Friday, March 27, 2009

Useless Indeed

It's not often that I feel so angry at a book that I recommend against its purchase. I've been disgusted, irritated, outraged, angered but that's what books are supposed to do.

But now I find myself in the position of telling people, "Don't ... just don't buy this book."

What's really irritating is that it is such a lightweight and essentially meaningless book. It is a book that is too minor to have angered me as profoundly as it has.

The tome in question is "The Book of Useless Information" written by Noel Botham and published by Perigee (a division of Penguin.

I have a voracious appetite for oddities. That is why I was attracted to the book, which is presented as a compendium of useless facts.

As I started to read, I was pleased with the quirky and humorous presentation. I was particularly amused by the fact that Sheryl Crow lost her two front teeth in a stage accident and Samuel Beckett's presentation of a play called "Breath" which was 30 seconds long and had no actors or dialog bracketed the statement that "Michael Jackson is black".

But then I started to run into problems. One or two factual failures would have been a forgivable neglect, but when I started running into egregious failures as in the explanation of the 'rule of thumb' being the result of a law forbidding men from beating their wives with a stick that was thicker than their thumb (totally discountable folk etymology), or the durable myth of the the Chevy Nova's unsalability in Hispanic countries because 'no va' means 'doesn't go' (it means the same thing in Spanish as it does in English).

But there were dozens of the falsities, retreads of debunked myths, and they were mixed in with everything else.

When I read that the eggplant was a member of the thistle family, I closed the book. A simple Wikipedia confirmation would have shown that the eggplant, like the tomato, bell pepper, etc. is a member of the nightshade family, not the thistles.

When a book purports to be factual, there ought to be at least a modicum of fact checking. I know have to discount everything I've read in it as possibly wrong. It doesn't matter that some of it may be correct, I have no way of knowing what is and isn't and I'm not going to do Mr. Botham's work for him.

It was a waste of money, time, and brain activity. I read a third of the book and I got out of it was this irritable article.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Big DeRezz

Variation Number 1 on the theme of avatars.
This is a bit of a put-on or, some might say, a take off on the old hard-boiled, two-fisted, gumshoe detective novel of the Mickey Spillane genre. Ellipses will protect those of you with tender sensibilities and provide room for all kinds of imagined kinkiness.
This is for Surasa Tatham whoever she may be.

She pressed herself tightly against me. Her breasts like two scoops of vanilla ice cream nestled in the sequinned dish of her bodice. What I could see of the rest of her gown was gauzy and multi-colored, a kind of formal strumpetware, not that I was complaining. Clarisse was the type of pneumatic blonde who could give Mike Hammer a heart attack.

We stood at the bar, my shot of generic whiskey and her steaming, bubbling concoction in a baroquely detailed goblet on the mahogany surface between us and the bartender.

"You're looking good tonight, Clarisse," I said.

She blushed. I was impressed by the natural response. It's not easy to achieve.

"Thanks Jake."

I pried her off me long enough to remove my fedora and trench coat. "Come dance with me and we'll keep this private." The Club Casablanca was bustling but there were a few open spots left on the dance floor.

The club was an odd mix of styles; 1940 US noir, complexly Moorish architecture and art-deco furnishings. The ambient light was dim. On one side of the room were tall arches their symmetry broken by a few palm fronds beyond to remind us of the garden and beach between the stonework and the calm ocean with its silver snail trail of moonlight.

Huge black and white posters of Bogart and Bergman gazed down from the wall above the empty bandstand. The music was lush and sensual. A little placard in the corner near the piano displayed the album cover; "All for You" by Dianna Krall.

The club reflected the odd mind of its owner, the voluptuous beauty waiting for me impatiently.

"C'mon" said Clarisse. I stepped into the empty spot in front of her and she moved into my arms. I held her close as we moved swinging and dipping to the music and had a private chat.

"What's going on?"

"Some developers want to tear down the club and put in a marina."

"Any chance of them succeeding?"

"They're offering RIONCorp more than I can match."

"So, what can I do?"

"Oh Jake! I don't know ... You know how it works around here, money and property trumps style."

"It's the same outside, babe."

"I hoped you could think of something. Nothing I've done makes enough money. No-one is renting the apartments next door. Five nights out of the week the club is empty ..."

"I'll have to think about it. It's not my usual kind of problem."

"I know Jake. I just need some different thinking ... and you're the best I know for that."

"Thanks Clarisse, But you don't need to flatter me. I'll do anything I can for a friend. Who's been putting the squeeze on you ... anyone I know?"

"Harry Lime."

"That bunch? I'll do what I can, but be careful."

We left the dance floor. I put on my coat and hat.

"Here's looking at you, kid," I said with a wink, and left.

The next day was dark, dreary and drizzling in Redlight. I'd tracked down an identity thief; a sad little newbie with no style of his own had glommed a clone of one of the minor underworld characters. I explained his transgression to him gently but firmly, extracted a small fine as payment, and told him to go and sin no more. I sent the fine minus my collector's fee to the RIONCorp offices with the usual explanation.

I met the client in Podevash, his strange nightclub that focussed on leather kink. I liked the bi-lingual pun but wondered how many times he'd had to explain the joke to a customer.

I had my usual generic whiskey, but he was intent on making sure that I knew he was drinking from a bottle with a high res copy of a Lagavullin label. I collected my fee, explained that I'd keep the identity of the newbie confidential unless it happened again.

The club was nearly empty. I asked him if people got the same kick out of the fetish when they couldn't smell the leather, and he admitted that business was bad.

I left him, nursing his fancy tipple, in his kinky environment.

I got into my black Hudson Commodore parked in front. A moment later I stepped out of it and onto a sunny, bright, blue-sky, wide-beach island. I parked in front of a row of 10 townhouse style apartments behind the Club Casablanca. Five of them had small boxes showing that they were unoccupied and available. I deposited six month's rent, somewhat more than I'd just collected, in the box to transfer it to Clarisse' account, and got the key in exchange.

I changed from my PI wardrobe (double-breasted grey suit, white shirt, wide tie, black shoes, fedora, trench-coat) into my typical casual wear of an open-necked blue cotton button-down shirt, loose jeans and some sandals.

It took me a couple of minutes to unpack. I live simply. I laid a Persian-style rug on the floor in front of the fireplace, placed a brown leather couch against the opposite wall, added a couple of armchairs and a coffee table. I hung some high-res repros of Japanese woodblock prints on the wall and set a chessboard with the problem I was solving on the coffee table.

Upstairs I put down a wall to wall futon and went out on the balcony. In the distance I saw someone wave. I went downstairs, out the front door and put some chairs on the tiled terrace in front of my new digs just as Clarisse strolled up. She wore a low cut white blouse with lace to frame her cleavage, and bluejeans so tight that, if there were flesh involved, the pressure would have increased her bust.

"Hiya," I said, sitting down on a wicker loveseat.

"You didn't have to do that," she said squeezing in next to me. "I know you loved your place in Milkwood."

"Not a big deal," I replied. "The timezone disparity was giving me headaches and there was no one awake to gab at 4am GMT."

"Well it's a big deal to me," she whispered. "Touch this ... " She held out a scripted object. I trusted her, so I touched it ... and suddenly we were pressed tightly together, our mouths found each other whisps of her blonde curls drifted between our eyes. Then she had me touch something else.

* * *

Three weeks later, through advertising and special events, we'd built up traffic to the club enough for Clarisse to counter the takeover bid. Then we were hit by vandals.

I was doing some tracer work when I got the alert. By the time I got to the club Clarisse was standing in the middle of the room watching the walls melt. I changed mode so I could see corruptions in the code as discolorations. We ripped everything down and rebuilt from backup. It took a couple of hours but we got it up and running before the evening crowd arrived. We repaired the apartments the next day. Then I drove the Hudson over to the mainland shopping district.

The Enraptor Emporium was still in business, unfortunately. I'd investigated the proprietors a couple of times for some nasty ID-jackings, but they'd either bought off the complainers or maybe even RIONCorp's lawyers. The storefront looked the same, but I could see that they'd expanded their real estate both out and up. The store now took up the entire block and towered five stories above the street. I wondered if there was expansion below ground level.

As I walked up, the doorman offered me a landmark card. I shrugged him off, and went in. The store was self-service, but I must have tripped an alarm. A dozen steps in, the green-haired, silver-eyed piece of nastiness named Harry Lime materialized in front of me.

"What the Hell are you doing here, Jake?" In spite of his name, he always seemed more like Peter Lorre than Orson Welles.

"Nice to see you too, Harry."

"Get out!"

"Not until we have a little chat."

"We have nothing to talk about," said a new voice. A willowy brunette stepped out from behind a curtain. She was wearing a whisp of gauze that kept going transparent. It might have been distracting if I were more trusting.

"New persona, Rickie?" Last time I'd seen Rickie he'd been in a white zoot suit with a Tommy gun.

"You're not welcome here."

"I'm just here to tell you to lay off of my friends."

"What? You're here to protect that little bimbette?" Harry moved in front of me; right in my face.

"That's right. Back off and leave the club alone."

"Jake you're so dumb that it embarasses me that I find you such a pain in the ass." Rickie's voice seemed to come from nowhere. I spun around to find him behind me. He had an object shaped like an old blackjack. I just caught a glimpse of it as it came up and hit me between the eyes.

I de-rezzed.

I grabbed the wheels of my chair and moved back from the desk. I spun my chair, and rolled to the bookcase to grab the last CDR I burned. It took me hours to restore from backup ... too long.

When I got back the club, the apartments, and Clarisse were gone. I left messages, I checked with her friends and her best customers ... when I could find them ... when they would talk to me. There was a field tuned to me around the emporium, and I couldn't get in.

But I have resources. I don't have to play nice. I know addresses for Harry and Rickie. One of these days ... one of these days ... they'll open something they shouldn't, they'll touch an unfamiliar object, run a new script, and something will happen.

Even their backups won't save them.

Animo Ex Machina

Variation Number 2 on the theme of avatars

It seemed to be Spring. The windows were open and the curtains fluttered. There were lilacs in bloom outside.

I was waiting. I sat on the green corduroy cushions of a Morris chair near one of the two windows, my feet up on a blocky ottoman, an open book in my hands and waited. The room was perfect. Crammed bookshelves lined the walls, books stacked neatly rather than my own helter-skelter, Japanese woodblock prints occuping what little wall space was left. A simple library desk was under the other window, papers were scattered over its surface, weighted down by a couple of open books. and a fountain pen in an inkwell. All the wood was dark and polished. The floor around the Persian rug gleamed. The furniture gleamed. A recording of flute and harpsichord sonatas played from invisible speakers.

In a way it was the room in which I'd always imagined myself writing, but I had nothing to write. I had nothing to read except the book with blank pages that I held. Nothing to do but wait.

But there was also something subtly wrong. There was no dust, no scent of lilacs on a non-existent breeze, or of oil soap, or of the mustiness of books. I noticed, with some amusement, a pipe rack on the low table near me and an ashtray with a pipe fuming in it on the arm of the chair. It had been years since I had last smoked a pipe. But, as with the rest, there was no odor ... no scent of the pungent Latakia with which my favorite tobacco was laced.

It wasn't hard to wait, I was used to it. I had woken in the chair a few minutes ago and I knew it wouldn't take long.

The tapping sound that indicated footsteps started and I knew that she would be with me in a few seconds. I turned the book over and rested the open pages on the knee of my jeans. I reached for the pipe involuntarily, took a puff and blew a smoke ring just as she opened the heavy oak door.

She carried a tea service on a large tray. I noted that she wouldn't have had a hand free to open the door.

"Hello dear." she said as she crossed the room and put the tray on the low table. "It's your favorite ... Lapsang Souchong."

She handed me a steaming cup. I took it, having somehow laid the pipe down again. The book was gone as if it had never existed. I thought that it was a bit sloppy. She took a cup herself and collapsed gracefully into a lotus pose. I took a sip of the steaming liquid that though flavorless, odorless, and without temperature was supposed to be tea.

"How are you today?" she asked.

I decided to let the script play for a bit.

"I've written a few more pages," I said, although, of course, I'd done nothing of the kind.

"That's good," she said. "I'm glad you're being productive."

"What did you do this morning?" I sat back and provided the appropriate responses as she listed the events of her day. The curtains at the window continued to move in the breeze. Odorless, smoke continued to rise from the pipe. Heatless steam continued to rise from the teapot and cups.

She paused. I smiled dutifully. She was done with her catalog of events. It was time. I leaned forward startling her. This wasn't part of the script.

"You have to let me go," I said.


I shook my head. It should have been in caps with a question mark to provide the proper emphasis, but it was okay, I knew what she meant and how she meant it.

"You're hanging on to a life we never had," I told her, the perfect life that we never could achieve and wouldn't have known how to cope with anyway."

"Who is this?"

"You know who it is. Who else could it be? You spent so much time digitizing the photos, creating the environment, giving this digital husk so much of what its original wanted. You put in so much effort creating an environment to help the creativity of a non-creative entity."


"Yes, Hon, but only briefly." There was a pause. I knew what was going on. We'd lived together too long for me not to know all the bits and pieces of her life, her habits, her coping mechanisms. She would stare at the screen in shock, then with suspicion. She'd sit back and light a cigarette which unlike my fuming pipe would sputter and smoke and coat the walls with a brown haze.

The ashtray next to the computer was probably already overflowing with ash and filtertips. She'd take a sip of coffee and try to figure out if someone was running a scam on her ... and she would start to hope ... about ... now.

"John is that really you?"

"Ask me a question." She did. I answered it.


"No, it's just me."

"It has to be you. No-one else would use that old joke."

"Listen to me Hon," I said. "This is important."

"How can this happen?"

"Just be quiet and listen. I don't have a lot of time. Can you do that for me?"


"I want you to destroy all this; the house, the room, the garden, me ... everything."


There we go, I knew she'd find the caps key.

"Just listen. This was never us. This was never how we were. We were never this nice to each other, the house was never this clean, our lives were never this calm and stable. I hated your ambivalence, your lack of decision, your aggressive selflessness. You hated my wandering attention, my rigid personal codes, my own lack of decision. We both hated that we were so busy trying to figure out what each other wanted that we never decided on anything and we went around and around dancing around what might have been.

"What you've created here is a sterile construct, a false memory, an ideation of the way we never were. You've found a way to give me things that you thought that you'd deprived me of. It is sweet of you."

"... and it is kind of you to provide me with those things that you remember that I liked to surround myself with. But you need to know that I don't care about any of it. It's meaningless. All it serves to do is to help you persuade yourself that this was all there was to us."

"But it wasn't. There is no dust, no farts, no toothpaste tubes squeezed from the middle, no dirty underwear, no laundry, no money hassles, no trust issues. All those things that we had to put up with from each other have been reduced to the sterility of perfection."

"I love you, and appreciate this monument, but ... cut it out ... get a life ... start over and make it work better. Blow this place up. Log-off. Get out of here and don't come back. Forget about me. Good Lord woman ... I've been dead for three years."

"John, I just want ... " I disengaged and let my avatar go back to its script.

"Well dear," it said, "I'm glad you've had a productive morning. I must get back to writing now."

It stood up from the chair without the groan of effort that it would have needed from me, walked over to the desk and started to make scribbling motions over the perpetually blank pages. I watched for a moment or two as she tried to get it to respond. I hoped that she would give up soon and think about what I'd said.

Maybe she would finally come to understand the last few minutes as the gift it was intended to be. I'd have to settle for not knowing. I was out of time. I pulled out of the wires, the chips, the tickle of electrons rushing through them. I pushed back from the hot pungence of silicon, and copper. I let go of the metal and plastic boxes.

I let go and floated away. The breeze was lighty fragrant with the smell of lilacs.

A Reason to Not Write

The old gods call to me, chiding,
through the bodies of dead dryads
pulverized by metal grinders,
soaked, sieved, pressed into
consistency and transformed
from the rough coarse bark
and the sweet heartwood,
from the interweaving
of twigs and branches,
from the chaotic joy of life,
into mathematical linearity
of bleached white planes
covered with blue and red
maps prescribing the discipline
and direction of thought,
drilling the letters,
the words, the phrases,
the spaces, the breath
into obsessive rank and file
(my shaky hand making them
slouch like raw recruits
on the white ground ...
unkempt, disshevelled).

The old gods chide me
from the forest, whispering
from the sea, bubbling.
The kraken mourns its
stolen inky avatar,
ripped unborn from its body
pounded, dried, compounded
yet retaining its essence.
See how a drop of the black
soul of the deep sends its
vestigial tentacles into
the fibers of the paper
(is it searching for food
are the minced bodies
of dryads sweet or harsh
with chemical bleach?)
With my pen I inscribe
the dark of the deep
on the reach of the light,
smirching the brilliant page
with the blotted approximations
of speech. The sheet cringes,
not from the ink, but from
the corrosive content.
The words of my song eating
acidly into its pulp and
changing ... mutating
degrading it far more
than the mutilation of
mechanical separation
and symmetricality.

The old gods chide me.
Conspiring, they whisper
in my ear and tickle
the tympanum
with their sly confidence.
"Why," they sussurate,
"Why do you use us three
so callously?" Three?
I think, the wood, the ink
and ...? "Song" they hiss.
The words will live if sung.
But you, tyrant, sentence them
unheard, and merely imagined,
to a silent crypt, a soundless
coffin made of our bodies and
our blood, trapping them in
a senseless limbo alone,
unvoiced, in neat sarcophogi
of lineated pulp nailed shut
with spikes of ink

A Steller's Jay

I live, temporarily, with my oldest son, his wife and daughter in a suburb of Seattle. People here work (or worked) for Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Boeing and similar or supporting businesses.

The plots here are the size of postage stamps. As evidence of the area's growth, a single home across the street from my window was razed, the plot divided into thirds and a new house built on each and, as if to demonstrate the new economic reality, all three houses remain unsold.

It is sad that this boom and bust minimized the land surrounding the houses since most people will find it difficult to put in a vegetable garden to help out in these challenging days. My daughter-in-law has done her best though and a small set of raised beds now graces the front yard where some bedraggled rose bushes used to reign.

My window looks out over this tiny plot of perhaps 100 square feet or so, with a bamboo trellis for pea vines and a small but thoughtful selection of vegetables in an area surrounded by stones and only briefly shaded by the shore pine that stands up near the sidewalk. The steepness of the slope on which the house is built means that my window on the third floor is only slightly above street level (the driveway descends from the street at about a 20 degree angle and getting the mail is like climbing Monadnock). Well ,,, perhaps I exaggerate

There are several well-kempt cats in the neighborhood who strut by regally seemingly under the impression that they own it all (and who is to say that they do not), but they are not indulging in their usual perambulations this morning. so I have been watching a Steller's jay, with a fine jaunty crest and a raucous laugh, flit between the branches of the globular crest of the small pine and the ground.

I started watching him just to make sure that he wasn't destroying the garden, but it was soon clear that he was picking up his snacks from the area between the rows of seedlings.

He is a snazzy dresser, but a bit skittish. His head and breast are black or nearly so, fading to and irridescent dark blue. (If you are an artist I would suggest a pthalocyanine blue.)

At the moment he seems quite amused as the tiger cat named Walter and a white cat known to me only as "the ghost" have appeared and started to fight over a small and meaningless piece of territory on the opposite bank of the asphalt river. He balances on a drooping branch, cocking his head this way and that, not seeming to take sides but also not trusting enough in their focus to drop down and get more food.

In the time it took me to write that last paragraph, the battle of the cats moved further down the street. The jay waited a few moments and flitted to a high rock and is waiting ... just to make sure they don't return.


I walk out onto the porch.
The trees move gently in a breeze.
The sun is bright and warm.
A few puffy clouds contrast
bright white in the early morning sky.

A crow yells at me
from the denuded horse chestnut tree
(no buds yet, just the occasional
tenacious brown tattered leaf),
as I watch the blackberry runners
advance toward the house.

I go back inside --
the house is still asleep --
and measure coffee into the French press.
I set the kettle on the burner and slice
a thick wedge of bread and put it on
an old cracked saucerand drizzle it
with olive oil and dust it
with salt. The porch beckons
with its wooden chairs and table
in a warm spot of sun.

The kettle bubbles (at last) and I
pour the water, stirring gently,
careful not to clink the spoon.
Not wanting anyone else awake.
I put the lid on it.
The bread on the saucer, the notebook
beside it, the pen in the wire spiral,
and my empty cup wait with me
as I wait, and watch the crow drop
from the chestnut to the porch rail
to laugh at me. I push the plunger
and pour the coffee.

I tuck the notebook under my arm.
I grab the cup in one hand,
the saucer in the other, and
elbow the door open.

As I step out, a bank of gray
moves in to cover the sun,
a splatter of rain thuds
against the decking.
The light breeze has chilled.
I turn back.
Inside a child sobs.