20 December 2013

XXX: Last Xmas Break

Today starts my final Winter Vacation or Christmas Break. After June 7th, 2014, I'll make no distinction between work days and holidays. I suppose the notion of vacation will lose a bit of its luster, but I've no doubt we'll still take them. After all, life will not be without work. There will be chores and shopping and yard work and that sort of thing, and hopping in the camper and heading for the coast will certainly be a break from that. Writing is work, and I'll be doing much more of that, so I'll still want down time and goof-off time, but I'll just have to make my own vacation rules. I've always worked for someone else or something else and had to rely on them or it to decide my holidays. School systems, I reckon, are better described as "its" or "things" even though they have real people as bosses. After all, the school calendar is set by custom and tradition (Summer Vacation, Spring/Easter Break, etc.) and not by any particular person. I think one thing I'm looking forward to more than any other is the ability to take a trip any time of the year. Teachers get a lot of holidays, but they are always at the same times of the year. A vernal and/or autumnal adventure sounds quite exciting to someone who is used to July journeys. Noircon 2014 is in Philadelphia at the end of October and that sounds like something we ought to do, don't you think?

People keep asking me how I feel about my impending retirement and I tell them it hasn't quite sunk in yet. Oh, I've been planning this date for the last 15 years, don't get me wrong, and the anticipation has played hell with my équilibre, but the reality of the thing is still off in the misty distance. When January rolls around and I'm back in the classroom shoving algebra and chemistry down the throats of reluctant adolescents, I'll start the countdown. It will be 98 work days at that point, out of 150 total. Not that many if you put it like that, eh? I hope I can keep it all together and not lose my cookies before then. Be a shame to blow it when I'm so close! Wish me luck--every little bit helps.

14 November 2013


I love thrift stores. We have a few here in Yreka, and as I had a little time after work today I decided to go a-thriftin' for things I like. What do I like, you ask? I like CDs. I'm old school--I like the full, rich sound you get from an actual disc, which is much better than an .mp3 file. I like LPs, too, just in case you were wondering. So, I spent ten bucks at two different stores for four CDs. Yeah--ten bucks for four CDs. The first one is a Dave Brubeck/Gerry Mulligan live collection called We're All Together Again for the First Time which features performances from a 1973 European tour. Yes, it includes "Take Five" as well as the Mulligan tune "Unfinished Woman" and their take on the classic "Sweet Georgia Brown." Good stuff. The next is Ornette Coleman's The Shape of Jazz to Come from 1959, which is exactly my own vintage. It was considered avant-garde at the time, but 54 years is a long time! Joe Jackson's I'm the Man was a big hit when I was a college kid, and I remember listening to his music quite a bit back in those days. All three of those discs, despite the battered cases, are in perfect shape. The last one is Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley, a compilation from the early 60s that was released by Capitol (Blue Note) on CD in 1993. The disc itself looks pretty bad, but all the tunes played just fine. I never listened to jazz singers much until I discovered Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, since then I've learned to appreciate that music. I'll say it again: four CDs for ten bucks.

I saw a genuine US Navy pea coat in 40XL for five bucks that I almost bought on principle. I certainly don't need another winter coat, but this thing was gorgeous. The wool and lining were in great shape, the buttons were original and intact, and it fit surprisingly well except that the sleeves were a little long. It weighed about ten pounds and came down past my butt like a top coat. A beautiful thing, man, but I'd have to make some serious room in my closet! I remember working at Acme Surplus in Oakland when I was a young lad, and we sold coats like that for a minimum of fifty bucks and often as high as seventy, and that was over thirty years ago. A coat like that is a classic--but not really my thing. I hope some poor working stiff on a budget finds that treasure and keeps himself warm all winter.

Oh, and I picked up a nice long-sleeve shirt for four bucks. My size (15-1/2 by 34), Van Heusen 60/40 cotton/poly broadcloth, white with very thin longitudinal stripes of blue and brown. Dressy, with a spread collar (I have too many of those, I was hoping for the button-type), but will work great as a casual shirt. Not bad for an hour after work.

10 November 2013

XXX: Two-thirds Full

Lots of people told me to enjoy my final year of teaching as it would "go by fast." With the Monday Veterans Day holiday, Tuesday the 12th of November is the 60th work day on the calendar. That's exactly one-third of my work year of 180 days. Only 120 left! I've been thinking a lot about the speed of time, and I find my anticipation about June 6th, 2014 has caused my days to crawl by. I feel like I look up from my desk at the government-issue utilitarian analog clock on the wall and it keeps saying 10:30 a.m. over and over again. This year is definitely NOT racing by! I'm not complaining, a day should take a day, should it not? A week should feel like a week, right? I've always been a "glass half-full" sort of fellow, and as I look at my calendar I see that two-thirds of the year remains, not that one-third is done. I'm tired all the time, and feel harried and a bit abused on the job, but I always manage to center myself and take a few deep breaths and remind myself "LAST time I have to do THAT." Believe me, that's a huge help. Still, when I finally trudge home I feel like a squeezed-out sponge. My brain is spent, and all I want to do is drink whiskey and pass out on the couch. (My lovely bride bears the brunt--I'm sorry, sweetheart. Zombie Mark will soon be a distant memory.)

Wednesday the 13th is my birthday, number fifty-four. I started this gig when I was a mere lad of twenty-four. I remember those early days really well--it's the stuff in the middle that's all jumbled up. The last few years have been particularly intense, I'm not sure why, and the time has certainly not flown by. It's been a grind, nice and slow, like a glacier. It makes the wait for the big date a little harder, but I don't want to see my days disappear in a blur. Einstein convinced us that time is not absolute, it goes fast or slow depending on the observer. My ninth-graders told me on Friday that their freshman year of high school was "flying by." Isn't that funny? Nine more work days and it will be Thanksgiving Break. I think I can make that.

29 September 2013

Books on the Doorstep

I think most people like getting packages in the mail, and I'm no exception. I was out most of yesterday and missed the delivery of my latest order from my favorite bookseller, Ziesing Books. This morning I opened the box and took a first look at the goods. All were sale items, I should add, the four books coming in with shipping at about thirty bucks. The most expensive one (ten dollars!) was a trade paperback advance reading copy of William Gibson's Mona Lisa Overdrive. Despite being from 1988, it's in excellent shape. I've read all of Mr. Gibson's fiction, including his famous Cyberspace or "Sprawl" trilogy (Neuromancer, Count Zero, and the aforementioned MLO), but don't have all of it on the shelves. My notes tell me I read MLO in 1992--it will be nice to revisit that after more than twenty years. I wonder how well it holds up? The next item was a novel from 1996 by one of my all-time favorite writers, John le Carré. It was made into a movie of the same name starring Pierce Brosnan. Guessed yet? It's The Tailor of Panama. I don't own everything by Mr. le Carré, nor have I read everything, but I'm slowly filling in the collection. I see he has a new novel--A Delicate Truth. I'll have to get right on that as soon as I'm done with this one. TTOP is also a trade paperback and an advance reader's copy, and also in excellent shape. Not bad for seven dollars.

The other two are short story collections. One (a new hardback, only five dollars) is by another great British writer, Brian Aldiss, and is called Common Clay. It was a short story--"The Madonna of Futurity"--that originally turned me on to Mr. Aldiss' work, and I discovered later that story was part of a novel called Somewhere East of Life, which is part of a quartet called the "Squire" novels. I bought another in the series, Life in the West, from, of course, Ziesing Books. I still have to get my hands on the other two! The final item was a new $14.95 paperback (on sale for half price!) of mystery stories by the Russian dramatist Anton Chekov. I had no idea that he wrote such things, but he apparently enjoyed the genre and penned many such tales throughout his short but exceptional literary career. It's called A Night in the Cemetery and Other Stories of Crime and Suspense and was put out in 2008 by Pegasus. I love Chekhov's plays, and I'm quite curious about these other works.

So that's it. Four new books for thirty bucks. Do yourself a favor and check out Ziesing Books. It is a true mom-and-pop outfit and is located here in Northern California, in a little burg called Shingletown in Shasta County, just west of Lassen Peak. There's no storefront, just a website and a P.O. Box, but they still produce a print catalog. If you buy from them they keep you on the mailing list and send you their 40-page self-produced tome a couple of times a year. Mark--the pop--writes a letter about his life and the business that makes you feel like part of the family. When you call or email, Cindy--the mom--answers. You get personal service in the old-fashioned sense of the word, and you also get first-rate, professionally-packaged and timely-delivered high-quality eclectic goods for reasonable prices. How can you beat that?

p.s. What's on YOUR bookshelf these days?

21 September 2013

XXX: First Mark

Twenty-four of my final 180 teaching days have elapsed. This Friday our first "marking period" ended, and "progress reports" are due Tuesday morning. There are many things I will not miss when my teaching career ends. Grades are certainly one of them. The idea that I can be the arbiter of someone's knowledge-gain has always seemed ludicrous to me. Schools--at least schools as we know them--cannot exist without marks. Kids have to have grades and grade-point averages. Parents want them. Colleges want them. These days even the services want them. When I worked in the alternative education site in our district, the recruiters were often confounded by our pass/not pass system. They couldn't translate it into a GPA to put on the enlistment forms. Eventually we had to go to the familiar A-B-C-D-F scheme. Scholarship applications have to have GPAs as well, and we didn't want to shortchange our students' chances, so we capitulated and went back to letter grades. It's not that one way was any better than another, just that we liked the simplicity and non-judgmental aspect of what we were doing. Your work met the curriculum standard, you got the credit, and you moved on to the next standard. If it didn't, you re-worked it until it did.

I was an "A" student in high school. I never experienced poor grades until college. I remember getting a "D" in Math 51C, Differential Equations (post-calculus sophomore math), and an "F" in Computer Science 41, Machine Structures (assembly-language programming). That put the kibosh on my engineering career. It's OK, I think I would have been a lousy engineer. I'm a people person, and teaching, my accidental career, suits my strengths. When I look back at those marks, I know I got them because I didn't apply myself, not because I lacked the ability to understand the material. I was, at that time, unwilling to put in the effort required. I'm still interested in both topics. I read an analysis of the collapse of the World Trade Center Towers some time ago (no, it was not a conspiracy and there were no demolition charges set off) that I understood completely except for the fact that I couldn't make sense of the math--they were differential equations. I remember using similar ones in physics class, but it had been too long and the squiggles on the page no longer held meaning for me. I felt a tinge of regret that I hadn't learned them better. Of course, I can no longer do much of the math I learned. I graduated from Berkeley in 1981, and you don't do much more than simple algebra (and a little basic trigonometry) in most high school science classes. I wasn't much of a computer programmer, either. But I actually learned a lot, mostly because the classes demystified computers for me. I lack the technophobia of many people in my age group because of that. I understand the basic notions behind programming, and how these systems work, even if I lack the skills and mastery-level knowledge.

About every four or five weeks I'll have to turn in another set of grades for my young charges. The school year has eight marking periods--two per quarter, two quarters per semester, two semesters in a year. Two to the third power is eight, you know. That means I've got seven more to go. I've tried every sort of grading system I could think of in the last 29 years, and the funny thing is that they all come out about the same. Rarely do you get the normal or Gaussian distribution you see in statistics classes. The so-called "bell curve" requires large populations and carefully formulated testing structures--like SATs and whatnot. In my experience grades in high school make bi-modal graphs--lots of high-end grades (A's and B's) and equally as many low-ends (D's and F's) with hardly anything in the middle (C's). The kids who seek good grades do the work they need to do. The ones who don't do the work get the marks that reflect that. It is very difficult to design a fair assessment that reveals who has actually learned and understood the material. We've all experienced the phenomenon of cramming for an exam, doing well on it, and promptly forgetting it all when it was over. What, in the end, does my grade actually measure? Certainly not talent or smarts. Plenty of bright, capable students get low grades. Everyone is different, and experiences the new and the unfamiliar in different ways. Everyone is in a different place even when they sit in the same classroom. I'm not saying there's a better way, just that I'm not married to the way it has always been. Grades judge how well you did at a certain time in a certain place on a certain thing. They don't say much about character, or even ability. Compliance, and a willingness to endure some drudgery are actually better indicators of how you'll do in school!

Next week I'll get a bit of a breather. I'll turn in my first marks and relax for a while. Then I'll crank up the exams and other assessments and generate a new set of numbers to go in the computer. Kids will fret, parents will call, counselors will counsel and the whole apparatus will continue to function in the time-honored way. I've always been a good soldier at work--I've never let my subversive and anarchic tendencies in the classroom interfere with the final product. I always "cover" the material and turn in acceptable-looking reports. I owe it to the kids (and their families) to give them a fair shake. I fulfill my professional obligations even when I increasingly doubt their worth. It will be nice to be free of all that when the time comes.

156 days to go!

18 August 2013

XXX: The Beginning of the End

Today is the last day of my summer vacation. My LAST summer vacation. This coming June, in 2014, I will retire from teaching. Tomorrow begins my 30th year of working in the classrooms of California's public high schools. In my career I've taught Physical Science, Ecology, Computer Science, Physics, Chemistry, Natural Resources, Basic Math, Pre-Algebra, Algebra, Geometry, Advanced Algebra & Trigonometry, Health, Physical Education, Remedial English, and believe it or not, Music Appreciation. I'm sure I've missed a few things on that list, actually, as I've done so many things in the classroom over the years I've lost track. I've also been--somewhat out of character for me--an HIV/AIDS Educator and Substance Abuse Counselor. I was a District Technology Coordinator for a while, too, and a Freshman Core Coordinator, a mouthful of vagueness that perfectly described my responsibilities. I've been a class and club adviser, but never a coach. (When you teach nerd subjects like the physical sciences and mathematics they never hassle you about athletics.) I've served my local Teachers Association as President, Secretary, and Head Negotiator, jobs even more thankless than teaching itself.

That is not to say my efforts have been under-appreciated. I'm thankful that I have worked with many fine people who respected me and my work. I have encountered every sort of pupil you can imagine as well as their parents, guardians, advocates, and adversaries. I've even been in the same place long enough that my former students are now my colleagues and/or the parents of my current students. Overall, I've been quite fortunate. I look back on my previous 29 years fondly. I've made many, many friends, and only a handful (if that) of enemies, and learned amazing things about myself, life, the universe, and everything. The young people I have taught--or at least had in class, one never knows if they get "taught" anything--have been a continuing source of inspiration. When I think of all the things I learned from them, what I may have been able to teach them seems pretty small by comparison.

I have 180 teaching days left in my career. That's a little less than 300 calendar days. "Mr. O'Connor" has been a pretty good gig. I know I will never be more than that guy in the tie in chem lab to some people, and that's fine. I hope it's a pleasant memory, if it's a memory at all. I worked hard, and tried to do my best. I succeeded brilliantly, failed spectacularly, and mostly, like all of us, muddled along between the two without losing my mind in the process. I've had enough of this work, and am ready for the next phase of life. Thanks to all of you who helped me along the way, and if I was able to help any of you, I'm happy.

Oh, I'm going to throw a hell of a party when this thing is done--you are all invited!

30 July 2013

The Shark-Infested Custard

Some time ago I picked up a lovely hardcover copy of Charles Willeford's The Shark-Infested Custard from my favorite shop, Ziesing Books, for just a few bucks. Mark and Cindy Zeising are an actual mom-and-pop outfit (one or the other answers the phone when you call) in the tiny burg of Shingletown, here in "true" Northern California. (It's strictly web and mail order, there's no storefront.) I finally got around to reading the book last week, and have had a little time to digest it, and thought I'd try to write a bit of a review.

The novel has four protagonists: Don, Eddie, Hank, and Larry. They are thirty-somethings living in Miami in the late 1970s when the city was at the crest of its population boom. They are obsessed with women, drinking, money, women, drinking, and money. The story is told from each of their points-of-view, two in first person and two in third person. Willeford, being a master, handles the transitions and changes in voice with easy grace. He has a laconic, straightforward style, but is a keen observer and wonderfully concise. The surgical precision of his prose makes even the simplest descriptions interesting, and the dialog has a crisp, realistic feel. The men are not particularly likeable. In fact, they are boorish, sexist, racist, self-centered jerks. And a bit pathetic, too. When they discuss their problems and reveal their attitudes, though, Willeford's lean, hard-boiled style makes what they think and feel seem ordinary and natural, even sympathetic. They are who they are, and Willeford holds them up for scrutiny but not judgment. It's like they are in a fishbowl--everything about their lives is visible even when you want it covered up.

Therein lies the appeal of the book, at least for me. Miami serves as a sort of symbol of American moral and spiritual decadence, the characters merely mouthpieces for all the possible sins of men. They lie, cheat, and steal. They are dishonest at work and unfaithful in their relationships, yet they are loyal friends and help each other out. They have reputable middle-class occupations like airline pilot, security administrator, and sales rep, and are good at their jobs, but have no compunction about scamming their bosses and co-workers. They view women as nothing more than sexual receptacles and connive to stay out of entanglements or get out of the ones they fall into. But Willeford writes with such convincing authority you actually root for the guys to clean up the messes they make, and the messes are pretty ugly and involve murder, manslaughter, kidnapping, and the like.

Charles Willeford is one of the highest-regarded of all crime/noir writers, and The Shark-Infested Custard shows off all his considerable strengths. It's viciously, scathingly funny, a dark, satiric look at The American Dream in all its twisted wretchedness. Few writers can handle such bleak material and turn it into a swift, readable tale, but Willeford is a particular talent. In fact, he should really be lumped in with "literary" writers and not "genre" fiction. His grasp of psychology and motivation, his unflinching look at ordinary, everyday evil, and his fluid, engaging style are light-years above many of the literature crowd's darlings. One of the most corrosive things the publishing world has done to the American novel is separate the MFA-types from the street-types, assuming that a high-falutin' degree from a famous writer's program automatically creates a superior work. I don't mean to say these things are bad--just that they are no guarantee of good. One day, perhaps, Americans will strip the labels off the works of great writers like Willeford, Jim Thompson, David Goodis, John D. MacDonald, Chester Himes, James M. Cain and others of their ilk and recognize their literary creations as substantial contributions to contemporary art and culture. Imagine if we read them in high school alongside F. Scott Fitzgerald or J.D. Salinger! That would make for some interesting discussions, don't you think?

29 July 2013

In the Gutter

When I stepped out of the Powell Street BART station in the early evening this past Saturday, I was greeted by a panhandler asking me for a dollar. There were at least two dozen people standing at the crosswalk on Market, but he singled me out. I've grown accustomed to this--for some reason, the street people see me as an easy mark. I've been in groups, both large and small, many times in many cities, and I'm invariably approached while the others are ignored. I don't usually give in, and didn't this time, but on occasion, if the fellow is funny or creative in his asking, I will hand over some coins. My dad had a soft spot for the underclass, and often chatted them up, and his recognition of their humanity was one of his best qualities. On the other side of Hallidie Plaza, I turned west on Eddy Street and reveled in the fresh ocean breeze that whipped my face and jacket. It had been hot and stuffy in the transbay tube and underground stations. I was mere steps from two fellows being cuffed by four of San Francisco's finest. They looked like high school kids. I suspect they were nicking the tourists, whose free-flowing dollars the City by the Bay lives on. The next block was Mason, and I turned left again after crossing, and noticed that my destination was on the other side. As I went back down toward the corner at Turk to cross, a terrifyingly skinny and hard-bitten women hit me up like we were old friends, happy to see me and ready for a good time. I suppose, in my neat jeans, brown walkers, dress shirt, and tweed sport coat, I looked like a real rube, and she saw opportunity knocking. My refusal was curt, and she chided me for my lack of good humor, but turned away and continued on with her ancient profession. Finally, I found my spot on the east side of the street, right at the foot of Mason. It was six o'clock, and they were just opening the doors of the 50 Mason Social House. I was the first person at the bar so I picked out the best seat and ordered a Trumer Pils and waited for the show to begin.

The event was a book release and signing party. The star was local author and minor celebrity Will Viharo, whose Love Stories Are Too Violent For Me was just re-issued by Gutter Books. He was joined by Philadelphia-based author T. Fox Dunham, whose debut novel The Street Martyr was also hot off Gutter's presses. Entertainment was provided by San Francisco's own Aqua Velvets, surf band extraordinaire. Apparently Mr. Viharo wrote much of Love Stories with the band in the background, and they get a mention in the book as well. I got the chance to talk to guitarist and songwriter Miles Corbin and his musical partner and the band's bassist Michael Linder, telling them how much I loved their music, particularly the 1997 album Guitar Noir. Both were gracious and friendly. I bought two CDs from Miles and Michael gave me one of his own, a collection of bands he produces. If the Tenderloin was the perfect neighborhood for a noir fiction event, the Velvets were the perfect soundtrack.

Things got underway about seven. Matthew Louis, head honcho at Gutter Books, arrived and I helped him set up the table. I met both authors and two other crime writers (and Gutter editors) Joe Clifford and Tom Pitts. Everyone was in a jolly mood and the party went swimmingly. I'd met Matt Louis once before, only because he's from Medford, Oregon (an hour north of here), and I worked with him briefly a few years back because he published two stories of mine in his pulp 'zine Out of the Gutter. Those remain my only published pieces. I hope to rectify that in the near future. Matt is slight of build and his boyish good looks belie his incipient middle age, but the man's sinews are pure tungsten steel. He built his small press, independent publishing venture with sweat, determination, and a single-minded focus to do things his way. He has an eye for talent and a real ear for the kind of fiction he wants to produce. Take a look at Mr. Dunham's blog and his description of Matt's editorial intensity. In a world where the big publishing houses are increasingly swallowing each other up, and the same authors are endlessly hyped ad nauseum, readers like me are starved for new voices. The small presses are like microbreweries--most have no chance to compete with the majors. But some, through hard work and a devotion to quality and uniqueness, survive, and even thrive. I think, and I hope, that Gutter Books is one of the latter.

After the readings, book signings, and musical interludes, the party ended. I was fortunate to spend some time with Fox Dunham, who is a fascinating man. Originally from Scotland, he trained in the ancient bardic traditions with his grandfather, learning not only Scots Gaelic, but about the awen, the source of poetic inspiration. A cancer survivor and denizen of the mean streets, Fox has a palpable empathy for the dispossessed and disenfranchised. His reading from The Street Martyr had the crowd mesmerized. He inscribed my copy of his book "Speak for those with their mouths torn out." What a powerful sentiment!

Later, around ten o'clock, a small group went up the street a half block for a couple more pints. I was able to visit longer with Matt and his lovely and charming bride, and schmooze with the featured authors and the rest of the Gutter crowd, most of whom had brought their significant others. Alas, my darling stayed home this weekend, and I had to be on my own, but I had a grand and inspiring adventure nonetheless. I discovered that writers, editors, and publishers are real people, and that noir-types are regular Joes (and Janes). I had to dash off a little after 11:30 and catch the midnight train back across the Bay. My head didn't hit the pillow (I stayed at my Mom's in Benicia) until after one a.m. I was tired on the long, hot drive home on Sunday, but surprisingly fulfilled. Even the Giants getting swept at home by the Cubs could not dampen my mood. I plan to retire from my current profession--public high school teacher--in June of 2014, and pursue writing full-time. Whether it brings me success or not, I've come to realize, is not as important as the chance to discover things about myself. And if it brings me into more contact with the kinds of folks I spent Saturday night with, so much the better. Next up: NoirCon 2014 in Philadelphia!

23 July 2013

Did You Smile?

What does the Earth look like from space? Last Friday, the MESSENGER spacecraft, currently orbiting Mercury, photographed the Earth and Moon. On the same day, the CASSINI spacecraft, orbiting Saturn, did the same. If that intrigues you, check out Astronomy Picture of the Day ('APOD' to the cognoscenti). Hey, everyone you know--and I mean EVERYONE--is in those pictures. I'm sure if we were watching one of those high-tech crime dramas like NCIS or CSI we could get the resident geek-cop to "zoom in" and see our smiling faces. Funny, whenever I zoom in on photos I get less detail, not more. And I certainly can't read license plates! But that's OK, I like a good show, and I can live with some occasional lapses into techno-nonsense.

Saturn is about 900 million miles from Earth. Mercury is about 61 million miles away. You get that far away, you can't see much, just some dots in the vastness of space. And that's what we are: cosmic dust motes. In the big scale of things, humans don't amount to much. In fact, the bacteria cells we carry around in and outside of our bodies are more numerous than our human cells. Amazing notion, eh? The miracle of life is still a miracle, of course. But for now the only ones who can appreciate their own miraculousness are all in the same photo. And we don't look like all that much. I find the enormity of the universe comforting, not terrifying. I like the mystery, the awe, the wonder. I'm not afraid of uncertainty. In fact, I embrace it. Uncertainty means you get to keep exploring, seeking, questioning. Nature is pretty goddamn trippy, don't you think?

20 July 2013


Hot off the presses from Image Comics is the latest collection of the Ed Brubaker-Sean Phillips collaboration Fatale: West of Hell, which contains issues 11-14. I'm a huge fan of the Criminal series, which is as good as it gets in the noir/crime fiction  realm. Not only does Mr. Brubaker write tautly-plotted, compelling tales, Mr. Phillips draws the most beautiful pictures, and the combination is hard to beat. They preceded Criminal with Incognito, which mixed in superhero stuff with noir, something that should not have worked but actually did. These guys are that good. Now they are pursuing this strange horror-noir mix they call Fatale, and like Incognito I was not sure it would fly. But fly it does, soars in fact, showing once again that these guys are the real deal. Fatale follows a femme fatale, of course, but this femme spreads around the fatal without ever really getting fatal-ed herself. She's some kind of immortal being, not a real human despite looking like a cross between Ava Gardner in The Killers and Jane Greer in Out of the Past. She lives forever it seems, or when she dies she is reborn in another time and place. It's hard to tell, really. Very horror story-weird with lots of unanswered questions. The first two collections (Death Chases Me and The Devil's Business) were set in various decades of the 20th century and our "heroine" was called "Josephine." In the latest, we find "Mathilda" in both the Middle Ages and the American West. There's even a WWII adventure. It's heady stuff, and hard to tell where it is going, but I'm willing to go for the ride. The idea that the femme fatale is more than just a literary trope or a cultural icon but is instead an actual force of nature is a surprisingly fertile ground for a good writer-artist team. It's the kind of thing that demands re-reading, not just for the unanswered questions, but for the richly detailed art, in which I see something new every time I look at it. Keep up the good work, men. I'm ready for my next collection!

26 June 2013


Rummaging through the Wal-Mart blu-ray sale bin recently, I came across a Jason Statham movie called Blitz. We love Jason Statham movies around here. Naturally, we watched it and enjoyed it. Not much in the way of kung-fu, or car chases, the usual Statham staples, but plenty of laconic, tough-guy charm. The character is a sort of Dirty Harry for 21st-century London, a cop who breaks the rules but gets things done, in this case stopping a cop-killer. Even if the plot is a bit hackneyed, the acting throughout is terrific, and the film is brisk, stylish, and lots of fun, despite the graphic violence. Oh, and did I mention the female lead is played by the beautiful and talented Zawe Ashton? Statham plays an Irishman--he goes after his first set of baddies with a hurley--who drinks too much, fights too much, and generally fails to give a shit about anything other than cracking the heads of criminals. When the credits were rolling I noticed the movie was based on a book by none other than Ken Bruen, who happens to be one of my favorite writers. What a combination: Ken Bruen and Jason Statham! Although I've read quite a bit of Bruen's Jack Taylor series, I've never read any of his South East London series featuring Detective Sergeant Tom Brant (Statham in the film) and Chief Inspector James Roberts (Mark Rylance). I suppose I'll have to, now!

24 June 2013


It means "darkness" in Spanish, as in the darkness of Genesis:
Y la tierra estaba desordenada y vacía y las tinieblas estaban sobre la faz del abismo.
(And the earth was without form, and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep. 1:2, KJV)

My dad was always bringing home boxes of books from yard sales and thrift shops. Lots of crap, of course, but enough gems to keep us interested. One of the most memorable was a contemporary paperback novel with a loud red cover and weird art by a guy named R.M. Koster. It was called The Prince, in deference to the famous tome from Sig. Machiavelli, but being a mere lad of thirteen at the time I wasn't too hip on Renaissance literature. It was one of those books that held sway over me--I kept trying to read it but could not. It was too strange, too daunting. My tastes in those days tended to Alistair MacLean, Isaac Asimov, and MAD Magazine. The book began with a listing of all the rulers of the fictional Republic of Tinieblas and their succession of terrible fates, the most benign of which were "deposed." Then there was a dreamy opening sequence, a fantasy of revenge and torture involving a well-lubricated revolver and a hog-tied victim. It was heady stuff for a kid, even if it was the seventies. I was not ready for Mr. Koster and his twisted protagonist Kiki Sancudo. Eventually, when I'd just about finished high school, I decided to read the entire thing. And it blew my underdeveloped Catholic schoolboy mind. After Kafka, in college, I read it again. The book and its two successors (now called The Tinieblas Trilogy) were re-issued in 1989, and I read The Prince again. As well as The Dissertation and Mandragon, the concluding volumes. Both were, to no surprise of mine, brilliant.

Overlook Press is re-issuing the set.  I suggest you get your hands on these books and read them, they are unique, and fittingly, overlooked. Part fantasy, part noir, part political thriller, part fable, part crime caper, The Prince is wildly audacious, searingly funny, achingly sad, and strikingly original. It has swagger, bluster, and machismo aplenty, but it is also chest deep in the terrible tragedy that is Latin American democracy, and you can't help but feel the suffering of the real people that live in real places not much different than Tinieblas. Mr. Koster is 79 years old and says another book is coming. I can't wait. The rest of you have some reading to do.

21 April 2013

The Oil Drum

I came across this website--The Oil Drum--some time ago, and I'm finding myself spending more and more time reading the posts there. It's hard going. They assume you know a hell of a lot about global energy and economics, and they use so many acronyms they have a FAQ for them. But two things keep me coming back. One, the site descriptor is "Discussions About Energy and Our Future." Who isn't interested in that? Two, their mission statement appeals to me:
1. Raise awareness
2. Host a civil discussion
3. Conduct original research in a transparent manner
4. Create a global information community working toward a common goal
Simple. Direct. Meaningful. Who could argue?

I tell my students that everything they know, love, and hold dear depends on cheap, abundant energy. Sure, the Bill of Rights is grand and all that, but without cheap, abundant energy it would all go "poof." Americans like to believe that their wealth and freedom is about the triumph of their ideology. Unfortunately, no ideology, no matter how righteous, trumps Nature. More specifically, the Second Law of Thermodynamics. I like to say the First Law is "You Can't Get Something for Nothing." Seems reasonable to most people. That electricity you use to power your computer came from something like atomic fission, the burning of fossil fuels, or dammed water surging through penstocks. The Second Law, however, says "Shit Happens." More specifically, "Shit Has Always Happened and Will Keep Happening." Order, in any system, requires energy inputs. That energy stops coming in and the system will become disordered. Chaos is natural. The Gershwins understood:

In time the Rockies may crumble, Gibraltar may tumble . . .

Yeah, that's about it. Everything requires energy to keep it going. Your house needs maintenance to keep it from falling down. You have to eat or you will wither away and die. You car needs gas or it won't go. Your society needs labor--both physical and mental--to sustain it. And the benefits you accrue from being a member of said society go along with that. In the days of the Founding Fathers there was human labor in abundance like indentured servants, debtors, and African slaves. There was also lots of easily-exploitable timber, water, and topsoil. It's not a coincidence that rights for women, immigrants, and African-Americans came AFTER the Industrial Revolution. Societies that don't have cheap, freely-available sources of energy are the same societies that have grinding poverty and oppressed citizens.

So, if you care about your future, your wealth, and your freedom, you care about energy and where it comes from. We, that is, the 300 million Americans and the 7 billion world citizens, have already plucked the ripest, juiciest, and lowest-hanging fruit on the energy tree. What's left is harder to reach. Aren't you the least bit curious about how we'll get it?

16 March 2013

Nuke People

I spent this past Friday at my alma mater, UC Berkeley, attending a workshop called Seeing Radiation: Nuclear Science Experiments. It was put on by the American Nuclear Society and hosted by Cal's Nuclear Engineering Department. The program was designed especially for science teachers, hence my professional participation. I previously attended the same workshop on March 11, 2011, which was the day of the tsunami in Japan following the massive offshore earthquake and the subsequent crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi facility. Despite being surrounded by some of the world's most knowledgeable nuclear scientists, we could learn nothing more than what everyone else knew from the news reports. If the workshop had been a week later, we would have been on the cutting edge of the investigation as Berkeley professors and students played a big part in the analysis of the tragedy. Our main instructor both times was Mr. Brooke Buddemeier, a "health physicist" with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. He ran the activities and reviewed the basic concepts. We looked at different kinds of ionizing radiation and discussed a variety of health and safety issues. With the help of some graduate students and instructors from the Department we not only put together cloud chambers and used Geiger counters, we got to take both home with us!

Brooke is a relaxed and engaging speaker and he handled our many questions skillfully and gave us a lot to bring home to our students. We also heard again from the brilliant and articulate Dr. Erik Norman, who gave us an overview of basic nuclear theory, and the funny and irreverent Dr. Peter Hoseman, who talked about his research in materials science. In 2011, we got a tour of the old cyclotron building ("up the hill" at Lawrence Berkeley Lab) which is now the Advanced Light Source. This time we toured the research facilities on the main campus and met with doctoral candidates who talked to us about their projects. I was struck by the seriousness, enthusiasm, and openness of the youngsters and the obvious passion for their work and potential careers in the nuclear industry. It gave me a lot of hope for the future of nuclear science. My father-in-law, Bill Rothwell, was one of the first generation of physicists trained in reactor technology at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the early 1950s. Those men, of course, are all retired or passed on, but I like to think this new crop of kids will be more than adequate replacements. Radioactive materials are used to make electricity, diagnose and treat medical conditions, search for oil and other resources, protect our borders, analyze structures, and investigate the very nature of our universe, among other things. It was both fun and rewarding to spend the day with all these bright and curious people--I need to do that sort of thing more often!


24 January 2013


"He has no place to go, no home but the earth."

Thus concludes Charles F. Park, Jr. in his 1975 book Earthbound: Minerals, Energy, and Man's Future. I'm a big fan of space exploration, manned spaceflight, and science fiction stories, but it is unlikely anyone I will ever know will live on another planet. Visit, sure. But live? Be part of an alien ecosystem? No. That's not going to happen soon. We are stuck here on the earth and have to make the best of it. The Andromedans or Cassiopeians or Alpha Centaurians are not going to suddenly appear and give us free, limitless, non-polluting energy. We'll still have to farm our food and we'll still need all the other stuff we currently grow. And, like always, we'll  have to mine the rest. I'm interested in things and how they get put together. Where does the lead for my car battery actually come from? How is it transported and processed? What does it take to turn rocks into something like a toaster or a hammer? Earthbound may have been dated, but it piqued my abiding interest in economic geology. I suppose growing up surrounded by things like seaports and oil refineries got me thinking along those lines. I wonder about the connections necessary to put an iPad in someone's hand, the actions and events along the way, the myriad of both social and physical structures required. No matter what, when you follow the chain to the end, there's always some guy digging a hole in the ground and pulling out some useful chunk of the earth. I want to know more about that guy, that hole, and the treasures buried there.

22 January 2013


Not much of a photo, I'm afraid, but the conjunction last night between Jupiter and the gibbous moon was pretty neat:

According to my Abrams Planetarium Sky Calendar the two celestial objects were 1.3º apart.

04 January 2013

Breaking In Breaking Bad

Chemistry teacher is my day job. Thus, I have endured a continuous stream of inquiries from all my friends, family, and acquaintances about my thoughts on Breaking Bad, the AMC show that's garnered a lot of attention and praise. I'm always tardy on whatever is hip, be it music, movies, or TV shows, and sometimes entire decades (like the 90s) are a complete loss. But we picked up a blu-ray copy of Breaking Bad Season One this week and popped it in the player one night. And watched the first four episodes straight through! And we watched the final three the next night. This show, like the methamphetamines the main character cooks up, is highly addictive. The two principals (Bryan Cranston as Mr. White and Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman) are brilliant and have an excellent chemistry (very punny, eh?) on screen. The story is a classic one, a good man having to "break bad" in order to stay afloat in a sea of troubles, but is updated for modern times with Mexican gang-bangers, chemotherapy, support groups, high-tech entrepreneurs, overzealous drug cops, and hip-hop lingo. Dark, funny, clever, stylish, pacy, and nervy, Breaking Bad is as good as it gets on TV. If you aren't already snortin' crystal (figuratively, of course), you need to get on the ice-wagon, put your face to the glass, do your biz with the rizz, and adelante with the scanté by tuning in for Season Five. I'll be a couple of episodes behind you, of course.

01 January 2013

Closest Approach

This week the Earth comes closest to the Sun on its annual journey along the elliptical path. The distance between the two bodies drops to a mere 91.4 million miles or about 147 million kilometers. Around Independence Day the Earth will be at its furthest point: 94.5 million miles or about 152 million kilometers. Stick two pins in a piece of cardboard and tie a loop of string between them. Using a pencil, trace out a shape by stretching the string all the way out. What you get is an ellipse:

The two pins represent points called the foci (plural of focus). If the two foci were one point, your ellipse would be a circle. Imagine the Sun is one focus. The Earth's orbit is the ellipse. When the Earth is furthest from the Sun, it is called aphelion. When it is closest, it is called perihelion. "Helios" is Greek for "sun" and "ap-" and "peri-" mean "far" and "close." You can see that the ellipse illustrated is highly exaggerated. The Earth-Sun distance only varies by about three million miles, so if we could view the orbit from space it would look very much like a circle. Most people have a hard time with the notion that we residents of the Northern Hemisphere are closer to the Sun in winter and further in summer. It is below freezing where I live today, for example, and will likely be in the high 80s or low 90s (Fahrenheit) on the Fourth of July. We should conclude, then, that the distance from the Earth to the Sun is not important when talking about the seasons. Three million miles may seem like a lot, but not when you are 90+ million miles away! Every schoolkid ought to know that is is the axial tilt of the Earth that gives us seasons. If you have ever spent time in the Tropics, you know that the day length varies little throughout the year. Whereas we folks who live in the Temperate Zones experience long summer days (and short nights) and short winter days (and long nights). The Earth's axis tilts 23.5º from the plane of its orbit, which is why the Tropic of Cancer is 23.5º north of the Equator and the Tropic of Capricorn 23.5º south. This axial tilt means that solar radiation is spread out over a larger area during the Northern winter and thus we get colder weather:

Try this with a globe and flashlight. You'll see the beam will cover more ground when the Northern Hemisphere is tilted away (winter) and be more concentrated when tilted toward the light source (summer). This is a simple concept, and it gives us an easy scheme for describing seasonal change. After you get a handle on it, ask your friends what they know. You might be surprised how many of them have no grasp of grade school science. Be a good citizen and enlighten them.