agent

The Big Goodbye / Red Pill

The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood, by Sam Wasson

I guess I thought this was going to be more generally about 1970s film-making in Hollywood, but the book is very tightly focused on the production of Chinatown from inkling of a story through the whole process, focusing on writer Robert Towne, producer Robert Evans, Polanski and Nicholson. It does a great job of bringing that process to life, and the characters involved, although the book occasionally strays into fleshing out the details with some story-telling flavor. Lots of interesting details. Hard to imagine Jack eating at Norms. Or Jack dating Anjelica Huston at the same time that Jake is romancing John Huston's screen daughter Faye Dunaway. Or Jerry Goldsmith (who studied under Miklos Rozsa at USC) coming in at the last minute to score the film in less than two weeks, after Philip Lambro's score bombed in test screenings and with the studio.

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Red Pill, by Hari Kunzru

A fictional tale of a somewhat feckless author type, who gets a prestigious fellowship at a German literary center, and as his life comes unglued, he also gets strangely attracted/obsessed with neo-Nazi types. And his life becomes more unglued. Does a good job of hinting at the maddening attractiveness that sucks some seemingly sane people into these bizarre undergrounds, but ultimately kind of pointless and doesn't quite deliver in my view. There's also a strange interlude as our feckless narrator interviews a maid whose story of East Germany is 10 times more interesting than his own life, but it seems very disconnected plotwise, even if it hits common thematic elements of paranoia and secrecy. I did appreciate the real-life references to Heinrich von Kleist woven in to the mix.

agent

Chronic City - White Evangelical Racism

Jonathan Lethem started his career with a kangaroo detective, and I was on board. But after he moved back to New York, he has become a lot more New York, so Chronic City was a bit of a tough go for me, even if it's sort of a shadow Manhattan with hypnotic Macguffins and an escaped tiger (or is it?). It was also strange to read this at the same time as rereading Blaylock's The Last Coin. Both Blaylock and Lethem have some Phil Dickian influences, but I'm much more in tune with the wild parrots of Seal Beach than the Black Mirror version of Seinfeld. But as always, flashes of genius in the writing.

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White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America, by Anthea D. Butler

Occasionally unfair and overly polemic, this still provides some great historical information on American evangelicalism, providing some great 'receipts' in the form of quotes from the mouths of prominent evangelicals. A real eye opener is a speech given by black evangelist Tom Skinner in 1970 at the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship’s conference. “To a great extent, the evangelical church in America supported the status quo. It supported slavery; it supported segregation; it preached against any attempt of the black man to stand on his own two feet.” This was around the time that Falwell and Bob Jones ran segregated schools. Butler would have us believe evangelicalism ignored Skinner's call and hasn't changed one iota since then, and she disregards as tokenism the few nods and appearances of blacks at more recent events. While I agree what a lot of what I've seen of modern evangelicalism from Obama to today has been really ugly, I think there has been at least three iotas of positive change in the past 50 years. Far too little and far too slow, obviously. Some notes I took through the book:

Here are Skinner’s words: Understand that for those of us in the Black community, it was not the evangelical who came and taught us our worth and dignity as Black men. It was not the Bible-believing fundamentalist who stood up and told us that Black was beautiful. It was not the evangelical who preached to us that we should stand on our own two feet and be men, be proud that Black was beautiful, and that God could work his life out through our redeemed Blackness. Rather, it took Stokely Carmichael, Rap Brown, and the Brothers to declare to us our dignity.

[Billy Graham] was especially disdainful after the March on Washington in August 1963, when he made the aforementioned remarks about King’s “Dream” speech—that it would take the second coming of Christ before we would see white children walk hand in hand with Black children. This disdain for King and the civil rights movement connected Graham to other prominent evangelicals of the 1950s and 1960s. Billy James Hargis, a fundamentalist who embraced segregation and anticommunism, was especially hard on King and communism, invariably linking the two together. In his book series One Minute before Midnight! (A Christian Americanism Book in Three Parts), Hargis predicted the imminent fall of America to communism if souls were not saved and communism not defeated. ... communism held another threat to conservative Christians of the 1950s: it would upset the “social order,” a reference to racial desegregation. Describing Martin Luther King Jr. as a “Stinking Racial Adjuratory and a communist,” Hargis believed, like Carl McIntire and others who promoted Americanism, that desegregation violated biblical principles. 
 

An unyielding segregationist, Criswell declared in a message delivered to the South Carolina Baptist Evangelism conference in February 1956, that “true Ministers must passionately resist government mandated desegregation because it is a denial of ALL that we believe in.”
 

Jerry Falwell gave his “Ministers and Marches” speech, in which he condemned Martin Luther King Jr. and other ministers engaged in protesting and marching for civil rights, on March 21, 1965, the same day on which King and other Black and white ministers were walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Falwell criticized the civil rights movement, declaring that “preachers are not called to be politicians but soul winners.”
 

Pannell, a product of what he called “mulatto” parents, also pointedly addressed intermarriage, a core issue for evangelicals. In a chapter called “Now about Your Daughter,” Pannell wrote poignantly of evangelicals’ fear of sex and “negro” men: “The ghost of negro sex prowess and white female purity still mocks us in the closets of our minds. Neither Protestant theology nor education has dispelled it. Bible Belt Fundamentalism, which served as midwife when it was born, serves even now to nurse it in its old age.”
 

Dr. Bob Jones III spoke of this admission in a conversation with a reporter from the Greenville News in 1971, remarking, “Orientals have been accepted to Bob Jones for quite some time, and … they [have] accepted the university stipulation that they could not date across racial lines. The reason that blacks had not been admitted before … was that the board believed unmarried blacks would refuse to accept the rule (against interracial dating), or agitate to change it if they were admitted.”
 

[Butler being spot on] Evangelical grievances, anger, and disappointment in the wake of 9/11, as well as the election of America’s first Black president, pushed believers into an open, belligerent racism that culminated in their wholesale embrace of the man they would call “King Cyrus”: Donald Trump. The journey to Trump is a story of how whiteness and racism combined to make evangelicals a potent voting bloc awash in racism


[Butler going too far] I know the answer to the question obsessively pondered by the popular press, pundits, and even experts in the study of American religion: Why do people who identify as evangelicals vote over and over again for political figures who in speech and deed do not evince the Christian qualities that evangelicalism espouses? My answer is that evangelicalism is not a simply religious group at all. Rather, it is a nationalistic political movement whose purpose is to support the hegemony of white Christian men over and against the flourishing of others.

 

 

agent

Disco Elysium - Virtual Cities - The Light Ages

I've solved the case in Disco Elysium (Final Cut), though that's probably the least exciting thing about the game. Part choose your own adventure; part Infocom plus some graphics; part psychopolitical meditation -- it's really sui generis and a great experience, if you're up for it. The game was originally "refused classification by the [Australian gam] Board, making it illegal to sell in the country, due to its depiction of sex, drug misuse or addiction, crime, cruelty, and violence, as well as showing "revolting or abhorrent phenomena in such a way that they offend against the standards of morality, decency, and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults""

I could try to say more, but it's like the Matrix -- you have to experience it for yourself. Great voice acting. Bonkers writing. There's enough depth in the decision trees that my replay has uncovered all sorts of novel things already, but I doubt there's so much that you could play it endlessly.

--

Segueing into books, Virtual Cities is a nice midpoint. Subtitled An Atlas & Exploration of Video Game Cities, the book describes 45 game cities from 1983's Ant Attack to very recent games. The author has degrees in urban planning, so some of his commentary is an interesting take on how realistic the cities are as a place where humans could live. I guess I had hoped for more information on design, both the visual design of the cities from an art and graphics standpoint, and from a game design standpoint. While each entry has a short 'Design Insights' section that covers some of this, it's very brief. Most of the text is given up to sort of a in-world guidebook description of the cities. Sometimes this diegetic stance has some wry humor, especially if you know the game. But I can't say I've played a lot of these games, so often they come of as in-jokes you don't get.

Each city also has a pretty well-executed map. But where the book really fails is with the images. Rather than use in-game generated images -- perhaps there were legal and copyright issues -- everything is rendered by the same artist, in a somewhat similar (and not overly accomplished) style. For Gabiel Knight's New Orleans, they work well enough, but for most others they don't provide a good feel of what the game is really like. Which is a shame, because the book itself is well-made. A solid-hardback with full color pages throughout.

Such a great concept, but a miss on execution.

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The Light Ages poses as something of a rehabilitation of medieval science. The book follows the career and environment of English monk John Westwyk, author of The Equatorie of the Planetis, a work in English describing the astronomical instrument of his invention, a modification of the astrolabe. So there's a lot of timekeeping, sacred calendars, astrology and models of planetary motion. While interesting (I now have a much better idea of how to use an astrolabe, and why it has the shape it does with that off center circle) there's precious little science to get excited about [and why should there be, since there really wasn't such a thing as science yet]. Some of the history is very interesting on its own, such as the fact that Westwyk joined the unsuccessful Despenser's Crusade against the antipope. Here's a few tidbits from my Kindle notes:

Why the days of the week are ordered as they are:

On a Sunday, the first hour was ruled by the Sun. The second hour was then ruled by the next planet in the inward sequence, Venus; the third hour was ruled by Mercury, and the fourth by the Moon, which was considered the innermost planet. The sequence then immediately restarted at the outermost planet – Saturn – followed by Jupiter, then Mars. After those seven, the eighth hour of the day would again be governed by the Sun. So would the fifteenth hour, and the twenty-second. That just left two more hours, assigned to Venus and Mercury in turn, so that the following day began with the Moon – Monday. Each day was thus named for the third planet inwards after the previous day: Mars after the Moon, Mercury after Mars, and so on. This is why the Sun’s day still follows Saturn’s in modern English, and why, in most Romance languages, we see the midweek sequence of Mars (martes in Spanish), Mercury (miércoles), Jupiter (jueves) and Venus (viernes). We cannot be sure quite why the ancients chose a seven-day week, but the imperfect fit of seven days into twenty-four planetary hours explains why the days are in this order.

Bestiaries as moral teachings:

Some of those animal descriptions were accurate, others were utterly fanciful; but all conveyed a moral lesson to the reader. For this reason, bestiaries were also popular among preachers. On the virtue of chastity, for instance, the actions of the beaver were exemplary. This rare animal, according to bestiaries, has fur like an otter and a tail like a fish, and its testicles produce an oil of great medicinal power.

Knowing instinctively that that is why it is hunted, when a beaver finds itself in danger it will bite off its own testicles, throw them to the hunter and make its escape. If pursued a second time, it will rear up on its hind legs and show the hunter that he is wasting his efforts. This ability to self-castrate was, it seemed, the source of its Latin name castor.

In one bestiary, produced for a house of the Dominican preaching friars, readers could marvel at a graphic illustration of the amazing animal in the act of self-mutilation, chased by a hunter dressed in vivid green, blowing his horn and carrying a large club. Beneath the vibrant painting, readers were advised that ‘every man who inclines towards the commandment of God and wants to live chastely must cut himself off from all vices and all indecent acts – and must throw them in the Devil’s face’.

And the date of the Great Flood:

The Alfonsine Tables provided root values of all the main planetary motions, for eras ranging from the Flood (Thursday, 17 February, 3102 BC) to the 1252 coronation of King Alfonso, via Alexander the Great, the Hijra and the Christian epoch.



internet Disease

Ebay Final Value Fee Changes

 Ebay is changing the Matrix again. The main thing is paying sellers directly to bank accounts and avoiding Paypal (and Paypal fees). But they are raising the 'Final Value Fee', i.e. their take of your sale price(*). And despite claims of lower fees for all, they don't provide a side by side comparison. Which seems suspicious, so allow me.

I googled this page from searching for fees in 2019. I don't see 2019 in the document, but it looks roughly accurate.
And this is the new announcement.

OLD:

Most categories, including Music > Records, eBay Motors > Parts & Accessories, and eBay Motors > Automotive Tools & Supplies. For vehicles, see our Motors fees.

First 200 listings free per month, then $0.35 per listing

10.2% (maximum fee $750 per item)

Books
DVDs & Movies
Music (except Records category)

12.2% (maximum fee $750 per item)

New:

Most categories, including Music > Records, eBay Motors > Parts & Accessories, and eBay Motors > Automotive Tools & Supplies. For vehicles, see our Motors fees.

First 250 listings free per month, then $0.35 per listing

  • 12.55% on total amount of the sale up to $7,500 calculated per item
  • 2.35% on the portion of the sale over $7,500

Books

DVDs & Movies

Music (except Records category)

  • 14.55% on total amount of the sale up to $7,500 calculated per item
  • 2.35% on the portion of the sale over $7,500
But wait, there's more.
Old: Final value fee
New: 
Final value fee % + $0.30 per order


And more:
Old: The total amount of the sale includes the item price, and any shipping and handling charges. Sales tax isn't included in the calculation.

New: The total amount of the sale includes the item price, any handling charges, the shipping service the buyer selects, sales tax, and any other applicable fees.

Finally, the current Paypal charge is  2.9% on the total plus a 30 cent non-refundable fee.

So the fastest comparison is to say going from 10.2% to 12.55% is a rise of 2.35%, but the paypal fee was 2.9%, so you're saving a little money on each transaction.

But, if you live in a high tax state, and I do, that inclusion of sales tax in the price is significant. I will also point out it is fucking bullshit. As is the existing inclusion of shipping charges.

Current LA County sales tax is 10.25%. If we take 10% for simplicity, we can compare the fees on an item of, say, $100 (including shipping (which again somewhat rudely is subject to sales tax)).

Old:
FVF is 10.2% of $100 or $10.20. 
Paypal fee is 2.9% of $100 + $0.30 or $3.20
Total = $13.40

New:
FVF is 12.55% of $110 (with the tax) + $0.30 = $14.11

$0.71 cents more. If you live in some part of CA at the base sales tax of 7.25%, the increase is about $0.35.

I think if your local sales tax is 4.5%, then it comes out about even. If your local tax is higher than that, the new plan is worse, and vice versa.


agent

Galileo & the Science Deniers / Mediocre

Galileo & the Science Deniers is a solid biography of Galileo by Mario Livio, an actual working astronomer. I can't say that his scientific background adds a whole lot to the mix, but it can't hurt. He does bring an interesting flair for art (a subject of some interest to Galileo himself -- dare we call him a renaissance man?). One great illustration is a painting of the Virgin Mary by Cigoli, which features the BVM standing on a moon with craters and shadows. It may be the first such depiction of the Moon, and likely inspired by Galileo's sketches.

The history is presented quite credibly and with plenty of primary sources. Inevitably, it leads to Galileo's trials and tribulations with the Inquisition. It's not hard to draw a very short, denialist line between the Inquisition and modern day science deniers, but this was sadly a disappointment in the book. It's clearly an afterthought, with a paragraph or so wedged in at the end of each chapter to try to give the book some current relevance.

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I wish Mediocre had managed to be mediocre, but in fact it's just not good.

Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America, by Ijeoma Oluo.

One might think the book would be about white male America, but that's probably not even a majority of the book.

I guess I was hoping for something more sociological, or psychological. How white men think more highly of themselves than other groups, regardless of actual competence or status. An in-depth analysis of Lake Wobegon, where all our (white male) children are above average. Or an in-depth look at the improbable successes of the Homer Simpsons of the world, especially as contrasted with the Frank Grimes of the world (replacing Grimey with nonwhite nonmale equivalents). Honestly, these comedic takes have more insight into mediocre white men than this book.

Maybe I was just expecting the wrong content. If the book had been titled Shitty Things White Dudes have done in History, it would have been more accurate, and I could have saved my time. A lot of the book is really more of a polemic for a particular brand of progressivism, without much about the titular mediocre white dude (MWD). One of the first targets is Bernie Sanders, and his failure to be progressive enough on racial issues. While this is an accurate criticism, this is hardly about Bernie being mediocre. The author almost latches onto something with a discussion of Bernie Bros, but beyond mentioning hateful tweets from that corner, there is very little analysis of that phenomenon and how it relates to MWD. Any news article you might have read about some fraction of Bernie Bros voting Trump is more insightful than this book.

There's a long section that is basically a glowing biography of each of the four members of The Squad. While it's a great thing that these women who don't look like the politicians of yesteryear are succeeding, these encomia tell me nothing about MWD.

I don't really even know what to make of her schizophrenic treatment of academia and the NFL. Especially the latter since she claims little knowledge of the sport, so the presentation is somewhat shallow, apart from a focus on the Colin Kaepernick affair (worth discussing, but how does it relate to MWD?), as opposed to, say, Doug Williams. Or Brian's Song, fer crissakes.
mr. Gruff

Crazy stuff from the California Antiquarian Virtual Book Fair

 Odd to put Antiquarian cheek-by-jowl with Virtual. 

52 letters from HPL to Frank Belknap Long. This is the collection that the HPLHS recently had a fundraiser to help purchase (with a tiny help by me) with the intent of donating it to the collection at Brown. The pricetag at the fair is $225,000. Apart from the two houses, probably the highest pricetag of anything I've ever bought a fraction of.

The same dealer also has the original pencil manuscript of Chambers' "The Messenger".

The Recipe Book of The Mustard Club [with] Mustard Uses Mustered [and] History and the Mustard Pot.

Items written for Colman's Mustard by Dorothy L Sayers during her time at an ad agency, experience that wound up in her Peter Wimsey novel, Murder Must Advertise.

The Hobbit programme for the New College School, Oxford production, 1967, signed by Tolkien

The production of The Hobbit at New College School was the second stage dramatisation of Tolkien’s seminal work of fantasy to be performed, but the first to be authorised by Tolkien. 

Cats in the Isle of Man, by Daisy Fellowes

Rare novel by the French-American socialite and heiress (to the Singer Sewing Machine fortune) who was one of the most well-known and influential style icons of her day. At one time the Paris editor of Harper's Bazaar, she was one of the most important customers/patrons of couturier Elsa Schiaparelli -- who created one of her signature colors, Shocking Pink, expressly for her. As one journalist put it, "she lived on a diet of morphine and grouse, with the occasional cocktail thrown in" 

At any rate, it's got a fabulous Fantomas/Dracula-evoking jacket design, with a naked woman spreading her black cloak (which sort of resembles bat wings) as a dark-eyed stranger looms behind her. (And just for the record: none of the action in this book takes place on the actual Isle of Man, so I think we have to assume it's a metaphor, or something.)
agent

The Puzzle Universe, City of Stairs, games

 The Puzzle Universe purports to be a History of Mathematics in 315 puzzles. While that's not wholly inaccurate, it's more of an exercise in frustration. It is a beautiful book with bold, colorful illustrations. Alas, one or two of them are inaccurate and ruin the puzzles. A number of the puzzles suffer from setups that are not clear and unambiguous, and many of the answers are gnomic without any explanation or solution. While these are hideous flaws, there are many things to like about the book. Lots of clever visual proofs and little historical asides. I think my favorite was the Malfatti Marble Problem. In 1803, Malfatti declared that three tangent circles always provided the maximal area in a certain geometric problem. In 1930, it was shown that that's not always true. And in 1967, it was finally proven that Malfatti's solution is never optimal.

--

I can see why City of Stairs, by Robert Jackson Bennett, made several finalists lists for Best Fantasy Novel of the year. It's an engaging read, and the strange 'geopolitics' of its world are a big plus. The two main power-continents are an Indian-esque society and a Russian-oid society, at least so far as naming conventions and cultural touches are concerned. Oh, and there's a sort of barbaric Europe somewhere as well that doesn't come into the story much. There's something of a mystery of how some literal walking-the-earth gods have been slain, but echoes of the divine are still hidden here and there. The only drawback of the story is that our heroine and her burly companion are just too perfect. Too smart, too knowledgeable, too skilled, too fatally dangerous to be taken completely seriously. Or to fear for their safety at any point.

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On the Playstation, been enjoying the fact that Katamari Damacy (Reroll) has been released for PS4. Still as delightful as ever.

Spirit of the North was a pleasant game, letting your little foxy dude run around and leaping about. While some instructions and guidance might have been useful at times, I like that they stuck to their guns and just let you experience it and figure it all out for the most part.

PSPlus freebies Concrete Genie and Control have also been fun. Control's delightfully loopy mind-bending story is a blast.


agent

Polyphemus, by Michael Shea

 Polyphemus is a collection of horror-tending to sf, or sf tending to horror stories, with one Nifft the Lean tale thrown in. I wasn't a fan of the title story, but the rest are good, with the standouts being "Uncle Tuggs" and "Horror on the #33". For the popcorn value, "The Extra" isn't bad. A nasty dystopian tale where being an extra means being tossed into an 'alien invasion' movie shoot where the robotic aliens are programmed to hunt and kill you all across the backlot, while robot cars and planes smash into each other.
internet Disease

The Raven Tower ; Forever Azathoth

The Raven Tower is another fine work by Ann Leckie. Her first fantasy novel is quite a departure from... from anything, really. At least half the fun is just discovering the world and its rules, so I won't spoil it all. But this fantasy world is home to various gods; beings with very peculiar natures and bound to peculiar rules. Half of the story is sort of palace intrigue type story, while the other is a history of history through the eyes of one of the gods. The story itself is so-so, but unravelling the mystery is the real draw.

Forever Azathoth is a collection of mostly humorous or parodic Lovecraftian stories by Peter Cannon. I very much enjoyed his Scream for Jeeves when it came out back in the day, and I longed after this collection when it was issued by the Tartarus Press ages ago. But it came with a large pricetag. Luckily, now there's a softcover edition by Hippocampus Press (with slightly different contents) following an edition from the Subterranean Press. Certainly I think the lower pricetag is more appropriate. I mean, these are parodies and pastiches, so I'm not looking for eternal greatness, but sometimes the in-jokes and leg-pulling gets a little extreme for my taste. 
agent

Saturn's Children, by Charlie Stross

An homage to Heinlein's Friday and Asimov's robots, Saturn's Children sets up an intriguing idea. What happens to the servants of humanity after all the humans have died. Robots have strict rules about harming humans, but when it comes to treating each other... it's anything goes. With predictable results. A highly stratified society of have and have-nots and slavery. Our heroine, a sexbot-turned-Mata Hari, slowly works her way into something big, at the behest of employers whose motives she only dimly understands. Clandestine labs are looking to produce a real-live human. Such a human would be able to order any robot to do anything. So whoever rules the human, rules the world. Along the way, gratuitous sex (see also, Friday). Reasonably fun read and less cringey than I remember Friday being.