Explaining Cricket to Americans

I recently got to visit Perth, Australia. While I’ve been to Australia before, this was my first time in Western Australia, and it turns out that Perth has a brand new cricket stadium. I wasn’t able to get tickets, but my host Chris was kind enough to spend the afternoon with me in a bar watching a match between England and Australia. I thought, as a public service, I would share what I learned about the game of cricket. Where possible I’ll make comparisons to baseball.

[Note: I plan to use the masculine pronoun in this story because I saw a men’s match, but it is in no way meant to imply women can’t play the sport].

First, watching cricket seems to involve a lot of beer. I think that can be said for most Australian activities, but cricket in particular. I spent part of the afternoon working my way through all of the draft beers with the word “cricket” in them.

List of Draft Beers

Cricket is played on an oval field. In the middle of this field is a rectangle of dirt known as the “pitch”. Most of the action occurs here. Think of it as if the baseline in baseball only extended from the pitcher’s mound to home plate.

On each end of the pitch are three upright pieces of wood called the “stickies”. Placed on them are two blocks called the “toppers”. They used to be made of wood but now they have sensors in them that light up if disturbed.

At this point I need to mention that I was watching one day cricket. In the beginning of the sport they envisioned it to be “the eternal game” so it never ended. New players were actually conceived during breaks in the action and raised to continue the tradition. Over time they decided to shorten the game to five days, known as “test” cricket, as a test of the patience of the spectators.

In 1979 a media mogul named Kerry Packer popularized “one day cricket”. Instead of lasting five days, it was designed to be played in one. To make a comparison to baseball, this is a game with one inning with ten outs per team, with the added restriction of a maximum of 300 pitches.

But getting back to the basics. So, we have the pitch, the stickies and the toppers. It is the job of the fielding team to try and knock the toppers off the stickies. The other team attempts to prevent this from happening by the use of paddles. The “paddlers” stand in front of the stickies on each end. From one end of the pitch a “flinger” runs up and then flings a ball toward one of the paddlers. I say “flings” because it isn’t a throw, per se, as the flinger’s arm must stay straight (unlike a pitch in American baseball).

The ball bounces in front of the paddler and toward the stickies, and the paddler tries to hit it. At this point three things can happen: he can hit the ball with the paddle, he can hit the ball with his body, or he can miss.

Cricket Diagram

If he hits the ball, he has the option to run, which means heading toward the other side of the pitch while the other paddler changes sides. They can do this as many times as they want, and each exchange scores a “run”. A run is scored when the paddler or part of the paddle crosses a white line in front of the stickies. Depending on where the paddlers end up, they may paddle again or it may switch to the other one (the flinger only throws in one direction).

If, however, the fielding team can catch the ball in the air, the paddler is out. Also, if they can throw the ball and knock off the toppers before the paddler crosses the white line, he is also out. It is rare that the ball is hit and more than one or two runs are scored.

Around the edge of the field is a marked area, probably about three meters from the wall. If the paddler hits the ball and it lands in this area, or hits the wall, or goes over the wall into the stands, that scores six runs and is known as a “six”. If the ball managed to hit the ground outside of this area but rolls into it, that scores four runs and is known as, you guessed it, a “four”.

Now the player can also hit the ball with his body. This is not good. Unlike baseball, the ball bounces at least once in front of the player, so there is no “hit by pitch” rule. The paddlers wear leg protection and helmets, but I saw one player get hit in the chest with the ball and it didn’t look fun (the balls go around 100kph/62mph). Outside of the addition considerable pain, it doesn’t affect the game much unless he hits it with his leg. If it is determined that the ball would have struck the stickies had he not blocked it, the paddler is out.

The final option is that the paddler misses the ball. If it hits the stickies hard enough to drop the toppers, he’s out. Behind the set of stickies near the active paddler is the “stickler”, kind of like the catcher in baseball. If the stickler can grab the ball and hit the toppers off while the paddler is over the line, he’s out. In order to get a better strike on the ball, many paddlers will step towards the fling, but this adds the risk of getting out if they miss.

If the ball just goes out into the field, usually nothing happens. Depending on how far out, the paddlers may choose to run. The signal to run is usually done by the paddler not actively paddling as they can keep an eye on what is going on in the rest of the field.

And those are the basics. There are eleven players on each team, and since you have to have two paddlers the inning ends when ten are out. Then the fielding and paddling teams switch and the process starts all over. The flingers change after every six flings, called an “over” (as in “thank God that’s over”), and in one day cricket there are usually 50 overs for each team. In the match I saw neither team lasted all 300 possible flings as the paddlers were out before that point.

Then you just add up the runs and the team with the most runs wins.

I am not really covering all of the strategy and subtleties of the game. One thing became clear is that most teams start with their best paddlers. In the match I watched, England paddled first and when Australia took over it looked like they were going to run away (get it?) with it, but after some unfortunate outs it became obvious England was going to win.

I also learned that if you get out without scoring a run, that is called a “duck”, and if you are out at your first attempt to paddle that is a “golden duck”. Not sure why we have all of the avian terms in sports but we do.

I really enjoyed watching the game and found myself cheering when Oz scored a four or six, or got someone out. I don’t think I’m up for test cricket, but they have something called a twenty20, which apparently involves force feeding the players methamphetamine and motivating them with explosive fireworks.

Streaker at Cricket Match

Oh, cricket apparently involves streaking, too. The wonderful security officials escort you off the field and there is a large fine.

Beer and Cricket on TV

Good times.

2017 Havana, Cuba

There are no mobile phone zombies in Cuba. That was one of the things I noticed right away. I don’t think that Cubans have any special resistance to the lure of the Internet, it is just that Cuba is one of the least connected countries in the world. I’d have to agree, since I’ve connected from places as remote at the Night Market in Siam Reap, Cambodia, and the island of Espiritu Santo in Vanuatu, yet had a hard time getting on the Internet from Havana.

But I get ahead of myself.

Many years ago I set the goal of visiting 50 countries before I turned 50. I didn’t make it. Cuba was the 40th country I’ve been in, if you include the United States.

Even though Cuba is very close to the United States, it has always seemed a bit mysterious to me because of the embargo. I do have friends who have visited, mostly from Europe, but one American friend of mine was able to go via Mexico. He was kind of upset – he arrived the day after Fidel Castro resigned. Last year I decided I was going to visit Cuba, but I wanted to do so legally, and thus I set out to find the requirements.

It turns out that one of the allowed reasons an American can visit Cuba is for “professional meetings”. As I work in both telecommunications and with free and open source software, I started searching for a conference I could attend. I discovered CubaConf, but was disappointed to learn that the conference had already been held for 2016.

So, I kept my eye out to see if the conference was going to be held again in 2017. When they announced November dates, I submitted a paper and was happy when it was accepted. I decided to take along my friend and coworker Alejandro. He was born and raised in Venezuela and thus speaks fluent Spanish, and while my Spanish is good enough that I might have been able to get by, it was extremely handy to have Alejandro around (plus I think he enjoyed the trip as well). I had wanted to spend as much time as possible in Cuba, but I also wanted to make sure I adhered to the travel rules, and since those forbid tourism outside of a registered tour we went down on Monday and returned on Friday (the conference was Tuesday through Thursday).

Due to the embargo, American banks cannot do business in Cuba, thus credit cards don’t work. Luckily, the two most expensive parts of the trip, airfare and lodging, could be arranged and paid for in advance. American Airlines has a number of flights to Havana, and AirBnB has a large presence in Cuba due to the tradition of “casa particulares” or “private homes”. There are hotels in Cuba but many people stay in rented rooms, usually in peoples’ homes. This matched perfectly with the AirBnB service and I was able to book a wonderful, three bedroom apartment in the heart of old Havana.

American Airlines Sign for Havana

We flew from RDU to Miami, and then took the short flight to Havana. Entering the country was pretty easy. You had to have a visa, which I bought beforehand, and you needed to fill out a health card, but outside of that the longest wait was for luggage. They do perform a thorough search of luggage, looking mainly for wireless electronics and other contraband, but as I had none of that my bag arrived pretty much unmolested.

Yaima, who was renting us the apartment, had arranged for a driver, so we were met after we exited customs. While Alejandro talked with him I went to the Exchange to get Cuban Convertible Pesos, or CUCs (kooks). They map one to one with the US dollar, except they also charge an exchange fee (which doesn’t exists for euros or UK pounds). I had brought several hundred dollars in cash with me to cover expenses, and the whole process was pretty easy.

The airport is some distance outside of the city and so we got to see some of the area on our way to Old Havana. Our taxi was a later model car, I think it was a Nissan of some sort, and our driver was pretty quiet. We passed through the more modern section of Havana on our way to Havana Vieja (Old Havana) and you could tell when the buildings got older and the streets narrower.

When we arrived at the apartment building, the driver made a call and a large garage door came up. He drove in on the ground floor, which also served as the lobby, and we got out to check in to our room.

Our apartment was on the top floor, and it was very nice. It had three bedrooms. There was me and Alejandro but also my friend Elizabeth who I often see at open source conferences. She had heard about CubaConf from me and decided to attend as well, and so I offered up the last bedroom to her. There were two rooms with king-sized beds that shared a bathroom, and a smaller room next to the kitchen that Elizabeth took. On each end of the apartment was a balcony, and I spent a lot of time out on the front one enjoying the sights and sounds of Old Havana.

Our Apartment Balcony

Outside of the conference I had another objective. I wanted to visit three famous bars in Havana: El Floridita, Hotel Ambos Mundos and the Hotel Nacional. El Floridita was pretty close to our hotel, so as soon as we dropped off our bags, the three of us made our way there.

La Floridita

Old Havana is easy to walk, and we felt pretty safe for most of the trip, no matter how late it was. There were several “touts” trying to get you to go into a store or a restaurant, and one that kept coming up was “La Familia”. We were told by several people in the street, in both Spanish and English, that we should eat at La Familia. It was so prevalent that we made a group decision to never eat there.

El Floridita bar is known as the birthplace of the Daiquiri. I learned about it from Ted Haigh’s seminal book Vintage Spirit’s and Forgotten Cocktails and I had always wanted to visit. This is a place made famous by Ernest Hemingway, who used to drink there, so much so that they have a bronze statue of him in the corner of the bar.

Bronze Statue of Papa Hemingway

I have no idea what was going on with my hair in that picture.

The place was crowded but we managed to squeeze in right next to the statue. I wanted Hemingway’s signature drink, the Papa Doble, which is a Daiquiri with double the rum and the addition of grapefruit juice. The bartender told me, in Spanish, that due to the recent hurricane they couldn’t get toronja (grapefruit) and suggested a “Daiquiri Classico”. I figured it was the next best thing and had several (as did my companions).

I liked sitting there watching the bar. There is a sign announcing that this is “The Cradle of the Daiquiri”

La Cuna del Daiquiri

and I liked watching the bartenders (cantineros) prepare drinks. While they use shakers like most bartenders around the world, there is a style unique to Cuba where they pour the drink from one iced cup to another several times in order to mix it.

Cantinero Pouring a Drink

It takes skill and creates a nice airiness to the cocktail. We stayed there for some time, drinking, talking and listening to the band in the corner, and they we decided to get dinner there as well. It was good and a wonderful start to our trip.

The next day the three of us made our way to the conference. It just so happens that it was being held right across the street from the Hotel Ambos Mundos.

Hotel Ambos Mundos

The Ambos Mundos is where Hemingway lived when he was in Havana. It’s on the opposite end of O’Reilly street from El Floridita. As that street can get busy with traffic we usually walked down Obispo, which was a parallel pedestrian street lined with restaurants and shops. After the conference was over Alejandro and I went to have a couple of drinks at the hotel.

Ambos Mundos Bar

I don’t remember anything special about the cocktails, but I do remember enjoying sitting in the open air bar and watching the people. I could see why Hemingway got attached to the place.

That night we asked the guy at the apartment where to eat for dinner, and he suggested a place called Habana 61. While I didn’t have Internet connectivity, Elizabeth had thought ahead and bought a Digicel SIM card off of Amazon that worked in Cuba so she was able to help us from getting lost. In trying to link to it I can’t find it on Amazon anymore so perhaps it has been discontinued.

I really liked wandering the streets in the evening.

Street in Old Havana

We found the place and they were able to seat us. I told the waitress that I wanted that most macho of Cuban cocktails, the Mary Pickford.

Mary Pickford Cocktail

She laughed and made sure to get me a pink straw to go with my pink drink. Alejandro had a Mojito, which is something of the national drink of Cuba. I have never been a fan but the Mojitos in Cuba are extremely tasty. We talked about why and Alejandro suggested it was because of the mint. Whereas in the US and other parts of the world we use something like peppermint for the drink, Cubans use Yerba Buena which is similar but milder, so you don’t get that overwhelming mint taste. I am going to try to find some seed and grow it in the spring. The other bonus about Habana 61 is that while cocktails in Cuba tend to cost 6 CUC ($6) theirs were only 3 CUC ($3) and were some of the best drinks I had while I was there.

I also got to check something else of my list. I wanted to eat Ropa Vieja while in Cuba.

Ropa Vieja

While Ropa Vieja is sometimes considered the national dish of Cuba, the main ingredient, beef, is not readily available. You are much more likely to eat pork, chicken or fish, but I was happy to be able to eat it as least once while I was there. If you ever go to Havana, do your best to find this place.

On Wednesday I had to do some work. My hosts at the conference had learned about my cocktail hobby, and they asked me if I would be willing to do a presentation on cocktails to a group of students learning to become cantineros. In Havana they have a number of trade schools for young people, and they wanted me to address a group of them training to be bartenders.

While I had never done a formal presentation on cocktails before, those who know me know I would never pass up an opportunity to run my mouth, so I did a bunch of research and decided on a presentation on the grand history of Cuban cocktails. I think it turned out pretty well. I focused on four main drinks and their history. I started with the Cuba Libré, which includes Coca-Cola. I drank a lot of Coke (and Coke with rum) while there because Coke made with Cuban sugar is just superior to what we get in the States or even from Mexico.

Cuban Coke

I then talked about the Daiquiri, as well as one of my current favorite drinks, the Hotel Nacional Special (which I’ll discuss later). I finished up with a discussion of the Mojito and how Sir Francis Drake (El Draque) used it to combat upset stomachs and scurvy.

To get from the conference to the school (bar) where I would be giving my talk, we rode in a Lada.

Lada Automobile

I had never been in a Russian car before. It wasn’t in the best shape, and my host apologized but pointed out that it was extremely hard to get parts to fix things in Cuba. It was kind of a theme for my visit. The embargo does hurt the Cuban people, yet I’ve never met people more determined to improve their situation with so little to work with.

My presentation was held at a bar off of “Barber’s Alley” which is a pretty “hip” street near the water. There were a couple of cool murals along the way, such as this one about barbers:

Barbers Mural

and another one nearby by the same artist:

Mural with Scissors

We walked down the alley, went upstairs and set up for my presentation. I think it went well and I got a lot of good questions from the students afterward. I felt weird given a presentation that was a little out of my comfort zone, but they were very kind and seemed to like it.

Bartender Class

It was now about 11am and I figured I was ready to return to the conference, but I was told that the students would like to make a cocktail for me. Sure, I never turn down a cocktail, but then I learned that all 22 of them wanted to make me a cocktail.

Well, the one thing I strive for when traveling is to never be the rude American, so I sucked it up. (grin)

Of course I didn’t drink all of them, but I did taste each one, and Alejandro helped a lot as well. In addition to classics like the Daiquiri and the Mojito, I had one called the Canchanchara. It had honey in it and was very nice, and I hope to make it at home soon.

Afterward we walked back to the conference (not necessarily in a straight line). After the conference ended for the day we wandered around a bit. It is real easy to walk around Old Havana, although it can be jarring to go from an area of well maintained, brightly painted buildings

Street in Old Havana

and then in the next block see things turn residential and perhaps not nearly as well maintained.

At one point in time we stopped in a bookstore and I saw the following poster:

Bookstore Poster

I read the words

Nada tiene sentido cuando tú me miras con esos ojos que quieren decir no te conozco

and it hit me like a ton of bricks. The phrase translates to

Nothing makes sense when you look at me with those eyes that mean I do not know you.

and it was like I’d just read the saddest thing ever written. I was unable to find out more about it on the web, only other people talking about seeing it and how it affected them.

There is a lot of art in Havana. You have your usual “statues in parks” like this one of Simón Bolívar

Statue of Simón Bolívar

to just random installations on street corners.

Corner Sculpture

There was a mural depicting life in colonial Havana that took up a city block

Colonial Life Mural

as well a artistic graffiti.

Fidel 90 años

They even use old cannons to block the pedestrian streets which is artistic in its own way.

Cannon Barriers

There are also the old cars. One of the things many Americans associate with Cuba is the image of colorful, antique American cars still being used. They are, mainly as taxis

Old Car Taxis

although I did see a mid-1960s Mercedes as well.

Old Mercedes

By Wednesday evening the local cuisine was starting to take a toll on my system. Elizabeth had a much worse case of “Castro’s Revenge” and ended up resting in the apartment for the last half of the trip. I can remember telling Alejandro that I wish I could find something to settle my stomach when it dawned on me that the Mojito was invented as a medicinal beverage. The evening conference event was hosted at a bar so I decided to enjoy some 1 CUC mojitos that did help settle my stomach (although Vitamin I, Imodium, may have played a role as well).

Havana Club at the Bar

The weather in Havana was weird. One moment it would be sunny and blue skies, and a few minutes later it would be raining. We managed to keep dry and since it never rained for long we were still able to walk around. It added a nice touch to the scenery, such as a park

Park After the Rain

or the plaza in front of the Catedral de San Cristobal.

Catedral de San Cristobal

Thursday was the last day of the conference and our last full day in Cuba. I still had one place to mark of my list, the Hotel Nacional.

I learned about the Hotel Nacional from the Smuggler’s Cove cocktail book, specifically the recipe for the Hotel Nacional Special. The National Hotel of Cuba is just outside of Old Havana, and while we could have walked it we decided it was far enough away to merit a cab.

As we were walking down the street I saw a taxi and I flagged him down. What I didn’t realize is that we were standing in front of some sort of police station. As the taxi pulled up a uniformed man started asking the driver all sorts of questions in a rapid-fire Spanish that I couldn’t follow. When he looked at me I pointed to the car and asked “permiso?” and he waved us in, but we still couldn’t leave. I could hear the driver getting out some coins which I assumed was for some sort of payoff. Another man, obviously the boss, approached the car and when he saw us in the back he just waved the taxi on. From there to the hotel Alejandro got an earful from the driver about his poor treatment at the hands of the police (or whatever they were) and I caught “I drive by there every day”. It was one of the few examples of any form of corruption I saw during my visit.

The Hotel Nacional is a grand old hotel located next to a motorway across from the water.

Hotel Nacional Lobby

It was once the scene of an intense battle during a coup, but it seems to have been restored to glory.

We walked in and were seated on the patio. In five minutes I saw more Americans than I had seen the entire trip.

Hotel Nacional Patio

I ordered a Hotel Nacional Special and looked over to the bar to watch them make it.

Hotel Nacional Bar

While rain was once again threatening, it was otherwise a lovely day and I enjoyed relaxing with my drink.

Hotel Nacional Special

I will say that I think I make them better, however. (grin)

We then wandered around the hotel a bit to soak in the atmosphere

Hotel Nacional Exterior

and continuing in that vein we decided to take an “old car” taxi back to Old Havana.

Classic Car Taxi

Our driver was Pablo, and as he drove us back we passed some Havana landmarks such as the Great Theatre

National Theatre

and the Capitolio.

Cuban Capitolio

This building, which greatly resembles the US Capitol, was the seat of Cuban government before the revolution. It currently houses the National Library of Science and Technology, among other things, and is undergoing a restoration. Cubans like to say it is three feet taller, three feet longer and three feet wider than the US Capitol.

As we approached Old Havana I took one of my favorite pictures ever:

Pablo Returning Us to Old Havana

It is just such a nice composition of Pablo, the old purple car and the buildings in the background.

Our last evening event was held in a brewery. We sat at large tables with others from the conference, and I sat next to a woman named Inauri. I’m not sure how the discussion came up, but we ended up talking about race in Cuba.

One thing I noticed, outside of the lack of mobile phone zombies, was that there didn’t seem to be any real racial divides in Cuba. Cuba was such a focal point of trade in the New World that people from all over met, settled and had children in the country. There are blond-haired, blue-eyed Cubans as well as Cubans with skin so dark it is almost blue. Yet they seem to intermingle way more than in any other place I’ve been. Whether in a restaurant, a bar, walking down the street or in groups talking on street corners there was always this glorious mix of skin tone.

Inauri told me that before the revolution there were schools for rich “white” children, schools for poor white children and schools for everyone else. After the revolution it was declared that no matter your skin color, you were all Cubans, and while I’m sure it took some time it seems to have worked. I have no doubt that there are racists in Cuba but from my experience it was the first truly integrated culture I’ve seen.

The next morning we took another “classic” car to the airport. It was based on a 1953 Pontiac and was in incredible shape.

1953 Pontiac Taxi

The driver was obviously proud of the condition of his car, and he even offered to turn on the air conditioning, which I don’t believe was stock in 1953.

Pontiac Taxi A/C

It was a rainy morning and quite humid, so the A/C was nice. I took a few pictures on the ride, including this mural “Faithful to Our History”

Faithful to Our History Mural

and sat back reflecting on my visit.

I was extremely happy I went. The people in Cuba are amazing and I sincerely hope that the political situation both inside and outside the country warms up so that they can get access to the things they need to be great. I’m certain what they would create and share with the world would be wonderful.

Cuba from the Plane

The House on the Rock

As part of my effort to deal with the PTSD I suffered after visiting The House on the Rock, I thought I would write up my experience here.

House on the Rock sign from American Gods

I first heard about The House on the Rock in Neil Gaiman’s masterpiece American Gods. Now that the book is being made into a television series, I wanted to visit before it becomes even more famous in the next season. The picture above is from the very end of Season 1.

I am in Minnesota for work, and I suggested to my friend Mike that I come up a day early and we drive out to The House on the Rock. It would be a long day as the attraction is four hours from Minneapolis, but I haven’t seen Mike in awhile and I was sure we could pass the time. The ride back was a lot quieter since we were still trying to process all that we saw. As sensitive as I assume Gaiman is, I can easily imagine that the whole idea of American Gods could have been triggered by visiting. It was both an amazing and an unsettling experience.

The House is located in a geographical area known as The Driftless, which is poetic on its own right. When glaciers extend and retract, they “leave behind silt, clay, sand, gravel, and boulders called drift”. This area was never exposed to glaciers, so it is both rugged and beautiful. It inspired Frank Lloyd Wright to build his studio and school Taliesin here, and the area is marked by tall columns of rock.

On one such column Alex Jordan Jr. decided to build a house. It started in 1945 as a private artist retreat, but word spread about the unusual house and by 1959 Jordan was able to charge admission. While the house itself is interesting in its own right, around the base were built a number of metal buildings which house the most eclectic and strange collection of items I’ve ever seen in one place.

House on the Rock Entrance

We did not see that sign shown in the television show, but as it is supposedly sixty miles away we probably didn’t come that way. I did ask about it when buying tickets and the lady was pretty closed-mouthed about filming. It would be hard for me to imagine that they would try to build a copy of the House on a set, and the typeface used on that sign is used throughout the property, so I’m eager to see what sections make it on the show.

Around the entrance are a number of very tall pots decorated with lizards and other creatures and used as a planter for flowers. I have a better picture later on but you can see one to the left of the sign in the image above.

After a short drive you come to a parking lot and the main visitors center. Take note of the metal building to the left used to house some of the collection, and you can also see another one of those pots.

House on the Rock Visitor Center

Here is where you buy your tickets and then you can enter another building that covers the history of the House. There are three sections you can tour, starting with the House itself. We decided to just do the first two, ending up at the Carousel. We are both glad we did because we were pretty weirded out by the end.

As a hint as to what to expect, the Visitor Center has a number of works that kind of set the mood for what you are going to see, such as this one.

Three Headed Statue

We wandered around the center for awhile but then were eager to start the tour. Even though it was lightly raining, all of the walkways are covered so it was easy to get around, and I also think that they limit what you can see to just what they want you to see. It was very hard to get a whole perspective of the place.

As you head to the House, you pass through the Asia Garden.

Asia Garden

This was pretty and way too normal for what was going to come later. We wandered around for a bit before heading up the ramp to the House on the Rock.

Entering the House you have to stoop. The ceilings are quite low, which is surprising since Jordan was supposed to be six foot two. I asked one of the ticket takers and she said it was to keep in the heat, but I’m not totally convinced. The visitor center stated that Jordan tended to build without many plans, and would often tear down a section that didn’t work and rebuild it.

One of the first rooms you enter features a set of automated musical instruments. This group played Ravel’s Boléro.

Instruments Playing Bolero

I haven’t been able to get that song fully out of my mind.

While it definitely looks like they are producing the music, I’ve read that some of the music coming from these animated machines is simulated. I can kind of believe that, since the amount of tuning and upkeep would be daunting. But then, considering how bad some of them sound, it is also easy to believe they are real. It is kind of at this point the place starts to seep into your mind. What is real, what isn’t, and what in the hell would drive someone to create stuff like this?

I also want to mention the smell. The House on the Rock smells very, very odd. Sometimes you get a whiff of something musty, like in an old attic. Other times it is a much more … biological smell. It is almost impossible to determine where the specific smells are coming from and they can wax strong and then wane faint in seconds. In telling people about our weekend, one person said they had a friend who had to leave because of the smell, but I just found it disconcerting.

Back in the 1950s to the 1970s, some “modern” houses were built with sunken areas called conversation pits. Many of the rooms in the House looked designed around that aesthetic.

Conversation Pit

The House is built on many levels, and at one point we heard a player piano above us. Climbing some ramps and stairs we came to another decorated living space.

Living Room

That’s Mike in the shorts and you can see the piano in the background. The entire tour was very dimly lit when not outside, so I will apologize in advance for the quality of some of the pictures.

At some point you end up at the Infinity Room. Built in 1985, this is a cantilevered 218 foot room that shrinks to a point in the distance, with around 3000 panes of glass forming the windows.

Infinity Room

You can’t walk to the end of it, but when you get close there is a rectangle cut into the floor so you can look directly down on the tree tops.

Glass in the Infinity Room

It kind of reminded me of the “Moon Door” in the Eyrie castle in the Game of Thrones television series.

You end up exiting the House the same way you came in, and I tried to get a shot of the exterior of the building. As I mentioned before, much of this is blocked by the covered walkway, but I was able to stick my camera out at arms length and get this picture.

House on the Rock Exterior View

After leaving the house you walk back down to start the second, and much weirder, part of the tour. We were there during the Halloween season, and so some of the place was decorated with things like skulls.

Walkway with Skulls

I want to point out the side of the metal building. They do an extremely good job keeping you from realizing that your a basically wandering around inside a big metal warehouse. We walked down the path and entered the building.

The first section we came to was called The Streets of Yesterday.

Streets of Yesterday

This is an area designed to look like a street in a small town in the 19th century. It reminded me a lot of Pirates of the Caribbean (the ride not the movie). You knew you were in a building but it was dark, the ceiling was high above you and the light was dim and indirect. The “street” was lined with a number of “shops” but I have never been in a place that would have shops like this so close together and it was more of a way to show off various collections.

Like dolls? Go to the doll store:

Store with Dolls

How about clocks?

Store with Clocks

and there was china:

Store with China

Each store displayed a collection that would have been the pride of any collector of those particular objects, but it was weird seeing so many of them clumped close together. Plus there was little context. It’s like a rich compulsive hoarder met up with an OCD museum coordinator with an aversion to labels. It was also hard to tell what was real and what was just made up. Take this display of firearms:

Weird Pistols

See those strange pistols with the many, many barrels? While some of them resemble real “pepper box” pistols, others looked like they were simply welded together to look funky and would never fire. But without context you didn’t know.

It was at this point my mind started going all sideways. Who would put something like this together? Who had a fetish for, say, dolls and antique brass cash registers?

Cash Registers

We then moved on to a section dedicated to music machines called Music of Yesterday.

Music of Yesterday

I should mention that a lot of these devices wouldn’t move or play until you inserted a token. I expected a token to be expensive, like one for a dollar, but it turns out they cost a quarter. This is wise on the part of the owners since if it were free people would just push everything they passed. I can’t imagine many of these devices would stand up to that kind of use. As it was, it was rare to pass one of the larger displays that someone had not already inserted a token.

We bought some tokens when we got to this player piano thing with an odd mechanism (it had a xylophone attached to it but it didn’t seem to use that part). The music was produced using a scroll of paper, like other player pianos, but instead of winding it on a spool it was just pushed and folded into a glass case at the top of the device.

Player Piano with Scroll Music

It would feed out of the left side and then get smushed back in on the right. I was very surprised it worked.

While that was a standalone machine, many of the displays contained numerous musical devices.

Music Room

Probably the most famous is a machine called the “Mikado”. In the visitor center we read that Jordan had acquired a number of Asian figures in Chicago and they created this display to use them. I captured this one with a short video.

Melodious, no?

In the last room in this section there was a calliope called The Gladiator.

The Gladiator

I liked this one because I thought the male figures looked like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Off to the right of The Gladiator was a small machine that told fortunes.

Fortune Teller

This device is mentioned in American Gods, and had I had the time to read up on it before visiting I would have inserted a token. As it was, I thought it was cool enough to take a picture of it.

As we left this section Mike and I were talking about a time we visited the main Google campus, but as we turned into the Heritage of the Sea display our conversation just trailed off into silence.

We were looking at this:

Huge Whale

Now a blue whale can get up to one hundred feet long. This thing was two hundred feet long and huge. Who, I mean who makes something like this? It’s crazy. And if adding teeth to a two hundred foot long blue whale model wasn’t enough, why not have it being attacked by a huge Kraken/Octopus thing?

The Kraken's Eye

Again, here we are, in this huge room dwarfed by one of the largest sculptures I’ve ever seen and we were reduced to blubbering. Why? Seriously, why? We don’t even know what it was made of. It looked like it could have been formed concrete over a wire frame, but it was more likely some sort of foam that was sprayed and then carved (concrete would be very heavy)

It was crazy. Gaiman wrote of the House on the Rock in a blog post that “I had to tone down my description of it and leave things out in the book in order to make it believable.”

A set of ramps, five levels tall, surrounded this spectacle. In cases along the wall were collections of items with a nautical theme. There was a Titanic display with items that may, or may not, have been from the ship, such as a menu. In keeping with shipwrecks there was another case focused on the Lusitania. In between you might find scale models of tall ships or a Soviet sub. As you got higher you could see more of the massive sculpture in the center.

More Huge Whale

I did take a picture of two models of the Monitor and the Merrimack, considered the first battle between armored ships.

Monitor and Merrimack

Another view of the Kraken:

Moar Kraken

As I mentioned, this seems to be a blue whale, but blue whales do not have big teeth (like sperm whales do).

Huge Whale Mouth

Of course, without the teeth it would have a hard time eating a boat, right?

Huge Whale Mouth Eating a Boat

I can just hear the artist now: okay, we have this big honking whale thing being attacked by a big honking octopus thing, but something is missing. I know – a boat in the whale’s mouth.

After leaving Heritage of Sea we were a little shaken. It is hard to get across how this tour makes you feel. You are trying to puzzle out some sort of reason or system and it just isn’t there.

The next exhibits were tame by comparison. You get into an area that is a little more modern, so why not put up a bunch of hot air balloon models.

Hot Air Balloons

The tented space below was a pizzeria restaurant with some of the sorriest looking pizza I have ever seen. It also plays a role in American Gods and it isn’t like you can miss it since the way out is through the restaurant.

There were some other displays. For example, why not stick a perfectly normal looking Gull-wing Mercedes in this place?

Gull-wing Mercedes

If that is too normal, walk a few feet to admire a 1963 Lincoln Continental with suicide doors, a radiator modeled after the one on a Rolls Royce, and covered in over a ton of ceramic tile?

Lincoln Covered in Tile

There was still a touch of the weird, such as a display featuring marionettes:

Marionettes

and a store that displayed cameras:

Camera Store

The camera display was labeled with detailed little cards for most of the items. Mike and I joked that the guy who set up the display must have been busily working along when Jordan ran in, saw the labels and screamed “What are you doing! Stop that right now!”

Exiting this area we came to a few more displays, including another elaborate music room.

Stringed Instruments

For some reason the devices they used to control the strings reminded me of something out of H.R. Giger, and they reminded me of the facehuggers from Alien. I did put up a little video if you want to see them in action.

The final room on the tour was the coup de grace. It was a huge room dominated by the world’s largest indoor carousel. Eighty feet wide and 36 feet tall, it features over 20,000 lights, 183 chandeliers and 269 animals. Not one of which is a horse (I thought I saw one in the back but it turned out to have a fish tail, making it a hippocampus).

If that weren’t enough, the walls and ceiling were covered with angels. Well, female mannequins with wings. Just to try and explain the weirdness, many of the wigs weren’t on straight and some of the dresses were falling off. To finish the effect, throw in some of those automated musical instruments and add the mouth of a large monster (whose eyes move) leading the way to section three, just for good measure.

We’d had enough. After chatting with the employee in charge of watching over the carousel (you are not allowed to ride it), with followed the ominous sign out of the building.

Final Exit

You exit into the Japanese Garden, which was a beautiful example of normalcy after the previous two hours of insanity.

Japanese Garden

As you exit past the gift shop, there were a few more of those huge pots we saw at the entrance.

Large Pot and Sign

We made our way back to the car and started the long drive back to Minneapolis. We stopped at Taliesin but our hearts weren’t in it and we’d missed the last tour of the day in any case.

Two days (and one long blog post) later, I’m starting to come back to normal. I do want to go back and take Andrea. Perhaps I’ll have the nerve to do section three, and I would like to visit Taliesin. Even if you aren’t a fan of Neil Gaiman, if you have the chance to visit the House on the Rock, I urge you to take it.

It is a place of power.

Freya: 2001-2017

We put Freya to sleep today.

Freya

Wait, that doesn’t sound right. Whenever I have to euthanize an animal, especially a beloved pet, there is always a lot of guilt. The words “put to sleep” just don’t cover it. Perhaps the harsher “put down” would be better, while “I killed my dog today” is more honest.

I’m always jealous of people who have a pet who just dies, as in “Little Fifi went to sleep on her favorite pillow and passed peacefully in the night”. I have never experienced that, and it seems all too often the decision has to be made to end a pet’s life. Yeah, I know it is often for the best, but that doesn’t make it any easier.

Freya was the most amazing dog I’ve ever known. Andrea got her from the shelter in October of 2001, and you could tell that she was one smart dog. Part Doberman and part something else (she had a blotchy purple tongue) she was the the dog that made me fall in love with mutts. I can remember Andrea bringing her by the Oculan office where I had just started working on the job that would define my professional career, and I knew she was something special.

She was also an incredible hunter and I can count at least six deer that she managed to catch on our property. Now, I wasn’t super happy that she killed deer, but I had to give her credit. Whereas all our other dogs immediately bark and run after them, she would hunker down and slowly crawl until she was close enough to burst out and run them down. Usually they would escape, but sometimes she could catch them. She was an extremely friendly dog in all other aspects, but if you were furry and ran from her, the chase was on.

Freya with a Buck

She was also good with other dogs. When we got Maya (another stray puppy) she adopted her instantly, and put up with all of Maya’s puppy antics. About five years ago something happened and she was paralyzed on the right side of her face. This caused her ear to droop, and she had trouble breathing out of one nostril. The worst part was that she lost control the ability to blink her right eye, and while we put drops in her eye every day she lost the use of it. Several thousand dollars later the Vet School had no clue as to what could be wrong, so she just learned to live with it.

As the years went on, she also started to lose her hearing. About a year ago she became incontinent. This was a dog that would never go in the house, and I think it was more that she would wake up with an incredible need and just not have time to alert us to let her out. We adapted, took her out often, and bought a Rug Doctor. Toward the end, she pretty much slept 23 hours a day. She had a lot of trouble getting around, and would often fall down the steps of our deck. She would get halfway down and then, for some reason, decide to jump. With her bad eye I’m certain her depth perception wasn’t great, and she’d sometimes land in a heap at the bottom of the stairs. We’d carry her down when we could, but we weren’t home all the time.

A couple of months ago I was traveling on business and Andrea told me a sad story. She had let Freya out to pee and was trying to get her shoes on to carry her down the steps. However, we have two other dogs who were happy to see her, and before she could catch up to Freya, the dog had jumped. She failed the landing and ended up on her side, and because she had to go she just peed while she lay there. That was the story that made me think it was time.

When a dog as active as Freya just isn’t able to do the things she loves, one has to think she can’t be happy. While we don’t think she was in much pain, we did give her a slight pain killer twice a day for arthritis. She did eat but was still becoming too thin, and she was having trouble standing up (sometime while she ate I would put my foot next to hers which would keep her legs from splaying out). It got to the point where we couldn’t bathe her because she couldn’t stand up long enough.

But we still loved that bony, droopy, stinky dog. We canceled the first two appointments, and it wasn’t until Andrea asked me to do it alone that we were able to go through with it. As a sixty pound dog that was over 16 years old, in human years she would have been north of 100. It was time.

Freya

Doesn’t make it any easier.

2017 Total Solar Eclipse

My friend Bob and I are both science geeks, Bob perhaps a little more than me. We started planning for the 2017 total solar eclipse months ago. We thought it would be cool to watch from the beach, so we booked a hotel in Charleston, South Carolina, for the weekend, ordered our eclipse glasses and waited.

In hindsight we didn’t really plan for the weather. We should have booked two hotels, one at the beach and one in the mountains, and then canceled the other booking based upon the weather (the viewing conditions for the mountains were supposed to be excellent). As we left for Charleston the weather forecast was not promising. However, we had picked Charleston because we knew we could simply head inland if needed, and as long as we stayed in the path of totality we would be fine.

This was to be my first total solar eclipse. The closest I’d come before was in 1984. I was just getting ready to graduate from the NC School of Science and Math and we all went out to witness an annular eclipse on May 30th.

1984 Annular Eclipse

It was cool. The picture above was taken by Joe Liles, the school’s art director, but it really didn’t get all that dark. It is surprising how bright even a sliver of the Sun can be, and since we didn’t have totality it was less impressive than I was expecting.

Flash forward 33 years.

Isle of Palms

The four of us: Bob, his wife Kathy, Andrea and I drove down to Charleston late Saturday night, and we explored the city a bit on Sunday. Of course, all of the tours were booked due to the influx of people, so we just wandered around the market and ate some seafood. Later in the afternoon we drove over to the Isle of Palms. This was where we were planning on watching the show, but as the forecast just kept worsening we decided to head inland. We made it an early night so we could get up early Monday and beat the traffic.

Bob decided we should try to go to Lake Murray in Irmo, South Carolina, just outside of Columbia (and once home to Donna Rice). A few miles away was the Columbiana mall, so we made that our destination as a place to get lunch and sit in some air conditioning. We figured if worst came to worst, we could simply watch it from the parking lot.

Traffic wasn’t bad until we actually headed for the lake, and even then it was only congested near the two parks on either side of the dam. All the public parking lots were full, so we paid a guy $20 to park in a business lot and then walked the rest of the way. Luckily there was a nice place to sit on a hill overlooking the water, and so that’s where we made camp.

The place was crowded but not packed, and there was a general festive atmosphere. We were still worried about the clouds, and soon after the eclipse started this is what the sky was like:

2017 Eclipse - clouds

We had heard that an eclipse will actually cause cumulus clouds to dissipate. In the summer most of them are caused by afternoon heating, and while I couldn’t tell that the light level had decreased at all, the clouds did thin and eventually go away completely, and we had excellent viewing for totality.

2017 Eclipse - Kathy and Tarus looking up

Since we ended up at a lake, Andrea decided to watch from the comfort of the water. She found that she could float on her back and hold on to one of the float wires marking the edge of the “beach” area, and since her ears were submerged she said it was a very cool and quiet experience.

2017 Eclipse - Andrea floating

I hate the water so I stayed on land. With our glasses we could see totality inching closer and closer.

2017 Eclipse - nearly total

I had decided not to take any pictures during totality, and almost all of these in this post were taken by Bob. We only had about two and a half minutes for the main event, and there is a lot to take in. You get to look at the sun with the naked eye:

2017 Eclipse - totality

and there is a sunset in every direction you look:

2017 Eclipse - sunset

In a word, it was amazing. It got considerably darker than it did during the annular, and it was just so totally awe inspiring I really don’t have words to express it. While I consider myself spiritual if not religious, there is something about seeing the moon fit over the sun just so perfectly that implies the divine.

When it was over I wanted to do it again, immediately. I also felt kind of gypped, as it is possible to have a much longer eclipse than the two and a half minutes we observed. In fact, it can go up to seven and a half minutes (when the Moon is close to the Earth and the Sun is farthest from the Earth), but since that won’t happen until 2186 I’m going to have to be satisfied with what we got, for now.

Once totality was over, there were still some cool effects to discover. The leaves of trees act kind of like pinhole cameras, so you get little crescent shaped shadows everywhere:

2017 Eclipse - crescent shadows

Still buzzing from the experience, we walked back to the car and joined the throngs heading home.

Google wanted us to take I-26 to I-95, but I-26 had become a parking lot:

2017 Eclipse - cars on I-26

Looking at Google Maps it kept telling us traffic would get lighter, but when we got to that point it was “red” again. It dawned on us that folks leaving the area after the eclipse probably formed a sort of “clot” that would continue to move, slowly, along the interstate. It was funny that I don’t think Google Map’s algorithms really planned for something like this, so we decided to take back roads.

That was slightly better, until you would hit a small town. For example, in Bethune, South Carolina, there is a four-way stop on the highway.

2017 Eclipse - Bethune four-way stop sign

Based on the amount of time we sat in traffic, my guess is that they didn’t think to put a cop there to direct traffic until just before we made it to the sign.

So, it took us about seven hours to travel what should have taken four. I don’t care, I would still do it again even if I had to wait longer.

I might have caught the “eclipse” bug. According to Neil deGrasse Tyson, a total eclipse happens on average about once every two years.

2017 Eclipse - Tyson tweet on eclipse frequency

This is backed up by Wikipedia. The next one is in July of 2019, and the path of totality is just south of Buenos Aires in Argentina. That could be doable with frequent flyer miles and hotel points, and it will occur near sunset which should be hella-cool.

The next one in the US is in 2024 and should last more than four minutes. Bob and Kathy may have an RV by then, and if so … road trip. If you get the chance to see a total eclipse, don’t miss it. I’m still thinking about it two days later.

Lollapalooza Twenty-Six Years On

Bob is one of my closest friends. We met back in 1988 when we both worked for Northern Telecom, and we’ve managed to stay in touch through a few moves (on my part) and the birth of his daughter Megan. In fact, when Kathy (his wife) announced she was pregnant, I can remember being a little angry. Single people hang out with single people, couples hang out with couples, and parents hang out with other parents. I was certain we wouldn’t be friends with them much longer. I am grateful that I was wrong.

Bob and I share the trait in that we rarely let what other people think influence our behavior. For example, I’m a fifty year old guy who plays Pokémon Go. He’s a fifty year old guy who likes Electronic Dance Music (EDM). This year Megan bought him tickets to the Buku festival in New Orleans, and he enjoyed it so much he decided to get tickets to this year’s Lollapalooza in Chicago. I went to the first Lollapalooza in 1991, and so when he invited me I thought it would be an interesting experience to go again.

Lollapalooza 4-Day Wristband

While alternative music is a well established genre now, it wasn’t 26 years ago. What we tend to think of as “alternative” was often just called “college radio” back then (you young folks can look up what a “radio” was). Perry Farrell coined the term “alternative nation” when he established Lollapalooza festival as a farewell tour for his band Jane’s Addiction, and the first festival was a pretty unique experience for me.

I’ve always been attracted to people who defy categorization. Being a “smart guy” in the rural south was pretty isolating, and so I tended to associate with other outcasts, and it wasn’t until I attended the North Carolina School of Science and Math that I really felt like I fit in anywhere, but even there you had your normal high school cliques with the jocks and the rich kids, etc. It was cool to be able to attend a festival more targeted at “my people” for lack of a better word. It wasn’t very commercial and it seemed like people were there for the music as well as, maybe, to learn something.

I enjoyed my first Lolla, so I don’t really understand why it took me several years to return. In part it is because I am adverse to crowds, and also it isn’t a cheap festival. I returned in 1997 when the company I worked for had season tickets to the venue, and it was a shadow of its former self. The amphitheater held over 20,000 people but I think less than 8,000 showed up. I did get to stand feet away from Tricky, and I enjoyed both the Tool and Orbital sets, but I wasn’t surprised when it was announced that it would be the last Lollapalooza tour.

Lollapalooza was revived in 2003 but it wasn’t until 2005 when they settled on Grant Park in Chicago for the location that it became something of a permanent fixture. Over 100,000 people attend each day of the festival, which is now four days long.

I wasn’t sure I could last four days (I didn’t) but I was eager to go to the event and see what it had become.

While I love Chicago, I’m not sure Chicago 100% loves Lollapalooza. I know the hotel industry does since the hotel prices were much higher than normal, and it was looking like it was going to be an expensive trip. Luckily, I have a friend who splits his time between Chicago and Miami and he offered up his apartment for the weekend as he was going to flee the city during the festival. Andrea came along since her and Kathy are friends, and they were going to hang out together while the rest of us went to Grant Park. Four of us were going to the show: me, Bob, Megan and her friend Claire.

While the apartment was over a mile from the park, it was a lovely place to stay. It’s nice to be in a home versus a hotel. Andrea and I arrived Wednesday afternoon, and as she had work to do I decided to prepare myself for the long weekend with a much needed nap.

View from the Apartment

On Thursday the six of us met for lunch and then the four of us headed over to the event. They were staying a a hotel across from the Trump Tower Chicago. It was funny to watch people taking pictures of themselves with it, usually sporting obscene finger gestures.

Megan and Claire in front of Trump Tower

There were a couple of entrances to the event, with the main one being near Michigan and Congress. From the hotel we were closer to the northern gate. As you approached the barriers you were asked to hold up your hand with your wristband.

Lollapalooza - northern entrance

While the instructions were pretty specific, the wristband is to go on the right wrist, not a lot of people seemed to get the memo and both Bob and I were bothered by this for some reason. There was also a long list of things allowed in the park and things forbidden. No outside food or drink but you can bring in a bag. Bob had a Camelbak but even those had to be brought in empty (there were numerous “hydration stations” in the park). Once past the first barriers the line broke into those with bags and those without.

Security was really lax at Lollapalooza. I got the most minimal pat down and there were no metal detectors. While the event was non-smoking, people had no trouble bringing in cigarettes, vapes and other contraband. It was one of the things that really detracted from the show for me.

Once inside we decided to learn the layout. Grant Park is large, and the festival is spread out over seven stages (eight if you count “Kidapalooza”).

Lollapalooza - map

The main stage, Grant Park, was on the south end in a large field. If you faced that stage there was another stage called Lake Shore behind and to the left. The largest headliners were on the Grant stage, and shows were staggered so that they weren’t on at the same time. On the opposite side of the park was the Bud Light stage. I didn’t like that stage much, as it seemed to be in a little valley and the area was much more claustrophobic than the area around Grant. Unless you were pretty close it was hard to see the stage. It also had a second stage off to the side sponsored by Tito’s Vodka.

Lollapalooza - Day 1 Schedule

On the western side of the park was the Perry’s stage featuring EDM acts. We spent a lot of time there since EDM was one of the main reasons for attending. It was the first place we stopped to see an act, in this case Tritonal.

Lollapalooza - Tritonal

Seeing EDM performances in the middle of the day is a bit odd. First, it’s pretty much just one or two guys hunched over gear and it is hard to differentiate that from just someone clicking on “play” in an app. Also, the strobes, fire and video effects lose something in bright sunlight. Still, it is music to bob your head to and it was kind of fun to hang out and bounce a bit. Bob kept getting high-fives from people walking by and seeing his Buku shirt.

We decided to check out the main Grant Park stage for Cage the Elephant.

Lollapalooza - Cage the Elephant

The lead singer wore fishnet stockings and a dress, and that at least took me back to my last Lolla when the lead singer for Tool performed in a bustier and kabuki makeup. It was also here that I first experienced the most annoying aspect of the festival.

Many of the people didn’t seem to be there for the music. When a band got started, groups of people would form a little “train” and push their way through the crowd. A few minutes later they would push their way back. Sometime they might stop right in front of you or in the middle of your group. Often they’d light up a cigarette or a joint or start puffing on their vape. Frequently they would be more interested in chatting up the person next to them versus listening to the music. I will say that I was glad that mobile phone usage was less than I expected (I’ve been to concerts recently where people record the whole thing), but being in a crowd of mostly young people with the attention span of gnats lessened the whole thing for me.

Lollapalooza - Buckingham Fountain

We did find refuge in one place – the Cocktail Bar. Situated in the center of Grant Park is the large Buckingham Fountain. Off to the east was a little archway with the words “Cocktail Bar” on it, and inside provided a delightful respite from the crowds. Situated along Lake Shore Drive, this area had grass, trees, lawn chairs and access to a number of decent cocktails. At $14 a drink it was also one of the more affordable items available in the park, believe it or not. In addition to being quiet and relatively free of obnoxious young’uns, there was also a bank of toilets you could use without leaving the area. We would end of spending at least an hour here each day.

Weather was hit and miss Thursday (as well as most of the festival). It looked like it might rain at any minute, and so I was happy to find that the app Dark Sky is now available for Android. This is an app that does “microforecasts” – it doesn’t try to forecast the weather for the day, just the next hour or so. As I was writing this it was raining, and you can see how it will taper off over the next hour.

Lollapalooza - Dark Sky

It’s not 100% accurate out very far, but it is really good for about 30 minutes, sometimes saying things like “light drizzle starting in 7 minutes and lasting 13 minutes”, etc. You can also set it up to send notifications when it is about to rain at your location.

The last show of Thursday had split headliners, with Muse at Grant Park and Lorde at Bud Light. Bob wanted to see Muse so I left him and headed north. About this time Dark Sky warned me that it was getting ready to pour in four minutes, so I made a dash for the exit. The rain was pretty torrential but I was able to make it to the subway without getting too damp, and I watched the rest of the thunderstorm from the comfort (and rather exquisite view) of the apartment. About three songs into the Muse set the show was canceled and everyone was told to leave the park. I understand the reasoning but it would kind of suck if the main band you came to see was canceled as there is no way to reschedule the show.

Lollapalooza - Day 2 Schedule

On Friday we got an earlier start and also entered through the north entrance. First stop was Perry’s for a performance by San Holo. He was pretty good but again it was broad daylight and we were looking at a guy hunched over his equipment.

Lollapalooza - San Holo

It was at San Holo that I got my first request for an “old guy” selfie. A young man came up to me and wanted a selfie, and while it was probably just for my devilish good looks I think he thought it funny that someone my age would be at the EDM stage in the middle of the day. Well, as the young kids say, send it.

I got another odd old guy comment later in the day. At Lolla they encourage you to pick up trash, and if you bring them a full bag you can get a small prize, like a shirt. Megan and Claire did it just because they wanted to, and as I was following Megan around and helping with the trash another guy, probably in his mid-40s, walked by and said “you’re a good Dad”.

Heh.

When I decided to come to Lollapalooza I posted the lineup on-line and asked if there was any of the lesser known bands I should try to see, and I was told to check out The Lemon Twigs, so we headed over to their set.

Lollapalooza - The Lemon Twigs

They were … odd. I liked the music well enough, but it seemed like a band in search of an image. The guy on drums was shirtless with white makeup and this whole Marilyn Manson thing going on. The lead singer was dressed in a blue jumpsuit while the guy on keyboards had on a Hawaiian shirt and khakis. The bass player was a woman who kind of stood off by herself. It was cool that the three men would switch positions and instruments, but it was weird to watch.

It was a bit of a toss up for the next act. Bob and I wanted to see Phantogram while the girls wanted to see Bishop Briggs.

Lollapalooza - Phantogram

I really liked the Phantogram set, well, except for the children constantly pushing themselves forward and back (sigh). What a lot of people don’t realize is that while these band names may sound new, bands like Phantogram have been around for a decade. How do you get to Lollapalooza? Practice, practice, practice.

Bob wanted to get some batteries for the DJ Snake set later that night (he has rave glasses that blink to the music) and so he had to leave the park. I went north to catch the end of the Tegan and Sara set at the Bud Light stage.

Lollapalooza - Tegan and Sara

As I mentioned above, I really didn’t like this stage. It felt very boxed-in and with the level of acts performing here you could always expect a crowd.

We all decided to meet back at the Cocktail Bar.

Lollapalooza - Cocktail Bar

It was a little more crowded than on Thursday, but we managed to find seats. Bob had tried to smuggle in three packages of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, but of course the crack security staff confiscated them. Well, two of the packages – for some reason they left him one. Sharp as tacks they was.

We left the bar and headed back north to check out Foster the People. It was a bit more of a madhouse so we kind of stayed toward the back. While the lens was kind of angled here, you can get an idea of how low the stage looked from the back.

Lollapalooza - Foster the People

The final show for Friday was DJ Snake at Perry’s. Yes, there was fire.

Lollapalooza - DJ Snake

And to answer your question: yes, the old guy did bounce, and I did “get low” when he said to “get low”.

Lollapalooza - Day 3 Schedule

We got a later start on Saturday and decided to enter at the main entrance. This was a mistake. It took over 45 minutes to get in. Of course, after the wait I wasn’t even touched by security, just waved right through.

Lollapalooza - Line at the Main Entrance

We wandered around a bit and decided to try to get decent spots for Glass Animals. Megan took a group selfie:

Lollapalooza - Group Selfie

Left to right: Me, Claire, Bob and Megan.

I’m not that familiar with Glass Animals, although I’ve heard them on SiriusXM “Alt. Nation”. I enjoyed their set, but one thing happened that kind of illustrated my biggest disappointment with members of the crowd.

Lollapalooza - Glass Animals

When I used to go to concerts, people would smuggle in beach balls. Once in the venue, they’d inflate them and play “keep it away from security”. It was fun to bounce them around waiting for the show to start.

Glass Animals have a song called “Pork Soda” with the line “pineapples in my head” and images of the fruit appear throughout their show. Before they started a roadie came out with a bunch of inflatable pineapples, and he handed them out to the crowd. Instead of tossing them around, most people just kept them as souvenirs (sigh).

Despite that, I enjoyed the show and plan to check out their music.

Now the one show I’d been waiting for was Banks. I am a huge fan of Banks. Had I bought Goddess on vinyl I would have wore it out. Of all the performers in the lineup for this year’s Lollapalooza, hers was the show I would not miss, and I made sure to get there early for a decent spot right in front of the stage.

When you are waiting for a show to start, they would often post pictures and videos on the screen by the side of the stage. Some of those would feature bands “From the Vault” (i.e. older Lollapalooza festivals). When I mentioned earlier that it can take a decade for a band to make it to the Lolla stage, many of the bands that have played here seemed to have disappeared. Take Broken Social Scene from 2008:

Lollapalooza - Broken Social Scene

or Delta Spirit from 2012:

Lollapalooza - Delta Spirit

Never heard of either of those.

Anyway, I really liked the Banks crowd. Of all the bands I had seen at the festival, I felt most at home among these people. You could feel the excitement build as it got closer for the show to start. One thing that is really cool about Lollapalooza is the bands start on time – the schedule is very tight.

Lollapalooza - Banks

Banks strode onto the stage flanked by two dancers in mesh and launched into “Poltergeist”. It was magical. Her music is pretty ethereal in the first place, and with the addition of the choreography it just jelled. It was the only set I saw all weekend that tried an artistic presentation, and yes while I’m biased I think she killed. Most of the tracks were off her second album, The Altar but she did play several from Goddess including “Begging for Thread” which is probably how most people know her.

Afterward I thought about heading north to see The xx, but I might have mentioned I hated the Bud Light stage, so still high from the Banks show I headed out.

I skipped Sunday. Andrea and I had a late brunch and then met Kathy to go and hang out at the zoo. I did have a slight FOMO, and one thing did happen that I would have liked.

Lollapalooza - Day 4 Schedule

Bob and the girls went back to the Cocktail Bar, and there was a stand there promoting Tito’s vodka. After chatting with the person in the booth for awhile, they were given wristbands that let them in to a special lounge near the Tito’s stage. It was apparently very nice with an open bar, but I just couldn’t handle the thought of the crowds one more day.

Overall, I’m glad I went but unless something unusual happens it will probably be another 26 years before I go back, although who can guess what Lollapalooza would be like that far into the future. I know I’m in the “hey, you kids get off my lawn” age bracket, but I was pretty disappointed with the most of the people in the crowd. They seemed very self-centered and more interested in being seen than seeing. A lot of the young women wore fairly revealing clothing, and although few people can actually pull that look off I was happy that they were comfortable enough in their body image to try. The closest thing to a theme among the women was to wear Chuck Taylors (Converse All-Star sneakers, preferably in black), Daisy Dukes short enough that the pockets showed and mirrored sunglasses, which seem to be making a comeback. The guys wore mostly athletic jerseys, namely NBA, although in any particular group you couldn’t wear the same jersey. Of course there was the one dude with a jersey with the number “18” on it with the name “You Over” on the back, and I just had to wonder if that ever worked to meet girls (my guess is, no).

Around the food areas the trash was pretty impressive, even while people like Claire and Megan worked to pick some of it up. It made me despair a little for our future, but I bet that thought has occurred to everyone who reaches my age for as long as people have been reaching my age.

This also wasn’t the crowd I remember from the first Lollapalooza, at least through the rosy lens of a quarter century. At least there was the exception of the crowd at Banks. I stood next to a young lady from Columbus, Ohio, whose head was nearly shaved. She had modest gauges with hoop earrings through them, and this was her third or fourth Banks show. She didn’t seem ruled by her mobile phone, and was both well spoken and intelligent. It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes, this one from Henry Rollins:

“I want a soul mate who can sit me down, shut me up, tell me ten things I don’t already know, and make me laugh. I don’t care what you look like, just turn me on. And if you can do that, I will follow you on bloody stumps through the snow. I will nibble your mukluks with my own teeth. I will do your windows. I will care about your feelings. Just have something in there.”

This won’t be my last music festival, I still have Burning Man on my bucket list, but I hope there is more there, there, at the next one.

Anniversaries

Twenty-five years ago today my life changed. At lunch Andrea and I had our first date at a place called Irregardless Cafe. A few months afterward we had moved in together, and on April Fool’s Day, 1993, we eloped.

When I look back on my life, I can identify a number of times where I could have made different choices. There are times of stress, failure and sadness I probably could have avoided, but if I had I might not have ended up in that cafe with this amazing woman. I’m happy, and thus I have no regrets.

As I reflect on the past quarter-century, I’d like to offer some advice to any of my three readers who happen to be single.

First of all, I had bought in to the myth perpetuated by television and novels that when I first met my soul mate, our eyes would lock across a crowded room, the heavens would open and a chorus of angels would sing Hallelujah. That didn’t happen. What did happen was I was lucky enough to meet this intelligent, funny, beautiful and kind woman, and over time I came to realize I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. So instead of waiting for fate to intervene, look around you – perhaps the person of your dreams is closer than you think.

Second, live together before you get married. Now if this goes against your religious upbringing or your moral compass, I won’t push the issue, but the way people date, at least in the US, can present a different picture of life than actually living together. My first major relationship was somewhat long distance, so whenever we got together it was for a special occasion, like a concert. When we actually got to spend “normal” time together, things weren’t as interesting and we didn’t get along as well. Living with someone is a big change. How neat are you? What is your tolerance level for the cleanliness of the bathroom? Can you just “be” together?

Due to a series of circumstances, Andrea and I ended up moving in a little sooner than most. We rented an apartment together, and she, being the smart one, insisted on two things: we both be on lease and the lease be six months long (the shortest the apartment complex offered). When that worked out, we ended up renting a house with a yard so that we could get a dog, and the rest is history.

I actually proposed to her around Christmas time that year, but she, again being the smart one, wanted to wait until we had been together for at least a year. Since getting married on April Fool’s Day fit my personality to a “T”, we set that as the date. We had met over motorcycles (she rode a nicer bike than me) and so we took our honeymoon in Key West, Florida, riding our bikes down ostensibly for Bike Week but going further south. We camped at the Sugarloaf Key KOA and rode into town each day.

We actually had a huge fight before the trip, I think mainly due to stress related to our impending nuptials, and we had decided to call off the wedding. This was easy since we had decided to elope, but something happened on that trip and the wedding was back on when we returned a week later.

Now, I wasn’t ever going to get married. I don’t believe the State or the Church gets a say in with whom I chose to live my life. But there are certain social contracts that fall in place when you are married. I had a good job and she was still a student, so she could get health insurance through my employer, but more than that it was how people perceived our relationship.

For example, let’s say it was Andrea’s birthday and we had made special plans. If I was at work in a meeting that was running long, if I wanted leave with the excuse “I made plans with my girlfriend” they wouldn’t exactly tell me “no”, but you could see it was close to “sit back down until we’re finished”.

After I got married, if I said something like “Sorry, I have to run, I promised my wife …” I’d get interrupted with “go! go!” from the other guys at the table (back then tech jobs were almost entirely held by men). Same situation, difference reaction.

You can’t just elope in North Carolina. Back then you had to get both a license and a tuberculosis test. We also decided to get rings made. I found a goldsmith who helped us design matching rings. She bought a dress she liked and I bought a tie to match it. Of course we wanted pictures, so we hit Sears Portrait Studio before going to the courthouse.

Andrea and Tarus Wedding Picture

Of the pictures we had taken, we only liked this one, and since back then we didn’t have cameras with us at all times it is the only picture we have from that day.

I was the only white male at my wedding. We didn’t tell anyone, so our witnesses were two ladies from the courthouse offices and the judge was an African-American man. Even though I didn’t put too much stock in the whole ceremony, when I looked Andrea in the eyes and said my vows, I was overcome with emotion. For a moment the only thing in the universe was her and me.

Of course, no one believed us when we told them we were married. The formal marriage certificate shows up in the mail many days later, so they give you this cheesy certificate with a pink border and a pair of clasped hands coming out of the clouds like something you might get at Spencer’s Gifts. It wasn’t until we showed off our rings that people started to believe us.

We married on a Wednesday afternoon, and for that night we drove to Asheville to spend the night in a nice Bed and Breakfast. On Thursday we told her mom, who I think was happy but a little disappointed that there was no wedding, and on Friday we told my parents. My father, who had just gone through my sister’s large wedding the summer before, was so happy we didn’t have one that he went to his study and came back with a check for the amount he had spent on it. It was a nice way to start a life together.

So my final piece of advice is to elope. Of course, we didn’t want to miss out on seeing friends, so we held a big party on Memorial Day. Because of the holiday, most people we invited were able to come and since it was very informal (we cooked a couple of pigs ’cause that’s what we do in NC) it was a lot less stressful.

Now, if you want a wedding, that’s cool too. Invite me, ’cause I love weddings, but most importantly have the wedding you want. There is going to be a moment when you and your partner are the only two things in the universe that matter, and nothing should take away from it. Plus, it is our imperfections that make us special, so if something goes wrong, so what? Twenty-five years on it won’t matter, and it might even make the memory stronger.

My relationship with Andrea has made me the person I am, and I can’t imagine life without her. My truest wish for everyone, no matter who you choose to love, it that you can find someone as well and regale me with stories of a lifetime together.

Review: The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

I live on a farm, and a lot of my spare time is spent simply maintaining the property. When we moved out there so many years ago, I had grand plans for all of the land: an orchard over here, a hedge maze over there, and wonderful garden near the kitchen.

Then reality set in and it’s all I can do to keep the place from getting overrun with weeds. Luckily, nature gives me a bit of a respite with winter, but now that it is over I can look forward to the majority of my weekends being taken up outside. Not that I really mind, to be honest, but it doesn’t leave a tremendous amount of time for other pursuits I love, such as reading.

Last weekend was an exception. I decided to spend it reading (and watching NCAA basketball, but that’s church) and managed to read two really good novels.

One, The Fifth Season I have already reviewed, which was loaned to me by Ben. The second was The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi.

I picked this book up last week at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill where Scalzi was appearing on a book tour promoting the novel. If you bought a copy there you could get it signed, so I went, along with Ben and his bride Cynthia.

If you get a chance to see Scalzi speak, I highly recommend it (here is a link to his tour dates). He does a really good job and I found the hour entertaining. He moved the talk along without ignoring the audience, which was loaded with your usual assortment of Sci-Fi nerds and people who just love books (for example, a group of us. some strangers, played the mobile version of Exploding Kittens on our phones while waiting for the talk to begin).

Afterward, we lined up for a few minutes with the man himself. Ben and Cynthia are “Sea Monkeys”, otherwise known as people who take the annual JoCo Cruise, and they had seen Scalzi speak a month ago on the boat. They were ahead of me in the signing line and bonded a bit with Scalzi over that shared experience.

Everyone who knows me knows I love to talk, especially with interesting people, but I knew I wouldn’t have much time with him. I did want to talk about something cool, and I brought up a memory triggered by his talk.

He didn’t read from The Collapsing Empire, instead he talked about the upcoming book in his Lock In series. In that universe, 1% of the world’s population suffers from a condition known as “Lock In” when they are fully awake yet fully paralyzed (similar to the end-stage effects of Lou Gehrig’s disease and other causes of Locked-in Syndrome). Technology comes to the rescue allowing those who suffer from this condition to pilot and interact through android bodies, called “Threeps” after the character C-3PO.

I got to thinking about what it would be like to interact with one or more people in such a body, and it reminded me of an incident that happened with our telepresence robot at the office. We have a device made by Double Robotics that you can think of as an iPad on a Segway. People can connect to it and drive it around. At my office we have a number of people who work remotely, some in other countries, so we got this robot to make it easier for them to feel part of the team.

One time I knew that Ronny, who lives in Germany, was on the robot talking to Jessica (our graphic designer) in her office about a new web site design. Even though I communicate with him often via instant messenger or a Hangout, when I realized I needed to ask him a question I unconsciously got up, left my office and went to talk with him in her office. It only struck me how odd that was after I returned to my desk and noticed my chat window. Thus, I think it would be very easy for such androids to assimilate into our culture without some sort of Future Shock.

We chatted about this for a minute, and then I offered my hand for a handshake. I immediately felt foolish, because I know a number of people who interact with lots of strangers tend to shy away from contact, but he shook my hand without hesitation. I did notice him grab the Purell right afterward and had to laugh. I like to think I’m on the high end of the geek hygiene scale but having suffered for nearly two months with some crud I picked up in Brussels at FOSDEM, I totally understood.

Anyway, back to the book. I always like to stress that I am not a professional book reviewer (I write these more to capture my own thoughts than for general consumption) and I try to stay away from spoilers. This is easier with a book I like, like this one, so minimal spoilers ahead but if you are sensitive to such things don’t continue on. If you want better reviews, check out Goodreads.

The Collapsing Empire Cover

The first thing I noticed about the novel is that it felt slim. At 329 pages it was a lot smaller than the last two speculative fiction (SF) novels I read (The Fifth Season at 512 pages and Babylon’s Ashes at 544 pages). But then Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane was a scant 181 pages. Scalzi even addressed this on his blog, and from my own experience it read like a novel so no complaints there.

For some reason SF stories tend to span multiple volumes. Since I fully understand the author’s need to eat I know why they are released over time, but it can be frustrating for the fan. Some of my favorite authors are also notoriously slow writers. In some cases it doesn’t matter. For example, Neal Stephenson puts out huge books but for the most part they stand alone (the Baroque Cycle being the exception). I know as a reader that once I get to the end of it there will be some sense of closure. Other authors tell epic stories that don’t end with that last page, and it can be a bit frustrating waiting for the next part of the tale. Now I’m not one of those fans who are all “Write me a book, bitch,” it is art after all and art doesn’t follow schedules or deadlines, but I understand the sentiment.

My point (and yes, there is a point here) is that I really don’t care about the length of a book as long as the story is solid, and I don’t care if it spans multiple volumes as long as those come out on a regular basis. The two authors I mentioned above, Jemisin and Corey, are pretty good about releasing a new book once a year, and that once every one or two years works for me. I read so much that if it goes on much past that I end up having to re-read the original books, and quite often I don’t have the time.

Scalzi is pretty good about his output, although he did mention in the “Acknowledgments” that he was frustrated by the time it took to finish The Collapsing Empire.

Yes, there is a book review in here somewhere. I’m getting to it.

The Collapsing Empire takes place several centuries in the future of the Earth, and humankind has spread out to other star systems. One thing that all SF writers who include interstellar travel have to deal with is that pesky issue of the speed of light.

In our current understanding of the universe, nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. As one approaches the speed of light, time, length and momentum change by an amount called the Lorentz factor, often represented by the variable gamma. Here is an equation for gamma:

Lorentz Factor Gamma Equation

Note that it looks kind of scary, but it becomes much easier if you represent velocity, v, as a percentage of the speed of light.

For example, at one-tenth the speed of light, 0.10c or roughly 30,000 km/s, the denominator becomes the square root of (1 – 0.01) or 0.99499 which divided into one results in a gamma of 1.005. This means that at one-tenth the speed of light, time will appear to be half a percent slower, length will appear half a percent shorter and momentum will be half a percent greater.

Just to note that one of the fastest things I know about, the Voyager 1 spacecraft, is only moving about 17 km/sec, and if you plug that into the gamma equation the difference is negligible. This is why Newtonian physics gets the job done in most situations.

As you get closer to the speed of light, gamma gets larger. At 0.9c gamma is 2.29 and at 0.999c it’s 22.4. At the speed of light the denominator becomes 0 so gamma becomes infinite. This demonstrates why faster than light travel is not possible. With a Lorentz factor of near infinity it would take an infinite amount of energy to go faster.

Note that the speed of light is a limit with the caveat “for now”. The light speed limitation applies to everything, including information, but there is some evidence that it may be possible to send information faster than the speed of light.

Anyway, since the nearest star to Earth, the red dwarf Proxima Centauri, is 4.25 light years away, interstellar travel is problematic. Let’s say the bad guy in the story hops in his starship, cranks it up to a whopping one-tenth the speed of light, and heads out for the nearest star. The plot would have to pick up with his offspring something like 40 years into the future, assuming they survive. Not very exciting.

So it is up to SF authors to come up with some way around this speed limit. In Star Trek it was “warp speed” and in Star Wars it was “hyperspace”. In the past Scalzi came up with a rather unique way of addressing this by using multiple universes. In quantum theory, at microscopic levels it becomes impossible to know the exact location and the exact momentum of a particle at the same time. Thus the particle’s state is defined by a series of possibilities, describe by something called a “wave function”. When a measurement is made, the wave function is said to collapse into one of the possible states. One interpretation of this is that there are actually an infinite number of universes, real close to one another and representing all possibilities, and when the wave function collapses it is our consciousness, through the measurement, deciding in which one it wants to be.

Pretty heady stuff.

In Scalzi’s system, the way to travel to another star is to simply pick the alternative universe that is the same in every way as the one you are in, with the exception that you are there and not here.

While it is dangerous to apply quantum theory to macroscopic things, such as a cat, I thought Scalzi’s use of it was pretty original and cool.

With that prologue (sigh) let’s get back to The Collapsing Empire. In this universe Scalzi invents a new method for faster than light travel. Humans have discovered a part of the physical world called “The Flow”. It is, to paraphrase Ted Stevens, quite literally a series of (one way) tubes. While the physics of The Flow is pretty abstract (and not really relevant to the story), ships are able to enter a particular Flow at an entry point called a Shoal. Then, after some amount of time, they will exit the Flow at some distant location. This has enabled humans to colonize a number of star systems, although for the most part the places they live are underground in constructed habitats, as Earth-like worlds are hard to come by.

The main seat of civilization is one such habitat called The Hub, because it is located near a large number of entry and exit points to various Flows. Travel within a flow is not instantaneous, and the farthest system, End, is over nine months of Flow travel away from Hub.

The actual physics of The Flow is unimportant because this story is much more about plotting and intrigue than space travel. With all of these far-flung outposts of humanity, society had to be structured in such a way that they didn’t go to war with each other. The solution chosen was called the Interdependency. Resources were parceled out under control of guilds, which in turn were controlled by dynastic houses. Guilds received a monopoly on various products, and since these were scattered out among the various habitats it required them to work together in order to survive. One such house, the House of Wu, was powerful enough to install an emperor, called in the book by the gender-neutral term emperox, who stands at the top of society’s hierarchy.

The book takes place when two big events are happening to the Interdependency. One is that the emperox is dying, and we pick up with the first days of the new emperox. The second is that The Flow, which was considered stable, is now entering a time of great flux. In a very short period of time these “tubes” between various outposts of humanity are going to close forever, and thus the Interdependency is about to collapse. In fact, the Flow to (and I assume, from) Earth disappeared centuries earlier, as did one to another settlement, but those were considered outliers to The Flow’s innate stability.

Against this backdrop we get a healthy dose of court politics and backstabbing. Certain parties have more accurate information than others, and since these changes to The Flow mean, basically, the Interdependency is finished, people are angling to be in the best position when it goes away. As usual in such situations, some people are more concerned for their own well-being than those of society as a whole. It is a lot of fun to uncover the various plots and to see just how far people are willing to go to achieve their ambitions.

One of the coolest things he introduces is a perk of being an emperox. An interface is inserted into your neck which then records everything you think and experience. When you die this information is added to the “Memory Room” where the next emperox can come in and talk to those who held the position in the past. Scalzi makes use of this throughout the story, but what I liked about it is that the constructs of those who were emperox in the past are without ego, so they talk without any filters. I think it would be so interesting to be able to talk with certain people who lived in the past and get access to their unvarnished thoughts.

All of this is done in the prose for which Scalzi is known. I had to look up some new words, such as “squicked”, and toward the end he refers to one house as the House of Jemisin, which is an obvious nod to the author N.K. Jemisin.

It was a fun read, and I really look forward to the rest of the series. It looks like his next book, Head On will continue the story started in Lock In so I guess we can expect the next one in this series, The Last Emperox in late 2018 or early 2019. Despite that, I wouldn’t wait to read The Collapsing Empire, as it is really good on its own.

Review: The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

Over the weekend I read the excellent The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin. I always feel the need to justify negative reviews with examples, but since I liked it expect this review to be light on spoilers. However, if you are sensitive to such things, read the book and then come back. As usual, this post will be meandering and contain a lot of digressions, so you might want to just go check out Goodreads.

The Fifth Season Cover

This book won the best novel Hugo Award last year. I have a strange relationship with the Hugos, brought on mainly through my acquaintance with Ursula Vernon.

I live outside of the small town of Pittsboro, North Carolina. It is rare that we have any sort of celebrity here (well, unless I bring them) and outside of a brief handshake with Al Roker, it’s not often I’ve met anyone even quasi-famous.

Through my work with open source software, I met a man named Kevin and eventually I was introduced to his partner, Ursula. She had written a number of things, most notably a web comic called “Digger”. Digger is a wombat who has, shall we say, adventures. Wonderful adventures. It’s delightful and was successful enough to be turned into books.

In 2012 those books were nominated for a Hugo. This is a Big Thing™ especially for someone I actually know.

So, me being me, I set out to find out how I could vote in the Hugo awards. I figured someone has to, so why can’t I?

The awards are given out by the World Science Fiction Society at the annual WorldCon convention. In 2012 you could become a supporting member for $50, and that let you nominate and vote for works in the various award categories. Not only that, but it also included digital copies of all of the nominated works (which are a lot). It was definitely worth it.

I joined specifically to vote for Ursula, but, me being me, I felt I couldn’t vote on the other categories unless I was familiar with the nominees, so familiar I became. I read everything they allowed me to, including all of the novels.

Of course, the hands down winner for best novel of 2012 was Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey (now a television series on the SyFy network). Of course, it didn’t win.

The winning novel, Among Others by Jo Walton, was good, but I felt that it pandered a little too much to the nostalgia of speculative fiction. Ironically, I was reminded of the film Hugo which was in part about the history of film making, much as Among Others reflected on the golden age of science fiction and fantasy. I saw this as a bias in the process, although understandable and not like one that would soon grow into a controversy on its own right.

Ursula Vernon at the Hugos

Even though my preferred novel didn’t win, Ursula did (and she was up against some strong competition). Read about it in her own words. I love this picture of her on stage, she’s on the left with Neil Gaiman on the right. She has since won a Nebula for her short story “Jackalope Wives”, and I’m trying to angle an invitation to “Kevin and Ursula Eat Cheap” where they eat weird things and drink a lot. When I do, I plan to drink and then fondle both awards.

Anyway, what does this have to do with The Fifth Season? Well, it won the Hugo which means it was probably pretty good, but it made me wonder, did it “win win” or just “win”?

Of the other nominated works, I had only read Seveneves which I reviewed here. I’ve read the first of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary series and quite liked it, but I haven’t read Ancillary Mercy. The other nominated author I’m familiar with is Jim Butcher, and while I haven’t read The Aeronaut’s Windlass I love his other work so I’d probably like this as well (I just realized how behind I’ve gotten on my reading).

When Ben loaned me The Fifth Season and I saw “Hugo Winner” right on the cover, I was a little skeptical. I knew it had to be good, rarely have I found a Hugo nominated work I didn’t like, but I wondered how much was talent and how much was hype?

After reading it, I’m convinced it is talent. While it is hard to compare a book like this, which is heavy on character development and interaction, with a saga like Seveneves, which is set in space and is heavy on technology and science, I think she earned the honor.

The story takes place on Earth (or a planet very Earth-like) several millennia in the future. All of the continents have come together in sort of a “Pangaea” and a number of civilizations have come and gone, including the one we live in now. While a number of “deadciv” artifacts are still about, including some orbiting obelisks, the current level of technology seems to be stuck around the Middle Ages, with a few modern conveniences thrown in for the rich. The land is called the “Stillness” which is ironic, since the world is constantly subject to various tectonic issues. Every few hundred years something happens, usually a huge volcanic eruption, that creates a “Season” (or a fifth season in addition to the usual four). The resulting earthquakes and ash radically disrupt the normal flow of things, which causes hardships for the people living in the Stillness.

To prepare for this, society has organized itself into “comms” or communities. These are groups of people who have banded together to guard against a potential Season. Most people are identified by three names: their given name, their use-caste, and their comm. For example, a politician would be in the Leadership use-caste, so someone like North Carolina governor Roy Cooper might be known as Roy Leadership Carolina, or some such. There are twenty such use names, with the most common being things like Strongback, Resistant, and Innovator.

Now this wouldn’t be a fantasy novel without a fantasy element. In this case certain humans, called orogenes, have a magical affinity for the Earth. They can use this power to still possible quakes and tremors, and trained orogenes can further manipulate matter in very magical ways.

And that’s the problem. Untrained orogenes can actually cause a lot of damage. In deference to a number of magical systems (the one that comes to mind is the “sympathy” of Patrick Rothfuss) the energy to do those manipulations has to come from somewhere, and in some cases it can be from surrounding human beings. As you can imagine, removing energy from your body, mainly in the form of heat, is not a healthy idea. Mistakes get made and people die.

This causes a lot of superstition and suspicion. In fact, most of the non-orogene “stills” refer to them by the derogatory term “rogga” which is similar to “nigger” in our society.

To help deal with this, the rulers of this society have created a place called “The Fulcrum” where orogenes can be trained to use their powers. New recruits, almost always children, are called “grits” and as they master their abilities they can gain rings (from one to ten corresponding to each finger). The more rings you have earned the higher your status in orogene society. Since those orogenes with many rings can be quite powerful, and even grits can kill, they are watched over by “Guardians” who have the ability to block the orogenes’ power with a power of their own.

Against this backdrop, Jemisin weaves three story lines that ultimately come together. In one she uses the second person, thus “you” do certain things. I’ve read a number of novels written in the second person, such as Bright Lights, Big City, and while I like the device it almost always becomes tedious. Jemisin avoids this by only using it for part of the book.

And that is one of the reasons I think this book earned the Hugo. There are a number of great storytellers out there, but few can use things like second person and multiple story lines and still keep the attention of the reader. I strongly recommend any fan of speculative fiction check it out. I’m very eager to read the next one in the series, The Obelisk Gate once Ben is finished with it. (grin)

Review: The Record Company Give It Back to You

A couple of years ago we decided to lease a company car, and it came with SiriusXM satellite radio. For those of you who aren’t familiar, this service provides quite a large number of digital audio channels and each features a particular style of music. For example, music from the 1950s is on channel 5, music from the 1960s on channel 6, etc.

When I got it I spent most of my time on channel 36 “Alt. Nation” which plays alternative rock. After that started to get old, I branched out and started listening to a number of other channels. When I wanted something upbeat I might hit channel 51, “BPM” or channel 43 “Backspin” for “old skool” hip-hop. Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time on channel 32, “The Bridge” which focuses on (gulp) folk and soft rock. Hey, I’m old and besides I know all of the words to the songs. When I need something a little more modern I drop down to channel 28, “The Spectrum” which plays more energetic rock and mixes it up with both the classics and modern tracks.

Today I was coming into work and I heard this great song on The Spectrum called “On the Move” by a band called The Record Company. Now I know that smell is supposed to be the strongest trigger for memories, but for me music is a close second, and this song brought back a number of strong memories from my youth.

I grew up in a small town in North Carolina, and after I graduated from high school I moved to Los Angeles. I was done with this backwards and backwoods State and ready to enter the real world. That lasted two years, when I returned to the place I now call “God’s Own Earth”.

When I got back I reconnected with some friends I had left behind on my sojourn to California. I am blessed to have met some amazing people in my life, and in my fifty-odd years I’ve collected some great memories.

One of those involves Vonnie, the mother of a close friend. She used to live with a man named Bob who was an avid motorcycle rider, specifically of the Harley Davidson variety. Now about this time of year there is a huge motorcycle rally in Florida known as Daytona Bike Week. It turns out that for people who live up North and want to ride down, where we live is a very convenient place to stop about halfway. So each year Vonnie and Bob would host a party.

I got invited by my friend with the words “Mom is having a few bikers over for a cookout and you are more than welcome to join us”. It turned out to be a beautiful day, so I grabbed my buddy David and we headed out to Zebulon.

Along the way we kept passing groups of bikers, almost all on Harleys. We figured it was just because it was such a nice day to ride but as we got closer to Vonnie’s it turns out they were all headed to her party. There were at least fifty bikes, over a hundred people, as well as assorted cars and at least one cab from a tractor/trailer rig.

If you have ever seen the movie Mask, it was pretty much just like that, except Cher wasn’t there. It was awesome.

David and Tarus at a Biker Party

Yup, that’s me looking like the Oates half of Hall & Oates. Dave is the guy next to me.

Now the kind of music that is played at these parties is best described as “Southern Rock”. While I can’t remember a band at this particular party, I do remember going to another one soon after at a nearby farm with twice as many people, if not more. The stage was a flatbed trailer someone had pulled out into the pasture, and a number of bands would get up and play music from the standards like Alabama and Lynyrd Skynyrd, as well as tracks from Little Feat and Nantucket and blues songs from Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. I can remember The Black Crowes were huge at this time as well, so a number of their tunes would always get played. We’d drink beer, eat “chicken ‘n pastry” out of a God’s honest cauldron, and hang out under the stars just having a great time.

It was these memories that came flooding back when I first heard “On the Move”.

Now lately I’ve been stung by a number of album purchases. I would hear a song on SiriusXM that I really liked, go get the album and be disappointed that the one song was by far the best track. Luckily, I have Amazon Prime and so I was able to stream this album before buying it. By the time I got to “On the Move”, which is the fourth track, I’d bought it. Such a great album and an absolute steal at five bucks.

Give It Back to You

I’m not a music critic, so don’t expect me to review this with words like “a strong hint of apricot with a grassy overtone, with a finish that reminds you of almond” or some such crap. If you are of a certain age, or even if you aren’t, this music will remind you of simpler times, when a good party, great friends and rock ‘n roll were all you needed to forget your troubles. In a time where the country is run by a billionaire who never mowed a lawn in his life yet talks about making America great again, this album will remind you that America has always been great, in no small part due music from the heart and the heartland.

I was incredibly surprised to find out that The Record Company is based in LA. Heck, I lived there once, but they are channeling some down home feeling in their music. Please, check out their stuff. You won’t be disappointed.