Book: The Vegetarian by Han Kang

Cover of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian

The Vegetarian
by Han Kang
published by Penguin Random House
2016

“Anyone can see that I’m the real victim here.”
– The Husband, after his Wife’s spontaneous suicide attempt after she is physically attacked by her family.
(OMG, the lack of self awareness for this character is SO CONVINCING!)

The award winning novel, The Vegetarian, translated into English from Korean, tells the story of a woman living in a strictly conformist, patriarchal society, in a traditional marriage, from a domineering family, who decides to change just one thing about her life. After a dream of animal suffering, she decides to stop eating meat.

All hell breaks loose.

Our protagonist is nameless at first, and is initially defined only by her relationships to others. Her story is told primarily through the eyes of her self-absorbed husband, her obsessive brother-in-law, and her deeply concerned sister, each of whom sees her quite differently and has a completely different experience of knowing her and watching her change.

The story (or up to four stories, depending on how you view it) is a dark view of obligation, conformity, and custom, with glimpses of vivid, delicate, fleeting freedom.

(As a vegetarian who LOVES the vegan Buddhist temple food of Korea, the lack of understanding in this setting by her conformist family was especially striking. The precedent and ethics of her choice were not relevant to anyone at the time, which is more indicative of her situation than the specific choice she was making. )

Science: Local COVID-19 Research

As scientific and medical teams around the world race to find preventions, treatments, and cures for SARS-CoV-2, I did get excited by this extremely novel research that is being done at my own local university / hospital, UCSF. It needs to be tested, of course, but it’s exciting to read about such a different approach.

‘AeroNabs’ Promise Powerful, Inhalable Protection Against COVID-19

As the world awaits vaccines to bring the COVID-19 pandemic under control, UC San Francisco scientists have devised a novel approach to halting the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease. Led by UCSF graduate student Michael Schoof, a team of researchers engineered a completely synthetic, production-ready molecule that straitjackets the crucial SARS-CoV-2 machinery that allows the virus to infect our cells.

The idea that llamas, camels, and other animals have completely different ways of managing their immune systems reminds me of my past concerns about the idea of engineering animals to produce medicines in their bodies for us to extract. That always felt entirely too risky, because we lack a deep understanding of their diseases. When you think of big pandemics, you’ll see why I say this: bird flu! swine flu! chicken pox! See the pattern? Zoonotic diseases, including our current global pandemic, are a serious global human health concern, so playing around with animal tissues without understanding that has always seemed unwise.

It seems like the research highlighted in this article can improve our understanding of animal immune systems in addition to potentially understanding zoonotic diseases, which should be beneficial. The new treatment also wouldn’t require needles, as any new vaccine may have supply chain problems for delivery into the patient, based on current information. Yaay, pursuit of knowledge!

Books: Appleseed by Masamune Shirow

Covers of the Eclipse editions of Appleseed Books One and Two by Masamune Shirow

Appleseed Book One: The Promethean Challenge
Appleseed Book Two: Prometheus Unbound
Appleseed Book Three: The Scales of Prometheus
Appleseed Book Four: The Promethean Balance

by Masamune Shirow and Seishinsha (and many translators)
published in English by Eclipse International (books One and Two) and Dark Horse Manga (a part of Dark Horse Comics) (not shown, Books Three and Four)
1989, 1990, 2008, 2009

I was recently chatting with an architect, and discussed how 1980s manga from Japan had some interesting conceptual architecture. The 80s were an era when the idea of “arcologies” (large sustainable, self-contained or partially self-supporting construction projects) was all the rage in architecture theory magazines, and some famous Japanese architects made some wild sculptural drawings which got a lot of press. On this topic, I loaned him the first two volumes of Masamune Shirow’s Appleseed manga.

Two panels from Appleseed Book One

Now it’s my fault that architecture students at a local UC have to create an architecturally-themed manga as one of their assignments. (Sorry, kids!)

The architecture in the manga IS really detailed – these aren’t just backgrounds for wild action, but an entire portfolio of theoretical architectural design work in its own right. The end papers of each comic are always architectural, and whether the images are of the ruined high rises of the old world, or the solar-paneled developments of the new one, they are all done with pleasing attention to detail.

There are also lots of 1980s touches to the futurism – there are tons of 45 degree angled walls and buildings just because that’s what we all thought was cool at the time, and things are only barely rounded, just a tad. Our futurism always gives away when we really made something! But it’s NICE. It’s internally consistent from a design standpoint. It’s always done ALL THE WAY.

Should I say something about the manga itself? (What, there is a story?) Okay. Shirow, who is more famous for Ghost in the Shell (which has been turned into feature films at least four times now) was really at his peak (architecturally – ha!) for the Appleseed story. It follows a pair of soldiers, Deunan Knute and Briareos Hecatonchires, who were living in the ruins of cities in the aftermath of a devastating world war, as they are recruited to live in a new civilization that has risen from the ashes. They become police in a seemingly utopian society, but are put off a bit by the fact that most of the peaceful, educated residents of their new home are bio-engineered, and no longer completely human.

The first two volumes are world-building: Shirow explains world history, the rise of Olympus, the purpose of its population, and the political tensions that arise when you try to decide whether or not humans are really, you know, SAFE.

The second two volumes rely on the first (you can’t just start there), and show the ongoing struggles of our protagonists with their dangerous jobs and complex political entanglements. These are mostly action sequences, and less philosophical than the first two, which had so many meaning-of-life debates among engineered bioroids that they required footnotes. (No, really.)

I have objections to some elements of the manga. A big one: Women’s Bodies. The men are covered from head to toe, or are encased in robotic bodies, but the women show skin all the time, to the point that there are shower scenes (because of course). So, you 100% know this was drawn by a man, what his preferred body types are, and also that he is damned near obsessed with the female pelvic region, because of how often you can see it rendered in great detail even during fight scenes. (Once you see this theme, you can’t unsee it. HOW MANY HIGH KICKS DOES A WOMAN REALLY NEED TO PLACE IN EVERY DAMNED BATTLE, HUH?) I now know that later in his career, Shirow turned to what we (Americans) call softcore porn drawings of shiny, oiled-looking youthful girls/women, so please be careful with your image searches!

Also, as a part black woman, I’m not a fan of how he draws black people. Since most of the characters appear to be heavily stylized pseudo-European (rather than Asian), there is a hazy stylized ethnic ambiguity until black people arrive, and they are suddenly VERY different. I’m not saying we aren’t bigger or can have different features, but between the one black character in Macross/Robotech, or in the more recent Castlevania, there are some great manga-stylized renderings that I find more attractive. I realize that I have access to black people in my own family, and Shirow may not, but I was… confused by several of them, honestly.

So I have positive architectural feelings about Appleseed, and especially appreciate the buildings, machines, and industrial design of the first two books.

News: Local Wildfire Smoke Photos

I’ve written that my beloved home state of California is on fire. What I haven’t done is show you what that means here in San Francisco, where I learned of the fire firsthand by looking down a street and seeing a wall of smoke reaching to the sky.

I’m me, so I went to the top of the nearest hill and photographed the arriving smoke-scape before it had a chance to spread over us.

2020.08.18 Wildfire smoke from Orizaba Hilltop

8 new photos added to shared album

These photos were taken back on the 18th, when the arrival of smoke was clear and distinct: now it infuses everything, and we can tell by the odd, reddish-yellow sunrises and smell seeping into our clothes that it is here.

Life: Lighter Side of Pandemic Commentary

I’m loving all of the declarations on Twitter that working from home has accustomed people, and ESPECIALLY women, to wear what is comfortable, leading to revelations that nothing worn to work is comfortable.

Narrow, pointy shoes? Oppressive undergarments? Shirts with stiff, starchy collars? No, no, and no!

It is beginning to sound like the ‘uncomfortable office clothing’ industry is going to take a big hit, even if a treatment for COVID-19 emerges soon!

Life: Pandemic Views of City Life

My posts need a little something at the top… Maybe this?

I’ve been chuckling with my friends over articles about San Francisco rents, and breathless articles about a 90%+ increase of units on the market over [some time period]. We are chuckling because some writers are seeing this as a sign that the City is emptying out, while we know that a 90%+ rise in a place where vacancies are usually around 2% isn’t worth writing home about. Low single digits, people! Nothing to see here! Move along!

There is a sense, though, that if enough tech people from distant US regions (which seems to be a lot of tech people) can work remotely and want to go back to their home states, there might actually be nearly affordable housing in SF again! IT COULD HAPPEN! I’m not saying it is happening, I’m just saying it COULD. Because: wouldn’t that be amazing?

I know, I’m desperate for a silver lining on a cloud that turned out to be part of a tornado.

The pandemic has been a nightmare for San Francisco, and when I’m not trying to figure out how to turn all of the empty street-level real estate into pop up shops and art galleries and small business incubators for local craftspeople, inventors, and artists (which I’m not in a position to implement, so don’t write to me, please), I’m looking for SOMETHING new and good. Our tourist and convention industry has been hit SO HARD. Aside from neighborhood restaurants, which are suffering from the transition to take out only, our neighborhood small businesses are largely still closed. So this tech companies working-remotely-forever thing has some potential.

I don’t really think that EVERYONE working remotely forever is good. I got a lot of exercise in my car-free commutes. I like to see my colleagues in person sometimes. I’m getting wistful email messages from breakfast/lunch only restaurants in the financial district saying goodbye forever. I can see the follow-on effects this is having on countless shops and small businesses that previously served office workers. I worked downtown for DECADES (yikes!), and the convenience of all of the services and shops was fantastic. My dentist, optometrist, multiple pharmacies, the place I donated blood, great coffee services, reliable book shops, and so much more were all just blocks from my building. I worked very long hours, and spent SO MUCH ON FOOD! And on drinks, back when I had friends who would go out with me after work, rather than only having colleagues who leave early to drive a zillion hours to a remote suburb with a large house they were rarely able to see by day…

But some of those tech companies are NOT integrated into the urban landscape like my company/I was. There are a few big ones that are more like isolated islands within the city. There were complaints that workers went in early, left late, and left no trace on the area around their building: they had food services and recreation within their offices, which really could have been anywhere, so…

…Meanwhile, in New York, I’m watching a slightly different drama play out on Twitter, where people say “good riddance” to people who moved to NYC for work/play and now are bailing on the city because it isn’t “fun” anymore with the covid precautions in place. (It’s pretty entertaining – the quality of the insults is high!)

The Guardian (UK) has a piece that makes the class elements clear, especially when people run off to their second or ‘vacation home,’ a concept that had to be explained to me long ago. (Living in California, I didn’t immediately understand why I would need to go AWAY from a place that other people come to on THEIR vacations. Also, I did not grow up knowing people that owned more than one home, so that part was especially baffling. (Your WHAT? Why do you have that? Did your first one break?)) The data isn’t complete, but it’s looking like rich folks are the ones who cleared out, because they had other places to go, AND could afford to.

Parrott’s research underlines the bitter inequalities buried within the job losses. While lower-income and predominantly black and Latino workers in face-to-face industries have suffered devastating levels of unemployment – 61% in entertainment, 56% in food services, 49% in hotels – the decline in lucrative Wall Street jobs has been just 3%.

New York’s not dead, but pandemic has laid bare deep-seated problems, 29 August 2020, by Ed Pilkington

YIKES. Looking at those numbers, it’s going to take more than some wacky incentive program for surviving business to get people back on their feet.

Note: the Guardian actually interviews black people, instead of interviewing other people about how black people are faring, which is REFRESHING.

SO: cities are going to shed some people who weren’t especially happy to be there anyway. How will that change how those of us who stay live and work? This is what preoccupies me while I hide inside from the wildfire smoke…

Twitter: USPS Support

There are many graphics in support of the US Postal Service. I especially like this one.

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ProtectTheUSPS #ProtectThePostOffice #SaveThePostOffice #SaveTheUSPS pic.twitter.com/YsZpQHZp12

(Yes, she is wearing a mask, which is a nice touch. Yes, I’m a geek. Yes, you already knew that.)

Life: Writing Amid Too Much Real News

Tiny clip from the reliable https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/ site

I’ve been quiet here, because there is a lot happening. A LOT. I’m not good at pretending otherwise.

I don’t want force false cheer or deny current events in my posting, because then it will read as, “A dangerous pandemic is raging out of control around the globe, my home state is on fire, my lungs are filled with smoke, my country is sliding into fascism, and HERE IS A NEW RECIPE FOR PICKLED BEETS!”

–me, just now

I’m having two kinds of interactions with people about the current state of affairs.

People who are cautious and have changed their lives since the pandemic became widespread are easy to chat with about our condensed, indoor lives. We’re trying to stay healthy and almost sane. We exchange recipes, movie recommendations, tell each other stories, share links, have video calls, compare masks, and discuss ways to solve pandemic-related logistical problems. (I want some of that fancy, vacated office space to be made available to schools which can no longer safely accommodate all of the students. Some of those offices (the ones that won’t have elevator lobby traffic jams) have VAST amounts of floor space, decent ventilation, zippy fast internet, and natural light. At even 30% occupancy per floor, they could support a lot of students! And yes, we’ll need to hire more teachers and support staff to make that work, and that would be worth it and potentially good for the recovery! And and and and…) My friends who are cautious may need to visit ailing relatives, and plan long, arduous car trips that may not involve stopping. They run errands, but do so cautiously and efficiently while masked. They avoid non-cautious people. If I have seen them within the last six months, I socialized with them outdoors and while wearing a mask.

People who are not cautious are living very different lives, and I can’t entirely relate to them. They are flying in airplanes. They are going on vacations and drinking in bars. They might as well tell me they are from Alpha Centauri. They aren’t appearing in Karens-gone-wild videos, thankfully, but I’m still judging them the way I judge people who don’t stop at stop signs. It’s not that I don’t understand taking risks to oneself: it’s putting others at risk that really bothers me.

These events are also changing what I read, and my reading has become GEEKY IN NEW WAYS. I have waaaay too many conversations about virology, antibodies, vaccine development, how clinical trials are supposed to be done (no, not all the researchers who don’t have the illness injecting themselves – THAT is just a bad version of Phase 1, people!); I’ve given two brief informal gushing chats on angiotensin-converting enzymes 2 (ACE2); I’ve translated acronyms for cardiac conditions potentially aggravated by COVID-19 to my father; I’ve started “liking” too many posts from UCSF about their nanobody-based potential treatment, AeroNabs; and I am constantly frustrated that I’ve got a lung health issue that is holding me back from going out to show up in person for the biggest civil rights mass movement of my adult life, Black Lives Matter.

I am NOT sending Twitter invitations to that asteroid that everyone is writing about, either.

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Will #asteroid 2011 ES4 hit Earth? 🌎 No! 2011 ES4’s close approach is “close” on an astronomical scale but poses no danger of actually hitting Earth. #PlanetaryDefense experts expect it to safely pass by at least 45,000 miles (792,000 football fields) away on Tuesday Sept. 1.

I’m sure I’ll find a way to write, perhaps even as if there isn’t ash in my hair from taking my compost bin out, but my brain is full, I’m tired, I’m discouraged at the state of my country, and I have not done anything to get the abs I was convinced (half-heartedly) that I could have had by now. This will all inevitably seep into my writing, and that is okay.

News: California is on fire

Wildfire information from CalFire, shared from their Twitter feed.

Last weekend there was a thunderstorm, a PROPER one, the first we’ve had in more than a decade, easily. It impressed me. I thought it was novel.

It started more than 600 fires here in California.

Stepping outside when the smoke moves in midday is like standing over a campfire. Directly over a campfire.

This is… distracting. I know several people living near-ish to the fire; the two that are closest are the most modest about it, but are quite vigilant and have their things packed if they need to evacuate.

It’s a distraction from constantly read about the pandemic to constantly read about the fires, but another disaster was not exactly the distraction I was hoping for.

Here are some favorite resources for fire monitoring, in the order I rely on them:

National Weather Service Bay Area on Twitter (twitter.com/NWSBayArea): red flag warnings, photos, video links

CalFire on Twitter (twitter.com/CAL_FIRE/): includes posted reports, evacuation orders, and information sharing across federal, state, and local fire authorities. If you don’t like Twitter, you can also go to https://www.fire.ca.gov/ instead.

Fire and Smoke Map from fire.airnow.gov: the source of the graphic below, filled with primary-colored geometric shapes indicating sensors and smoke readings. It’s also worth noting that airnow.gov is great for air quality information generally.

SUBSCRIPTION TEXT ALERT TOOLS: I receive text alerts from my city & county emergency services organizations (alertsf.org (Everbridge) and SF72.org), which are timely and useful, if frequent. If you don’t know your county emergency text alerts agency and you are here in California, you can look it up at calalerts.org (though the Stanislaus County link is wrong, so click here instead).

What a week. Image from fire.airnow.gov during a relatively good air quality moment in the evening for my region. I did say relatively!