Archive for September, 2007

they call it “the island”, as if there were no others

Cozy domestic scene with Leonard; laptop face-off, while I explain just *why* x86 virtualization is so fun and cool and such a great hedge for fin insts overexposed to ABCP based on tranches of subprime. And how AMD V and Intel VT effectively restored Popek Goldberg compliance.

“Am I getting too geeky for you?”

“Not at all!”

After a week in which I bled words into my latest major report, I kissed the girls and Jeremy goodbye with not inconsiderable regret and flew to Boston A-FRICKIN-GAIN. This is the sixth time I’ve come to the East Coast in a year and much as I love the East Coast, that is, my friends, way too much traveling. My soul is worn thin. And as Jeremy says I can’t even expense this one because it was volitional, not vocational: writing workshop on Martha’s Vineyard. Oh sure, it *sounds* cushy and idyllic and the people will probably be extremely smart and fun, but… I have no “but” here.

It’s good to be blogging again. Yatima just passed its fifth birthday and I somewhat massively overidentified with Danny’s big Oblomovka reassessment because this blog, too, has come up with some provisional answers to the questions it was originally set up to explore. My big questions aren’t anything like as zeitgeisty and geo-implicational as Danny’s, partly because he’s way smarter than me and partly because I am reluctant to think about anything much beyond myself, my endlessly fascinating self. (These factors may be related.)

End 2001-beginning 2002 were like a massive, slow-motion car crash for me – for quite a lot of people, am I right? Who here thought that sucked? – so I woke up in the summer of 2002 thinking “Who am I? What the fuck just happened?” And the Kill Bill-y plot twist was that I was pregnant into the bargain. Hence Yatima, and:

  • the more-or-less daily discipline of counting my blessings that has helped enormously with the sanity thing, and
  • my ongoing hip-deep immersion in the history of Western imperialism in the Middle East.

Things are supposed to go around in seven year increments, aren’t they? But ’04 was a leap year so September 11 fell on a Tuesday again this year, and I spent about a month and a half having serious conversations with some of my most problematic ghosts. I’m still listening to American Edit a lot when I run, so my theme song for the last fortnight has been “Wake me up when September ends.”

I did toy with the idea of giving up Yatima but how could I stop writing about my scintillating self? How would you, my half dozen insanely loyal Dear Readers, ever forgive me? So here’s a new question that I won’t be able to knock over in anything like five years. Various things are catastrophically broken! What are we going to do about it?

most interesting conversation i have ever had at an industry analyst event

“Oh, you’re from Sydney? You know Nowra? I flew into Nowra when I was in the Navy. I piloted a P3, a submarine tracker. I followed Chinese and Russian nuclear submarines. We had Sonobuoys. You know what a Sonobuoy is?”

“Yes! My Dad helped build one!”

“Really? Cool! So there are 48 attached to the outside, all pre-set, and 36 inside that you can set. They’re all set for 90, 400 or 1000 feet. Different sonar channels at different temperature channels in the water. You drop them ahead of where you think the sub is, and you track the sub that way. Three, four hour missions, that’s all the range you have. Big lumbering beast of a plane.”

“Did you like it?”

“I loved it when I was in college in Annapolis, then a junior officer, all the way up to lieutenant. I went to Australia with my own plane and eight crew and we were basically on our own. Flew into Nowra, had four days off – went to Sydney, had a great time – flew one mission, the Battle of the Coral Sea Memorial. It was sweet!

“But when you get to the next level up, lieutenant commander, that’s when it gets crazy political. It’s all about who’s sucking up to the next guy.

“The P3 is a four-prop plane, and you can fly it on two props. We’d fly over the subs and do everything but open the bomb bay doors. When it was one of our own subs, we’d open the bomb bay doors and do everything but drop the torpedoes on it. The idea is that if anything happens, you’re trained and know exactly what you need to do.

“I was stationed at Adak Island for six months. It’s in the Aleutian Islands, three islands away from Russia. It was summer, but yeah, it was pretty cold. I fished a lot. I don’t even eat fish! I just liked catching them. They were huge!

“I was there when the Gulf War started and they were going to send us to Iraq. They were teaching us combat maneuvers! In this lumbering beast! It was like a bullseye in the sky. But we had an amazing radar. We could spot a ship seventy miles out, and I could read the letters on the side. I could tell you what ship it was. So the idea was that we’d hang back and tell the bombers what to target. But we never went.

“This war? I just don’t know. I mean, you know I’m conservative or I wouldn’t have gone into the military, but… At the end of my time I had a hundred and seven people working for me, and I just can’t imagine… You feel a sense of ownership. It’s one thing sending people for missions where you know what it’s for, but when it’s like this… you know, the military is not a police force.

“When I was at Annapolis, I was on the battalion staff. There are six companies to a battalion and the staff are drawn from each company. And here we were at college and my roommate’s girlfriend was sneaking in and staying overnight, and no one knew because we were on staff…

“After I left I ran ROTC at UCLA, which was strange. I think it was harder on those guys than it ever was on us at Annapolis. People would come to see us doing drill in our uniforms, but the ROTC guys were in their uniform one day a week and just ordinary students the rest of the time… people gave them a hard time. One of my jobs there was as a CACO, a casualty assistance something something… it meant telling people their sons were dead. I did it three times in two years. It was hard.

“These days, that’s a full time job.

“That friend of mine from Annapolis? He and I were flying out of Moffatt Field. And when you change shifts, the two planes have to change altitudes and trade places, and at the same time you’re handing off the Sonobuoys. So there’s two handoffs going at once, and it’s hard. You hold onto the Sonobuoy, it’s the only thing you know for sure; when the needles flicks over, you’re directly over a buoy. You say ‘I’m here and going 090,’ and the other pilot says ‘I’m doing 180’, and then you should be able to change altitudes. Well, something went wrong and the planes collided, and the top one was full of gas…

“And it was me, again, who told her. It was the same girlfriend, his wife now, and the CACOs had done a bad job, letting her think they were just missing. I got there and she said ‘Have you heard anything?’ So I had to tell her. Two fully loaded planes. All they ever found was a helmet.

“Still, when you go into the Navy you know, you know what the risks are. That’s all part of what you buy into. This war? I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t think this is what the military is for.”

“Any regrets?”

“No. None. It is weird, though. Another friend of mine, that I went to high school as well as well as Annapolis with, he’s commander of a nuclear submarine now. He’s like the third most powerful entity on earth. There’s the USA, Russia and then him.”

“Hmm. Good guy?”

“Very good guy.”

too mighty

The toddler bonhomie onslaught began at 5am; there’s nothing quite liked being jerked out of REM sleep in the pre-dawn chill by an excess of baby cheer. Still, it gave me time to think of three more Julesisms.

Her favourite sister: “LUR!”

Her favourite reptile: “NAKE!”

And she likes to count. “HREE! For. Fie. SIC!”

la la la, boo-ey boo-ey

I keep forgetting to specify exactly how insanely cute Julia is. She makes fish faces when she kisses you. She’s talking a lot, and when she gets her point across she says “Yay!” She still has her ecstatic “Eeeee!” for random good times. But if you ask her to do something for you, she no longer blindly complies; she’ll actually think about it, and if she’s not that into it, she’ll say no. Only it comes out sounding like “Nw.”

Her hair is still the palest, softest silk you can imagine, in a cloud around her head. Huge eyes and a red rosebud mouth. As her mother am I allowed to notice that she is beautiful? As with Claire, people stop me in the street to remark on it. But her gorgeous face is just a pale shadow of who she is, funny, affectionate, indomitable, steely Jules.

She climbs anything and slides down the slide hooting “Whee!” She sings at various times: “La la la, boo-ey, booey.” When she wants to leave the house she cries “Go! Go!” When she concedes a point she says “OH-kay.” She has taken to saying “I loff you mama,” which stops my heart, every time. When she hugs you she spreadeagles across your whole body and nestles her face in your collarbone. It’s warm and solid and unshakeable, like her love. When she hugs you, you stay hugged.

And the energy, dear God the continual bouncing, from the second she opens her eyes at frickin daybreak, hugs and playfulness and all-around joie de frickin vivre. Let’s give the last word to Jules’ matinee idol Claire, who was being followed about and forcibly played with and adored, until she climbed into Jeremy’s lap and said:

“I don’t like Julia right now. She is too mighty.”

my balcony farm has a body count

I transferred two of the tomato plants today, but they were so spindly and top-heavy that I accidentally snapped one off almost at the base. I transferred the root ball anyway – why not? – and trimmed the best bits of the rest of it to try and propagate the cuttings. There’s clearly no upside to me and my brown thumbs getting attached to individual plants, so I’ve decided to treat it as a numbers game. Grow, little clones, you are my cannon fodder! I shall call you all, Django Fett.

Clearly on a roll, I cycled a whole bunch of toys into the attic and a whole bunch of ancient stuff out of it. Whoever picked up my fugly old lamps off the street – thanks! While I was doing that I found a ton of Claire’s clothes that should work for Jules, so I pulled out all Jules’ outgrown stuff for consignment. Now wasn’t that a charming Sunday afternoon? When everything was done I made a caprese salad and strawberries with creme fraiche for Jeremy’s and my lunch. I’d love to say the tomatoes and basil were from the garden; technically the basil was, but alas, I didn’t grow it from seed; it falls squarely into the category of plants I haven’t managed to kill (yet.)

tiny small world

Yesterday I delicioused a very cool question on Mefi – without even realizing that Sumana had written it. ETA: Sumana writes to say that it wasn’t actually her, and I note that I need to work on my reading comprehension. Still probably the best question ever posted to Ask Metafilter.

more with less

Today I wore my new fall coat; black Italian wool, double-breasted, from Sisley, the funky subsidiary of Benetton. I got it at Out of the Closet for the princely sum of $11.25, down from $15 – they were having a Labor Day sale. It fits so beautifully that one of the guys there said to me as I was trying it on: “Great coat!” I accessorized with the amazing Jack Georges handbag that I bought at a sidewalk sale for $5. I looked kickass and felt happily smug.

Have been trying to eke things out more generally; walk instead of drive (much easier since I have been running and no longer get exhausted after half a mile), recycle (hugely satisfying, because San Francisco’s program is stellar), all-around buy less stuff. The little kitchen farm is doing well and the first two tomatoes are ripe. We’ll get half a cherry tomato each when we get around to harvesting. Don’t eat it all at once! I have sweet and Thai basil and rosemary growing as well.

The next challenge is to get some of it growing out on the terrace, which is presently home to Bebe’s cat box, Mr and Mrs Slug (each slug being both Mr and Mrs Slug) and all the baby slugs, plus a thicket of plants I have killed so far. Bit of a cultural wasteland, in short. I should call it Chatswood. I replaced my big fugly Ikea work area with a gorgeous little corner desk ($60 on Craigslist, woo!) That frees up a whole bunch of space near the French windows, making terrace access a lot easier; but I’m still concerned about the depredations of the Switch Family Slug.

I think I’ll transfer a couple of tomato plants and basil into the hanging baskets that used to hold the now-dead fuschia plants (RIP, and sorry about the not-watering.) That way I can find out whether our hermaphroditic invertebrate friends are willing to tightrope-walk along the trellis in their efforts to foil my cunning agri-schemes. I bet they aren’t. I bet I can grow two more tomatos! Yes, and then the sky will be my oyster!

I wonder if I could keep a chicken out there? How about a pig?

a picture of the patriarchy

When she was three another sewing needle jabbed out from under her left rib. It took another 20 years before the family learnt how many needles remained in her body.

“My mother cried and cried after she found out,” said Luo Jiaxing, 20, Ms Luo’s younger brother. “She kept saying ‘no wonder my daughter cried all the time as a baby. She must have been hurting from all the needles, but she did not know how to speak.”‘

They figure it was her grandfather, who wanted a grandson; and that he did it when she was a newborn, since he would have had to go through the fontanel to get one into her brain.

She lived. She got pregnant and had a son! She carried the cowardly old man’s weapons inside her until doctors could look inside her and see what he had done. What a woman! Her name is Luo Cuifen.

and anyway, the truth isn’t some big multigenerational secret, the truth is bloody obvious

Dear Sony, if as you seem to imply your new Reader device is aimed at people who might otherwise be carrying around a bunch of hardbacks, don’t advertise it with an excerpt from the fucking Da Vinci Code. Constant readers do not agree on much, but one thing we do agree on is that that book blew mighty, gelatinous chunks. Even if the fucking Da Vinci Code (its correct name) didn’t have the worst dialogue, characterization and pacing of anything I have ever had the misfortune to gag at, I’d hate it because it ripped off – without attribution! – the merrily paranoid Holy Blood, Holy Grail. Go read that instead, because it DOESN’T SUCK.

To add irony to insult AND injury, I finally visited Rennes-le-Chateau – site of the putative conspiracy – the day my Auntie Ruth died, six years ago, only hours after my mother arrived at her bedside from Australia. Rennes has its own air of the uncanny, complete with Satanic sculptures, but it was compounded by my aching grief and by the sight of all the late-summer sunflowers (Ruth’s favourite) bowing their thirsty heads under a blazing blue sky. What gives the Grail story its power, I realized, is that every family’s blood is holy and royal, and every death is a crucifixion.

Right, and apparently I can’t write a single blog post this month without lighting seven-hundred-foot funeral pyres. Why would that be, d’you think? Jeremy flew from London today but is safe, safe opposite me as I write this. With all my heart I wish peace to everyone whose beloved isn’t safe and near. Peace to my friends and peace to my enemies. Peace to everyone. Peace on earth. Peace.

i couldn’t believe the brightness of that fire

This is Burning Man really is the most amazing book about Burning Man; I was enjoying it hugely even before I got to the 1998-2003 section. But what that particular section describes is more than just interesting history to me. It was the focus of my life during those years. I know half the people and saw all the art that Doherty describes. Here’s my first year at the Burn, described down to the last detail by Charlie Smith (who went on to make the Hearth, maybe my favourite piece of all time):

“I see a big temple, all beautiful melted plastic, and then I see a giant Tesla coil… What the fuck is that about? You’re going across the desert and hear this crazy ripping sound and see lightning striking right near the ground – let’s go! … I take a tour down to Center Camp and see this huge copper tree shooting water; then I go by at night, and it’s all on fire and I’m thinking Woo, nice…” This was in 1998, the year the Man exploded. “I couldn’t believe the brightness of that fire…”

For all this evocative delight, Doherty to his great credit doesn’t shy from the Man’s power to fuck lives right up, suck money down a giant drainhole, destroy relationships and melt human flesh:

“I turned toward the Dice fire just in time to lock eyes with a burning man walking out of the fire and toward me. I will never forget the look in those eyes – eyes that were looking directly at me, eyes that said ‘What did I just do?’… This man before us, this melted man, he was not surviving the night.

“Someone cut Sinatra; people sprang to action. A man from the Death Guild eased the burned man down to the ground (no one knew where to set his melted skin down – a dusty piece of carpet, the bare playa, where? Was this really happening?) and talked to him gently, trying to calm him. ‘What you have, it’s like a really bad sunburn. Hell, I get horrible sunburns out here. You’ve probably got a third-degree sunburn, that’s all. Happens to all of us. I got sunburned real bad out here, earlier in the week…’ The burned man looked on with huge eyes… You could see deep into his body, where the fire had burned away the skin.” He was taken away from the playa, and he died. He had walked into the fire deliberately, for reasons no one will ever know.


[13:02] mizchalmers: we had an idea
[13:02] mizchalmers: at drinks on saturday night
[13:02] mizchalmers: no one wants mutts from the shelter, right? so we’re starting a new shelter
[13:02] mizchalmers: where people can adopt Hero Dogs
[13:02] otherwisermw: HERO DOGS
[13:03] otherwisermw: aww
[13:03] mizchalmers: every mutt will have dragged a baby out of a fire, or swum to the rescue
[13:03] mizchalmers: see?
[13:03] mizchalmers: genius
[13:03] otherwisermw: i want one and i am a cat person
[13:03] mizchalmers: we’ll have to imperil some babies to qualify our hero dogs, but you can’t make an omelette, etc

in more eye-of-sauron news

I accidentally wore my linen suit yesterday, having got the day of a meeting wrong; so I was a bit relieved today to wake up and find the city overcast, because it meant I wouldn’t feel quite so silly in black wool crepe.

But it isn’t overcast. As I drove over Bernal Hill I saw the sun floating huge and orange through the haze. It’s not cloud cover at all, but smoke from a huge wildfire 200 miles away, north of Truckee.

And Pavarotti is dead.

San Francisco isn’t supposed to be shrouded in smoke; Sydney is the city with the bushfires. As if it weren’t bad enough that Jeremy is away on his third long trip this year. The time is out of joint. Come home, beardie man.

eminent victorians

Nobody told me Lytton Strachey was brilliant and funny. Well, okay, fine, plenty of people did tell me exactly that, but I never paid them any attention; he was just one of those overprivileged Bloomsbury Setters that made my abortive PhD on Virginia Woolf such an unbearable ordeal, from which I fled with considerable gratitude into the welcoming arms of Ireland and many many pints of Guinness with Jameson’s chasers.

Anyway, the wheel goes around, I become fascinated with British adventures in late-nineteenth-century Egypt, and I repent of my youthful idiocy. Of General Gordon, quietly occupying himself in England after his feats of derring-do in China, Strachey has this to say:

He was particularly fond of boys. Ragged street arabs and rough sailor-lads crowded about him… he helped them, found them employment, corresponded with them when they went out into the world. They were, he said, his Wangs.

The original Wangs were the rebel army Gordon fought in China, making this passage either less funny or much funnier than it sounds; I suspect the latter. Strachey is superb on Gladstone, the Grand Old Man and Murderer Of Gordon, summing up the gist of the entire (wonderful) Jenkins biography in this glimpse of the Eye of Sauron:

He adhered to some of his principles – that of the value of representative institutions, for instance – with a faith which was singularly literal; his views upon religion were uncritical to crudeness; he had no sense of humour… His very egoism was simple-minded: through all the labyrinth of his passions there ran a single thread. But the centre of the labyrinth? Ah! the thread might lead there, through those wandering mazes, at last. Only, with the last corner turned, the last step taken, the explorer might find that he was looking down into the gulf of a crater. The flame shot out on every side, scorching and brilliant; but in the midst there was a darkness.

Strachey is terrific, too, on Sir Evelyn Baring, the British consul-general in Cairo:

His views were long, and his patience was even longer. He progressed imperceptibly; he constantly withdrew; the art of giving way he practised with the refinement of a virtuoso.

The whole passage on Baring’s role as intermediary between Gordon in Khartoum and the Gladstone government is astonishing in its perceptiveness and subtlety:

Though, as a rule, he found it easy to despise those with whom he came into contact, he could not altogether despise General Gordon. If he could have, he would have disliked him less. He had gone as far as his caution had allowed him in trying to prevent the appointment; and then when it became clear that the Government was insistent, he yielded with a good grace. For a moment, he had imagined that all might be well; that he could impose himself, by the weight of his position and the force of his sagacity, upon his self-willed subordinate; that he could hold him in a leash at the end of the telegraph wire to Khartoum. Very soon he perceived that this was a miscalculation. To his disgust, he found that the telegraph wire, far from being an instrument of official discipline, had been converted by the agile strategist at the other end of it into a means of extending his own personality into the deliberations at Cairo. Every morning Sir Evelyn Baring would find upon his table a great pile of telegrams from Khartoum – twenty or thirty at least; and as the day went on, the pile would grow. When a sufficient number had accumulated, he would read them all through, with the greatest care. There upon the table, the whole soul of Gordon lay before him – in its incoherence, its eccentricity, its romance; the jokes, the slang, the appeals to the prophet Isaiah, the whirl of contradictory policies – Sir Evelyn Baring did not know which exasperated him most.

There is your Victorian Twitter. I have been both the loose cannon at the end of the Net link, and the frustrated functionary trying to interpret missives from said loose cannon into a coherent narrative for consumption by the vacillating institution behind us both. So for once I sympathize with monochromatic, clever, competent, frightening Baring, that chilling incarnation of the British Empire.

Gordon, in any case, comes through Strachey’s account as a dangerous lunatic who would be perfectly at home in the Bush Administration. Eminent Victorians was published in 1918, twelve years after Heart of Darkness; the resemblances between Kurtz and Strachey’s Gordon are hard to miss. Gordon dies on a spear and his head ends up on a pike, the eyes pecked out by hawks. In 1898 Kitchener retakes the Sudan.

At any rate, it had all ended very happily – in a glorious slaughter of 20,000 Arabs, a vast addition to the British Empire, and a step in the Peerage for Sir Evelyn Baring.

As various anti-humanities snots have asked me over the years, whyever do I bother with these dusty old tomes? Where is the relevance to our lives today???