We all had favorites, right? Right?

There’s an old Tom Waits quote (that I can’t seem to source) about the Chamberlin: “It’s a beautiful instrument that dies a little every time you play it.”

When I was growing up, vinyl had a special place in the house—because, like a Chamberlin, every time you played an album, you deformed the record groove just a little bit; whether from too much down-force on your stylus, or the uneven force applied to the inside and outside of the groove when using a fixed tone-arm, or dust or fibers getting in the way, not to mention the possibility of scratching it taking it out of the sleeve, or even a strong enough jolt near the record player causing it to skip.

I was taught at perhaps six to use the Discwasher D4 to clean each album before each use. There was an even more obscure process—I forget the name of the product—that was supposed to be done before the first time you played an album that supposedly protected it in some way I don’t understand at this point.

Anyway, all this ceremony around vinyl was almost a sideshow anyway, because the real principle was that you Didn’t Play The Vinyl. It’s like living off a trust fund, where you Don’t Touch The Capital.

No, vinyl was expensive source material, that you played only once, to record it onto cassette tape, which had the virtues of being both more portable and relatively easily replaceable.

Actually, you played the album twice: the first time watching and adjusting the level meters on the cassette deck to make sure that the peak loudness on the album went right up to, but did not exceed, the clipping point for the cassette.

You never used Dolby B, because that just made it sound like crap, and you didn’t use Dolby C because that was only on crazy high-end tape decks, and sounded like crap if your deck didn’t have it.

And you sure as hell never bought pre-recorded cassettes, because first, they probably used Dolby B on it (see above), and second, cassette tapes are actually a stupidly delicate medium—even more delicate than vinyl!—so why would you want your primary copy of something on a medium that you know from the get-go is going to die before long?

In college, I always looked down on my friends who obviously lacked the self-respect to not buy pre-recorded cassettes. Sorry guys; I got better. Mostly.

Anyway, all this is to say that I had neurotically intimate knowledge of blank cassette tapes in the early- to mid-80s. I obsessed over the purported difference in frequency response of various formulations of ferrous particles on the tape, while still paying attention to the aesthetics of the shells. I had preferences based on whose insert card I found was better at letting me write down what was on the tape, for crying out loud!

(Am I better now? No, not really.)

So imagine my simultaneous joy and horror at seeing this catalogue of blank cassette tapes show up on Boing Boing. Of going back and seeing the still-familiar-labels-30-years-later of my favorite cassette types (BASF, mostly—we were living in Germany during most of this, after all—with a turn toward TDK at some point). Of seeing some of the early Sony tapes that my Dad would send back from South Korea when he was stationed there in 1974/1975, and that I would thoughtlessly repurpose for music five or six years later.

And, ultimately, of realizing how much better off I am now.

Although I still carry around some of the neuroses—I rarely buy tracks digitally, really only when they offer FLAC as a source format, or maybe some situation where I truly only want to own a particular single, preferring to buy the CD and rip and encode it myself—I must also say that I cannot imagine where my 1000+ albums would live if they were on vinyl, and it would take a lot of cassette tapes to hold the 16K tracks on my somewhat hot-rodded circa-2007 iPod.

That is the size of a cassette tape.

Books of 2015, #50: “The Three-Body Problem”, Cixin Liu

I have a hard time articulating my reaction to this novel.

Something about this book evoked the late-90’s “Otherland” series by Tad Williams for me—I’m not entirely sure why, insofar as the narrative trope of having events in some virtual world paralleling and ramifying out into the outside world verges on hard to avoid these days, and that’s about all the connection I can make between them.

On the one hand, I found myself drawn in by the plot and intrigued by the way society seemed to influence characters’ outlooks and behavior in ways that felt very different from the norms to which I am accustomed. Interested enough that I intend to read the second book in the trilogy soon.

On the other hand, there is a particular quality to some of the characters—their desire to be subjugated, their almost nihilistic conviction that anything must be better than the slice of mankind they are familiar with—that fills me with this almost surreal revulsion.

I guess it’s a testament to the delivery in the text, but something about the behavior of some of the characters simply set me so on edge that I felt as if I were to ever actually meet one of these people, I would be driven to physically assault them—to somehow try to beat humanity back into them.

It was weird and disturbing, and I still don’t know where it came from. Even just thinking back on it is hard to process—I don’t remember ever having such a visceral reaction to a book.

Books of 2015, #49: “Make Me”, Lee Child

For about the last year, I’ve been trying to understand why I have taken the time to read all 20 books in the Jack Reacher series.

They’re competently plotted. The execution is fine. The characters—even the title character—aren’t usually all that deep, but Jack Reacher does have an interest in the trivial that appeals to me: it’s present in the first book, where he gets off a bus because he dimly remembers that the town it’s stopping in is where Blind Blake died, and it’s present here, where he gets off the train because he wonders about the origin of the name of the town in which it’s stopping.

Ultimately I suspect it’s my need to have words on a screen to read like a shark needs water to swim through, combined with a certain appreciation for the “Jack blows into town, stumbles on bad stuff, justice is done” plotting. I continue to enjoy superhero comics, after all.

But at the same time, as I alluded to in my review of The Deep in February, I find this genre to be a disturbing reflection of our society.

Probably the scene in The Wire where Bunk and Omar agree that “A man got to have a code” is the best known instance of that idea—it’s certainly the one that seemed to get referenced most when Sandor Clegane said the same thing in Game of Thrones—but one of John Wayne’s characters said roughly the same thing. It’s not a new thought.

What it is, though, is a reflection of a notion on masculinity—because you’ll notice that everyone who says it is inevitably male—that asserts a right to act in ways that are explicitly, egregiously, counter to any sense of respect for the law.

Sure, in most of the fictional instances, there’s always that sense put forth that the law is insufficient, or it is corrupt, or incompetent: that they only way to find true justice is through this extra-legal “code”.

But that’s a fucking frictionless slope.

Are we really going to pretend that these stories don’t help convince people that they only way they’ll get “justice” is to take it into their own hands? What if their idea of “justice” involves punishing people for rejecting them? Or simply punishing the world for their own sense of failure? Or seeking confrontation over some besmirching of their honor?

I’ve been in the back seat of a car when a friend of mine—incidentally, built a lot like Jack Reacher is described in the books (which is the very amusing opposite of Tom Cruise in the movie)—decided that someone in another car had been disrespectful to him, executed a quick turn and then floored it to catch up to him and…what?

I’m going to guess that involved the gun—that is still the only firearm I have ever held in my hands—that he had stashed under his front seat. Or perhaps it was just going to be a round of at least intimidation, or maybe actual force, to garner an apology.

Either way, redress for the imagined slight on his honor was something that his code demanded, and if there hadn’t been three of us to talk him down from his rage-high, who knows what might have happened.

It is certainly true, guns don’t kill people, people kill people—but we have created a society that tells itself stories constantly about how your only option is to fend for yourself, to take matters into your own hands, to “do what needs to be done”—and then we make it easy for things to go wrong by making guns easy to get.

Books of 2015, #44-48: The “Tiffany Aching” Discworld novels, Terry Pratchett

  • The Wee Free Men
  • A Hat Full of Sky
  • Wintersmith
  • I Shall Wear Midnight
  • The Shepherd’s Crown
I’m writing this on a laptop named ‘aching’. The routers in my house are ‘weatherwax’ and ‘vetinari’. My local server is ‘carrot’, and my prior laptop was ‘ogg’.

I have named cloud servers I manage after guitarists I admire, but my home machines are all Terry Pratchett characters.

I haven’t written any “book reports” in two months because the prospect of writing this one was too depressing—until reading his last book, I could always pretend that Terry Pratchett wasn’t gone, that the world wasn’t a poorer place for his absence.

Some time mid-to-late 1990, I did something rare and amazing: I stopped by a professor’s office. I don’t actually remember what the precipitating event was—I’m not even 100% sure what the class was, but odds are very good that it was Shakespeare—but as I was sitting there, my professor, Matthew Winston, pulled a copy of Sandman #19—”A Midsummer Night’s Dream”—from between some other books on his office’s capacious shelves, I assume in order to illustrate a point about Shakespeare’s continuing influence.

I picked up “A Season of Mists” #0 the next time I was in my local comic shop, and worked my way back a couple of issues—including “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”—but this was a series that was just beginning a run of dominance in the form, and older issues were starting to be priced beyond what I could justify at the time.

And then, one day that fall, I saw Neil Gaiman’s name on a book in the Waldenbooks in the mall—the best outlet for books we had in that impoverished time and place. That book was Good Omens.

From there I started picking up Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels—first, Mort, I think, then perhaps Wyrd Sisters. Pyramids was in there somewhere, Reaper Man, definitely Moving Pictures. Basically anything I could get my hands on…which, it’s funny to realize, wasn’t all that much—for the first ten years or more, Terry Pratchett had a US publishing deal that, for whatever reason, meant that the Discworld novels didn’t make it to the US for up to a year after their initial publication in the UK.

Understand: Terry Pratchett was the UK’s best-selling author of the 1990s. He was only unseated by someone you probably heard of: J.K. Rowling. But for half of that decade, you had to work surprisingly hard to buy his books here in the US.

I cannot understate my glee when, upon moving to Massachusetts in the late fall of 1992, I discovered that there was a most amazing bookstore near Harvard Square, Wordsworth (sadly long closed), that actually imported the UK editions. They were right there on the shelf.

Even more importantly, this seemed to coincide with Terry really figuring out his own voice; if you go back and read the earlier books, they’re not without some commentary on the real world, but they still read as mostly light-hearted—the characters a little lacking in bite, the scenarios a little light on consequence. Wyrd Sisters and Guards! Guards! start to hint at something more, but they never quite fulfill their promise.

And then there’s Witches Abroad and Small Gods.

The best way I can characterize the difference between them and the books that come before is that Terry Pratchett no longer worries about letting you see his anger. Moreso in Small Gods—a book that seethes—but Witches Abroad has some of it, certainly more than I remember in anything that preceeds it.

It’s an anger at all the ways that we, as humans, choose to do the wrong thing, for the wrong reasons—or even the right reasons. Or the ways in which we are simply thoughtless toward one another. The ways in which we sell one another and ourselves short. The ways in which we fail, and then fail all the harder by not trying.

From there, well, it’s not that there are no missteps—honestly, Rincewind was never my favorite character, so Interesting Times and The Last Continent aren’t my favorites—but I find the characters become more compelling. The best of them are fueled by the flaws in themselves of which they are all too aware. All of them acknowledge the relentless hamster-wheel that is rising above your basest desires—just how easy it would be to quit caring about others, about yourself, about anything.

And then, 12 years ago, he introduced Tiffany Aching.

I didn’t initially pick up the Tiffany Aching books, because they were characterized as Young Adult, and when the first one came out, well, no one knew how little time Terry had left. When the stream of books—which had often been two a year when I first started reading them, but had at least been a consistent one a year—suddenly dried up after Snuff in 2011, I decided to get my fix wherever I could.

I have to assume, at some level, that he felt there was nowhere futher to go with The Lancre Witches themselves—he hadn’t written anything with them since 1998—and so they become a backdrop for his new character. And to say I was inordinately pleased that Granny Weatherwax was present is an understatement. But that would have just been fan-service, if it weren’t for the fact that these books also presented something new: a portrait of a young girl learning—and as often as not, teaching herself—how to become a good, responsible, compassionate person.

They say that girls develop faster than boys—well, this is the ultimately more sophisticated sibling of Harry Potter. There is less adventure, there are few confrontations and even fewer battles. The focus in not on what happens, but why and how it reflects and ramifies out into character. In this respect, they remind me of Patrick O’Brian’s Master & Commander series, which will regularly spend pages and pages (let me be clear: delightful pages) on minute observations of life on extended sea voyages, and then a couple of pages on a major naval battle—the action is there just to make sure the characters don’t get bored.

And then Prospero drowns his books.

In the end, the only way to truly allow Tiffany Aching to stand as her own person was to allow her to succeed Granny Weatherwax, and the only way that could happen is if Granny Weatherwax is no longer there.

As a result, the first fifth? quarter? of The Shepherd’s Crown is an extended goodbye. Knowing, as we do, that this was his last book—and his editor includes a note in which he is quite clear that Terry wrote it entirely himself, but didn’t have as much time to refine and rewrite as he generally would have, which suggests that ultimately, he knew it was his last book—this is a punch in the gut.

But, ultimately, I would have expected nothing less. To live a life worth living will ultimately involve loss.