A series of linked events

After returning to Los Angeles from Monterey, while packing up for the trip east, I took a ride to a favorite bookstore: Skylight Books. I wanted to pick up the most recent couple issues of Desert Oracle (magazine form) – done. A book in the window caught my eye – Erik Davis‘ High Weirdness.

A study of the spiritual provocations to be found in the work of Philip K. Dick, Terence McKenna, and Robert Anton Wilson, High Weirdness charts the emergence of a new psychedelic spirituality that arose from the American counterculture of the 1970s. These three authors changed the way millions of readers thought, dreamed, and experienced reality—but how did their writings reflect, as well as shape, the seismic cultural shifts taking place in America?*

Hell yes; an instant add to the notional shopping cart.


Fast forward to a few days ago. I’m well into the book and enjoying the heck out of it when this pops up in my Instagram feed:


Where am I at this point? Gowanus, about a 30 minute stroll from Green-Wood Cemetery, visiting K, S and son L. Of course I went, bringing Hign Weirdness with me for signing. The talk was excellent: some time situating the early 70’s moment and then an exploration of Philip K. Dick’s religious experiences. Afterwards, while getting the book signed, I told Dr. Davis about buying the book in L.A. while looking for Desert Oracle (“Oh, at Skylight?” *grin*) and then seeing the Insta post about his talk. We agreed that Desert Oracle is great as are coincidences and then I set off back to the Scriptorium (with a stop to admire a huge Monk Parrot nest at the cemetery gate).

The next day I packed up and returned to Maine. I refreshed my podcast feed in preparation and once in the car (after a bit of Downtown Soulville to sing me out of the city) I went to cue up some, yes, Desert Oracle Radio. What’s this?? An ep titled High Weirdness??? Hell yeah!

Third major bit of linkage achieved! Given the source of the coincidences, it’s tempting to ascribe some higher meaning to this run, but I have to put it down to living in an incredibly interconnected community. I’m 1 or 2 degrees of separation (depending on whether or not you want to link me directly to Josh Glenn) from both Ken Layne and Erik Davis; that I’d run across both IRL and online as Dr. Davis is doing a book tour is not especially surprising – but it’s wicked cool regardless!

Mene, mene, tekeli-li


The Writing on the Ice

It’s difficult sometimes to trace the origin of a tangent. In this case, I’m pretty sure it started with the trailer for Mortal Engines, a movie I’d like to see in the theater, but who knows… The big mobile cities started me thinking about the big vehicles I’ve imagined taking part in the 2nd Miskatonic Expedition story – especially the Russian vehicle, which is a nuclear powered, screw driven monstrosity. From there it was a quick jump to watching a favorite monster movie: John Carpenter’s The Thing. Really excellent special effects; I remember a friend had a copy of Cinefex back in the day detailing how some of the monsters were created and it was fascinating. And from there it was off to the reading races. So here’s a list of the Antarctic stuff I’ve read over the past week or so, with a thought of two on each book. I’ll list them in order of publication, and indicate the order I read them in.

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (read 2nd) – Edgar Allan Poe The grandparent of all the antarctic horror to follow, this thing is a hot (cold?) mess. Poe thought of himself as a magazinist and it shows. Continuity is, um, uneven, the style and point of view are all over the place and it just stops in an “ok, we’re done now” cliffhanger (literally). But the thing that most walloped me was the racism. It’s both casual and thematic. Casual in the way Pym’s companion for the adventures, Dirk Peters, is described as having “arms, as well as legs, [that] were bowed in the most singular manner, and appeared to possess no flexibility whatever. [And a head that] was equally deformed, being of immense size, with an indentation on the crown (like that on the head of most negroes)…”*. Peters is supposed to be a “half-breed” with a Native Amreicam mother and a fur trapper (read: white) father. Early on, the brutality of the black cook on the Grampus (the first ship Pym is on) – he’s described as “demonic” – is singled out for emphasis. And thematically, the contrast between dark – the island of Tsala, where even the teeth of the locals are black – and the white figure at the end of the world is striking. With this in Poe’s oeuvre, I’m a little surprised that the orangutan is such a fraught topic:

If you’re interested in reading The Narrative, Project Gutenberg has it here.

At the Mountains of Madness (read 1st) – H. P. Lovecraft If you know anything about Lovecraft the person, you know what a virulent racist he was (yes, there’s a through-line here, beyond the southern continent). As a result, it’s difficult for me to read the story of the Old Ones vs. the Shoggoths as anything other than a slave revolt. I suppose one could shade it a bit and, per rule 1 of Horror Academia above, see it as a working class uprising, but since the Old Ones bred Shoggoths – ownership of children being a key horrible feature of chattel slavery – I’m going to stick with my interpretation. And following some of Charlie Stross’ thinking on the Lovecraft mythos, I regard the Shoggoths as sentient biological bushbots: smart and endlessly reconfigurable. RUR meets Toussaint Louverture.

Pym (read last) – Mat Johnson I discovered this satire while reading the Arthur Gordon Pym entry on Wikipedia. It’s Poe inverted and skewered: the story of an African-American professor of literature who ends up with an all-black ice mining crew in Antarctica. I need to re-read it; strongly recommended. One note – it features Thomas KinkKarvel, painter of light, which makes me wonder if there’s more to learn about Cookie Puss and Fudgie.

Still to be read is Verne’s An Antarctic Mystery, but seeing as how Mat Johnson described it as “the most pragmatic and literal sequel to The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym and also the worst sequel. This is probably not a coincidence. Still, even a failed book is enjoyable on an occasional page. Come for the novelty, stay for the unbridled racism.”* I’m in no hurry.


Hold on tight – this is going to be more than a little tangential. After writing the Curta/Rohloff post yesterday, I was seized by a desire to re-read Pattern Recognition. So I did! When I got a hundred or so pages in, I had a little shock of recognition myself:

Pattern Recognition Cornell Box

Recognition, because the book on the top of my nightstand stack is Simic on Cornell.

Simic on Cornell

I’m moderately confident that this is pattern recognition gone wrong – and there’s a word for that!

Pattern Recognition Ch 12

Definition of apophenia 

the tendency to perceive a connection or meaningful pattern between unrelated or random things (such as objects or ideas)*

Good for a laugh, but pattern recognition and its evil twin are near and dear to my heart. K asked recently if i was a ‘spotter’ – one of those people who see stuff in the woods before anyone else does, or when no one else sees the thing at all. I allowed as I probably was, but that I wasn’t sure if my skill extended outside of the northeastern US. I’ve written about what I tend to call ‘native vision’ before (while talking about the Blue Ant books!) ; it’s a central plot line, as far as I’m concerned, in a top 5 movie – Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala. An aside – honing my spotter skills in different biomes is a Big Bike Ride goal.

Another bit of characterization in Pattern Recognition caught my eye, too. Boone Chu, Cayce Pollard’s computer security sidekick,has a bit of Mod fun, riding a scooter wearing a fishtail parka emblazoned with an RAF roundel*.

I ride a G.S. scooter with my hair cut neat
I wear my wartime coat in the wind and sleet

– I’ve Had Enough/Quadrophenia/The Who

Sometime during the reading I called up some tunes from Quadrophenia on the hi-fi, and noticed the title’s suffix. Because I was already thinking about apophenia, the lack of an R (it’s not Quadrophrenia!) struck me – esp since Jimmy, the protagonist, is presented as having 4 personalities. With an R:



  1. mental disorder.*

Coming up with a definition for the sans-R suffix, -phenia, is a little trickier. One idea is that it /should/ have been apophrenia and the dropped R is a mistake. But I like this idea:

…if the word derives from “apo” and another Greek word, “phainein” […] meaning “to make appear,” then apophenia is correct after all.*

The suffix works nicely with Quadrophenia – it was recorded during the heyday of quadraphonic sound systems – and though apparently the vinyl was never quad, I remember a ton of pre-relase marketing noise bruiting Quadrophenia as quad sound’s full realization. “Making quad appear” works!

And finally. a chapter title from Pattern Recognition that wraps up The Who, the Big Bike Ride and pulling meaning from coincidence up in a neat bow.

Pattern Recognition Ch 16

* They’re called roundels damnit, NOT TARGETS


Weimar Berlin

The proximate cause of this post is friend K’s recent re-instagram of Drawn & Quarterly’s book announcement.

Initially I figured that it was a combined re-issue of books 1 & 2: Berlin: City of Stones and Berlin: City of Smoke. Turns out it’s more than that – the third book in the series, Berlin: City of Light comes out tomorrow as does Berlin (referenced in the instagram) which collects all 3. Even though I should not be buying any additional books *Snake from the Simpsons voice* YOINK! Maybe the Berlin trilogy will live at the Scriptorium for a while… All three books (the 3rd, sight unseen, obv) get my highest possible recommendation.

There are a couple reasons Weimar Germany has been front and center for me. The first and critically important reason is the current political. moment. If a Washingtonian can reassure a federal government employee that a dinner party will be judenfrei… Do I have to diagram it for you? A less world-historically awful reason is a fantastic show – Babylon Berlin on Netflix. I enjoyed the heck out of it. Politics! Drugs! Crime! Sex! Subtitles! Watch it!


Babylon Berlin‘s creators have said that part of the appeal of setting a narrative in that particular era is to be able to show that the Nazis didn’t appear in a vacuum. There were forces at work in society that Adolf Hitler effectively tapped into to propel his own vision forward, and show is a good framework in which to let them play out. In fact, you’ll only hear the name Hitler once throughout the 16-episode run (the equivalent of two seasons), but his shadow looms large, namely through a number of language cues that indicate a growing nationalistic base.*

Triple bonus points for a paternoster, by the way. I think I’ll read Lutes’ Berlin trilogy and re-stream Babylon Berlin. And while I’m on the subject, I’ll take the opportunity to post a couple pieces by George Grosz:

Methusalem. Costume design for the play Methusalem


Daum marries her pedantic automaton George in May 1920, John Heartfield is very glad of it

*  I removed a link to The New Yorker. As I hit ‘publish’ on this post word came in about an event they’re sponsoring featuring Steve Bannon. Nope. Always. Be. Punching. Nazis.

Indy punches a nazi.




The Rivermen

During my visit to the Waterfront Museum a few weeks ago, David Sharps and I chatted about a range of things, but of course the topic of New York (City mainly, but Erie Canal, too) history was a biggie. I mentioned that I was reading Up in the Old Hotel and he immediately pointed out a painting of shad fisher’s barges in Edgewater, NJ as mentioned by Joseph Mitchell.

Jos. Mitchell reference

I haven’t been devouring books as quickly as I once did; I blame media hyper-saturation  – just too much to absorb – but last night, in Mitchell’s The Rivermen chapter, I finally encountered the old barges.

edgewater barges

I’m thinking rivers may be the most interesting form of water. Bold statement, I know. I need to ponder it.

[Side note: I can’t see Edgewater without thinking of the hotel in Seattle.]


Book review: Antarctica: An Encyclopedia 2nd ed.

Cross-posted to LibraryThing.

Let’s get the physical description out of the way first – Antarctica: An Encyclopedia is imposing. Two volumes, 1771 pages and about 300 pounds (that last may be an exaggeration). It is text only; no pictures, no illustrations, not even a map. Here’s a quick phonecam image for scale and to show the page format. I’m sure there are precise terms of art to describe the layout; I thought it might be easier to just show it, especially as I’m going to refer to the amount of topic coverage in a bit. The dollar bill is 6 inches long (equivalent to a legal trout in Maine – or it used to be).


Like another LibraryThing reviewer, I thought I’d attack the Encyclopedia by looking up a few topics.

Ernest Shackleton. The approx. one full column devoted to Shackleton is a precis of his life: birth, parents, expeditions, death. Three sentences are devoted to the transantarctic attempt, the last of which reads, “There followed the most amazing series of events (see the notes on the expedition, British Imperial Transantarctic Expedition) which make one revise one’s concepts about the limits of human endurance and determination, the physical and mental barriers imposed by the human species upon themselves.”  The BITE entry is 4 pages of chronology and description. Side note – folks interested in the BITE may wish to follow @otolythe‘s twitter Shackleton project at @EShackleton.

Mount Erebus. Approximately one column – location, history of height estimates, various ascents and a couple physical notes.

Operation Highjump. About a page and a half of who, what, when, and where. The most information I’ve yet encountered regarding this expedition – excellent.

Tucker Sno-cat (under Sno-cat). Just two sentences on this Antarctic icon *sad face*.

Make no mistake – this is a capital-R reference book. Paired with an appropriate atlas or gazetteer it would be an unbeatable far-south resource.

Bodios IRL

Off I went to the South Shore (I think that’s the correct region name) yesterday for a cookout. Not just any cookout, mind you, but a chance to meet Steve and Libby Bodio in the flesh; Steve and I have been corresponding, exchanging links, etc. for quite a few years. If you know anything  about the Bodios, you know to expect a diverse crowd, viz. a herpetologist who studied elephant seals before going into the building trades, someone who dropped out of law school to sell (fine) carpets (and fly falcons), etc. It was a great get together and more than a bit of a milestone for me – more on that in a moment.

 Steve -on the left- chuckling over an anecdote.


The back of Libby’s head (sorry – photojournalism wasn’t a priority and the one portraity picture I took is not great) and Eric, Steve’s last Massachusetts apprentice (many years ago).


Note in both photographs the object sticking out to Steve’s back pocket. There’s a story there; I’ll let Steve tell it, but in the meantime guess away as to it’s identity.

Steve hasn’t been east in many years, so there was a lot of year-totalling-up for him to do with old friends. I’m a newcomer – we’ve known each other on line for 5 years or so – not even the blink of an eye comparatively. That being said, I was thinking this morning about how long I’ve known about him… A Rage for Falcons was the first thing of his I remember reading. I may have read essays or reviews before finding A Rage (in Stroudwater Books when it was in the Pic ‘n Pay Plaza in Portsmouth, for you local old-timers) but the descriptions of falconry in A Rage left a mark and rekindled my desire to fly raptors. I went to the bookshelf and pulled the book, opened it and read ‘copyright 1984’. We’re talking 27 years.

Great conversation (Libby and I talked tazis and teckels – where else could one do that?), great beer (thanks, Throwback), and great hosts (THANKS!, Karen and George). What a day!

Book review: It’s All About the Bike

I’ve remarked before (and probably will again) on some of the underlying similarities between bicycles and shotguns. And yet there’s a huge corpus around firearms (yr humble’s correspondent’s collection here), but nothing comparable in size and scope on the bicycle side. Perhaps the gun’s 500 year head start is responsible, but my gut tells me something else is going on. Be that as it may, It’s All about the Bike is a welcome addition to the not-large-enough-by-half bike as object genre. Robert Penn’s book is the story of his dream bike; he wanted a bike that was just so – not the absolute best of everything, rather the absolute best for his purposes. The book leads us through the choices he made, component by component. Along the way he detours into history – his past and the bicycle’s past – to flesh out the hows and whys of his decisions. Take frame material for example:

Crucially, steel can be repaired anywhere in the world by a man with a blowtorch and a welding rod. I know this, because I bent a steel bike in northern India, when I was riding around the world. I was slipstreaming a tractor on the Grand Trunk Road near Amritsar.We were going downhill a lick when I road into a pothole the size of a hot tub. There was no time to react. I had what American mountain bikers call a ‘yard sale’. The bike, panniers, sunglasses, water bottles, tent, pump, map and I were strewn across the tarmac. […] It took me an afternoon to find the best mechanic, or ‘top foreman’ as the locals called him, in Amritsar. Expertly, he removed the handlebars, the stem, the forks and the stressed headset from the head tube, while attendants handed him tools as a nurse attends a surgeon. Then he shoved a metal spike through the head tube and literally bashed the tubes straight again. It was terrifying to watch.

The frame requires a bit more attention on the remaining 7,500 miles, but gets him home. And:

In the alchemy of designing aircraft tubing, Reynolds stumbled on a manganese-molybdenum alloy that made wonderful bikes. In 1935, the company introduced ‘531’ tubing. It was considered revolutionary. Even now, British [and American] cyclists of a certain age go misty eyed and look towards the horizon just at the mention of ‘531’.

Five Three One


You get a taste in the quotes above both of the range of Mr. Penn’s inquiry and of his writing style. I found the book to be thoroughly enjoyable; style and subject both get an A. It’s a quick read – 198 pages of clear prose – and if you like bikes, highly recommended.

Two additional notes: 1) In spite of my pissing and moaning about the volume of bike lit, I recently bought a fantastic book of visual bike history (aka bike prØn). The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles is a survey of mostly-French mostly-randonneur bicycles from 1909 – 2003. Inspirational – especially as regards a: 2) Current project – I’m assembling a dream bike as well. I’ll post more in a month or so; I’ve built what I’m calling a voyageur bike on a touring frame – pictures/specifications/rationales to follow once the new ride is fully dialed in.

Partially cross-posted to LibraryThing.

Book review: Winged Obsession

Cross-posted to LibraryThing. N.b. – I’m reviewing an ARC – nitpicks may not apply to the final product.

I approached Jessica Speart’s Winged Obsession with a bit of trepidation; the last butterfly book I read (which covered some of the same territory) was a bust, to say the least. My initial impression was less than positive. Whatever good things there are to say about the book – and there are good things – Ms. Speart’s writing style is not among them. I don’t require end-to-end lyricism, but I felt as if I were reading something pitched at a supermarket checkout line level. Page 5:

He took it all in as he studied one booth after the next. He wasn’t there for the bugs, and though he got a kick out of seeing movie stars, they weren’t his prey du jour either. He glanced down at the photo in his hand. It was a legal resident-alien driver’s license gratis the California Department of Motor Vehicles. His prey was an Asian man who was a notorious bug collector. It was time to make the donuts and find his quarry.

My discomfort increased when, on page 74, she asserts that, “Operation Falcon exposed a Middle Eastern plot to smuggle endangered wild falcons from North America for the sport of sheiks and oil-rich falconers.” Um, no. I think it would be more accurate to say something like “Operation Falcon exposed the gullibility of USF&W as they were played like a cheap fiddle by a con man who entrapped just enough other folk to keep one step ahead of the game and it killed many wild falcons especially on the back end, when F&W was responsible for caring for confiscated birds.” I was a bit of a skeptic going in – the narrative is clearly ‘heroic law enforcement officer’ – errors like this deepened my skepticism; the phrase that leaps to minds is ‘drinking the (USF&W) kool-aid’.

With all that said, the last third of the book held me spellbound as Ed Newcomer, the USF&W agent, was running Yoshi Kojima to ground. Kojima is a very strange man, but is no dummy – an expert smuggler. Real tension gets built as Newcomer gets closer and closer… At the same time Newcomer is working the California roller pigeon case (Op. High Roller -most of my falconry friends will be familiar w/ the case already) and is having some marriage trouble. We get a wrap-up of the pigeon case, but there’s no resolution (that the reader is privy to) on the home front.

Overall, I’d give this 2 1/2 stars – down from 3 because of the writing style and kool-aid quaffing.

Separately – because it’s not a fair knock on Ms. Speart’s work – I wish the book had veered a bit into some of the conservation issues it brushes up against. At one point, we see a facility that breeds endangered California butterflies; release areas are a huge issue, so the facility has oodles of dead adults they can’t do anything with. The question of what do you do with this kind of material is a big one with no good answer. In the US, the answer is nothing. In Europe – at least in the cases I’m familiar with – the answer may be different. When smuggled dart frogs are confiscated on their way into the EU, they are often later released to hobbyists. This puts frogs into the hands of folks who will hopefully breed them and may save them from being destroyed, but also allows ‘laundering’. In the US, it’s pretty clear, based on export permits, CITES paperwork, etc. what species were imported legally. It’s a lot fuzzier across the water – as soon as confiscated Dendrobates unobtaniatus are released, all instances of same already in country magically become offspring of the released one. The thorny issue of wildlife monetization pops up as well – one side says that by making wildlife valuable (esp to the locals), habitat will be preserved. The other side sees dollar value as a fast road to decimation – the best way to increase value is to make the item rare (the deBeers strategy). Finally, I would have loved some analysis of the hidden bad guy in the butterfly smuggling story – the Japanese government. Do they just not care? Have they been captured by the smugglers on this issue? Is there anything non-Japanese citizens can do?

“Our laws are very important, or Congress wouldn’t have saddled us with them. […]”, retired FWS agent Terry Grosz sadly declared.

Wow. Naive/idealistic/crazy?


Charismatic megafauna – six legged variety

More often than seems reasonable/random, the internet zeitgeist throws a number of seemingly unrelated references to an interesting topic my way. Today’s theme was robots; a couple weeks ago it was butterflies. The title of the post comes from a tweet from @debcha, “I often describe dragonflies and butterflies as the ‘charismatic megafauna’ of the insect world…” This post will be light on Odonata; expect loads of Lepidoptera.

First up, a book I had high hopes for: The Dangerous World of Butterflies, The Startling Subculture of Criminals, Collectors, and Conservationists.  Short version – I was disappointed. I found the book to be superficial, not very well written and more than a little narcissistic. I don’t know appreciably more about butterflies or butterfly conservation issues than I did before I picked the book up – there didn’t seem to be a thread tying things together or even relating one vignette to another (I’m thinking of Sy Montgomery’s Birdology as a polar opposite). There were tangents that I would have liked to have seen pursued: Laufer touches on the internal mechanisms of metamorphosis and moves on quickly saying, in effect, “it’s an area scientists are still investigating.” Interview a few more scientists? Try to do some science writing? The writing itself is a bit of an issue. It’s published by Lyons Press – if this is the current incarnation of Nick Lyons’ operation, I’m saddened. “And in a box padded with wads of tissue paper for padding…” Ouch. “Item: ‘Take the Lunesta 7-Night Challenge,’ offers an advertisement for a sleeping pill. A floating butterfly illustrates the ad.” The Lunesta (hmm, what might the root word be?) mascot is a large green night-flying lepidopteran. I wouldn’t give Laufer (and the Lyons editors) so much grief but a couple pages earlier he dismisses the other fliers, “I was not seeking dragonflies or even moths. My target was butterflies.” The situation is made even worse by the “Item:” immediately preceding, which mentions -wait for it- a Luna Moth! Sorry. Thumbs down.


Next on the bookshelf, Klea McKenna’s The Butterfly Hunter. Klea’s father, Terrence, collected butterflies in Southeast Asia and South America in the late 60’s and early 70’s.  The few words and many beautiful images in this book do much to illuminate the desire and the remorse of the hunter. Highly recommended – and Terrence deserves a series of posts as well.




From the emotional, we move to the practical. Way back at the beginning of the Lepidopteran info storm, @debcha twote a link to Mechanisms of structural colour in the Morpho butterfly. I remember reading a bit about Morpho color a long time ago in The Splendor of Iridescence, but it was a long time ago and retention is an issue. The linked article is technical, but interesting nevertheless.  There’s a cool interplay between structure and underlying color going on in a Morpho‘s wing – makes me want to watch some flutter about.

A side note – I think this xkcd applies pretty well to me (and @debcha thinks it might accurately characterize her as well).


And I’ll close out this already overlong post (tl;dr) with some amazing work. I’ve seen some of Paul Schmookler’s butterfly and full-dress Atlantic salmon fly pieces in person and they are stunning.

“An extraordinary display of butterfly and fly by Paul Schmookler, thought by many who have viewed this gifted American artist’s work to be the king of the ‘extreme’ full-dressed salmon fly. Measuring 17 1/2″ x 13″ overall, the gold painted wood frame houses two sunken mounts, the upper with an actual vibrant green/black Trogonoptera brookiana butterfly, a species native to Malaysia, and the lower, a striking 3 1/8″ salmon fly with corresponding colors. The remarkable fly is an original creation of Schmookler’s, tied for the consignor’s collection. In excellent condition throughout, signed on the bottom right. A rare opportunity to own an example of Schmookler’s genius with feather and thread, as this master tyer’s work seldom comes to auction.”



And one more fly – not butterfly-linked, but I can’t resist.