Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Dansu Dansu Dansu

Dance Dance Dance is the first Murakami sequel that I have read.  While most of his novels share a similar sensibility, I'm used to each existing in its own separate, peculiar world.  Dance Dance Dance (hereafter DDD) exists in a peculiar world that is shared with A Wild Sheep Chase.  It has the same narrator, picks up about five years after the previous book ended, and continues with some of the same plot lines and characters as before.  More importantly, though, it continues in the same style, filled with dreamy logic and vivid yet bizarre scenes.

I THINK that one could read and enjoy this book without having previously read AWSC.  After all, it's not as if this book makes sense even if you have read the prequel, so you needn't worry much about losing the plot.  Still, it's probably best to read them in sequence, just because you'll already be tracking with the narrator's outlook and voice.

Murakami and his fans generally point to AWSC as the book where he first really found his preferred style, establishing the rhythm and attitude that would come to define his work.  DDD therefore picks up stylistically as well as thematically, continuing along the evolutionary path towards the future masterpieces of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles and Kafka on the Shore.  AWCS certainly had elements of the bizarre, but its overall structure followed the style of a thriller: the protagonist was sent on a mission, travelled to exotic locales, encountered people determined to stop him, uncovered a plot, enlisted the help of newfound friends, and won the day.  DDD has a more passive story structure that is closer to Murakami's later works.  There are nods in the direction of a mystery story - some murders, an investigation - but those are merely sidelines.  The core is about... well, a guy, who visits a hotel, has strange dreams, relaxes in Hawaii, watches a movie over a dozen times, would rather drive a Subaru than a Masarati, and gives nutritional advice to a thirteen-year-old girl.


The more I think about it, there's a pretty remarkable cast of characters in this book.  It just now occurred to me how much it is dominated by women.

KIKI: This is the woman from the previous book, an ear model and high-class prostitute.  Although physically absent from the action in this book, she is one of the most influential characters.  The narrator is obsessed with her, actively tries to find her, and views his relationship with other women through the lens of his brief time with her.

MEI: She only appears in one scene, but really charges up the book.  She is boisterous and cheerful, and makes a large impact that reverberates through the rest of the book.  Cuck-koo.

YUMIYOSHI: Possibly the most desired of the many desirable women in this tale.  A hotel clerk, she is also the most resistant to the hero's advances.  She also seems to be most compatible with his attitude, though... she'll turn down a date by calmly and simply static that she has swim practice.  Weirdly enough, even though we see much more of her than of Kiki or Mei, I felt like I knew her less than those other two.

YUKI: The most important character in the book.  Murakami does do a little bit of that creepy young-girl-as-desirable-object thing here, but thankfully it's well under control.  The narrator takes Yuki under his wing, somehow intuiting the perfect relationship that she most needs: not a stern adult, not a casual friend, but something intense, positive, and above all empathetic.  Yuki has a rough time, and I'm reminded of the high emotional stress that all teenagers encounter.  Yuki makes the narrator seem better than ever before.

AME: A fairly minor part, Yuki's mother is most interesting in the way that she illuminates Yuki.  Still, she's an intriguing character in her own light.  At the most extreme, she can be seen as the apotheosis of the narrator's personality: passive, distracted, disconnected from life, flitting from interest to interest without the ability to forge strong relationships.  And, by examining her extreme, I can pull out what I like about the narrator and Murakami's similar characters from other stories.  Our guy is passive in action, but not in mind: he's curious, receptive, unwilling to initiate but willing to follow a path as far as it goes.  Where she fails at relationships and seems oblivious about it, he seems to genuinely want them and wishes he could make them work better. 

There are some good male parts too, though fewer in number and generally less important than the women.  The most important is Gotanda, a former classmate of the hero who is now a famous actor.  Gotanda is one of the few characters who shifts during this book: with the others, you have a strong sense of constance, but our perception of Gotanda shifts from a lucky golden boy to a gracious alpha male to a tired yet genial has-been to something darker.  Some of this is his acting, but mostly it's a matter of perception, as the main character explores their relationship more deeply.


The writing is excellent throughout.  Murakami manages to be surprising without being shocking, to amaze without appearing to show off.  As before, I was quickly gripped by the story, and felt compelled to see where it went.

The title remains an enigma to me.  A character tells the hero "You gotta dance," explaining that only by dancing can he find what he's looking for.  He spends the rest of the book trying to fulfill that command.  He isn't literally dancing (though there are cute step diagrams separating occasional sections).  Rather, Murakami seems to be using dance to describe a certain way of approaching life: a state of intuitiveness, of attention, of responsiveness, of losing yourself.  Can someone dance alone?  He seems to be trying to.

At least, that's what I took away from the book... far be it from me to say that that's what Murakami had in mind.  Regardless, I enjoyed this particular dance.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Dune Messiah

I'll admit it: I was thinking of Haruki Murakami when I placed a hold for "The Woman in the Dunes" by Kobo Abe.  I knew enough to not expect that they would be similar authors; quite to the contrary, in fact.  I had previously read that Murakami has often been kind of an outsider in Japan; while his books are popular there, he has been rejected by Japan's literary establishment, who frown on his borrowing from Western pop culture and the way he works outside of traditional story structures.  In contrast, Kobo Abe and Kenzaburo Oe are revered by the establishment, with little criticism permitted.

Still, Murakami is the only other Japanese novelist I have read, so it was inevitable that I would compare TWitD to his works.  Pretty early on, I was surprised to realized that instead of Murakami, I was constantly thinking of another 20th century author, this one from another continent: Albert Camus.  You can also think of Kafka, or Sartre.  While the setting of the book is solidly Japanese, and I'm certain much of the book's psychology is informed by that background, its actual situations and concerns are fully of a piece with the European Existentialists.


The Trial and The Plague are centered around man confronted with a baffling adversary.  Both feature people trying to fight against their lot, but more than that, to simply understand what's happening and why.  Likewise, the protagonist in Abe's novel finds himself trapped in a seemingly ludicrous setting: at the bottom of a sand valley, I imagine it being about 20 or 30 feet deep, sharing a house and a shovel with a widowed woman.  He eventually realized that he has been enslaved, but this realization brings more questions than it answers.  His task is to shovel all the sand that falls over from the dunes.  It's an eternal job: more sand always comes, no matter how much he shoveled the day before.  It's a pointless job: ostensibly, if he doesn't shovel, the sand will overrun the house, knock down the dune, and spill in towards the village.  But even that is bizarre: why does the village even exist?  What possible advantage could there be to planting a village in the middle of a constantly moving desert?

Abe's prose (in translation, of course) is amazing.  He writes with incredibly vividness about the narrator's experiences, and particularly about the physical omnipresence of sand.  He describes the feel of the sand, how it cakes into your eyes, how it burrows into your holes, how it gets into every food you eat no matter how much you try to protect it, how it permeates water so that, when you drink to try and clear your throat, it forms a thin paste of sand in the back of your mouth.  It's thoroughly unpleasant, which is certainly the point.

Less frequent, but equally interesting, are the tangents that Abe shows us from within the protagonist's mind.  The main character is professionally a teacher, but his main passion is entomology, and his specific passion prior to arriving in the dunes had been to locate a new species of beetle.  He isn't really a likeable person; much like the victim in Kafka's The Metamorphosis, we feel sorry for his predicament, but recognize his human failings as well.  This man is self-interested, not very empathetic, narrow-minded when it comes to human relationships (whether equating a human life with a radio or deciding how much money to pay in order to remove a sense of obligation).  However, he does have a curious, interested mind, and I enjoyed tracking his wandering thoughts.  Before he arrives in the city he carries out a long and quite moving meditation on the nature of sand: how much like water it is in many ways, and how like and unlike rock.  Most of his thoughts in the pit are given over to escape, but he stops to puzzle over the relationship of power to sex, and the relationship between evening temperatures and condensation, and the nature of city life.  He also has vivid and disturbing dreams that he experiences and then ponders, later on finding the symbolism in them.


It wasn't Murakami, but it was a good book.  I won't be rushing back to Kobo Abe, but I'll return for another shot later.  If anything, it's even more readable than the other existentialist authors I've read before, and I'm curious whether this book counts as "Typical" Kobo Abe, or if his others are significantly different.  Either way, this was a rewarding read and a great way to expand my exposure to Japanese literature.

Saturday, December 26, 2009


It's a little embarrassing to admit that it has taken me this long to read The Turn of the Screw.  I think I first tried to read it four or five years ago, got distracted, and had to return it.  Since then, I would frequently remember that I wanted to read it - the title comes up surprisingly often in discussions of other works of fiction - but only now have I actually gone ahead and read it.  There's really no excuse for my delay - the whole story is barely under 100 pages long - and I'm glad that I did.  It's Henry James, it's 19th century literature, and so it takes a bit more effort to get into the language, but the payoff is quite satisfying.


Turn of the Screw is famous enough that I was already familiar with the outlines of the story.  My understanding was that it was a book told from the perspective of a governess who thinks that spirits are tormenting her charges; later, we learn that she has been imagining the spirits, and she herself is the real harm to the children.

I found the actual book to be more ambiguous than that.  You could certainly read it as the governess being an unintentional villain, but I think it's also perfectly valid to view her as a heroic victim.

Most of the book seems to come down to the same question that every production of Macbeth must address.  In both works, the protagonist can see spiritual objects that nobody else can see.  The question is, are they better able to see what is really there than anyone else?  Or are they mad?  In Macbeth, the director will make the decision.  In Turn of the Screw, it's really up to you.

I think there are some very compelling reasons to believe (within the context of the story) that the ghosts are "real."  Most specifically, the heroine sees Peter Quint twice (I think) before she learns who he was in life, and learns how he died.  I can see her inventing her vision of Miss Jessel, since she has heard of her predecessor and her end, but Peter Quint seems to have arrived ex nihilo.  With that as a backdrop, all of her actions seem reasonable, if high-strung: if there are spirits, then they may be affecting the living; the living they are most likely to affect are the young children; the children's occasional lapses can therefore be seen as moving towards or operating under malevolent influence; thus, the governess must do what she can to watch the children, keep them close to her, and prevent activities that take them beyond her protective reach.

Even that initial appearance of Quint, though, can certainly be challenged.  What starts this all off is a person who stares at her in a public space.  We can imagine a young, inexperienced woman being frightened by this kind of ominous, silent boldness.  Suppose, then, that this original man was real, but just a random person, not a ghost.  The second visitation, then, could be seen as a "real hallucination," her active mind (big empty house, scary experience, etc.) playing tricks on her.  Her actual identification of Peter Quint seems to be suspicious... all that the governess really identifies in the apparition are the red hair, nice clothes, and the fact that he "wasn't a gentleman."  That happens to describe Quint, of course, but it really could describe a large number of men in the world.  If this is the case, then the whole story becomes a tragedy, with the heroine's initial mistake compounding upon itself, as she interprets every future event to fit within her worldview of an environment filled with hostile spirits.

This latter explanation helps explain some of the stranger conversations in the book.  All of the governess's communication with Mrs. Grose are fairly one-sided; you feel like they never really connect or understand one another.  There are a couple of times when a chapter ends with the governess observing something, and then the next chapter begins with her describing to Mrs. Grose what occurred; however, her subsequent recollections are more vivid and detailed than the original prose.  This initially confused me a little as I read; I thought that the narrator was withholding some of the original event, and then fully describing the scene later on, to maintain some suspense and keep forward momentum in the narrative.  It makes more sense, though, that the woman's active mind keeps turning over her imagined scenes, embellishing details and inventing more horrible details.

One final note - I love the way the story ends.  It's the opposite of in media res, with an abrupt ending that makes no attempt to describe what happens afterwards.  Wonderful, creepy, and perfectly in keeping with the rest of the tale.


I don't often return to the well of my English Lit canon, but I do tend to enjoy my sojourns there.  The Turn of the Screw has aged extremely well for a book over a hundred years old, remaining frightening and interesting to this day.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Door into Optimism

I don't read a ton of Robert Heinlein, but every time I do, I'm stunned anew.  I've enjoyed every book of his that I've read, but each one feels totally different from the rest.  Perhaps not so much in style - he's a good writer who enjoys using first-person narration - as in moral.  It amazes me that the same mind that penned Stranger in a Strange Land, with its Summer of Love-inspired message of peace, love, and understanding, was penned by the same hand that wrote Starship Troopers, with its cheerful promotion of fascism.  Those two books are Heinlein's most famous; I've also dipped into Job: A Comedy of Justice, and came back up gasping for breath.  A religious parody with multiple dimensions?  How exactly did that fit into the canon?

The Door into Summer is a simply wonderful book.  First of all, I think it should be read by all engineers who enjoy books.  The main character in the book is an engineer, and I just loved his perspective on his career.  The book does a better job of defining how engineers work, what motivates them, and how they differ from other professionals (such as scientists or technicians) than anything else I've read.  One of my favorite lines from the book is when the narrator defines engineering as "the art of the possible."  I think that's perfect - first of all, acknowledging that what we do IS an art, essentially creative, as opposed to a deterministic discipline such as mathematics.  And it's the "possible" that gets us excited.  Engineers are far more passionate about designing and building real things, figuring out how to make them work with the tools available to them; on the other hand, scientists are eager to define and build new tools, expanding the body of available knowledge without necessarily caring very much about if and how people will find practical application for their work.  (Side note: it would be a lot of fun to read this book in conjunction with Vonnegut's "Cat's Cradle," which tackles the question from the scientist's perspective, and includes a similarly inspiring argument for the importance of pure research.)

That said, engineering isn't the main point of the book, just the primary perspective of the protagonist.  The book is pure science-fiction.  It is extremely well structured and interesting, with a cool structure that provides a lot of depth and complexity even at under 200 pages of length.


The book is set in 1970, and the main character "time-travels" forward into 2000.  However, the book was written in the 1950's, so even 1970 is really the "future" as far as Heinlein's readers were concerned.  It's a lot of fun to read Heinlein's predictions for these two years.  By 1970, Communism had collapsed (right call, but 20 years early), the US has abandoned the gold standard (which I thought we had already done by the 50's), and science has progressed.  The main technology that the book deals with is The Deep Sleep, which today we call cryogenics.  For a significant sum of money, a person can be placed into a very cold state for a long period of time; they can wake up 10, 30, 100, or more years in the future, at the same age and health as they were before.  The main motivation is for people with terminal illnesses who hope that cures will be discovered later on, but others also take The Deep Sleep for their own reasons.  The hero decides to take it himself after he is betrayed by his partner and his lover, who steal away the business that he created.

By the year 2000, Heinlein is predicting ATM cards, although he doesn't envision credit cards.  He thought that we'd have licked the common cold by then - I wish!  He imagines a fabric he calls Sticktite, which I picture as being like latex.  He invents what is essentially AutoCAD.

Besides The Big Sleep, the invention the book is most concerned with is robotic intelligence... basically an android.  In 1970, they have invented Hired Girl, who is essentially a Roomba.  Following on this success, robots are developed that can perform a wider variety of tasks, including assisting hospital patients, answering phones, washing dishes, and other fairly menial tasks.

Anyways, back to the story: I had realized early on that The Door into Summer was a time travel story, but it surprised me by REALLY becoming a time travel story.  Besides the simple, kind-of-cheating forward-only cryogenic type of time travel, he also discovers a forward-or-back, instantaneous displacement form of time travel.  As sci-fi goes, this one has a decent explanation... not quite as cool or intricate as in Primer, but vastly better than any Hollywood movie has done.  It is described as a temporal equivalent to Newton's second law.  If you have two objects of equal mass at the same location, and enough energy, you can move one forward in time by a certain amount, which will also send the other object backward in time by the same amount.  It's a cool idea, and also one that leads to neat variations on the standard sci-fi concerns of causality and paradox.

I was enjoying the book all the way through, but fell in love with it during the last 30 or so pages.  All the little hints that Heinlein had dropped throughout the book started to shift into focus, and I realized that nothing had happened by accident.  Once the possibility of time travel had been added, I could anticipate how everything would turn out, and was happy to be proven right.  The book ends on a perfectly satisfying note, both from emotionally and from a storytelling perspective.


Heinlein continues to surprise and please me.  TDIS is a surprisingly touching book, and also extremely clever.  It's also a neat little artifact from the 1950's: it's filled with the seemingly boundless optimism that we associate with that era.  The protagonist passionately describes how everything is getting better, how the future is better than the past, and how he can't wait to see what's in store next.  I feel a little sad that we've lost that kind of relentless positive attitude, but it's fun to see it captured here in its glorious moment.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Don't Buy Dragon Age

... or, if you do, at least promise me you won't buy Warden's Keep.

I don't say this because the game isn't fun.  It is!  It's one of the most entertaining and addictive games I've played in a long time.  It even manages to meet my high expectations for storytelling.

And yet, the game is broken in subtle and frustrating ways that will leave you feeling robbed if you part with your hard-earned cash for it.

First of all, the game is deliberately broken in inventory management.  You have a limited inventory within the game; initially you can carry (I think) around 60 items or so, which you can upgrade somewhat by spending in-game money to purchase eventual backpacks.  I can now carry up to 100 items, which seems to be the limit.  However, there is an unlimited amount of stuff that you can get in the game.  Most annoying, there's no way of telling what will be important later on and what will not; many items that initially seem to be good only for selling later prove to be very important.  And, worst of all, there's no place for you to store items that do not fit in your active inventory: therefore, you must destroy or sell your excess items.  And, as I complained in my previous post, selling is completely impractical for anything you might want/need to re-purchase later.

I say that the game was deliberately broken, because Bioware had a solution available on launch day, in the form of downloadable content.  By spending real-world money, you could purchase Warden's Keep, which had a quest, but more importantly fixed the main game by adding a party chest where you could store your excess equipment.  Yes, they took something that should have been in the original game, and decided to charge you for it.

I was enjoying the game, except for the constant popups about server connections and the fact that I couldn't store my equipment, so I went ahead and purchased it.  At first, all looked good.  I visited the Keep, played a fun little quest (albeit one that felt surprisingly similar to both the Circle Tower and Stone Prisoner quests), and got my reward.  Elated, I finally dropped off all the precious stones, the excess gifts, private documents - everything that seemed important but that I currently couldn't use.  I merrily continued on with my main quest, whistling as I went.  It wasn't a perfect solution - I was a tad annoyed that I would need to journey someplace to retrieve my stuff, and face the random encounters that would come with the journey - but was far better than the status quo.

That is, until it turned far worse.  Warden's Keep disappeared.  It vanished from my map.  I can no longer return.  By implication, all those valuable items that I had stored in my chest, SPECIFICALLY FOR SAFEKEEPING, are gone as well.  Not only that, but some of my party's equipment, stuff that I had won during my hours of play in Warden's Keep, disappeared as well.  I discovered this unpleasant fact when I almost lost what should have been an easy fight, only belatedly realizing that Morrigan and Sten were attacking Hurlocks with their bare hands.

So, to recap: I paid real, hard money to Bioware, and in return, they ruined my game.  I'm now much worse off than I would have been if I hadn't bought the add-on: the game would still be broken due to an insufficient inventory system, but at least it would not have stolen the results of many, many hours of gameplay from me.  I'm now in a weaker position, and I'm poorer, and apparently dumb for having bought it in the first place.  Only after the fact, when I was desperately looking for help online, did I discover that this problem is affecting many people, and Bioware has no solution.

Bioware made the game, but they refuse to support it, instead directing all customers to Electronic Arts.  I submitted my problem to EA through an online form several days before, and haven't heard a word back from them after the initial automated response.  I would love to keep playing what feels like a wonderful game, but feel betrayed, hurt, and furious.

I'm reminded of a passage by Neal Stephenson from "In the Beginning Was the Command Line" in which he talks about metaphor shear.  When we interact with computers, we are engaging in a mediated experience, defined by metaphor.  All of our interactions are ultimately reduced to a series of 0's and 1's that don't intrinsically mean anything.  To help our minds cope with this, companies come up with analogies with the real world that describe and define our interactions.  We "write" "documents", then "save" them to "folders".  As long as everything works, the metaphor stays intact, and we're happy.  We fool ourselves into thinking that what we are doing is something as physical, as real, as actually writing a document with pen and paper.  But problems occur.  One day, we discover that our file - excuse me, our "file" - has been overwritten.  Yesterday, it was several pages long, filled with our own words, something we could feel proud of.  Today, it has simply vanished, leaving no trace behind.  We are suddenly forced to deal with the fact that it wasn't real, that it was all temporal and transient, and that Microsoft or Apple had essentially lied to us; no, we had lied to ourselves, using the tools they had given us.  This metaphor shear is profoundly disquieting, and makes one feel quite disturbed by all computing activities.

Well, Bioware can now join the club.  Their DLC (Downloadable Content) has entered the metaphor lexicon.  It's a "store"!  You can "buy" things there, and then "have" them.  Only, the metaphor isn't perfect.  When we buy something, we expect to keep it.  We expect to be able to use it.  Instead, I feel as though I had driven to Fry's Electronics, purchased an LCD TV, brought it home, plugged it in, and watched several movies on it.  Then I woke up one day to find that the TV is gone.  The people from Fry's evidently broke into my house to steal it back, or rigged it to self-destruct.  I've lost the TV.  I've lost the money I paid for the TV.  And because I got rid of my old TV when I bought this one, I'm way worse off than I would have been if I hadn't bought it in the first place.

Save yourself some frustration.  Save yourself some money.  Don't patronize Bioware until they have fixed their buggy, broken, larcenous game.

UPDATE 12/17:  I finally got an email response back from Electronic Arts, more than a week after I initially submitted it.  You'd think that would be enough time for them to pull together an answer, right?  NOPE!  The email apologized for my problem, said that it wasn't a "permanent" issue, and said that they can't provide support for this product.  They encouraged me to visit the Bioware forums for support.

And, when you go to the Bioware forums for PC tech support, what's the very first post that you see, stickied at the top by a Bioware employee?  A post telling everyone that Bioware does not provide any support for Dragon Age, and directing everyone to contact the Electronic Arts page for support.


Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Pano-Rama Ding-Dong

Who would have thought that now - the December after the Great Recession, a time when the Internet is upending the nature of the media business - we would see the launch of a new newspaper?  And yet, yesterday you could pick up a brand spanking new copy of the SF Panorama on street corners around the city.

And ONLY yesterday.  This is a one-issue-only paper.  And you couldn't pick it up on every street corner at any time.  But I'm jumping ahead of myself here.

Panorama is a literary journal masquerading as a newspaper... except that it's a real newspaper, with real stories on local and national issues.  It's the winter issue of McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, a wonderful and extremely creative "magazine" that regularly trounces the concept of the journal.  Past issues have looked like a box, or a pile of junk mail.  This one looked like a vanishing relic from our civic life.

My siblings and I had been geeking out on this for a while.  I noted that, while the issue technically would sell for $16, it would be available on SF streets on the actual date for only $5.  Never one to turn down an opportunity for arbitrage, I collected fivers from my brother and sister over Thanksgiving, promising to return at Christmas with their own locally-sourced deep-discounted copy.

The day before, I found a nifty Google Map that listed where the Panorama would be sold.  I was pretty unclear on exactly what the deal was - it listed bookstores and Newsys, but no word on whether the $5 issues could be found everywhere or only from a Newsy.  In any case, I picked out a few Newsy spots that were reasonably close to my office.  That night, I was pleased to see that they had added a new Newsy to the Caltrain station where I get off in the morning.  "Perfect!," I thought.

The next day, when I disembarked, I eagerly looked around.  No newsy.  The station is pretty big, so I checked the plaza over by the metro, as well as the section near the bike shop and along 4th Street.  No love.  I did see a Chronicle seller lurking around, but no Panorama.  I figured that they must have sold out, and resolved to find another source.

I deviated from my normal ride into work to scoot down along 7th street, where I remembered another newsy being located.  Only I didn't remember the exact location, having wiped it from my mind with the discovery of the Caltrain plant.  I roamed that neighborhood for a little while, and when that turned up empty, headed into work.

During an early lunch break, I struck out once more, armed this time with a better-memorized map.  I headed south to the spot nearest my office, on 8th between 15th and 16th.  (That has to be one of the best-named intersections in the city.)  No newsy.  Well, there was another listed on 16th, so I turned there and walked from SOMA into the Mission.  Still nothing... I saw a news stand, but it only had the Chronicle, not Panorama.  I was at Ground Zero now, though - Valencia had many bookstores that would carry it.

I walked down Valencia, skirting some intense construction on the west sidewalk.  I decided to drop in at 826 Valencia, since it was the one place on the Google map that had expliclty said it would sell them for $5.  When I got there, I noticed that the door was open, but the sign said "Open Noon-6."  It was still just a bit after 11.  I stuck my head inside, and heard some voices from deep within, but nobody in the storefront.  I closed the door and kept walking.

A few doors down was one of the bookstores.  I dropped in and chatted briefly with the pleasant man inside.  "Do you carry Panorama?" I asked.  He said that they wouldn't be selling it until tomorrow, but that it was being sold on street corners.  The nearest one is "Right there," he said, pointing back up Valencia.  I thanked him and headed back.

As I continued up the block, I noticed a HUGE semi truck parked in the middle of Valencia.  This was probably legal - there's  a dedicated middle turn lane - but also very unusual, as Valencia tends to be a quieter street than Mission.  As I looked more closely, I saw the word "Printing" on the side of the truck... and several bundles being unloaded... and a team of suspiciously young-looking people in matching yellow shirts carrying parcels from the truck... success! 

They were staging on the opposite side of Valencia, so I continued up to the intersection, then crossed over and returned.  The first person I crossed was busily loading up a station wagon.  She wouldn't sell me any; she needed to deliver them to people who had already ordered.  I walked a few steps further down and spoke with a very pleasant young woman.  "Excuse me, do you know where I can buy Panorama?"  "Right here!" she said, and opened up one of the boxes.  I asked for three copies, but they were limiting people to 2 purchases each.  Hmmm - further subterfuge would be needed.

I got the copies, thanked her, and walked away.  While attempting to deposit the issues in my messenger bag, I noticed that they weren't kidding about the broadsheet size of the paper.  It's really huge and substantial.  I could fit it in without folding or creasing the paper (other than the standard half-fold you get on broadsheets), but just barely.

I walked back up Valencia, hoping that some of the previously marked spots would now be stationed with Newsys.  No such luck.  But I recalled that several spots had been indicated on Market.  At 16th street I hopped onto Bart, took it to the Civic Center, and headed out.  One yellow pushpin had been marked at Market and 7th.  Nothing there.  I continued along to the Powell Street stop.  Nothing... wait, what was that?  On the other side of Market, right next to the cable car turnaround, another set of those distinctive yellow shirts!  Success again!

I (safely) crossed the street, accosted one of the sellers, and picked up my prized third and final copy.  Although the paper is totally interchangeable, I decided for symmetry's sake that I would call this third paper "mine."  I noted with approval the irony that I, the person who worked in San Francisco, would be reading a paper acquired at one of the most notorious tourist hotspots in the city, while my midwestern siblings would be reading papers acquired in the heart of the "real" San Francisco.

I started reading the paper on the train ride home that night.  Physically, this was a little challenging - there's a reason why most commuters prefer tabloids (paper style, not necessarily content) to broadsheets, and the Panorama's extra width meant that I needed to be careful to keep the paper on my side of the seat without shoving it into the face of my neighbor.  After he disembarked, I could relax and open up the paper fully for the rest of the ride.  From a content perspective, though, I was hooked all along.  I spent the entire hour-long train ride reading just the first section, which I almost (but didn't quite) manage to finish.

In some senses, it's similar to a regular newspaper.  There's a big headline on the front trumpeting a lead story - here, an investigative journalism piece on cost overruns for the Bay Bridge.  Also on the cover is a large photo.  Here, though, the photo covers the entire front page below the masthead, which has an extremely dramatic effect with this paper size.

The same sense of familiarity tangled with change permeated this section.  The first several pages contained several news briefs of a few sentences.  They covered regular news topics, but were written in a surprisingly literary style - focusing on a particular detail that colored the event rather than drily recounting facts.  Page Two included a staple that you see all the time in the Examiner and often in other papers as well: a police beat section, with crimes from the previous days reported and shown on a map of the city.  Now, intellectually I've always known that these reports provide only a glimpse and not the whole story - it's absurd to think that only four police reports happen in a day, and that it's always exactly four.  But, I'm accustomed to always seeing one or more reports listed in the Tenderloin, with the balance mainly reported from Bayview-Hunter's Point, with a few token reports occasionally filed from other districts in the city.  This map, without making a big deal of it, included crime reports from ALL OVER the city: Nob Hill, the Richmond, etc.  There was a single report that seemed to be from the Tenderloin, and it was for a very minor offense.  Anyways - I'm sure that this police briefing was edited as well, but it really brought out the fact that edits matter, and that our perception of the city has to a large extent been shaped by the more or less arbitrary decisions made by others in explaining and reporting.

McSweeney's isn't a humor outfit, but it can be extremely funny.  Most of the first section was told straight (albeit at a high quality of writing), but a few whimsical notes crept in.  One of my favorites was a spot that reports on Police Morale.  Richmond: "Hanging in there."  Marina: "Irritated but getting over it."  You have to know the area to get it, but I found that hilarious.

Besides the news briefs, the front section included some great in-depth reporting.  Throughout the paper, it seems like a major goal of the publication is to EXPLAIN rather than REPORT.  That is, rather than just recite some facts, it tries to contextualize what is happening and why it matters.  Instead of just answering "Who," "Where," and "What," it spends at least as much time on "How" and "Why."  For example, there's a two-page section on the conflict in the Congo, which, as they write, is now the biggest war since World War II.  With large maps, diagrams, and timelines, it provides a primer on the roots of the war, who was and is involved, and the casualties of the conflict, focusing on the atrocities committed on the civilian population and the huge number of deaths indirectly caused by the war, due to the breakdown in support for treating basic and easily preventable diseases like malaria and diarrhea.

The first section closes out with a glorious and large two-page section on the sun.  That's right: science!  It talks about sunspots and solar flares and how our civilization may be doomed.  It's pretty cool.

I've just scratched the surface of Panorama.  This morning I started reading a long article on Mendocino County, which is one of the largest marijuana-growing areas in the world.  The article covers much of the same ground as an excellent New Yorker article a few months ago, but where the New Yorker mainly focused on the legality and economics of the drug trade, this one emphasizes the indirect costs: massive environmental harm, including poisoning the land, shockingly large diversions of water.  Once I finish with this, I'll still have a large magazine to read, and a sports section, and the Bay Bridge article, and a books section (including new fiction from George Saunders, yay!), and a comics section, and... well, there's a lot.  I can't wait!

This is probably part of the intention of Panorama, but I've found myself thinking about my relationship to the media in general and newspapers in specific while reading it.  Papers were a staple of my family when I was growing up.  We subscribed to the Star-Tribune in Minnesota and the Chicago Tribune in Illinois.  Like all kids everywhere, I started reading the paper to read the comics.  I think I started branching out to other sections when I was in junior high; once my interest in politics was kindled in 8th grade, I began regularly skimming the front section of the paper, looking for headlines that looked interesting (at the time, that would have been anything regarding censorship, the Bosnian conflict, the Middle East, or technology).  When I started getting interested in pop culture, I expanded beyond the comics in the Variety or Tempo section, reading movie reviews, learning about new CDs or television shows, and generally educating myself through print about the things my peers were learning about through television.

I stopped reading the paper when I went to college, though I still read it whenever I go home to visit. I actually did fine without the news for a few years.  On September 11th, I was glued to the Internet for news of what had happened, and over the next several years developed a steady habit of the New York Times and the BBC, all online.  At one point I decided that I was spending too much time chasing down stories about things that didn't affect me and that I had no hope of changing, at which point I drastically cut back my consumption again.

When I first moved to the Bay Area, I started reading the Mercury News online almost every day, and would buy a paper on Sunday.  You know how that turned out.  These days, I make the Chronicle part of my daily routine, almost entirely focusing on local Bay Area stories.  Since I started condo-hunting, I've also made a weekly habit of checking the San Mateo Daily Journal, and occasionally visit the San Mateo County Times.

News is important, but not everything that you read in a newspaper is news, and not everything newsworthy ends up in a newspaper.  The promise of the paper is that it is one of the last universal civic institutions left in our society.  We may all worship at different churches, or not worship at all.  We all listen to different music on different radio stations.  We live in a micro-targeted world, filled with niche audiences consuming niche information directed solely at them.  There's a reason it's that way - people have individual interests, and don't want to waste time on things that they don't care for or that don't matter to them.  But some things do matter to all of us: how our tax dollars are spent on public works projects, or what's happening to our water and our air, or what to do if an earthquake strikes. 

Also, newspapers are wonderful tools for lateral discovery.  When I look for news online, I already know what I'm looking for, and can quickly learn what I want.  But when I browse the news, either with a physical paper or in an online newspaper portal, I'm scanning headlines, learning about things I never would have otherwise.  I don't like in San Mateo County, and had no idea that a grand jury is looking into the salaries of civil servants.  But I have now learned this through the local papers, and if I do end up moving into the county, it will have a fairly significant impact on me.  Ignorance isn't always bliss.

I'd love to see the Panorama, or something like it, come out every day or week.  I don't think I, or anyone, would pay $5 an issue for it each time.  I would start reading it online, and if it wasn't online, I wouldn't read it.  Panorama is doing a great job at reminding us why newspapers are important and what they can do that other forms of media cannot.  I really hope that it has a net positive effect on the industry, not just financially by showing how to sell more papers, but in mission, helping papers focus and do a really good job.  If so, December 8th may emerge as a minor milestone in media history.