Thanksgiving Week Off

Apple closed down its corporate offices for Thanksgiving week – which it does from time to time, but not every year – so I had the week off. Here’s what I’ve been up to:

Last Sunday, Debbi hosted a cookie exchange with some friends. So we had six guests over to exchange cookies. I tried baking peanut butter cookies on Saturday, and they came out good. Next time I want to figure out how to make them chewier, since I like them that way rather than flaky, which this recipe yielded. We had a good time having people over, and Blackjack enjoyed visiting with everyone, too. He surprised us by being able to jump up onto the counter by way of a bar stool, which was more than we thought he was capable of, in his current state.

Unfortunately, over the next couple of days Blackjack’s condition went downhill. Coincidentally, we had a scheduled check-up on Tuesday with the vet that’s been treating his cancer. By Tuesday morning he was very wobbly, having a lot of trouble staying balanced and getting up and down from things. He would jump down from the dining table and lose his footing and splat on the floor. Fortunately he didn’t hurt himself, but we were pretty worried.

The vet is pretty baffled, too. It could be that his cancer has spread to his hindquarters and is affecting his nerves. Or he could have an inner ear problem. Or he could have a problem with his brain. She noticed he had some unusual eye movements, which suggests one of the last two. But we can’t really know for sure without some expensive – and possibly invasive – tests, and even then we might not be sure, and even if we were we might not be able to treat it. So I’m not sure we’re going to do a lot more for him at this point, but try to keep him comfortable. He’s lost some more weight, so the vet put him back on the steroids he was on during his treatment to stimulate his appetite. Of course he loves being pilled.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though: Over the next few days his strength and stability came back, and this weekend he’s seemed almost back to his old self. Not jumping like he used to, but only a little wobbly, and there’s something in his eyes that seems to say that he’s feeling more his he ought to. We may be in for cycles of good days and bad days, but at least he’s having some good days, when he wants to get into trouble and isn’t spending all his time sleeping.

Monday and Tuesday I did some shopping, and hung out at home. I did a couple of Innistrad drafts on Magic Online. My draft Monday was a disaster and I got eliminated in the first round. My Tuesday draft was much better, with a pretty potent vampire deck, but I got eliminated in the second round by someone who had drafted a gimmicky milling deck. I came somewhat close to pulling it off even so, but it was frustrating, as my deck really had no way to deal with his tricks other than to kill him quickly.

Debbi took Wednesday off, so we’ve had a 5-day weekend together. We had a quiet Thanksgiving at home, cooking a 12-pound turkey with the usual trimmings for dinner. Cooking a turkey is a good way to find out how well-calibrated an oven is, I find – I have a long history of overcooking turkeys. Our oven has a built-in probe thermometer which we used, and it works well! The turkey came out just about perfect, and it and all the other food was yummy. We got some pies from Marie Callender’s too.

This weekend we’ve been doing some work on the house. Well, maintenance. We have some accent lights around the yard which had stopped working, but it turned out that they were all just burned-out bulbs and easily replaced. I suspect one of the light units themselves will need replacing sometime soon, as I was having trouble getting the bulb’s leads to connect to it, but fortunately not quite yet. We also replaced one of the bulbs in the recessed lighting in our family room. We have a lot of light fixtures in this house, so I expect we’ll be replacing random bulbs with some frequency. (Though hopefully the fluorescent lights, at least, will last several years each.)

We also bought a Dyson DC25 vacuum cleaner since they’re on sale this weekend and we’ve been wanting to replace our existing vacuum. I tried it out today and it works quite well! We also ordered a new rug for the living room. Now we just need to find the right rug for the dining room…

We’d hoped to get together with our friends Joar and Karin for a meal this weekend, but they we feeling a bit under the weather, as I’ve been since Friday, so we decided to postpone it ’til sometime later. Actually, my under-the-weatherness has been pretty annoying this weekend: Congestion, general lack of energy, like I’m fighting something off. I wish I’d either get sick, or get better. This in-between stuff sucks.

Still and all, it’s been a pretty good vacation, especially because Blackjack’s feeling better.

Anne Rice: Interview With the Vampire

I think Anne Rice’s “Vampire Chronicles” series didn’t become really big until the publication of The Vampire Lestat in 1985, but look at the copyright date on this book, the first in the series: 1976! Remember the controversy over whether Tom Cruise was an appropriate choice to play Lestat in the 1994 film adaptation – in its pre-World Wide Web way as big a casting brouhaha as anything involving the Twilight cast today – and now realize that this book was published 18 years earlier. Today it seems like you can’t throw a rock without hitting a couple of writers getting rich off a series of vampire novels, but all of these modern vampires owe their popularity – and arguably their very existence – to Anne Rice and Interview With the Vampire This is where it began.

And it’s actually a pretty good book. I first read it around the time of the film (though I never saw the film), and found it engaging and compelling. Which is more than I can say for the sequel, as I thought The Vampire Lestat was borderline-unreadable (and way too long), so I stopped there. But Interview stands on its own just fine.

The vampire of the title is Louis, who is being interviewed by a young reporter in present-day San Francisco (using a tape recorder, since the “present day” is the 1970s here). Relating his life story, Louis was a plantation owner in Louisiana in the late 18th century, when he is attacked and turned into a vampire by Lestat, who desires to use Louis to live a comfortable life of leisure. Lestat is a mercurial personality, filled with anger and ego, who lets Louis know only a little about being a vampire in order to keep Louis tied to him. When Louis shows signs of wanting to leave, Lestat tricks him into helping him turn a 5-year-old girl, Claudia, into a vampire. This ultimately proves to be Lestat’s undoing, as Claudia – who never ages – chafes after several decades at Lestat’s dominance of their triad and eventually schemes to free herself and Louis from Lestat. The pair leave the United States in the late 19th century and head to Europe.

After a period in eastern Europe learning the sad fate that befalls some vampires, they end up in Paris, where they meet a coven of vampires who have set themselves up as a high-class theater. They are nominally led by Armand, who believes himself to be the oldest vampire on Earth, and who wishes to anchor himself to Louis so that he can avoid the disorientation of living through the changing centuries which causes most vampires to ultimately kill themselves. He and Louis plan to allow Claudia to live on her own, but other forces within the theater troupe engineer a series of events leading to tragedy for our heroes and everyone around them.

There’s a lot to like about Interview. For the science fiction fan, there’s the fact that Rice pared down the mythological trappings of the vampire, discarding many elements which felt superfluous (the vulnerability to crosses and garlic, for instance), turning them into predatory creatures of the night. She outlined the mechanism through which humans are turned into vampires, thus explaining why the world isn’t overrun by the creatures (vampires need to deliberately act to transform someone), and even explained why vampires eventually die off. While obviously not everything about a vampire can “make sense”, getting down to the essentials – the blood thirst, the vulnerability to the sun, the strength, speed and heightened senses, and the immortality – makes them terrifying creatures while also tragic ones.

Rice of course also brought the sense of gothic romance which pervades the genre today. While homoeroticism pervades the scenes between Louis and Lestat, and later Lestat and Armand, in a broader sense it’s raw passion and the denial of consummation of that passion which characterizes Rice’s vampires: They react viscerally to the deaths of their victims, moved as much by the shared experience (or what they imagine is the victim’s experience) as the need for their blood. And they cling to each other fervently because there are so few of their kind, and after just a few decades they can no longer relate to mere mortal humans. They are sexless, and the homoerotic overtones of their relationships are I think largely driven by their strong passions towards whomever they connect with than by any homosexual tendencies. But because their motivations are different from humans, their expressions of their desires are natural to them but seem strange to us, inasmuch as they are inhuman entities in human form.

Louis is an awkward protagonist, as he’s what an acquaintance of mine would term a “wussbag”: He’s not a very active character, has trouble making decisions for himself and is easily overwhelmed by stronger personalities, of which there are many around him. Subservient to Lestat, he is repulsed by what he has to do as a vampire to live, and even more repelled by Lestat’s cavalier attitude toward the same. Enthralled by Claudia, he does her bidding despite her being even more alien than Lestat, having never been grounded in human morality before being turned. Armand is less reprehensible but no less domineering, just a softer touch.

But the story is still wholly Louis’; fundamentally, it’s about his eventual fall, though it takes more than a century. He initially resists embracing his vampiric nature, preferring to survive by killing animals, but he eventually gives in. He doesn’t have the courage to kill himself, especially once he has the responsibility to care for Claudia. Having thought he’s finally found a place where he belongs, with the theater troupe, the climax of the story sees him lose everything he cares about, and drives him to finally take charge and retaliate against the parties responsible. He destroys the last bits of his soul in the process, and becomes numb, wandering the world with Armand but no longer seeing or feeling the things around him. His downfall becomes complete in the final chapters as he wraps up his interview in the present day.

It’s hard to say that Louis – or anyone in the book – is an admirable character. Reading about these characters is more like seeing a slow-motion train wreck, played out over decades. While I usually can’t relate to books whose characters I can’t relate to, Rice makes the characters human enough, and the exploration of their world and lives chewy enough on an intellectual and emotional level to keep you reading. Inasmuch as the book is narrated by a vampire, the characters come off a little more sympathetically than they would otherwise, but Rice remains detached from the question of whether vampires are morally reprehensible and whether they can be judged by the same standards as ordinary humans. Of course they can be, but making those judgments is up to the reader, which I think is one of the book’s strengths.

A friend of mine thinks this is a terrible book, poorly structured and featuring loathsome characters, only mildly redeemed through some well-written passages. I think it’s much better than that, if not quite the pop classic it’s become in the last generation, but well worth reading, especially to provide some historical context for today’s vampire mania. Indeed, for me this is all the vampire fiction I feel the need to read.

Gratuitous Cat Pictures

Time for a few pictures of our cats as they enjoy our new home.

First, can you spot the two cats in the photo below?

Roulette & Newton have been enjoying the morning sun in the guest room, and Roulette has also turned into something of an “under-furry”.

Blackjack sometimes lies in the sun, but lately he’s discovered that the heating vent under our kitchen island blows a nice stream of hot air to warm his paws and shaved belly:

And one morning he decided he really needed the warmth:

Roulette has been getting more used to the downstairs, and the other morning she was enticing me to pet her on top of the kitchen island:

Blackjack and Roulette each like sleeping in the papasan, which now lives in the library upstairs (which holds my comic books, humor books, and mass-market paperback fiction). Sometimes, when there’s no sun elsewhere, they’ll sleep together:

But more likely we’ll find Newton and Roulette sleeping together, which is how I found them a few minutes ago when I came up to post this entry:

Back to the Gym

Now that daylight savings time has ended, so to has my biking to work regimen. Not because it gets cold, but because I don’t like biking home in the dark. While Silicon Valley is a pretty good place to bike (for an urban environment), it’s not so much the cars that worry me, as the crap on the road that I might run over and get a flat or damaged wheel – stuff I could see when it’s light out, but wouldn’t have much hope of seeing in the dark.

So instead I’m going to try to go to the gym twice a week to use the machine, and this morning was my first trip.

One thing that vexed me about the gym last year was that they’ve taken away the book holders they used to have which would keep your book open while you exercised. But now I have an iPad, and I realized I could read books on that. But which books to read? Most books I want I just buy when I find them, and I didn’t really want to buy them again digitally.

Then I realized that Iain M. Banks’ publisher has basically stopped printing his books in mass market paperback. I don’t enjoy Banks enough to buy his stuff in hardcover, and as I’ve said before, I dislike buying books in trade paperback. But this way I can turn a negative into a positive and read his newer works digitally at the gym. So I downloaded Surface Detail and started reading it this morning. Once I finish that, I can move on to Transition and Matter.

The experience of reading on the iPad was pretty good: Being able to adjust the text size is nice, and the contrast is fine. I didn’t have any problems reading for half an hour on an LCD screen (although, since I do that all day anyway, that didn’t surprise me). I haven’t tried any other e-readers (such as the Kindle), so I don’t have anything to compare it to, but I didn’t have any complaints.

Well okay, my legs registered a few complaints after spending an hour on the elliptical machine for the first time in over half a year. Definitely not the same muscles that I use for bicycling.

Spacetrawler Reviews Chasm City

The crew of Christopher Baldwin’s webcomic Spacetrawler reviews one of my favoritest novels, Alastair Reynolds’ Chasm City:

Spacetrawler is a really fun webcomic, combining serious SF with humor and other silliness. If you’re intimidated by trying to catch up with this strip on-line, I recommend buying the handsome full-color paperback collection. The strip above is included as an extra at the end of the book.

(By the way, my own review of Chasm City is here. And Reynolds’ blog can be found here.)

The Nakalele Blowhole

Our hike to the Nakalele blowhole was one of the high points of our trip to Maui. We took the long route through an exotic rock formation to get the the blowhole.

A lot of people parked where we did, but most of them just walked down to the edge of the cliffs to take pictures of the ocean. Hardly anyone hiked to the blowhole from this spot. We did see one couple walking back from it, though, who said it was well worth the walk.

I think we took a wrong turn on the way there, as our guidebook said to turn right along a gully, and we were skeptical that it would go anywhere and wanted to stay near the coast. In hindsight I think the gully is just another bit of scenery and is where we wanted to go, whereas staying right by the coast takes you up past a weather station where the walk is steep and a bit treacherous. Still, we did get to see (from a distance) some neat-looking pools down at the ocean:

We made it past the weather station, but you still have to clamber down a rocky hill to get down to the blowhole. Once you get there, you’re in what our guidebook called the “acid war zone”, where the ocean has gradually worn away the rocks into neat-looking formations, as if it had been carved by two armies fighting a war with acid. This was well worth the trip, as the views were gorgeous:

From the war zone you can see a small blowhole, but the main attraction is farther along. It’s pretty explosive, seeing the ocean blast water through this (relatively) small hole in the bottom of the shoreline. We were standing right where the sea breeze blows the mist, so we moved to the side to get a better view. It’s cool:

The hike back was a little easier since we took the dirt trail back from the hill rather than going past the weather station, but it’s still a fairly tricky hike. However, it’s well worth it to see some of the more unusual sights on Maui.

Oh, and Debbi asked me to take this picture of a heart-shaped hole the ocean had carved into the rock:

Good Deed

I rode my bike to work this morning, probably the last ride of the year since daylight savings time ends this weekend, so it will be dark well before I head home if I were to bike in, and I don’t like riding home in the dark. Plus, the rains are coming. I made it to 22 rides this year, which isn’t so bad considering buying the new house, moving, and our trip to Hawaii took a big chunk out of my riding time.

On the way in, only a couple of blocks from Subrata and Susan’s house, I got flagged down by a couple of women with a baby carriage. One of the women – with the carriage – was lost (the other was just another person who was trying to help her). Moreover, her English was not strong. She used my phone to call someone (after several tries to remember the right number), and after talking to her in another language handed the phone to me. Between the two of us, I was able to direct her to where we were. I think we were only a couple of blocks away from a street she knew. I sat with the woman while we waited for the woman she called to come get her.

When the younger woman arrived, she said the older woman said that I reminded her of her son. (She wasn’t able to express this in English.)

I’m still not sure what the relationship among them was: Mother-daughter? Mother-in-law-daughter-in-law? Was the older woman a nanny who was just taking the baby out for a walk? I didn’t pry.

But at least I was able to help her get back to where she was supposed to be.