Thursday, April 30, 2009


I don't just consider the advice of humans when looking for new books to read; I also rely on the input of robots.  I do so because it has succeeded in the past.  Most famously, I picked up Catch 22 about a decade ago, based largely on a recommendation from, and it has remained one of my all-time favorite books.

I'm a big fan of Saunders, in part because he's so unique.  I noticed that Amazon regularly suggested a book called "Jesus' Son" whenever I was looking at a Saunders collection.  I had never heard of the author before, a man called Denis Johnson, but I'm up for trying something new, so on to my request list it went.

It's an interesting book.  The publication pre-dates Saunders' recent work, and it really isn't the same, but I can see why fans of one author would enjoy the other.  These stories are far less strange, both in style and in content.  Most of them were first published in The New Yorker, and it shows... I don't want to claim that there's a "typical" New Yorker short story, but more often than not their fiction pieces are about 8-10 pages long and feature a narrative slice of life focused around one slightly damaged protagonist and a small collection of supporting characters.

These stories do elevate themselves by making those characters and situations really interesting.  It's kind of boring to read about another druggie, but a druggie who predicts when he's going to get into a crash?  Or who performs a delicate operation that a doctor was afraid to touch?  That's more interesting.

The voice doesn't have any of Saunders' many forms of craziness.  There's no bureaucratic mumbo jumbo here, nor childish nattering, nor illiterate sincerity.  It does feel real, though.  The stories are told in first person, and kind of come across as a more thoughtful, reflective version of Jim Anchower from The Onion. 

One cool thing: even though each of these stories was published separately, they do share common characters.  It isn't clear to me just how much overlap there is - whether all the narrators are the same, for example - but we do get several clues that certain specific narrators are the same person, and learn in some stories about what happened to characters in other tales.  It's neat to have a new universe in a slender tome like this.

I'm still not clear about what the title "Jesus' Son" means.  (This probably wouldn't bother me nearly as much if I hadn't just gone through a similar mystifying search for the meaning of "2666.")  None of the stories has that title, and there's no reference to Jesus in any of them - for that matter, I don't think there's any explicit mention of God or religion.  So what does it mean?  Perhaps it's a reminder or a wish that all people are important to someone, even if we don't always see the evidence of it... even the most messed-up and washed-out among us are important in the grand scheme of things. 

Anyways, that's what I'm taking from it.  The book is well worth picking up - at a little over 100 pages, it's a really fast read, and should be enjoyed by any fan of modern American fiction.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009


A quickie tech review here:

I've been an enthusiastic Ubuntu user for several years.  I've been running Linux for... wow, I guess close to a decade now, crazy!  It's come a really long way... when I first installed, the switch to 2.4 was really big news.  I initially used Corel Linux, a shockingly short-lived brand, but one that put a premium on ease of introduction.  From there I moved on to Mandrake, which I liked for its best-in-class installation and cutting-edge repositories.  I abandoned Mandrake around the time it was renamed Mandriva - not due to the name change, of course, but because I had been hearing relentlessly positive things about Ubuntu, and I was getting sick of the untar-configure-make-make install dance leading to the Dependency Nightmare from Hell.  apt-get sounded too good to be true.  It was true.  I became a believer, and have never looked back.

Jaunty Jackalope is the latest official release.  Ubuntu has a phenomenal release schedule, one that seems to be directly inspired by Agile methodology and that provides a great testimony to how to build quality products: publish on a schedule, and if you run out of time, drop features instead of rushing them or pushing back the deadline.  Anyways, they come up with new releases every six months.  Each release is regularly supported with updates and patches for 18 months.  (Every fourth release is a Long Term Support release, meant to be more palatable for businesses, that gets three years of support on the desktop and five years on the server.)  So, with the regular patches, what's the deal with the six month releases?  Partly it is to act as a baseline, so people can easily download a single well-known image instead of a bunch of amorphous packages.  But it's also important because significant new programs or changes may only be introduced for a new release.

All that said, Jaunty is, at first glance, nearly indistinguishable from its predecessor Intrepid Ibex.  Even the desktop background color looks the same.  Don't let appearances fool you, though - Jaunty carries the kind of improvements that users most crave, like faster start times and more responsiveness.  Booting is noticeably quicker than it used to be, and program switching goes really smoothly.

There are some application updates that should please people - they have the slick new Open Office 3, and are finally making it easier to use non-Open-Source-yet-essential items like Adobe's Flash player and nVidia's video card drivers. 

I'm actually pretty limited in what I use Ubuntu for - Firefox, Wine (currently playing Oblivion mods), Eclipse (for software development) and the terminal (for general fun).  Everything runs at least as well as it did before.  Wine still isn't perfect - there's a weird glitch in Oblivion that resets the in-game sounds to muted every time I launch it - but it seems to be faster and more stable now.

Each new release of Ubuntu makes it better and better.  I can unhesitatingly recommend it to people who mainly use their computers to browse and do other light tasks.  It still has a ways to go at making it easy to run Windows-only programs, but even there, if you're willing to invest some time into making it work, it feels like just about anything is possible.  When you look at Jaunty running side by side with Vista, there's no question that Jaunty is friendlier, faster, and more powerful.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Democracy Inaction

Quick update on my dabbling in democracy:

Like I said before, I'm largely out of the loop on super-local political stuff, so I actually didn't find out for a while how the issue of library computer censorship went down.  I finally checked it out, and was cheered by the result: after a very long debate, the council voted 7-3 against installing the filters.  Instead, libraries will remind users about their policies.

So, I'm pretty happy, maybe even pleasantly surprised.  As I noted before, it's hard to argue for good policy when your opponents are claiming harm to children.  It seems like at least part of the reason came down to cost - San Jose is hurting like everyone in this recession, and while filters may be ineffective, they aren't cheap.

One kind of funny aspect to all this: the one person I contacted, Pierluigi Oliviero, was one of the three people to support the filters.  He's the one person who wasn't already on record supporting them.  So, I guess my letter didn't influence him at all - or who knows, maybe I irritated him enough to vote against me?  Either way.  I'm happy enough at the outcome that I'll let this slide when he comes up for re-election.

In the Hole

The Wire is amazing.

Best television series ever?  Hrm... that's a hard one.  I'll probably grant it the "best drama" award.

The comments in my earlier post still stand.  Through all five seasons, I was regularly amazed at the phenomenal quality of the acting, the incredible density of the plot, the Shakespearean drama, the attention to detail.  Every season built on what came before, and the show just got more and more powerful.


Favorite character (hero): Probably Lester Freeman.  I smile every time I remember when I thought he was just a slacking goof.
Favorite character (villain): Still Stringer Bell.  Marlow is more menacing and evil, but Stringer is still my favorite.
Favorite character (other): Maybe Carcetti?  He's a really complex character, which I dig.  Oh, wait: not Carcetti, but his chief adviser.  I really like that guy.
Runner-up: Bubbles.  Hands-down the most sympathetic character of the whole series.
Favorite location: Hampsterdam
Favorite version of "Walk in the Garden": Season Four!  Season Four!  All versions were good, but I LOVED this version of it.  Every other season, I would eventually start fast-forwarding through the opening song to get to the plot, but I could never bring myself to skip this.
Favorite season: Gosh, that's really hard.  Maybe the third one?  I can see why people were disappointed in the fifth season, but personally I really enjoyed it, just not quite as much as those two.
Another Favorite Character: Omar.  The high point for me was in the second season (I think) when he testified in the murder case against Wee-Bay, but every time he was on the screen, it was magic.
Favorite Murder: See above.  Omar's death was the most shocking and unexpected moment in the whole series.
Runner-up: Stringer Bell's assassination.
Favorite Crime Plot Arc: Following the money.  It's supremely frustrating that we never follow it all the way, but I didn't expect that we would.  It's like real life: the most powerful and wealthy people can play by a different set of rules than the rest of us.
Favorite Personal Plot Arc: Daniels' love life.  I also enjoyed the McNulty's Sobriety arc, but Daniels' story was great, both for what happened and the way it was portrayed.  In some ways, it's the epitome of the phenomenal storytelling power of The Wire.  Any other show would have spent ten times as long on this, and stuffed it with dramatic confrontations and passionate speeches.  Instead, we get a handful of short scenes, scattered across several seasons, and the writers trust us to absorb what's happening and induce the situation.  It's really remarkable.
Favorite Catchphrase: Senator Davis.  "Sheeeeeeeeeeeit."
Most Disturbing Social Point: The young hoppers.  It's frightening and depressing to see how young the children turn to crime, and makes you think about how society has failed them.  They, in turn, fail society.  The most amazing disconnect in season 4 is that the children knew from the very first episode that there were dead bodies hidden in the vacants, but it doesn't even occur to them to tell the police about it, and it takes the police months (and the eventual cooperation of one child) to find out.
Worst Cop: Herc.  That was another great arc: seeing Herc and Carver start out like Tweedledee and Tweedledum in the first season, then watch how their careers diverge.  Runner-up: That white guy with the crew cut.
Most Personally Discomforting: The schoolroom scenes from Season Four.  I was never in any place that bad, but it did bring back some painful memories about unpleasant experiences in elementary school.
Weirdest Character Changes: I forget his name, but the friendly, obese, white homicide cop who becomes head of homicide.  He seems to become radically meaner in season two, then mellows out quite a bit afterwards.  Other characters change too, of course, but I generally felt like I understood why.  With him, it was just kind of odd.

Final, random thought: Kima actually did everyone a favor by reporting McNulty and Freeman.  It took me a while to forgive her, but as I thought through it, even if she hadn't done so, Levi would have figured it out - he was on the scent regardless.  If the prosecution hadn't known that the warrants were bogus, then the whole case would have blown up in their face, either during discovery or the trial.  It was frustrating to see Marlow walk, but by putting everyone on the same page, Kima really helped break the back of Marlow's empire.

OK, I lied.  Final-final thought: What's up with Marlow at the end?  It seems like he's going to follow the same path as Stringer Bell (which Davis has previously gleefully described to Freeman), but the shooting at the end leaves me unsure.  Are we meant to think that Marlow is renouncing "respectability" and returning to the street (which obviously means a great deal to him)?  Or does this merely remind us of his ruthlessness, and lead us to expect that he will carry these same traits into his future dealings?  Either way.  It's hard to imagine him remaining a free man forever.


Excellent, excellent show.  Anyone who can stomach the mature content in it and likes dramatic shows should pick up the DVDs.

Saturday, April 25, 2009


Wow... I hadn't realized 2666 was such a huge book.  If I had realized it, I would have chosen a simpler introduction to Roberto Bolano.  I have no regrets, though.  This is a massive, complicated, exciting, baffling, mysterious, powerful book.


I'm really compelled to describe the book, mainly to convince myself that I can wrap my head around it after 900 pages.  Here goes:

It's a sprawling book, with dozens of important characters and quite a few plot lines.  It is actually composed of five smaller sections or books, with some overlaps between them.

The first book focuses on a group of four literary critics.  They are very different people - quite distinct in age, temperament, gender, nationality, and drive, but are united by a fierce dedication to a mysterious German author called Benno von Archimboldi.  They sort of "discover" him - he has been publishing for decades, but isn't very well known, and thanks in part to their work they manage to bring him into the public eye.  Along the way, a web of really intense relationships grows between the four friends and colleagues.  This book, like all the others that follow, is filled with tangents, dreams, stories-within-stories, and random conversations.  I thought the most powerful aspect of this early book is the characters' dreams, and the deep sense of unease they introduce.  The actual settings in the story are rather mundane - conference halls, apartments, parks - but the dreams carry a deep sense of dread and foreboding.  I kept waiting for something to snap, and it never quite did, which made it even worse.

The book ends with three of the four characters traveling to the Mexican city of Santa Teresa, chasing a tip that Archimboldi was seen there.  Santa Teresa will prove to be the point that unites all of the five stories, although it's never entirely clear (at least to me) why.  The time in Santa Teresa is strange - it feels a bit like the characters are actually disintegrating before our eyes, growing fainter and less vital.  The book ends on a disquieting but hardly sinister note.

The first book was called "The Part About the Critics".  The second is "The Part About Amalfitano."  This takes a philosophy professor, a very minor character from the first book, and makes him the protagonist.  We see his time in Spain, learn about his insane wife, and then follow him to Santa Teresa and then - very cool - watch as he slips into madness himself.  Now, all five books are told by a third-person limited narrator, so while we don't learn everything, we do get to hear the thoughts of the protagonists.  What's interesting and tragic about the professor's case is that, at some level, he realizes that he is going mad.  He feels bad about it, and especially guilty about the strain it places on his daughter.  But at the same time, he can't help writing crazy diagrams, then trying to derive meaning from them; or, in one of the best images of the book, hanging a book on geometry outside his house like a piece of laundry.  (Trust me, it's much more effective in the novel than it sounds.)

The third book, "The Part about Fate," tracks Fate, a political and cultural writer for a Harlem-based magazine.  After a really interesting and meandering passage set in Detroit, which includes a sermon that in turn includes several recipes, the book turns once again towards Santa Teresa.  By now we've heard several whispers and rumors about the murders in the city, which are making the vague, disassociated dread of the early book more concrete and sinister.  Fate goes to Santa Teresa to cover a boxing match, but thinks that the murders are much more important, and starts his own inquiries.  He crosses paths with some shady characters who may want to help him or kill him, and in their company he meets Rosa, the daughter of Amalfitano.  The details we hear about the murders seem unreal - hundreds of women kidnapped, brutally raped and slain, over a span of two decades.  Police incompetence or worse keeps the populace on edge.  A killer has been found, supposedly, but more murders have been committed after his incarceration than before.  And when people ask after the murders, they in turn seem to risk disappearing.  Fate ultimately rescues Rosa, and it feels like they're on the brink of figuring out what's going on, but it's simply too big and too dangerous, and the best they can do is flee to Arizona.

The second and third books are both pretty short.  The fourth, "The Part about the Crimes," may be the longest.  It is the most technically constructed of all five books.  For the most part, it is a chronological description of the murders, told one by one, each related in the style of a brief news article.  It's clinical and quite horrible.  Reading through them is briefly fascinating, then sickening, then intriguing, then fascinating again, then frustrating, and ultimately disgusting.  It seems clear that these cannot be random - there are simply too many murders, and too many repeated elements.  And yet, they do not all fit together.  Some killings may even be accidental.  Others appear to be crimes of passion, with a father or boyfriend pleading guilty to the deed.  Readers with analytical minds like me will feel compelled to start comparing the murders and trying to induce what is going on.  Are there multiple, overlapping serial killers at work, along with some random "normal" murders?  Is there a single, brutally efficient killer who changes his tactics and methods to evade discovery?  After a few hundred pages, it all seems way too big for one man - no heart could be that evil for so long, could they?  So, is it a sinister organization behind it, some malign entity worse than the sum of its parts?  Is it the drug cartels?  The legendary snuff film industry?  Something darker and older, perhaps a rebirth of the Aztec death cults?  Your mind can't stop churning, and yet no satisfying answer is forthcoming.

Interwoven with the analytical sections on murder are several parallel plot lines.  These mostly concern the police who investigate the crimes, and we learn that they are a wildly diverse bunch... one or two are talented and driven, more are incompetent, and a few are outright bad people.  We also meet the accused, a young German small-business owner who met one of the dead.  He doesn't seem like a nice person, and you can imagine a story where he is the murderer, but it just doesn't seem to fit together here.  The wheels keep turning - did he kill one girl?  Five?  None?  In prison, he dreams of a giant who comes to the prison, destroying everyone to rescue him.  You can almost feel the giant's footsteps as his laughter recedes behind prison bars.


The fifth book, "The Part about Archimboldi", brings 2666 back around to the beginning and ties things together without really resolving it (again, as far as I can see).  We learn about the origins of the mysterious author, who was born as a large, gentle, and strange child, then fought as part of the Nazi army in World War II, but didn't kill anyone except for a man who ran an impromptu death camp.  You read about his transformation into an author, which is beautiful and great to read - I got the sense that we're seeing a lot of Bolano in those passages.  A few pieces get linked together.  We learn that the German in a Santa Teresa prison is actually Archimboldi's son.  The novel ends with Archimboldi heading towards Mexico, before he actually arrives, and hence forming a sort of circle with the part about the critics.

I enjoy mystery and strangeness, and don't feel too gypped that we never learn what's behind the murders, or what Archimboldi does upon reaching Mexico.  I'm not convinced that the answers are not in there - if I had more stamina, I'd immediately re-read the book, looking for more clues and connections between the parts.  I've read enough Latin American authors to not expect a perfectly rational center, though.

I AM still really curious about what the title itself means.  Before I knew anything about the book, I assumed that 2666 was a year, and thought this might be science fiction.  That obviously isn't the case, though.  Well... I guess there's an extremely remote chance that it might refer to 2666 BC, in which case the Aztecs are way more important than they seem from the brief mentions they get within the book.  Assuming there were Aztecs back then... my mesoamerican history is pretty fuzzy.  Or, how about this: 666 is the sign of the beast, right?  I'm not sure what the prefixing 2 may represent - two devils, doubly evil, etc.  While reading the fourth book, it occurred to me more than once that 2666 might refer to the number of murders, including those bodies that were never discovered.


Like a lot of great literature, 2666 is far more than its plot or its characters.  The fractured style it possesses is also its strength: you can read it as one novel, as five books, as a dozen plots, as hundreds of stories.  Yes, this is all pretty overwhelming, but it's also exhilarating and well told.  Having conquered what I'm sure is Bolano's most difficult piece, I'm likely to revisit his gentler offerings in the future.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

When Irish Eyes are Missing

Thanks to my super-cool brother, I scored a ticket to the first night of previews for The Lieutenant of Inishmore, opening at the Berkeley Rep.  I hadn't seen anything else by Martin McDonagh, but Pat assured me that his movie ("In Bruges") and his other plays were all excellent.  Pat knows the theater and knows my tastes, and so with only the vaguest idea of what the play was about (a black comedy of terrorism and torture), I gladly took a chance.

Work went a bit late on Friday, but I still managed to hop BART and get there in plenty of time.  The only downside to the gift certificate was that I needed to redeem it in person, but since the show hadn't sold out, this actually worked out quite well.  I grabbed the ticket, then wandered over to University Avenue.  I LOVE killing time in downtown Berkeley.  I ended up at a place that I had previously scouted on Yelp called the Brazil Fresh Squeeze Cafe.  It's an outdoor sandwich shop, and this was the perfect evening for it, positively balmy.  The owner stands outside the stand, greeting all of his customers and handing out free samples and coupons.  I was compelled to try the signature dish, a tri-tip sandwich.  I didn't even know what tri-tip was before moving to California, and now I can't get enough of it.  I sat down at a small plastic table and waited.  It took longer than I expected, which is actually a good thing - even at a casual place like this, it was clear that they were preparing sandwiches as orders came in, not shoveling out fast food glop.  I swiftly devoured the sandwich and my mango smoothie, smiling constantly, before wiping my mouth and walking back towards the Rep.

Besides the first night of previews, this was also their "Under 30" night.  The Rep does a lot to encourage students and other youngsters to attend - any ticket at any show is 50% off to anyone under 30 years old.  This particular night also featured a special reception for us youngsters.  Before the show, this was 2$ cocktails in a nice courtyard.  I contemplated the possibility before deciding to grab my seat instead.

I was in row FF, seat 1 - up in the nosebleeds, but with a surprisingly good view of the action without any obstructions.  From the moment the director started speaking, it was clear that people were here to have a good time - it seemed like several people had taken repeated advantage of the $2 cocktails.  Which is all to the good - I enjoy an experience more when the audience is into it.  Without much more ado, the play proper started.


The play starts in an Irish hovel with two people staring at a dead cat lying on a table.  People started laughing.  An elderly man lifts up the cat.  The cat's brains fall out and splat on the table.  More laughter.  "Is it dead?" the other person asks.

The first scene establishes the action: Davey has found the cat on the road, dead.  Donny is convinced that Davey killed it.  Both of them are terrified because the cat belongs to Padraic, Donny's homicidal son who has joined the INLA, a super-violent offshoot of the IRA.  The cat, Wee Thomas, is the only thing in the world Padraic loves, his constant companion for 15 years.  Their days are numbered.  In desperation, Davey decides to go looking for another cat that they can pass off as the deceased.

The second scene opens.  We see a man hanging upside down from the ceiling.  He is covered in blood and screaming.  Padraic stands beside him, alternately grabbing pliers, scalpels, shears, and other instruments of torture.  The dialog is bizarre and macabre.  Padraic is trying to be reasonable - he has to punish this man, who was selling marijuana to schoolchildren, but he's trying to be as helpful as he can about it, for example by thoughtfully removing two toenails from the same foot, rather than one nail from each foot.  He encourages the man to choose one nipple that he will not remove.  His prisoner, in agony, alternately appeases and rages against him.  For the first time, I heard some gasps and groans along with the laughter from the audience.  A few people walked out.  The rest of us were now committed.  Padraic receives a call from Donny, warning that his cat is "sickly".  Padraic, up until now cool and upbeat, becomes unhinged, flying into a rage, and almost immediately heads for home.

We meet Davey's sister Mairead, a tomboy who wants to join the IRA or INLA, and is infamous for shooting out the eyes of cattle.  Rumor has spread that Davey killed the cat - rumors, it turns out, that were started by members of the INLA.  It was they who killed the cat, hoping to lure Padraic home, so that they could kill him.  Even by their standards he's too dangerous, torturing people who've paid them protection money and threatening to form his own splinter group.  These three terrorists are surprisingly comic with some Stoppard-ish conversations.

Davey has found a cat which is the wrong color, so he (it takes me this long to realize that Davey is a gay man and not a girl) and Donny spend the night trying to paint it black with shoe polish.  They get drunk.  They fall asleep.


Padraic arrives early.  He meets Mairead, who has overheard the INLA's plan, but rather than warn Padraic of the ambush she professes her love for him and asks him to go out with her, or at least let her join the INLA.  He won't have it.  He goes home, where Davey and Donny are still asleep.  Padraic may be crazy but he isn't dumb, and he quickly figures out what happened.  He wakes the two up, interrogates them, shoots the impostor cat, and prepares the execution.  They're surprisingly (and entertainingly) nonplussed by the whole situation.  At the very last second, the INLA arrives and takes Padraic.  He's about to go quietly to his execution, until Davey bad-mouths Wee Thomas, at which point he flies into a rage and needs to be dragged off, hollering his hatred.

Donny and Davey are safe, but not for long.  We hear shots and screams, and the three men stumble back inside, bleeding from their eyes.  Quietly following behind them are Padraic and Mairead - she turned the tables on the ambush, rescuing her lover.  The two of them silently stalk the blind killers, who are shooting out the windows, and one by one they kill them.  The deed done, they return to Davey and Donny.  The INLA squad leader, with a last breath, confesses killing Wee Thomas.  Padraic stops, and a horrible transformation comes over him.  He promises to torture the man for every one of his remaining moments.  The lights go down as the blood starts flying.

In the last scene, the stage has been transformed into an abattoir.  Not only is blood scattered everywhere, but corpses and corpse pieces are spread along the floor.  Padraic and Mairead have set Donny and Davey to the task of chopping up the bodies, a task that they fulfill with minimal grumbling.  Padraic continues petting Wee Thomas, then talks about the future with Mairead.  His earlier prejudices against women erased, they have discovered they are soulmates: both dedicated to Irish liberty, to killing, and deeply attached to their beloved cats.  Locked in a passionate embrace, they stumble around the house kissing one another and skittering around the blood-slicked floor.  Davey takes advantage of this distration to hide the evidence of the stolen decoy cat.  Padraic and Mairead order them to commence burning off the dead fingerprints and shipping out the teeth.  Padraic and Mairead discuss their new splinter group of two, to be called Wee Thomas's Army, which will dedicate itself to the freeing of Ireland and the protection of small cats.  Padraic confesses that he himself, in a rage, slew a cat earlier that day.  Mairead soothes him, then goes off to freshen up.

She discovers the dead cat, which, it turns out, is her own.  Her reaction is much like Padraic's, and she mercilessly kills the man she was about to marry.  Adding his corpse to Davey and Donny's list, she stalks out.  Davey hears a noise and looks at the shelves.  A cat!  Wee Thomas!  Turns out that the dead cat was just a black cat, not Thomas himself.  So it was all a big mistake.  How DARE the cat cause that kind of trouble!  It must be punished!

The play, already on the edge, is now careening wildly.  Davey and Donny grab the cat and force it onto a table, bringing out the instruments of death.  They give instructions to fire on the count of three.  I could easily see it going either way - the violence continuing on or finally stopping.  There's nothing left to prove, and neither man can bring himself to pull the trigger.  The curtain falls with the two huddled around the cat, cooing and stroking its fur.

Rapturous applause!


I stuck around afterwards for the Under 30 after-party.  This was much better than the cocktail hour, with free food and alcohol and music.  It was pretty crowded in the courtyard, so I headed out pretty soon.  BART is a mere block away, and soon I was happily on my way home.

I really enjoyed the play a lot, and recommend it to anyone who can stomach it.  I was actually kind of surprised by my visceral reaction to it.  I think of myself as being pretty desensitized to violence - I certainly play my share of violent video games and enjoy violent TV shows and movies.  Yet, in real life, I'm pretty squeamish and don't like seeing blood or violence.  It was interesting that the play felt like real life to me - I don't think seeing that much blood would have bothered me in a movie, yet it made me feel a bit ill here.  All curious stuff.

I can see why the play is so controversial - according to the program notes, it was written in 1996, but was not performed until 2001.  Nobody wanted to touch it because the subject matter was so controversial in the UK.  One can imagine a similar play written today and featuring Al Quaeda characters. 

And, of course, that's the point.  Plays don't HAVE to shock and provoke, but they can be very effective when they do so.  I'd say that the Lieutenant of Inishmore does a lot to make people think and start the conversation.

Regarding the May Special Election

Dear California Teachers Association:

The word "its" is a possessive, as in "We judge an organization by its members."  The word "it's" is a contraction, as in "it's embarassing when an educational association mails thousands of flyers riddled with grammatical errors."


Saturday, April 18, 2009

I like democracy!

Here's a copy of a "letter" I just emailed my city council representative.

Dear Councilmember Oliviero:

As a member of District 6, I have voted for you (twice!) and appreciate the attention you have paid to local issues, especially your support of the Willow Glen Spur Trail.  Today when I visited the Willow Glen library, I was asked to sign a petition supporting pornography filters in the library.  I am writing to urge you to vote “no” and keep flawed software from interfering with our right to access valid information.

I am a professional software developer, and know all too well that any consumer product is riddled with bugs.  Censoring is a particularly difficult problem, and too often “false positives” are blocked along with the desired targets.  I still remember my experiences with a similar filter at my high school, which was intended to block pornography but also kept students from accessing web sites for minor political parties, foreign news sources covering the war in Bosnia, and a wide range of health issues.

I’m certain that you will hear many voices asking you to take the politically easy road and support censorship in our libraries.  Please know that, while nobody wants children to view pornographic images, using software filters on public computers is not the right way to achieve this goal, and will hurt the ability of thousands to access information.

Thank you for your support.


Christopher King

I think this has been an ongoing controversy for a little while... I vaguely recall reading an article a few years ago about a dispute involving the head of the San Jose library system.  One of the (few!) downsides of my vendetta against the Mercury News is that I no longer am plugged into local issues as much.  Anyways.  This is one of those things that drives me nuts - people are very effective at framing the issue such that it sounds like the only choices are censoring the Internet or saying that you support child pornography.  I have no idea how this vote will go, but I really hope that our elected representatives have the political courage and respect for our traditions to keep free access in our libraries.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Happy Hunting

I can be a very Type A personality, especially when confronted with a new topic or situation.  My tendency is to study the new situation as thoroughly as I can, looking at it from every possible angle, reading as much as I can about the background and details of the thing.  A lot of people say they do this, but I can take it to absurd extremes.  I spent several weeks learning about the Japanese language before I first started learning the language itself; whenever I upgrade my computer, I will happily take a few months devouring all the information I can find about the latest technology improvements, all so I can eventually decide whether a $50 upgrade is worth my money.  And don't even get me started on the endless investigations I carry out into the smallest California ballot initiatives.

So, with that in mind, you may be able to appreciate the mixture of excitement and unease with which I'm approaching the possibility of buying a home.  It's vaguely been on my radar ever since graduating from college as something that I'd want to do some day.  It become a far more distant possibility when I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 2005.  And now, with the twin encouragements of a rising income and falling prices, I've recently started allowing myself to dream again.

Which is great, and also means that my eyeballs will be buried in housing books, mortgage rates, open houses, community blogs, negotiating tips, and the like for a long time to come.

I first started what I consider the "semi-serious" phase about six months ago, after starting a new job.  Because this would obviously be a first purchase for me, I only had a vague understanding of what would be involved, and found a few books to be very helpful in orienting me about what could be expected.  Thanks to these books, I was able to get a rough idea about how long my search might take, the order in which to prepare things, stuff to look for in a home, the kinds of professionals I would be working with, and other basic stuff.

While this was helpful, reading such books was also a frustrating experience.  One thing I knew even before this research was that all real estate is local.  Not only because each market is doing its own thing, moving up or down in reaction to local employment and demographic trends, but also because each state and metro region has its own customs when it comes to real estate itself.  So, a book could talk broadly about what happens at closing, but it can't say whether the buyer or the seller will be responsible for most of the costs, because the answer will vary depending on where you are.

Fortunately, there is a great book out there that does a lot to remove the ambiguities and make the process that much more real: "How to Buy a House in California" by Nolo.  Yeah, it won't be of much use to residents of 49 states, but personally,  I love it.

By focusing on the California market, the authors can actually provide some specific guidance on how things are generally done.  This is true even when there is a difference between various parts of the state; for example, I learned that in northern California, title companies usually handle escrow, while in southern California, specialized escrow companies do so.  It was also surprisingly pleasant to read realistic-sounding descriptions of housing options that matched what I would expect, such as a $950,000 2-bedroom house in the Berkeley Hills or a $350,000 condo in Sacramento.  By contrast, many books with a national focus casually talk about $200,000 3-bedroom houses, which causes me to choke.

This book, like similar ones I've read before, is very thorough, and covers pretty much every area you'd need to be concerned about.  It starts with the most important task of defining your ideal home, which includes introspection and discernment to separate your needs from your nice-to-haves.  I'm sure that home-shopping will be an overwhelming experience, and it's critical to lay that anchor early on to avoid being swept away.  It has several good chapters on financing, starting on determining how much house you can afford, and moving on to also cover strategies for saving for a down payment and shopping for a mortgage.  I was actually kind of surprised (pleasantly so) at how in-depth this part went, explaining the distinction between various types of loans, how to find them (mortgage brokers versus do-it-yourself), historical trends, calculating whether to buy points, buy-downs, and more arcana.

Another huge advantage of this book is that the latest edition was published quite recently, and as such the text reflects the current down market in California.  It's written to be as timeless as possible, and so it includes strategies that you should use in hot markets in addition to the strategies we buyers should be using now.  It also includes discussions of items like 0-down mortgages and interest-only loans, while warning that they are virtually impossible to get now.

Nolo is best known as a publisher of do-it-yourself legal forms.  I used them to create a will a little while ago, and was pleased at how easy they made it.  In keeping with that tradition, this book is also filled with plenty of forms, from sample offers to contingencies to the letter you should write your contractor if they aren't doing the work they promised.  And again, everything is written with California legal statutes and customs in mind.  I plan to keep these around so I can compare them with what I actually see.

So, that's some of the stuff that's awesome about the book.  What's bad?

I have no right to complain about this, since the book is titled "How to Buy a HOUSE in California," but I'm likely to buy a condo, and the book is less interested in condos and townhomes than it is in traditional houses.  It doesn't ignore them altogether, but it does kind of shunt most discussion into Chapter 7, a weird beast that addresses buying new construction in a tract, as well as buying new OR existing condos and townhomes.  The advice it does give sounds really good, but there isn't nearly as much of it as there are in other topics within the book.  Throughout the rest of the book, they'll often refer back to Chapter 7 since buying these types of properties can be so different from more traditional home-buying. 

And while I have absolutely no right to complain - the book is great and more current than anything else in print - the fact remains that these are turbulent times, and even in the months since publication there have been significant changes in how real estate works in this country and in California.  Freddie and Fannie were being nationalized as the book was going to press, and they included a sidebar that basically says, "Hey, this is happening, it will affect things but we don't know how just yet."  Now we know: as a condo buyer, I'll likely need to come up with a hefty 25% down payment to get the best mortgage rate, and will have trouble getting a mortgage at all in developments that are under-sold or over-rented.  On the plus side, there is a Nolo site online for the book that can potentially communicate at least some of the errata.  Still, the point is that this book can probably get you 80% of the way towards understanding the current market, but you'll still need to follow the news and dig into the local scene to learn the remaining 20%.

I was lucky to find a copy of this book at the San Jose library - I loves me a free book!  They got something like 8 copies, and right now they're all checked out.  I think this book puts me on very solid footing as I continue what may be a year-long plan to buy (or not, depending on how things go).  I was delighted to see that Nolo has a downloadable version of the book for a very reasonable price.  As useful as this seems, it is a good candidate to be the first e-book I ever buy.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Boring In

Throughout my reading life, I've had an omnivorous approach to books.  I'll be happily going about my business, then stumble across a new author, topic, or genre that sparks something in me.  I become obsessed, and devour as much of the new thing as I can to satiate my hunger.  This is how I read David Eddings, Isaac Asimov, and countless other sci-fi and fantasy authors throughout elementary and middle school.  Now, obviously, I am doing the same for Discworld, but also something similar for graphic novels.  I'm not about to start buying monthly issues of anything, but I've been sufficiently impressed by the few top-tier titles that I've recently picked up that I keep returning to the well for more.

The problem is that, without a background in comics or a connection to the usual sources for determining quality (conventions, knowledgeable comic shop owners, online communities), I have a hard time locating new options that will be worth my time.  Fortunately, I'm not alone in this situation, and given the post-Frank Miller surge in literary recognition, more and more mainstream publications are covering (or at the very least acknowledging) the best work in the field.  So, when I decided that it was time to find another graphic novel, I wasn't too surprised to see that Time Magazine had a very handy list of the best 10.  I plucked one from the list that I had never heard of before, "David Boring," and started reading.

I learned after finishing the book that the author of David Boring is the same guy who did Ghost World (which I haven't read), the basis for the movie of the same name (which I have seen) starring Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson, and Steve Buscemi.  I didn't at all make the connection while reading, but you could certainly draw some parallels if you wanted to.  Both feature young characters on the threshold before adulthood who have adult problems and freedoms but who seem subconsciously terrified of adult responsibilities.  Both are surprisingly realistic (Ghost World much more so than David Boring).  Both have incredibly intense relationships between major characters, relationships that evolve believably and don't hew to traditional arcs.

On the whole, though, David Boring is much more exciting and interesting than Ghost World.  You can appreciate it as a lot of things, and one of those is as an action-packed mystery story.  I don't want to oversell this angle - it isn't like Batman or anything - but there is a very satisfying cadence and energy to the plot.  It's also interesting when the characters sit down and discuss their dreams and frustrations.  The momentum of the plot keeps the dialog from ever bogging down the book, though.

I really want to re-read this at some point.  Looking back over it, the book is surprisingly intricate, with some mysteries early on that don't get resolved until much later, and I get the feeling that I'll catch a lot more the second time through than I did the first time around.

The art is cool and striking.  It's almost entirely in sharp black-and-white, slightly stylized, and far richer than you would see in a newspaper comic.  It's more illustration than drawing, if that makes sense.  The exception comes from the comic-within-a-comic, "The Yellow Streak," an old (maybe 1960's-era?) superhero comic that David Boring treasures, reading a few precious panels at a time.

All in all, it was another thoroughly satisfying read.  Let the devouring continue!