strictures and structures

if only we stopped trying to be happy, we could have a pretty good time

Moby Dick: a positive review, with qualifications

My comprehensive theory of art appreciation, accounting for the objectivity and subjectivity thereof, goes like this: past a surprisingly low bar of technical competence, whether you like something is a function of how much you happen to click with that particular artist as a person.

So. Herman Melville’s technical competence is beyond question. Mixed as my feelings are, if you want to insult his powers as a stylist, I’d have to fight you.

Now, the question is–would you like Melville as a person?

To answer this, you must ask yourself:

Have I madness within me?

Am I a man or woman of powerful great feeling?

When life holds me down to its grindstone, whether to sharpen me to a keen point or to wear me down into nothing, do I shower incandescent sparks of poetry in response?

And most importantly: Do I really, really like whales?

The very first time I ever heard of Moby Dick, I was reading the marginalia in The Princess Bride. Goldman said something along the lines of, “only the most masochistic, dedicated readers read all the whaling chapters in Moby Dick.” In which case, most readers must skip sixty percent of the book. Why does nobody mention this? I thought it was just going to be one or two chapters about whales. I thought I was just going to grit my teeth for half an hour, and then I’d get to be better than everyone else. Why do people only talk about the white whale and Ahab? Ahab barely shows up! Is there some kind of conspiracy amongst all the English literature scholars out there? Will a shaggy grad student knife me in the back now that I’ve spilled the beans? (Bring it, bitches, I’ve known too many academics to ever fear them. My Daisy Red Ryder and I await you with pleasure.)

I’m still reeling from the pages and pages of excruciating detail on how exactly to use a block and tackle to hoist a sperm whale. But sprinkled in amongst the classifications of whale species and the exact measurements of whale skeletons, are gorgeous meditations on life, with roughly the same density as one might expect fruit chunks to be distributed in a fruitcake. You vigorously masticate an agonizingly dense substance for a long time, and are then rewarded by a chewy burst of flavor.

I tell you this so you can come in with the properly calibrated expectations.

As for me, personally, yeah, I’d get along with Melville. Not enough to be roommates, but enough for a long plane ride.

I live in a valley with a culture of ruthless efficiency, where the prevailing aesthetic is commercial, minimalist, and sterile. Moby Dick is lush, ornate, and uninhibited. It’s everything–whaling manual, Shakespearean tragedy, a play, a series of prose-poems, a loose collection of essays. It is precisely because of its chaotic nature that it achieves the kind of authenticity, the kind of earnestness that seems so hard to find these days. Real life is always irregular. Moby Dick is overwhelmingly passionate, and somehow, despite all the jokes in it, gay* and otherwise, I don’t want to mock it. Someday, I’ll reread it.

*  Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say, – Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.


vertical versus horizontal sharding: a mnemonic

Okay, imagine you have a stalk of celery.  Each lengthwise fiber represents a column in a table in a relational database.

Now cut the celery vertically. You have vertically sharded it!

Okay, now imagine you have a carrot. Each ring-like bump on the carrot represents one row in a table in a relational database.

You cut the carrot into a bunch of little slices. You have horizontally sharded it.

Thank you, thank you. My consulting fees are $300/hour, plus catered lunch.

Train to Busan: a glowing review

Now that I’ve seen this movie, I don’t feel like I need any more zombie movies.

This is not actually true. I have a bottomless appetite for zombie stories. But Train to Busan is so perfectly executed that I do feel temporarily sated. It hits all the usual themes–the real enemies are not the zombies, but your fellow humans; the authorities suck; and it has the usual social commentary. This particular movie takes a few potshots at the 1%. They’re all on the nose, but it’s hard to be subtle in a zombie movie.

Train to Busan begins when the ruthless hedge-fund manager and unlikable protagonist Seok-woo accidentally buys his young daughter a Wii for her birthday the second time in a row. She uses this as leverage to coax him into taking her to Busan so she can visit her mother. Father and daughter must then survive an outbreak on the train. The result is kinetic, with never a wasted moment. At times it’s even quite touching, as Seok-woo learns what it takes to be a father. This is a zombie movie with good family values.

The train is a truly inspired setting. How did nobody think of this before? A train is perfect for survival horror. It’s close quarters, hard to escape, and has few useful tools. Not only that, but the train is a wonderful embodiment of the drive to escape that must be present in all zombie movies.

Back in its home country of South Korea, Train to Busan sold over ten million tickets. The population of South Korea is only about 50.7 million people. Twenty percent of an entire nation (plus me) can’t be wrong. Go see this movie!

loudly grunting while working out: a positive review

I like loudly grunting while working out* because it makes me feel powerful. Maybe if you do it, you will feel powerful too.

* Also known as, “warrior noises.”

Beauty and the Beast: a negative review

Spoilers galore.

I had hopes for this. I had read an interview with the director where they stated that the original animated movie was itself a remake of an original story. Very wise. You got me there. You made me even look forward to this.

After I saw it, I said to my friend Oobz, “Lumiere’s face was horrifying.” I think it was just the initial shock of disappointment. I’ve seen a few horror movies, and Lumiere’s face is just charmless. And that sums up how I feel about this movie. It was charmless.

There’s always a risk in porting an animated story to a live-action format. Things that looked plausible enough in animation can look grotesque in live-action. In this live-action remake, the transmogrified servants are mostly trapped in the uncanny valley, except for the feather duster, who only escapes because she has a peacock head, not a human face. And the beast just doesn’t look like a beast you could root for. The original animated beast had big doe eyes and floofy hair. He combined the cuddliness of a dog you wanted to pet and the luxuriant locks of an Herbal Essences model. This time around, he’s a big muscular thug who makes you uncomfortably aware that you’re rooting for the success of an abusive relationship. With bestiality. This weakness of the live-action format especially doesn’t pair well with modern sensibilities about dating.

I’m sure there’s a way to make a good live-action movie with abusive boyfriends and uncomfortable but sexy hints of bestiality, especially if you have involvement from actual French people, but of course no American is ever going to go there.

The sad thing, I think, is that the original animation was very fresh and original, because it dared to embellish the old story so much. This remake is something of a failure to launch–too slavishly devoted to the original to make the most of the change to a live-action format, it reminds me of someone trying to jump a ditch they could easily cross, if only they weren’t so afraid.*

* Though I suppose I’m being harsh, because the other side of the ditch is a sexy French movie with bestiality and abuse, so yes, I can see why you’d shy away.

A Gentleman in Moscow: a negative review

Much as how Trump is a poor man’s idea of a rich man, the titular gentleman of A Gentleman in Moscow is a plebeian’s idea of an aristocrat, and simultaneously, an American’s idea of a Russian.

The premise of the novel is that Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, unlike most of his aristocratic brethren who were either shot to death or forced to flee, is placed under house arrest in a fancy hotel. It conveniently enables the author, Amor Towles, to insulate his character from any of the consequences one might reasonably expect from being a Russian aristocrat during Stalinist Russia, and to nimbly shirk the burden of doing any of the research someone with no knowledge of Stalinist Russia might be expected to have to do in order to write a convincing book about Stalinist Russia.

I am ignorant of Russian history and culture. Amusingly enough, that is how I can tell Towles did no research. When someone as placidly ignorant as I am can recognize every single Russian cultural reference made, and can even spot the improperly deployed patronymics, nicknames, and surnames, it is certain that Towles has no more knowledge than I–in fact, given how glaringly bad the Russian names are, I’d wager I even know more. (It also enrages me that Towles thought Bulgakov was a poet. I suffered the whole time I was reading The Master and Margarita, and I can tell you that regardless of his other charms, Bulgakov was no poet.)

I would be able to overlook the lack of Russianness if the book itself weren’t so slight and incoherent. Here is an example of what I mean–at the very beginning of the book, the good count bounces up and down on a bed to gauge the key of the bedsprings, apparently G Major. How charming. Surely, he is someone of significant musical talent. But does his musical ability show up again in the novel? No. Towles wrote that scene as a one-off cheap trick. The book is essentially a long string of these, going nowhere.

Towles also likes to interrupt his narrative with pretentious disquisitions like this: “That sense of loss is exactly what we must anticipate, prepare for, and cherish to the last of our days; for it is only our heartbreak that finally refutes all that is ephemeral in love.” This last clause is a lot like saying, “the existence of apples refutes oranges,” or, “red refutes green.” The permanence of heartbreak is not an argument, and neither is the ephemerality of love, and therefore neither concept can refute the other. The effect of all these little verbal missteps is to produce the kind of wince my musician friends get whenever I sing around them.

But I don’t hate this book because it has no plot and no verisimilitude. I have read books with no plot before, and enjoyed them greatly, and if I could mainline crappy fantasy books, I would. The problem with this book is that it has no vision, beyond a nostalgic admiration for the aristocracy. An admiration so un-American, that I wish there were some committee of subversive literature I could report this book to.

Rent: a positive review, with reservations

Much about “Rent” is timeless. The artistic struggle, the poverty, the need to carpe that diem–they are all classic. And there are some damn good songs. I have taken to howling “aoouuuuut toniiiight” when I’m riding my bike at 2AM.

And yet, “Rent” feels oddly dated to me.The rent is too damn high, but where are the battles between YIMBYs and NIMBYs? And where are the bigots? How are the LGBT folks living such unmolested lives? Especially now that Trump is president. For all its grittiness, “Rent” has aged into something positively innocent.

All the Light We Cannot See: a bad review

I really did not like this book.

Here is a quote, describing one of the two protagonists:

“He made such a faint presence. It was like being in the room with a feather.”

I am in a room with a feather right now. I forgot about it completely, until I saw it while sitting in my chair, thinking of other things. Then I thought, “I should throw this away. Are feathers compostable?”

The book is full of sentences like this. The most objectionable one is probably, “a calm peaceful place, insulated by fields, enwombed by hedges.” Enwombed. It makes you wonder if the author, Anthony Doerr, has ever had sex with a woman.

Doerr cannot be accused of possessing a tin ear. I would describe his voice as, “Hemingway on molly.” It’s not bad, and sometimes it gets pretty good, but the effect of the relentless simple, everyday words, and endless lists of subclauses crosses from rhythmic to soporific. It strikes me as lazy, but trying too hard.

I’d insult the plot too, but there isn’t one.

At some level, Doerr is a hack. A successful hack, a sensitive hack even, but nevertheless, proof that China Mieville, that giant of scifi and fantasy, was right when he called literary fiction a genre like any other.

my San Francisco to Seattle packing list

So, I just rode from SF to Seattle (about a thousand miles) during the month of September, alone. This is my packing list, just in case anyone’s interested in doing a similar journey. It’s sort of roughly divided into three sections.

bike tools
bike shoes (SPD-SL with a recessed area so you can still walk around easily)
spare spokes (I found these weren’t really necessary, but I’ve been accused of overconfidence before.)
SPD-SL pedals
portable pump (Get the kind with a PSI gauge, and where the head is attached to the rest of the pump by a tube.)
handlebar bag
rear panniers
tire irons
fresh new patch kit
tire boot
spare tube
water bottles (I had enough bottles to carry 3.5L total.)
cable for U-lock

rear and front lights (It gets foggy along the coast.)

bug spray
camp towel (REI makes these microfiber towels that pack up really small.)
sleeping bag (Make sure you get a sleeping bag with the correct temperature rating. Most bags come with a rating, but that rating probably applies only to men. E.g. if a bag has a rating of 45, it will be comfortable for a man in 45 degree weather, but a woman will probably feel cold. Add about ten degrees to a bag’s rating. So the 45 degree bag will only be comfortable in 55 degree weather for a woman. If you do more research, some companies will provide ratings by gender for their bags.)
sleeping pad
sleeping pad patch kit
spare tent stake
dry bag for food
bear bag rope
camp suds

SmartWool baselayer
down jacket
down vest
rain jacket
rain pants
non-bike shoes
2 pairs of bike shorts
2 shirts for biking
fleece-lined leggings
2 pairs of merino wool socks
merino shorts
pain meds
skin meds
world’s tiniest first aid kit
pepper spray
chapstick with sunscreen
wooden massager that I got at a job fair once
cellphone battery backup
dry bags
binder clips
straps with buckles

There are a couple more items I left off, but this mostly covers it. The only extraneous item I had that I did not truly need was the bear bag rope. Most state parks have food lockers, and I verified with the Oregon state park agency that bears are not really a problem.

All told, this weighed about 28 pounds. There’s very little I would change about this packing list, if I were to do this particular ride again.

I have mild regrets about trying too hard to minimize the weight of all that I carried. If you can shave off ten pounds, go for it, but a sleeping pad that weighs an extra pound, but is ten times as comfortable as an ultralight solution, is obviously better. You may as well err on the side of carrying too much. Unless you’re doing a very remote ride, which SF to Seattle is not, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to mail home excess gear.

Notice that there is no stove. I probably could’ve just barely had the space and weight for one, but I did okay just eating tortillas, beef jerky, dark chocolate, multivitamins, and blocks of cheese.

I hope you find this list useful!

the neoair xlite: a bad review

So bad, complete sentences are not warranted.

Pros: Packs light.

Cons: Sleeps like you’re on the floor of a bouncy castle ruled by a medieval two year old.

I have to use complete sentences to tell the story of what I did the first two nights I tried to sleep with this pad. The first night, I was staying at a friend’s house. The guest mattress was saggy, so I decided that it would be an excellent trial of the Neoair Xlite if I moved to the floor and slept on the pad. Bad news. I could not tolerate the Xlite and ended up sleeping directly on the floor instead.

Night the second, I was finally camping with the same friend. Perhaps the floor was unusually hard, or was radiating strange floor-particles through the pad, I reasoned. I deployed the pad again and it was still so uncomfortable, I ended up sleeping on the tent floor. That’s right, the Neoair Xlite was so uncomfortable that sleeping on rocky ground beat it.

This was the same night that the Neoair was torn by a rock.

When I went to REI to return it, every employee I talked to said that the Neoair sucked. Heh. If you’re looking for an ultralight sleeping pad, I’m not sure that the Neoair is actually the most uncomfortable out of the lot, but ultralight pads as a class might not be worthwhile if you value comfort.