Saturday, October 30, 2021

The Shell Collector: a very short review

About four years ago I read Anthony Doerr's All The Light We Cannot See, and loved it. It's not for everyone, but it worked for me. Doerr has written other works, including other more recent works, but I decided to go back to the start and explore Doerr's early work, reading his short story collection from more than two decades ago: The Shell Collector: Stories.

I don't read short stories very often, but I love the format. The limited space forces an immediacy and urgency that draws you into each story quickly and deeply. In these stories, although they vary widely in their actual length, Doerr takes this urgency to extremes. He cuts and pares and replaces descriptions with hints, and even replaces hints with omissions, so that you stumble breathlessly across a gap, go back and forth over the gap several times, realize it was deliberate, and realize that you've filled in the gap yourself and indeed he didn't have to tell that part. Several times the story ends on the precipice of resolution, and Doerr is content to drop you off and allow you to compose your own conclusion.

It can be a frustrating experience to read short stories like these.

On the other hand Doerr makes up for it with the vividness of the stories, and the power of his writing.

The stories cover a broad range of topics and are set in a broad range of contexts. Several are set in the Northern Plains where Doerr lives and works. Others are set farther afield: Africa, Europe, Maine.

A common thread, though, is Doerr's physicality and his love of the outdoors, and nearly all these stories involve people and their interactions with the physical world, often as metaphor for their more abstract interactions with each other. The title story involves a blind man whose lifelong study of molluscs by touch and smell is a metaphor for his attempts to understand his adult son. July Fourth involves two groups who settle a pub dispute by going fishing. In The Caretaker, a collection of beached whales on the Oregon coast are a metaphor for the horrors of warfare that are plaguing an African immigrant refugee. In A Tangle by the Rapid River, the fisherman's efforts to detangle his fly fishing line from the riverside shrubbery are a metaphor for the near-terminal state of his failed relationship with his spouse. Mkondo draws its core strength from trail running as a metaphor for courtship and commitment.

Here's Joseph, the protagonist of The Caretaker, visited in his garden by the deaf girl Belle, talking about how he felt compelled to bury the stranded whales, only to realize he is actually talking about the pain of losing his mother during the war:

After a moment he adds, "I buried the hearts from the whales in the forest." He makes the sign for heart over his chest.

She looks at him, canting her head. Her face softens. What? she signs.

"I buried them here." He wants to say more, wants to tell her the whales' story. But does he even know it?


Her pale fingers browse among the stems, a raindrop slips down the curve of a green tomato, he has a sudden need to tell her everything. All his petty crimes, the way his mother left for the market in the morning while he slept -- a hundred confessions surge through him. He has been waiting too long; the words have been building behind a dyke and now the dyke is breached and the river is slipping its banks. He wants to tell her what he has learned about the miracles of light, the way a day's light fluxes in tides: pale and gleaming at dawn, the glare of noon, the gold of evening, the promise of twilight -- every second of every day has its own magic. He wants to tell her that when things vanish they become something else, in death we rise again in the blades of grass, the splitting bodies of seeds. But his past is flooding out: the dictionary, the ledger, his mother, the horrors he has seen.

"I had a mother," he says. "She disappeared." He cannot tell if Belle is reading his lips; she is looking away, lifting a tomato and scraping some mud from its underside, letting it back down. Joseph squats in front of her. The storm sirs the trees.

"She had a garden. Like this but nicer. More ... orderly."

It's hard to realize that Doerr was only in his early twenties when he wrote these stories; they each come to life like the work of a great writer in his prime. Remarkable.

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Ted Gioia on Whitney Balliett

I really enjoyed Gioia's How to Listen to Jazz, although for some reason it seems I never wrote about his book here.

Anyway, here's a nice essay by Gioia which encompasses a number of my favorite things: The Music Critic Who Tried To Disappear

  • Jazz (of course)
  • Specifically, the amazingly productive period of the late 1950's and early 1960's when a flood of beautiful new music was written and performed
  • Public Libraries
  • Music as Literature
  • The strange way in which a few youthful interests can become lifelong passions

Gioia on what he means about what a critic might do in order to be disappearing:

This unwarranted humility came to a head in mid-career, when Balliett’s personality and opinions vanished almost completely from his writings—a disappearing act unusual for any essayist, but especially for a music critic. “Sometimes during the 70s,” Giddins wrote back in 1983, “Balliett made the draconian decision to remove all the I’s from his writing. He not only eschews the pronoun in his current work, but has expelled it when revising his older pieces.” I dare say no one else in the jazz reviewing trade had ever made such a move, or perhaps even considered it.

Did this peculiar retreat make his jazz writing less authoritative—removing all those judgments and verdicts that are the very essence of authority—or did they give it even greater force, turning his perspectives into part of the fabric of the art form, natural laws instead of subjective opinions? You could argue that point endlessly. In any event, the final result of this shift was to create a shimmering translucency to his music writing, a new effect in a very old trade. Sometimes you even walked away with the impression that the musicians and music had spoken for themselves. Whether they actually did (perhaps doubtful), or if it were merely a prestidigitator’s effect created by the critic-behind-the-scenes, is almost irrelevant. Oz is still a magical place even after you find the Wizard hiding behind the curtain.


Friday, October 22, 2021

The rain is falling!

It has been so long since it last rained, I've completely forgotten what it's like.

Here's how you can watch the rain falling, all across the state:

Pay attention to rivers such as the Pit, the Feather, and the Trinity; these are the ones that supply the most important reservoirs in the state.

The Trinity is a particularly interesting case, because it has been massively engineered by humans, over the last hundred years, to divert nearly all of its water from flowing directly out into the Pacific Ocean, to instead flowing down into the Central Valley.

And here's how you can see how the major reservoirs are doing, all across the state:

The far north of California, which is the most important for the water supply, is about six million acre feet short of where it normally is.

That's a lot of water, but: the rain is falling!

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Huichica Music Festival 2021

We went to the 2021 edition of the Huichica Music Festival, the first time we'd ever been to this particular event.

This is a very small festival, which runs over two afternoons-and-evenings across 3 stages on the grounds of Gundlach-Bundschu winery in Sonoma, CA.

Since we'd never been before, we didn't have a good yardstick, but from talking to some of the staff, I think attendance was significantly down this year, which was lovely for us attendees, but presumably quite sad for the promotors, the sponsors, the vendors, etc.

Still, the opportunity to see an act like Mac Demarco or Yo La Tengo with only a couple hundred attendees in the audience is absolutely amazing, and the weather was just glorious, so we truly enjoyed ourselves.

My favorite shows were these, in roughly descending order.

  1. Thee Sacred Souls. A lovely soul band from San Diego with a great frontman and great production values. What a great find they were!
  2. Devendra Banhart. Dev has been playing shows in the Bay Area for a long time, but this was my first chance to see him and his band. He's been to the festival before and it showed: he knew just how to match his show to the location and the audience.
  3. Wet. Wet are an East Coast (Brooklyn) band that is still finding their footing after a few lineup changes. Vocalist Kelley Zutrau has a superb voice and great stage presence, and their songs are mesmerizing electronic ballads. Read more about Kelly here.
  4. Cass McCombs. McCombs is a Bay Area native who I had somehow not known of up til now. I love his sound, and could listen to him play for hours. He reminds me of artists like Shakey Graves or Lord Huron.
  5. Whitney. I'm a huge fan of Whitney, who are from Chicago, and this was the third show of theirs that we've seen. I really hope they can put together a new album and release some new material.
  6. Mac DeMarco. I really enjoy Mac DeMarco's music, and he's got a great stage personality. They didn't deliver the best set that they're capable of this weekend, I feel, but he's got a great future ahead of him.
  7. Lauren Barth. Barth is another Bay Area native who I hadn't heard before, and she was a lot of fun to listen to.

We really enjoyed the Huichica Festival. I hope that it can return in future years, and I'm sure we'll look forward to more chances to attend.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Thoughtworks Responsible Tech Playbook

Martin Fowler talks about the newly-released Thoughtworks Responsible Tech Playbook

The playbook is a free PDF download of about 50 slides, the bulk of which is a summary of a dozen tools and methods that teams can use to better understand their responsibilities. Each summary is a couple of slides outlining the basics of the technique: what is it, who created it, when we should use it, how it works, and our perspective on its place in our development efforts.

Thoughtworks is, primarily, a consultancy which specializes in development tools and processes, and the playbook is basically links to a number of such tools and processes. Some of these tools were designed by Thoughtworks themselves, others are incorporated from outside Thoughtworks.

I definitely like the high-level three-step overview from the playbook:

  1. Open up perspectives: Solicit different points of view to think through a wider range of potential consequences and outcomes.
  2. Mitigate potential risks: Identify and address ethical challenges and vulnerabilities before they become bigger problems.
  3. Unpack stakeholder values: Ensure the technology is designed to meet the needs and support the values of those it is intended to serve.

I'm quite familiar with some of the techniques, such as Security Threat Modeling. Many of the techniques are new to me, and some sound interesting (Data Ethics Canvas, Consequence Scanning, Ethical Explorer), while others sound a bit gimicky and forced (Tarot Cards of Tech).

There seems to be a fair amount of overlap among the approaches, so probably there is a subset that gets you much of the benefit with a relatively small impact to your current processes.

There's a lot to chew on here, and some new ideas I'll probably think about some more.

Monday, October 4, 2021

The little drone and the Big Bad Hurricane

Chalk up another success for Alameda's Saildrone Corporation, which sent a specially modified Saildrone on a most remarkable mission last week: World First: Ocean Drone Captures Video from Inside a Category 4 Hurricane

Saildrone Inc. and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have released the first video footage gathered by an uncrewed surface vehicle (USV) from inside a major hurricane barreling across the Atlantic Ocean.

The Saildrone Explorer SD 1045 was directed into the midst of Hurricane Sam, which is currently on a path that fortunately will miss the US East Coast. SD 1045 is battling 50-foot waves and winds of over 120 mph to collect critical scientific data and, in the process, is giving us a completely new view of one of Earth’s most destructive forces.

Equipped with a specially designed “hurricane wing” enabling it to operate in extreme wind conditions, SD 1045 is braving Hurricane Sam in the open ocean, collecting real-time observations for numerical hurricane prediction models, which are expected to yield new insights into how large and destructive tropical cyclones grow and intensify.

SD 1045 is one of a fleet of five “hurricane” saildrones that have been operating in the Atlantic Ocean during this hurricane season, gathering data around the clock to help understand the physical processes of hurricanes. This knowledge is critical to improving storm forecasting and is expected to reduce loss of human life through allowing better preparedness in coastal communities.

Don't miss the embedded video. Go, go, little Saildrone!