Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

A Portrait of the Thomases

“I had yet to see Caitlin’s angry, intellectual milkmaid’s face. I hadn’t realized who it was beneath the dress until I asked a slender, elegant young man next to me. That, he said, with an irony that was the chief ingredient of the new American poetry, is Caitlin Thomas.

I wondered … where Dylan was. Has he hiding his face, too?

He was in the bedroom that opened off the studio, in a corner where he was surrounded by slender young men. It was as if they had thrown up a picket fence to protect him, not only from Caitlin but from America, from criticism, from mortality. He was no longer the pretty, pouting cherub of the Augustus John painting, but a man swollen by drin, and by sorrow, perhaps, or poetry. He looked like an inflatable toy that had been overinflated.

You forgot Dylan’s faults when you read his poems or heard him recite, but he was not at his best at parties. To him, an American party was like being in a bad pub with the wrong people. He appeared to have no small talk– or harly any kind. The slender young men bounced off him in disappointment.” – Anatole Broyard, Kafka was the Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir

“What does a scanner see? he asked himself. I mean, really see? Into the head? Down into the heart? Does a passive infrared scanner like they used to use or a cube-type holo-scanner like they use these days, the latest thing, see into me – into us – clearly or darkly? I hope it does, he thought, see clearly, because I can’t any longer these days see into myself. I see only murk. Murk outside; murk inside. I hope, for everyone’s sake, the scanners do better. Because, he thought, if the scanner sees only darkly, the way I myself do, then we are cursed, cursed again and like we have been continually, and we’ll wind up dead this way, knowing very little and getting that little fragment wrong too.”

“Say ‘police’ if you have to”

Scene: A group of “detectives” are trying to find someone who meets the right criteria for someone to steal their identity and take over their life.

Back in Tokyo,… Funaki took the day off work and the Isakas joined in as well, searching the printout for women in their twenties.

“Say ‘police’ if you have to,” Funaki instructed. “Ask the women listed if two years back some close relation might have met with an accident or been badly injured somehow. Get them talking, no matter what it takes.”

It was past eleven, time to call it a day, when they got a break.

Funaki cupped his hand over the receiver. “We’re in business!” he called to Honma, who was over by the window, tentatively stretching his legs. Then, speaking into the phone again, he said, “Hold on, I’ll turn you over to the officer in charge.”

Emi Kimura was twenty-four years old. The printout gave her occupation as “freelancer.” At first she spoke in a sweet, almost child-like voice. She interrupted Honma to ask, “Is this for real? This isn’t Candid Camera or something?”

“No. Look, I’m sorry to bother you like this. I don’t know if you’ll be able to help us or not, but let me explain. We traced you through some customer data provided by a company called Roseline. I believe you know the name?” Honma paused. “Ms. Kimura, I’m sorry, but these questions are important for an investigation we’re working on. You don’t come from a large family, and you live by yourself, is that correct? And both your parents have passed on.”

Emi’s voice trembled. “How do you know all that?”

So far so good, Honma nodded to Funaki. “My colleague, the person you spoke to a minute ago, asked if you had any close relatives who might have had an accident or some kind of personal tragedy in the last two years. You said you had. Could you tell me more about that?”

It took a moment for Emi to Answer. “It was my sister.”

“Your sister.”


Honma quietly repeated, “Yes?”

Emi was clearly getting upset. “Listen, I’m going to hang up. I mean, how do I know this isn’t some kind of crank call? How do I know you’re actually detectives?”

Honma hesitated. Funaki grabbed the phone away from him and rattled off the number of the direct line to Investigation. “Got that? Here’s what I want you to do. Ring up and say our names. Ask if there are any detectives by those names on the force. Tell whoever answers that you need to get in touch with Inspector Honma immediately. Ask them to have him call you back as soon as he can. Only give a totally made-up name and phone number. Don’t give your real ones. The officer will contact us to say you called. The we’ll call you back at your real number and give you the false name and number he tells us. Just to make sure there’s no mistake, that we are who we say we are. Fair enough?”

Emi agreed and hung up.

“When you’re in a hurry, take a side road,” Funaki said. He reached for a cigarette and lit up. …

Emi picked up on the first ring. Honma kept his voice as neutral as possible. “Hello? Is this Akiko Sato? At 5555-4444?”

“You’ve got to wonder about that girl’s powers of imagination,” Funaki whispered.

But Emi Kimura was in no mood for flip remarks. She burst into tears.

I love this scene (from Miyuki Miyabe’s All She Was Worth) as a model for social engineering. Imagine you’re Emi Kimura. You’re being asked about an emotional topic: the death of a loved one. The callers say they are cops and gives you a way to authenticate them. The authentication check succeeds. You’re talking about difficult-to-confront, emotional material with an authority figure who has authenticated themselves successfully.


  • After the person at the Investigations precinct confirms their names and the two detectives are able to relay the fake name and number back to you, are you now convinced that they’re actually cops?
  • What’s the issue with the authentication challenge they presented? What revision to the proposed process would you give to have better certainty of their identities?
  • If you did start divulging personal details to them, what wouldn’t you say? Or more importantly, how would you know if you’d already said too much or to the wrong people?
  • Now, pretend you’re actually cops who need to interview Emi as a witness to a potential crime. Time is of the essence. What could you do to better convince Emi that you’re legitimate?
  • And now, as an attacker. You’re a social engineer trying to find out details so you can steal Emi’s identity. What revisions, if any, would would you make to the approach above?

“Tokyo, a city that neuters everything”

“Honma’s therapist was a woman from Osaka, in her mid-thirties. Likable enough, he supposed, but no-nonsense. He’d work himself into a sweat and she’d just egg him on, telling him that Tokyo men have got no balls!

Even here in Tokyo, a city that neuters everything, Osaka people managed to keep their own coloring. They might modify their drawl to a ‘standard textbook’ Japanese, but their accent remained Osaka. It wasn’t without its appeal, he had to admit. Honma himself didn’t have a ‘hometown’ to give his speech any particular flavor.

His father was from Tohoku in the far north. The third son of a poor farmer, he’d made his way to Tokyo soon after the war, looking for work. And had wound up as a cop. He’d had his reasons, but ‘seeing justice done’ wasn’t one of them. Back then, the Japanese had not only been stripped of their honor, with no new cause to fight for, but their rice bowls were empty.

All three of them– his parents and his wife– were from the north. And all three of them now gone. His mother from his father’s village; Chizuko from Niigata, with its heavy snows. Whenever he and Chizuko visitied his folks, Honma had been the odd man out, as if he had no roots, nowwhere he could call ‘home’.

But you’re a Tokyo boy, [Chizuko] used to tease. Honma, however, had never considered himself a native son. There was an indefinable gap between being born in Tokyo and being a ‘Tokyoite.” They say that ‘three generations makes Tokyo home,’ but could a person ever feel a bloodline connection to the place? That was the real question. How could you really speak of ‘hometown Tokyo’ or being ‘Tokyo born and bred’? Today’s city was no place to put down roots. It was a barren field, soil that gave off no smell, unplowed and unwatered. Nothing grew in the big city. People there were tumbleweeds, living on the memory of roots put down somewhere else by their parents or their parents’ parents. And those roots dry up and wither.

That must be why, he thought. Why he always felt a bit sad whenever, in the course of his job, running around the city listening to all these people’s stories, he came across someone whose accent or phrasing identified them immeiatrely as having a ‘hometown.’ Like a child out playing at dusk. One friend, then another gets called in to supper, till finally he’s on his own.” – All She Was Worth, by Miyuki Miyabe

“Who would do such a thing if not for…love?”

“And now, unfortunately, we’re back to the impression that this book is daunting. Which it isn’t, really. It’s long, but there are pleasures everywhere. There is humor everywhere. There is also a very quiet but very sturdy and constant tragic undercurrent that concerns a people who are completely lost, who are lost within their families and lost within their nation, and lost within their time, and who only want some sort of direction or purpose or sense of community or love. Which is, after all and conveniently enough for the end of this introduction, what an author is seeking when he sets out to write a book– any book, but particularly a book like this, a book that gives so much, that required such sacrifice and dedication. Who would do such a thing if not for want of connection and thus of love?

Last thing: In attempting to persuade you to buy this book, or check it out of your library, it’s useful to tell you that the author is a normal person. Dave Wallace– and he is commonly known as such– keeps big sloppy dogs and has never dressed them in taffeta or made them wear raincoats. He has complained often about sweating too much when he gives public readings, so much so that he wears a bandanna to keep the perspiration from soaking the pages below him. He was once a nationally ranked tennis player, and he cares about good government. He is from the Midwest– east-central Illinois, to be specific, which is an intensely normal part of the country (not far, in fact, from a city, no joke, named Normal). So he is normal, and regular, and ordinary, and this is his extraordinary, and irregular, and not-normal achievement, a thing that will outlast him and you and me, but will help future people understand us– how we felt, how we lived, what we gave to each other and why.” – Dave Eggers’ introduction to the 10th anniversary paper back edition of Infinite Jest

And how horrible a thing it is, that, just nine years after Dave Eggers wrote those words, DFW has already outlived his monumental novel. Eggers’ pathological hatred of sentence breaks aside, I think he does a good job here capturing just what makes Infinite Jest so special: it is an difficult, extraordinary work, told largely in simple, ordinary stories. The characters and scenes of the book themselves are easy to understand, for the most part. Many are even effortlessly entertaining in the way that some of DFW’s more relaxed essays are. But together they create a potent work of longing, loneliness, and existential need that rewards those willing to doing the non-trivial work of figuring out the pieces.

I’m currently reading the book a second time and getting much more out of it than I did my first time around. For one, there are a lot of pieces to the work and it pays to have some remembered familiarity with the characters and the set dressing.

But more importantly, in the years since I’ve read it, I’ve had many more brushes with the darker materials that the book evokes. And while my life in the interviewing seven or so years has been some sort of charmed, it has contained within those years enough terrible times and enough hideous events to give me greater sympathy for the lostness that Eggers mentions. I have had my Harold Incandenza moments and my Don Gately moments. And moments reminiscent of so many other characters from the book. This time around, I think, the work of reading Infinite Jest is easier and more rewarding, in part, because I am a more fit reader.

It is sad that Infinite Jest has already outlived its normal, noble creator, but I think Eggers is right that this is one of those rare books that can help us to understand just what lostness looks like. And if that gives us a little more empathy for one another as fellow lost creatures, maybe it’s also one of those rare books that can actually make us better human beings.

An Etymology

“With enough in my pocket now to last me a month, I gave the town a thorough canvassing for something worth while. I found many places that appeared to be advertising for a bursar and the most promising was the big general store. It was packed to the roof with merchandise, and the owners, to save floor space, had placed the safe behind the stairs, where it could not be seen from the street. I ‘pegged’ the spot for a week and satisfied myself that after the was closed at night no one entered it till opening-up time in the morning.

The expression, ‘I have him pegged,’ which has crept into common usage, is thieves’ slang pure and simple, and has nothing to do with the game of cribbage as many suppose. The thief, to save himself the trouble of staying up all night watching a spot to make sure no one enters after closing hours, puts a small wooden peg in the door jamb after the place is locked up. At five or six o’clock in the morning he takes a look. If the peg is in place the door has not been opened. If it is found lying in the doorway, that means somebody has opened the door in the night. If he finds the place is visited in the night he must then stay out and learn why and at what time and how often. He now has the place ‘pegged’ and plans accordingly or passes it up as too tough.” – You Can’t Win by Jack Black

The revelation of Judge Holden

“He appeared upon the rise and paused momentarily before starting down, he and his drooling manciple. The ground before him was drifted and rolling and although it could be fairly reconnoitered from the rise the judge did not scan the country nor did he seem to miss the fugitives from his purview. He descended the ridge and started across the flats, the idiot before him on a leather lead. He carried the two rifles that had belonged to Brown and he wore a pair of canteens crossed upon his chest and he carried a powderhorn and flask and his portmanteau and a canvas rucksack that must have belonged to Brown also. More strangely he carried a parasol made from rotted scraps of hide stretched over a framework of rib bones bound with strips of tug. The handle had been the foreleg of some creature and the judge approaching was clothed in little more than confetti so rent was his costume to accommodate his figure. Bearing before that morbid umbrella with the idiot in its rawhide collar pulling at the lead he seemed some degenerate entrepreneur fleeing from a medicine show and the outrage of the citizens who’d sacked it.” – Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian

“…pounding their shadows down the night”

“They took to riding by night, silent jornadas save for the trundling of the wagons and the wheeze of the animals. Under the moonlight a strange party of elders with the white dust thick on their moustaches and their eyebrows. They moved on and the stars jostled and arced across the firmament and died beyond the inkblack mountains. They came to know the nightskies well. Western eyes that read more geometric constructions than those names given by the ancients. Tethered to the polestar they rode the Dipper round while Orion rose in the southwest like a great electric kite. The sand lay blue in the moonlight and the iron tires of the wagons rolled among the shapes of the riders in gleaming hoops that veered and wheeled woundedly and vaguely navigational like slender astrolabes and the polished shoes of the horses kept hasping up like a myriad of eyes winking across the desert floor. They watched storms out there so distant they could not be heard, the silent lightning flaring sheetwise and the thin black spine of the mountain chain fluttering and sucked away again in the dark. They saw wild horses racing on the plain, pounding their shadows down the night and leaving in the moonlight a vaporous dust like the palest stain of their passing.” – Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian, or The Evening Redness in the West

“When God made man the devil was at his elbow.”

“Lost ye way in the dark, said the old man. He stirred the fire, standing slender tusks of bone up out of the ashes.

The kid didn’t answer.

The old man swung his head back and forth. The way of the transgressor is hard. God made this world, but he didn’t make it to suit everbody, did he?

I don’t believe he much had me in mind.

Aye, said the old man. But where does a man come by his notions. What world’s he seen that he liked better?

I can think of better places and better ways.

Can ye make it be?


No. It’s a mystery. A man’s at odds to know his mind cause his mind is aught he has to know it with. He can know his heart, but he don’t want to. Rightly so. Best not to look in there. It aint the heart of a creature that is bound in the way that God has set for it. You can find meanness in the least of creatures, but when God made man the devil was at his elbow. A creature that can do anything. Make a machine. And a machine to make the machine. And evil that can run itself a thousand years, no need to tend it. You believe that?

I don’t know.

Believe that.” – Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian, or The Evening Redness in the West

All hail our dark, Markovian configuration management tools

“During the Jurassic Age the Old Ones had perhaps become satisfied with their decadent art—or had ceased to recognize the superior merit of the older (activerecord) backends in a multi-master environment.”

The Doom that Came to Puppet, found via @lxt.

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Magic Blue Smoke

House Rules:

1.) Carry out your own dead.
2.) No opium smoking in the elevators.
3.) In Competitions, during gunfire or while bombs are falling, players may take cover without penalty for ceasing play.
4.) A player whose stroke is affected by the simultaneous explosion of a bomb may play another ball from the same place.
4a.) Penalty one stroke.
5.) Pilsner should be in Roman type, and begin with a capital.
6.) Keep Calm and Kill It with Fire.
7.) Spammers will be fed to the Crabipede.