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Hello City Center One

And today our department moved into its new building:

City Center 1

Until a few weeks ago I honestly didn’t even know these buildings existed. Or rather, I thought City Centers One and Two referred to the taller buildings in front of them (which I think are apartment buildings called “The Towers”). But the City Center complex is larger than I’d thought.

Today we unpacked our offices, and tried to figure out where everyone else is sitting. My office is in the middle of a grid of hallways, so it can be tricky to find. We visited the cafeteria in the other CC building (which is fine, but it doesn’t take cash payments and doesn’t have an Indian food station), and in the afternoon walked over to Bitter+Sweet for coffee. (We’re also now a little closer to Philz, but I enjoy espresso drinks too.)

It will be okay, I guess. But I still miss being based in Infinite Loop.

So Long De Anza Six

Our department moved in to De Anza Six just over four years ago, and this weekend we’re leaving it. Thursday was our last day there, and we were all working from home on Friday while the movers did their job.

I was never really fond of DA6, though I think others liked it less than me. For me, my outlook was colored by a number of personal events that happened during that time (three cats passing away, my mother moving to assisted living). While I’m generally pretty good about keeping my home and work life partitioned, sometimes it spills over; this is fine when I figure out the solution to a tricky problem in the shower, less so when a stressful stretch keeps me up at night. My mind naturally associates things that happen around the same time (probably everyone’s does), so my memories of the DA6 years will probably always be colored by “Oh yeah, that’s when all that stuff happened.”

On the other hand, I did enjoy sitting in the building’s courtyard for coffee some afternoons, even though our coffee group for that slowly diminished to just me:

De Anza Six

Time for a New Bicycle

With the biking season not so much around the corner as already here, I wanted to get a new bike to replace my venerable Bianchi Eros. I say “venerable” rather than “beloved” because it’s developed a pattern of popping spokes, despite having replaced the read wheel with a heavier rim several years ago. I bought the bike in 2002, so I feel I’ve gotten my money’s worth and didn’t feel any remorse about replacing it.

The Bianchi is a road bike, and I suspect that the thin rims and its overall design made it poorly suited to carry someone of my weight. So I wanted something with larger wheels, possibly more spokes. I was also leaning towards getting a hybrid bike, because I rarely use the drop-down handlebars on the Bianchi, and my occasional neck problems make it sometimes awkward to hold my head tilted up for long periods of time. So I’d be happy with a more vertical seating position.

Well, long story short, we went to the Bicycle Outfitter yesterday and worked with a very nice salesman named Scott where I ended up buying a Trek 7.4 FX, black with blue trim. While I won’t know until I’ve ridden for a while if it holds up without popping spokes, I’m optimistic. Debbi has a Trek (albeit one about as old as the Bianchi), and I know several other people with Trek bikes, so they seem pretty reliable, or at least popular.

And it is, amazingly, a heck of a lot lighter than the Bianchi (while costing a lot less than the Bianchi did 11+ years ago), and the Bianchi was dramatically lighter than the road bike it replaced. The shifting mechanisms are a little peculiar, in that they work in the reverse of my old bike (push left to upshift, right to downshift), but I’ll get used to that.

This morning I started moving my accessories from the Bianchi to the Trek. Some of them were easy, but the mount for the U-lock, and the rack over the rear wheel, were both vexing. And I couldn’t figure out how to get the pedals off of either bike to move the clip-ons to the Trek. So we took both bikes to the Outfitter. The pedals turned out to be easy, but the mount for the U-lock is just kind of crappy, so I bought a new one. And I also bought a new rack, since I think the rack I have predates the Bianchi, so it was probably time.

But finally the new bike was all set up, so we went out for a ride through Shoreline Park, on what was really a just about perfect day. The bike is pretty comfortable, and I like having my hands spread further apart as I ride. I still need to move my bell over from the Bianchi, though.

I have some things going on this week, but hopefully next week I’ll start biking to work. Should be fun!

Beasts of Burden: Hunters & Gatherers

Beasts of Burden: Hunters & Gatherers, by Evan Dorkin & Jill Thompson, Dark Horse Comics, March 2014

Beasts of Burden: Hunters & Gatherers Reviewers often talk about “the best comic you’re not reading”, but I would bet that the very best comic you’re not reading is Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson’s Beasts of Burden.

The reason you’re not reading it is that it’s published sporadically. The original mini-series has been collected in a handsome hardcover, but otherwise the team has appeared in three issues of Dark Horse Presents, and now this one-shot. Despite the relatively high-profile creators – Dorkin having come to prominence with Milk and Cheese, Thompson probably best known for her Scary Godmother books – this series has been flying under the radar.

The other reason you might not have been reading it is that it’s about a squad of animals who fight supernatural menaces, and you might not be interested in reading a comic about animals. But that’s underselling the premise, because what it’s really about is the culture of dogs and cats that Dorkin and Thompson have crafted, with a mix of characters from wise, almost shamanistic older dogs, to upstart, tough-talking younger pups, and the cat, Orphan, who hangs out with them. These animals live in suburban Burden Hill, and while we see several of them going him to their owners, and other pets who are domesticated and don’t get out much, the humans are part of the setting, not part of the story.

The story in this one-shot involves the pack of dogs luring out an invisible monster, which is par for the series, although there’s been some character development along the way, too. The story does a great job of portraying the characters, some of who are deeply scared by their mission, while others are, well, not quite fearless, but certainly bolder. The best parts of the book is the end, though, where the pack makes the rounds of their neighborhood after finishing their adventure, which really shows the attitudes of some of the different animals in contrast to each other. The last page is a little ominous, and may or may not be setting up a longer-term story.

Thompson’s art is brilliant, drawing realistic-looking animals who have expressions understandable by her human readers, without making them look cartoonish. The colors look like watercolors (see the cover to the left for a good example) and give the art additional depth and texture without overwhelming the layouts.

This one-shot may not be the best jumping-on point for the series, but it’s worth a look if you can’t find the earlier collection. It might not quite be all-ages fare, but it’s pretty close. Certainly it’d be great if sales could get a boost so Dorkin & Thompson could afford to produce more issues more regularly.

Organizing

This weekend was an organization weekend.

Saturday we went to The Container Store and bought some industrial shelving for the shed, since the wooden boards out there kept falling down and weren’t doing the job. It was hot this weekend (80 degrees both days!), so we waited until after dark to put the shelves together and put them in the shed. They also provide more shelf space than we had, so now we have some extra space in there!

I had the bright idea to use some shelves we’d used at the townhouse for plants to store the extra pots that have been sitting on the ground for the last couple of years. I think I’d always hoped to find a place for those shelves somewhere in the yard, but there isn’t really a good place, so using them for storage is better than not using them at all.

We also bought some more shelves for the closet in the study, which straddle the cat litter in there. Sunday it turned out that Magic Online was down, so I wasn’t able to do a Magic draft and instead I went through a huge amount of stuff on the floor, on the bookcase shelves, and sitting on top of the filing cabinets and got it all put away, or thrown out. Some of it’s been sitting there for two years or more, and now the study looks almost fit for human habitation (well, by someone other than me).

Oh, and we also bought a new office chair (one of these); it’s not fancy, but it’s a lot nicer than the 20-year-old armless chair I’ve had since graduate school. Now I just need to find a good desk to replace my similar-vintage unit up there.

It makes me tremendously happy to either get rid of a whole bunch of stuff, or file it away and have space left over. Like I’ve really accomplished something and I’m behaving like an adult.

I got a lot of other things done, too, like testing the lawn sprinklers (which I promptly forgot to turn on, so I did that this morning), watering the plants, hosing down the glider chair on the front porch (which was quite dusty), and vacuuming parts of the house.

I think our big projects this summer will need to be putting in another shed to store larger items like the lawn mower, and installing some wall-mounted shelving in the garage. The ultimate goal is to clear out the other side of the garage so I can park my car in it (Debbi uses the side that’s already clear). That will be a bunch of work, but I think it will be the last of the work we’d planned to do when we moved in. Three years ago.

Okay, sometimes it takes me a while to get to stuff.

Head-Scratcher

I’ve been in my current position at work for a long time (almost 13 years!), and I’ve had a lot of cow-orkers come and go. Recently I’ve realized that our one-time lunch and coffee groups have almost melted away; I have one regular coffee buddy and I often end up having coffee on my own (though I’ve been trying to cut back on the coffee breaks, too), and I end up having lunch on my own or with one other person with some frequency as well.

So I’ve been mulling over the fact that I don’t often make good friends with people I work with (although I get along with most of them). Which seems strange since you’d like that male computer geeks would be exactly the sort of people I’d become friends with. But then, as an introvert, connecting to other introverts can be hard. Indeed, friends that I have made through work in the past are either extroverts, or fairly high-energy people even if they are introverts.

Last week I had this exchange: I was sitting outside having coffee and reading a book. Two engineers from elsewhere in my department are coming back from another building, and they stop:

Engineer 1: What are you reading?
Me: A Tim Powers book.

Though they’d both stopped and started to talk towards me, when I responded they both nodded (not unkindly) and turn and went back into the building.

So I was left scratching my head over that one. More evidence that I’m no good at reaching out to people, I guess. Maybe they had no idea who Tim Powers is, or didn’t like him? Maybe they actually did have a meeting to get to? Maybe something in my tone or body language said “I don’t want to interact with people right now?” I don’t know.

The Cusp of Spring

The lawn has been mowed:

Mowed Lawn

The solar lights are ready for deployment at twilight:

Solar Lights

The yellow wildflowers (or are they weeds?) have taken over the edging and haven’t yet died back:

Yellow Flowers

The Japanese maple is budding:

Japanese Maple

In some places places the lawn had gotten as much as a foot long. I did a pretty high cut for this first mow of the season, but it was still a struggle in a few spots.

The cheap solar lights I buy only seem to last for one summer. All but three of the ones from last year have stopped working. OSH was paying the sales tax on all purchases this weekend, so I bought the new ones, among many other things.

We have another Japanese maple in the front yard, and it’s taking off; I think a year ago it was a little taller than I am, and now it’s three or four feet taller. The one pictured above in the back yard is still only a little taller than me.

Supposedly we’re supposed to get a little more rain tomorrow, but I’m skeptical. I hope we get a few more showers this month before the rainy season winds down, though; we really need it!

Suzanne Collins: The Hunger Games

The central conceit of The Hunger Games is this: In a post-apocalyptic future America, every year 24 teenagers are taken from each district and brought to the capitol to fight a battle to the death for the entertainment of the public. The winner receives lifelong riches. Our heroine, Katniss Everdeen, comes from the poor mining District 12, and we see the experience through her eyes. However, since the story is told in the first person, we know that she survives. (Because no rhetorical trick to arrange things otherwise would be convincing.)

Fundamentally, The Hunger Games is a suspense novel, colored by Katniss’ experiences on her journal. The novel sets up the status quo in her own district, and then upends her life when she’s selected for the Games. Katniss feels very deeply about some things, like her mother and sister, but beyond those things she’s very rational and thoughtful, to the point that she has trouble picking up on certain emotional cues from others, and then reacts violently when she’s surprised, as happens several times in the book. On the other hand, her ability to reason serves her well in the arena once the games begin, and her fundamentally good heart wins her some friends and allies.

What Collins does which lifts The Hunger Games above other YA fare that I’ve read is that some plot developments are telegraphed pages ahead of time, but you realize that it’s only going to make thing worse – worse for Katniss, worse for someone she cares about, or worse for everyone. Or that she’s been backed into a corner so although she technically has a choice, she doesn’t really have a choice. It’s a suspense novel, and there’s the constant worry that things are going to get worse, and might not ever get better.

So, the novel is about Katniss’ resilience in the face of despair, in the face of overwhelming odds. Not for nothing is the signature aphorism in the book, “May the odds be ever in your favor.” Almost designed to appeal to statistically-minded fans of modern sports, the saying ironically notes that any edge you gain is so small in the Hunger Games as to be almost meaningless, even if it might be vital to survival.

What the book forces Katniss to do is to recognize what’s really important to her. Certainly she’s been caring for her family since the death of her father in a mine cave-in when she was young, but she has to move beyond that: Fighting for her own survival isn’t enough, there are other things to care about as well. Friendships she makes in the arena, the unjustness of the Games themselves, and knowing how far she’s willing to go to survive.

It’s easy to see why The Hunger Games is popular: Katniss is a capable, clever and thoughtful young woman, but she’s also awkward and lacks self-confidence in many areas, so she both stands in as a model of wish fulfillment, and as a person the reader can relate to in her uncertainties. She’s hard when she needs to be, empathetic when she wants to be, and not perfect on either count. In a more nuanced way than Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen is someone the reader wants to be (without going through the ordeal of the Games, of course).

The world is very well realized, too; I expect it will be better fleshed out in the other two books in the trilogy, but there’s not much left wanting for the purposes of the story in this first book. And the setting and execution of the Games themselves is very well done. Perhaps the conflict falls apart a bit at the end – the climactic showdown is sidestepped in an awkward manner – and the denouement feels a little rushed (though it sets up the first act of the second book, which I’m already reading), but those are quibbles.

As adventure, as character drama, as gets-you-squirming-in-your-seat suspense, The Hunger Games is a resounding success. I’m not sure why it took me this long to read it.

Amaryllis

For Christmas my aunt and uncle gave me an amaryllis plant. Pretty neat, but before I set it up I had to check whether it was poisonous to cats, since both Jackson and Sadie like munching on plants (yet another obstacle to my mastery of growing orchids!). It turns out it is moderately toxic, so I decided I couldn’t just set it up in the house. So it sat for the better part of a month while I thought about it (or, really, ignored it).

Around my birthday I realized that the plant was forcing the issue, as even though I hadn’t watered it it was sprouting anyway. So I unpacked it – it came in a very attractive little pot – and put it out on the front porch, where it will get a lot of indirect sunlight and hopefully not get too cold. And I started watering it.

Well, as of this morning it looked like this:

Amaryllis

And it looks like it has more flowering yet to come.

I’m not certain what I’ll do once it goes dormant for the summer, maybe put it in the garage, where it will stay warm and get some light. But it’s working out pretty well so far.

Five Weapons #7

Five Weapons #7, by Jimmie Robinson, Image Comics, February 2014

Five Weapons #7 Five Weapons is the latest project by writer/artist Jimmie Robinson, who’s best known for the superhero satire Bomb Queen (which wasn’t my thing), and earlier for his science fiction adventure Amanda and Gunn (which I love and highly recommend). Five Weapons falls somewhere between those two series in tone, being a cleverly-plotted cliffhanger-driven drama, but with a quirky setting and regular doses of humor (some of which deliberately clashes with the more serious material). There’s not much quite like it on the market today.

Five Weapons began life as a 5-issue limited series (collected), which I’ll now summarize – though since it ends with a plot twist, I’ll talk around that as best I can: Tyler Shainline is admitted to a private academy for aspiring assassins, on the strength of being the son of a famous assassin. The school focuses on skills with five different weapons, and the students are grouped into clubs around the weapons; Tyler is pressured into choosing to join a club. You’d expect that the series would show Tyler gaining mastery of all five weapons, but in fact he is a pacifist and refuses to fight with any weapon. The series’ formula is one of showdowns with the five club leaders, each issue ending on a cliffhanger where one wonders how Tyler is going to win this fight without actually fighting. Tyler is in fact at the school on a mission, which he completes at the end of the series, earning the respect of some of the other students. But, since he doesn’t actually plan to become an assassin, he leaves the school.

The ongoing series starts with issue #6, where our hero returns to the school, this time as a medic training under the school’s doctor. However, one of the other students has a grudge against him and sets out to destroy his reputation and get him expelled. The two issues since still end on a “how’s he going to get out of this one cliffhanger”, but we no longer have confidence that he’s going to overcome his enemy, who’s about as clever as he is. This issue has him working out of one fix, learning some surprising things about a few of the adults, and then getting into another jam on the last page.

While written in a straightforward, grounded manner, the setting of Five Weapons is bizarre, sometimes even surreal. There are several characters whom one might characterize as stereotypes, for example the teacher who heads the archery club, who is an American Indian (“Ms. Featherwind”). But for me, the weird thing – as you can see from the cover I’ve reproduced here, is that she has an arrow through her head, and a big target covering the left side of her head. It’s like something from a Batman or Avengers episode from the 60s, an affectation that doesn’t make much sense but sure looks weird. Characters in the series are full of this kind of thing, some of which are explained (the doctor is missing her nose and wears a bandage around her head to cover where it would be), some not.

Additionally, for a school for assassins there isn’t a whole lot of assassinating going on, and there are a lot of students attending. The story alludes to missions that some of the adults have run, but there’s a general feel of “don’t look too closely at how this place fits into the world at large”. You’d think it would take a special kind of sociopath (or psychopath) to become an aspiring assassin as a teenager, but these kids don’t really show it.

Indeed, I find the book enjoyable because the main character and his closer friends are all pretty easy to relate to. And because the cliffhangers in the story are enjoyable brain-teasers. Robinson’s artwork is also quite strong, especially in his characters’ distinctive faces and expressions; it’s a long way from superhero comics. Yet the colors are bright and cheerful, also cutting against what would seem to be grim subject matter.

It’s hard to tell whether Robinson has a long-term plan for the series, as the initial arc – presumably intended to stand on its own – felt complete in itself. Some notional 50-issue storyline would also seem out of place for this series, but we’ll see. Its internal artistic conflicts are part of what appeals to me about it; it’s got such a strong identity, yet that identity seems almost self-consciously fragile. Probably I’m overanalyzing it, as the overall feel is one of narrow escapes from danger in the most fun, adventuresque ways.