Friday, May 30, 2014

The Studhorse Man Challenge (closes June 18)

It was quite a while back that I reviewed Robert Kroetsch's The Studhorse Man.  I don't think I did a very good job in conveying why I think this is Kroetsch's best novel.  So I'll give it another shot.

Quite a few of Kroetsch's novels are mid-20th C. postmodern novels, featuring wildly unreliable narrators.  While many pomo novels trace their roots back to Sterne's Tristram Shandy, the more immediate antecedent is probably John Barth or Robert Coover.  Interestingly, all three (Barth, Coover and Kroetsch) sort of came to the same turning point of adopting postmodern conventions in the late 60s.  Maybe it really was just something in the water...

Anyway, Gone Indian and to a lesser extent Badlands have narrators that undercut the main thrust of the story, but The Studhorse Man in the only one where the narrator is actively stalking Hazard Lepage (the main character), intending to do him in if possible, so that he can marry Hazard's fiancee Martha.  Sadly, Martha is the narrator's cousin, and she doesn't really take to this idea.

Kroetsch's novels do have a bit of the manly man about them, maybe just a bit too stereotypically soaked in the rhetoric of how Canadian men tamed the frontier.  Some readers are definitely put off by this, but it does seem most appropriate in this novel, which is essentially the Odyssey on the Canadian frontier, though one might argue that Hazard is trying to return to a simpler time rather than returning home.  Hazard views the mechanization of Canadian farms and the subsequent redundancy of horses in the West as a terrible thing, and he struggles to breed his blue stallion with other worthy mares before it is too late.

The adventures themselves are quite amusing, as Hazard gets himself into one scrape after another.  It is very hard to convey humour in a review, and I suppose you'll just have to trust that it is a funny novel.  But it's still better to go ahead and read it.

As it happens, I have a spare copy to give away (a yellowed but still quite readable copy), so I am going to start a challenge for it.  This book is free to a Canadian address, but unfortunately, due to rising postage I'll have to charge a nominal fee ($3 Can) to US or European addresses.  The challenge will be open for 3 weeks (until June 18), although if I don't get sufficient entries I may choose to extend the challenge for up to another two weeks.

In the comments, tell me your favourite Robert Kroetsch novel (aside from The Studhorse Man) and give one thing you liked about it.  I'll pick my favourite entry and send the book out shortly after that.  (While you should let me know which country you want the book mailed to, it's probably safer not to put your full address in the comment itself, and I'll get it from the winner afterwards.)

Good luck!

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Literary noodlings including a riddle

I'll start off with the riddle, though it isn't mine (and it's a bit more of a puzzle than a proper riddle).

I'm partway through Martin Amis' Other People.  It's hard to say exactly what is going on here.  It is written from the perspective of a patient with total amnesia, slowly relearning the rules of society.  While this may not be the intent, it feels very inspired by Clockwork Orange, in that society has largely broken down and citizen's homes are not particularly safe castles any longer. 

Anyway, the patient, who calls herself Mary, is taking in all the information she can (like a somewhat slower version of the alien (Milla Jovovich) in The Fifth Element):
Books were difficult.  She read The Major Tragedies of William Shakespeare.  It was about four men made up of power, mellifluousness and hysteria; they lived in big bare places that frightened them into speech; they were all cleverly murdered by women, who used an onion, a riddle, a handkerchief and a button.

The riddle is obviously the witches' riddle in Macbeth and the handkerchief is Desdemona's from Othello.  (As I thought I made clear, Othello is by far my least favourite of the four major tragedies.)

But who was killed by an onion (or even a leek)?  It sounds like something more appropriate for one of the comedies, the appearance of a leek in Henry V notwithstanding. Since there are only four kings (or three kings and a prince), this presumably excludes Julius Caesar and Anthony and Cleopatra from the "Big Four" tragedies.  Tears from onions, btw, do make an appearance in Anthony and Cleopatra, but not in any fatal sense.  Most likely it is the poisoned "union" which is dropped into the goblet in Hamlet.  Supposedly, this is a large pearl, which would look just like a pearl onion.  I wouldn't at all be surprised if there are editions of Hamlet that print onion instead of union, but I don't have time for any more literary sleuthing.

So this basically leaves Lear killed by a button?  I have to admit, this is particularly sly on Martin Amis' part.  As with all things Shakespearean, there are major debates about what is meant by Lear's next to last lines: "Pray you undo this button.  Thank you, sir."  Some people assume Lear is choking on some part of his outfit, whereas it could mean to undo a button on the cloth covering Cordelia or even to undo the buckle by which the fool was hung (though presumably he would have said buckle rather than button).  In many ways, this is fairly close to the last moments of Cervantes' Don Quixote, and here the old king throws off the raiment of madness, recovers lucidity and dies.  However, few people would assume that it was literally the button that killed him (or rather the only thing keeping him anchored to life) and even fewer would say that it was definitely Cordelia's button, which seems to be Mary's conclusion.  While Amis surely doesn't completely accept Mary's reading (or epic misreading) of the play(s), he is able to bring together some interesting ideas together, such as it's really always the woman's fault in Shakespeare no matter who carries out the deed (though this does not necessarily mean they have more power).  I found this about as interesting in its own way as what Caryl Churchill comes up with in Top Girls, but written with such economy.  So far, nothing else in Other People has been as brilliant.  I remember not really caring for Night Train (another relatively late Amis novel) but perhaps I will give it another shot next year.  On the agenda for mid July, however, is a one-day visit to Stratford to check out Lear (so I'll be able to see this twice in three years after never having seen it performed live).  I will certainly keep my eye on the button...

I have just about 150 pages left with Proust.  I am going to celebrate so much when this is over.  I am at a particularly bad section where he isn't satisfied with dropping hints about the madeline cookie, he needs to come up with other things that trigger his memory, like an uneven sidewalk reminding him of a trip to Venice or a stiff napkin reminding him of other parties at the Guermantes' mansion.  Each one of them reinforces the memories that the other one triggered.  Enough, we get it already.  While this wouldn't have been for everyone under the best of circumstances, it could have been boiled down to 400-500 pages of intense thoughts on memory, painting, literature (but cut the musings on music, which were never very convincing) and maybe a bit on how people allow their perceptions of artists and others in their social circle to be shaped and shifted by those higher in stature in these same circles, and possibly a bit on how difficult it was to find good servants in those days. I would have kept most of the material on Saint-Loup, cut nearly all the material on Palamède (which reeks very strongly of self-loathing), and maybe kept 25% of the Albertine saga (which is very troubling on other grounds).  That might have been a great piece of work.  But that's not what we are faced with.  I am truly at a loss why people feel Remembrance is the epitome of the novel.  To me it is far too mimetic, i.e. we are dragged along with the Narrator in these epic feats of remembrance, when in fact for the most part, we could be told about them once or twice, and say to ourselves, yes, this is something I too have experienced.  I do think it is an artistic failure on those grounds.  Anyway, I'll probably have one more post on this when I finally cross the finish line this weekend.  Then that will be it, and Proust will be out of my life -- forever.

I've now gathered the four volumes of Amphigorey.  I wasn't even aware until very recently of the final one (Amphigorey Again).  There is no question that they begin to drop off in quality after Amphigorey and Aphigorey Too.  The earlier ones have dark moments but also a lot of whimsey.  I find the later ones are kind of dark for darkness' sake, a bit of going through the motions, since it was so clear what was expected of him.  That doesn't mean I'm not glad to have the set after all these years, but I'll probably return to the first volume the most for inspiration.  I wonder if anyone has actually taken one of the books as a kind of storyboard (or springboard) and written a proper story with actual motivations.  I imagine it could be done, though it's not really the kind of exercise that would motivate me.

I'm not sure what will finally motivate me.  I have some good ideas, but am a bit burned out on writing longer pieces, since I am writing very long technical pieces at work (when I am not writing proposals), and I am having trouble facing writing anything longer than a blog piece when I am off the clock.  Hopefully, that will turn around soon, as I would much rather be doing mathematical modeling at work and writing other, more entertaining things at home.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Vancouver, not gonna miss you

This was just such an unbelievably frustrating day.  It just encapsulated so much of what I dislike about Vancouver and am so glad to be leaving this behind.

The bus system let me down very badly coming and going this afternoon.  Vancouver has such a great rail system and such a weak, weak bus system, even for people living in the urbanized core.  There are things I have decided to pass on, just because I have to make a bus-to-bus transfer and these are generally quite dreadful here.  Toronto bus service is fairly poor out in the burbs, but the streetcar service certainly appears to be far ahead of Vancouver bus service.  Not that I won't have complaints in Toronto (I always do).

But it really is the crappy arts scene that drives me crazy here.  The quality generally is poor, though the chamber music can be ok and the symphony is on the rise (and quite possibly the Toronto symphony is on the decline).  But everything is just so amateurish.  And it's usually crammed into these hard to get to places.  I can't stand going to the Cultch or Granville Island, and I'm not even that crazy about Bard on the Beach.  Nothing is centralized and easy to get to.  With the exception of Queen Elizabeth Hall (which has some of the worst seating arrangements I've seen in a long time) and the Vancouver Playhouse (all but abandoned after its resident theatre company shut down), nothing is walking distance from a rail line.

Nobody advertises properly.  I just found out that there was a performance of Goodnight Desdemona out in New West, which I would have gone to see, but there was no notice.  I doubt very much that this Gruesome Playground Injuries is going to get sufficient press (the last I looked you don't see if from the main Pacific Theatre page, only if you go through back channels, i.e. you already know what you are looking for, which totally defeats the purpose).

But mostly I am really pissed that I was going to see this concert today which was listed as $10.  Well, it turns out it was $10 if you booked ahead but was $20 at the door.  A bit of a discount may make some sense (though actually they take a bigger cut at the door than for on-line sales), but 100% mark-up seems ridiculous, and the guy kind of gave me some attitude when it was obvious that I thought their pricing policies sucked.  So I left and went home early, quite upset.  It is clear I will never see an event in St. Andrew-Wesley Church.*  I've tried and tried, and you just kept letting me down.  Frankly, good riddance crappy Vancouver arts scene.

As an update on the move, I am probably 1/3 done with the shelves, including one book case dedicated to art books (and quite heavy ones at that).

The remaining books do look forlorn.

Here is the growing pyramid of boxes in the garage.  I'm a little scared of how big the pile will be in six weeks.

* Other things I will never do:
Go to Whistler
Go to Squamish
Ski in Vancouver & environs
Snowshoe up on Grouse
Visit Burnaby Village Museum
See the Vancouver Aquarium

Things I don't plan on doing again:
Go back to SFU
Go again to Science World 
Going back to the Museum of Vancouver
Go back to the Cultch
Go see any of the films at VIFF 
Listen to the Pacific Rim String Quartet (as they appear to have disbanded)
Skate at the ice rink at Robson Square

Things I might do one last time:
Go to UBC
Go see the VSO play at the Orpheum
Go to the Vancouver Art Gallery
Go around the SkyTrain loop (I really ought to video this on a nice day)
Go to Granville Island (for the Jazz Fest)
Do the Grouse Grind (a bit unlikely, however)
Go to the Sun Yat-Sen Gardens (ditto).

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Literary disappointments

As I've been reflecting on what I've been reading over the past 5-6 years (here and here), I see quite a few books that were terrific, but also a lot where I could see some literary merit or something of interest, but the whole thing didn't quite gel for me.  I suspect that I am getting more critical in my late middle age, as I start wondering if it really was worth the time to read this particular novel vs. another (and more pressingly instead of getting through a truly huge backlog of movies that I ought to watch), to say nothing of doing more creative writing on my own.  There isn't much point in griping about books that just missed by a bit.  Those are almost certainly books that I just read at the wrong time, and I would have enjoyed them more if I wasn't so stressed or what have you.  Still, it does make me wonder if I should be reading a bit more in the comic vein or to stick to shorter novels for the time being.  My TBR pile, even the interim one, is still overloaded with serious, challenging books.

While I don't really dwell on it, there are some books that I just find (or found) very unsatisfying.  I thought I would examine them a bit to see if there was a common thread.

Number one has to be Proust.  I just find this almost unreadable in terms of the really off-putting length and density of text that is just too much for the very slight story to bear.  The whole thing seems out of proportion to me, and I do think it must be the most over-rated novel or series of novels in literary history (with many critics of the mid 20th C. saying that it was the epitome of the novel).  Beyond this, I've decided that while it is not essential for me to "like" all the characters in a novel or even just the main ones, I can't be in a position where I detest them all, which is how I feel about the really unpleasant people running through Proust.

I am getting a bit tired of the really feckless characters in Barbara Comyns' novels, though they are usually balanced by a serious character or a kind of appalling self-involved artistic type.  Still, these novels are short, and I don't have to live with these characters for too long, so it makes looking in on their world bearable.  No question that I would never want to live near any of them in real life, however.  Now I did find the balance off in Molly Keane's Treasure Hunt where the feckless characters really seem to overwhelm (and are deliberately undermining) the two sensible characters (the younger generation) in their attempt to keep their Irish estate from being taken over by the bank essentially.  I really did dislike two of the characters (and the sullen servants weren't much better), so this was a book I struggled with.  I know this was supposed to be a frothy comedy perhaps somewhat in the vein of Arsenic and Old Lace (and actually Treasure Hunt was originally a play that ran for a year in London -- with Gielgud directing), but I just found myself getting steamed up a bit too often to actually enjoy it.

I'm not crazy about books that rely too heavily on coincidence.  Yes, life can be a bit unpredictable, but it usually doesn't end up with characters all criss-crossing and bumping into each other at exactly the right (or wrong) moment.  I really found myself disgusted with The Sea Captain's Wife after some truly incredible coincidence occurred to redirect the plot.  While it didn't quite live up to my overall expectations for other reasons, I actually felt that Dickner's Nikolski had an acceptable level of coincidence.

There's a different kind of plot that actually annoys me a bit more and that is watching a villain spin amazing webs to trap the protagonist and being so clever that they can make anything work for them and thus they actually thrive on coincidences.  This is epitomized (to me) by Othello.  I actually find Othello a quite disappointing play because in addition to Iago's almost super-human ability to turn coincidence to his benefit, it also requires his wife to stay silent when she has opportunities to clear up the various misunderstandings.  So there are several people with strong moral failings here, but also dramatically I don't care that much for this formulation (not that this has never happened in "real life").  I thought that Elizabeth Jane Howard's Falling depended too much on Henry (a con artist) being essentially a modern day incarnation of Iago.  However, he pushes a bit too hard (to try to ensnare his latest victim) and things unravel a bit more quickly than he expected.  It's hard to quite put my finger on the problem here, but it didn't quite measure up.  (However, I should note that I did not have nearly as strong negative reaction to Falling as to these other books.)

The worst is when a book is going along pretty well but then the ending completely spoils the book.  Either it is just too implausibly upbeat (some have criticized Adam Bede for this) or it comes out of the blue and has no real relation to the rest of the plot (this is how I felt about The Mill on the Floss, which I felt had a terrible ending that really did piss me off and undermined the book's strengths).  Conversely, Gadda's That Awful Mess on Via Merulana kind of limped across the finish line without actually solving the mysteries adequately. I thought That Awful Mess was another one of those novels, like Remembrance, with a completely outsized literary reputation relative to its actual merit.

Some books are just too bleak for me at a particular time in my life.  This was the case with Cormac McCarthy's The Road which I just couldn't enjoy.  Hilary Mantel's Beyond Black was fairly bleak and it also insisted within the frame of the novel that we had to accept that paranormal activity was real, so this wasn't a book that did a lot for me.  At the moment, I am finding Edward Gorey too bleak, but I'll probably feel differently later and enjoy it for its over-the-top bleakness.  Edward Gorey doesn't expect to be taken seriously, but Cormac McCarthy does, and that makes a big difference... 

Conversely, a book can be too frothy or too insubstantial for me at a particular time.  Usually, I know ahead of time to not pick up those books when I am in one of "those moods."

If you read a huge number of books (as I try to) and work through the oeuvre of specific novelists, you can find they start repeating themselves -- and this somewhat devalues all their books.  This may not be a problem for more casual readers.  Saul Bellow definitely falls into this category, as does Hanif Kureishi; both seem to be working out their personal problems on the page.  Barbara Comyns comes close, but she does recycle the situations a bit.  Barbara Pym also comes uncomfortably close to having written the same novel over and over.  The next time around, I will space her novels out more (than one a month).  I'm sure there are other examples, but I can't think of them off hand.  It really does make it even more impressive when thinking about those other authors with more than 5 or so novels who are able to shake things up and not fall into a rut.

I think the hardest thing is that I like books that are literary but if they cross that line into being "too literary," then I no longer enjoy them.  For me, Nabokov falls into this camp: I just really don't like his characters, his preoccupations or his style.  I will probably try to get through one or two more of the books "everyone" should read and then kick him to the curb.

To be fair, most of the books on these lists had something to offer me, even if it was something that I came to appreciate and/or enjoy a bit later.  And there are long stretches where there were a lot of good books with only a few minor disappointments along the way.  It is hardly a surprise that when I am working my way through "marginal" books where I expect only a few will win their way to a permanent space on the shelves that the hit ratio will be lower.  There are in fact a few novels on the list that I have been looking forward to for some time and should get to them by late summer.  (Now having unreasonably high expectations can itself be a serious problem (my expectations were certainly too high for Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Terrorist for example), but that's a topic for another day.)

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Art of Google II (Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore)

Now the tables have turned.  The novel -- Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan -- is definitely written by somebody who has drunk the Google Kool-Aid (far more than myself) and who probably did have some inside access at Google.  Google employees are represented in very positive, nearly glowing terms, although some of them do ultimately come off as obsessed -- and a very few come with that light taint of self-righteousness.  While it is not immediately apparent from the first few pages, Google and the spirit of Google is deeply entrenched in this novel; if you are a Google-hater, you will almost certainly want to pass this book by.

There will be plenty of MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD, so you have been warned.

I'd heard a bit of the buzz about this book when it suddenly appeared at the Burnaby Library in this area where they keep newish books, and I decided to check it out (a year or so ahead of when I was expecting to get to it).  It turned out to be a fun and quite compelling book. I read it in a day and a half. I think a good analogy is if the "DaVinci's Code" was tackled by a group of programmers from Google. Certainly there were considerable implausibilities (and indeed the final reveal at the end is absurd, which I'll get to in a bit), but still entertaining.

The book is set in San Francisco.  The main character, Clay, studied art history and typography. He is slowly teaching himself coding by setting up simple websites for a bagel shop where he was employed.  This store goes under (perhaps in the wake of the crash of 2008), so he is starting to feel the pinch.  He wanders into this incredible book store -- Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour bookstore -- which is filled with towering shelves of books with very odd titles (that turn out to be in incomprehensible code).  He impresses Mr. Penumbra and gets the job as the night clerk at the bookstore.  I'll turn to the issue of the code later after the second spoiler warning.

One of the more interesting yet somewhat overplayed ideas was that Clay, while a bright guy, is basically useful because he has all these connections to people with really specialized skills and he knows how to deploy them in the right situations.  His best friend (from middle school), Neel, is a wealthy web-entrepreneur with some programming skills though he employs a number of 1st rate programmers, who come in handy later.  His special-effects guru room-mate (employed at ILM no less) basically builds him a replica of one of the store logbooks so he can take the original off to be scanned by Google.

And why does Clay have an in with Google?  He placed the perfect ad on social media (or perhaps Google itself), which brings in Kat, a young woman who actually works for Google and is very intelligent but really intense.  She spends a lot of her time thinking of ways to freeze her brain to achieve immortality.  (Given that I wondered in high school if one's memory (and perhaps personality) could be stored on computer, I can relate.  It's a fairly common trope in science fiction.)

Well, it turns out that there is a reason behind this madness, and Mr. Penumbra is secretly urging Clay on, while all the time officially telling him he needs to keep his nose out of this.  A fairly substantial number of quest stories have this figure who feel the best way to motivate the hero is by discouraging them.  The ones who persist are heroes.

While ultimately, Clay's cleverness seems too good to be true, I've actually experienced a bit of the power of connectedness myself.  In my field, I stay in touch with a large number of professors and consultants.  There have been two times in the past month where I was asked about filling a specific task/role on a project (or rather a bid on a project), and I was able to rope in a distinguished professor with the right qualifications.  So there are people whose primary role is to be a connector/facilitator, which is basically how Clay is portrayed.

Ok, at this point, the review goes into


(Seriously, if you haven't read the book and don't want the ending revealed,

It turns out that there are many levels of secrets in this book.  The first layer is that when one works through all the books on the shelves in the correct order then they form a connect-the-dots picture of the Founder.  (While it didn't quite bother me at the time, they do on rare occasions add new books to the library, so I don't know if they just fill in the outline around the edges or what.)

There is a certain implausibility to this, since you would need many, many points to make a legible image.  Given the description in the book of an old man with glasses, it might look something like this:
This is a 1000 dot connect the dot picture by Thomas Pavitte (visit his site here).  I think you would need at least 300 dots to get the complexity described in the book and probably more like 600 or 700.  While the very best code-breakers could probably go through a book a week, most seem to take a month or more.  We are looking at 10 year investment at a minimum to progress to the next level.  It is also totally unclear how they stick in the clue to go to the next book (for those people that are still writing the new ones), since it would seem to be a non-organic part of the book.  (The books themselves are basically autobiographies of the people that make it to the next level.)  But the clue to move on to the next book would not be an organic part of the book.  Given that these folks are master code-breakers, it definitely seems they would figure out how to jump to the end.  A totally different thought occurs to me and that is that a huge number of books have to be left unread or there won't be any "white space" to make the picture work.  Maybe any book written in the last 400 years is just shelved in the white spaces, and thus no one is encouraged (or perhaps even allowed) to read the work, except the higher orders.  Kind of a depressing thought.  Frankly, I'm not sure Robin Sloan really worked through all the implications here.

Ok, so it turns out that with the help of Google, Clay is able to make the image appear in a matter of minutes by tracing the sequence of books checked out by the others (building off of their labor basically -- how typically Google).

While Mr. Penumbra is momentarily discouraged, he eventually decides that computer power has increased to the point it can be used to crack the Founder's book, which is encoded so well, that no one has broken it in 500 or so years.  We also learn that in the higher orders of this cult Mr. Penumbra is a bit of a maverick.  Even though the cult's funding comes from licensing fonts to corporations (hard to believe this would generate the millions required to keep these bookstores going, but a minor point not worth quibbling over), they are generally anti-technology.  And why is this effort worth it for all these acolytes and masters?  The Founder apparently achieved immortality and vanished in a poof of smoke among the books he had printed (or something like that).

So the plot really kicks into high gear.  Mr. Penumbra gets them into the cult headquarters (semi-legitimately).  Then Clay breaks back in and photographs the secret tome (and Mr. Penumbra's autobiography for good measure).  They take this to Google, which throws the entire Google cloud at it for a minute or so.  And they fail to break the code.

Now, this is where I think the book goes off the rails.  Sloan is just trying to be so super-clever, showing how one insightful guy (armed with the knowledge of typeface design) can succeed where all the computing power in the world fails.  He's John Friggin' Henry of the computer era.  And it's absurd.

While everyone else is off licking their wounds from this misadventure (and not surprisingly this set-back causes Kat to break up with Clay), Clay manages to find the missing metal parts (punches) that were used to generate the font that underlies this whole venture.  And it turns out that there is a clever substitution code embedded in the characters themselves (if you blow them up by a factor of 10 or so).  But Sloan spoils it by saying that you can even see this if you blow up the computer font!  Seriously?  If that were true, then the substitution doesn't vary by letter.  And this would be a trivial substitution code exercise that the cult would have broken within a year.  Or even if he meant that you could just see the notch in the font (but that they only chose one of a half-dozen different variants with the notch in different places), there were simply not enough pixels for this to be done.

But let's ignore that part.  There are basically a few possibilities.  The Founder either passed on a set of punches (which would mean that each letter only had one notch -- so a simple substitution) or an entire case of type (where the notches moved around a bit on the different letters), though that doesn't sound like what Clay picked up from the storage center. It's very hard to believe that whatever he left was maintained in working order for 500 years, and it basically means that all the secret tomes were misprinted, since they surely weren't set exactly as the Founder set them.  If anyone was let on to the importance of making sure all the imperfections of the font was maintained and that new editions of the secret tome had to be printed absolutely identically to the first one, then the jig would be up.  So somebody would have actually known what was going on.  I think there are just too many implausibilities to take this solution very seriously.  And I still think there would have been enough recurring patterns, even if it was sort of a semi-random substitution code, that Google's computing power would have been able to eventually crack this.

Ultimately, I thought the solution to the riddle too clever by half, but it still was a very entertaining book.  I loved the bit where Clay and Neel say it was all worth it just to enter a secret room under Manhattan.  It is basically a lot of nerd wish-fulfillment (or nerd-service) where the smart kids are cool and the smartest of them all turns out to be smarter than anyone at Google and maybe the whole Internet itself!*  I wouldn't at all be surprised to see it turned into a movie someday.  Now whether I would go is a different story.

* And what is this review other than a long-winded way of saying I am have caught Robin Sloan out (and must be a bit smarter).  Well, he's the smart one for doing something more tangibly creative.  Oh, Internet, what have you turned me into?

To bring this back around to Google one last time, it is definitely worth checking out Randall Monroe's efforts to determine how many punchcards it would take to store all of Google's data (see the original page and the subsequent TED talk).

Friday, May 16, 2014

The Art of Google

Or perhaps this post really should be titled Art about Google?  While my Google-Fu is pretty good, I don't practice at a high enough level to consider it art.

Anyway, while Google there is plenty of art on Google (Google is intimately involved in digitizing as many books and as much artwork as it can and posting what it can legally and most probably stashing away what can't be published (yet) due to unduly long copyright regimes), there is not so much art about Google.

I have a throw-away line in one of my plays about a character being amazed her mom knows about Google.  (And I have to check my timelines to see if that is remotely plausible or just should be struck out.  The latter most likely.)

Beyond that I can think of one fairly recent documentary and one novel that really revolves around Google.  I'm not saying other don't exist, but they haven't really come to my attention.  Feel free to point out what I've missed in the comments.

I'll start with the documentary, which I have to admit I only know about through reviews.  There was a chance to see a free screening in Vancouver, but I just couldn't make it.  I suspect it will be the kind of thing that pops up occasionally for random screenings (or could be found through Google-Fu).

Anyway, it is called Google and the World Brain - a documentary by Ben Lewis.  It takes a very dim view of the notion that Google is just going to vacuum everything up, riding roughshod over intellectual property rights, but most egregiously monetizing it later.  In general, I have little patience with the later part of the argument, in that the advertising that Google sneaks in here and there seems a very small price to pay for the sheer awesomeness of having search engines that actually work.  I remember when the equivalent was very weak in the early days of the web, and you basically had to know the address you were looking for ahead of time.  Those were dark days. (What can I say, I'm a dinosaur.)

I realize not everyone is so sanguine, but really no one is forcing you to use Google.  Everyone draws the line somewhere, and for me, I don't mind using Google for searches, even if they make money off me (though it couldn't be much given how I ignore all on-line advertizing), but I really didn't like the idea that Google was going to go through my Gmail account, so I don't use it at all (probably haven't checked it in 2 or 3 years), just as I have completely avoided Facebook and Twitter.

I also know that in the real world, not in the ideal world of some digital activists, most corporate copyright holders have been absolutely terrible stewards of the art and literature to which they hold the rights.  Artists aren't going to be paid anything either way, and having Google make it more accessible (or at least better publicized if it can't be published in full) seems a slightly more positive outcome.  I really thought that the opt-out clause was a reasonable way to get around the truly depressing issue of orphan works where no copyright owner can be traced.  This isn't a small issue in some fields of art (particularly when looking into minor poets with only occasional publications in literary journals).  But the one-size-fits-all copyright extensions pushed by Disney (and rejections of reasonable compromise on opt-out) has made it quite untenable to do anything about it.

Anyway, Lewis basically pisses on the claims occasionally made, implicitly at least, by Google that as long as one's intentions are good (see freeing up orphan works of art), then nothing is off limits.  I admit this is a tendency/problem among smart people who only look at the problem in terms of promoting access (with small ancillary benefits coming to them) and don't put themselves in the shoes of copyright holders.  There is an element of group-think going on, as well as just a feeling that the world should be this way (and not bound up by unreasonable rules that are clearly at variance with the spirit of the Founding Fathers).  I feel this way all the time -- that the world I want to see is slipping further and further out of reach.  I think it is completely unobtainable in the U.S. at this point, and probably out of reach in Canada, though it would be easier to put Canada back on track, simply because the way the rules of the (political) game are structured.  While this is a total tangent, if I ever do write more about Travelling Light (the play about the particle physicists) there is a tangible sense among a lot of scientists that because what they do is in the name of Science (or Truth) they shouldn't be held back by petty concerns like what is the cost/benefit ratio of an experiment.  Or in a totally different vein, engineers always bemoaning how politics has taken over the decision-making process.  (It is hard to believe but most public authorities were put in place specifically because reformers of the day felt it was the best way to allow engineers to rise above short-term political calculations.)

I've kind of exhausted this concept, but I will admit I am completely in love with Google's idea of scanning all the books in the world to be kept in print indefinitely. I'd like it even more if they set up their own country and eliminated copyright past 25 years and just let people check out any book they wanted.  (A slightly more principled version of Pirate Bay, I guess.)  Maybe they'll do something of this sort after they decide to pull out of the E.U. after one too many absurd rulings like the one last week where a Spanish man's right to be ignored on the internet means Google has to remove links to the public record.  I don't care what Eric Posner says, this is a stupid ruling that undermines the very nature of the internet and free exchange of ideas.  I've had my doubts about the E.U.'s creation out of whole cloth a bunch of weird (and largely unenforceable and probably meaningless) "rights," and this is where I just turn my back on the whole E.U. experiment.  I think they've really gotten things wrong and have no idea of the unintended consequences of these rules they are promulgating.  (Well, I have worked myself up and have not even gotten to the novel.  It's time for a break.  Part two will probably follow tomorrow.)

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

7th Canadian Challenge - 14th review - The Fat Woman Next Door

As anyone with the slightest familiarity with Michel Tremblay knows, this book is essentially a love letter to his extended family.  It is actually the first of six novels in the Chroniques du Plateau Mont-Royal series.  I am not sure, but wouldn't be surprised if the hints of magic realism survive in the other novels, based on how he remains a bit of an experimentalist in his work for the stage.  Just for completeness, here is the list:
  • La grosse femme d'à côté est enceinte (1978) (The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant)
  • Thérèse et Pierrette à l'école des Saints-Anges (1980) (Therese and Pierrette and the Little Hanging Angel)
  • La Duchesse et le roturier (1982) (The Duchess and the Commoner)
  • Des nouvelles d'Édouard (1984) (News from Édouard)
  • Le Premier Quartier de la lune (1989) (The First Quarter of the Moon)
  • Un objet de beauté (1997) (A Thing of Beauty)
I found an inexpensive edition of the complete chronicles in French, and I'll attempt that one of these days.  I've heard that the translation (which is what I am reviewing) is a good one, but does miss out on a lot of the Quebecois slang. (Of course, I won't be able to pick up much of that in any case.)

One of the greater mysteries is how did the Fat Woman (essentially Michel's mother) end up in Montreal in the first place.  There are a few hints in this book, and more in the play For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again, that she is from the Prairies and at least part First Nations (Cree, if I am not mistaken).  It's not even entirely clear to me that French is her first language (although it is true that there were more pockets of Francophone culture outside of Quebec earlier in the 20th Century, with most of them having disappeared by the early 2000s).

A much later series explores her back story.  These novels are:
  • La Traversée du continent (2007) (The Crossing Continent)
  • La Traversée de la ville (2008) (The Crossing of the City)
  • La Traversée des sentiments (2009) (The Crossing Feelings)
I don't believe all of these have been translated yet, but by the time I get through the first six novels, they probably will have been.  Obviously, I can't speak to their style or contents, but it all adds up to a fairly impressive re-imagined family chronicle.

What I will say is that this is probably a family that one loves from the inside, apparently quite passionately in Michel's case.  From my outside vantage point, they seem like people I would steer clear of.  They are loud, argumentative, nosy neighbours, very stereotypically working-class in fact.  The menfolk are a bit more appealing, though Gabriel is portrayed as a bit of a coward and Edouard is a bit of an overweight, homosexual dandy.  I've forgotten exactly what Edouard does, but for some reason, I'm imagining him as working in a department store, selling shoes to women (a forerunner of Al Bundy?).  I'll have to come back around and fix this if it is grossly incorrect.  There is one other fact that I cannot clearly get correct -- the relationship of the fiddler Josaphat to the Tremblay family.  While I believe he is the brother of Victoire, he has some connection to the Fat Woman as well.  He has a daughter, Laura, who is quite a bit younger than the Fat Woman or Albertine.  Laura is also pregnant, as are many women on the street.

This is the family tree of the core characters, as best as I can reconstruct it.  As far as I can tell, the Fat Woman is never given a name, at least in this book.  I also might have the birth order of Gabriel and Albertine reversed.  Albertine does occasionally act like an old sister would, but is often ignored, which tends to support the idea that she is the middle child.  Edouard is definitely the youngest of the three.

There are many other characters swarming inside this book.  There are two prostitutes, plying their trade just down the street.  While Albertine refuses to engage with them, particularly in a curious set piece where Gabriel invites them to dinner, the Fat Woman and Victoire bend conventions a bit and are reasonably sociable.

There is another woman who runs a candy shop and has a mangy cat, Duplessis (apparently named after a Quebec premiere).  The cat hardly gives her the time of day and is actually infatuated with the toddler Marcel (actually appreciating the fact he is often pee-stained).  I would say the sections from the viewpoint of the cat are the least interesting to me.

While she lives in a different part of town, there is an ex-whore who used to be a big player in Ottawa, sleeping with half the Cabinet.  She occasionally relives her glory days in front of her niece, who is a good soul but fairly straight-laced.  This fancy woman actually lost a leg to diabetes, but cannot conquer her love of chocolate.

There are several other bit parts, including a wild streetcar driver, and a young man filling in as a park attendant, who has a disturbing interaction with Thérèse, who goes up and kisses him on the mouth.  He becomes infatuated with this little girl (of about 13) and there are strong hints that he has been converted to a pedophile on the spot.  I wasn't too crazy about that section of the book, and I do wonder if he resurfaces in the later novels.

As far as the magic realism goes, the novel opens with a different woman and her three daughters, all endlessly spying on neighbours and knitting.  By their second appearance, it has become evident that they are some version of the Fates.  Only a very few people can see them, including Josaphat, Marcel, the cat and occasionally Victoire.  Josaphat also has been tasked with fiddling up the moon, and he apparently expects to pass this duty on to Marcel, who has this connection of being able to see the unreal.  Personally, I am not really sure what this adds to what is already an overstuffed narrative of working-class Montreal.  It will be interesting to see if the later novels are more fully realistic.  While Tremblay may have been aware of the magic realism coming from South America, it is more likely he is working in the realm of Greek and First Nations myths.

While the unborn baby will clearly some day be the inquisitive and sensitive artist Michel Tremblay, this is not really a case where the baby is soaking in these influences and is certainly not aware of the events on this day (so this is not quite comparable to Carlos Fuentes' Christopher Unborn).  However, the unborn baby does have an outsized impact on the family.  The Fat Woman discusses a few times how greedy it was that she wanted one more baby (and even a bit unsafe at her age in those days), and her husband went along, in part because he is a weak-willed man in love with her and at least in part because he didn't want to be called up for the WWII effort.  So he does internalize a bit of the contempt that outsiders heaped upon him.  He also promises to move to a bigger apartment but knows he will never do so, as he loves being part of a big family.

The Fat Woman can barely move, and essentially sits in a chair in her bedroom all day.  Albertine, never the most patient woman in the best of times, is forced to serve her food and even bathe her.  Albertine's frustrations at being in a cramped space and having to deal with her mother's odd requests often erupt.  She is often fairly cruel to Marcel, who is a demanding but basically good and loving child. It is hinted that she is actually glad her husband, Paul, is off in the war, and she has taken over his place at one end of the family dinner table.

Tremblay also goes into the travails of the other family members, such as the separate frustrations and longings of Richard and Thérèse (not for each other fortunately), and of their grandmother and Uncle Edouard.  This is quite an accomplishment, given all the characters in the novel.  One of the more amusing sections is when Victoire gets it into her head to go to the park, mostly as a way of punishing Edouard (who has to accompany her despite having a raging hangover).  She hasn't left the house in close to 3 years, so this is quite the outing (definitely shades of Grandmother Willoweed in Barbara Comyns' Who was Changed and Who was Dead, though I suspect this is too obscure to have inspired Tremblay).

Given that all the action takes place over a day (with occasional flashbacks) there are clear links to Joyce's Ulysses and secondarily to Dubliners.  This does seem to be Tremblay's attempt to do for Montreal what Joyce did for Dublin.  I'd say there are also clear ties to Proust, not only in the name-checking of Albertine, but that Edouard is a bit of a call-back to the somewhat grotesque figure of Palamede, Baron de Charlus.  (I will be curious to see how he is treated in later books, particularly if there is ever a scene where Michel comes out of the closet to Edouard.  It's hinted that the Fat Woman ultimately knew her youngest son was gay but this was never spoken of, at least in part because she died when he was relatively young.)  There is vastly more plot in Tremblay's work to be sure, and it is much more entertaining to read, even if I wouldn't want to live next door to this family in real life.  I think that's all I have time for now.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

7th Canadian Challenge - 13th review - Salvage

This is actually more like a review and a half.  Michael Crummey published a limited edition monograph called Emergency Roadside Assistance.  All or essentially all of the poems ended up in Salvage, in some cases slightly reworked and tightened up.  While one could certainly lead a mini-workshop in showing how these poems changed, I don't think that would be particularly interesting, especially given how few people will be able to get a hold of a copy of ERA.  What is perhaps somewhat interesting is that the poems that I liked the most from Salvage were often originally in ERA.  It may well be that Crummey is moving in a direction that I don't find that appealing.  I was quite surprised to learn that I only enjoyed a single poem out of his most recent collection, Under the Keel, and thus I won't be reviewing it here.

The single best thing about ERA is how it is printed to look like the instructions that are left in the glove box for when the car breaks down.  It is even packed in a plastic sleeve.  Very cute.

The title poem is quite good, though it is more than a little ironic, given that the motorist is not able to just wait in the car, waiting for assistance to arrive.  I'm not sure if there is supposed to be a bit of pride (or a jibe) in that Canadians ultimately have to be more self-reliant than Americans (the self-professed kings of self-reliance) or just annoyance about having to face "That bitter walk in the cold / ahead of me..."

However, this isn't because there is no one to call, but rather there is "No telling how far / I'll have to go to find / a phone tonight and I sit there / frosting the windshield as / the last of the light goes under, / thinking about that."

Given the poem was probably written in the mid 90s, it hard to tell if the poet just doesn't have a cell phone, or if the coverage doesn't reach to "the back roads / to Ottawa."  The infrastructure and networks in the U.S. are just more robust and ubiquitous, and the poet probably wouldn't mind being in the U.S., facing similar circumstances.  The poem ends with the poet still in the car, slightly dreading the long walk in the cold.  I can certainly remember a long, long walk in the cold when the car my mom was driving died on us.  I'm not quite sure why it was so hard for her to get help, but it was.  That probably wouldn't happen today.  It is interesting (to me) how some poems and an awful lot of novels/movies just don't make any sense anymore given the vast changes in technology.  You basically have to insert an elaborate set-up for why the hero's cell phone has died or why they don't have On-Star or some similar service. 

"Returning" also features winter, though it doesn't seem quite so dreadful, viewed from inside a house (with a working furnace):
First storm of a late winter, heavy
snow, a wind driven by the weight
of human anticipation,
our resignation to the season's

Turning to Salvage, winter reappears in "Simmer," which also has a bit of a meditation on passing time and change.  The poem begins by casting back in time to the poet's grandmother and love of dusk, and her favourite saying "A watched pot never boils."  It abruptly shifts to the present: "After the funeral we followed the hearse / in through the country to Twillingate, / crossing the causeways that replaced / ferries in the 70s, islands / strung on an asphalt necklace."

"Darkness Turns" apparently returns a year later, so is also December, this time with more snow: "Relentless winter: the driveway muscled clean / each morning is buried again at night..."  The ending is a bit mysterious: "No one remembers why darkness turns / the green poinsettia red.  It just does."  While there is definitely some lingering sorrow over the grandmother's absence, the holidays are around the corner, and the sense that life does go on.

I liked "Dostoevsky" which features a train ride through part of the Gobi desert.  He actually has written a number of poems about train rides in China in his previous collections, and they are often quite good.  In fact, this may be my favourite poem of the collection that wasn't also in Emergency Roadside Assistance, so I will wrap up with a short discussion of it. The poet has brought a copy of The Brothers Karamazov to help pass the time on the train.  A fellow passenger (an old man) "leans in to lift the novel / from his hands, inspecting the cover / ... Returns the book with a shrug, / disappointed somehow..."

He considers the old man to be "inscrutable as a Russian winter."  I'm not sure why this is any more or less "readable" than any other winter, but probably it is a bit of a riff on Churchill claiming the Soviet Union was "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma."  No question that this poem is focused on the limits of communication (and plays up mystery in the landscape as well as amongst the passengers), whereas David O'Meara's "Night Train" approaches the same subject but with more confidence that connections across cultures can be made.

Here is the final stanza of "Dostoevsky":
The train sways on the rails like a voice
holding and holding a single note,
the desert leans in the window
muttering its stark indecipherable language.

Packing the books away

Well, the day has arrived to start packing up the books.  This is always a bit traumatic.  Even though rationally I know I can't read (much) more than I already do, I hate the idea that the vast majority of my books will be crated up and inaccessible for a few months.  (I did pull together one book of the most critical books on the TBR pile to see if I can get through any of those, and more critically, leave them behind in Vancouver.)  Some books just scream out, you should read me, you were intrigued by me once, what happened? 

At the same time, it is interesting as I go through some of the boxes and find books that had been misplaced and some presumed lost.*  One of the more interesting discoveries was an entire box of books that I have been trying to sell either on-line or at local used book stores.  While I think it is marginally easier to sell used books in Toronto (though still much harder than it would have been even 10 years ago), I think in the end, I'll have to donate them to the library.  I have no intention of carting around books with no meaningful resale value.  I will admit to being a bit flummoxed by David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas.  I'm not that likely to read it again, but I thought it was an interesting book, and it's not impossible that I will tackle it again now that I have seen the movie.  What makes it even more ridiculous, is that I may have two copies, but I won't know for certain until I unpack later in the summer.

While I wouldn't say that I have really made that many hard decisions (and am hanging onto far too many books), I am getting rid of the Molly Keane book discussed here, as well as Bissondath's Innocence of Age, which started well, but ended up being a disappointment to me (it turns out this was my very first Canadian challenge review).  Despite really loving the cover, I'm going to have to part with it.

For some of the marginal books, I am checking the holdings of the Toronto Public Library.  I find it so odd that many novels are reference holdings there.  It really seems to defeat the purpose.  That is one main reason I ended up reading so much Keane and Comyns here, since I couldn't check them out in Toronto. Of course, the reality is that a book that is just on a virtual library holding shelf is a book that I probably won't get to in this lifetime.  But that's the case for a lot of the books that don't make it out of the boxes.

I had really thought that I could live with four main bookshelves (two for fiction and two for urban studies/sociology/transportation), but it just isn't enough.  It's too hard to leave so many classics stashed away where I really can't find them.  So like a man finally admitting he needs to buy a bigger pair of pants, I will get another bookcase (or two) once we are settled in Toronto.  At least, this should be the last major move, and there is a tiny chance this will be the last move of all.

I've been blocked on packing (not so much mentally but because the landlord had left a lot of junk on our garage space).  Now that that has been cleared away, I threw down a tarp and started packing in earnest.  We got through 20 boxes on Sat.  I am kind of tied up today with work and a concert today, but I think the vast majority of books will be packed by next weekend. It will be another week to pack up the CDs and DVDs (setting aside at least a few more to sell off), but then I'll be largely done with the office.

Well, except that the files are a bit of a different story.  Vast quantities have been scanned, but I am really unwilling to recycle this paper until I have verified that the scanned version is acceptable, so that will take a bit longer.  Still, I have disposed of roughly 50% of the files I brought to Vancouver, which I consider a major accomplishment.  The hardest will be going through all the detritus that accumulates at the bottom of desk drawers and probably should just be pitched out.  I'll try to be stronger about parting with it in this move.

Minor update -- work indeed prevented me from getting a lot of boxing done on Sunday, though we did pack up about half of the children's books.  While I exercised a lot of executive decision-making, hanging onto books that I felt needed to be kept, it was interesting to see which books my daughter did and didn't want.  She definitely is skewing towards easier books, though she can read proto-chapter books, whereas my son has definitely launched himself well into YA territory, only really interested in books with a quest of some sort.

* There is one CD box set that has not turned up since I moved to Vancouver, and I really hope it turns up as I start going through a few of these random boxes that haven't been fully unpacked from the last move...

Edit (5/16/2015 -- incredibly, this box set by David Oistrakh is one where two different internet sellers simply failed to come through, and I had forgotten that until going through old emails, so it wasn't missing at all.  I finally bought the set (successfully) last November, though I haven't listened to the whole thing yet.  I never thought this day would come, but I basically am shaking free of the need to horde music (and DVDs) that I never listen to (or watch).  I haven't cut the purchases to zero (yet), but I am going 3 or 4 weeks without shopping at Amazon, which is a major improvement from before.

As it turns out we are making one more move, but only 3 blocks away, so it doesn't feel quite so overwhelming as these cross-country moves, but I still find myself packing things up that I know I won't look at or use anytime soon, and I tell myself I ought to do the sorting now, but I know I won't.  I'm kind of astounded that I packed up 20 boxes in one day in Vancouver, but maybe I had the kids helping out.  That's not a bad idea for today...

Friday, May 9, 2014

Interesting overheard conversation/transaction #2

I was in a bus shelter last night, trying to stay out of a mini-deluge, after hearing a staged reading of Jordan Hall's Travelling Light. (I may have more to say on this later.  I found it interesting, though it mostly dealt with physics on a Popular Science level and the main characters' motivations were a bit unbelievable.  It also seems impossible to stage.  I didn't think the jumping around in time really helped matters, and it sort of seems like a blatant rip-off of Dr. Manhattan in The Watchmen to have a character skip around in time simultaneously.  I did like the riff on the joke "A particle physicist walks into a reactor," however.  I thought the treatment of time in Penny Penniston's Now Then Again was actually more in line with scientific theory.) 

In any event, there was a young woman in the shelter talking excitedly on the phone about some place she had scored.  She said something like "It's got a stove, so all we have to do is find someplace to shower."  And I thought, 'Ah, the romance of loft living or even near-squatting. I sure don't miss those days.'  After some further discussions with the friend, including chiding her for not going in for a job interview that the woman had set up, it became clear that she and some friends had actually purchased a camper of some type.  She started talking about interior design possibilities and asked the friend to bring her some cloth swatches.  The discussion switched to whether they needed to retrofit it with seat belts in the back and thus whether it was street legal in Washington and Oregon.  She was quite excited about this adventure, almost like the Edward Abbey's Monkey Wrench Gang but without the environmental angle (she didn't make this connection), and was particularly psyched that they already had "growlers" to drink out of.  So they were pretty much set for the road...

A sketchy character joined us in the shelter.  I tuned him out and kept waiting for the bus.  It was a fairly long wait.  A black man came in out of the rain, and within a minute the two of them commenced a drug deal of some sort (I think it was just marijuana but had no interest in getting too involved).  There are quite a number of things I don't like about Vancouver, and the willingness to let the Downtown East Side sink into a total cesspit in order to maintain the mayor's liberal cred is in the top 5.  As it happens, I can't wait for the day they go ahead and legalize weed, just so the ridiculousness around it can cease (and not because I have any intention of partaking).  It's de facto legal in Vancouver, but there is still all this legal limbo around it.  Even if the U.S. drags its feet for another 20 years, Canada can and should legalize it in 2015 (assuming the Liberals finally kick Harper out of office).  However, even if it were legal, have a little respect for others and don't deal under our noses.  (I will admit I was glad that the deal took a little while -- the Black guy actually had to roll up a joint -- and they ended up not getting on my bus after it finally arrived.)

Anyway, I just find it so f'ing depressing when people live up to or down to their stereotypes.  I still recall taking a Metra train out to the North Shore suburbs.  There were two young Mexicans on the train (indeed the only Latinos that I saw).  They began chatting and one admitted he had been exiled to the suburbs to keep him out of trouble.  While it took them a bit longer, dancing around the subject, they too were doing a drug deal within a matter of minutes, without any concern of being overheard and certainly not being arrested.  How refreshing it would have been if one of these people had said: "Why do you think I deal drugs?  Just because I'm Black/Mexican?"  But no, the signifier was quite accurate in both cases.  Sigh.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Corporate Haiku

Well, this title is a bit of a tease.  I have been working for about a week solid on a proposal, and someone suggested we needed some very short pieces in call-out boxes for the non-technical people (who are going to ignore everything else in the proposal).  So I churned these three out, and noticed that they did look like corporate poetry, though none of them are remotely haiku.  (Maybe next time.)  Enjoy!

Firm A/Firm B:
cutting-edge experience
in advanced model development
combined with local understanding.

This project is centered
around the client's needs
for a forecasting tool
to inform critical decisions
on infrastructure,
pricing and tolling,
transit congestion,
highway congestion,
supporting Green modes,
reducing greenhouse gases,
and improving freight movement
throughout the region.
The proposed enhancements
to the model support
better forecasts and
a deeper understanding
of these issues.

Enhancements to the model
extend the work and school
journey concept to full-tour
modelling with consideration
of impact of stops in the combined
mode choice/time-of-day model.
With the addition of destination choice
for all tour/trip purposes, as well as
a stop location model
for inbound and outbound legs,
the model is well-positioned to
move to an activity-based model
in the next phase of enhancements.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Am I Blue?

This has to be quite a short post.  I've just gotten back from a trip to Baltimore and Washington D.C.  The Baltimore portion of the trip went really well, though I was disappointed to find there are apparently no Chase banks in that part of the world.  I did find one ATM that didn't have out-of-network fees.  It was particularly good that I managed to have much of the day to myself on Sunday, walking around taking photos and then going to both the Walters Art Museum (for the first time) and the Baltimore Museum of Art (for the second time).  Monday it started to rain and it just got worse and worse on Tuesday.  I wasn't going, but some folks I was with had wanted to go to Camden Yards to see the Orioles Tuesday evening, but the game was called off.

But that was nothing compared to the rain in D.C. on Wed.  It just would not stop.  I got soaked, then would get into another museum to dry off, then go out again and get soaked again.  Apparently, Wed. did set some single day records for rain.  On top of everything else, the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art (where all the modern art is displayed) was closed for renovation.  That was a big blow.  And half of the Hirshhorn was closed, so that was another blow.  I'm not entirely sure I would have made the trip had I known about these closings as well as the torrential rains.  I probably would have been better off just flying home on Wed.  Of course, given my luck my flight would have been cancelled.

Of the few modern art works on display at the NGA was this Rothko.

Rothko -- No. 14
It kind of summed up my feelings at the time, various shades of blue.

However, I did have time to check out the Sackler/Freer Galleries.  While I sadly was a few days too early to catch the Whistler and the Thames exhibit, I did see a very nice exhibit on a Japanese artist Kobayashi Kiyochika, who was known for woodblock prints of twilight and night scenes. This was quite a nice exhibit.  Appropriately enough, a few featured rainy evenings.  More information here.

Kiyochika -- Rainy Night at Yanagiwara
Kiyochika -- Kudanzaka at Night in Early Summer

I wasn't quite done (nor was the rain), and I went to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which is open later.  It was worth the visit, though I was disturbed by an unusually large and noisy group of school children with too few chaperones.  The rain was finally slowing as I got to the hotel, and Thurs. was actually quite a nice day, but I had to head to the airport.  I'll try to write a bit more about this eventful last week over the weekend.