17 December 2011

The Last of the Innocent

I'm a huge fan of the work of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, the writer-artist team responsible for Criminal. The latest installment (the sixth graphic novel collection) is called The Last of the Innocent and manages to continue the impossibly high standard of the previous releases. These guys really understand that noir is so much more than a two-fisted alcoholic P.I. beating people up while pursuing his twisted sense of justice. Not that that can't work--Ken Bruen pulls it off marvelously with his Jack Taylor books. But too many hard-boiled stories fall into the trap of a standard mystery camouflaged with lots of f-bombs and bar fights. That is not a bad thing, mind you, just a little tiresome. Messrs. Brubaker and Phillips are more interested in characters and the web of complications that life brings. Sure, there are hit men, mobsters, gamblers, tycoons, whores, junkies, thieves, crooked cops, and femme fatales aplenty in Criminal. But what makes the whole thing work is the humanity of the protagonists. They all have a "regular joe" side of their characters that gives the reader empathy for them and their various plights, even if they do (and they will) something stupid or evil. Moreover, their entanglements are entirely believable. They are motivated by their hopes, fears, and dreams, just like all of us. And when they get sucked into the maelstrom of violence and death the stories morph into tragedies. And I love a good tragedy. Genre fiction rarely gets the attention of the serious literary critic, and comic books hardly ever get the notice they deserve. But Criminal is the real deal--serious, poetic, profound, and thoroughly entertaining. Val Staples continues with his beautiful colors (ably assisted by Dave Stewart). Check out The Last of the Innocent and the rest of the Criminal series. You might find yourself hooked.

04 December 2011

Somewhere West of Life

It's an allusion. Brian Aldiss' 1994 novel Somewhere East of Life is a strange and terrifying book, and its images still haunt me. My notes (I've kept a log of my reading since 1990) tell me I finished it in 2000. I recently added Mr. Aldiss' Forgotten Life (1988) to my pile, I suppose I'll have to tackle that next. But this is not about his excellent work, but rather that of another writer, an American named Nathanael West. In the 1930s he wrote two short novels, Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust, that were ultimately made into Hollywood movies. I salvaged a Nathanael West anthology from a discard pile (he published only two other short novels) and powered my way through both dark and twisted stories. I suppose they aren't stories so much as plots. Weird guy hangs around other weird people who all go crazy and shit happens and it's all fucked up at the end. I don't mean that as a criticism, just an observation. You read these stories because these crazy people are all real and recognizable. They lie beneath our surfaces, lurking, ready to burst out when the veil of middle class respectability finally splits from the tension of accumulated injustices. None of us like to believe we have the savage beast within our breasts, but Mr. West says emphatically that we do, and we'd be fools not to accept that fact. Mostly the two tales are about the failed American Dream. Everywhere West looked he saw phonies, hucksters, con artists, bullshitters, and storytellers. And he saw the Great Depression, which shattered a lot of dreams and surely influenced a generation of writers and artists. He died in a car accident three years short of forty.

28 November 2011

Choke Hold

The hard-boiled field is mostly a man's racket. The heroes and anti-heroes are tough guys. The writers are overwhelmingly male. Women are usually victims, femme fatales, or side stories. Thankfully things have changed in the 21st century and no one exemplifies that more than Christa Faust and her heroine Angel Dare. I posted about both of these ladies a few years back when I received Money Shot from Hard Case Crime. Well written, tightly plotted, and action-packed, Money Shot was one of the best of the entire line. I was quite enthusiastic when Choke Hold, the sequel, hit the bookshelves earlier this year. Angel Dare is a sort of male fantasy dream woman: an ex-porn star with all the requisite looks, bravado, and skills one expects from such a character. In the first book, Angel's life is turned upside down by Croatian gangsters running a sex slave operation. Taken captive, she fights her adversaries with a courage and relentlessness she did not know she possessed, eventually killing most of them and ultimately testifying against others. At the end she has to leave everything behind and join a witness protection program. The new book starts with the vengeance-mad criminals managing to track her down and she has to go on the run. She hooks up with a young MMA fighter and his trainer out in the southwestern desert and they do their best to fend off the mobsters, a Mexican drug lord, and a crazed, jealous dojo owner and her coke-addled teenage minions. Choke Hold is a fast and furious ride where once again Angel has to call on all her considerable talent and warrior spirit to stay alive. Suffice to say the ending screams for a sequel. Ms. Faust has done it again. Money Shot featured a brilliant Glenn Orbik cover and Choke Hold, as you can see, is equally spectacular. Mr. Orbik is my favorite of all the Hard Case illustrators. I can't wait for the next one!

31 October 2011

The Veil

The ancient Celts believed that the Samhain marked the time between summer and winter. This "cross-quarter" day (half-way from the Autumnal Equinox to the Winter Solstice) actually makes more sense as a seasonal dividing line for those of us living in the temperate zones. After all, it has been below freezing at my house--just south of the 42nd parallel--for the last week. The Celts also believed that this time of year was when the veil between the material and the spirit worlds was the thinnest. Thus you made masks and carved scary faces in vegetables (probably turnips, pumpkins are from the New World) to keep the ghosts of the dead away. I love the fall, and the approach of winter is always exciting because I like to ski. This last week I've been reading a book called The Meaning of Quantum Theory by a UK writer named Jim Baggott. This remarkable theory is at the heart of contemporary physics and is wildly successful at predicting the outcomes of experiments. The problem is that no one is quite sure what it means. The results of quantum theory are spooky and give a picture of "reality" far at odds with that of the classical mechanics of Newton. Quantum mechanics probes the veil between physics and metaphysics. What the theory tells us is unequivocal: particles behave like waves some of the time and like particles some of the time, measuring the position of a particle makes it impossible to also measure its momentum, and the properties of two separated particles appear to be dependent on each other. Quantum mechanics may possibly violate the postulates of special relativity (another wildly successful theory) and might entirely upend our notions of causality and the flow of time. Or not. No one is quite sure even though the leading minds of the world have been working on it since the 1920s. I'll finish the book tonight if I don't get interrupted too often by trick-or-treaters. It's good stuff. I'll admit that I have to skip most of the math parts as calculus was over thirty years ago. There's like this veil between the squiggles on the pages and my brain!

25 October 2011


According to Eric Partridge, my word guru, "skeptic" is from Greek and means "doubt." Skepticism is a good thing. In science, it is crucial. Many confuse the meaning of the word with that of "cynic." Having been accused--many times--of being a cynic, I'm used to the mix-up. The ancients who called themselves Cynics ("the snarlers") were contemptuous of society's conventions but nonetheless strove for virtuous conduct. The modern meaning of cynic is one who doubts all motives but selfishness. That is, a person who does not believe altruism exists. This has nothing to do with asking good questions and demanding to see the evidence before making a conclusion. People don't like skeptics because skeptics don't like sloppy thinking. Skeptics like to account for all the possibilities before embracing a course of action. This often comes across as contrariness or obstructionism, but it is really just trying to see things as clearly as possible.

Those in the American political scene who doubt the science behind climate change are called skeptics, but this does a disservice to real skeptics. Real skeptics are not merely deniers. Real skeptics look for flaws in an argument and demand to be convinced with logic and facts. Deniers don't require that sort of rigor. They already have their minds made up and you won't get anywhere with them using silly things like evidence. One skeptical scientist--Richard Muller of UC Berkeley and Lawrence Livermore Lab--recently published a piece in the Wall Street Journal explaining what his current research has revealed about global warming. His was a sort of meta-research as his team looked at already-existing data and analyzed its reliability. They concluded that the numbers were good--global temperatures are on the rise. They made no statement about whether the cause is anthropogenic, but that wasn't the point of the study. Here's Dr. Muller:
When we began our study, we felt that skeptics had raised legitimate issues, and we didn't know what we'd find. Our results turned out to be close to those published by prior groups. We think that means that those groups had truly been very careful in their work, despite their inability to convince some skeptics of that. They managed to avoid bias in their data selection, homogenization and other corrections.
That's science in a nutshell. If the data is good, it will hold up to scrutiny. If the methods are good, the data is trustworthy. Transparency and openness lead to progress. This is exactly the opposite of politics, where lies and half-truths are the meat-and-potatoes of campaigning. Where secrecy, denial, and re-writing history are the essential skills candidates master. Where visceral responses are more important than analysis and where being brainy is a handicap. Screw politics and learn to think like a scientist!

Read some more about Muller and the BEST project here.

13 October 2011

subrecursive hierarchies of functions*

The world lost another tech giant. Dennis Ritchie was the inventor of the C programming language and a co-creator of the UNIX operating system. He died this week at the age of 70. Originally from New York, he earned degrees from Harvard in both physics and applied mathematics, and spent his career with the famous Bell Labs in New Jersey. Those software creations--C and UNIX--are the foundations of most of today's systems. Macintosh computers, for example, run a Unix-based OS. Programmers learn things like C++ and Java these days, which are the progeny of C. Most of the servers that hold this whole intertubes thingie together run UNIX or a variant. Mr. Ritchie didn't do stuff that tech consumers notice. Instead he did the real brick-and-mortar work of the Information Age. Those of us lucky to be living in the wired world are standing on foundations laid down by this guy and his contemporaries. Recquiescat in pacem.

*the subject of Ritchie's thesis
I don't know what it means, either.

08 October 2011

Game of My Life

In the wake of the wonderful 2010 World Series, a plethora of books about the San Francisco Giants have been newly-written or re-issued with updates for that memorable season. One of the latter is Matt Johanson's Game of My Life: San Francisco Giants. Originally published in 2007, the new edition now includes vignettes from the championship club. Each chapter focuses on a particular player and their most memorable game in orange-and-black. It starts with Orlando Cepeda's debut in 1958--which was also the first Giants game in San Francisco--and ends with Brian Wilson's save in Game Five of the 2010 World Series. Along the way the reader is treated to terrific stories from the likes of "Dirty Al" Gallagher, Tito Fuentes (a childhood favorite of mine), Dan Gladden, Robby Thompson, Darren Lewis, Kirk Rueter, Rich Aurilia, and many other fan favorites and interesting characters. I particularly enjoyed reliving Bob Brenly's "greatest Humm-Baby performance of all time" game since I was in attendance with much of my regular Candlestick posse. My friend Frank actually caught Brenly's game-winning homer when it bounced up to our seats in Section 30 in the LF bleachers. I will also never forget Mike Krukow's complete game victory over the St. Louis Cardinals in Game Four of the 1987 NLCS. We were lucky enough to have scored tickets in Section 2, right behind home plate. After Jeffrey Leonard's improbable, wind-aided home run that gave the Giants the lead my buddy Ron was so excited he started beating on me and I collapsed to the concrete in a fetal position. Never was getting the wind knocked out of me so worth it! Giants fans will recognize many of the great moments: Will Clark's big hit off Mitch Williams to win the pennant in 1989, Brian Johnson's homer in extras to beat the Dodgers in 1997 (and Rod Beck's miraculous pitching in the same game!), Kenny Lofton's hit in 2002 to send the team to the Series, and Jonathan Sanchez' no-hitter against the Padres in 2009. Players from the obscure Brian Dallimore to all-time great Willie Mays share their anecdotes, making Game of My Life a must-read for Giants fans. Mr. Johanson has done an excellent job assembling all the stories and adding his own take on the colorful history of the many who've worn the Giants uniform. He's also--like me--a California public high school teacher! That's extra credit, for sure.

Many thanks to the nice folks at Skyhorse Publishing for sending me a review copy.

08 September 2011

New books!

Ziesing's is my favorite place to get books. Just got a shipment today, in fact, and I've got them stacked on my desk by thickness. The thinnest one on top is The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon--only 152 pages! I think I can make my way through that one. Then a Stark House reprint of Mercedes Lambert's Dogtown and Soultown. The new edition has a foreword by Ken Bruen, which is how I got interested in the books. I like everything he writes, so I figure I'll like everyone he writes about. Next is a novel from the great Charles Willeford, The Shark-infested Custard. Apparently he couldn't find a publisher for it in the 1970s and it languished until after his death in 1988. Brian Aldiss follows with his novel of that same year, Forgotten Life. I was captivated by Somewhere East of Life (1994) and this one is supposed to be part of the same loose tetralogy ("The Squire Quartet") with that one. I imagine I'll track down the other two at some point. Something new (2010) called Stories caught my fancy because one of the editors is superstar fantasist Neil Gaiman. People like Walter Mosley, Lawrence Block, Joe R. Lansdale, Chuck Palahniuk, Tim Powers, and Gene Wolfe contributed to the collection. I always enjoy good short stories and this looks like a great anthology. One writer who seems terribly under-appreciated to me is the late Thomas M. Disch. His The M.D. is next on the pile and calls itself "a horror story." Last but not least is the massive Nightmares & Dreamscapes collection by Stephen King. I've been reading him for a long time and I've come to really appreciate his short works. This one has more than twenty stories and is over 800 pages long!

What's on your book pile these days?

03 September 2011

Rock cycles

I took a walk one afternoon this summer up the Gully Trail at Greenhorn Park. Eventually it peters out and joins the Humbug-Big Ditch trail junction, and if you keep climbing you get to a road that leads to the top of the ridge. Mountain bike riders call that stretch "The Wall" because it is steep and very hard going. I have yet to make it to the top on my bike, but my feet got me there well enough. One of the road cuts on a wide switchback glistens with a grayish-green rock outcrop that screams "serpentine" to the native Californian. Sure enough, there's serpentinization, but that's just on the surface. I cracked a few of the scattered cobbles open and was presented with an opaque black rock that fractured easily. Back home, it showed little or no cleavage, a minute and hard to discern crystal structure, left a black streak, and attracted a compass needle. It was magnetite, an ore of iron.

I was looking, actually, for chromite, an ore of chromium that contains much iron--the whole county is riddled with the stuff. The Klamaths sit on a basement of peridotite, a rock formed in the mantle. Ancient bits of old seafloor have been thrust landward by the inexorable grinding of the tectonic plates. These rocks are known as ultramafic to the geologist--silicates rich in magnesium and iron. Mineralization occurs along fault lines and contact points with younger igneous material. Magnetite is interesting in that it shows both of iron's oxidation states, what were once called the ferrous and ferric forms. Nowadays the more prosaic iron(II) and iron(III) are used. FeO, iron(II) or ferrous oxide, found alone is called Wustite by the mineralogist. Fe2O3, iron(III) or ferric oxide, is the better-known hematite. The magnetite form is known as iron (II, III) oxide and can be written Fe3O4. All three minerals can occur as commercial-grade iron ores. Magnetite is used as a catalyst in the Haber Process that converts ("fixes") atmospheric nitrogen and produces ammonia. Ammonia is one of the cornerstone chemicals of the industrial world as it can be easily oxidized to make fertilizers and explosives, and is also the basis of some plastics, fibers, dyes, and pharmaceuticals. About 130,000,000 metric tons are produced annually worldwide.

I wasn't thinking of any of that when I huffed by on my Stumpjumper last week. I was just trying to keep up a steady pedaling and not get out of breath. It was hot, my face was flushed, sweat was pouring down my cheeks, and my heart was beating with a fury inside my chest. Between my feet and my wheels, I hope to stumble across many more cool rocks and minerals here in the State of Jefferson.

08 August 2011

L.A. Noire

Video games are wasted on me. I spent far too much of my youth avoiding them to have any real skills with buttons and joysticks. I "walk" like a drunken sailor and "drive" like a crackhead. I usually shoot one of the good guys or pump 12 shots into the wall next to the bad guy while he sneers at my incompetence. I got vertigo when I was lost in a Bioshock maze and had to quit the game. I always have the instruction sheet on my lap so I can remember how to play, I never turn off the help screens, and I keep it set in "beginner" mode. "Getting to the next level" means handing the controls to someone else. Suffice to say that 99% of the time my PS3 is used as a blu-ray player. Oh, I take batting practice in MLB 2K9. That's not too tough.

But I had to have L.A. Noire. I had to. A game that looks and feels like a Raymond Chandler story on steroids is my kind of thing. I love the so-called film noir period in Hollywood--nothing gets me more excited than men in grey suits and fedoras chasing unattainable women and hopeless dreams. L.A. Noire works the cops-and-corruption side of the street, a distinct subset of the noir milieu. I usually prefer the stories of sympathetic chumps like Robert Mitchum and Burt Lancaster led astray by fabulous femme fatales. (Who among us wouldn't follow Jane Greer or Lizabeth Scott to their doom?) But Los Angeles in 1947 is great place to be, and Cole Phelps' journey into the heart of the city's power structure is a compelling one.

I can't speak intelligently about "game play." It would be like asking me how an F1 race car handles--did I prefer the McLaren or the Ferrari on the first chicane at Monaco? But I can tell you that L.A. Noire is gorgeous. The film-making, if you can call it that, is first-rate. The soundtrack is perfect, combining the likes of Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington with original scores. I'm blown away by the depth and richness of the scenery and characterizations. It almost doesn't matter that I can't play the thing worth a shit--it's just plain cool. There's even a tie-in e-book from an outfit appropriately named Mulholland Books. This seems to be the new trend--I understand one of my all-time favorite authors (John Shirley) has a Bioshock tie-in novel. Guess I'll have to dust that one off and try again.

23 July 2011

America Noir

Academic language is a subset of American English. I'm a Berkeley grad, and deciphering the argot of professors was de rigueur during my time there. I imagine most college students have had similar experiences with scholarly obfuscation. Check this out:
As the dominant strain of modernism increasingly assumed quasi-official status in the postwar period, artists working in popular forms, who were beneath the notice of serious intellectuals (except as they fell under the general heading of mass culture), found themselves freer to maintain a critical stance vis-à-vis the Cold War state. (p221)
I love it! It's from a book called America Noir: underground writers and filmmakers of the Postwar Era, by, you guessed it, a college professor. His name is David Cochran. I realize the above passage isn't too difficult, no big words and only one foreign phrase, but in tone and style it is wholly academic. You certainly couldn't say "popular American artists began to criticize American culture during the Cold War." That would lack the flair and polish the audience for such a book expects. I don't mean to pick on Prof. Cochran, after all, he's a noir-man like me. And it's a good book--the stories of the various artists (from Jim Thompson to Rod Serling) are interesting and enjoyable. And Cochran is capable of some real gems--here's his take on the brilliant Charles Willeford:
In a string of pulp paperbacks published in the fifties and sixties, Willeford created a world in which the predatory cannibalism of American capitalism provides the model for all human relations, in which the American success ethic mercilessly casts aside all who are unable or unwilling to compete, and in which the innate human appreciation of artistic beauty is cruelly distorted by the exigencies of mass culture. (p40)
I like that. Academic study of noir is a little dry for everyday reading, I know, but I've a passion for the subject. Nothing comes close to Eddie Muller's magnificent Dark City: the lost world of film noir, but that's an unfair comparison. Mr. Muller's book is strictly about movies, is for a popular audience, and is filled with vintage photos. And it is as intelligent as it is entertaining. But Prof. Cochran's book has its place on the shelf--I certainly learned a lot and was pointed in some new directions.

21 July 2011

Thirty years ago . . .

. . . I was finishing my senior year at the University of California. The space shuttle Columbia made its maiden voyage on April 12th and I was awarded my B.S. degree on June 13th. Columbia broke up over Texas during re-entry on January 16, 2003. That was its 28th flight. Sister ship Challenger, launched on April 4th, 1983, was lost at the start of only its 10th mission on January 28, 1986. Atlantis, first launched on October 3rd, 1985, touched down at Cape Canaveral early this morning, closing the door on the entire shuttle program. It was the 33rd trip for Atlantis. The newest member of the fleet, Endeavour, was first launched on May 7th, 1992, and completed its 25th and final voyage on June 1st, 2011. Workhorse Discovery made 39 flights between August 30th, 1984, and March 9th, 2011. I remember talk at the time of Columbia's debut was that each shuttle would be capable of 100 missions. Although NASA fell short of that optimistic prediction, thirty years of performance from such a complex machine subject to such demanding conditions is still an impressive accomplishment. If you want to do pure science, satellites, robots, and unmanned probes are much better than human-filled spaceships. If you want to explore, you need people. I hope NASA can continue to do both.

02 June 2011

Elaine Bartholomew Rothwell

My mother-in-law passed away earlier this week after being hospitalized due to a heart problem. She was a month past her 85th birthday--she was born in 1926, the same year as Marlyn Monroe. Elaine grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her father Fred Bartholomew was an artist and passed his passion and talent on to his daughter. Elaine met her "man in a uniform" in 1945, when newly-minted ensign William Stanley Rothwell, a fellow Minnesotan and an Annapolis grad, swept her off her feet. They were married a year later and had a long and loving partnership. Elaine raised four children while Bill pursued a career in physics. Once the family moved to California, Elaine returned to her art, earning a degree from San Jose State University in 1966. Her work with Vi Woodbury brought her to etching and printmaking which she pursued for nearly fifty years. Elaine and Vi remained lifelong friends. Elaine, signing her work as E.B. Rothwell, developed a unique style that was both playful and serious, skillfully combining high art with popular references. Her signature technique was the use of negative space to hide images and her best work always had something below the surface to tease the eye and prick the mind. Bill and Elaine retired to Auburn, California where she was active in the local art scene. She is survived by her husband, her three daughters, Suzanne, Amy, and Wendy, her son Bart, and her two grandchildren, Damien and Cherise Verrett, as well as two step-grandchildren. I will remember her for her great love of history and in particular her enthusiasm for classical Latin ("It's KICK-ero, not SISS-ero!"). She was a sharp and combative conversationalist and a supreme story-teller with a prodigious memory. Rarely do I meet someone who can out-talk me! She was a wonderful mother and wife, and a fascinating and charismatic woman who in many ways was years ahead of her time. I will miss her very much.

28 May 2011


Some folks like e-books. Others like iBooks. But I'm a Z-books man. As in Ziesing Books. Mark and Cindy Ziesing have been peddling books for a long time out of their home in Shingletown, California. That's State of Jefferson country in case you don't know. Shingletown is an unincorporated little burg in Shasta County just east of Redding on State Route 44 on the way to Lassen Park. The Ziesings have a print catalog and a website jam-packed with lots and lots of weird and wonderful stuff. They used to publish books as well, and I have maybe a half-dozen lovely hardcovers with the Ziesing imprint--John Shirley, Tim Powers, Iain Banks, Lucius Shepard and the like. I've been shopping at Ziesing for about twenty years and in all that time have never talked to an employee, salesman, or customer-service rep. When you call on the phone either Cindy or Mark will answer. Same when you email. You get hand-written notes from them in your packages. This is a real, live, mom-and-pop operation. I once had a shipment of Z-books stolen from my post office box. When I called Ziesing, Mark sent me replacements without hesitation and charged me only the shipping! (There were, if I remember, a few one-of-kind items that I'd ordered that were lost forever, but the bulk of it was indeed replaceable.) He certainly did not have to do that, and I certainly did not ask him to, but he made me a customer for life nonetheless. Those low-lifes who stole from me (and them, by extension) would obviously never appreciate the literary bonanza they stumbled upon or the grace and class of the Ziesing operation.

I just received my latest order. It was preceded, of course, by an email from Cindy letting me know it was in the mail. All four books were individually paper-wrapped before boxing--you think Amazon does that? I got two hardcovers, The Right Madness by the late James Crumley and Leather Maiden by Joe R. Lansdale. Mr. Crumley is considered by many as a modern noir master and this is my first foray into his oeuvre. The book was listed as "Fine in Fine dust jacket." That means it is a new book that has sat on a shelf for a while (it's from 2005). That one set me back five bucks. Mr. Lansdale is a well-known and accomplished horror and crime fiction writer, and I've read several of his excellent short stories. This is my first Lansdale novel. The book is new, a 2nd printing from 2008, and it cost four bucks. I'm cheap--I scour the "sale" section. I challenge anyone in bookstore meccas like Berkeley or Portland to find better deals with less hassle than that. I also picked up a vintage paperback from Ballantine (it looks like a 70s edition) of Theodore Sturgeon short stories (E Pluribus Unicorn) for two bucks, and a new mass-market paperback from Joe McKinney called Flesh Eaters. The new book was $6.99, the most expensive item on the list! I interviewed Mr. McKinney a few months ago for the Gutter Books website--another small, local, independent venture. Flesh Eaters is one of his apocalyptic zombie books. The Sturgeon was a real find as he is one of the all-time SF greats.

When you are weary of shopping at soul-less box stores and giving your Visa number to mega-corps, check out Ziesing Books. In fact, don't wait until you are weary. Shop there now. Besides, they are also Giants fans.

15 May 2011

Expert Mouse

That's what the Kensington people call it, but it isn't a mouse at all. It's a trackball. I developed a fondness for trackballing over mousing a long time ago, but my old trackball was not compatible with Windows 7. Kensington finally updated their Expert Mouse and claimed Win 7 functionality with the new Trackball software. I bought the damn thing and downloaded the software but couldn't get it to work. A quick search on Google brought me to a forum where some fellow suggested using a different version of the software available at the UK site for Kensington. By golly, it worked! I'm now fully functional with my new trackball. The wireless mouse that came with my Dell wasn't bad, in fact it was pretty nice as far as mice go, but I'm happy to be back to my four-button cue ball & ring ways. I sure like the Kensington product, but I have to say the website support is damn poor. Having to find a different version of the software on my own somewhere else is not what I call customer service.

08 May 2011

Orange & Black Congrats Ale

Mi concuño Alberto sent me a beer in the mail. Now that's a true friend! Alberto is my sister-in-law's husband, that is, we are married to sisters. English just doesn't have as elegant a term as the Spanish for that particular relationship, so concuño it is. Moylan's Brewery in Novato made a special black ale to celebrate the Giants winning the World Series. That's what was in the mail and no one could appreciate it more than me. After all, I'm a crazy fan and a brewer who also made a beer to honor the champs. My lovely bride and I enjoyed the pint of Congrats Ale while watching Tim Lincecum destroy the Mets on TV. Supposedly Orange & Black had a bit of orange flavor to complement the dark grains, but I'll admit that neither of us detected that. Nonetheless it was a lovely and refreshing brew and was good luck for the lads as well.

Muchas gracias, amigo!

21 April 2011

The Mental Game

"Baseball is 90% mental; the other half is physical."

Yogi Berra is credited with that bit of wisdom. Funny thing, it is true. Baseball is a mental game. The pace may be languid, and the physical action sporadic, but the athleticism required to play professionally is a rare trait. A small percentage of the population has that kind of talent. A small percentage of those athletes make it to the big time. What separates the ones who stick from the ones who don't is mental. Fortitude. Perseverance. Desire. And what separates the greatest players is their ability to learn--to adapt and adjust. To maximize what they have and acquire new skills. Jim Kaplan's new book, The Greatest Game Ever Pitched: Juan Marichal, Warren Spahn, and the Pitching Duel of the Century, brought this point home.

Mr. Kaplan relates a story about Juan Marichal telling Willie McCovey that he was going to change his approach before a game, asking him to play deeper in left field. It was June 15, 1963, at Candlestick Park and the opposing team was the Houston Colt 45s (later Astros). McCovey, amazed that the red-hot Marichal would be messing with things coming off a shutout and five straight wins, obliged nonetheless. Marichal explained that the Colts had hit him hard last time, and he needed to give them a new look. Here's Kaplan:
After consulting his notes on opponents, Marichal had concluded that Houston players were getting a preview of the coming pitch by reading his grip. Abandoning his high leg kick, he hid the ball, brought his hands together belt high and pivoted quickly.
McCovey wound up making a play on the fence late in the game to get an out and help preserve Marichal's no-hitter. Warren Spahn had the same attitude. Here's more from Kaplan:
"I don't pitch the hitter the same way from season to season," said Spahn, who could remember pitches he'd thrown 15 years prior. "Why? Well, I think hard about hitters and try to think the way they think. So there's always the possibility that the hitter may have given considerable thought to the way I pitched him in the previous year and he might be looking forward to those pitches next year."
A little later in the same chapter:
Like Spahn, Marichal had an extensive mental book on hitters' weaknesses. "This is a guessing game," he said. "I'm always trying to guess what the hitters are guessing. I haven't gotten any better, only smarter."
On July 2nd of the same 1963 season, Spahn and Marichal would pitch a 16-inning 1-0 game in San Francisco that Willie Mays would end with a home run. Spahn was pitching for the Milwaukee Braves (now Atlanta), the club he had come up with when they were still in Boston. That game is the subject of Kaplan's book, but it's really about two men, two ballplayers from different backgrounds and different generations. Their personal histories and their accomplishments on and off the field are interwoven throughout the account of the great pitching duel. Spahn was 42, and just about at the end, while Marichal was 25 and just beginning his exceptional run of great seasons (familiar to every Giants fan). Warren Spahn, the winningest left-hander in baseball history, died in 2003 aged 82. His son Greg supplies the forward for the book.

Stories about baseball before the era of division play and free agency naturally contrast sharply with much of today's game. But the game itself, and the contest of wills between the participants, remains the same. I get the feeling that Mr. Kaplan is nostalgic for a lost era of baseball, before Twitter and ESPN and whatnot. I was nine years old when the NL West and NL East were created, and I was in high school when Andy Messersmith was granted free agency. I'm not sure I've known anything but modern baseball. I remember though, when people watched the play on the field and not Jumbotrons or iPhone screens. So I can relate to his longing for some of those bygone things.

Read The Greatest Game Ever Pitched and tell me what you think.

20 April 2011

New music

I splurged yesterday at the Music Coop in Ashland. They have a new location right on the main drag and I had to check it out. The owners were happy and in a chatty mood. When I walked in Bob Dylan's Together Through Life was playing. I hadn't heard it, but it sounded much like the stuff from Love and Theft and Modern Times, both of which I like, so I bought it. CD #1. Then I rummaged through the Dylan section and found New Morning, one of my favorites ("If Not For You," "Day of the Locusts," "Went To See The Gypsy") and in need of replacing as the LP is almost shot and the tape made from the LP sounds terrible. CD #2. In the new releases bin I saw Low Country Blues from Gregg Allman and decided to take a chance on it. I've always loved his voice and the Allman Brothers Band made some of my all-time favorite music "back in the day." If the old survivor is going to sing the blues I want to hear it. CD #3. Remember Ronnie Montrose and "Rock the Nation"? Well, that album was up in the display area in the M's and got me looking through the 13th letter of the alphabet. I came across Mink DeVille's Le Chat Bleu, remastered and re-released with oodles of bonus tracks (including an interview with Doc Pomus). Willy DeVille unfortunately passed away in 2009, but his music lives on. "Venus of Avenue D" (from Cabretta) was one of those minor FM hits that got airplay in the Bay Area on stations like KSAN when I was in high school. My older brother Brian had a classmate who was tuned into all the hippest and coolest music, he turned us both on to acts like The Tubes, Patti Smith Group, and Mink DeVille. Thank goodness--I was fixated on Journey, Robin Trower, and Fleetwood Mac at the time! CD #4. I'm always on the lookout for good be-bop recordings, and the so-called Rudy Van Gelder Series from Blue Note is usually a solid bet. I got interested in saxophonist Hank Mobley because of his work with Miles Davis, and I previously bought the excellent Soul Station. The latest addition is Roll Call and features the same band (Paul Chambers, Art Blakey, Wynton Kelly) as well as trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. It was recorded on 13 November, 1960, my 1st birthday! CD # 5. My namesake Mark O'Connor is a man of great musical versatility, and any album with my name on it is likely to garner my attention. I love his jazz forays and the one I picked up is called Live in New York and features his Hot Swing Trio. CD #6. The final disc in the shopping spree was playing when I left the store. The owner kidded me about how he wasn't trying to sell the CDs he was playing, he just played what he liked. Yeah, sure. Worked on me. It was a recent Sam Cooke collection called Portrait of a Legend and contains over 30 tracks. No one has a voice like Mr. Cooke. If you looked up "soulful" in the dictionary there should be a picture of Sam next to the entry. Another brilliant artist and performer who died too young. CD #7.

Not a bad haul, eh?

19 April 2011

The Greatest Game Ever Pitched

Jim Kaplan's new book starts like this:
For four hours, 10 minutes, and 16 innings, all through the night of July 2, 1963, and into July 3, Warren Spahn and Juan Marichal slugged it out like a veteran boxer and a young contender.
That's what they call a "hook" in the book trade. It worked for me, of course, being baseball fan and a Giants junkie. I was contacted a few weeks ago by some nice folks at Triumph Books asking if I would be interested in a "review copy" of Mr. Kaplan's The Greatest Game Ever Pitched: Juan Marichal, Warren Spahn, and the Pitching Duel of the Century. Let's see: free book, Juan Marichal, Candlestick Park, Warren Spahn, SF Giants, baseball history . . . uh, sure, OK. Like I was going to say "no." Funny thing, I don't read a lot of baseball books. I mean, I don't actually read The Baseball Encyclopedia (I have the 7th ed.) even though I've spent a lot of time in my life with that book on my lap. (Nowadays I peruse Baseball-Reference.com.) I did read David Halberstam's Summer of '49 and October 1964, both of which were excellent. And W.P. Kinsella's Shoeless Joe remains a favorite (the film version is a bit heavy-handed for my taste--Mr. Costner is far better in Bull Durham and has much better co-stars). I couldn't watch Ken Burns' Baseball, it kept putting me to sleep. Despite the fact that I'm a Giants baseball fanatic and follow the major leagues pretty closely, I'm actually not all that qualified to write a review of a baseball book. I just don't consume that many of them! I'm much better with 40s and 50s noir or post-modern SF. Alas, duty calls!

Look for my review at the end of the week on my Giants blog Raising Matt Cain.

03 April 2011

I rode my bike today

I haven't been on my bicycle since my accident. That fall and subsequent concussion took place on September 15th, 2010. Today the sunny weather gave me a chance to think about a mountain bike ride instead of a trip to the ski park. I chose the ride. I took my time and went slowly. I even got off and walked on some narrow uphill single-track. The creeks in Greenhorn Park were raging. I had to make three crossings. The first was ankle deep and I could push the bike. The second was a bit shallower and I rode across. The third was knee-deep and I had to carry the bike! Good thing I wore my wool socks.

10 March 2011


It was a clear October morning in the Mojave Desert twenty-three years ago when I got to see Discovery touch down at Edwards Air Force Base. This was the first Space Shuttle flight in over two years after the Challenger disaster in January of 1986. The landing area was packed with spectators and well-wishers, and the general feeling was one of great relief when the big bird came down without a hitch. I was there when Challenger came down on her final landing in November of 1985. There was hardly anyone in the big lake bed parking area at the time. No one had any inkling it would be Challenger's last successful mission. Space travel is inherently dangerous, but the regularity of the program's success lulled us into believing it could be routine. It took another disaster, the terrible break-up of Columbia over Texas on its return flight to Canaveral in 2003 to remind us once again that this sort of thing is risky--very risky. You can have all the best scientists, engineers, and technicians and still lose a payload, a rocket, or a crew. I like to say that the first rule of the universe is that "Nature f----s with you." And that the second rule is "People can't do much about Rule No. 1."

Discovery will fly no more. She came down on Wednesday having flown 39 times since 1984 and having logged 148 million miles. Endeavour is set for an April launch, and Atlantis for June. That's it for the Space Shuttle after three decades. That will be a sad day for me, as I've been a fan of humans in space since I was a boy following the Apollo missions. The real exploration of the final frontier is done better by satellites and robots--one only has to look at the pictures from Cassini and Opportunity to know that. But humans are explorers, and will continue to explore space from their rockets and spaceships. The ISS is still up there, still working, and still filled with explorers. Let's not forget about them.

05 March 2011

Winter's Bone

This weekend I redboxed a movie called Winter's Bone. It's based on a novel by an excellent American crime writer by the name of Daniel Woodrell. I haven't read the book, but I'm familiar with Mr. Woodrell, who sets much of his fiction in the Missouri Ozarks. The main occupation of the characters in Winter's Bone seems to be avoiding the law while they cook meth. The unfortunate Ree, played beautifully by Jennifer Lawrence, struggles to keep her family together while shit hits the fan all around her. Ree is the oldest child of Jessup Dolly, and she has to care for her younger siblings because her mother is nuts and her father is a fugitive. Ultimately Ree--all of seventeen--has to go toe-to-toe with the head honcho of the vicious, inbred clan they all belong to. It's compelling stuff, particularly because the landscape is filmed so lovingly. The rural ghettos of America are oddly photogenic. I'm not sure if it's the car wreck or the rescue that fascinates us. The folks in Winter's Bone don't expect rescue, but without giving away too much it is safe to say Ree Dolly gets her share of both rescue and car wreck in the story. The acting and writing are both excellent as all the characters have depth and seem believable. Winter's Bone is noir in tone and feel but a surprising and uplifting drama as well. Director Debra Granik gets a tip of the tam o'shanter for an engaging and rewarding film.

26 February 2011

"It's all about the pow-pow."

My skiing buddy is a total powder snob. He barely wants to have his skis touch a groomed run. He won't go to a resort unless there is a chance of "freshies." Today we hit the road early and got to the parking lot at Mt. Ashland before they opened. We managed to be on the summit and over to "the back side" before it had been touched. I got to experience a true "bluebird" or powder-skiing day in windless, cloudless, sunny conditions.  We and a few others trailing us got to cut the first tracks in some luscious, fluffy "pow-pow." I was so excited on the first run and had so much adrenaline that I hardly remember getting down the hill. But by the second run I had calmed down and realized the skiing was fun and easy. The view south to Mt. Shasta and the Shasta Valley was magnificent, we could see the snow-capped Marble Mountains and Trinity Alps. It was a spectacular day. The trek back to the chairlift area is long and on a mostly-level road, so it is a workout, and being out of shape I tired quickly. But I accomplished a major goal I had set for myself as a skier, which was to be confident enough to leave the "groomers" and head for the backcountry. I took a spill on the last run because I was worn out and missed a turn. But the snow was soft and deep and the faceplant was painless. It's good to be reminded that the mountain is your master and not your mistress.

I'm celebrating my great morning (we were in the bar and eating lunch at exactly noon) with a little George Dickel No. 12 Tennessee Whisky. Good stuff! (Note that they use the Scotch/Canadian spelling rather than the Irish/American "whiskey.")

06 February 2011

Weekend crescent

I caught a glimpse of the very young crescent on Friday night just before 8:00 p.m. local time (PST). It was just getting ready to set over the western foothills. On Saturday I saw the moon late in the afternoon, high in the sky, and watched it brighten in the deepening twilight. Tonight Jupiter was the crescent's companion, and I could really appreciate the earthshine glowing on the full face of the disk. The bright bottom limb looks a bit like a canoe or gondola, with its pointy horns nearly even with the horizon line. The moon is smiling at us! The unseasonably warm, dry, clear weather may be a bummer for the skier in me, but the flip side is an outstanding view of Luna in all her early-phase glory. First Quarter is not until Thursday--get outside and enjoy the beautiful young moon!

15 January 2011

Even MORE new books!

I'm stocked up for the New Year. The last shipment arrived yesterday--this time from Amazon. I've been trying for a year to find the rest of the fabulous Criminal series by Ed Brubaker (writer) and Sean Phillips (artist). I had volumes 1, 3, and 5, but my nearest comic shop (Ashland) never seemed to stock the rest of the set. So I simply ordered volumes 2 and 4 on-line. The stories are standalone but also overlap, and are told with multiple flash-forward-and-back sequences, but they never lose their grip on you. The colors by Val Staples are pitch-perfect and bring the whole thing to life. If you are looking for noir, look no further. Brubaker is a master storyteller and the illustrators capture the characters and action perfectly. I'm a big John Shirley fan, and ordered his latest--Bleak History--as well. Mr. Shirley is not an easy guy to pigeon-hole. Sure, most of his stuff is fantasy/horror/sci-fi, but that's like saying James Joyce wrote about Irish people. It's true, but useless. John Shirley writes brilliant fucking shit that will explode your brain. How about that?

What's on your book pile?

10 January 2011

New books!

Right on top of Out of the Gutter 7 is the latest shipment from Ziesing Books. (Don't know Ziesing? Time to find out.) Sitting on top is Charles Willeford: a 1986 Hoke Moseley novel called New Hope for the Dead. Underneath that is a Dave Zeltserman title: 21 Tales from New Pulp Press. It seems I share a link with Mr. Zeltserman. One of the stories in the collection--Adrenaline--originally appeared in Out of the Gutter 2. My story--Tweaker--is in the same issue. (That tells me I should get off my butt and write more stories!) Then there is the inimitable Walter Mosley: a new series featuring Leonid McGill, PI. It's called The Long Fall. The bottom of the heap is a 1986 Mysterious Press hardcover: Veil, by George C. Chesbro.

I can't wait to get started! What's new in your book basket?

09 January 2011

Out of the Gutter 7

The new Out of the Gutter magazine is here--number seven! It now has the Gutter Books imprint and the look and feel of the trade paperbacks in that line. OOTG7 is the "U.S. vs. U.K." issue, alternating an American story/author combo (edited by Matt Louis) with a British Commonwealth story/author combo (edited by Pulp Press' Danny Hogan). I enjoyed the variety of tone and language in the tales--the back-and-forth setup was fresh and fun. The stories were consistently excellent, and the whole layout and format of the new issue is first-rate. All OOTGs are organized by length. There's a "Flash" section followed by a "10 Minute Read Department" and a "15-20 Minute Read Department" (as well as various non-fiction pieces). Don't let the "gutter" name fool you. This may be graphic, hardcore crime writing, but it is skillfully executed by serious folks. Tough times call for tough fiction! Buy Out of the Gutter 7 and you not only get a fine read but you support a truly independent publishing venture.

03 January 2011


I discovered an excellent new astronomy blog called Prime Time. I was looking for help with Uranus. Uranus is the favorite planet of schoolkids everywhere. They always ask if you have pictures of Uranus. Nowadays you are supposed to say Uranus like "urine us" which isn't any better. The alternative is "your AH-nus" which just sounds like you are being snooty. Tonight, with the help of the description and map on the aforementioned Prime Time blog I was able to see Uranus. This week it is in the same binocular field with Jupiter, and with a little patience I was able to pick out the far distant planet once known as "The Georgian Star." I'm lucky to live in a place with dark skies. Even though I live in town and there are all the usual sources of light pollution (like streetlamps and porch lights) visibility is still very good. The hardest part is keeping the binoculars steady! Once I could do that I could see Uranus easily. The bluish-green tint the planet is known for would jump out at me when I averted my eyes from the spot. Uranus is more than a billion miles from Earth, closer to two billion, in fact. That's a long way for the sunlight to get there and back again so we could see it this week.

01 January 2011

Penelope: journey's end

I have come to the end of James Joyce's Ulysses. The final episode is known as "Molly's soliloquy" and consists of a running internal monologue bereft of ordinary sentence structure and punctuation. We get to listen in on Molly Bloom's mind as it runs on and on like all minds do, intermixing the past, present, and future with impressions, feelings, and half-formed thoughts as well as vivid descriptions, precise details, and surprising insights. We know nothing of the real Molly in the rest of the book and have only her reputation and the things the other characters think and say about her to form an idea of her make-up. The long journey into her unregulated, unselfconscious mental stream reveals a complex woman full of contradictions. She enjoys her extramarital affair and fantasizes about other lovers, but also reminisces about falling in love with Leopold Bloom, realizes the depth of her feelings for him, and resolves to give their marriage a fresh start. Molly is petty and self-absorbed, but also sensitive and empathic. She's ignorant--i.e. uneducated--but intelligent and perceptive. There's enough Molly there to either love or hate and that seems to be the point. Joyce hasn't made anything easy in Ulysses and it is no surprise that Molly is an enigma as well. You could argue just as easily that Molly represents the divine or the debased, that she's an earth-mother or a harlot. I would imagine that the real Molly is like all of us--a little of both and a lot in-between. Joyce refuses to settle the argument and forces us to take all of Molly, the good parts and the bad parts. It is interesting that Molly's favorite word is "yes" and that she uses it almost like punctuation (think of "like" and "um" and "you know" in conversation) throughout the monologue. The whole episode begins and ends with the word "yes." Her last thoughts are of Bloom and her love for him. The book, for me, ended on a hopeful note. Despite the myriad of injustices done to us each day, the suffering, and the failed dreams, there is still a chance at love and renewal. Life goes on in all its confusion and uncertainty and each day is its own epic struggle to understand and be understood.

A healthy and prosperous 2011 to all of you!