Tuesday, May 31, 2011


"Burning Chrome" is an oddity, made more so by the way I read it. This is a collection of William Gibson's earlier short fiction, most of which you could categorize as Cyberpunk and the remainder which is cutting-edge modern sci-fi. I read the book over a series of backpacking trips, far away from cell phones, computers, and other modern conveniences, often through dappled sunlight pouring in through oak leaves or on black sand by the Pacific coast.

Yeah, it was a bit unusual.  Escaping from the trappings of technology, only to escape from the natural beauty around me by immersing myself in a fantastic world of technology.

It's hard to think of much to say about Gibson's early writing that hasn't already been said before, and more eloquently. Gibson's writing is highly kinetic and visceral. He doesn't really know what he's writing about; he uses computer lingo the same way that Star Trek writers invoke science talk. It's hard to find any technology he writes about that's actually prescient in the way of Stephenson or Asimov; but, he does a fair job at capturing a lot of the social changes that have accompanied our culture's deepening involvement with electronic communication over the last three decades.

The most famous story in the collection has to be "Johnny Mnemonic," which was turned into a movie that I have yet to see. The main characters in his stories are all male and tend to be on the fringes of society: computer hackers, or artists, or hustlers. There's a profound loneliness that cuts through all these tales. It seems to echo many of the complaints we've heard recently, that technology is isolating us from one another; but, really, I think that's a fairly universal feeling.

The stories tend to be bummers, but not exactly in the dystopic sci-fi vein, where they're bummers because of the mess humans have made of the world; rather, they're bummers because characters live in disintegrating worlds and aren't able to thrive in them. Sometimes this is because of poor decisions they make, other times because of their bad luck.

Also noted: it feels really weird to be reading cyberpunk as a historical artifact. The genre defined itself by firmly placing itself in the future, and now that its content is in the past, its breathless enrapturement at high tech feels jarring. It's a bit like talking with someone who can't get over how FAST their 4400 baud modem is.

Anyways, the stories are intriguing, and certainly worth checking out if you're a fan of Gibson. I don't think I liked anything here better than Neuromancer or his recent work, but there is more variety here of characters and concerns.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A Game of You

Here are a few random thoughts on A Game of Thrones. (My background: I've read through the series, and have watched the first six broadcast episodes, but haven't yet seen the seventh episode that's streaming from HBO.) Consider this post MEGA SPOILERS for the first six episodes, not the books.

  • This may be the most beautifully shot television series I've seen. They've finally moved out of the predominantly gray and overcast surroundings of Winterfell, and the new areas look absolutely sumptious.
  • Most of the casting is quite good. Sean Bean seems just a bit old for Ned, but he's totally nailing the character.
  • This is a writing complaint, not a casting complaint: the characters seem much more sympathetic and likeable on-screen than they did in the book. In particular, I really disliked Cat, Jaime, and Cersei when I was at this point in the books; here, Cat is almost entirely heroic (if a tad tragic), Jaime has a roguish charm, and Cersei, while still more or less positioned as a villain, comes off as much less of a schemer and more of a victim. This isn't necessarily bad, of course; but, by starting these characters off in a more positive light, the creators are limiting the available arcs.
  • Oh, and probably the biggest example: Sander Clegane. In the first book, The Hound is downright scary: he's aggressive, pointed, opinionated, dangerous. We eventually get to like him, but he isn't a nice guy. On TV, the only thing at all scary about him is his scar; his personality seems entirely quieted and somber.
  • That said, I've come to understand and, to some degree, appreciate that the show has completely discarded the Point-Of-View technique that George R. R. Martin used in his novels. POV worked great in the books, but doesn't serve much purpose on the screen. And, since almost all of the POVs from the first book were Starks, it makes sense that we'd get a somewhat skewed view of the situation prior to the introduction of alternate POVs. Essentially, revelations and attitudes from the later books have been retconned into the first installment. Nothing wrong with that - it's different, but not worse.
  • Example: Arya's overheard conversation in the skull room. In the books, the identity of the two speakers is a huge mystery and a plot point that takes several books to track down. Here, it's rather straightforwardly shown to us (although Arya and Ned don't know who they are). This provides a different sort of tension: instead of us being kept in the dark, we're given more knowledge than the characters, which increases our own stress as we see them approaching danger.
  • The show has gotten quite free at creating scenes that don't appear in the books, but that we know occurred or that fit within the larger plot. This is a Very Good Thing. In the books, we're often treated to dialog or storytelling from other characters that explain what's happened in another part of Westeros; here, we get to see it as it happens, which just works better in this medium.
  • Least favorite casting so far: Renly. I really hope they improve the character in future seasons, but right now, he seems much too whiny.
  • Least favorite character so far: Sansa. I didn't exactly love Sansa in the book, but I sympathized for her; she's a bit like Juliet in R&J, in that I feel like smacking my forehead when she makes poor decisions, but I can't get mad at her. In the show, though, she's overly petulant and petty.
  • Most improved from the book: Hard to say so far, but I'm leaning towards Viserys. I didn't care for him much at all in the books, where he seemed distant, cold, angry, and ineffectual. Here... well, he's still many of those things, but comes across as a more tragic figure.
  • Weirdest presentations: Bran and Theon. Bran is probably the most intriguing character in the first book other than Ned: his dreams, his encounters with the strange events around Winterfell, and his hard-fought recovery have a particular drama. Most of that stuff is internal, though, and so far we've mostly just seen floppy brown hair and a three-eyed raven. (Not the actor's fault - you just can't do too much on television with Bran's first-book material.) Theon was kind of weird in the first book, too, but it didn't stand out as much there. Here, whenever he shows up I wonder, "Why is he in this scene?", even though I know what the answer will eventually be.
  • Favorite character: Tyrion, of course! He eventually became my favorite in the books as well, but at this stage of reading them, I was still very unsure of what to make of him. Peter Dinklage, though, has managed to stand out in an already crowded field of talent, and every second that he's on-screen is absolutely riveting. He gets the best lines, gives the best deliveries, has amazing facial expressions, and even in his quiet pauses he holds your attention.
  • Favorite environment: I've been most impressed so far by the Eyrie. 
  • Favorite sex scene: Gosh, how can one choose from so many?
  • Are there going to be any GRRM cameos? Have I missed any? I really want to see him in this thing.
  • I don't think I've ever re-read the first book, so some of my memories of events are a bit hazy. This is a good thing - I'm not exactly surprised at anything that's happening, but neither am I paying too much attention to what's book-canon and what isn't.
  • Have you noticed that the opening credits are slightly different each time? They cover the cities and regions that are featured in that episode. Nice touch. I can't wait to see, say, Braavos get its own treatment.
Stuff has finally kicked into high gear with the last two episodes, and it'll be non-stop action for, well, the next three and a half seasons. A miniseries was definitely the right way to tell this story; even there, I find myself wishing for more time. It seems like there's an incredible amount of plot that needs to happen in the four hours we have left. It would be awesome if HBO bumps up the episode orders for future seasons - say, thirteen episodes instead of ten. That would give the show a little more time to breathe and explore all the characters and minor plots that make up the whole. That said, so far I'm impressed by what they've kept from the first book - lots of individual scenes are missing, of course, but I don't think they've cut any significant characters, nor omitted any plot threads. (For example: the tournament was really abbreviated, and I would have LOVED to have seen the melee, along with some more of the knights who jousted. That said, they kept the joust itself, and the most important events that happened.) I'm happy with what they've given us so far, and am hoping for more of the same quality.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Wait, hold on, let me find my notes...

This is the latest entry in my occasional series on backpacking adventures! I don't think that anything will top my Yosemite trip last fall, but it also convinced me that taking time to go out exploring in the wilderness can be profoundly rewarding. For my next excursion, I was fascinated by what I'd heard of the Lost Coast. I don't know anyone who has actually hiked it, but several of my backpacking friends know it by reputation as one of the most remote and isolated places one can go. It seemed like the perfect place to try next - it has mountains, but is primarily focused along an uninterrupted stretch of the Pacific coast, and so would be quite unlike my treks in Coe, Yosemite, or Ohlone.

Since I'm a nerd, I get nearly as much pleasure out of planning for trips as actually taking them. Here, I'd started doing casual research on the Lost Coast in the fall of 2010, and began seriously preparing in the spring of this year. One of my first decisions was just how far to go. Technically, the Lost Coast stretches through two distinct management zones: the federal Bureau of Land Management operates the King Range wilderness in the north, while California's state park system operates Sinkyone in the south. The two reaches of the trail are roughly equal in length, but pretty different in character and policy. I got the impression that the King Range's coast is much more exposed, with flat beaches running level to the ocean, while Sinkyone had a more rugged and forested character. Also, the King Range is entirely wilderness, where you can camp anywhere (following a few simple guidelines), while Sinkyone requires you to use established backpackers' camps. I was tempted to through-hike the two reaches, but two things gave me pause. First, the length - it looked like it would take eight days of hiking to do the whole thing (three days for King Range, three days for Sinkyone, one day to connect the two, and one day for a trip up King Peak). That's probably doable, but still a long time; it would mean losing my recovery weekend after the hike, and carrying a ton of food with me. Secondly, you can't really, actually through-hike it. The village of Shelter Cove interrupts the hike halfway through, roughly (but not exactly) dividing the King Range from the Sinkyone portions. That would mean a full day of hiking off trails to connect them... not a whole lot of fun.

So, I eventually decided to just do the King Range portion. It sounded like the coolest part, and (relatively) simple to plan for. To help bulk up the time a bit, I'd indulge in a trip (sans full backpack) up to the top of King Peak, a signature 4088-foot-tall mountain just three miles from the ocean.

I started collecting literature. There are several good web sites and blogs that discuss the Lost Coast Trail in general or describe particular experiences hiking it. Books like the Hiker's Hip Pocket Guide helped me get a feel for the terrain I'd be encountering. I picked up a pretty good map from Wilderness Press that displayed both the King Range and the Sinkyone parts of the park. I also sent $5 to the BLM for their map, which I'd heard was superior to the Wilderness Press one. They sent me back a packet full of literature, a postcard, a tide table book for 2011, and hiking guides, but no map. Sigh.

When the hike got closer, I started to look into transit. Most people hike the coast one-way, generally from north to south in order to have the wind at your back. Doing this requires a shuttle, and shuttling isn't easy: the trailheads are only 28 miles across on the coast, but driving takes either 50 miles (if you have 4-wheel drive and a high carriage) or 85 miles (if you're in a standard passenger car like me), over rough mountain road. Oh, yeah, and you need another car to shuttle, and I'd be doing this solo. Fortunately, several folks operate shuttle services: they're certified by the BLM but run independently. I got in touch with a lady named Roxanne and we scheduled my trip.

In the week before leaving, I followed my standard preparation techniques. I stocked up on instant oatmeal, tea, dried fruit and trek mix from Trader Joe's. For this trip I picked up a few Mountain House freeze-dried meals from Sports Basement; I probably could have gotten away with using Indian Fare from Trader Joe's, but since I would have to use a bear can I wanted to get as compact as possible. The day before the trip, I swung by Safeway to grab some preservative-laden pita pockets, peanut butter, and Peanut Butter M&Ms.

My packing list was the same as what I take on my mountain-based hikes; the only difference was that I tossed in a paperback ("Burning Chrome"), since the days are long and I thought I'd have time to read in camp.

The drive up was long but quite pleasant. I made it out of the city a bit after 7, and never hit any really slow points. I had just recently driven Highway One along the coast with my parents, which was absolutely stunning but would take too much time for my appointment, so I took 101, which is still very scenic. I don't generally like driving, but these are the roads that make me change my mind: uncrowded, fast, with wide-open views and interesting terrain.

I exited at Garberville and began making my way through town. I grabbed a bit more gas at the Chevron, but no too much - I'd seen it for 50 cents cheaper in Willits, and knew that I wanted to fill up there on the way home. After working my way through Garberville, I continued along a highway to Redway, then hit Briceland road as I started towards the coast in earnest.

The road to Shelter Cove is very winding, narrow, and steep, but totally doable even in a small car like mine. Early on you go through Humboldt Redwood State Park, a small but cool-looking dark forest. I kept my eye open for the Bureau of Land Management's King Range Field Office, where I'd be picking up my bear can. Their address is in Whitehorn, but you don't follow Briceland Thorn Road when it branches off left to Whitehorn; instead you keep curving to the right on Shelter Cove Road. After passing the Whitehorn Post Office, there are a couple of rough roads to your left, followed by a sign and good pavement for the BLM. I didn't spend much time there, but they seem to have a nice big facility, along with a bunch of displays and the expected literature and stuff. I picked up my bear can, hopped back in my car, and continued on my way.

The last stretch to Shelter Cove is the steepest, and the signs warn you to shift to a lower gear. The first big downhill stretch was signed at 25MPH; I did this in my lowest gear, which tops out at around 20MPH. The second big stretch was 35MPH; I did this in my intermediate gear, which maxes at around that speed. Once I hit Shelter Cove proper I switched back to my normal gear... there are still some steep stretches, but they're shorter once you're in town so you don't need to worry (much) about burning out your breaks.

Overall, I was quite happy with the signage - all the way from 101 to Black Sands Beach, they either sign it clearly or else the route is just obvious. I'd budgeted 5 hours to make the trip from home, and given myself an extra 1 hour buffer in case I encountered traffic or other difficulties; I ended up with about an hour to spare until my 1pm pickup. I tried checking in with Roxanne, but found that I had no service - no surprise there, I hadn't picked up a signal in Garberville either. (I love T-Mobile, but they are the fourth-largest carrier for a reason.)

I spent some time gasping in awe at the ocean from the scenic overlook by the beach, then grabbed my lunch and tromped down the sidewalk to walk onto the beach. The weather was simply stunning: totally clear blue skies, nice and warm without being hot. A strong wind was whipping down from the northwest, which just made everything more exhilarating. I started to grin as I munched my sandwich. Yes.... I had a good feeling about this trip.

I picked up a trail permit from the self-service box, walked back to the parking lot, and was filling it out when Roxanne arrived. She suggested that I re-park my car in a more visible location, then we loaded up my pack and headed out. (She was driving a nice old pickup, and had a nifty interior compartment in the flatbed that held my pack in place. Good to see specialization at work!)

As you probably know if you're reading this blog, I'm not exactly a sparkling conversationalist, but chatting with Roxanne was great... she had a ton of useful insights into the area (where she's lived for a long time) and the trail, but for the most part we talked about regular stuff: kids, weather, food, city life versus rural life, pot farms, language, books. The hours flew by, and soon she was giving me a few final tips on how to tackle the first part of the trail.

I set off, and it was absolutely amazing. Most of the trip is already chronicled on my Picasa album for the hike, so I won't repeat everything here. Instead, here are a few more or less random thoughts on the trail.
  • The setting itself is very wild and undeveloped, but the trail was much busier than I expected. Not exactly crowded, but I ran into multiple groups of folks each day that I hiked the coast, including two very large groups of about a dozen people and several more singles and pairs. It's less crowded than, say, the lower part of Yosemite, but a bit busier than when I hiked Ten Lakes or Ohlone, and far busier than my trips to Coe's backcountry.
  • That said, once you head inland, everyone goes away. On my one solid day of mountain hiking (up Rattlesnake Ridge and King Crest to King Peak), I didn't see another soul, or any evidence of other hikers.
  • And, of course, the people you see on trails are always good folks.
  • I can confirm that, yes, there are bears. This was the opposite of my Yosemite trip, where I never saw bears but had evidence that they were busy while I was asleep. Here, I saw both prints and beasts, but no camp incursions.
  • Hiking on the coast requires traversing a lot of different terrain. Sometimes you'll have a choice, based on where you hike. Other times all the surface will be the same. The best is dirt; in a few places you can head a little ways inland, generally up a short slope, and walk a nice trail that parallels the coast; these often run through meadows, and have great views of the ocean. The next best is wet sand; on a receding tide, you can walk just above the surfline for a fairly stable and firm surface. Then come small pebbles, which skitter a bit and slow you down but are solid to walk on. Then come large boulders, which require careful steps but are a lot of fun. The worst is a toss-up between dry sand and small boulders. Dry sand is monotonous and boring, slows you down a lot, and eventually tires you out. Small boulders give you better footing, but require really careful concentration.
  • I was pretty lucky with weather. The first two days were clear and sunny with almost no clouds. The third day was heavily overcast and cloudy. The fourth day started cloudy but mostly cleared up. From what I understand, fog is very common, but other than the third day I didn't see much of it.
  • The wind was EXTREMELY strong on my first day, and yes, it was blowing in the expected north-to-south direction. It was almost perfectly calm the rest of the time. Overall, I probably would have been fine going south-north or out-and-back if I'd wanted to, but not if every day had been like the first.
  • Chilling on the beach is incredibly relaxing. I highly recommend it. Also good: lots of sunscreen.
  • No bugs on the beach, but I did run across a few ticks in the woods.
  • The tide tables are handy to have, but try to be flexible about it. I usually was able to line things up so I started hiking a risky stretch shortly after high tide, as it was going out. There was really just one part where the tide level was an issue, and even there I would have been able to walk it if I'd waited a little longer. So, know when the tides are, but don't freak out about stuff.
  • Temperatures were quite nice. I usually started the day with a cotton (I know, I know) button-down long-sleeve shirt over a cotton (yes, yes, I know) t-shirt; after an hour or so, I'd strip off the long-sleeve and stay in the t-shirt the rest of the day.  I'd occasionally pull the long-sleeve back on if it got sufficiently windy. I did bring along a warm hoodie that I wore in camp, both mornings and evenings.
  • My trip up Rattlesnake Ridge trail was stupidly slow. I tend to average about 2mph when backpacking, even when lugging excess weight uphill.  For this, though, it took me over four hours to go under six miles! Part of that is due to the temporary condition of the trail - they haven't done anything with it since winter, and it takes a while to navigate the fallen trees. Also, there's some creek fording required early on, and if the creek levels fall in summer, you might be able to just hop across. Still, considering that I wasn't even carrying a full pack (I did this as a day trip with a base station at Big Flat Creek), I feel ashamed of my performance.
After finishing the hike, I was happy to see that my car had emerged completely untouched, just a bit dustier. On my way out I stopped in Garberville for some yummy tacos at the Aztec Grill (in the Chevron!); I noticed that my T-Mobile phone was suddenly working again, so I'm not sure why I wasn't able to get coverage earlier.

Like I said before, the hike was a great, unique experience. There are very few opportunities in the continental US to have a wilderness backpacking experience next to the ocean, and I'm delighted that I was able to participate in one of them. It didn't quite surpass my sheer joy in Yosemite, but it runs a very close second.

Thursday, May 19, 2011


In all the small ways, Umberto Eco's "The Name of the Rose" is the opposite of "Foucault's Pendulum". Where FP was a fairly sprawling book, focused on heterodox and occult ideas, with a plot that spans many years and covers both hemispheres in the present day, TNotR is a more focused (though still lengthy) book, focused on orthodox Christianity, with a plot that unfolds over seven days at a Benedictine monastery in the 1300's.

Still, both books share Eco's writing style, which tends to be what I think of as "accessibly baroque." It's fairly wordy and detailed, but flows extremely well. He also has a fondness for long dialog and monologue; in TNotR, in particular, you'll often get two monks debating a finer point of theology for several pages, or someone recounting a story for most of a chapter.

One of the things I like best about TNotR is how seriously it takes religion. This is partly out of necessity: because of its setting and time, the narrator and all the characters' lives orbit around the Church and its teachings, so to do otherwise would be out of place. Still, Eco goes above and beyond, not afraid of making copious references to Biblical characters, theologians, doctrine, heresies, etc. He also works in a fair amount of history, but that history is almost always portrayed as subordinate to faith: rebellions are linked to heresies, upstart rulers to the spiritual authorities they acknowledge. I don't know if Eco is a Christian or not, but he sure knows his stuff; late in the book, a character has a dream that involves a whole menagerie of people from the Bible and the saints. It's extremely clever if you understand why each character in the dream does what he or she does. (I'm guessing that I would have gotten even more out of it if I was more familiar with the Catholic saints.)


It's difficult to pin TNotR to a particular genre. At its core, it's basically a murder mystery. The murder happens just before the start of the book, and the protagonist (a close associate of the narrator) spends most of the book puzzling out who is responsible. Still, I hesitate to call it "just" a mystery novel. While the murder drives the plot, the writing tends to be much more focused on the spiritual and political conflict set as backdrop.

The book is set around the 1320s, as Europe is starting to climb out of the Dark Ages, and I have very little familiarity with this era. From the little research I've done, it seems like Eco was mostly accurate about the larger movements afoot. The Church is the dominant power of the time: it directly holds a great deal of land and most money, and it also indirectly confers legitimacy on other European rulers, most notably the Holy Roman Empire (which, if you'll recall from your high school history class, is actually a Germanic kingdom that's far from holy). The Church is widely corrupt, addicted to the pleasures of money and power. Several reform movements within the church have sought to reclaim its earlier focus on Jesus's mission. Most notable among these are the mendicant friar movements, such as the Benedictines and, later, the Augustinians, who forsake worldly goods and devote themselves to lives of poverty and spiritual contemplation. Some of these movements are accepted by the Church, while others are denounced as heresies. The church needs to walk a fine line - the orders' focus on poverty draws attention to the church hierarchy's conspicuous wealth, and so can be seen as implicitly challenging the church; however, the new orders also serve to attract many of the faithful who would otherwise be tempted to more directly rebel against the church. The orders are on shaky ground, and depending on the current year or pope, their status may rise or fall.

Speaking of pope, the book is set shortly after the establishment of the Avignon papacy, and most of the characters we meet are deeply opposed to Pope John. They despise John for his lush lifestyle and his doctrine; one of the minor comedies of the book is how a group of (say) Franciscans will mutter "John is a heretic!", "No, a heresiarch!" And yet, he IS the pope, and the nominal head of all Christians. It's a weird dynamic, one that I don't think we really see any more today: now, we're so used to schisms that, if you disagree with a leader that fundamentally, you join or start a new church. People hop between Catholicism and Anglicanism, or vice versa; they establish offshoots that keep the old doctrine you like and omit the new innovations that you dislike. In this era, though, there's just one Church. You can try to reform it from within, but if you actually set up another faction, you'll become a heretic (no, a heresiarch), be pursued by the religious and secular arms, defeated, and burned at the stake.

All that is backdrop, but as in Foucault's Pendulum, the backdrop is the most fascinating part of the book. The setting and characters also put in strong performances. The monastery is fully realized, along with a detailed map in the book's covers; throughout the story, we get to see how the monastery functions as a community, independent unto itself but also connected with the surrounding land. The key focus of both the monks and of the book is the Aedificum, an amazing library that hosts the largest number of books outside of the Vatican, including a collection of infidel and heretical tomes. The Aedificum comes with its own rules and risks, and a surprisingly elaborate culture of obscurity has grown up around it.

Due to the large cast of characters, most of the people we meet are necessarily two-dimensional, but William, the protagonist, and Adso, his young scribe and the narrator, are very richly described. William is a man born two centuries two early; his intellectual curiosity and ontological humility grant him a perfect Renaissance temperament, which must be channeled into the acceptable profession of his day: serving as an Inquisitor and as an imperial negotiator. He also has a deep and fundamental sympathy for the positions of the Minorites, while being far too shrewd to risk associating with them in the inevitable purge. Adso is definitely subordinate to William, but makes up for his lack of intellectual rigor with a sweet disposition and earnest desire to learn.

There are way too many characters to describe here. The abbot is delightfully avaricious without being too cartoonish. Severinus is a decent and bright man, one of the few monks who can approach William on something like an equal footing. Where Severinus more or less supports William, Jorge opposes him, using his formidable skill at rhetoric and knowledge of scripture to firmly carve out their differences. Salvatore is probably the most original character in the book, speaking in a bizarre patois of his own creation, recounting some of the most awful stories within this book. And on and on - each monk has their own secrets, their own prejudices, their own agenda, and the fun in this mystery is peeling back the layers and trying to anticipate just what's going on.


I don't really have any other Eco on my to-read list, but I've been delighted by the two tomes I've already read. They're complex and intricate, but don't take themselves too seriously either. It's the kind of casual greatness that I love in writers like Neal Stephenson, and I'm glad whenever I can find examples.