Captain’s Log Days 0 and 1: Scotland… and all that Jazz

•July 23, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Day 0 London to Edinburgh

on the plane looking over Scotland


Travel went smoothly, which was great because Lisa has an upset stomach (was it the Mel’s Drive-In brunch?) for the second half of the flight to London. Fortunately, it was all made better by the lovely sights out the window flying north to Edinburgh. And having a row to ourselves on the long flight so we could use it for our things and not bother anyone. Awesome! That never happens!

We took the brand new tram from the Edinburgh Airport to York Place and walked to our hostel, a short jaunt away. We discovered ourselves to be the youngest residents (at the moment) in our separate rooms, which was unusual. (But, it was certainly quieter in mine, not so much apparently in Adam’s.) The hostel was large and well equipped with a big cafeteria and large self-catering kitchens, but not much in the way of storage; it can handle several cooks, but only a smattering of people really use it. There were several large groups (think buses, school summer trip, etc.) who could flood a floor and skip cooking themselves. Our rooms, nice and quiet, were in the basement with the kitchen and it’s private lounge. We were so underground.


Dinner was at a curry shop across the street. We walked a few blocks before deciding on it. Funny that. It was delicious and a complete hole in the wall. It’s on Leith Walk and it’s delicious. Tandoori to order, delicious Channa Puri. Take-away. There you go.

Day 1 Edinburgh



Our first morning was not so easy, but better than feared with Lisa being somewhat ill before. We got a recommendation for breakfast up the street, but we couldn’t find it, and popped into a nice café instead – a great decision. We decided to walk rather than take the bus around to stretch and recover and found a statue of Sherlock Holmes, a tribute to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was born near there. There was also a pub named for him near the spot.



Our route took us to the National Gallery Permanent Exhibits, which has a delicious permanent collection of both Scottish and world art (some beautiful medieval and Renaissance masterpieces, including Rafael and Tiepolo), and was showcasing a special exhibit on Venetian Art while we were there, a wonderful surprise opportunity! The museum also has a curious portrait of a dog on permanent display. A donor requested that, in exchange for their grand sum, the beloved painting be permanently shown, so it was and forever will be.

Vote Yes


Outside the Gallery, a bit of Vote Yes graffiti, supporting the vote for independence this fall.

Then we proceeded to make our way up to the Castle. Going up from the gallery was steep but short, so forth cutting off the throngs of tourists and DIsneyland-esque atmosphere of the Royal Mile. It popped us out at Castle Hill, the tip top of the Mile. The Royal Mile is rather full of tourist shops selling discount Scotland, but there’s a few good things tucked in. (Like any high tourist area, we know this one!) So we took a street past this one:

Old Town street


The Castle Esplanade was full of, not just the bleachers for the Tattoo, which would leave an open middle, but prep for a concert. We saw equipment for the Symphony, knew there would be fireworks, and heard it was all going to be on BBC Prom (a programme). When we left the castle they were finally getting around to their soundcheck with one of the bands/performers. We have no idea who it was, but people were surprised and stopping to listen and watch.
At the Castle we had lunch in the Redcoat and Jacobite Cafeteria, which used to be a powder/ammo house, and really with a name and setting such as that is just begging for a food fight. After lunch it was perfect timing for the One o’ Clock Gun. The gun, historically, was used to help with navigating the river Leith. When a monument tower was built on Calton Hill across town, a white ball was also dropped. It used to be a cannon, but now it is a 105mm field gun.

one o’clock gun


Afterwards we waited for the guided tour, which really just helped acquaint us with which building was which. Unless you are a voracious reader, the audio tour is the way to go. We ducked into the remains of David’s Tower to be, however, fortunately rewarded with a clan heritage twofer: a Douglas story in one exhibit, and a Gordon story in the other… and there were only two exhibits!
The Douglas story set the scene for the infamous Black Dinner, when the current king, and some of his men, invited some of the Black Douglases over for a dinner feast, ostensibly to strengthen the peace in the face of hostilities, but really thought them uppity, or was convinced that they were uppity. Two brothers went together to represent the Douglases, and all was surprisingly well until the feasters were served a black bull’s head, a symbol of death (but for whom?). The two brothers were seized, given a mock trial on trumped up charges, and executed immediately in the courtyard. For you Game of Thrones fans, George R.R. Martin has stated this was his inspiration for the infamous Red Wedding.

From that room we moved to a danker section of the tower cellars for the Gordon story. The last siege of Edinburgh Castle was during the Jacobite Uprising. The Castle was left in the care of the Duke of Gordon, who supported a Jacobite heir for the throne. He was determined to hold the castle to the death, but was forced to surrender the Castle when he was down to only one hundred men, in the cellars for barracks no less, and they were melting snow for drinking water (thanking God for winter). The fact that they held until then is pretty amazing.

We went from there to prettier sights, like the Honours, or Crown Jewels, although they are next to what people say is the Stone of Scone (Stone of Destiny!) which is sort of sparkly but not that pretty, and there are theories that it isn’t really the stone used to crown the Scottish kings anyways. We entered through the museum side (instead of the straight-to-jewels side) and got a history on the coronation of scottish kings, including nice facsimiles of James IV and Queen Mary. After the long, shuffle-stepped passage though the museum, we finally got to view the septer, sword, and crown themselves. It was striking how finely wrought the oldest complete set of regalia in Western Europe is. It is also interesting for being mostly silver, a more predominant metal in the area, rather than gold, the more rare and “royal” metal.

We visited the National War Memorial, a building constructed after the Great War (Lest We Forget) with a shrine for each regiment with a roll book for each of lives lost. Since we were plunged back into World War, there was a new book added, and there’s a post 1945 section in the back of the second book for every conflict since. There was a shrine area for the unknown and all as a place to lay wreaths which was spectacular with green marble, the Archangel Michael in midair, and exposed castle hill rock for the altar to rest on. They lost around 149,000 lives in WWI, which is pretty staggering for the population size; you get a sense of how that changes society afterwards. (Not including for survivors, too. Or the animals: go to the Royal Dragoons Regimental Museum and you can learn about calvary horses… and cavalry horses with shell shock.) It’s a modest memorial in size, but grand in execution.

We also visited the parenthetically mentioned Dragoons Museum, a short but sweet ode to Scottish cavalry from it’s inception to modern day. Lisa got to ogle the various types and styles of sabers and Adam found the tanks to his interest. We stopped into the Renaissance era hall that was restored in the 1800′s; the interior, except for the glorious roof, had been sacked by Cromwell.

roof/chandelier of the hall


While it would have been used for entertainments and feasts or court functions, the interior, however, was decorated lavishly with weaponry on loan from the Tower of London. This includes rounds of pistols (they look like wheels or sconces), swords for paneling (all sorts), and a spread of spears over the fireplace that had us wondering if the interior designer was the one who said hey, guys, you should take those swords and forge them into an iron throne.

fireplace and spears!


There also was an English servant who had several instruments. We stayed for the hurdy gurdy (instrument #1) because, well, how often do you hear a hurry gurdy?

Hurdy Gurdy Man!


Back out into the fog and wet, and we paid a visit to St. Margaret’s chapel, the oldest building in Scotland, and Mons Meg, the massive cannon:

Adam and Mons Meg


After all that it was time for a break, so we took tea before planning our walk to a jazz concert, part of the Edinburgh Jazz Festival.

For the Festival, most performers are only performing once at various locations scattered around Edinburgh. Rose Room’s venue was a hundred year old dance hall circus tent, with stained glass windows and velvet drapes. The tent was set up in a square on the University, so we got a walk through some parts of the city and University campus. That took us past St. Giles (closed for the evening, but we spotted a paved heart) and to the statue of Blackfriar Bobby, the little dog.

St. Giles Cathedral

Heart outside St. Giles


Lisa and Blackfriars Bobby

The story goes that Bobby, the dog, had a master who died, and followed the body from the wake to the funeral and gravesite. The loyal hound stayed there, or at least kept returning there, for twelve years until he died. We noticed his nose rubbed much like the market pigs in Italy and Seattle (and Juliet’s breast in Verona, too), so, it had to be done. But I digress.
When we got to the Palazzo, it had a little fenced off area of the square with fake grass on the grass to protect the grass and a ring of food booths, carnival style.

Velvet drapery roof – Lush!


Rose Room is a ’30′s era inspired gypsy swing group, with bass, rhythm and lead guitars, and a vocalist-violinist. Rose Room was lively, with upbeat tunes from around the world and some of their original compositions. The house was full and clapping at the end, and sorry to the SM, but they were going to take their encore. I can’t say as well on the other instruments, but the techniques on the violin were refreshing and fun, and technically challenging, but not overused. The bassist makes guitars, and the vocalist-violinist is going to be featured playing some Mendelson on her violin for a BBC programme about the island of Mull, where her violin was made, because the composer visited there and wrote his Hebrides after it. We bought both of Rose Room’s CDs.

passage, old college, U. of Edinburgh


Something Wiki This Way Comes

•May 21, 2014 • Leave a Comment

At school I received an email with a link to an article from the New Yorker, “How a Raccoon becomes an Aardvark,” which is an interesting read about the reproduction of errors on Wikipedia. This frustrates most people, but, in the case of one young man who changed a species from a raccoon relative into an aardvark, it was a chance for adventure. Who knew it would stick around and people would believe it?

The tag on the email, however, was that it was a terrifying prospect. To that, I must reply. Yes, and…

…it’s one that’s been a part of academia. It’s not new, but it’s more transparent now. We have handy digital records. It’s all fast and quick. This is a lesson that applies to the printed word as much as the digitally typed. The “Brazilian Aardvark” is a case of testing the system because the system today is fortunately so transparent and open-access on the digital front, where misrule can be a greater motivation. Greater, but not new.

Misrule of various sorts has always been around, from the early 1700′s when a blonde European masqueraded as a native of Formosa (Taiwan) for four years on the Continental circuit, to the 1970′s when Manuel Elizalde convinced a rural community of Filipinos to live as a lost group of stone age people, ostensibly to get them governmental attention and aid, but the truth of their prior existence, due to the media frenzy afterwards, can never be known for certain, nor his own need for attention.

On the other hand there are those who prove points: quite recently in 2012 a philosopher named Dr. Boudry (spelling? sorry!) had abstracts accepted at two conferences that were composed of meaningless word salad and in 1996, Alan Sokal submitted an article to the journal Social Test to test its submission process and academic rigor that had no real content – and was indeed published. The literary world has it’s hoaxes, such as I, Libertine, Naked Came the Stranger, and the Ern Malley Affair for poetry. The fine arts have also had their share of critics-of-critics. Tricksters will play their roles to poke at the vulnerabilities of our systems, and perhaps that is lesson number one, here: we have a tendency to be deceived. We like to deceive others in our wit, and so, that can fall back on us in turn. Loki would be so proud!

Wikiality and Wiki Wars (editing wars, or arguments about facts and sources) are fortunately tempered by what is actually a large underlying structure of transparency in the editing process, something that had been unheard of in encyclopedias. You can always View History and see who changed something, and the Talk pages can be immense. This is one factor that has kept Wikipedia’s overall reliability comparable to venerable encyclopedias like Britannica (much to their annoyance). This was kicked off by a head-to-head study done by Nature in 2005, and the abstract and theCitation for Article that found the differences fairly negligible: Wikipedia averaged four errors per page; Britannica, three. Wikipedia was more likely to include a falsehood whereas Britannica was more likely to commit the sin of omission.

Which is better? Which is worse?

Similar positive compatibility results have been found over the years, such as one in 2006 from on errors and perceived credibility by experts/academics when you remove the source (i.e., you don’t say where you got this short article on, x topic). The downside is that an editor or expert may fall for the preponderance of a statement as a fact over using primary sources, and new articles often don’t have that many secondary sources written yet. There was a good NPR interview about this phenomenon that you can read or listen to here.

Meanwhile, peer reviewed tests on vandalism have shown that most errors are repaired with due process and immediacy. A “fib data” supplemental from that study’s own test, for the curious, can be found here.

In other words, the digital media is of comparable accuracy to print, and it’s accessibility helps self-police would be misrule. If something doesn’t sit right, it should be questioned no matter the form of the source material. So, if one teaches media literacy, one can test out the boundaries, and create something new, like the Wikiality of the “Brazilian aardvark” or Naked Comes the Stranger, or learn as well that preponderance doesn’t necessarily equate to a primary or secondary source; when your primary source is the editor themselves, you should question it, and ask if they are credible. 

It isn’t the goal of being jaded, of having to say, “don’t believe everything that’s on the internet,” but that’s true of all media. It would be true to say that you can’t trust anything. It’s much more positive to ask, “is that credible?” because you might get a yes, or, pretty decent, okay. When asked who the author was of Naked Came the Stranger, one would find a false name, and a room full of Newsday columnists. 

So, this isn’t new to academia or the arts, it just feels more pressing because, I think, you know you should be able to change it as part of the greater editing community when its on Wikipedia. And this editing war has plagued some fields particularly because there’s been more than just misrule as scholars have tried to mold their facts to suit their theories over the ages, which has molded thought. Early archaeology, for example, is riddled with it; everything was a religious item, royalty, or worthless. Now valuable potsherds were once thrown away. In history, narratives are written, and were often done to weave a moral tale, so there has been a quite a bit of fuzzy data about the world – a far different intent than the aardvark – that are misleading or go off of preponderance or popular opinion rather than a primary or secondary source.

Some of which, like human sacrifice in Ancient Minoan Crete, I’ve seen develop into Wiki Wars, spilling out into the digital realm now that we begin to rethink and revise or go “post-” many previously held concepts. (This was an interesting archaeological saga, glad to share, but another story!)

But at least those discussions are saved on the digital record; there’s a nice saved page of arguments discussing data and archaeological findings that may support human sacrifice, and evidence and arguments that may refute it. The page reflects compromise and is worded as such. The original sidebars and discussions the early archaeologists and historians may have had on the Minoans have been lost to time, but their ideas on Minoans as an idyllic peaceful people perpetuate in the literature and the preponderance of these ideas is harder to sort through if you aren’t in-the-know already because of time and medium. 

You can’t edit or flag points or passages in books the way you can an online encyclopedia either. (Unless your author has a very active digital presence.) If only I could challenge a book the way I could a Wikipedia article! If I want something better or fixed, I have to wait for a new book to be written, usually by someone other than myself (let’s face it). If I send a letter to the newspaper to refute their glowing praise of a book, it may not be published. My recourse, without doubt, is well written but low-star review on Amazon!

For example: 34 out of 37 people have found my previously posted 1 star review of Cleopatra: A Life, by Pulitzer winner Stacy Schiff helpful. 15% gave it 1 star, 14% 2 stars. I am not alone here in my opinion. (I feel some validation!) But I digress.

In that way, there’s always a place for both the encyclopedia (digital and not) and the peer-reviewed literature review article, as a way to engage back with a text. That’s a huge benefit, interactivity, but it is not the same as discovering and interpreting a primary source for yourself. Discovering the primary source – or secondary if that’s all we’ve got – and then returning to the literature or the encyclopedia is where some magic could happen. That’s a moment for positive Wikiality. 

What would positive Wikiality really look like? You can interact back with the text. Encyclopedias are vast resources written for the common man, a good source for basic understanding of a topic. The online expert is the interpreter between the researcher expert and the user, so they have to be persuasive; their word becomes truth. When you learn, you can be, even if briefly for one little tidbit, that expert. There are movements in the sciences (at least) to publish digitally with open-access, and that could play a great role in positive Wikiality. The online expert could point out little known things, and push for clarity, revision, or caution – essentially what editors do now – but they have to be believed. And they have to actually be right. Or at least honest. That’s the difference. Our experts have to be truthful, or else we will believe a pack of lies about aardvarks. 

Though, as some of the callers to NPR pointed out, it may require much patience and time as well as sources. And perhaps some persuasive keystrokes in the Talk.

Now, to turn it into a class project.




Winter (?) Solstice in Yosemite

•January 7, 2014 • 1 Comment

It’s winter, it’s cold, but it certainly isn’t snowy like it should be. Still, it was quite a lovely time in the Most Beautiful Valley on Earth, and it provided a nice mental battery reboot: turn off computer, unplug computer, replug, wait 30 seconds, turn back on.


Looking into the Valley from Tunnel View

Looking into the Valley from Tunnel View


A leaf caught in the ice in Bridalveil Creek.


Midday reflections at Mirror Lake. To think that exposed granite is what we cursed in summer, we would have loved the sun the day we were there: some areas, like Curry Village, don’t see the sun at all because the Valley walls are too high.


Luck! A morning rainbow at Lower Yosemite Falls!


Haunting bridge towards the base of Bridalveil Fall.


Sunroom at the Wawona, decked out for the season. We had our brought from home lunch salads on the back right hand table when we weren’t day hiking.


It was Tom Bopp’s birthday! The Wawona revelers (the E Flat Singers) celebrated with cupcakes, shared treats, birthday napkins, a few drinks here or there, and popped wine open en masse after the corkage fee hours ended.


I took this for SCIENCE! For 6th grade science! Crystallization of water vapor from the air after sublimation of water from the snow. This is a close up of the water crystals forming on the snow. How cool! Phase change and properties of matter! It earned the post the science tag!


My fiancé on one of our morning hikes. It got sunny but we still found the trail equivalent of black ice.


Meadows still look autumnal when hit with direct sun, melting all the Thanksgiving snow away.


Fore! The Wawona golf course looks especially rough. It was freezing and shady, despite the lower elevation.


I like the hair on the fat one the best, personally, but the horns on the skinny snowman are also charming.


Last year this had a blanket of snow! Sigh…


My fiancé makes a good Ranger of the North, and fixes up a trail cairn. THe hat is just style. The Jacket is apparently style too. He bought it off the discount rack years ago, and the only people we’ve seen it on are park employees. This season, they brought back the design, and it’s on the shelves again in the Yosemite Village Store. He feels like a Mountain Hipster, but thoroughly recommends it. It’s inexpensive and is reversible with a fleece inner, and waterproof. He skis in his.


Not to be outdone, I also make a trail cairn. His is at right. I was particularly happy with mine. There weren’t many to compare to, so it looked really nice. But it’ll be down at the next snow. Till then, it’ll do it’s job. (This is how you mark trails when they are hard to follow, with little rock piles or cairns. Though, I have seen an abandoned neon orange croc shoe do the same before, too, in a particularly bad zone. They don’t have to be towers, but the more obvious cairns help the inexperienced. Tower building cairns is also for the fun of it!)


Out behind Mirror Lake. Frozen.


Wildlife. Did not see any bears for Iris, just deer.


This is how tourists take pictures of the deer though, which is really annoying. If animals know you’re there, and are running away from you, you’re doing the wrong thing.


My fiancé at Clark’s Bridge over the Merced River. A little frozen!

IMG_0159 2

Yosemite Falls, with a little bit of shine from Lehamite Falls (deep groove, center) and Royal Arch Cascade (rounded slope, right) from Swinging Bridge in Leidig Meadow.


Lamps in the Wawona. I wanted to show them on their own, ghostly.


Also back behind Mirror Lake.


Wawona Meadow Trail: Ice and Snow, Frost and Foliage.

We also had a grand time making gingerbread houses, and got a gingerbread lesson from the Chef at the Wawona. I’d say yum, but we were so focused, I didn’t partake that much of the candy or other goodies. The hot chocolate and cookies in the afternoons however was another matter entirely!

Facepalming social justice!

•December 30, 2013 • Leave a Comment

One of the great but horrible things about the internet is the way you can hyperlink from one thing to another in a cascading river of entertainment and or life sapping doom, depending on the content and or time sucked away. (Don’t deny it!) I linked my way to tumblr, which itself is a cyclical den of iniquity of sorts, to a particular tumblr called yourfaveisproblematic which has the goal of deconstructing celeb role models for the purpose of social justice to show flaws: “…this blog serves, not to condemn them for making mistakes, but to point out that they are human, and that they aren’t beacons of human perfection that should be unquestioningly emulated.” 

Not a bad start, and the pages for celebs seem to range. You can make up your mind whether their interpretations are legit or heavy handed, but it’s a good point. Then there was this letter put in the question box. Not being on tumbler, I can’t back quote all the commentary, but I can leave some good quotes from others. The letter began polite:

Hi, I just want to say beforehand that in no way am I trying to oppose your blog, I’m asking questions because I myself want to educate myself on these things, and this is purely me trying to understand. I apologize if I say anything offensive in this ask.

The questions concerned clarifying some celebs use of language or symbols might be considered offensive to other cultures (rather than, say, just enjoying the language). Without knowledge or context of the history of the terms, or the way they might offend, or et cetera, you get my drift I hope, it’s a good question and could leave someone who is a novice to thinking critically about how it might affect someone seriously puzzled.

The mod’s response was the most passive-aggressive response ever:

Hey! Well, in answer to your first question I’d recommend you look at this source here. If that doesn’t answer your question, you can try this one.

The second question is a little tricky, because the term is so common that many don’t even realize it’s a slur. However, this website sums it up nicely.

Your third question can be answered if you look at this. It will only take about thirty seconds of your time.

Hope you find the answers you are looking for!

Each one of their links led to a different search engine. (Google, Bing, Yahoo, Dogpile.)

One tumblr blogger, dianamyte, summed up the anger/outrage responses tidily:

Ok. This makes me fucking livid, and is the biggest problem I have with this blog and blogs like it.

This, in my opinion, is worse than the supposed offenses the blog gets so upset about: someone was trying to learn and understand by asking questions and was met with sarcasm and ridicule. How do you think that asker is going to feel about those issues now? What do you think the chances are that, in the face of that ridicule, they went ahead and actually followed through with looking up the information for themselves? I’m guessing pretty slim. I’m guessing the next time that person – or anyone who was considering doing so but read this post – considers asking for clarification to better understand a pretty fucking complex issue, they’re going to remember this and reconsider. They’re going to stop seeking understanding and choose to stay ignorant. How in the fuck does that accomplish anything that so-called “social justice warriors” claim to want?

It doesn’t – it just satisfies their feeling of superiority over the unwashed masses and re-confirms why so many people roll their eyes and don’t bother.

(It also makes me wonder if they even know the fucking answer, or if they just see something, think “well shit that must be racist” and brand it as such without even bothering to understand why.)

tl;dr being a ginormous toolbag about social justice makes most people completely disengage from learning about it, which hurts everyone… except I suppose the ginormous toolbags who get off on feeling superior, because this ensures that they may continue doing so. In which case please understand that you are an asshat and deserve to have something dropped on your toes when they’re really cold.

But I also want to shed light on another response made by blogger laughingdaredevil:

I gotta come in and say, that there’s a difference between being a minority on the street getting these questions from every Tom, Dick, and Harry who finds out and running a blog like this one.  It is a blog meant to educate and inform.

When you put yourself in the role of an educator (which, again you do by running a blog “calling” these things out or informing others of them) you establish yourself as an authority on the matter and people WILL ask you questions.

If someone comes onto my blog and asks about not being straight, I don’t have to answer them.  If I ran a blog about that lifestyle and the struggles I faced and posted rants about the use of certain words, I would.  Because I have set myself up as an educator.

If you run a blog like this and respond in this pseudo-clever (they think they’re being funny, instead they’re just being a rude jackass.) way, you’re an asshole and you ruin it for the people who actually want to educate the world and themselves.  And you can’t say people need to educate themselves as a response that’s what they’re doing when they ASK QUESTIONS.


Social justice can start at a place of outrage, but it shouldn’t go to a place of revenge, and it shouldn’t shun those who are asking questions, but embrace those questions. Ignorance is what breeds the problems, it should be dispelled, or at least that’s what I’ve been taught. We should learn to see the interconnectedness and layers of how the issues intersect, and not brush people off. To steal a phrase for the tiny point here, women’s studies courses aren’t classes for women. Heck, the issues shouldn’t be relegated to a single line of coursework at all, but you get the picture. If someone’s out to learn, you don’t say no, this isn’t for you, mock them, bash them, and send them elsewhere because of their own ignorance. Not when you are set up as the educator. There, I think laughingdaredevil and dianamyte hit it on the nose: even though not as a professional, someone, or someones, set themselves up as doing a service, as an educator in the blogging community. Laughingdaredevil put it in terms of education, but even if not as a formal service, dianamyte hits it colloquially. Would you do that to another person, to someone – any someone? The answer should be no. Instead, they said their wisdom as an educator is worthless and sent them away.

On the front end, the social justice and the layers, I was reminded of my master’s courses, but this ugly back end reminded me of an incident as an undergrad. I was in a course titled, intimidatingly, “Life, Death, and the Human,” which was taught by a grad student out of the History of Consciousness department. The course itself was interesting if totally topically difficult at times, but the TAs were a bit absurd. I was taking it with a couple of my Classics buddies, and HisCon was a generally good, off the wall department. The class was strong on the social justice. We thought it should have been out of College 19 (our joke name for 9 and shiny new College 10 at the time).

It was on the other side of campus, and right during lunch. Our break time during class was notoriously too short to go to the dining hall. This set up is important. I, and many others, packed a lunch, and we tried to eat during the break or scrounge, or run to the all day dining hall immediately after class. One of my buddies with a strong surfer vibe found a solution one day, and brought popcorn, and popped it during break. 

Is eating during class polite? Depends on your professor. Is not having a brain during class because your blood-sugar is too low equally bad? Well yes, a horrid trade off. Most professors I’ve had were okay with food so long as it wasn’t messy, so it must’ve seemed okay to do, but I feel like this popcorn was sort of an act of rebellion at this point. But they didn’t kick him out so it must have been legal. I just recall starving all quarter. You need food (and caffeine sometimes) to be alert and learn.

The first half of the class was about spectatorship, and I suppose being a bystander to events (Schadenfreude? Not being an upstander? Something like that.) Little did we know that the second half of the class we would be watching a film, and now the entire front row – because surfer boy brought enough to share, was eating popcorn. I don’t recall the film. It could’ve been the one on black market organs. It could’ve been water wars in India or women and suicides, it really doesn’t matter anymore. We on the sidelines overheard one of the hardcore TA’s remark: “How’s that for spectatorship!” to another TA. That’s the part that mattered.

For the majority of the quarter, the TAs could not see that the students were hungry, and they assumed the callous worst of humanity within us, their little posse against the masses of people-hating popcorn-eating Classics-reading Santa Cruz hippie surfers in the front row. The assumption and virulence and subsequent cold shoulders was appalling and does nothing to break down the barriers present (if they ever existed). The popcorn partakers feared for their grades and had to go to the teacher over it.

Personal indignation and righteousness, however well justified, don’t solve problems unless channeled into positive actions. That’s the piece that was missing until my master’s course. I hope those TAs learned it eventually. You never know what barriers are in someone’s way. If you’re ready to go on a passive aggressive war path that could affect someone’s future or their psychological state, you better make damn sure they aren’t just ignorant and starving.

So here it is playing out, yet again. Someone, trying to learn gets trolled by the educator who can’t step off their soapbox. That’s another one I learned from a dear colleague: get off your box.

Every now and again, you need to step down and listen instead of preach. As educators, we too must learn. Perhaps the first thing to learn is humility, being able to step down and listen to our students. The questions they ask can tell us so much, and they can discover more in ways than just giving simple answers (though that still might be best for Q&A like the website that started this whole post). If the TAs got off their box, they’d see the affect of the students was being changed by other needs. If the tumblr bloggers behind yourfaveisproblematic got off their box, they could find new ways to approach and educate others rather than use passive aggression to divide themselves further from others.

This is just a lesson in how not to respond if someone sees you as an expert on a box.

Paul Graham’s Nerds

•December 17, 2013 • Leave a Comment

One of my friends and gaming buddies linked our group to an article programmer and tech nerd guru Paul Graham wrote just about a decade ago expounding his beliefs on nerds and school culture. It’s entitled “Why Nerds are Unpopular,” and is based on Graham’s experiences in high school in the 1980′s. She wanted to open up a conversation. I wrote a reply that was as long as Graham’s. In doing so, I found that the essay was, while not necessarily quoted, references to it were here and there around the internet. So I hope I live up to Graham’s other article on “How to Disagree,” because I found I could not sit with his method or perspective. I found Graham’s opinion to be limited and universalist. It’s still an interesting and thought provoking read:

Graham’s view is that nerds are unpopular because they have better, more intelligent things to think about (that’s what makes them a nerd), but that the way schools are set up and popular kids are encouraged creates an environment where their poor treatment is perpetuated. Boiled down, that seems a potentially fine opinion. However, Graham bases his theory entirely on his own experience and admits to dismissing the contrasting experiences of others on an “RE:” page. A more robust view is impossible with this treatment. Graham assumes his experience to apply to everyone, and at anytime. I wrote this to my friend:

The thing that got me was that he assumes his experience to be both universal and static, and in his RE:Why Nerds are Unpopular, he pretty much dismissed nerds who had other types of experiences, especially ones with positive experiences, so I felt the need to deconstruct his universality and use what he absolutely does not – literature, references, citations, data, anything besides personal authority – to show that there’s a variety of social patterns at work and that the system is way more complex for several reasons, even if we keep his definition of what makes a nerd a nerd. There’s more hope for positive outcomes than Graham’s nihilistic and pessimistic view of what the median or average experience is.
Truth be told, I limited myself to interactions between the “nerd” and “popular” kids because it’s worth a whole essay on itself to look at the social hierarchies within the nerd or popular circles themselves, both back when I was at high school and the ones I see as an adult. I gave this only lip service in the essay. I would not be able to do it justice here, nor the experience of being a geek or nerd in a system different from Graham’s. Personally, it can be just as harsh, but at times it can be liberating too. My point is to challenge Graham’s dismissal of these other systems.
Graham also made the mistake of writing “I’ve read a lot of history, and…” (without citations of course.) I facepalmed. I got some fiero out of responding to that part. Enjoy the mini Renaissance lesson in the middle.
And, of interest to me, is how geeks fit in to this equation. The fact that there is evolving definition (that is not necessarily the same as nerd, author’s inserted note) is key, so I hope you stay tuned. The landscape of experience has the potential to change further. If you could make it through Graham’s essay, I hope you can be patient through mine.
So I’m using this space as a place to publish that response. As a geek and a teacher, it is a particularly interesting exploration to me, though the response paper I wrote does not really begin to explore the issues of how a school or a classroom setting really plays into this. I rather end with that as an open-ended question. Where are we going and where do we want to go when we are redefining how inclusive we are, and what value we place on “intelligence?” How do we incorporate multiple intelligences not just as a means to an end, or a boon for education strategies, but as an avenue for social good and cooperation?

In response to Paul Graham’s “Why Nerds Are Unpopular” follows after the break.

Continue reading ‘Paul Graham’s Nerds’

Rounds and Rounds: a data based essay spurred on by a silly facebook picture

•July 24, 2013 • Leave a Comment

“I was going to post on Facebook, but my response was too long” should just be a button or something. I know there are notes, but hey, I have all the space I could want here.

There comes that moment when seeing something, we are drawn to it a little too much for our own goods. For me, this results in quests for data and a resulting essay. Usually I let hot button things lie, but sometimes there’s either something personal or something absurd and I have to pick it up and examine it.

So today this gun control thing got passed around. I call it a thing, because it’s not really an infographic and it’s pretty bad at what it does. I can’t tell if liking it means you support it or think it’s silly, and what side of the debate it’s on is debatable. I have a keen dislike for confusion, and to me, it’s silly on all sides because it’s haphazardly produced and haphazardly commented on. Take a gander:

Screen Shot 2013-07-24 at 11.34.50 AM


Why is this silly? Well, part of that is how you define assault weapons, or “assault weapons” as we may call them in California. The police could or could not be using assault weapons, and besides, they’re police, people we would generally trust with them anyways. That’s the other part of it. The logic in the chart is supposed to support a ban, but I’m not quite sure how from it’s lack of initial commentary. The secondary argument, in orange and red, is that using this data from the NYPD shows a need for larger number of bullets if you were to apply that to civilians, which is perhaps an argument for higher or extended capacity magazines specifically (regardless of the rest of the weapon and how it’s being defined).

This is a point for larger magazines (if not a clear graphic). But the logic on the sidebar to say you would need 30% more rounds as civvie felt arbitrary, as did the need to put down two people. I want to acknowledge some of the commenters who worry about collateral if the large number of rounds fired here represent trained individuals. Some of which were unfortunately disparaging against police accuracy. The only bit of data in the thing is the chart, but there’s an absurd lack of context, as commentators have also pointed out. So, I went to find data. Mainly because I couldn’t decide if the “fuck you” pic was intentional or sarcastic at the mess of it all. Silly pictures. So, I present to you, data on the NYPD and gunfight accuracy and it’s relation to civilians and whether you do need that many bullets or not.

This got me digging into interesting waters, like whether police training is effective, the more philosophical conundrum presented in high capacity magazines, and an absolute need for women gun owners to have close quarters training.

The bottom line for the tl;dr folks out there (consider this the abstract) is that police and civilians are more similar in training than they are different when it comes to the scenarios they actually fire their weapons in. Both need close quarters battle (CQB) training or skills development in non-aiming fire to be effective, and having this training strongly effects both number of rounds fired and accuracy in a fight. The NYPD and civvies are not trained for CQB, they both need more rounds to hit a target, and their chance for collateral damage increases. Whether or not that means you want to give larger magazines to them so that they can eventually take down the target is up to you, but you have to weigh the risk for collateral. To me, the bottom line, like usual, is a necessity for appropriate weapons training. As a woman, this has sad but strong ramifications, as I hope you will stick out to see, below.

Now on to the data:

A previous study on the shooting habits of NYPD officers shows that their firing rates may be more similar to how a civilian fires than not, and serve as a reminder for trained civilians and gun enthusiasts and rights supporters as well. The NYPD study released in 1981 spanned data from the 1850′s to the present and showed that there was a disconnect between training at a distance of 50 feet and the majority encounter distance of less than 3 yards (38%). A 2011 NYPD report on firearms discharge notes that the NYPD (currently) trains at distances up to 75 ft. However, historically, in 50% of cases where firearms were discharged, the distance was at least under 7 yards. In addition, 70% of officers used instinctive firing over aiming, 10% could not remember whether or not they aimed, and ones that fired warning shots would be involved in gunfights with more rounds fired.

This may be more realistic than commenters thought to how a regular joe may find themselves under fire or firing at an attacker, shooting by instinct and at close distances. Consider the most frequently mentioned feared scenarios of home invasion or public altercations (muggings, fights/escalated altercations, and car jacking) are all at close distances, or close quarters. The US Army also recognizes the difference between marksmanship at distance (calm) and hitsmanship at close quarters (stressful) and recommended point shooting techniques, which is a different skill than aiming on a range. While not all civilians who own firearms go through training or frequent ranges, enthusiasts and those who purchase firearms for self-defense may. Civilian and police firearms practice is similar in that they involve training for accuracy in aiming using sites (or a scope if we’re fancy), and training over distances. Hunting (and hunting-like scenarios like trap and skeet) also trains for accuracy over range (and movement). With a boom in handgun training, the Harvard Injury Control Center, HICC, compiled surveys of gun owners and found that many owners who had training did not follow gun safety regularly. This indicates a shortage of good classes, (lengthy waiting times for the excellent ones are reported) and that the average owner does not progress beyond basic classes. Range shooting is common, however. CQB shooting techniques or skills are not usually practiced or taught (most classes are basic handling and use).

Now, SWAT uses point shooting and some other techniques (depends on the team) for CQB. SWAT rates are much different than NYPD’s overall rate. From a 2008 study on tactics teams (Klinger and Rojeck), in 75% of cases, less than 10 rounds were fired by the entire team, 3 rounds or fewer in 50% of those cases. Admittedly, SWAT is usually on the offensive side, and prepared for this sort of thing, but not always: on the other extreme there were a few cases with over 100 rounds fired in barricade and hostage situations, but the majority of rounds went to suppressive fire rather than targeting a person. (Not directly applicable to regular joes, but I can think of ways.) When SWAT did target a person, they had much better hitsmanship (actually hitting your live target in combat situations). SWAT uses far less rounds, and with fewer firing officers, because they are trained differently. They are trained for more close quarters and effective take-down, which would apply to the regular NYPD officers in altercations and to civilian personal defense. The only big difference is working in a regular team, and coming into the situation prepared for possible combat and probably multiple combatants. Still, it’s the hitsmanship and very low number of rounds fired in total that matter here. That’s effective training for making your shots count in close quarters, both in aim and stress.

So, what does this say? Range training goes out the window when confronted by someone close to you. Even well trained folks (police, stress) have poor hitsmanship when in these situations. The recommended way to combat it is to be trained in an appropriate skill for the situation, i.e. a CQB technique, whether it’s point shooting like the Army recommends, or some other techniques for close ranges developed for SWAT. Going to a range is a fun and useful way to practice, but if you are worried about personal defense rather than sport (including hunting) then practicing at the range is not the appropriate skill because it does not include close quarters training. It’s not that it’s improper training, as it teaches you how to handle and fire a weapon accurately and safely, but it is incomplete training, and it is the wrong training for close quarters personal defense. Individuals with range-only training will fire more rounds and have a lower hitsmanship than those with CQB experience. While it’s not widely available, CQB training does exist for civilians. Some personal defense courses cover shorter distances and point shooting practice. A good example of a blend of these skills for civilians can be found in courses like the Intermediate Class here (in the greater LA area): With the proper training, you don’t (theoretically) need an extended or high capacity magazine because it reduces your need for extra rounds to hit your target. But with only average range training, there is a case there for having more rounds available because hitsmanship is rather low.

The question remains: how much do you trust someone else’s ability to not hit others as collateral damage when their hitsmanship is that low? Should they get a couple more rounds because they really can’t hit until the 10th or 11th round on average if they are also more likely to hit a civvie? The uproar over the NYPD in last year’s Empire State Building shooting was tremendous, and is rather a case in point for when it totally goes wrong: with one perpetrator, officers shot 16 rounds. One officer shot nine rounds, and the other shot seven. Between them they killed the perp (a murderer) and hit nine bystanders, three were hit directly and six with ricocheted shrapnel. This is like the worst case scenario, and I am using it to illustrate that point only. I cannot find good data on NYPD’s rate of collateral, so it’s just the worst case illustration. NYPD blew some of it off because six were hit with shrapnel because the officers missed and hit things like railings and flower pots. But they still directly shot three people and missed their target with at least those nine shots.

NYPD has improved since the 1980s, and the 2011 NYPD Annual Firearms Discharge Report is quick to point out that a quarter of officers who discharged a weapon only fired one shot, but the report also does not calculate hit percentages (they don’t do that anymore, effectiveness is rated solely by whether or not the target was eventually taken down, like a yes or no question) and the report still stresses conventional aiming techniques for the preferred method for all shooting, regardless of situation, even when officers engaged in firefights within 1-5 yards 53% of the time and 15 yards or less 91% of the time in 2011. Of the 62 officers who fired their weapons in 2011, only 5 shot at distances over 45 feet, and only one was a successful note in the report, of an officer who shot a man who was stabbing a woman on a distant balcony. Well done, sir. But the NYPD is using this to justify current training as effective. With all indications, the shooting isn’t effective because targets at this range are rare and NYPD still isn’t training for close quarters, nor will they consent to the scrutiny of hitsmanship ratings any more.

So, apply that to civilians: best case scenario, you see someone in the distance attacking someone, or breaking in at your gate with arms. You have time to aim traditionally using sights and have range training and good aim, make a thoughtful decision whether or not to fire, and do, hitting them successfully. The worst case scenario is something like the Empire State Building: you are attacked in public, cannot aim conventionally, and fire with low hitsmanship, possibly wounding those around you directly or indirectly. And where’s the average? That’s those potential average 10.3 rounds needed to take down a target. Clearly from hitsmanship it is not 10.3 rounds into the targeted individual, more like one or two. What’s the possibility of hitting others with those other 8.3 rounds? I have no idea. It may not be bad, but it could be. There’s potential in on both sides depending on the scenario. I just don’t have data to say either way about collateral as an average or mode. But the bottom line is this:

If you are serious about personal safety, learn some close quarters techniques. Clearly police need this too. Practice those and you won’t be worried about needing a larger magazine to compensate.

That does assume firing at a single person, and that you are not trying to carry a load out for the worst case scenario of facing a whole gang of attackers. The point is that with the appropriate training, your need for rounds per target drops. The next logical question would be how often multiple attackers are involved, as the graphic goes on to say you need enough rounds for two attackers. If there were multiple attackers, even with CQB training, you could push the argument for more ammunition. I don’t know what the answer is for that, but I do have a small subset of the population: women.

According to the CDC, women made up about 13.6% of all homicides by firearms. Although a small percentage, it’s a significant part of the population, and feels important because so many gun rights arguments point to self-defense, especially for women. Also, being a woman, it’s particularly important to me. Although a small percent, it is however a particular situation that arises as most common, and it is one that stresses the need for CQB techniques for women over that of range aiming skills.

Using FBI supplementary reports, for both women firing in self-defense and women who have been murdered with a handgun, the most common scenario involves a lone male acquaintance, typically but horribly a husband or boyfriend or an ex. Family violence is more common than violence from strangers when handguns are involved, and the same holds true of sexual assaults regardless of the presence of a weapon. US DoJ stats show that there is an average of 207,754 victims of sexual assault each year. 10% of those are male and at least 40% of the total is a rape crime. Women are just plain out more likely to face violence and crime from familiar faces, making up 73% of sexual assaults with 50% of assaults occurring within a mile or in the woman’s home. Most of these are single attackers as well. So at least for women, we are most likely to face firearms and assault from people we know in locations we know, including in our homes. From the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, women are more likely to be threatened by men with firearms in the home. That’s a scary thought, it points to a sad road of needing a firearm for self defense from the people we love most. But even if it doesn’t happen to us directly, if we are to stand up for our sisters and mothers and daughters, then the data points to a strong need for CQB training for female personal defense.

How does this play out for men and violent crimes against them? I’m not sure. Again, it comes down to not really seeing the frequency of violent crime, especially crimes with firearms, involving multiple attackers to help get a sense of whether or not more rounds are more likely to be needed. Most burglars work alone, but does that translate to other types of criminals? I have no idea. For women at least, the answer is a sad sort of yes, as they are very much more likely to face solo attackers bearing firearms or feel the threat of sexual assault from solo men; sad because it’s likely a spouse or acquaintance. For those of us who are women, we have to be prepared not just for CQB, but to do it in defense against someone we might have once called friend, brother, or lover.

According to HICC, most purported self-defense gun uses are in escalating arguments, so it’s possible that there is a fair percentage of men who will be involved in a gunfight with someone they know, or are acquainted with rather than strangers, but again, this says nothing about the number of people involved. Statistics or studies on this aspect would be interesting to see.

To summarize this, the NYPD rounds spent and hitsmanship rates are probably similar to civilians who purchased firearms for self-defense. If you are concerned about self-defense, you should learn some close quarters skills and practice without using sights. The police should definitely be trained in this. If you are a woman and are going in for a gun, this is particularly vital. When it comes down to arguing over the capacity of magazines, or the need for more rounds, the questions are thus:

Can you aim without sights? Do you know how to shoot in close quarters? Can you trust yourself to hit your target and not bystanders while under stress? How well do you trust other gun owners (the good, the bad, and the ugly) to do the same? Do you want to give someone who can’t hit well the extra bullets to try?


Various Hyperlinked and Slightly Annotated Sources:

DoJ report: Multi-Method Study Of Special Weapons and Tactics Teams, authored by David A. Klinger and Jeff Rojek, August 2008

2011 New York City Police Department Annual Firearms Discharge Report can be found here:

CDC Cumulative firearms tables 1999-2010:

FBI Supplementary Homicide report from 1998 is available at the Violence Policy Center at The site rather grossly misconstrues female gun ownership rates with female firearms deaths, but the respected and formerly CDC backed Harvard Injury COntrol Research Center has shown a correlation between overall gun ownership and female firearms deaths. VPC just doesn’t cover how often women murdered with handguns die by their own gun rather than it belonging to the murderer. This would make their argument hold water. HCIP does have a handful of studies that use the same FBI data but the VPC site was, however, the easiest for quickly accessible charts from the FBI report. The report itself is an annoying text document of a database, and is a horror to read. It is available here

Decent breakdown of the 1981 NYPD article by a police officer with commentary on point shooting can be found at The Virginia Coalition of Police and Deputy Sheriffs here:

CNN on the Empire State Building Shooting:

For FBI and DoJ stats on sexual assault against women, take a gander at RAINN, one of the largest anti-sexual violence networks. The DoJ sources are available at their own site, and fortunately they are not as wonky as the FBI report.

Book Reviews – Part 1

•July 18, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Can I ever wind down from the brisk crunch of the end of the year and our backpacking trip? Maybe.  I’m listening to Flavio Cucchi, an Italian guitarist, and am going to report on a stack of books I’ve managed to finish that have kept me sane over the last few months.  But first a note on the food front; ahem:

The DIY Alton Brown style Box Fan Food Dehydrator totally works and we made pasta salad on our backpacking trip. I will have pics up in a bit. There are some slight annoyances, but the overal effect is quite grand.

There, now that’s done, onto the books! These are in no particular order. Okay they do have an order, and that order is the way they have piled up on my desk. Today, you get to see three of these books. So there.

1. Ian Fleming’s Secret War, by Craig Cabell

Props for an awesome cover from a small publishing company.

Props for an awesome cover from a small publishing company.

So I picked up this little treasure from the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. on our school’s 8th grade trip. Pretty Fitting purchase, no? I intended it for my fiancé, but naturally, I read it first.

I have gotta say, the International Spy Museum deserves a visit, and especially the “Operation Spy” where you participate in a rather engrossing and immersive operation. If you get the chance, go. The museum, and it’s varied experiences, are fabulous, whether the inclusion of real relics (the original script for that little sci-fi called Argo, anyone?) or chances to try your hand at the trade (I’m not so good at audio processing. I did, however, use my ninja skills successfully in the noise sensitive air duct), the museum can’t be beat. It’s also running a Bond exhibit at the moment for the film series (rather than the books’) 50th anniversary.

The dust cover flap says Craig Cabell is a journalist, but he writes like a journalist who happens to have had a career in the military; the book, short and absurdly well sourced with included passages and documents, could be confused for a SitRep at times. While engrossing, Cabell isn’t out to provide immersion, he’s out to provide facts, and a clear and concise picture of Ian Flemming’s role in the intelligence community in WWII (he explicitly states similar). This he does excellently, and it’s fascinating. It becomes less of a story of how a writer can gather a variety of inspirations for a bestselling hero, but how one single person fits into the great scheme of a system, and can play quite a surprising role bigger than just a cog in the machine.

Dryness is entirely made up for by this compelling roll out of Fleming’s history as the right hand man to the head of Naval Intelligence, but don’t expect all the dots to be connected for you as to what his successes mean to the greater part of the war effort, or to us today. It’s a fascinating snapshot, not a biography, and it has no illusions about making these connections. Those are for you to make on your own. It’s a good, quick read, and you’ve been warned to the style. A list of abbreviations and acronyms is at the front to help as well.

Also, until this book, I had no idea that Fleming also wrote Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.  I was a little surprised by the revelation, but there you have it. I am imagining a cross-over between Chitty Chitty and James Bond. Someone please write a short or an art piece of this, because that would be some hilarious and big surprises from Q branch.

2. The Inland Whale:Nine Stories Retold From California Indian Legends, by Theodora Kroeber

There's a focus to this book, but the ambient cover doesn't reflect it. Does add some mystery, though.

There’s a focus to this book, but the ambient cover doesn’t reflect it. Does add some mystery, though.

I picked this little paperback up a while back at the gift shop at Fort Ross, in Northern California. Fort Ross was a Russian outpost back in the first half of the 1800′s before the California Gold Rush- a really interesting time and place for the meeting of cultures, if you think about it. But this book has absolutely nothing to do with that and absolutely everything to do with that: it’s a collection of legends, not transcribed, but put instead into a familiar Western narrative context so that they can be understood.

The Inland Whale was assembled and published in 1959 by Theodora Kroeber, a California anthropologist. One of her children is the writer Ursula K. LeGuin, who writes sci-fi and children’s work, notably the Earthsea series. This book, forwarded by Theodora’s son, is a reflection of Theodora, and very much a reflection of what it means to be a woman. The book is thematic as it follows nine stories of “heroines” in Californian legends from several tribes (some of which overlap, holding the same or similar oral stories).

It’s also an opportunity to share the minority narrative of truth, culture, and history, with the majority. Power relationships play a major role in several stories, and what it means to be a “heroine” is rather at odds and questionable, as the heroines in the stories may fit every role, including villain and damsel in distress. We have not just native stories struggling for preservation, but the tales of women. The book is not about empowerment of either, per se, but these are the cultural tales passed down and owned by men and women alike as theirs. By calling all the women in the stories “heroines,” Kroeber calls the reader to consider the actions and lives of these women as heroic in a much broader cultural sense. With both literal and cultural eradication of many Californian tribes, these surviving stories are of heros and heroines, heroic in that they preserve their culture, customs, and history for the next generation.

3. Odd Apocalypse, by Dean Koontz

The new cover scheme seems a little cheesy to me, but oh well.

The new cover scheme seems a little cheesy to me, but oh well.

I am a bit of a sucker for Koontz, ever since I heard an audio book of Velocity on a car-trip. Koontz’s writing reads well aloud, in a radio-drama sort of way. You get to know the narrator’s character quite well, what makes them tick, and fall into their story. In the Odd Thomas series, Koontz delivers.

That said, if you want to get into the Odd series, you need to start at the beginning  with Odd Thomas.

And maybe check out the manga series of prequels by Queenie Chan, too.

Either you like the series or you don’t. The plots are straightforward, but do get points on the creepy-fantastic-otherworldly-supernatural-odd-o-meter, and that is largely carried by the convincingness of the young fry-cook hero, Odd Thomas, a young man who sees the dead, and gets dragged into a lot of truly weird things on a path to… something we don’t know for sure yet.

I’ve read the criticisms of the series on like amazon and other big book purchase sites from users, and a lot of it is centered into two categories: too different on the odd-o-meter, or that Odd was not a convincing character, or rather, since the books are first person, Koontz was not a convincing late teen/early 20′s fry cook, really writing like an adult and he throws in cliffhangers for every chapter. This comes from both Koontz fans and ones who were just giving him a shot. I, however, think he does an excellent job with this character, and here’s why:

First, Odd is not a schmuck. Schmucks are people who think that if you are in your teens or twenties, you can’t have good vocabulary or style, that you are somehow less intelligence because you have less wisdom of years, or that kindness and hope cannot belong to the same. Odd had an abusive childhood, but he has an amazing memory, the ability to think fast on his feet for survival, and is honest and sincere. He also has a perfect mentor, and it’s this mentor who allows for Koontz to use his style and keep us hanging during the story. Odd’s mentor, his only real parental figure for quite some time, was a mystery writer. This is a brilliant device for Koontz, but it’s also brilliant for Odd. His mentor, Ozzie Boone, encourages Odd to stay with school. He gives him books to read, expands his vocabulary, and challenges Odd with things greater than his small home town of Pico Mundo. Odd proves to be literarily voracious, and has that sort of memory where he can recall poignant lines and passages. My fiancé has that; his memory is pretty bad unless it was something he read when he can quote passages with genuine feeling or quips with humorous intent. Odd has that, and in this book, he gets to antagonize a villain – and make her totally fumble – by quoting Shakespeare. Lots of Shakespeare. Odd would have made any AP English teacher proud, doing what we had to do for grades and AP exams much better because he was doing it for fun. And in this book, it paid off for the side of good, and helped save his skin. To reiterate, Odd’s teenage life can be summed up as equal parts of the following: best friend and girlfriend Stormy, Ozzie’s tutelage, flipping pancakes, and the dead.

Ozzie’s tutelage also explains the narration methods used. Ozzie recommends to Odd that he write all this batshit crazy stuff down as a way to remember and honor the people involved who were lost and process the whole route his life has taken. Ozzie recommends to Odd, who is a truly optimistic person, that he let that show and keep the tone light because the material is dark. Odd is looking back on all this, and hoping that maybe, after he is long gone (partly because he doesn’t expect to live long in this business) someone will read this and know what went on. We actually don’t know how far ahead of the events Odd is writing. It’s not that far, but the distance allows for retrospective grace, and that grace allows Odd to tell it like a story and keep his potential reader interested. He says he is afraid that it would not be so, or that it might be too horrifying if he didn’t treat his memoirs like a novel. The horrifying (and yet sometimes inspiring) events that take place have led Odd and his companions (both alive and dead) to a fictional version of the Hearst Castle where, naturally, more crazy things are going on. Let’s just say Nicolas Tesla and the undead make for an interesting combination, especially when a man who would be as rich as Hearst, creepy children, and quests for immortality are involved. Nothing’s ever as it seems in this series, and if you enjoy the first book, then you’ll enjoy Odd Apocalypse. And to all those who still say nay, Odd doesn’t sound like someone barely twenty, and therefore this/Koontz sucks, I shall remind you of this (and similarity of genre should not be lost on the reader): Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein when she was nineteen and published it by twenty-one. I highly recommend her book. I first read it at the same age, and still, her language is brilliant, her pathos deep. The little girl in me, however says with a raspberry, “So there!”

“You have read this strange and terrific story, Margaret; and do you feel your blood congealed with horror, like that which even now curdles mines. Sometimes, seized with sudden agony, he could not continue his tale, at others his voice broken, yet piercing, uttered with difficulty the words so replete with agony.”


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