Book Report: Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada

Good writing can help your work's longevity. But it doesn't fix everything. Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada is a well-written book. It's from 1872. Charles King was a good writer. But... it was 1872.

Back then, there weren't way too many color photos of Yosemite cheaply availableto the public. So if you were writing about the Sierra Nevada mountains, you felt obliged to describe them, you know, verbally. Sure, a picture is worth a thousand words, but back then, pictures were expensive... so it was cost-effective for a writer to write a thousand words. So the present-day reader finds himself slogging through piles of verbal description, muttering "Yeah, you like the mountains, it's okay we understand."

Also, back then racism was pretty normal. It's tough to read what King wrote about some people of his day. He wasn't mean-spirited. But he was wrong. He didn't like Chinese cooking. I thought back to Chinese immigration in Texas, German immigration to Texas, and how El Paso food turned out so bad compared to that of San Francisco. But it was a near thing. What if more Californians had listened to Charles King?

But if you can get past that, there are some good parts.

There was no foothold above us. Looking down over the course we had come, it seemed, and I really believe it was, an impossible descent; for one can climb upward with safety where he cannot go downward. To turn back was to give up in defeat; and we sat at least half an hour, suggesting all possible routes to the summit, accepting none, and feeling disheartened.

Now I don't feel so bad about falling down while stumbling down some trails I'd had no trouble climbing up.

On history of architecture versus geology:

In the much discussed origin of this order of building [Gothic], I never remember to have seen, though it can hardly have escaped mention, any suggestion of the possibility of the Gothic having been inspired by granite forms. Yet, as I sat on Mount Tyndall, the whole mountains shaped themselves like the ruins of cathedrals,--sharp roof-ridges, pinnacled and statued; buttresses more spired and ornamented than Milan's; receding doorways with pointed arches carved into blank façacdes of granite, doors never to be opened, innumerable jutting points with here and there a single cruciform peak, its frozen roof and granite spires so strikingly Gothic I cannot doubt that the Alps furnished the models for early cathedrals of that order.

He visited the top of Yosemite falls in October, as did I, and his experience was similar:

In this strange, vacant, stone corridor, this pathway for the great Yosemite torrent, this sounding-gallery of thunderous tumult, it was a strange sensation to stand, looking in vain for a drop of water, listening vainly, too, for the faintest whisper of sound, and I found myself constantly expecting some sign of the returning flood.

I bought this book because I was in Yosemite and found out that my mobile phone's data connection wouldn't work there. This book spared me some hours of boredom. It has its good parts. And if some parts haven't aged so well... It's a good thing for a reader of any time to remember to keep his wits about him as he reads.

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Book Report: The Berkeley Pit

Cousin Eric was in town this weekend. There was some sight-seeing. One place of interest was Berkeley. My parents pointed out some places of interest for the Free Speech Movement: here was the place where folks stood atop the police car. Ah, Berkeley history, the subject of The Berkeley Pit.

It's a history of Berkeley's Telegraph Avenue; it's a story of a place turned toxic; it's a story of liberals ripping each other apart. It's "an historical novel", a story of Berkeley that reaches from the 60s to the 80s.

One of the story's protagonists is from Butte, home of The Berkeley Pit, a huge abandoned pit mine, a superfund site, a hole in the ground full of toxins. In perhaps a dozen years, enough water will leach into the pit to overflow, sending out an evil flood to poison Montana's water supply. Where did the Berkeley Pit come from? Our protagonist found out by studying his family history. Butte was a copper mining city. It wasn't always a pit mine. But when the copper started to run out, the mining companies dug the pit--tearing down the city itself to dig.

The protagonist comes to Berkeley and sees the same thing happen again. Folks in Berkeley and Oakland, trying to make the world a better place. It's the time of the Free Speech Movement. There is a resource to be mined here--a community of people willing to act. But as time goes on, saner voices are shouted down by those who don't care what the protest movement does but know that if they protest something then they can lead that protest.

The narrator--not to be confused with "the protagonist" (OK, really, the book has more that one protagonist, depending on how you count these things)--is strange. She is a writing teacher; she encourages her students to write clearly, strongly, not hold anything back. And yet we know she does this herself. When corresponding with our protagonist...

I saw no need to send Harry bad news from here, bbut perhaps I should have mentioned, for instance, the first murder in People's Park. Instead I wrote him about our "Writers' Campus Sit-in" for divestment in apartheid South Africa... I sent him a photo of my grand-daughter, but I never sent the Daily Cal photo of two middle-aged "progressive" city council members grinning in fierce defiance at constituents (including me and my neighbors) who had defeated another of their misbegotten schemes.

It's painful to write about the sometimes-bad results of our well-intended acts. You try a lot of stuff; it doesn't always work out. It's not nice to face the fact that your stuff didn't all work out well, to tell other folks about it. But if we don't do so, others follow in our footsteps.

Years pass; hippies retreat to their houses. A few street people are still good-hearted free spirits, but they are mostly crowded out by thieving addicts and kids playing at homelessness. That guy who used to live in a communal hippie squat is now running a crack house.

Along the way: the Black Panthers, Peoples Park, the rise of AIDS. Oh, and the hard life of Berkeley bookstores: this book goes well with The Loneliness of the Electric Menorah, the Codys keep showing up.

A bleak book and a darned good read. Check it out.

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Milestone: 15 Million Hits

I'm writing this in kind of a hurry. An out-of-town cousin is in town. There have been fun activities. There will be more. Thus, apologies. I write in haste.

The 15 millionth item (modulo the usual disclaimers of reportage noise) - - [20/Dec/2009:00:02:17 -0400] "GET /new/labels/interspecies%20diplomacy.html HTTP/1.1" 200 49246 "-" "Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; MSIE 6.0; Windows NT 5.1; SV1)"

This appears to be a robot: it loaded a few pages from my site, but not the accompanying graphics, style sheets, etc. It started out by loading my Evil Guest book report and then loading some pages linked-to from there.

Whois and traceroute make me guess that this machine is in Georgia, belonging to the Georgia Department of Education. Its robot-like behavior makes me worry that it's been taken over by a botnet—crawling some random web pages on my site doesn't seem like a very department-of-education-ish thing to do. Then again, there are stranger things in heaven and earth etc etc. I gotta go.

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Book Report: Oil!

This is the book that the movie "There Will Be Blood" was based on. But that's not how I heard of this book. I saw Word for Word perform the first chapter. This group acts out short stories and stuff--but instead of just giving the dialog, they give all the words from the book. It sounds like a stupid idea, but it turns out to be pretty darned good. Probably because they choose material that works well. And are good actors.

Anyhow, I was in Chicago and needed a book to keep me from going insane on the flight back home. At the IIT bookstore, they had a lot of books about architecture and engineering and not much else. This was one of the books in the "else" category. I didn't have high hopes. But this book was pretty good!

It's a story of oil and moviemaking in Southern California. It shows you how the Southern California economy works--that is, largely through bribery. (It doesn't really talk about water rights... but it talks about enough.) It's sorta like Candide set in SoCal--the son of an oil magnate grows up with good intentions, and gradually figures out why society's machinations cause so many people to have rough lives. The sad part about this book is that it holds up Communist Russia as the system that would save the people from their misery. But... this book was written back before WWII, and word hadn't gotten back that the Commies were just as corrupt as the capitalists.

Ah, corruption. There's the old saying that an honest politician is one who stays bought. This book had a variation.

Now [the politician] was to give the oil men a whole string of valuable leases for practically nothing; but he had to have more money. That was the trouble in dealing with politicians; you bought them before election, and then you had to buy them again after the election, they wouldn't "stay put," like business men.

When I go back and re-read that paragraph, it sounds like the book is a total downer. But it's funny. I meant what I said about Candide--this book is has bleak humor. It's good. Check it out.

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A few months back, an ice cream manufacturer rolled out a big advertising campaign in San Francisco: a bunch of big posters saying "San Francisco Deserves a Better Treat Than Rice". If they'd said "Rice-a-Roni," I might have agreed with them. But they didn't say that. They said "rice." Why would they disrespect rice like that? If I had to choose to give up rice or ice cream for the rest of my life, I wouldn't hesitate: that ice cream would be out the door so fast.

If they really wanted to market to me as a San Franciscan, they would have at least chosen mint chocolate chip flavor for their stupid ice cream treat. But they didn't even do that. They didn't study my culture at all.

As one does when disrespected, I walked past these ads thinking "Why I oughtta..." I oughtta design some stickers saying to respect the rice. And I oughtta print those stickers. And I oughtta stick those stickers on these stupid posters. And as one does when thinking "Why I oughtta..." I never got around to it.

That was months ago.

But now, closing the door after the horses are long gone, I got around to making a sticker design. Because I am a man of a certain age, when I think about respecting rice, my mind goes back to an old movie called A Better Tomorrow Part II in which a young Chow Yun Fat demands that a mobster apologize to the rice right now.

The next time some lame advertising posters demonstrate a lack of respect for this staple food, I'll be ready. Well, I'll be readier than I was a few months ago. I haven't printed out stickers. And I'd have to work up the nerve to stick them onto posters. Anyhow. Progress.


Book Report: Design for Community

It's Derek Powazek's 2002 book about making web sites that work well for communities. There were examples of things that worked well, things that didn't. A lot of this material is stuff you get to hear about already. There was one insight, one new way of seeing things that I liked: if you want higher-quality comments from users, your comment form should be less "usable". Your instinct as a web designer is to keep things easy, free, and open. But that ease-of-use also means that a bored 12 year old boy has an easy time posting "yermom" on your site. So if you're getting too much low-quality user input... move the post button to someplace less obvious. Maybe require a sign-in step.

This naturally made me think about Youtube comments, famous for inanity and mean-spirited-ness. Each user "pinned" to a page because he's watching the embedded video. If the video's a couple of minutes long, he's got a ocuple of minutes of half-attention with nothing better to do than write an awful comment. Maybe he should have to jump through more hoops first.

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Puzzle Things are Everywhere, with Local Witnesses

A while back, I blogged about Stuart Landsborough's Puzzling World, a tourist spot in New Zealand with a big maze and other weirdness. Why do I bring this up? Local gamist Chiu-Ki Chan went there, and took some awesome photos. So I guess it's real after all.

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Book Report: The Snowball

It's a biography of Warren Buffet. It's pretty long. But there are some good stories in here, the writing is good, and it smells well-researched. It edges around some touchy topics, but it's pretty easy to tell when that's going on; there are plenty of touchy topics it doesn't edge around, but dives right into.

["Jet" Jack Ringwalt's] first break had come when a bank asked him to guarantee that a bootlegger—presumed murdered—would not return to Omaha, because the presumptive widow wanted to withdraw his account without waiting the legally required seven years. Ringwalt figured the alleged murderer's lawyer might have a pretty good idea whether the missing bootlgger's blood no longer pulsed. He had helped the accused murderer beat the rap, but the dead man's widow (and the bank) suspected that was mainly just good lawyering, not exoneration. Still, the lawyer couldn't say whether his client had confessed to him. So Ringwalt got him to put up some of his own money on the guarantee, on the thory that unless the bootlegger had croaked louder than a bullfrog, the lawyer wouldn't take the risk. Sure enough, the cash told all; the bootlegger never reappeared, and the bank never made a claim...

Puzzlehunt fans even get a relevant phrase: Another Ringwalt story illustrates "Only Game Control thinks that's funny" conflict-of-interest:

...then he put up the stakes for radio-station treasure hunts, hiding the clues in lipstick cases, burying them himself, using clues so obscure that only one prize was ever claimed.

A story about Warren Buffet as he cleaned up after an illegal trading scandal at Salomon Bros: he cut loose a P.R. firm that had been newly hired to shape news about the scandal.

"It wasn't that we're misunderstood, for Christ's sake," said Buffet afterward. "We don't have a public relations problem. We have a problem with what we did."

A note about the power of computer games--as of 1991, Buffet still wasn't using a computer to do his research, his writing, etc. He hung out with Bill Gates who tried to convince him to use a computer, but nothing doing. But he finally started using a computer when his bridge partner told him he could practice (and play) bridge by computer. People talk about Visicalc, but once again, computer games are really what got folks to sit down at the monitor... yeah, anyhow. A fun read.

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