Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Book Report - Foundation by Isaac Asimov

It is the future. People have spread out all across the universe and the Galactic Empire rules. No, this is not Star Wars. That’s set in the past.

 In the future, a science has developed which is akin to fortune telling. One man, Hari Seldon, is an expert in this science and he has seen the end of the Empire. He sets in motion an elaborate, century-spanning plan to build a better ruling outcome for the universe, hopefully sparing centuries of war and unrest in the process. The start of his plan it to be exiled to the farthest end of the universe with a group of intellectuals, under the pretense of writing the perfect, all-encompassing encyclopedia of everything ever. And to not tell them the rest of the plan. Hari Seldon has recorded holograms of himself which play at pre-determined times, when he has predicted a great conflict or crisis will have just been overcome. They provide the only clue if his vision of the future is happening as he predicted or not. (It is.)

 The whole book is like a game a chess. You know how in chess, before you make your move, you try to calculate all the other moves your opponent could make as a result? Yes. Boring and time consuming. And when done properly, not very surprising. (I’m not very good and chess and never really understood why it was fun. I have not watched the Queen’s Gambit yet.)

 Let me get this out of they way. I counted two female characters in the whole book. A secretary who got one or two lines of mention, and a Commdora. The Commdora got two whole scenes, maybe totaling four pages, but she was just there to be snippy. The rest of the time, any new character who gets introduced - no matter how unfamiliar their name - don’t worry! It’s a man.

 The story is told primarily through dialogue, which makes it not very interesting and difficult to follow at times. At the start of each chapter, a paragraph or two of set-up is presented and then the characters chat. And at the start of each section of the book (there are four), just go ahead and forget all the characters you were just getting to know. They are long dead and it is now dozens of years later. But don’t forget them completely. Their names might come up. But while you try to remember the names of characters who have disappeared and died, also learn the names of all the new characters in the new section of the novel. Names, names, names.

 None of the characters are fully developed. The action, predicted, but kept secret, by Hari Seldon, is not exciting. Things just work out. Wars don’t happen. And if it looks like a war is about to happen, turn the page and it is fifty years later and the first sentence makes it clear the war was, in fact, avoided. The story is all lining up dominoes, but the reader never gets the satisfaction of seeing them knocked down.

 It does have some interesting parallels to modern-day politics. Part of one successful war-avoiding tactic is to build a religion. They use missionaries to infiltrate surrounding worlds, or train priests on those worlds, and ultimately disable power supplies. It is hard to read how the religion is weaponized in Foundation and not see similarities to how Evangelical Christians and Republicans currently work together to push an agenda. It works until the missionaries and priests are no longer welcome on nearby worlds, because they have been revealed to be more loyal to their religion than anything else.

 If putting plans in motion, politics, discussions and a universe where women are virtually nonexistent sounds good to you, then you might like Foundation. It didn’t work for me.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? By Philip K. Dick - Book Report

 In the near future, which ironically already happened, January 3, 2021, the world is a different place thanks to World War Terminus. Not a lot of details are given about the war, but it becomes clear that most life, not just human life, has been wiped out on Earth. Most people have left Earth and live on one of the colony planets, where androids (which are nearly indistinguishable from people) are used as slaves.

If you remained on Earth, you would be lucky if you aren’t affected by the radiation which has poisoned everything. Most people start to deteriorate mentally after too much exposure, and then become ineligible to travel to a colony. But some people just don’t want to go. Like the hero of the story, Rick Deckard.

The androids from the colonies are sentient enough to realize they are slaves, and to want better lives. Because of this, many of them travel to Earth illegally and attempt to blend in with the people. Rick’s job is to hunt these androids and kill them.

When he gets an assignment to hunt down the most advanced version of androids yet, he jumps at the opportunity. An opportunity he only gets because the original (better) bounty hunter has been hospitalized from his encounter with one of these androids. Rick desperately wants the extra money because owning a pet on Earth is now a status symbol, since most animals are dead. And Rick and his wife, Iran, didn’t manage to keep their pet sheep alive and have replaced it with an electric one. If the neighbors found out they were keeping an electric sheep, they would be humiliated. With the extra income from these bounties, Rick hopes to buy an ostrich, despite the exorbitant cost of $30,000.00.

Meanwhile, a man named J. R. Isidore lives outside of the city in the wastelands. The suburbs of the city are filled with abandoned buildings from the mass exodus of people from Earth. Isidore’s brain has started to decay. He lives alone in a high-rise apartment building and doesn’t have a pet. He works undercover for an electronic pet repair shop which is disguised as veterinary services, picking up malfunctioning animals. Unfortunately, he does pick up a real cat and mistakes it for a fake one, hastening its death. He becomes a refuge for one of the escaped androids, Pris, who moves into his building and eventually brings two other androids along.

Rick’s hunt brings him out into the country, crossing paths with Isidore. They each also have weird religious experiences with the Christ-like figure Mercer. Mercer seems to have been created to provide humans with one of the things the androids are incapable of - empathy. But it isn’t entirely clear if Rick’s and Isadore’s experiences with Mercer are real or imagined. Is Mercer real? Is he an actor? Is he an android?

The writing is brisk to the point of feeling like details are missing. I’m so used to fight scenes (in movies) being drawn out, lasting far too long for the people fighting to still be standing, that it was jarring to read a fight scene which started and concluded in just a couple of sentences. I had to go back and read a few paragraphs a second time to make sure I wasn’t missing something. I wasn’t. There wasn’t more. Like if someone was shot in the head, they were shot in the head and dead and the story moved on to the next thing immediately.

For serious animal lovers, you might want to stay away from this one. There aren’t many animals in it, and yet most of them do not have pleasant ends. The androids embody all of humanity’s negative aspects (greed, jealousy, anger and hostility) but they don’t have any of humanity’s positive emotions (empathy, love), so they don’t value life, human or animal, the same way as the humans remaining on Earth do.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is a short, easy read. If you are looking for Blade Runner, you don’t get much of it here. Although it’s been a long time since I’ve seen Blade Runner, I don’t remember many of the main elements of the novel in the film. Was Rick married? Did he have an electronic pet sheep? Did he want to buy an ostrich and eventually buy a goat? Did Pris look identical to the other android Rachael because they were the same model? Did Rachael fully know she was an android? I don’t think any of these things were included in the movie. And I don’t think the whole religious, Sisyphus and Christ-like Mercer was in the movie at all.

I wasn’t reading it expecting it to be Blade Runner. I was reading it to read it. But it is impossible to read it and not compare it to the movie as you go along. If you are looking for Blade Runner, or if you love lush prose, then you should skip this one. But if you are curious, then I would recommend reading it.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts! Song

 Finally got around to recording another song.  Not my finest piano play, but a silly song I thoroughly enjoy! Thanks to Katherine for indulging me.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Spirograph-Inspired Bead Pendant

I made a new crafting video!

If you have things you want me to make tutorials for, let me know. I'm pretty good and figuring out how to make things.

Friday, March 12, 2021

Taking My Perfume Obsession to the Next Level

 I broke down and bought one of the special edition House of Sillage fragrances. Not the limited edition like Mickey Mouse. No. The uber special edition ones. I got Passion de L'Amour because Cherry Garden, the bottle I liked the best, was sold out. I had to go with not my first choice (Emerald Reign) or second choice (Cherry Garden), but my third choice. It is beautiful. In the video I call it a chameleon, but looking at it again, it might be a gecko. 

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Kathleen Thien - Eulogy

Here's the eulogy I gave at my mom's funeral (my sister helped me with the talking to get through it). She died on December 25, 2018. Yes, Christmas Day. Today, March 9, is her birthday.

Mom grew up on Minnesota Ave. in St. Louis, Missouri in the house her grandparents moved to after immigrating to the US. It was where her mother and aunts and uncles grew up, a five-room flat on the second story of a rickety old building, up the most dangerous staircases anyone would ever encounter. Five rooms, not five bedrooms. A kitchen, bathroom, living room- where Uncle Richard slept- a master bedroom and Mom’s bedroom.

As a child in St. Louis, Mom met Judy Hutchinson, beginning a friendship which spanned seventy years. It is a common theme in Mom’s life that once you became her close friend, you were her friend for life. It was a priority to her to keep in contact with the people who were important to her.

Mom graduated high school at 16 and her father, Grandpa Rome, gave her a choice - she could either move out or start paying rent. Mom decided to pay rent and she got a job at the Federal Reserve. There, she met Rosemary Pechan, who would also become a lifelong friend to not only her, but also to her husband and children once we came into the picture.

After the Federal Reserve, Mom got a job working for a psychiatrist, Dr. Fink. When Dr. Fink moved his practice to New York City, Mom went with him. While living in New York, Mom came back to St. Louis to attend her cousin’s wedding where she met her cousin’s future bride’s brother, George. George was in the military and stationed near Washington, D.C., so they began a not-too-long-distance relationship which eventually led to their marriage.

Dad moved to New York after he was discharged, where he taught school. But a job offer in San Antonio led them here. They moved to Esplanade where Mom met more friends she would have for the rest of her life -- Juanita Mena and the Bushnell family.

Mom was able to be a stay-at-home mom for the first thirteen years or so of my life. I remember her spending time in the kitchen on her arts and crafts. She went through a ceramics phase, getting a kiln in the garage. She also did tole painting, macramé, wreath-making and other crafts. She enrolled us in dance and music lessons starting at the age of four.

I remember hating ballet lessons so much, primarily because I had to wear tights. I would run and hide and Mom would have to chase me, holding me down and forcing the tights only my legs. I don’t think I ever managed to make us late for the classes, though, despite my best efforts.

Because of her own limited options growing up, she made it a priority that her daughters would not have the same limitations. College was mandatory, but she left it up to us what we wanted to study.

At the age of eight, after I saw the Muppet Movie, I told Mom I was moving to California to work in the movie industry. She never questioned that that was my future. It was up to me what I wanted to do with my life, and whatever support I needed, she would provide.

I think it was while I was in middle school that Mom had to go back to work to help prepare for the upcoming college tuitions. She started working at Frost Bank, downtown. She loved the job and made more lifelong friends there, like Cynthia Zunker. She also would eventually reach out to a mother of one of my friends, Mrs. Limaye, and build a friendship which proved invaluable.

She continued to work until she was eligible for retirement, but at several different banks, continuing the career path started at the Federal Reserve in St. Louis. Once her girls were out of college and established in their new, adopted cities, Mom and Dad started cruising regularly.

They have taken a few memorable cruises, including a trip to Egypt where the ship nearly capsized and a trip to the Caribbean where two people fell overboard and were successfully rescued. Despite these upsetting events, she wouldn’t dream of not traveling and cruising. She even took the same Egypt cruise a second time because the events of the first trip prevented making it all the way to Egypt.

On one of the Egypt cruises, Mom met Vicki Tempongko who she would add to her arsenal of friends, visiting her each time she came to California.

After Dad died, Mom slowed down her traveling. She took up quilting and filled her days at the kitchen table, cutting up fabric and stitching it back together.

No matter how many people get up to share their stories here today, or who share their stories more intimately at the reception afterward, we know there will be a common thread. Mom was loving, kind and generous. She took on the role of mother for many of our friends and everyone in this room has had their lives improved for knowing her.

Saturday, March 6, 2021

Music Reaction Videos and Great Songs

Last night, when I was having my semi-regular bout of insomnia, I went down the rabbit hole of watching music reaction videos on YouTube. Luckily, YouTube keeps a record of everything you watch, so I can now recreate the playlist for you.

The Killers - Mr. Brightside
Right Said Fred - I’m Too Sexy
Moulin Rouge Soundtrack - Lady Marmalade
Crowded House - Don’t Dream It’s Over (if I was forced to make a top 10 list of best songs ever, this would probably make the cut)
Midnight Oil - Beds are Burning
Tim Minchin - Prejudice
(Diversion to Tim Minchin "Thank You God" with no reaction.)
(Diversion to Crowded House "Pour le Monde," no reaction.)
Adele - Rolling in the Deep
Deee-Lite - Groove is in the Heart
The B-52’s - Love Shack
Sweet - Ballroom Blitz
Pink Floyd - Another Brick in the Wall
New Order - Blue Monday
Radiohead - Creep
Guns N’ Roses - Sweet Child O’ Mine
Aerosmith - Dream On
Aerosmith - Dream On (again, different reaction)

And then I stopped.

I don’t particularly enjoy reaction videos. The reactions always seem to be, “Ok. Ok. That wasn’t what I was expecting. Mm. Yeah.” There isn’t any deep analysis going on. And because the songs are usually taken from comments recommendations, there is a certain quality to them which would make it unusual for a song to be completely panned. The songs are either excellent classics or off-the-wall goofs. It’s never just, “Please listen and react to this perfectly mediocre song which made it to number 100 on the charts.” I mean, who would listen to Aerosmith “Dream On” and not think it was kind of an amazing song?

The first thing I though of, almost immediately, was that “Mr. Brightside,” released in 2004, sounds like it could have been released today. Pop/Rock music has really stagnated for the past 30 years or so. You can hear something from the 1980s, and you know it is from the 1980s. And growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, you could hear something from the 1960s or 1970s and you could tell which decade it was from.

This isn’t a complaint. I happen to like the way music has sounded for the last 30 years, but aside from lyrics evolving slightly as people have evolved, the actual basic music hasn’t had a huge shift in sound. (I understand that popular music goes through phases of what BPM is hot, or how much autotune is expected, but a lot of music from the late 1990s through today, without context, would be hard to pinpoint to a specific decade.)

The song “Anything, Anything” by Dramarama is a good example of this. It’s from 1985, but if you listen to it and are forced to give it a year, having never heard it before and without any visual clues like the music video or pictures of the band, I doubt anyone would peg it as a song from 1985. Hot Fuss by The Killers sounds like something which could have been released today.

This takes me back to a month or so ago when I posted on Facebook asking if “Birdhouse in Your Soul” by They Might Be Giants was a great song. Yes, it is, by the way. But what makes a great song?

 I’m working on my formula, and this is where I’m at. The lyrics and melody have to be at least interesting. So something like R.E.M.’s “The One I Love,” which is a good song, doesn’t quite make it to great because the lyrics are too repetitive.

 How to determine if the lyrics and melody pass this test? Sing the song acapella - for someone, if possible. If you find yourself doing something like, “and then that repeats,” forget it. That song fails. Or if you find yourself thinking, “I hope the person I’m singing this to isn’t getting bored,” then that song also fails. It needs to be interesting and compelling. Even if you have trouble keeping hold of the melody, which might be a difficult one, you can get a pretty fast idea if the song has potential to be great by attempting a small performance of it. My cats get to hear Billy Joel’s “My Life” in about 4 different keys each time I attempt to sing it. For some reason, I can’t hold that one in the right key when doing it acapella. (I also have trouble keeping the key straight on “Birdhouse in Your Soul.”)

I took voice lessons for a long time, and my teacher insisted all the lessons be acapella. It really drove home the idea that some songs just didn’t cut it. There is nothing as painful as starting a 3-minute song and realizing after the first couple of lines that the song, which you love, doesn’t go anywhere. It doesn’t say anything. It doesn’t stir anything.

If the song passes the lyric/melody test, then move on to the music. I would venture to say that a great song can suffer from a poor performance. So while the bones of the song would qualify, a particular version of it can fall way short of being great. I think The Killers “All These Things That I’ve Done” is a great song. And that Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” is a great song. But I doubt I’d feel the same way if different artists had presented those song originally. The Killers made that song great. Queen made that song great.

I love the music in Cats, but there is a reason why “Memories” is a hit and the other songs are only known by us fanatical fans of the show.

I’m not slighting good songs, I’m just saying that I need to recognize that even though I might love a song, doesn’t mean it is a great song. And I also don’t think there are a finite number of great songs. New great songs come out each year. We haven’t reached the end of the road with great songs.

A great song spans generations. It spans genres. Someone who does reaction videos, even if they don’t love the genre, will be forced to admit that the song hasn’t something going for it. There is something inherently great about the music and lyrics and the way they work together. It’s why “White Christmas” is still popular, despite being written in 1942.

Since the reaction videos rely on suggestions, they are automatically biased toward listening to good, if not great, songs. And the reason I watched them for so long last night? It wasn’t for the reactions. It was because I was getting to revisit songs I hadn’t heard in a while. The playlist was varied. When I watch a regular music video on YouTube, the autoplay feature will then run through videos either by the same band or from the same era. I don’t want to hear “Hold Me Now” by the Thompson Twins after “Don’t Dream It’s Over.” And I may or may not be in the mood for “Better Be Home Soon” next. But the reaction videos gave me a playlist of good and great songs with no connection other than they were someone’s favorite (for the most part - “I’m Too Sexy” is no one’s favorite song). Almost like having my own iPod set to shuffle.

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress - Book Report

 My New Year’s resolution this year is to read one book a month. I know for many of you this is easy and not worth a resolution. I read a lot of screenplays each year and work by writing, so more text isn’t actually that relaxing for me. So since I’m going through this hard work, I decided to do book reports. This is my February book. I'll go back and do January's report soon.  

Designed to be a prison camp, the colonies on the moon have evolved into something bigger. The tunnels of the moon are used for farming and because of favorable gravity, shipments of grain are sent from the moon to the earth to feed overpopulated cities. It isn’t only prisoners on the moon now, though. Spouses and children of prisoners were allowed to go with them. And after a hundred years of sending people to the moon, many of the residents were born free, but as citizens of the moon. Everything there is controlled by the prison guards and the company they work for, Lunar Authority, though.

One supercomputer controls almost all operations on the moon, on Luna. A Holmes computer, which because of regular expansion of its memory and processors, has become sentient. The only person who has noticed the computer is “alive” is a Luna-born computer technician named Mannie, or Man, who is sent to repair the computer whenever it malfunctions. Man has named the computer Mike, short for Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s older brother. The computer malfunctions are usually Mike trying to be funny and not actual errors.

Perhaps manipulated by Mike, Man is thrown into the world of Luna’s underground rebellion. The citizens of Luna want to be free. With the help of two revolutionaries, Wyoming Knott (Wyoh) and Professor de la Paz (Prof), Man and Mike join the fight and help sway the odds in favor of the Lunatics in the fight for their lives and livelihoods. Mike eventually develops many different personalities, but they are of little consequence. They can all be thought of as Mike.

It sounds great. But this is one difficult book to read. The story is told from Man’s point of view, maybe as many as 60 years after the fact. And because Man was raised by people exiled from Russia, he speaks in the way one imagines a stereotypical Russian to speak. Here’s a sample sentence from the book:

Was comfortable lounge with own bath and no water limit.

It would be easier to read with more words:

There was a comfortable lounge with its own bath and no limit to water use.

Maybe no the optimum example from the novel, but the first one I found opening it up. The whole thing benefits from having the voice in your head speak in a Russian accent. I don’t think I could have gotten through it without hearing the text in a Russian accent. And there are Russian words scattered around here and there, just to drive home the point.

The author also gets really hung up in explaining relatively unimportant ideas in relation to the overall plot. Because the population on Luna is 2:1 male to female, most people live in clans with polygamist beliefs. Man has many “wives” and “husbands,” who live together, raise children together, and work on their farm together. The explanation of how this all works out is tedious and I will admit, I don’t think I read every single word about it.

Similarly, I glazed over a bit when the description of how the information cells in the rebellion were structured. Mike on top, with a pseudonym starting with A (Adam Selene), Man, Wyoh and Prof below, with pseudonyms starting in B, each controlling a cell of 3 with pseudonyms starting in C and so on. I think this went on for pages! And look, I’ve covered the basics in one sentence. If you encountered someone whose pseudonym started in F, you would know he was in the sixth level, and exponentially you could figure out there would be 243 people on level F.

 Some things in the description didn’t match with how I pictured the story in my mind. The cities on the moon are all underground, but when they are first introduced my mind drew them as more enclosed in domes, built on multiple levels, not necessarily underground. And as some point I think Man is described as wearing tights and having a bare chest. The farmer and computer technician of Man (who has one artificial arm) looked more like a farmer or computer technician, in coveralls or a boiler suit, in my head. I had trouble picturing him as bare chested. I also had trouble picturing a 40-year-old man as 20, because aging on the moon is very kind. Lunatics live into their hundreds regularly, and because the colonization of the moon isn’t very old, no one is really sure what the average life-expectancy on the moon might be. I pictured Man as a one-armed Jason Statham in a boiler suit with a thick Russian accent. Wyoh? Gwendoline Christie. Prof? Antonio Banderas.

It was interesting that Luna had a strict code of ethics, which needed little to no police supervision. If you got out of line with someone, murder is extremely easy on the moon. And it is already a prison. As a result, people behave and are courteous. And because women are so outnumbered, they are treated with greater respect (although whistled at constantly and written to enjoy it). The kick-off of the revolution actually happening, after years of planning, is when the prison guards rape a woman, violating one of the most sacred codes on Luna.

Overall, I do think this would be a good adaptation for a mini-series. Too much going on for a movie. But I don’t recommend that anyone read the actual book.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein, © 1966

Somehow I got a UK copy of the book, although I didn't notice any spelling issues aside from all the Russian.

And I should mention that TANSTAAFL (There Ain't No Such Thing as a Free Lunch) is the slogan of the moon, and mentioned with some frequency in the book. But that's a different book report.