through the Latin vernaculus, "born in one master's house." In other words, a slave. Bartleby says the word means native tongue, local speech, or common dialect.

The tunes are great. The whiskey's fine. I'm on vacation.

Talk to you in a week.

21 November 2008

Prop. 2 brew

Free Range Red Ale was one of my birthday presents! It is a product of the Laurelwood Public House & Brewery in Portland, Oregon, the city most identified with the craft brew renaissance. These folks are doing the organic thing, which is cool by me. Over at French Street Brewery we are moving in the same direction. The beer had a dark amber color and a big tasty crystal malt flavor. Good stuff.

The growing interest in organic ingredients is good for all of us. I'm not a fool--the use of industrial chemicals to improve yields is one of the major technological achievements of the 20th century. The fact that less than 2% of our population can feed hundreds of millions of people is one of the cornerstones of our civilization. Agricultural science will continue to bring innovations to farming that will benefit all of humankind. The movement to "organics" is not a rejection of modernity--far from it. It is a recognition that dependence on any one technological scheme is a mistake. It is an attempt to unify progress with ecological stewardship. It is a bridge from the past to a future based on sustainability. In a decade, we won't be throwing that outdated and inaccurate word--organic--around because we will view all production through this new lens, that of a sustainable future.

At least I hope so. In the meantime, drink up!

20 November 2008

One billion and counting

By the time the first element launch anniversary rolls around on Nov. 20, the space station will have completed 57,309 orbits of the Earth, a distance of 1,432,725,000 miles. If the station had been traveling in a straight line instead of in orbit, it would have passed the orbit of Pluto and be in the outer reaches of our solar system. (NASA: ISS 20 Nov 08)

That's a BILLION plus miles! That's a hard number to get a hold of. I once did a lesson on my birthday--I had just turned 32--about the number of seconds I had been alive. 32 years times 365 days times 24 hours times 60 minutes times 60 seconds is 1,009,152,000 seconds. (I did not account for leap years and etc.) It seemed like a nice way to get a handle on the notion of a billion. It worked for me, at least. The students were about half my age at the time, so they got about 500 million seconds, and I hope, some sense of the number. These days I'm at least three times as old as the students, and also older than most of the parents!

Today is the 10th birthday of the International Space Station. It began in 1998 with the Russian launch of Zarya. The Zarya module (the name means "dawn" or "sunrise") was the first piece of the ISS. Endeavour, as part of STS-88, brought the Unity module up a few weeks later and presto-change-o we got ourselves a space station. It is hard to be excited about international cooperation and the future of the human race when people are starving, or slaughtering each other, or both, in various corners of the globe. But this little piece of space is working, and has stayed working for a decade. That's something, eh?

19 November 2008


The Baseball Writers Association of America, henceforth known as BBWAA, votes an MVP award annually in each league. Now these fellows a) are writers and b) write about baseball. That's it. I'm a writer. I write about baseball. I'm not a pro. I have neither a journalist's education nor a journalist's professional experience. These BBWAA guys are pros. They make their living writing about baseball.

If you write crime fiction, does that make you a criminal? Better question: does that make you an expert on crime?

If you write vampire stories, are you an expert on vampires? How would anyone know?

My answer? Bollocks.

Here's John le Carré (one of the best) on fiction:

A good writer is an expert on nothing except himself. And on that subject, if he is wise, he holds his tongue. Some of you may wonder why I am reluctant to submit to interviews on television and radio and in the press. The answer is that nothing that I write is authentic. It is the stuff of dreams, not reality. Yet I am treated by the media as though I wrote espionage handbooks.

And to a point I am flattered that my fabulations are taken so seriously. Yet I also despise myself in the fake role of guru, since it bears no relation to who I am or what I do. Artists, in my experience, have very little centre. They fake. They are not the real thing. They are spies. I am no exception.


Which brings me back to the BBWAA and their MVP. This year, a young lad from one of the richest and most media-saturated markets and franchises--the Boston Red Sox--was awarded the MVP for the American League. Dustin Pedroia is a very fine ballplayer. Outstanding, in fact. But by any intelligent metric, he is nowhere near the "most valuable." He wasn't even the best player on his team, for example. (I think you have to give that to Kevin Youkilis.) Pedroia, like (NL-BBWAA-MVP-2007) Jimmy Rollins, is likeable and a crowd-pleaser. He does lots of things well, and exudes a bubbly high-school "grit-and-hustle" persona. This is all fine, of course, but has little to do with a cold, rational assessment of value by skilled observers. After all, BBWAA guys see more baseball than anyone who doesn't work for a team. They are supposed to be experts. Here's the problem--they're not. They're writers. They're as hopelessly biased as fans, and as hopelessly in love with their own prose as any amateur hack. So they vote an award that winds up saying more about who THEY are than who the "most valuable" player is.

And that's not how it is supposed to be.

18 November 2008

Getting in the spirit

There was always a bottle present, so that it would seem to him that those fine fierce instants of heart and brain and courage and wiliness and speed were concentrated and distilled into that brown liquor which not women, not boys and children, but only hunters drank, drinking not of the blood they spilled but some condensation of the wild immortal spirit, drinking it moderately, humbly even, not with the pagan's base and baseless hope of acquiring thereby the virtues of cunning and strength and speed but in salute to them.

--William Faulkner (from "The Bear" in Go Down, Moses)

Now that's a sentence. It is preceded by one about three times longer. Patrick O'Brian can uncork sentences that go halfway down the page, but he'll drop in a colon and a couple of semicolons along the way. Faulkner's sentence that precedes this one has a construction I've never seen, a semicolon followed by a dash (;--). The dash sets off a clause which ends with another dash, immediately followed by a clause set off by a dash. That's three dashes, one dash starting and ending one of the clauses. Stuff makes my head spin. (There's even a phrase in parentheses just past the third dash!)

This sentence, of course, is about whiskey. Or "whisky" as Faulkner spells it. Ms. Taylor, my high school English teacher (junior year), tried to get us excited about "The Bear." She was a good teacher, smart and earnest, but Faulkner was just too weird. I'm trying again, Ms. Taylor, I really am. Faulkner is some seriously impenetrable stuff. Thirty-plus years later I'm still struggling with it. I guess if I was a mixed-race Southerner who lived on the land my great-great-grandaddy farmed and I hunted a lot I might get it.

But I get the whisky drinking.

17 November 2008



Endeavour docks with ISS. (video link)

This Endeavour is OV-105 of NASA's Shuttle fleet. It was launched in 1992 and has 22 missions under its belt. Endeavour was the fifth and final shuttle--it replaced Challenger, which was destroyed shortly after takeoff in 1986. I remember that day well--I was teaching class when a highly agitated youngster came dashing into the room in the middle of my lesson. He was too polite to actually disrupt the class, but he got my attention and told me that his class down the hall had been watching the launch when the explosion occurred. He knew that it would be big news for me, as several months earlier I had chaperoned a student field trip to Edwards AFB in the Mojave desert to watch Challenger land. That mission was STS-61A. We didn't know, of course, that it would be Challenger's last successful flight. We were lucky enough to take another field trip to Edwards when flights resumed in 1988, and watched the successful landing of Discovery (STS-26). They don't land at Edwards any more, which is a shame, as the viewing was spectacular there. Watching that over-sized glider come down and kiss the earth is quite a sight. Those fellows are great pilots!

Speaking of great pilots, James Cook was in command of His Majesty's Bark Endeavour when it circumnavigated the globe from 1769-1771. He went on to fame and glory, remembered as one of the greatest navigators of his age. His tiny ship's memory lives on in space!

16 November 2008

Etna Brauerei

Over the mountain and down through the valley and you come to Etna. The Etna Brewery makes delicious beer, and serves a dandy lunch as well. We sat in the sun outside with our pals and had an afternoon festival for no reason at all. I had the Dunkel, a full-flavored, malty dark lager that impressed me with a clean, dry finish. It wasn't too sweet and that's to my liking. The Marzen--my second pint--was very mild and smooth, with a hint of hops. Lovely beers, both of them. Etna has always made great ales, their Mossback IPA and Old Grind Porter are particularly good. More and more craft brewers are adding Continental beers, and Etna offers a Pilsener to go with the other two lagers. I think that's a great trend. I'm not much for Belgian, but I really enjoy Bavarian and Bohemian! Word is the Etna Brauerei is no longer bottling--which means you'll only be able to get it at the bar. That will make the locals happy, they won't want any flatlanders drinking up our local treasure. As if I needed another reason to love life here in the State of Jefferson.

14 November 2008


The Indian Space Research Organisation announced today that the Moon Impact Probe from Chandrayaan-1 was successfully deployed and landed on the lunar surface. The date is significant: 14 Nov (1889) is the birthdate of Jawaharlal Nehru. The mission was timed to honor India's first prime minister and seminal figure in the country's modernization and emergence on the global stage. As I've said before, it is a new space race.

13 November 2008

Silent sentinel

Phoenix has sent its last signal.  Martian winter is coming to the red planet's Arctic plains and the remarkable stream of images we've enjoyed for the last few months will cease.  NASA says they are happy with the results, that Phoenix exceeded expectations.  I suppose when you blast a 350-kg projectile into cold, dark space and it travels a few hundred million miles for 8 months and you (1) hit the target and (2) land safely and (3) broadcast home you've accomplished one hell of a lot!  According to the LPL FAQ for the Phoenix mission, they thought they'd get only 90 sols (Martian days, about 92 earth days) worth of work done.  Instead they managed 149.

Today is sol 167 on Mars.  The weather report from sol 151 says there was a high of -46 C and a low of -89 C.  (Fahrenheit and Celsius sales actually converge at -40 degrees, that is, -40 F is the same as -40 C.)  That's cold.

Every journey we make to these far-flung, frozen landscapes ought to remind us of the uniqueness of Planet Earth.  Nowhere within billions and billions of miles is there anyplace so habitable, so hospitable to life as we know it.  No matter what we learn from Phoenix, and they'll be sorting through the stuff for months to come, we have to learn that our current home is all we've got.  Let's do right by it.

12 November 2008

Very clever

"Very clever you are, Mark!"

That's an actual quote from an actual person about my very clever FIFTY.  (See below.  Or read this.)

Then that pesky Charles Ardai sends his book to me, FIFTY-to-ONE.

It has fifty chapters.

Each bearing the name of the first 50 books in the Hard Case Crime series.

It is set fifty years in the past.

It has an insert--wait for it--all 50 lovely covers (with checklist)!

Very clever, Mr. Ardai.

09 November 2008

Wonderful Weekend

The weekend is the best time for music here in the State of Jefferson. Perhaps I should say "hear" in the State of Jefferson. I'm not an mp3 or iTunes kind of guy. I like to pop in the CDs, or heaven help me, spin the LPs or play the cassettes. Seriously. Both my vehicles have tape players. And I like the radio. Not Top 40, or heaven forbid, "classic rock." I've had enough of DJs and their hype, and I've had enough of programmed commercial schlock. I don't know who said it first, but I firmly believe that 90% of everything is crap. We spend our lives sifting for diamonds in the mountains of rough. Here (hear) are my diamonds:

First up at 1000 hours on Saturday mornings is Opera with host Don Matthews. I'm a Giovanni-come-lately to this wonderful music. My local public radio--Jefferson Public Radio in Ashland, Oregon--has a "Classics and News Service" on 91.1 MHz (FM). Mr. Matthews is a relaxed and informative host, and gives us an entire opera each week.

At 1800 my favorite program, American Rhythm, is hosted by the entertaining and erudite Craig Lloyd Faulkner. This one comes via JPR's "Rhythm and News Service" on 89.3. For two hours Mr. Faulkner teaches us the history of what he calls "American vernacular music." The only thing that trumps this show in this household is Giants baseball. From Sam Cooke to Sammy Cahn, the Andrews Sisters to the Mills Brothers, and Lonnie Johnson to Louis Jordan, this program serves up gem after gem. I just can't get enough of it.

Sunday morning at 0900, 89.3 carries NPR's incomparable Marian McPartland. The "Piano Jazz" hour is a fixture around here. The local guys play jazz all day long after that--real DJs with real playlists, live. Imagine that.

Then Derral Cambell takes over from 1400-1500 with "Rollin' the Blues." He covers the spectrum from classic to contemporary, old school wailers to uptempo guitar wizards. Can't ask for much more than that. Again, that's a local JPR show.

I'm amazed at the Mother Lode of musical riches that emanate from just over the hill. I live in a sleepy small town, a cultural wasteland in most respects, yet I can spin the radio dial and get all this stuff piped into my home. And yes, I actually do own receivers with analog knobs, so I really do "spin the dial." Hey, it's almost time for the blues!

08 November 2008


I first became acquainted with this word in my student days at Cal. I read Gregory Bateson's Mind and Nature, and Dr. Bateson spent a bit of time on "stochastic processes," dancing around in evolution, psychology, anthropology, and whatnot, trying to put together some sort of ecological treatise. I used to read stuff like that. Now I read Out of the Gutter.

Bateson threw around a number of big words, but he had the decency to include a glossary. Here's his take on stochastic:

Stochastic. (Greek, stochazein, to shoot with a bow at a target; that is, to scatter events in a partially random manner, some of which achieve a preferred outcome) If a sequence of events combines a random component with a selective process so that only certain outcomes of the random are allowed to endure, that sequence is said to be stochastic.
(p. 252 Bantam New Age 1980 paperback edition)

Wolfram MathWorld says the word is synonymous with "random," and Bartleby agrees with the etymology.

Years later I came across the notion of a "random walk." This was in
Burton Malkiel's A Random Walk Down Wall Street. I've read, at most, a handful of things about finance. This engaging book was the most memorable and enjoyable. I have the everyman's ignorance about these things, and like I said, spend my time reading noir. But I love words, and when I consulted my trusty Cartoon Guide to Statistics on the subject of "random walks," they had this to say:

Random walks begin with a coin flip. Suppose you move ahead one step for a head and back one step for a tail. Repeated flips produce a stochastic process called a random walk.

(Larry Gonick, empahsis mine)

There's that pesky Greek again! WordMan™ would love "stochastic." He'd whip it out in all sorts of verbal crises in his globe-trekking exploits. What could be more stochastic than world travel? And think of the other opportunities--dazzling
my baseball readers with erudite posts on the stochastic nature of our beloved pastime! Screw sabermetrics. Stochasto-ball is here.

This post does have a point. It isn't often that you get "stochastic" in an interview, much less twice. But my brother-in-law,
Bart Rothwell, is an awfully bright fellow, and knows all sorts of things about science, statistics, and finance. If anyone has the the intellectual street cred to toss it around, it's him. So I was reading about Bart's latest endeavor (way to go, Bart!), and there was "stochastic." Words are like a bottle of good whiskey--you get to uncork that bottle again and pour out another dram. Each time you get to experience another aspect of their complexity and richness. Damn! I'm thirsty!

05 November 2008

Penny-ante pundit

Watching John McCain's moving, heartfelt and eloquent concession speech got me thinking "where was THIS John McCain during the campaign?" I was impressed by his gracious acceptance of defeat and his sincere words of praise for his opponent. He showed great character, I thought, pledging to work with the President-elect, and reminding his supporters that he expected that of them as well. If the dignified, articulate and passionate patriot I saw last night had been visible all summer, it would have been a much closer race. Unfortunately for McCain, he never quite found his legs as a candidate. He never seemed comfortable as the "Republican nominee." That role did not play to his strengths as a maverick, and curtailed his appeal to a wider base. He may not have won even if he had been himself and carved out his own path, but he would have looked like the part suited him. He had a tough task. Barack Obama ran a near-perfect campaign. His organization was superbly coordinated. His fundraising was the stuff of legend. And the President-elect's other-wordly sangfroid was never challenged. I can't remember ever seeing a man spend so much time in the spotlight and not screw up! Obama found his stride early, sprinted past the favorite in the primary, and worked steadily all summer and into the fall to add voters to his fold. It was an operation of clinical precision that was fueled by a passion and youthful vigor rarely seen in the American political landscape. Obama's victory speech again showed off his spectacular oratorical skills--we've come to expect that of him each time he steps to the podium. I kept thinking he's got to keep something in the tank for later--the Inaugural, State(s) of the Union, etc.--then I remember he's younger than I am! Obama was born on August 4th, 1961, making him about 20 months my junior. The TV coverage last night showed crowds filled with young people in their 20s and 30s, and I think that was the crucial piece for Obama. He energized a disaffected bloc, and seems to have led a generational shift. Let's hope it translates into a new era of consensus politics, where coalition-building is more important than partisanship. After all, we got a heap o'problems in this country, and no one knows the solutions. We'll muddle along, like always, but maybe this time we can all muddle together.

04 November 2008


McCain concedes the election. A dignified exit. The electoral tsunami happened. Barack Obama is the President-elect, and will be our 44th President in January.

Doncha think they oughta . . .

. . . make Election Day a national holiday? Close all the parks, beaches, recreation areas, stores, shops, offices, malls, government buildings, etc. Leave the bars, restaurants and motels/hotels open. But give everyone the day off so they can vote. The waiting-in-line thing just doesn't cut it.

"Hi, I'd like to exercise my fundamental American, democratic right to vote!"

"Take a number, wait over there."

No. Doesn't cut it. Or, how about a cheaper proposal: absentee/mail-in votes only in Presidential Elections. The idea that people could encounter difficulty, inconvenience or hardship on the way to the polls is absurd. Voting should be quick and easy and simple. Registration? Nonsense. You are a citizen, you get a ballot, you get to vote. Period. Let's get all 200+ million eligible voters actually voting.

Whaddya say?

03 November 2008

It's in the stars

According to Madam Lichtenstein, that is.

She uses astrology to call the 2008 election for Obama. Again, I don't understand any of it. Her horoscope for BHO says stuff like (italics mine):

Moon sextile Mercury trine Jupiter – a charming and eloquent speaker. A good communicator who can effect great change through words.

OK. I can dig it. Here's more:

Pluto and Vertex square Moon – Massive uncontrollable change can occur based on emotions. It might upset plans.

OK. Let's get this thing over with, shall we? If you haven't already, get yer ass out there and vote.

02 November 2008

Screw statistics

These fellows have a different take on the election. They don't give a damn about statistics, polls, regression analysis, margin of error, trend lines, or methodology.

Here's a quote (italics mine):

You LastDayWatchers already know that God has cursed the United States (the House of Manasseh) by reason of George W Bush.

A little further down we get:

Your political house will suffer defeat as a testimony against thine unclean hands, they will suffer defeat in the House, they will suffer defeat in the Senate.

And because John McCain has embraced thine unclean hands he will be utterly defeated a testimony against you.


Before you democrats get to giddy let the May 15th Prophecy also remind you that the Lord Of Host curse is still in affect which says from Gods own mouth"you shall be only oppressed and plundered continually, and no one shall save you."

Hey, they can't be all bad, they are calling the election for Obama. The Last Day Watchers seem to be another of these apocalyptic outfits, similar to the Rapture folks, I imagine, though I'm not well-versed in Christian theology and (particularly) eschatology. Their take on the election is in the section called The Iran Symbol, The Falsifiers and The Republican Prophecy. I didn't understand the argument. You might fare better.

I always say that politics is irrational--people often vote against their own best interests. Candidates weave stories--myths--about themselves, tapping into cultural archetypes that people connect with on a visceral level. Issues alone aren't interesting or important enough to decide the Presidency of the USA! Couple that with the fact that most issues have been reduced to sound bites and slogans, and that many Americans are one-issue voters (guns, gays, abortion, taxes, etc.), and you can see why it has become increasingly pointless to discuss them. Add to the mix another fact: only about HALF of eligible American voters actually cast ballots. Democracy stinks, no question about it. The alternatives, of course, are far worse.

01 November 2008

Goin' out on a limb

I'm normally a rational, unsentimental sort. I'm not prone to religiosity, exuberance or idealism. I'm a materialist. Not in the economic sense, but the philosphical one. I accept mystery as mystery, and I don't seek supernatural or metaphysical solutions to the conundrums of existence. I like cold, hard facts. Many have called me a cynic. (Partridge says the Latin form of this word means "the snarlers.") I prefer skeptic. (Origins says this Greek word means "to look carefully at.")

Tuesday is Election Day. No mattter what happens, we will get a new president, one who will take office on January 20, 2009. A former Senator will be inaugurated for the first time since John F. Kennedy in 1961. I'm going to write about the election because I know that I cannot curse the outcome. I can't "spoil it." I'm a blip in the cosmic scheme. Even though I cannot predict the future, I am going out on a limb.

Barack Hussein Obama will be the winner on Tuesday. A year ago, I would have laughed at this notion. In the spring, I'd have scoffed. This summer, I was doubtful. In the last few weeks, I'm convinced of it.

I'm superstitious at a baseball game. I have a fan's irrational, emotional relationship to the game and my team. I'm careful what I say and what I wish for because I'm convinced the baseball gods have cursed me in the past for blasphemy and will curse me again for sins both real and imagined. But that's baseball, not real life.

Then Nate Silver came along. Among the ranks of stat-geeks, sabermetricians and money-ballers who've brought new-fangled analysis to the previously inscrutable world of baseball, Mr. Silver became known to bloggers and fans via his work at Baseball Prospectus. While this stat stuff goes back a ways (to Bill James and Pete Palmer, for example, even back to Branch Rickey), it has only become mainstream in the last few years. In the last few months, Mr. Silver has tried his hand at politics. More precisely, political forecasting.

His blog, 538, says that BHO has a 97% chance of winning the election. (More properly, he wins the projection scenarios 97% of the time.) Senator Obama is projected to get 52% of the popular vote and over 340 electoral votes. The methodology at 538 is deeper than this post. Check it out for yourself. It convinced me. And I'm a skeptic. Particularly when it comes to Democrats winning national elections.

So there it is. I made the call. History will prove me a fool or not. At this point, with 538's help, I think it's a safe bet. Regardless, I'm staying up late on Tuesday, all night if necessary. No more disastrous early-morning "oh-gee-we-got-Florida-wrong" nonsense for this boy.

31 October 2008

Hallow's Eve

Seasons are a funny thing. We celebrate the start of summer on the solstice, the longest day of the year. From that point forward, the days shrink in length--we get less and less daylight in our 24 hours. We lose daylight until the solstice in December. The pagan Celts and their Nordic brethren started their summer around the time of our May Day. They called it "Beltane." This was the point halfway from the March equinox to the summer solstice. That way they were enjoying the continously lengthening days until midsummer, the solstice. Then it was downhill until fall. These solstices and equinoxes divide the year into quarters. If the orbit of the earth around the sun is viewed as a circle with the sun in the middle, these points are ninety degrees apart, forming right angles to each other. The orbit is not a circle of course, but an ellipse. The eccentricity of the ellipse, however, is quite small, 0.0167. The earth has a perihelion (closest approach) of about 147 million km and an aphelion (furthest distance) of 152 million km. So you can see that visualizing a "circle" is a useful device even if incorrect. If we further subdivide the quarters, bisecting them, we get the traditonal "cross-quarter" days of the pagan calendar. The Roman Catholic All Saints Day (Hallowmas, or All Hallows), is celebrated on November 1st, thus explaining the origin of Hallowe'en. The cross-quarter day we are approaching is called Samhain, and celebrates the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter. We don't reckon winter until the December solstice, and after that point, the days begin to lengthen! Here in the State of Jefferson, we've already had freezing temperatures and the autumnal "fall" of the leaves is past its peak. Maybe those Celts and Vikings were on to something. The actual cross-quarter event (as reckoned from the earth's position along the ecliptic) will occur this year on November 6. I usually don't consider it winter around here until the Ski Park opens! (Thanks to archaeoastonomy.com for inspiration and information.)

28 October 2008


The first place I ever published a story--if you count "posting on a web site" as publishing--is no more. DZ Allen's Muzzle Flash is kaput. I remember coming across MF and reading the stories and thinking "people like this stuff?" I felt like I had those kind of stories already in my head. MF inspired me to put pen to paper. Well, finger to keyboard at least. I sent Mr. Allen a note yesterday thanking him for that inspiration. From Muzzle Flash to OOTG to . . . ? Lots of fine authors had their stuff on the Flash. Clair Dickson's Bo Fexler, PI series made me realize that the recurring character was not dead. In mainstream mystery fiction, the recurring character is de riguer, but in noir, it seemed a dated notion. Bo and MF disabused me of that idea. Matt Cadd was the result! The creative process is a funny thing. It needs nurturing. I know my own limitations, and they have to be overcome by persistence and effort. But that elusive "spark" that touches the tinder is often an accident, a random event that provides the necessary inspiration to go along with the perspiration. Here's to MF and all its troupers for helping me along.

25 October 2008


That's what they call it on the back cover. I wrote about SF/Noir earlier, and I'm back to it. The 24/7 anthology from Image Comics led me to the earlier work of Messrs. Brandon, Gunter & MacDonald entitled NYC Mech. Unlike 24/7, these are serials, six issues of the comic book bound as a "graphic novel." 24/7 was a collection of shorts by dozens of writers and artists. In NYC Mech, all the writing is by Ivan Brandon and Miles Gunter, and all the art is by Andy MacDonald. The fictional future is the same in both, a Manhattan entirely inhabited by robots, but robots that walk, talk and act like human beings. Let's Electrify and Beta Love are crime stories, melodramas in the noir tradition, ordinary folks living on the edge getting in over their heads. The art is fantastic, and the colors (by Nick Falardi) are spectacular. The whole layout is eye-catching--they've distilled the b & w cityscape of a hundred films noir and rendered it in bold, vibrant hues. The characters have all the expressiveness of flesh-and-blood folks, and suffer life's exigencies as if they were human, but have hydro-mechanical joints and a metallic integument. Are they cyborgs? Descendants of humans? The story never makes that clear. You find yourself in an alien world without explanation surrounded by familiar types chasing the same old dreams. Phillip K. Dick asked Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? These guys are looking for the answer.

23 October 2008

The New Space Race

The largest democracy in the world has an unmanned probe headed for the Moon. Chandrayaan-1 (Sanskrit for "moon-craft") carries eleven payloads and will orbit at only 100 km above the lunar surface for--they hope--two years. Two of the payloads are American in origin, the Mineralogy Mapper and the Miniature Synthetic Aperture Radar. It was just about a month ago when Chinese spacewalkers made international headlines. North Korea wants to get in on the act next year, it seems. That ought to raise hackles across the globe!

What's happening? The Russians and US are still manning the ISS, the Shuttle heads out in a month for its 124th mission, and the pictures coming from Cassini, the European Space Agency's crown jewel, are absolutely stunning. My friends, we are in the golden age of space exploration. Those of us who were weaned on the dramatic Apollo flights of the late 60s and early 70s may be a bit jaded. Ho hum, another rocket. But what we are seeing now is far beyond those missions in scope. The Space Race of that era was charged with the energy of the Cold War conflict with the Soviet Union. These flights lack the human drama of Armstrong's steps, but the robustness of the technology has now been proven. The world is heading into space--not just two countries. The ubiquity of the ballistic missile will prove to be a problem for all peace-loving peoples. It will get so that anyone can launch them. Like the proliferation of nuclear technology, it behooves us to sit up and take notice. Space seems to be the province, these days, of a handful of geeks. We can't let that happen. The future is for all of us. Start paying attention--the view is fine.

19 October 2008

The Rye Guy

That's me. I sure do like a rye whiskey! Mmm-mmm!

Buffalo Trace has a website called Great Bourbon that compiles all their products. The Sazerac Rye is nicely packaged in a retro bottle. We picked some up this weekend. Some time ago, we sampled an 18-year old Sazerac rye that was memorably sumptuous. This 6-year old is lighter on the palate, as well as crisper and spicier, but a fine drink nonetheless. I won't attempt to piece together which company owns which company, which product is from which distillery, or what we will see in the future from Sazerac and Buffalo Trace--none of it makes sense. But Franklin County, Kentucky seems to be the place of origin. In that case, here's to there!

17 October 2008

The Twenty-twelve Touch

If you think the world is going to end in 2012, I've got a proposition for you:

Gimme all your stuff. You won't be needing it.

You heard me:

Gimme all your stuff. You won't be needing it.

You won't be needing your bank accounts, stock portfolios, vacation homes, jewerly, furs, sports cars or sailboats. You needn't fret. Here at Ten Pound Press we are prepared to take these things off your hands ABSOLUTELY FREE OF CHARGE! Don't be burdened with luxuries during the apocalypse. Pass them on to others before the "end of days" so you can be FREE TO ENJOY THE CATACLYSM!

Some of you believe that Twenty-twelve is not a "doomsday" but a New Age. Hey--we're cool with that! Imagine how awkward and out-of-place you will feel around all these Enlightened Beings when you are still chained to your wealth and personal property. DON'T LET IT HAPPEN. Get rid of all that crap. Break your materialistic chains!

Fortunately, you've come to the right place. TPP maintains a mature and sophisticated world-view--we accept all philosphies, religions, creeds and belief systems. No old-school prejudices hold us back from separating suckers and their money. We are as American as P.T. Barnum!

(Stay tuned for our upcoming solution to the "Rapture Racket.")

12 October 2008

Encounters with the Arch-essayist

John McPhee won the Pulitzer in 1999 for his compendium Annals of the Former World. In the 1980s, Mr. McPhee travelled across America along the I-80 corridor in the company of geologists. The result was a series of books: Basin and Range, In Suspect Terrain, and Rising From the Plains. I was a McPhee fan from my Berkeley days, having devoured his engaging Coming into the Country, a rough-hewn history of Alaska, and his quirky and provocative Encounters with the Archdruid, a character study of David Brower, at the time an icon of the environmental movement. McPhee always appealed to me as an American Rennaissance Man--outdoorsman, naturalist, historian, prose master, and amateur scientist. His essays in Table of Contents ranged from mini-hydroelectric generators to Senator Bill Bradley to a den of wintering bear cubs. Like me, he was interested in everything, and found delight in the stubborn irascibility and boundless optimism of his fellow Americans.

In 1987 I took a few field trips with a bunch of physical science teachers as part of a series of courses offered through UC Davis. We accompanied our geology professor, Eldridge Moores, on a bus ride through the Sierra foothills. He was energetic to the point of hyperactive, and enthusiastic to the point of fanaticism. We loved him. He warped our minds with a journey through time and space on his pet subject, "ophiolite suites." We got subduction zones, orogeny, ore deposits, and island arcs. We stood on sea-floor rocks a thousand feet and a hundred miles from the sea. It was great stuff. Geology is akin to picking up crumbs from a decades-old seven-course meal and re-creating the recipes. There is so little left of what went before that it strains credulity to create a picture of how it got there. Sherlock Holmes was the prince of deduction. Geologists are the kings of inductive logic--building theories with evolution's crustal remants that reach back to the beginning of time.

Dr. Moores went to Princeton, like McPhee. In 1993, McPhee's Assembling California was published. This was to be the final volume of the geologic cross-section that had started over a decade before. Who had McPhee selected as his mentor for the ultimate portion of his cross-country trek? Moores, naturally. I felt an immediate kinship for Assembling California, of course, and I knew that some day I would complete the series. Fortunately, a new but cheap hardcover copy of Annals dropped into my lap recently (thanks to Edward R. Hamilton). I just finished the first few hundred pages, covering the Basin and Terrain. This re-organization of the books includes a new preface, updates, corrections, and a fifth piece, Crossing the Craton. This is tough stuff--geology is a bewildering collection of vocabulary, and its vast scope sends "my head a-reeling." But McPhee's lyrical prose and narrative skill make it an enjoyable undertaking.

09 October 2008


I came across this word in a short story collection called Grifters and Swindlers (ed. Cynthia Manson, Carroll & Graf, 1993). The stories appeared in the Alfred Hitchcock/Ellery Queen magazines over the years. Apparently Ms. Manson has put together several such collections under a variety of themes and subjects. I picked up Grifters and Swindlers for a dollar at the local library book sale. Not only was the hardcover in very good condition, it had stories by William Campbell Gault, W.L. Heath, and Jim Thompson, among others. Who could pass that up? Mr. Thompson's was called "The Frightening Frammis."

What the hell is a "frammis?" Let me tell you I had a hard time finding out. It isn't in the dictionary! But I'm pretty skilled at combing the 'net for info, and I think I can put together a definition. Eric Partridge, one of my literary heroes, used the abbreviation "o.o.o." in the essential ORIGINS to mean "of obscure origin." I'm going to apply it to "frammis."

frammis, n., o.o.o.

1. a con or swindle
2. a catch-all term for an un-named or un-nameable thing; a 'whatchamacalit'
3. a phony gemstone, substituted for a more valuable one
4. a dream or ideal, hoplessly out of reach, but pursued nontheless

Isn't that a great word? Many thanks to Ms. Manson and the late Mr. Thompson for bringing it to my world.

04 October 2008

Starry Plough

Dubhe and Merak are the pointers--the α and ß stars of this famous asterism, known in North America as The Big Dipper. Dubhe is Arabic for "bear," which is appropriate, considering the constellation is Ursa Major, The Great Bear. The bright group of seven within Ursa Major is also known as The Wain (The Wagon). Of course, like all things, there is more to it. One more, in fact. There are EIGHT stars in the group. It goes alpha, beta, gamma, delta, epsilon, zeta, eta--that's how astronomers rank the stars by brightness. In the case of The Plough, it is Dubhe, Merak, Phecda, Megrez, Alioth, Mizar, Alkaid. The penultimate Mizar, properly known as Zeta Ursa Majoris, is coupled with tiny Alcor, thus the eighth star. Resolving the two individuals in the Mizar/Alcor pair with the naked eye is a challenge. Try it with binoculars if you can't make the split unaided. They form the middle of the "handle" portion, where it "bends." Here in the States, number forty-nine--Alaska--uses a stylized version of the seven (along with Polaris, the object of the pointers) for its flag. Irish revolutionaries and socialists have found iconic power in the grouping (without the North Star) as well, using it for their flags and banners. Today we created a Starry Plough on our kitchen wall, an empty white space below the cathedral ceiling that was crying out for some decoration. I spent quite a bit of time with ruler, protractor, calculator and star chart to work out the dimensions. It came out to a little less than four feet across. The North Star--Polaris--sits on the north wall, at a right angle to The Plough. I tilted the whole thing 42º from the horizontal, our approximate north latitude (the California-Oregon boderline). I'm reminded of the old Star Hustler (now Star Gazer) Jack Horkheimer line: "keep looking up!" And of a fine spot in our old stomping grounds, Berkeley, The Starry Plough Pub and Nightclub!

01 October 2008

Alas, Islay

My September whisky calendar featured Auchentoshan, a sublime "Lowland" malt from Glasgow. We had the good fortune to visit that upbeat but relaxed city. One of the highlights was a trip to the distillery. Northeast of the city centre, in Clydebank, we had to ride a bus to the end of the line, then walk a bit along the Great Western Road. On the other side of that highway--now the A82--are remnants of the Antonine Wall. We were lucky to be led on the tour by a master distiller from Bowmore. (The Morrison Bowmore group owns Auchentoshan as well.) This whisky is unlike the big, peaty malts Islay is famous for. It is a mellower, more subtle spirit, but surprisingly rich and full-bodied. They have several versions of Auchentoshan--my favorite is the Three Wood. October's calendar features Ardbeg, one of the peatiest of the peaty ones. That's quite a leap: from a soft, smooth, triple-distilled drink to a massively smoky beast. It got me thinking that we never made it to Islay on our trip to Scotland. Ah, some day, perhaps. Funny thing, not all the distilleries on the island make a peaty whisky. Bruichladdich and Bunnahabain, for example, don't fit the "Islay whisky" profile, being less peated. All the more reason to go and do some serious studying!

30 September 2008

Bird on a Bottle

The Famous Grouse is a well-known blended whisky from Scotland, having been made in Perthshire for over 100 years. Me, I can't resist a bird on the label. I'm a big fan of Wild Turkey, and the Irish malt named for a robin, Redbreast. So it was only natural I would come to The Famous Grouse. The Glenturret distillery in Crieff is the source of the whisky, and the blend includes Macallan and Highland Park as well. It is a very smooth and approachable drink, but with a full flavor, so I suppose its popularity is understandable. Sometimes the choices are daunting--where does one start when looking for a good dram? I've discovered over the years that they all have something to like about them. The Famous Grouse hooked me with its cool label. I suppose that's as good a reason as any to pull something off a shelf.

27 September 2008

The M.A.X.

Rarely have I read a book so bloody fookin' funny as Ken Bruen and Jason Starr's third installment of the "Max Fisher" novels, The M.A.X. Now, Donald E. Westlake is one of the genre's masters, and a very funny fellow. I'm a huge fan and admirer of his noir stuff and his comic stuff. What sets Messrs. Starr & Bruen apart is their willingness to stand knee deep a gutter of shit, blood and depravity and find genuine mirth in the circumstances. Bursting out loud with uncontrollable giggling is a rare event for me when reading, especially when reading noir and the other sorts of crime fiction I enjoy. Trust me, it is a regular occurrence with Max Fisher and His Gang of Losers. Without revealing too much, a fourth book in the series is not impossible, considering the way this one ended. Do yourself a favor--grab hold of Bust and Slide, the first two novels in the set. When you get to know Max Fisher, the protagonist of both, and the Most Fatuous Douchebag of all time, you'll be hooked.

22 September 2008


I looked outside early this cool (40 Fahrenheit!) morning and the moon--at Last Quarter--was nearly overhead. The morning twilight obscured the nearby stars, but my Sky Calendar says they would have been Castor and Pollux, the twins of Gemini. Today is the AUTUMNAL EQUINOX. "Autumnal" is a lovely word, eh? My authority for such matters is the venerable United Stated Naval Observatory, and their Earth's Seasons page. According to the site, the Autumnal Equinox begins today at 15h 44m Universal Time. For Pacific Daylight Time, subtract seven hours--thus the equinox occurs for me at 8:44 a.m. My reference to UT means Coordinated Universal Time, that is the time kept by cesium clocks and referenced to the Greenwich Meridian (zero degrees longitude). "True" Universal Time, called "UT1" by astronomers and navigators, is a direct measurement of the the sun's position or "hour angle." Clocks, of course, are human devices, and do not account for the vagaries of nature (q.v. UT). The earth and sun move merrily on their own ways despite how we describe, measure, and catalog them. Speaking of moving--I'd better. The clock at work ticks inexorably, like they all do. Wouldn't do for the teacher to be late.

10 September 2008

Desert noir

Edward Abbey's Fire on the Mountain is not really noir. Tragedy is a more suitable descriptor. It is a single, simple story with dramatic power, evoking fear and pity. Moreover, it meets Aristotle's demand that tragedy must have both lexis and melos (diction and melody). Mr. Abbey is well-known for his beautiful prose, in particular his descriptions of the American Southwest. It is unfortunate that his most famous book, The Monkeywrench Gang, bears little resemblance to his other work. That book is a potboiler, a comic romp, with a cast of characters that fall somewhere between the A-Team and The Merry Pranksters. The constant Abbey themes are there--rebellion against authority, the struggle for individualism in a mass-produced world, and the loss of our connection to nature and wildness--but the humorous tone, for me, borders on silly. I much prefer the dark, sardonic power of Good News, for example. Plus, like a good work of noir fiction, it is short. Terse, tense, well-paced, no wasted words, that is where Abbey shines. I think you will find the lesser-known novels far more rewarding. I read his seminal non-fiction book Desert Solitaire in college, and it had a profound impact on my life and thinking. I think anyone who loves our wild country should start there. Warning: you won't see the world the same way afterwards.

07 September 2008

Noir and not noir

Jordan Fisher Smith's Nature Noir is a fine read. But it is not noir. Mr. Smith was a ranger in California, working the American River country. His intriguing memoir is filled with law enforcement stories, something perhaps most folks don't associate with rangering. If you spend any time in State Parks, National Recreation Areas, and the like, you see guys in Broncos and pickups with guns and badges. Public spaces have cops--even outdoor public spaces. So although the writing is good, and the stories of drugs, destruction, and death are interesting, they don't shock or surprise me. They sound like the stories you read about in your local paper. The descriptions of the natural settings are superb however, Smith has a keen naturalist's eye and a poetic pen. You learn a lot about the profession, and get a bit of "police procedural" as well. In the end, the convoluted decades-long story of the proposed Auburn Dam, and the land it may still some day inundate, is the center of it all. I put the book down thinking I'd gained an appreciation for a place I didn't know, and a better understanding of how we--the people--shape the fate of our public lands.

So what qualifies as noir then? I don't think events or subject matter constitute noir, necessarily. Tone, voice, style, attitude, outlook, sub-text--these are the the key elements. I don't recall anyone classifying S.E. Hinton as noir, but having just finished That Was Then, This Is Now, I think I can make a case for it. Ms. Hinton doesn't waste words, creating fully-fleshed out characters in a few paragraphs. These characters inhabit the edge of society, on the borderline between Main Street and Skid Row. They get caught up in conflicts of love and loyalty that result in violence and death. They are forced to make decisions that tear their very worlds apart, and suffer the tragic consequences. Just because these folks are teenagers and the books are marketed as "young adult" fiction does not mean they aren't noir. I love Hinton's terse style and brisk pacing, and her sympathetic portrayals of mixed-up juvenile delinquents, oddballs, and regular joes struggling to get ahead in life. I spend a lot of time around teenagers (I'm a HS teacher), and I can tell you that the last thing I want to read about is adolescent angst and coming-of-age sturm und drang. But the writing is too good to put down.

06 September 2008

Back to Barry

I don't like Buzz Bissinger. I saw him make an ass of himself on TV with the always-fatuous Bob Costas and a seemingly-bewildered Will Leitch (formerly of "Deadspin") having a discussion of the merits of blogging. Suffice to say Mr. Bissinger was one ill-informed and ill-mannered dude. That, of course, does not take away from his considerable accomplishments as a writer. And he's written a fine piece for the NY Times ( link ) about our Beloved and Beleaguered Erstwhile Giant and Home Run King, Barry Lamar Bonds. It is too bad it took the blackballing of the greatest player of all time for media types to see that their "piling on" had gone too far and for far too long. The Feds chasing Barry have always had the tacit or even outspoken approval of the mainstream sportswriters and their employers. Now they are finding out what a bad taste their silly biases have left in their mouths, and are doing a little something to make up for it. Too bad it is too little, too late. But it is something. For that, thanks Buzz.

01 September 2008

Didn't make the cut

My story did not get picked for OOTG5. I have been fortuntate working with that magazine and editor Matt Louis. I've had two stories published ("Tweaker" in OOTG2 and "Lonnie's Ride" in OOTG4). This time my stuff did not make the grade. I'm a big boy. Time to get to work on new stuff. Looking forward to reading OOTG5--always inspiring.

My Blogger experience this weekend has been terrible. I cannot use my wysiwyg editor! And I cannot see my entire blog page in layout mode, nor work on all the components! Something is wrong, I hope Blogger gets it together. Otherwise I'll have to do something. The whole reason I use Blogger is that it requires very little from me but input. The software and my interface has always been easy and fairly seamless. We'll see. In the meantime I'd best do some net-crawling and see if I learn anything.

27 August 2008

One more for the road

038 Deadly Beloved, Max Allan Collins, new original 2007
039 A Diet of Treacle, Lawrence Block, reprint 1961 (I haven't read this one, I'm saving it because I know it'll be good!)
040 Money Shot, Christa Faust, new original 2008, great read, superb Orbik cover
041 Zero Cool, John Lange, reprint 1969 (have not read)
042 Spiderweb/Shooting Star, reprints 1954 and 1958
043 The Murderer Vine, Shepard Rifkin, reprint 1970
044 Somebody Owes Me Money, Donald E. Westalke, reprint 1969
045 No House Limit, Steve Fisher, reprint 1958
046 Baby Moll, John Farris, reprint 1958 (have not read)
047 The Max, Ken Bruen and Jason Starr, new original 2008 (next on the reading list!)

The tally? 3 newbies and 7 oldies.

The final score? 31 reprints and 16 new originals.

26 August 2008

Two six-packs

037 Slide, Ken Bruen and Jason Starr, new original 2007
036 Dead Street, Mickey Spillane, new original 2007
035 Kill Now, Pay Later, Robert Terrall, reprint 1960
034 Fright, Cornell Woolrich, reprint 1950
033 Songs of Innocence, Richard Aleas, new original 2007
032 Blackmailer, George Axelrod, reprint 1952

A 50-50 spilt--3 new, 3 old. Slide continues where Bust left off, and is equally brilliant, if not better.

031 The Wounded and the Slain, David Goodis, reprint 1955
030 The Vengeful Virgin, Gil Brewer, reprint 1958 (I have not read this one!)
029 Robbie's Wife, Russell Hill, new original 2007
028 Lucky at Cards, Lawrence Block, reprint 1964
027 The Peddler, Richard S. Prather, reprint 1952
026 Grave Descend, John Lange, reprint 1970

Only 1 new in this bunch, a great collection of oldies. "John Lange," I understand, is a nom de plume for Michael Crichton. David Goodis really is a master, there's nothing else in the series quite like The Wounded and the Slain. The Glenn Orbik cover art is also masterful--he's done my favorites in the series, and that is saying a lot. All the covers have been spectacular and heavyweights like Robert McGinnis and Gregory Manchess are tough competition.

Score so far: 24 reprints, 13 new originals.

25 August 2008

Next set

014 The Girl with the Long Green Heart, Lawrence Block, reprint 1965
015 The Gutter and the Grave, Ed McBain, reprint 1958
016 Night Walker, Donald Hamilton, reprint 1954
017 A Touch of Death, Charles Williams, reprint 1953
018 Say It with Bullets, Richard Powell, reprint 1953
019 Witness to Myself, Seymour Shubin, new original 2006
020 Bust, Ken Bruen and Jason Starr, new original 2006
021 Straight Cut, Madison Smartt Bell, reprint 1986
022 Lemons Never Lie, Richard Stark, reprint 1971
023 The Last Quarry, Max Allan Collins, new original 2006
024 The Guns of Heaven, Pete Hamill, reprint 1983
025 The Last Match, David Dodge, newly published 1973 novel

Hmmm. The Collins is based on older short stories, but I'll call it a "newbie." The Dodge is technically new, but I'm counting it as an "oldie," since it was written over thirty years ago. That gives us three new and nine old.

The score after 25 books: 16 to 9 in favor of the "classics." My faves? The Stark (Westlake) and Block are hard to beat. The consistent excellence of those two always amazes me. But the Starr-Bruen creation, Bust, is one of the funniest and most twisted books I've ever read. Those two are sick. And hilarious. A real highlight of the entire collection. I liked the Shubin as well, but it is an entirely different kettle of fish from Bust.

Baker's dozen

Here's a look at the first 13 from Hard Case Crime:

001 Grifter's Game, Lawrence Block, reprint 1961
002 Fade to Blonde, Max Phillips, new original 2004
003 Top of the Heap, Erle Stanley Garnder, reprint 1952
004 Little Girl Lost, Richard Aleas, new original 2004
005 Two for the Money, Max Allan Collins, re-packaged reprints 1973 & 1981, some new material from 2004
006 The Confession, Domenic Stansberry, new original 2004
007 Home is the Sailor, Day Keene, reprint 1952
008 Kiss Her Goodbye, Allan Guthrie, new original 2005
009 361, Donald E. Westlake, reprint 1962
010 Plunder of the Sun, David Dodge, reprint 1949
011 Branded Woman, Wade Miller, reprint 1952
012 Dutch Uncle, Peter Pavia, new original 2005
013 The Colorado Kid, Stephen King, new original 2005

I will count the Collins as a reprint. The score so far? Six new, seven old. We'll take a look at the next dozen in a later post. HCC-047 is on my shelf right now. I've read all but five--I wanted to get "caught up" this summer but indulged in lots of other books as well and didn't quite make it.

Of this group, the highlights for me were the Block and Westlake of course, and the Guthrie. Kiss Her Goodbye was a terrific read, and the Scotland setting made it even more fun. Of the other new ones, I would probably pick the Pavia.