Things Consumed

visit the latest entry in things consumed | visit the things consumed archives | return to | subscribe to the feed

Friday, January 01, 2010

Development: Hunting/Gathering -> Cottage Industries -> Mass Manufacturing -> Cottage Industries

  Bigger isn't always better.

I'm reading one of several entries in the Uppercase Magazine blog about mainstream magazines that have ceased publication (, and am doing a bit of comparing & contrasting. Uppercase is a small operation: the founder has a small team that works with her, has a great website, a small gallery and shop, an adorable line of products, and more than 900 subscribers, so she doesn't need to be solely beholden to advertisers. The mainstream big magazines that are being shut down are vast enterprises with huge offices, vast editorial departments, huge sales organizations, thick layers of well-paid business managers... The sort of model business we have always been told is best, the business we should all want to have, because bigger is better.

Yet bigger is better ceased publication months ago.

Those big publishing houses, for periodicals and for books, are supposed to be an be-all-end-all dream for all those of us who work in any medium that needs to be printed -- we know, because the stuff they print tells us so. But there is increasing evidence that this just isn't the case.


An interesting discussion broke out on an old-fashioned mailing list for specialist photographers recently on a related topic. A fellow photographer was shocked to learn that his publisher had decided not to continue publishing his textbook: he was more or less told that reliable sales of small editions/print runs were no longer worth the publisher's while, and they were going to focus on books with wider appeal for bigger print runs. The author was devastated - his students will no longer be able to buy the book he wrote - and he had no input on the decision not to continue printing it.

He proposed a letter-writing campaign to the publisher to demand that they continue to print it. This is a position that assumes that a big publisher is the best option, or perhaps the only option. He received several supportive replies for this plan.

The majority of replies were NOT supportive of this plan. Most writers asked why he should be satisfied with a publisher whose decision-makers he would never meet controlling his book, and with it his ability to teach. Two major solutions were put forward by a range of authors: small press publishing and print-on-demand. Small press publishing had advocacy from several authors who had chosen that route and had with pleasing results: in support, an actual press representative wrote to discuss their abilities, and how their small size allows them to generate competitive small runs. Since the printing requires an outlay of cash that the author hadn't planned for, print-on-demand was also proposed: POD technology allows for beautifully printed books to stay "in print" indefinitely, for little or no up-front out-of-pocket cost, though at a higher per-unit cost (since they are printed in editions of 1 using more expensive equipment).

No one really stepped up on behalf of the publisher who was discontinuing his book, so the services a big publisher may offer (editing, design assistance, distribution, advertising) weren't talked up, to the extent that is even an option. The abandoned author didn't gush about those services, assuming he had once received them.


I am telling these stories about magazine and book publishers, but there are similar stories with record companies, film companies, greeting card companies, photographic supply companies... You name it. I'm reading more and more in support of the comments I made in the Perils and Profits of Scale which is basically this: companies whose entire business model is pinned to the fundamental economics of quantity really aren't supporting most creatives and others whose primary product is quality. (Or specificity, for that matter.)

The technologies that can allow people to build a successful small business based on quality and/or specificity are maturing now. I now have a choice of POD services to print books for me in a range of formats and paper qualities; I receive catalogs from companies that will burn my music onto CDs and print up packaging for me in large or small runs, or who will sell me the equipment to do so myself; I know people who are running, or have run, small businesses using sites such as eBay or Amazon Marketplace which allow them to specialize in their area of expertise without needing to be the next have-one-of-everything, breadth-without-depth chainstore...

In an economy where more and more of us are learning that big employers aren't the safest places to plan our futures, especially if employment doesn't quite meet all of our expressive needs, having these sorts of tools is a GREAT thing.


People who like the top-down options that the big companies give them - the blond pop vixen of the week, celebrity hairstyles, top ten paperback bestsellers, Tom Cruise movies - might only be aware of these things when some celebrity turns up wearing an outfit from obscure fashion designer running a label out of her garage, or carrying a bag she found on Etsy. Inexplicably, some people I know are using new technologies to follow old-technology companies - as if CNN/EPSN/UNFUN hasn't already told you six different ways the same stuff they're going to tweet to you! But it really doesn't matter so long as the people who DO want to use these tools to sell or buy things that meet their needs can use these tools to their advantage.

Labels: , , ,

posted by Arlene (Beth)12:55 PM

Friday, August 28, 2009

Zombie literature: oral histories

  World War Z: an Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks is so well written that it will have you re-evaluating your plans for natural and unnatural disasters in both fictional and non-fiction contexts.

The book is set in a future in which the entire world has been devastated by a plague that transforms its victims into the living dead. The living dead are slow and noisy, as you would hope, but they also infect their victims with alarming speed, and are extremely difficult to eliminate. Sure they can freeze, but they also revive upon the spring thaw; they can function on the bottom of the sea or as floaters for indefinite periods of time without being broken down by salt water; they can be locked into prisons without fresh victims, and remain dangerous indefinitely... The global outbreak has devastating, world-wide consequences. Nowhere on land or sea is safe.

The book documents the stories of survivors from around the globe as the tide is turning, and the living are reclaiming the planet. Reports from many nations, many types of civilians and specialists, soldiers and doctors, are included. The documentary nature of the project is very broad, and very compelling. The book jacket jokingly calls the author "the Studs Terkel of zombie journalism," and it is a funny and fitting description.

I blame Pride & Prejudice & Zombies for making me reconsider books on the subject of zombie plagues generally. World War Z was a natural follow-up choice: it has been out a few years, it was a NY Times bestseller, and it takes a very different, documentary, first person, oral-history approach to tell the story.

I especially was interested in the use of this approach: one of my NaNoWriMo novels was written entirely as a transcript of a Fresh Air-style interview of a person whose experiences included the political and economic collapse of the U.S., an internal civil war, the division of the territories into many separate countries, and the burden of recovering with sharply limited natural resources. I wanted to see if there were any natural parallels that the oral history approach would lead to on the disaster recovery topic. The short answer is: just a few, mostly due to the natural resource issues. The zombie plague is so devastating, and so treacherous, that merely recovering from being bombed by your own government without the risk of being eaten by your neighbors and relatives seemed leisurely in comparison.


As a San Franciscan, I'm pretty aware of basic disaster preparedness tactics. I own flashlights, candles, wrenches to turn off gas, bottles to port water from my water heater if the water goes out, tablets to purify water if the supply stays on but is compromised, weatherproof gear, and so on. One of my friends has multiple survival kits of lights, crowbars, blankets, energy bars, and goodness knows what else in multiple locations. He lives in a flat neighborhood built on landfill, so I won't be visiting him during either an earthquake or a zombie apocalypse. My place is on a hill, but on sandy soil; the main part of the house could be accessible to zombies if I don't block the front windows and destroy the rear steps, though I imagine the zombies could easily fall off my neighbor's roof onto my patio to make my life difficult. I've been bargaining with a friend in a third story apartment for safe haven in exchange for augmenting his survival supplies with good wine, but I'm not sure his building is as safe as he believes, and I don't trust him with the case of wine in the meantime...

There are so many things to consider, and good fiction inspires you to look at the world in new ways. I'm not paranoid as a result of reading this... what was that noise? Did you hear that? No? Sorry. I was saying, it makes me think a little differently, expands my creative thinking just a bit, and that is a good thing.

I'm really bummed about the sea not being safe, however. That had seemed like such a lovely idea. But it was a hope without a logical basis, beyond a theory that swimming is too complicated for zombies. Floating can still be treacherous.


I bought this book at a used bookstore on Valencia. A block away, I received an exclamation about how great the book is, and word of the movie coming out next year, both unbidden from a stranger.

I love this town.

Labels: ,

posted by Arlene (Beth)11:30 PM

Monday, August 10, 2009

Turns of phrase

  Issue 29 of McSweeney's (, in addition to being a beautifully produced book, as always, contains a brief and very compelling horror story, perhaps most compelling brief horror story I've read in years. It is called A Record of Our Debts, by Laura Hendrix. It is about a plague, madness, and hysteria. In just 10 pages, it manages to convey dread in a way that many books take hundreds of pages to achieve.

I recommend it zealously.

Issue 29 has many strange and interesting stories, on an unexpected (well, unexpected if this weren't an issue of McSweeney's) range of topics and in different styles. There is a strange story called History Lesson by Nelly Reifler, which has some language I enjoyed turning over in my mind. You'll think the line that begins
But he held, in his heart's black capsule...
is the one I'm going to quote for you, but my first choice is actually
As if life were endless, which in this story it is not.
Such a line to deliver early in a short story!

Issues 30 and 31 are still waiting for my attention...

Labels: ,

posted by Arlene (Beth)10:03 PM

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Postal Fetishism

  cyanotype mail art by A.E. Graves
If you've known me for more than a few years, you've probably received mail from me. I am a letter writer. Historically, I have been a SERIOUS letter writer, averaging more than one piece of outgoing social correspondence daily for multi-year stretches. I had pen friends in four countries, and long lists of far-flung friends who could count on me for postcards and longhand letters while they were away at grad school, or medical school, or just plain away. I send postcards while on international trips. I own fountain pens in multiple colors. I have a Strategic Stationery Stockpile that could see me through a decade.

I love receiving mail even more than I enjoy sending it, which poses an obvious problem: most other people are NOT letter writers. Over time, the ratio of letters received to those sent has diminished. I have changed my tactics: the people who write regularly are showered (flooded, deluged) with fancy letters and cards; everyone else who I wish to stay in contact with gets a glossy photo postcard now and then (mostly then). I've also joined a group of artists that does nothing but exchange hand-printed photographs, which has netted me a few lovely pieces, but very few.

There are people who specialize in the art of mail. Actually, they specialize in the art of mail art. You may have seen the people confessing to PostSecret (, or looked at Ruud Janssen's International Union of Mail Arists blog, (, or any of the work of the Fluxus movement... I need to know more people like that.

To tide over my postal desires until I have such friends, I'm hoping for console myself with a book fix. While my current austerity plan does not permit me to purchase art books, I hope to put on my fake pope hat and sell myself an indulgence to buy Make Every Day a Good Mail Day, and perhaps even attend the book release party. The book is about making your mail artsier, and the previews show some adorable illustrations that make me realize I haven't been spending enough of my time having cool, custom rubber stamps made. Which I really ought to do.


As an aside, here is a list of other items forbidden to me under my austerity program beyond books about making even more things than I already make:

-bottled wine for my own consumption (OK to purchase for others when attending parties)
-fancy olives (like at Rainbow's olive bar [swoon])
-cosmetics, or anything else Sephora sells, other than lipstick (sunblock OK)
-Polaroid 600 film, even though the very last batches are up for sale, and this is my last chance...
-art supplies for anything other than photography
-clothes (this is just an excuse: I hate buying clothes)
-anything sold at Paper Source
-take-out or delivered dinners
-concert tickets (I would have made an exception for Frank Black this weekend, if I thought I could have actually acquired the tickets...)
-bubble bath, or any other bath-related indulgence
-more cameras (ha ha ha)
-film (but making my own is okay)
-anything material I've wanted for less than six months, and probably anything I've wanted for more than six months, too.

It has been pretty easy to stick to this plan, as I am spending all of my money on wet collodion supplies, and my all-cash budget won't allow for anything fancy. Apparently, the answer to the musical question 'do I want this or collodion?' is always collodion. Pretend to be surprised.

Did I mention that mail is a simple, inexpensive, thoughtful pleasure? It is.

Labels: ,

posted by Arlene (Beth)8:41 PM

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Stanislaus: my latest book project

  You've seen a lot of my infrared landscape images at, but I have many, many more images that I haven't widely shared. I've put some of my favorites from the river that runs near my parents' homes into a photo books, and have made it available through Blurb to enter into their Photography.Book.Now competition.

It's my first book with them, and I kept this edition short and simple. Blurb did a lovely job of printing it. You can see the entire book/photo essay by following the link below:

By A.E. Graves
Book Preview
Photo book

Labels: , ,

posted by Arlene (Beth)10:00 PM

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The perils and profits of scale

  San Francisco bike route detour signFor novelty, I will write about something other than food. Don't worry: it won't last.


I have already written about how I am a fan of The Impossible Project (, the main plan of a business (adorably named Impossible BV) to re-engineer Polaroid instant film and bring it back to market. Der Spiegel has a lovely update about the business model: Die Mission Impossible der Polaroid-Jünger (, 7/1/2009). (This is in German, which I struggled through before utilizing a quirky Google translation. Ah, the glories of German word order make this entertaining. Ever read a German novel? All the verbs are in the last chapter! Ha ha ha!)

Summary of the points I like: there is a worldwide niche market for Polaroid films, which the massive Polaroid corporation wasn't able to support. The reason instant film is off the market now isn't that it isn't a viable commercial product: it just isn't viable on a mega-scale. (And also, according to this article, Polaroid had been back-stocking supplies with the intention of keeping it available longer, but ran out faster than expected without finding replacement suppliers - unanticipated demand wiped out their stock, killing the product with its own sales success.) But as a specialty item, it is a GREAT product, and with existing demand from millions of existing Polaroid camera owners, the business has great potential when scaled appropriately.

The very idea of a small, specialty market product is beyond the concept of those of us who are taught that bigger is always better. If your cupcake stand can't support a CEO's salary and a bevy of vice presidents with country club memberships, we are told there is no point in bothering to bake at all. (Who do you think tells us this?)

As someone in an obscure photographic specialty area, I am thrilled at the very idea of small, custom production of much loved photographic materials. With specialty sales channels, this could be completely workable.

It is fascinating that so many doubts come from those who believe that there is no point in selling a product that is unique (or perceived as unique) and that people are willing to pay extra to use. These doubters do not own Apple stock.

"Ubiquity or death" is not a sensible business model, no matter what the business papers say.


The Long Goodbye? The Book Business and its Woes, by Elisabeth Sifton (, 6/8/09 print edition) also touches on the idea of a different niche business being profitable enough: the book publishing industry. In addition to teaching me that Caslon is the font Ben Franklin used to set the Declaration of Independence, it talks about the commodification of books, and the way that the consolidated publishing industry wants to make its money on a few big stars rather than on a broad, diversified sales base.

It is a long article with a long list of publishing industry woes, but also covers niche-market concerns dear to my heart. Ubiquity - having your book published cheaply and priced cheaply in a chain store with tons of other cheap, undifferentiated books that the chain store staff are not paid enough to learn about - to the shock of the 'bigger is better' crowd, is not necessarily a recipe for success. Who knew? Books are more than just "content" on pulp that should be bought and sold by the word or the pound. Industry consolidation is weakening the system that has promoted books to buyers historically: book publishers who stake their reputations on the books they choose to publish, and the craft by which they have them manufactured; passionate reviewers in other forms of print media who review and endorse books; book shops that promote books that their own specific customers will enjoy; book clubs and social networks that endorse and share books...

There is a reason that I often walk out of Borders empty handed, but nearly wear my debit card out at Green Apple ( - the people behind Green Apple are fussy about what they stock, and their selections match my (local) interests.

Sifton's description:
That [media conglomerate-types] had no confidence in books per se and knew nothing about writers or readers seemed a neutral factor, not the harshly negative one it actually is. As any sensible businessperson knows, you can't make money in a low-profit operation unless you stay close to your sources of supply and demand--writers and readers in this case. And it helps your profit margin to love or at least respect them.
It must be nice to be a media mogul and think that celebrity books are going to be a universal hit. They haven't spoken to my friend at work, who knows the names of all the celebrities, thinks it is odd that I (who know only names of some musicians) read books, and recently accused me of being the sort of person who reads magazines without pictures in them. The mogul just missed the mark for both of us; but since I buy books regularly, especially missed me.

The music 'industry' is in a similar boat: the industry fantasy is a small set of universal stars who appeal to all 'markets' who can support their massive infrastructure without putting that infrastructure through the tedium of actually providing services to promote music, or to determine what customers actually want to hear. This may have some connection to all of the weeping I've heard from the industry about how they aren't as successful as they'd hoped or planned.

Business, it appears, is more than just selling widgets by volume.

Labels: , ,

posted by Arlene (Beth)12:02 PM

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Pasta love

  Cookbooks often tempt me with a few mouth-watering descriptions, but when I have been separated from my money and have time to really review every recipe, I sometimes realize that the ONLY things I'd really want to cook are the few items that got my attention initially. (This sounds like some sort of analogy about relationships, but it's not, I assure you. Well, not intentionally.) Libraries provide a great workaround for this: you get to spend enough time with a cookbook (2 weeks plus) to decide if it is something you should own.

sliced fennel bulb frying in olive oil [Image: sliced fennel bulbs frying in olive oil.]

Six or seven years ago, I checked out Cooking from an Italian Garden by Paola Scaravelli and Jon Cohen from the San Bruno Public Library. And every single thing I made from the cookbook was hailed as one of the best homemade Italian dishes ever. But the book, dating from 1984, is out of print, and at the time, on-line booksellers wanted seven times the cover price. I mourned my separation from the cookbook, but vowed that someday, I would own it.

There are a lot more on-line booksellers now, and I have acquired a copy for a mere doubling of the cover price. And it is worth it. This book is a collection of over 300 recipes, each and every one of which is vegetarian. It is an encyclopedia of cooking: how to make homemade pasta, and how to use different shapes to make fancy items like tortellini or ravioli; how to make gnocchi; lasagna techniques; how to make pickled veggies; how to make risotto; and an absolutely stunning selection of vegetable side dishes that goes on and on...

There is a catch: I am much more vegan-leaning than I was six or seven years ago. Back then, I was regularly buying cheese, and could occasionally be imposed upon to cook with eggs. This cookbook has many, many recipes involving eggs and cheese, which is a surprise: I mainly remember the vegan dishes. Nevertheless, there are many dishes I am trying with great success, with minimal modifications.

Star dishes so far include:

-fusilli ai capperi: pasta spirals in a sauce of basil, garlic, prepared mustard (!!), capers, and olive oil

-rigatoni puttanesca: firm tubes in a raw sauce of tomatoes, garlic, black olives, capers, and basil

-melanzane al forno: eggplant baked with olive oil, fresh oregano, and garlic, topped with fresh tomato sauce

-finocchio fritto: sliced fresh fennel bulbs, blanched, dusted with flour, and fried in olive oil.

This is the sort of cookbook that inspires you to rush out and buy a tomato crushing machine, so you can make a full year's supply of tomato sauce to can while tomatoes are still at their peak; or a pasta machine, so you can dedicate your every evening to the production of delicate, homemade fettuccine...

Warning: you will spend more time cooking and will buy alarming volumes of capers, but you will be very happy. Just so you know.

Labels: , , ,

posted by Arlene (Beth)10:00 PM

Sunday, June 28, 2009


  Tears of laughter ran down my face from the very idea that customers at the pirate supply store were offended by the 'kitten plank' - a plank for use when making a disloyal kitten "walk the plank" to depart your pirate ship...

I'm getting ahead of myself.

It is a gorgeous, sunny, hot weekend in San Francisco. Today, in between my favorite, distant, Chinese supermarket and my favorite inner Richmond cafe, I was violently sucked into Green Apple Books (, my favorite bookstore in San Francisco. Among other purchases (oh, how they torment me with books I want!), I acquired Essentially Odd: A Catalog of Products Created For and Sold At the 826 National Stores ( It is the best, and funniest, catalog I have ever owned.826 Valencia peg leg oil

826 National is the umbrella organization behind the tutoring centers that Dave Eggers set up, starting with 826 Valencia ( Yes, you've been past it. If you're walking north on Valencia on the west side of the street, you pass a park, an alley with a cool mural, a restaurant, a cooperative art gallery, a pirate supply store, a natural history shop... Yes, it is the pirate supply store.

Of course it is the pirate supply store.

That's just the front of the building: there is a tutoring store in the back. But, for various reasons explained in the book, they needed to sell things up front, and they decided the building looked a bit like a ship interior, and the pirate supply shop was born.

Early on, the 826 founders decided that the shop should serve working pirates, as opposed to being a kitschy shop about pirates.
Medicine for scurvy, mermaid repellent/bait, cannon fuses, peg leg oil, beard extensions...

I know, I know, you are wondering how you have lived without having visited this shop. And I'm saying: go! Go now! Well, okay, wait until it's open. But definitely go.

But this catalog does not MERELY contain images and descriptions of the items available in SF's shop. Oh no. There are other 826 tutoring centers. And they each have a shop. A different kind of shop. One, for example, sells only super hero supplies. Another: time travel necessities. Another: robot repair & maintenance supplies.

Yes, they really SELL these things. They do! And all of the sales go to support the tutoring centers.

You'll see me sporting a Liberty Street Robot Supply & Repair hoodie as soon as I get my long, tapering, alien hands on one. Once you have the catalog, you can visit the appropriate 826 center's website to order their cool merchandise. (It looks like the 826 National Store will eventually be able to centralize sales inquiries.)

Creative people who love reading, good design, and ambient wackiness ROCK.

Labels: , , ,

posted by Arlene (Beth)9:23 PM

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Classics of Zombie Literature

  Yes, Pride & Prejudice & Zombies by Jane Austen & Seth Grahame-Smith is all I had hoped for. It is literature. It is gory. It is romantic. It involves ninjas. And it provides social commentary about the place of women in society in new ways. I quote:
My sisters and I cannot spend any substantial time searching for [my sister's boyfriend/captor], as we are each commanded by His Majesty to defend Hertfordshire from all enemies until such time as we are dead, rendered lame, or married.
Yes, as you might expect, it is unseemly for ladies to slay legions of the undead, and even more unseemly to do so WELL. No matter how one's country might need one's help during periods of shambling, brain-eating unpleasantness, a respectable lady, especially a married one, must retire from her violent, gory, life-saving service. (Oh, the stupidity of patriarchy.)

I love this book. I recommend it. If you're near me, I might even be willing to loan it to you.

I'm not saying I want the undead versions of all enjoyable works of literature... although, come to think of it, Wuthering Heights would be even more joyously overwrought if... If... NO. Wait. Stop right there! Don't! Well... Hmmmmm.....

Labels: , , ,

posted by Arlene (Beth)8:28 PM

Friday, June 12, 2009

More good reads

  I was entirely too aware when I last posted a list of books I had recently written that all three of the books I listed where by white men. This is the sort of thing white men themselves tend not to notice, but it struck me as strange. The odds that a multi-racial-yet-pale SF gal like me would read THREE consecutive books by white guys is quickly explained by the fact that I was on a sci-fi bender, and that I have white guys recommending books to me. But still. It seemed odd.

Of course, this only makes me think of the website, which is thoroughly entertaining. Currently on display is item 126, Vespas. A sample of why I like this site:
Within white culture, your choice of transportation method says a lot about you. For example a Prius says you care about the Earth, a bicycle shows you REALLY care about the earth, and a bus shows that you are probably not white.
[Those of us who are not (completely) white and who ride the bus must pause to finish laughing before reading on, because it continues to get funnier.]

Anyway, I have three more books to report on, and this time around the mix of influences upon me is more apparent.

Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by Z.Z. Packer is an absolutely stellar collection of short stories. It is the sort of collection that makes you stay up far past your bedtime, because you cannot put the book down, or even pass your stop by several train stations. Each story is about a different character: coincidental with the theme of this blog post, each primary character is a black woman.

The collection is a pleasure to read, and has deservedly won a ton of awards. She now lives in the SF Bay Area, because that is what writers do.

Shortcomings by Adrian Tomine is a graphic novel set primarily in the SF Bay Area. I had seen it in every bookstore I have visited recently, likely because it is a NYTimes "notable book," and finally caved in and bought it. It is a slice of life drama about an increasingly negative, 30-something Asian guy, who can't figure out why he is alienating everyone around him.

You know this guy.

I'm not asking you to name names, here: I'm just saying that you know someone like him.

The entire work is very well observed - the gestures, the expressions, the dialogue... it is as true to life as the melodrama you heard on BART this morning. And that look that Miko gives Ben after she tries to get him to come to bed, and he says he is watching a movie and isn't tired, and she clarifies that she isn't talking about sleep, and he insists he wants to watch the movie... I have lived this exchange. I didn't even know guys were capable of SEEING that look, let alone understanding it and drawing it this well.

I recommend this highly.

Locas: The Maggie and Hopey Stories (Love & Rockets) by Jaime Hernandez is a massive, hardcover collection of Love & Rockets comics centering on best friends Maggie & Hopey. It has some of my favorite episodes (like Music For Mechanics), but so much more... It is an amazing collection. It will take me weeks to finish reading it, largely because I love to really look at Jaime's drawing style in detail: the way he models people, especially in low lighting, is just amazing. The story telling is great, the characters are lovable, and the drawings are so engaging... This is a treasure.

The thing that these books have in common with most books I recommend, including those written by white guys, is appealing, substantial female characters. It is a secret ingredient that makes books rock.

Labels: ,

posted by Arlene (Beth)10:10 PM

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Zombiefied Jane Austen plus Our Battlestar Galactica-obsessed President

  Recent spectacular highlights from the Onion (, "America's Finest News Source:"

l. Obama Depressed, Distant Since 'Battlestar Galactica' Series Finale ( The Onion has done a highly enjoyable job of giving our new president all manner of interests and personality traits, but there is something so special about Hamid Karzai discussing his insights on the President's favorite aspects of the series that just makes it PERFECT.

2. Tomato Genetically Modified To Be More Expensive ( This makes the most sense of any story about genetically engineered foods that I have ever read.

3. A review of the book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith, a book review at The Onion's entertainment supplement which has just determined that THIS is the book I am reading next. From the review:
To the already-irresistible story of the prejudiced Elizabeth Bennett and the proud Mr. Darcy, Grahame-Smith adds only the lightest sprinkling of walking corpses, Shaolin training, katana duels, dojos on country estates, and young ladies succumbing to the strange plague. In his version, in addition to balls and officers and marriage, the Bennett sisters are committed to the defense of England against the undead armies of Lucifer, through their mastery of deadly Oriental arts. Yet such is the emotional power of Austen’s story and characters that not even revivified brain-chompers (easily fooled by cauliflowers, happily) detract from Elizabeth and Darcy’s rocky love affair.
Oh. My. Gawd. How do I not already own this?

Labels: ,

posted by Arlene (Beth)7:40 PM

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A few good books

  I am historically a voracious reader, but something about working in law and reading legalese all day has impaired the willingness of my eyes and brain to focus on other people's words at home, to a point. Despite this, I have enjoyed three very good books recently.

William Gibson's Spook Country is another one of his contemporary stories (like Pattern Recognition, which I wrote very briefly about here), with a few of his usual, clever perceptions about culture technology. It is the story of a woman who was once in a cult band, and is now trying to make a living as a writer. While hired to investigate some virtual art installations - very finely modeled, location specific, three dimensional scenes overlaid onto real space, invisible to those who don't have the right visual aids at the right time - she gets involved in international intrigue involving covert public and private operations, corrupt government "contractors," and paranoid computer techs. Especially clever ideas discussed include the atemporal nature of music in the file-sharing age, geographically specific virtual art (something that seems inevitable, yet still just out of reach, thanks to improvements in GPS and GPS-mimicking technologies), and a variety of observations about the modern art world.

The Diamond Age, by Neal Stephenson, is a roller coaster ride through, half-nanotechnology-dependent world, half virtual (narrated, illustrated, and imagined) world as experienced by one seemingly quite unlucky little girl. Her life is changed by an encounter with a book. Yes, you're thinking, that happened to me, too! No no no, this particular book is narrated by live actors, is responsive to questions and comments from the reader, is animated by computers, and is designed to develop one particular individual through a rigorous survival and technical training program over the course of about 16 years.

Don't be jealous.

Stephenson has all sorts of interesting details about this nanotech-built world: how drugs work, how ideas work, how personal and physical security work, all in a future where people put on group identities that are as strongly distinct as gang clothing or imperial fashions. Fun topics include tribalism, the implications of sex in a nanotech-saturated world, repression and rebellion in young girls, Confucian justice, Turing machines, undersea orgies, and thousands of Chinese orphans.

In addition, I just finished Stephenson's 900 or so page Anathem. This book is difficult to describe in a spoiler-free manner, and I really don't want to spoil it for you. But a safe overview might be: on a very earth-like planet, intellectuals lead a very formal, monastic existence in walled institutions that separate them from the petty distractions of so-called modern society. On this planet, whenever the intellectuals have allowed technology to exceed the bounds of society's ethical or conceptual limits, the intellectuals have been massacred and forced to start over, and for everyone's protection work only in primitive, low-technology conditions. Despite this, the intellectuals are the first people called upon when the world is under any sort of serious threat.

The book takes place during one such threat, and follows a rather unexceptional-yet-likable monk through some very exceptional circumstances.

This book is about: theory, practice, taking a long view, alternative realities, geometry, whether or not time is linear, pinhole photography, nuclear weapons, exploitative institutions, suspicions about your IT department, and whether or not it is wise to separate intellectuals from mainstream society for long periods of time rather than integrating them. Everything else it is about would be a spoiler.

This book made me think quite a bit about how my writing approach to certain topics differs from Stephenson's. This book was a completely engrossing read, but one of the main plot tools is so... grandiose I was rather stunned. Yes, for a book of this epic scope, it can work, and it does; yes, the tools are internally consistent with the narrative, and had been hinted at; yes, it was mostly satisfying, though I am apparently much more cruel to my characters than he is. Yes, there were other directions it could have gone. Yes, the book comes with a glossary and an appendix full of sample geometric proofs.

This is a book worth losing lots of sleep for.


posted by Arlene (Beth)11:30 PM

Monday, March 16, 2009

Sub-mothra class space flora

  Cunningham Place mural detail, San Francisco, CaliforniaSpring in the day, winter in the night...


[mural detail from Cunningham Place, off Valencia, in San Francisco]


I've been the worst fair-weather cyclist lately. I fantasize about biking, but ever since that hail storm on the Tierra Bella years ago, I just haven't had much enthusiasm for inclement weather. Even though the hail made INCREDIBLE sounds on my helmet. (It didn't make up for the STING of hail.) I know we need the rain. I know I need to bike. I just don't think of these ideas as compatible at the moment.


I posted a few photos of details of fuzzy protea up at Facebook (no login required). Just a few. They are from the UC Santa Cruz Botanical Garden, which is spectacular. I could spend many weeks of my life filling all of my memory cards and shooting very fine grain film there... The collections from South Africa and Australia are impressive. I am saving New Zealand for next time.

Now is a great time there for the 'smaller' (sub-mothra class) protea (some of the larger ones have already bloomed out) and banksia.

Closer to home, it is clear that the seasons are changing. The pink plum blossoms came and went; the cherry blossoms are out in force, and the white plums are barely making an appearance before they are hidden by fresh green leaves... My habits remain thrown off from recent life changes, as I haven't documented any signs of spring's arrival photographically. Not even CAMELLIAS. And you know how I am about camellias.


Gestalt Haus (my favorite cafe turned into my next favorite cafe turned into a German bar featuring beer I actually like and VEGAN sausages) removed most of the bike racks. I don't know what that is about. The weissbier is still perfect, however.


I caught a good show last week at Cafe du Nord ( It featured the Catholic Comb, Gliss, and the Prids (all three on While there isn't much point in YOU, dear reader, having a myspace page, it certainly is a handy place for a band to have a page, as music is one of the few forms of content that is effectively being facilitated... I pre-screened all three bands through CdN's links, which sold me on the show.

The show was really enjoyable: the audience was enthusiastic (there was even relatively gentle MOSHING during the Prids' set), and the music was... Well, now that I'm ancient, I'm catching more and more nuances of earlier sounds, of bands from the early 80s, influences I wouldn't necessarily expect in bands with members who weren't alive in the early 1980s. Each band had different early 80s influences, but they were certainly there. New music with old sounds. (All sounds are old, in some ways...)

In William Gibson's book Spook Country, the heroine had once been in a cult band, and is surprised in her fictional now at the increasingly atemporal nature of music consumption, of how people who were too young to have heard her band when they were touring initially are being introduced to her band so long after they folded, of how she was picking up new fans years later... Perhaps some of the sounds I enjoyed in the pre-digital age are finding their ways into young, musical ears and out through their shiny new amps.

I don't write about music often, so I'll just say that I will listen to all three of these bands again, and I hope to see them again live. Their sounds were like nostalgia, without the tedium of actual nostalgia.

This is an endorsement. No, really. I'm listening to Gliss as I type this. Though any and all incoherence is solely my own.


I've already come up with 13 more bands that I've seen live that belong on my 'bands I've seen live list,' and am hoping to have a few more revelations. Especially about who opened at some of those Sleater Kinney shows (other than Quasi and the Quails, and the A-- Set, who dawdled forever and thus earned my loathing), and for Elliot Smith.

Labels: , ,

posted by Arlene (Beth)10:24 PM

Saturday, March 14, 2009

They way books look

  I love books. I've written of this before, and have an entire book love web page here about the many ways in which I love books.

Here are just a few quick links of pages about the way books look that I've been staring at:

-Photo-Eye (, an on-line magazine, book shop, and gallery about photo books. I get the newsletter and am visiting this site nearly every week.

-The Book Design Review (, which looks primarily at literature from big publishers.

-The Book Cover Archive (, one of those obsessive projects that I might have thought up myself if I had learned about espresso a few years earlier. (Well, no, not really. I would have thought of the sort of things I'm doing now earlier... Maybe.)

These sites are all full of eye candy, and hints that some people really do judge books by their covers, because the covers are so gorgeous.


posted by Arlene (Beth)10:00 PM

Sunday, October 19, 2008

"Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia"

  It is a book: photo-eye Bookstore | Sergei Vasiliev: Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia (volume III) | photobooks ( But it would also be an awesome name for a band.

Or an album.


posted by Arlene (Beth)1:02 PM

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Books: William Gibson's Pattern Recognition

  I don't often write about books here - I have an entire single subject books page for that - but I notice that my books page doesn't even have a summary of last year's ambitious NaNoWriMo novel posted, and I'm not willing to update it tonight, so... Let me write briefly about William Gibson's Pattern Recognition.

It's about marketing.

Not a how-to manual, but a book about someone who works in a contemporary time period, and works as a sort of consultant to marketing. Because she is allergic to certain brands, and has really high sensitivity to the potential impact of others.

After his sci-fi books (which attracted so much attention from the US Military, who hoped to make Gibson's dark future something they could be really, really good at), it's novel (ha!) to read about now, and certain ways of looking at the way ideas are shaped and formed now. It was actually pretty entertaining to switch from reading about the heavy hand and highly intelligent, determined, (misguided) people of marketing in his fictional now, and then switch over to the most commercial photography magazine I read, and see the pro-marketing ranting full of phrases like "people want to connect, not consume," -- and how to trick them into thinking that they are connecting, even when that connection is merely with lifeless, disposable material goods.

All of that, and this book is also a sort of thriller. With Russian mobsters, Japanese otaku, e-mail flirting, friends you only know through some online forum, and more.

I was thoroughly absorbed. Not like the Borg absorb... Anyway, it's good.


posted by Arlene (Beth)10:00 PM

Monday, January 14, 2008


Teaism? Yes, teaism.

As you've gathered, I drink a lot of tea, both "real" tea (from the special camellia plant that all true tea comes from) and herbal infusions. I drink green tea most often. I drink it for many reasons: I like the taste, I like to drink something warm, I like the fact that it's good for me... But I also have a sort of ideal of the idea of drinking tea. It is something that I like to do slowly, methodically, and thoughtfully. It can be very meditative to do. Really, as an independent Zen Buddhist, many ordinary things should be meditative for me to do, if I am living correctly, and my enjoyment of acting mindfully is part of what made me realize that I should identify myself as philosophically Buddhist.

I am a detail-oriented person who is usually wholly engaged in what I am doing, especially in my job(s). I have landed in a stressful profession (law), where every ounce of my attention, a great deal of patience, and continuous persistence are required for even mundane legal projects. I am often expected to do dozens of things at once, each of which is on an urgent deadline and composed of many smaller parts, some of which are quite complex, others of which are quite tedious. There is an urgency, often false, about nearly everything, and I pick it up and flow with it.

I am also the sort of person that takes inordinate pleasure in being completely absorbed in one activity: taking a hot, scented bath; feeling the texture of clean sheets against my skin; walking quietly through a forest; studying and drawing the lines on a leaf; or sitting on a beach with my bare feet in the sand and my eyes closed, listening to waves. Of course I like to really sit and wholly, completely enjoy a cup of tea. It's a relief from all of the unnecessary multi-tasking of life, a mental spa vacation in a small cup.


I realized today that Google likely has some of the classics written about tea on line. Of course they do. The Book of Tea, by Okakura-Kakuzo (from Google Book Search) ( is from 1906, and it is the perfect thing for me to read right now. It has some great quotes. On the very first page is this:
Teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence.
This is clearly my kind of book. Here is another good one:
Those who cannot feel the littleness of great things in themselves are apt to overlook the greatness of little things in others.
And it uses the word "fain" several times. When was the last time you read a book that used the word "fain?" I bet it's been too long.


P.S. Oooh! Oooh! "...the simpering innocence of cocoa." (That may make up for a few missing pages and the scan of the thumb on page 101 of the PDF.) Oh, and there's a fabulous tirade against cutting flowers for arrangements. I enjoyed this very much.

Labels: ,

posted by Arlene (Beth)7:31 PM

Sunday, July 01, 2007

  Jay Kullman has a book out! He never mentioned to me that he was even working on a book, and then Jay sends a last-minute e-mail about how he's giving a reading at Modern Times Books, one of my favorite bookstores. Go figure.

Jay is one of five co-authors of The Ten Minute Activist (, just published by Nation Books ( It's a compilation of little things you can do that are quick and easy which make a positive difference in the world if they are done cumulatively. There are many habits that Americans have that add up to a big impact, and this book provides easy behavioral modifications you can make.

I'll ramble about individual versus collective action (and combined with collective action) some other time.

Labels: ,

posted by Arlene (Beth)7:12 PM

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

comments Return Home