The Coffee Walk Bunch

So, I work with some guys.  They’re regular guys.  Most of them are about my age and mostly share my point of view on the direction the country is moving and whom they want to win in November.  Every workday morning, we trek down the incredibly long corridor of our corporate rat’s maze to the polished stainless counters of the company cafeteria where we get our free coffee.  Not all drink this brew.  I’ve always described the taste as a combination of battery acid and pencil shavings so I only make the daily journey for the camaraderie and exercise.

Over the last few months I have noted that two reactions have set in with this group.

One group is resigned to a Clinton victory.  I have been unable to budge them into hope.  The only good of this is the $20 bet (that we’ve dubbed a “tubman”) I have going with one of them.

The other group, of which I am a member, sees the possibility of a Trump victory.  Some limit their hope to this victory.  Nakedly apparent in their hope is the fear that they’re wrong.  Wrinkled brows are there during every bull session.  Hope is a thin veneer and comfort is slight.

But then there’s me.  I am calm.  I have finally faced my demons.  I have admitted to myself that the United States aren’t.  I now know that there are at least two (and probably several) distinct groups occupying the geographic territory known as the USA.

One of those groups was the one I thought was the US.  These are people who believed in all the traditions and values that until sixty years ago defined the way of life of almost all Americans.  Another of these groups is the progressives.  They believe the opposite.  Until recently I believed these people were mostly good hearted people who were mistaken as to the results of the policies they espoused.  I did not think that they were intent on destroying the traditional ways of life.  I now know I was wrong.  These people are intent on destroying everything that I believe is good in this world.  They want to put an end to the traditional family.  They want to outlaw the normal relations between men and women.  They are working to replace parental rights with state control of all aspects of child-rearing.  They desire to undermine all institutions that compete with the state bureaucracy.  And they want to eliminate the ability of people to oppose the state.

I could go on and on (and one future post I will) but suffice it to say these people are neither friends, allies or even countrymen.  They are the reason the Unites States has ceased to exist.

So, there I am.  I admit the US is gone.  I don’t have to worry whether the next president will maintain and strengthen the laws and institutions.  He won’t.  We’ll continue down the slope to Sodom.  My only responsibility is to identify the course of action that I will follow to minimize the damage to myself, my family and my friends.  This will involve subterfuge, dissemblance and devious tactics.  But once you recognize your opponents as such, it’s no longer necessary to treat them honorably.  And so, the tension about the fate of the country is gone.  And the worry goes away.  It’s quite liberating and almost fun.  It’s much easier to be the pirate than the preacher.

And that is what I’ve been telling the Coffee Walk Bunch.  It’s sort of the “don’t worry be happy” line.  It’s actually quite annoying to the folks worrying.  But I come by it legitimately.  You see I’ve been sweating all the elections and progressive changes since Richard Nixon was in office.  I’ve finally seen the light and I’ll wait for these poor souls to see it too.

So now I can look forward to the Trumpocalypse or the Clinton Catastrophe with equal equanimity and even wry amusement.  Whichever way it goes I hope it involves at least a Page 6 babe and possibly a cover on the Enquirer.  But either way the Coffee Walk Bunch will have plenty to talk about next week.

The Black Bird

Dashiell Hammett was not a science fiction author. What he was, was a card-carrying communist, an alcoholic, a philanderer who deserted his wife and children and by all accounts a jerk. He squandered his money and his writing talent and by the measure of lifetime total output left a very sparse legacy as a writer.

So why am I writing about him? Because he was one of the greatest 20th century American genre writers. And by extension I’d say he was one of the greatest 20th century story tellers. And finally, because he wrote the Maltese Falcon, which is the archetype for the hard-boiled detective story and by extension for most of American genre fiction and film story lines for the 1930s and 1940s. In fact I would say that the film Blade Runner is without a doubt the legitimate grand-child of the Maltese Falcon. So therefore it’s related to science fiction. Thus I can semi-legitimately categorize this under sf&f.

I’ve never been a detective story addict. When I was young I read the Holmes stories and I have from time to time read some crime fiction. But sf&f were more my central interest. I came to the Maltese Falcon late in life. I can’t remember if I ever saw the John Huston film in its entirety in my younger years although I am sure I saw bits of it through discussions of classic Hollywood films of the ‘30s and ‘40s. It was actually a very offhand chance that brought me to it. I was at a book store (Barnes and Noble’s or Borders?) back in the mid 1990s. They had some books for sale as remainders and a faux leather bound book caught my eye. It had the image of a black bird set off by silver highlights. It was an edition of the Maltese Falcon at a very reasonable price. How could a bibliophile resist? So I bought it and stuck it on a shelf for a year or two. One night I was tired and bored and there was nothing to watch on tv and nothing new to read. I looked around my old books and thought about rereading something I liked. I considered rereading Zorba the Greek for the hundredth time or some old short stories I like. The black book caught my eye. I hesitated. Why should I start that? It’s too long to fill an hour or two. I’d probably hate it. Eh, I’ll read it.

So I read it. I liked it. I recognized it. It was the written image of the American century. Here were the brash, mercurial, inhabitants of the early 20th century scurrying around their frenetic chaotic lives. This was a new world to them. The older world of family and community had dissolved into the urban machine. All certainty of earth and heaven had been removed. Their mission was to shove themselves through the crowded streets of the industrial age fast enough to collect some memories before the curtain came down on their short lives. All that was sure was death and taxes. You held onto a job to be able to pay the landlady and the butcher. The memory of the earlier world still existed in some of the older habits. Even the psychopath might still tip his hat to a lady or offer his enemy a cigar and a scotch. But the modern accelerators are already on the scene. You had mass communication in the form of the telephone, radio, phonograph and the big city newspapers. Transportation existed as the streetcar and the taxi. Automatic weapons, both pistols and machine guns had come on the scene. And most important was the new hero or rather the anti-hero. Sam Spade. He didn’t protect the weak and innocent. He was muscle and brain for hire to the highest bidder. If he caught a killer it might be just as much to give the police someone beside himself to arrest as it was to see justice done. His scruples wouldn’t prevent him from bedding the wife of his business partner. A the same time, it would compel him to avenge his partner’s murder. He was a professional and knew all the tricks and skills of his trade. But he was a violent man with a very dangerous temper.

So it’s a book of murder and cops and crime and crooks and femme fatales. There are twists and turns and ancient treasure and double and triple crosses. But surprisingly there are some small touches that stay with you just as much as the big scenes. There is a scene in the crowded dining area of his cramped apartment where he puts out food and drink in a way that makes you wish you were there. It’s a book with many things going for it. Some of the stylization seems unfamiliar and the violence less shocking than the latest slasher book. But you can detect the dna that underlies so much of modern genre storytelling.

I’ve since read the rest of Hammett’s works. That includes a few novels including the Thin Man book which also became a famous movie and a fair number of shorter stories. He has a number of good characters and some interesting plots. But in my mind the Maltese Falcon is the masterpiece and his claim to fame. I’d say it should be required reading for anyone who wants to write genre fiction. Not because you’ll learn how to write. And not to see where all the conventions came from. But just to show that good writing involves capturing the essence of a time or a place. It’s like a snapshot of the spirit. It tells the truth and that resonates. And that makes it last. You see there’s one other fact about Hammett that explains his success. He had worked as a detective. He actually knew what he was talking about. He probably never had to deal with people looking for a jewel encrusted golden bird but he certainly dealt with cops and crooks and desperate men of many types. He wrote what he knew.

Autumn with the Sony A7S – Part 3 – Voigtlander 10mm

Autumn with the Sony A7S – Part 1 – Loxia 21mm

Autumn with the Sony A7S – Part 2 – Minolta 200mm Macro

Here’s just a few shots to give an idea how the 10mm looks compared to the 200mm and the 21mm.  The next installment will be all the lenses used at the peak of fall colors.

 

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Autumn with the Sony A7S – Part 2 – Minolta 200mm Macro

Autumn with the Sony A7S – Part 1 – Loxia 21mm

 

With the 200mm you get a totally different emphasis (not to mention some detail on the birds). I always loved using this lens for landscape stuff. Extremely sharp and excellent colors. But maximum aperture is only f\4 so in low light like this situation a tripod comes in handy to handle the longer exposure times.

 

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Trump vs the Congressional Negotiations

Scene 1: Oval Office, Monday morning.

Vice President Pence (VPP) Mr. President, We’ve got a problem.

President Trump (PT) Pence, what the hell is wrong now? I’ve already right sized the government and eliminated the Departments of Education, Energy and the EPA. What is left to worry about?

VPP:  The Speaker of the House and the Senate Majority Leader are forming a coalition with the democrats to produce a veto proof majority and use it to prevent any of your initiatives being funded.

PT:  Don’t these idiots ever learn? Alright, convene a presidential address in the Capitol. I’ll “persuade” them. Get me a list of all the democrats and the Speaker’s and the Majority Leader’s allies in this cabal.

VPP:  Mr. President, I didn’t know you knew the word cabal.

PT:  Ha ha. Any more jokes at my expense, Pense and I’ll add you to this list.

VPP:  Sorry sir.

PT:  Okay, get going. And get me the Alka Seltzer. No, make that Brioschi.

VPP:  What’s Brioschi?

PT:  Oh, just look it up.

Scene 2: US Capital, Wednesday night.

PT:  Ladies and Gentlemen, we are here tonight to move forward on the people’s work. This afternoon I met with the republican and democratic leadership teams for the house and senate. I gave them an ultimatum, either cooperate with my agenda or be eaten. Apparently they thought I was joking. They all started laughing. So I ate them.

Now I know what you’re thinking, he couldn’t have eaten all of them, they’re way too greasy. But you’re wrong. As US President and werewolf I take my responsibilities and meals very seriously. So while I feel decidedly queasy I am fully committed to seeing this problem through to its logical end. So to speed up the process would any of you congressmen or senators who feels he must in good conscience vote against my requested legislation please move toward the left side of the room, your left that is. Everyone else can leave now and the last one out please lock the door behind you. Thank you and good night.

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….………. Good they’re gone. Now let’s get down to business…………………………….………

Scene 3: Oval Office, Thursday morning.

VPP:  Good morning sir, how are you feeling today.

PT:  Pence, this job is killing me. My cholesterol is through the roof and I can barely get into my fat suit. Look at me. I look like Jabba the Hut.

VPP:  Sir, no one would blame you for taking it easy for a few weeks. Why don’t you try a golf holiday?

PT:  But who will keep an eye on things while I’m gone.

VPP:  Well Mr. President, after the events of the last few months I doubt there’s anyone left who will give us any trouble. I’ll hold down the fort.

PT:  Okay I’ll do it. Where do you suggest I go?

VPP:  Well there is a big charity tournament in Hawaii. I believe your predecessor is one of the sponsors of the match.

PT:  Him? Hmmm. Well why not? By tomorrow I’ll probably be a little hungry again and he’s all skin and bones anyway. Might as well mix business with pleasure. I have a feeling I’m gonna kill it on the links.

VPP:  Yes Mr. President.

Space Opera (High and Low)

When I was a kid I read every bit of science fiction I could get my hands on. This was back in the late 1960s and I didn’t know the difference between stories written in the 1930s and newer stuff. If I’d ever heard the term space opera it was incidental and to me had no particular meaning. So I didn’t categorize my reading chronologically or by reviewers’ ratings. I based it on how “good” the story was. So it’s interesting to see what fifty years does to my opinions of those old stories. I’ll look at three stories; Jack Williamson’s The Legion of Space, E. E. Smith’s First Lensman and H. P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness.

So when I read The Legion of Space way back when, I thought it was great! It had vivid characters, exciting action, interstellar travel and bizarre aliens. I remember how vivid the secondary character Giles Habibula seemed to me with his whining and complaining. I remebered it as being an excellent sf novel.

Well I’ve reread it recently. Yikes! The writing is stilted and of poor quality. The characters in many scenes are one dimensional and the dialog is mostly wooden. Giles Habibula at least was more interesting than the rest of the characters so at least my recollection was not completely unconfirmed. But all in all, reading it was disappointing.

Next up I reread First Lensman. I started it with some trepidation. I had enjoyed the whole Lensman series immensely. Some of my fondest memories as a young science fiction fan were imagining how it would look if the series could be brought to the big screen. I was worried that, once again, the reality wouldn’t live up to the memory.

Luckily, it was much better than The Legion of Space. There were some weaknesses in the dialog and changes in the literary conventions stemming from the mores of the time. But overall it was enjoyable and fun. The strengths of the story were much as I remembered them. The stories were plot driven but with enough simple character development to lend sympathy to the endeavor. I think the recognizable American ethos and feel of the scene made it comfortable and enjoyable. And nostalgia for those happier times increased the pleasure of reading it. Catastrophe averted.

Finally I reread At the Mountains of Madness. Now even back when I first read this Lovecraft tale I recognized the shortcomings of Lovecraft’s prose. His overcharged style sometimes verged on self-parody and the telegraphing of plot events was extremely heavy handed and obvious. Even as a young adult I felt impatient at just how poorly he laid out his stories. His only saving grace is that in the broad strokes of his world building vision he seems to have tapped into images that are genuinely horrific. A very strange author that always leaves conflicted feelings after reading, that is how I describe Lovecraft.

Interestingly, I felt no difference between my original impressions of this story and my recent reading. He induces the exact same combination of impatience and vague interest. He’s like some unpleasant fever dream that produces a combination of stimulating disorientation and dull headache at the same time.

So what have I learned from all this? I’m not sure. Possibly that as a young reader I was far less critical of literary talent. And yet, the stories that I enjoyed the most still seem to possess the most merit as stories. And looking at the components that the better stories possessed, they combined likable protagonists with plot lines that featured conflict and adventure. Okay, so basically Homer’s Odyssey.  Well that’s not a profound conclusion but I guess it’s comforting to know.

Pardon me while I go search for an old edition of Smith’s Skylark of Space. That should be fun.

Autumn with the Sony A7S – Part 1 – Loxia 21mm

Fall is the Super Bowl for New England landscape photographers. So I felt compelled to make some kind of effort to scout out some colorful trees. It’s still a little before peak color so hopefully I’ll find some showier shots soon. I will post some other shots with the 10mm Voigtlander and the 200mm Minolta macro separately.

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How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: A Book Review

Scott Adams is best known as the creator of the Dilbert comic strip.  In the 1990s and 2000s it was one of the most widely read and enjoyed parts of the common culture.  Every cubicle dweller in the western world could commiserate with the trials and tribulations of this geeky everyman.  Any engineer of whatever stripe could empathize with the bureaucratic idiocy that Dilbert navigates at every turn.

What people might be less aware of is that Scott Adams has written some other books that are more in the vein of self help.  I was unaware of it.  The only recent information I had about Adams was his commentary about Donald Trump’s candidacy.  Apparently he is somewhat on the right end of the spectrum (although his exact shade is not defined in the present book).  But through an article I read on his recent book I became interested to see what kind of advice I could get from Dilbert.

After reading this medium length book (~250 pages) I will say I’m very impressed.  It combines advice on health and career in a surprisingly integrated fashion.  Without regurgitating the details of the book he ties together diet, exercise, work, play, psychology, innovation, socialization and happiness into a coherent hierarchical plan.  The book is laid out into a narrative following the details of Scott’s life from his childhood on.  It shows how each of his various failed endeavors contributed to his understanding of what he was doing wrong and what he had learned.

I found the writing style funny and very readable.  What really surprised me was how convincing his arguments were.  I found myself agreeing with the logic of his perspective on a lot of these topics.  Most surprising was how enthusiastic I felt in response to this book.  Individually, none of these topics is profound.  But wrapping them together I think they provide a powerful stimulus to someone interested in enhancing his own peace of mind and prospects for a happy life.  There are all kinds of self help books out there.  Some better, some worse.  Scott Adams has written one for the everyman who is navigating a world filled with confusing, unhealthy and frivolous choices that distract us from what we need to do (and not do) to be happy.

Because of how positively I viewed the book I decided it was necessary to test my reaction by consulting with the most skeptical authority on life known to man, my wife.  I described the thesis of the book in short outline and she provided a rapid decision.  It was all just common sense.  I objected that the way the advice was presented made it much more valuable than Ben Franklin’s, “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.”  She still scoffed at my enthusiasm.

So there you have it.  It’s a man’s book.  Women are the ultimate pragmatists and have little use for common sense handbooks because they already live by simple rules that life dictates for them.  I guess men naturally think rules don’t apply to us and therefore allow us to defy common sense and make our own rules.  Fine.  But I think I did not sufficiently detail the sections of the book that addressed the advice on maximizing success and innovation.  Here I believe Scott captures some behaviors and ideas that are applicable to almost anyone who wants to break out of the hum-drum existence of modern day corporate life and build something of his own.  If I went over this with my wife I’m sure she’ll tell me it’s just another way of saying, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”

Damned pessimists.  Once I’m rich, powerful and famous she’ll change her tune.

Bravo, Scott Adams, bravo.