A Visit With Newton

This afternoon we went to the vet to visit Newton. Actually we went to bring Roulette in to check out her cold, and got her some meds. But then we spent time with Newton.

He looks a lot better than he did yesterday, but he’s still pretty lethargic. Debbi stayed for a bit before leaving to take Roulette home:

You can see the big IV in his arm. I think getting rehydrated is a big part of why he looks better.

I had my book discussion an hour after our appointment, so I was able to spend most of that time hanging out with Newton in a room. He snuggled with me for a while, and I showed him around the room (he sniffed at the orchid in the room), and he walked around a little. I think he stayed low to the ground because it was a strange room, but he was able to stand up fully on his hind legs a couple of times, another improvement from yesterday.

I think he eventually got tired and went back to the bed he had in his cage, so I petted him a bit more, and then brought him back. He’s spending tonight at the vet again. Maybe tomorrow he’ll be able to come home. We’ll see.

Newton at the Vet

Thursday I made a Saturday vet appointment for Newton, who has been sniffling and sneezing for a week or so. I’d expected he’d just need another round of antibiotics, as he also had a cold in January, with an outside chance that it was something worse.

Thursday night when I got home it started looking worse: He was walking around the house crouched down, kind of crabbing along with his hind legs, and never standing up straight on them. Plus he was having trouble jumping. He also seemed to not be eating his dry food anymore, though he ate wet food. He’s been getting thinner and thinner (he was never a big cat to start with, and now he has hyperthyroidism), so I gave him a lot of wet food for Thursday and Friday.

But Saturday morning he was only walking a few feet at a time before resting, and he didn’t have much interest in the wet food. He just wanted to curl up and sleep on the bed. So I was really worried that the end was near. He turns 18 next month, and he’s outlived his brother Jefferson by 2 years at this point. I know the day will come sometime, but as late as last fall I was joking that he’d outlive all the other cats, as he seemed immortal. We spent parts of Saturday hanging out with him and snuggling him in case this was it for him.

On the drive to the vet he was a little more alert, looking at things out the windows (which he’s always liked to do) and meowing occasionally (he hasn’t meowed much in quite a while).

To cut to the end of the story, Newton has a number of problems, but none of them seem life-threatening by themselves. Taken together, it’s hard to say, but it seems like he could overcome them. He has a cold, and he’s lost some more weight (he’s not quite half the cat he once was, but he’s getting close). He also is dehydrated and is constipated (which may be related). The mystery is why he’s been walking the way he has, as he doesn’t seem to be in pain, doesn’t seem to have arthritis, and doesn’t seem to have any tumors. (I say “seem to” because it’s difficult to be certain – something could always be missed – but they haven’t found any of those things.) My theory is that his constipation is either making him uncomfortable when he walks, or it makes him feel like he’s going to dump everything if he walks normally.

So he spent last night at the vet, and she says he seems a little brighter today. He’s going to spend tonight there too, and then we’ll see. He’s getting antibiotics and hydration and a few other treatments. Maybe a lot for an elderly kitty, but he’s my elderly kitty, dammit!

It wouldn’t surprise me if he doesn’t last the rest of the year, but maybe he’ll surprise me. And in any event I just want him to be comfortable and happy until the time comes.

Meanwhile, we came home from the vet yesterday and found that Roulette had caught Newton’s cold. So I guess it was a real cold and not just reaction to his other ailments. Sigh. So we’ll take her in this afternoon to get her some meds, and visit with Newton at the same time. I don’t know if we’ll have Roulette visit with Newton, but I think she is a little baffled and sad by his absence; she’s been pretty snuggly with us recently.

The bright spot in all this is that yesterday we discovered that Blackjack is able to jump some places we didn’t think he was able to jump anymore due to his own issues. I guess having us pick him up to put him places has made him a little lazy, but when we refuse to do so because we don’t want him to crowd out Newton he just has to take matters into his own hands. The little rascal!


We finally made it out to see Hugo (2011) on Sunday. Despite seeing it in a theater with a really crappy sound system, it was still a fun film, though not quite as enjoyable as I’d hoped. (We didn’t see it in 3D, either.)

Based on the novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, the story takes place in 1930s Paris. Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is a young boy whose father (Jude Law in a brief role) was a watchmaker who also works in a museum. One day the father brings home a mechanical man which has been discarded, and he and Hugo set to repairing it. When Hugo’s father dies in a fire at the museum, Hugo is taken to live in abandoned quarters in the railway station Gare Montparnasse by his uncle Claude (Ray Winstone), a drunk who soon disappears. Hugo continues to wind the clocks in the station while eking out a living and avoiding the Station Inspector (Sasha Baron Cohen). He also steals parts to continue repairing the automaton, but is caught by a toy shop proprietor, Georges (Ben Kingsley), who takes from Hugo the notebook about the automaton that Hugo’s father had created.

In his quest to retrieve the notebook, Hugo meets Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), the godchild of Georges and his wife (Helen McCrory), also an orphan. The two become friends, and Hugo learns of Isabelle’s love of books (Christopher Lee plays the owner of a bookshop she frequents) and the fact that her godfather never takes her to the movies, shocking to Hugo as his father’s love of film was something he remembers keenly. The pair set out to repair the automaton, which reveals a surprise about both of their families, and long-held pain that Hugo sets out to fix.

Lavishly directed by Martin Scorsese (who I heard wanted to make a film that children could enjoy), Hugo is an interesting mix of classic and modern filmmaking. Indeed, a historical film director is a significant character in the film, and Hugo takes place in an awkward period between the silent era and the golden age of film (“talkies” and color were already around, but the great films of the late 30s were still in the future), not to mention a period between the wars, before the rise of Nazi Germany would have impacted the life of an orphan boy like Hugo. The film opens with Hugo looking out from one of his many hiding spots on the train station – an enormous and intricate set (though of course one wonders if it’s a set of CGI), followed by an extended single-shot scamper by Hugo through the bowels of the station. It’s the sort of thing whose scope and detail would have been beyond films of the 30s, but the film also has a variety of minor characters – the people who work in and frequent the station – and following the details of their lives as asides to the main story feels very much like the films of the time (or maybe just a little later).

I was a little disappointed that the story was only a little bit fantastic and not more so – I guess I was fooled by the preview scenes of a train careening through the station (inspired by an actual incident at the station). Though the automaton is a marvel by itself, just a rather low-key one. The degree of coincidence in the film is a bit much to swallow, too – that Hugo acquires the automaton, is brought to the train station, and meets Georges and Isabelle is quite a confluence of events. I guess Hugo’s speech to Isabelle about how everyone has a purpose in life is supposed to explain this, but the film doesn’t really sell it.

My dad pointed out that the film is really fixing broken lives, and that’s exactly right; all the film history stuff is just the backdrop against which the story is set. I felt that the film was a little too mechanical in portraying the characters’ breakage, though; Hugo and Georges in particular seem emotionally restrained even in scenes where I expected them to explode. (Ben Kingsley is a terrific actor but I wonder whether he plays Georges too low-key, and what, say, Christopher Lee would have done with the role.) The film does much better in the healing scenes, which I guess is to the good since it forms the climax and denouement of the story.

Overall, an enjoyable film, but not quite what I’d expected it would be, and it didn’t knock my socks off. It reminded me in some ways of The Illusionist (2006), which on the whole I’d say is the better film. But there’s a lot to like about Hugo, especially the craft that went into filming it – it’s gorgeous to look at, and feels fully-realized in its portrayal of period Paris.

Jack McDevitt: Echo

Echo is another entry in Jack McDevitt’s run of far-future antiquarian mysteries, in which antiquities dealer Alex Benedict and his pilot/aide du camp Chase Kolpath unravel a long-buried mystery. This time around, the mystery involves a stone from the former estate of one Somerset Tuttle, best known for devoting his long life to searching for intelligent alien life, in a galaxy humanity has been roaming for thousands of years and in which only one other intelligent life form has been found. The stone contains markings that don’t conform to any known human script, but before Alex and Chase can procure it, another party makes off with it.

The other party turns out to be Rachel Bannister, who had been Tuttle’s lover up until the time they both walked away from their quest – and she walked away from her job as a pilot – with Tuttle dying in a boating accident a few years later. Alex and Chase pull on the slender threads of the mystery before finding out what really happened.

I’ve discussed what I think are the failings of the Alex Benedict series in earlier reviews (low tech universe, somewhat superficial story), and Echo doesn’t really remedy those flaws. Clearly, the series is what it is. Yet I keep reading it, and indeed I devoured this book in just a few days (quite rapidly, for me!), so just as clearly, I enjoy it despite the fact that McDevitt clearly isn’t going to overcome its limitations and produce another A Talent For War.

The success of Echo is partly the suspense of who’s trying to stop Alex and Chase in their quest (and whether they’ll succeed), and partly the fundamental question, did Tuttle find aliens or didn’t he, and if he did, why didn’t he announce it to the universe? McDevitt does a pretty good job of resolving this mystery satisfactorily – if anything, he underplays his hand in the last few chapters, robbing the climax of some impact. And the last third of the book is a fairly rousing adventure exploring the star system our heroes’ quest takes them to. It reminds us that, fundamentally, they’re amateurs at this “brave new worlds” thing, surviving by their wits and the skin of their teeth. Alex in particular is far more at home dealing with people than with environments or animals (and Chase is only slightly better).

If you enjoyed earlier volumes in the series, then you ought to like this one.

Leap Day

A nice rainy leap day here in the Bay Area. And boy do we need the rain.

I have not one but two friends whose wives have been expecting twins around this time, and I told each of them that I thought it would be cool if they had twins on leap day. (The twins might disagree, some years hence, but whatever.) One friend had his about a month ago, and it looks like the other one’s twins aren’t quite fully cooked yet. Ah, well.

Leap day isn’t quite like the end of daylight savings time in the fall: We have an extra day, but it doesn’t really get us anything. No one notices that it takes an extra day longer to reach their next birthday, and we don’t get a 3-day weekend (or a 6-day work-week). It’s just a curiosity.

On the other hand, it’s comic book night, which makes it a nice night to escape the chill outside and read by the fireplace, cats draped on the furniture like discarded scarves.

Iain M. Banks: Surface Detail

The latest of Banks’ Culture novels is also my favorite since Use of Weapons, as it’s a good crunchy book with some interesting moral considerations and a lot of insight into how the Culture works.

The book opens by introducing the major characters, two of whom die in their first chapters (but, this being a Culture novel, that’s merely a minor impediment). First, Lededje Y’breq is a slave, indentured the Joiler Veppers, the richest and most powerful man on the planet Sichult, consigned to that fate because of the failings of her father years before. (Veppers’ point of view is also part of the book.) Second, Vatueil, a soldier in a war (about which more in a minute). Third (but least), Yime Nsokyi, an Culture agent of the arm of Contact called Quietus, which works with the electronically stored remnants of the dead. Last, Prin and Chay, a pair of aliens who have sent copies of their minds into their planet’s simulated hell, where the minds of the dead whom their world have deemed worthy of eternal punishment are sent, their goal being to expose the truth of the existence of this hell to the rest of their world.

In fact the framework of Surface Detail is a virtual war (a war game, if you will) between two sides supporting and opposed to these electronic hells; the Culture opposes them, but for various reasons is not part of the actual conflict. Vatueil is, and his side has a difficult decision to make as the war progresses. Veppers is also contracting with one side in the war, which makes Lededje’s existence interesting to various parties once people learn about her. Yime’s role might seem the most important given her job, but she’s actually a peripheral character to the plot overall. And while Prin and Chay don’t contribute directly to the plot, their stories are the most emotionally powerful, as one of them executes the mission in the real world while the other is left to suffer in the hell they entered.

Surface Detail is full of moral conflicts. The war over the hells seems like a proxy for the moral conflicts of the modern day (abortion rights, for instance), in which each side is utterly convinced of the rightness of their cause, while still being a believable science fictional concept. Banks doesn’t pretend to provide a balanced view, fair enough as this is a Culture novel and all of the characters are more-or-less aligned with its point of view on this matter. So the arguments in favor of the hells don’t hold much water in this book. And Prin and Chay’s experiences wholeheartedly support the Culture’s point of view.

Other conflicts are muddier. Lededje naturally enough wants revenge on Veppers, but the Culture (1) doesn’t hold dominion over Sichult, and (2) isn’t about to get directly involved in someone else’s desire for revenge. Of course, this being a Culture novel, there are deeper games going on here, and the Culture is perfectly happy to help transport Lededje back to her homeworld.

The best parts of the book involve two things: First, the insight we get into how the Culture works – people being revived after death, outsiders acclimating to life in the Culture, the degrees of personal freedom that people have in the Culture, and the nature of responsibilities in its post-scarcity civilization. And second, some of the crunchier high tech bits in the story, most notably the fast picket Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints, which transports Lededje back to Sichult. There are also some nifty remnants of a much older civilization lying around which cause some issues.

The various plot threads dance around each other, most of them not directly meeting, but all relating thematically. Although there’s a rather nifty twist at the end which ties up some elements in a particularly satisfying manner. Although there are bits that seem superfluous (Yime’s presence in the book, for instance) and could have been edited out, and the story builds slowly until really getting going in the final third, overall Surface Detail is a thought-provoking and engaging adventure – quite satisfying, especially considering that some of Banks’ books leave me more baffled than entertained.

Why can’t they all be like this one?

Vernor Vinge: The Children of the Sky

Without knowing whether Vernor Vinge would ever write one, a sequel to his outstanding 1993 novel A Fire Upon The Deep has been eagerly awaited by his fans for 18 years. Unfortunately that sequel, The Children of the Sky, is quite a disappointment, having little of what made Fire such a great book (it’s one of my all-time favorites).

The book follows the lives of the humans who were stranded on Tines’ World following the defeat of the Blight in Fire. Ravna Bergsndot is the sole human with direct experience of the Blight, and who knows that a Blighter fleet is surely heading for them at slower-than-light speed. Helping to raise the children marooned on the world, the children of the scientists who released the Blight, Ravna also co-rules the local nation of Tines – the wolf-like pack minds of the planet – with the erratic Queen Woodcarver. Together they hope to bootstrap the planet to a more advanced level of technology in time to face the Blighter fleet.

The crux of the story are the challenges Ravna faces in her goals. Distrust among the Tiners in Woodcarver’s domain is the least of it; many children have reached adulthood and not only resent that they don’t have the technology they grew up with (including life extension treatments, which Ravna has completed), but some of them doubt Ravna’s word that the Blight is a threat, believing that their parents could never have released such an evil, and seeing the results of Ravna’s crew’s actions in Fire which stranded them there as more sinister. And a scheming Tine named Vendacious has allied himself with a powerful entrepreneur and rival to Woodcarver named Tycoon who seem to be pacing – if not outstripping – the humans in development.

While Children is a capably-written book, it’s missing the ideas content that is the hallmark of Vinge’s books. Indeed, A Fire Upon the Deep is a great novel not just because it’s well written, but because it throws out terrific ideas – and explores them in depth – with a frequency and density rarely encountered elsewhere in SF. Fire is a tall act to live up to – neither of Vinge’s next two books, including the prequel A Deepness in the Sky – really do so, but Children is perhaps his least ambitious book since.

The most compelling idea in the book is the notion of the “Choir”, the huge mass of Tines who live in the world’s tropics and have a rather different society than the lands of discrete packs such as Woodcarver’s. And it adds some small twists to the old chestnut of a plot where a few advanced people try to bootstrap a medieval society to a higher technology. But the book doesn’t build much more on the nature of the Tines – showing, I guess, just how deeply the race was explored in Fire – and doesn’t expand on the Zones of Thought or the Blight at all (the threat of the Blight hangs over the first half of the book, but if you’re hoping for a big showdown between the human/Tine alliance and the Blight at the end, you’re going to be disappointed). It’s a book of local political machinations rather than groundbreaking science fictional ideas.

For what it is, the book is pretty good, though rather slow to develop. The characters are enjoyable enough, and a few of them develop in interesting ways, but they’re not enough to really carry the book. If a book of politics and gamesmanship is what you want to read, then you’ll probably enjoy it.

But while the Tines are interesting, what I really wanted from a sequel to Fire was something that further developed the Zones of Thought that delineate areas of the galaxy and introduced some interesting new aliens. What Children actually is was quite disappointing to me.

Farewell to Tim Wakefield

Tim Wakefield is my all-time favorite Red Sox, for several reasons, but here are two:

1) I picked him up for my fantasy team when he came to the Red Sox in 1995, and he promptly had the season of his life (despite fading down the stretch). We might never see a knuckleballer have a season that great ever again (considering we only see a really good knuckleballer about once per generation).

2) He helped save the staff in Game 3 of the 2004 ALCS when the Yankees were pounding all comers (including Tim) into the dirt en route to one of the most lopsided playoff victories ever. Wakefield threw over 3 innings and saved other good pitchers for Game 4 and the Sox’ historic and unique comeback.

Plus of course he’s one of the longest-tenured Sox (17 years!), pitched longer than most (he’s 45, one of the few players last season older than me), and seemed as dedicated to the team as anyone. While David Ortiz has been the face of the franchise this past decade, Wakefield has always been right there, usually an average starting pitcher, but never as flashy as some of the other players.

Wakefield retired from playing baseball today, which is the end of an era for the team as far as I’m concerned.

I saw him pitch in person a few times, but none more memorable than one game at Fenway in his magical 1995 season, against the Twins. As I recall, he somehow loaded the bases in the top of the first inning, and then got the next two hitters. Chuck Knoblauch was the Twins’ leadoff hitter (before he went to the Yankees he was a great player), and he spent much of the inning dancing around third base. From my vantage point in the bleachers it looked like Wakefield finally got frustrated with Knoblauch, looked at him, and waggled his head as if to say, “If you’re gonna go, then go.”

On the next pitch, Knoblauch broke for home plate, and he was tagged out at home. Side retired with no runs.

Kirby Puckett – still a great hitter, but in his last season, though no one (including him) knew it at the time – didn’t start, but he came in to pitch-hit with 2 outs in the ninth and the Red Sox leading. On – I think – the first pitch, Puckett hit a rocket to left field which was snagged by the shortstop to end the game.

Wakefield was a really fun player (“how the heck did he get that pitch anywhere near over the plate, never mind getting a called strike?”) and a class act. I’ll miss him a lot.

Yard Work

Since we’re never snowed in around here in mid-February, I spent a chunk of this weekend doing yard work:

  • I raked the front yard, hopefully the last batch of leaves I’ll have to rake this year. Had to go across the street to retrieve the leaf pan from our neighbor Juan (it’s his, but he doesn’t have many leaves, so it often lives with us).
  • Dug up some crab grass and pulled up many tree seedlings from around the boxwood in front of the yard. The boxwood is young – most of it under 18″ high – and a bunch of it turned partly brown earlier in the winter. I suspect it needed more water, but now I wonder if the stuff I pulled up was taking away some of its water and nutrients. Maybe it will bounce back now. (All of it is still partly green, so it hasn’t died.)
  • Pulled up a daisy around the side of the house which was a style I’m not fond of, and which had grown to be ginormous since we moved in. I transplanted a different daisy from a large pot on the patio in its place. Hopefully it will settle in nicely.
  • Finally transplanted the lavender plant that Joar and Karin gave us last Memorial Day into a proper pot. Only took me nine months.
  • Did you know that when you leave a plant in its temporary container which in turn is inside a real pot for nine months, snails discover it and decide to hang out there? Dozens. Of. Snails. Eew. I threw them all into the rosemary bush.
  • Pulled up a bunch of weeds in the back lawn.
  • Trimmed back a bunch of juniper and daisy plants along the back fence that were starting to grow over the lawn. Take that!

It’s been nice having a break from mowing during the winter, but I gotta say, I’d rather mow than rake.

The Home Sickies

Debbi came down with a bad cold last night, and was home from work today. She was pretty well zonked this morning when I left for the gym, and says she spent much of the day sleeping. She seems a little better tonight, but she still doesn’t sound very good, and I bet she’ll be home again tomorrow.

Hopefully this won’t lead to me being home sick in a couple of days, especially if it’d lay me out for most of a day. Not even being able to stay awake to read a book, what kind of sick day is that? And hopefully Debbi will be better by the end of tomorrow.

In other news, Blackjack suddenly entered a down period last week, walking around with wobbly legs and occasionally stumbling. He still seems pretty happy, just somewhat frustrated at his wobbliness. He’s not as bad as he was over Thanksgiving, and he’s still able to jump places. It really kills Debbi to see him like this. But I think he’s going to alternate stronger and weaker periods for the duration of his illness. Hopefully this cycle will pass and he’ll be stronger later this month.

His wobbliness seems to coincide with him throwing up more. We’re not sure what to do about that. He seems to not throw up when we give him wet cat food, so we’ll give him more of that for now. At least he doesn’t throw up all of his dry food.

He seems to be a little better today. Debbi tells me he kept stealing her blanket when she fell asleep on the couch!

Lastly, I’ve been working to pull together my tax information over the last few days. Boy, I’ll be glad to get that behind me. Buying and selling houses makes it so much more complicated.