Practical Theory - The Origin
The Scholars in CyberEnglish
ToDaY's MeNu - Ted

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

HTML Style Sheet goes to Belgrade

 
Last week a student from Belgrade contacted me:
I am writing to inquire regarding your web page about the style sheet where I have found a lot of useful information. My name is Vera and I'm currently studying at the Faculty of Computer Science in Belgrade. Here is the URL of your article: http://www.tnellen.com/school/basic.html
I would like to share it with the people from Former Yugoslav Republics: Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina.
I would be grateful if you could allow me to translate your writing into Serbo-Croatian language, that is used in all Former Yugoslav Republics and to post it on my website. Hopefully, it will help our people to gather some additional knowledge about computing.
Imagine that. This is very cool and the page she created is awesome. She accomplished the task is a week and is now in the middle of exams. Good luck Vera.
This is why I love the web, it is such a democratizing tool and HTML is instrumental.

Monday, February 25, 2013

The Tinkerers


I’m a tinkerer and when I saw The Tinkerers, The Amateurs, DIYers, and Inventors who make America Great by Alec Foege on the library new bookshelf, I grabbed it. My tinkering gained the wrath of my dad when I was young. He wasn’t a tinkerer, but his dad was. His dad worked with Edison. My mom’s dad was also a tinkerer; he was a 1914 civil engineering graduate of MIT. It is in my blood, not me dads and he hated me sometimes for that. I tinkered with my bikes and broken things. Tinkering with bikes has served me well especially today when I’m biking. I know how to fix bikes and what tools to carry without compromising weight on those long rides. Rather than throw something away, I want to fix it, even make it better. When I was younger I was forever dumping or rescuing things from the streets of NYC, to bring home to fix or cannibalize for parts. Now in my retirement, I am a tinkering fool.
Foege’s book seems to pick up from a similar book I read back in the early 80’s that involved the early computer hackers, a couple I knew when I used their services as a teacher in NYC. I was an early hacker. I hacked software for educational use. Heck CyberEnglish was built on the hack. I needed to build webpages and since know tools except HTML existed; I used that and taught my scholars HTML. Educational software is very droll and I’d hack it to put in my own material that I taught in my classes. In the early days of the web, I hacked webpages and then put them on my own servers to be sure I always had them for my scholars. Eventually they caught up with me and were reliable so I could step back. I’ll never forget the telephone conversation I had with Arthur O Sulzberger, Jr. in mid 90’s after one of his reporters told him about my cache of NYTimes articles on my server. He was sitting with four lawyers. After a pleasant conversation of what I was doing and what the NYTimes wasn’t doing in regards to archiving we agreed to terms. Once the NYTimes figured out an archiving system, I would delete my cache and link to his archive. My cache was necessary for my scholars who made links to those articles in the essays they wrote online. I had to be sure those links worked so that readers could access the scholar’s essays, with those references to NYTimes articles. He appreciated what I was doing, though his lawyers were not impressed. Once I started using computers in my classroom in 1983, I was constantly tinkering; I had to no one had answers to my questions and needs. Even putting my classroom of 34 computers on the Internet in 1993 had representatives from the NYC BOE first telling be what I was doing was impossible and then refusing to accept it was working. It took them another decade to catch up. I loved those days; I was autonomous, independent, and tinkering my brains out. The result was CyberEnglish. It was a huge risk, but then that is what tinkering is all about risk taking and loss management, but with an intellectual plan.
 click image to see video of Swiss Army Tinker
Foege is so correct when he says, ‘Tinkering is a state of mind.’ I’m always tinkering even when I shouldn’t. It’s my nature. As he begins his journey, he has to begin with Franklin and the other Founding Fathers. All of them had tinkerer’s blood in them in one way or another. This is of course most evident in the way they cobbled together a new nation with their tinkering. Foege provides some interesting facts about the Founding Fathers. Moving through history, Foege gets us into the 20th Century and spends lots of time with the man responsible for our interstate highway system, Thomas Harris MacDonald.
Foege introduces us to Dean Kamen and explains in great detail this man’s innovative accomplishments right up to his great folly and then beyond. When Foege and Kamen speak about today’s youth and their capability, they bemoan their lack of creativity and competitive nature as compared to the rest of the world. It gets down to education and here is where both fall flat on their faces. America could be a leader technologically speaking BUT we got hamstrung with these stupid tests. ‘A Nation at Risk’ may have been reveille, NCLB was the death knell for American education, and ‘Race to the Top’ is just kicking it while it’s down. Kamen knows this quite well since he dropped out of WPI and wasn’t concerned with the degree. Why? Because the work he did in formal school wasn’t relevant, just as the work millions of students do in their classrooms isn’t relevant. What makes it relevant? Tinkering does, duh. Consider that the web is a perfect place for students to develop their own webpages and share their work with their peers and the world. But no, we have to prepare for multiple-choice tests. Webfolios or portfolios are what we need to see the genius from our scholars. They publish their work; engage in peer review and bang, all of a sudden education is relevant. I had my scholars making their webpages with HTML coding so not only were they tinkering with their webpages but also tinkering with their essays using both halves of their brain. In the process of developing their pages they dabbled with Flash and other coding devices to enhance their essays. Once NCLB kicked in, CyberEnglish was no longer relevant in schools. At one point schools were very interested in CyberEnglish and then when tests became the norm in schools we had to forgo learning, tinkering, and relevancy to prepare for MC tests. So gentlemen, NCLB and Obama’s continuance of bad educational policy are why America has fewer tinkerers. I agree about the newer technology being tinkerer proof. I had a 60 VW, 36 HP engine. By removing four bolts, I could lift the engine from the car and repair it quickly and easily. That soon became impossible with the newer cars. I built computers; I did my own repair of computers in school. Then they got too complicated. Radio Shack isn’t what it used to be. We are creating a service nation, not a manufacturing one or even a tinkering one. We are not educating our students correctly about technology; just look how badly they are using technology now.
Foege next explores the success and failure of Edison. This tinkerer lacked business sense that made his life difficult. Edison was a maverick and cherished his independence as all good tinkerers do. Yes, he was successful, but he missed too many opportunities as Foege points out. What Edison did create that lived on was the workplace as a brain trust. Bell Labs comes to mind, but Foege concentrates on RAND as the ultimate brain trust. But in the end RAND has its limitations has evidenced from the Manhattan Project, to Vietnam, to Iraq. Just as Rand has failed us, an educational commission created by Bell under Reagan, The Nation at Risk Report also failed us. Think tanks aren’t conducive to tinkerers and tinkerers are what we need to make America great. Our Founding Fathers knew this and were tinkerers. Think Tanks seem to me migrating to corporate campuses like those we are seeing sprouting in Silicon Valley.
Nathan Myhrvold created Intellectual Ventures. Intellectual Ventures is a place that fosters ideas rather than a place that ideas are brought to. He hires and gathers tinkers to come up with idea and then cobble them into products to be sold. This kind of collaboration fosters tinkering and perhaps could be a better model for how a school should function. I had an idea about a new school that centered around themes rather than on subjects. Instead of the student going from math to English to History to music etc the student would go to hir desk and work on a project, for instance about the bicycle. Teachers would move around the school, not the scholars. Too much time lost in class changes. For lunch, labs, and gym of course the scholars would travel, but for the academic pursuits they would work in groups in classrooms. In doing so, s/he would need a physics teacher, a math teacher, a business teacher, a social studies teacher, an English teacher, a music teacher, a physical educational teacher to examine all the aspects of the bicycle to get the whole picture of the bicycle. This is how schools should be run. We shouldn’t be teaching in little time segments we should be dealing with the whole. This is tinkering in the educational environment. Schools do not prepare our scholars for the real world or anything except failing tests. Oh and they serve as perfect babysitters. Do parents scramble for teachers to take care of their children when school is closed?
‘That meant devising a new financial instrument that virtually no one could understand but that everyone wanted.’ I had to pause when I read that sentence on page 113. It referred to the scheme hatched by derivatives manager, Peter Hancock, at J. P. Morgan. Financial tinkerers can be dangerous and Foege is outlining just how dangerous they were in the economic fiasco we have recently experienced and are still experiencing. I paused when I read that sentence because it was so appropriate to our educational dilemma. The government spawned the creation of educational assessment tools no one can understand but everyone wants. The obvious problem when tinkering goes off course without checks and balances as in the financial world and in the educational world, is that we are looking at years to repair the damage. Checks and balances were key elements to CyberEnglish. First the scholar makes hir work public, then s/he engages in peer review, and finally s/he passes it on. It is all transparent and open source. I loved the quote from Matt Ridley that opened this chapter, ‘for culture to turn cumulative, ideas need to meet and mate.’ Make love not war. Unfortunately our financial and educational leaders with too much of the warrior gene in them and too many readings of Sun Tzu have led us astray with their evil tinkering. CyberEnglish is more of the ‘make love not war’ philosophy. As we have seen when action is private and closed we run amok as we have in our financial and in educational worlds. In the end with all the layoffs in the financial world, Foege points out that many of those went back to tinkering in their garages. Similarly in Iceland, the fisherman who became financial wizards returned to the sea when their financial world melted. What will become of our schools? We are still being led down the wrong rabbit hole with these tests. We need something that is open and transparent like CyberEnglish. The greed of the financial wizards and the search for an easy assessment tool by educational leaders are the problem. There are no get rich quick schemes just as there aren’t good assessment tools. It both cases it requires rolling up our sleeves and doing some good manual labor, some intensive work, and actually working with real material with which to tinker, not imaginary money or abstract MC tests.
Griffith’s story reminded me of two things about CyberEnglish. First, CE has to be replicated by others just like in science. If a scientist in one lab can perform an experiment a scientist in another lab must be able to perform that same experiment to make the original viable. That was important for CE to continue and prosper. Principals often said, ‘If I had a Ted Nellen, I’d do CyberEnglish in my school.’ I reminded them that they did, if only they would look around, take a risk, and trust. The result with a little collaboration CE teachers appeared in lots of schools. Second, I had a very competitive group of ninth graders in a new school in 2003. To take that pressure off me and them, I guaranteed all the scholars, in my three classes,  a 90 for the Spring Semester. If any scholar believed s/he deserved more than a 90, we would have a conversation at the end of the semester. Only one scholar in ninety failed to produce work better than done in the Fall semester. The eighty-nine worked hard, collaborated, and created. They shared more, they helped each other, they had lots more fun because they were not competing, and they were collaborating. By eliminating the grade pressure, it opened up so much more tinkering and creativity. Media Lab certainly did this for Griffith. I was fortunate to visit Media Lab a couple of times in the mid 90’s. The brother of a colleague was working there and invited me up to share with him and his group what I was doing with HTML in my English classroom. It intrigued them. They were envious of my scholars and wished their English class had used computers and made webpages with HTML coding. The success of that year, 2003,  prompted the district leaders to spread CE to twenty-two high schools. It eventually failed because the leaders at the district became greedy and overextended the project without considering the proper method of development. They did not communicate well with the technicians on this project. The conversations weren’t horizontal, instead they were vertical, poorly thought out, and even more badly implemented. By January of the next year, I was a very sad and disillusioned teacher. I moved on.
For two years, 1999 and 2000, I was a Carnegie scholar. During summers and long weekends in the school year, I would work with a dozen other K-12 teachers at the PARC campus. It was heaven. The work produced was awesome, recorded, archived, shared, and passed on. Much of the fine-tuning of CE happened there with a lot of help from my friends. What baffles me is that we have places like Media Lab, PARC and yet our leaders seem to neglect the reasons for their existence in their decision-making. One of my greatest disappointments with Obama was his choice of Sec of ED. During his campaign he had Linda Darling-Hammond serve as his educational mouthpiece. Oh was I excited. She had been one of my professors at TC and consultant at Carnegie. I had the greatest respect for her as an educational leader, because she was an educator and a leader, unlike the two choices Obama eventually considered for Sec of ED; Joel Klein, the evil leader of my NYC schools, and Arnie Duncan the educational offish leader of Chicago schools. Both are Harvard grads and Obama chose the basketball player to our great frustration and disgust. We are supposed to learn from our mistakes, but Obama didn’t get the memo. I have been fortunate to have been in the hallowed halls of both the Media Lab and PARC. Too bad the CE team couldn’t ever compete with the MC testing teams. Maybe in a decade or so, CE will rise from the ashes of our educational collapse.
Since Foege won’t discuss prescriptions for educational reform, I will. It is an important topic, Alec, probably the most important one for a book like this. There are so many apt educational quotes that tell us ‘We Learn by Doing.’ From Edison to Tulley, Foege has presented us with examples of these mavericks and pioneers who tinkered their way to the top of their ladder. The bottom line for me with this tome is that we need to transfer this thinking of tinkering into our schools NOW! In all cases of success in these characters was that they all tinkered and got their hands dirty. They ‘did’ rather than simply sit and absorb. Our scholars are doers, not sponges to be wrung out when standardized tests are given. During my last twenty years of teaching I had fun with CyberEnglish while I watched my scholars solve problems, create their own webpages, and walk away satisfied and hungry for more. They were tinkering and they loved it. Oh and they learned too.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Raylan

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Elmore Leonard is one of my favorite authors. I love his fast paced novels. I’ve become an avid Justified fan. I don’t miss a show because I DVR them. So when I saw Elmore Leonard’s Raylan sitting on the shelf in the library, I had to scoop it up. It’s fast moving and doesn’t exactly follow the series on TV, which is fine. I recognize many of the plots, though they do have different sequences and details. It sure is good though to take a break from the Erlendur series to have some good ole home cookin. The book is a series of interwoven tales that are very familiar. They are the foundation for the show. One thread became the backbone for one season, another thread the stuff of lots of this season’s shows. Lots of mixing and matching. This novel is more like a digest of the four seasons. Some changes, too, that are interesting. This novel ends with the episode I just saw, cool. Gotta go find Fire in the Hole.

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Lie


I believe when Shakespeare wrote As You Like It (AYL) between 1598-1600 he was aware of Montaigne’s essay “Of Liars” written between 1572-74. Although Montaigne’s essays were not available until 1603 in English, Shakespeare, an educated man and a resourceful man, had to be aware of the French genius.  He had to have had early access. Shakespeare had access to many tomes that served as sources for all of his plays. Shakespeare was a resourceful and well-read man.
My focus is on the character Touchstone. Touchstone is a jovial clown in AYL with the third most amounts of lines in the play. Touchstone reminds me of Montaigne. As I read Montaigne’s essays, especially “Of Liars” I hear, I sense a little bit of Touchstone or should it be when I read and see Touchstone, I hear and see Montaigne. This is not to say that Touchstone in any way comes near Montaigne’s genius. I think Shakespeare is using sarcasm when he created the character of Touchstone who behaves like an intellectual on the level of a Montaigne. Montaigne is an intellectual genius pretending to be a rube or a fool and Touchstone is a rube or a fool pretending to be an intellectual genius.
In his essay “Of Liars,” Montaigne begins telling us how unworthy of anything he is: “All my other faculties are poor and ordinary.” He began by telling us how bad his memory is. He is putting himself at the lowest point of mankind in memory and his other facilities. Is he lying? Yes he is because he is actually more able than any man of his age. In the final act of AYL, Touchstone does a similar thing but in reverse, he is bragging about his intellect and yet he is a fool as we learn from Jacques: “Is this not a rare fellow, my lord? He’s as good at any thing and yet a fool.” Both are putting on airs and are opposite of what they tell us they are.
As a side note, I find it curious that in this play we have ‘the seven ages of man’ speech by Jacques and the ‘seven degrees of lie’ speech by Touchstone. The former is a melancholy fool and the latter is a sanguine fool.
In the second paragraph of his essay, Montaigne calls himself a fool in a backhanded way, ‘they say that he has no memory; and when I complain of the shortcomings of my own, people correct me and refuse to believe me, as if I were accusing myself of being a fool. They can see no difference between memory and intellect.’ On the other hand, Touchstone is constantly raising himself above his station since he sees himself as the superior city dweller amongst rural rubes. The details of the essay provide many good instances that lay the groundwork for Touchstone’s treatise on the seven degrees of the lie.
When I first encountered Montaigne’s essay “Of Liars,” I was not familiar with Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Then when I saw the play and heard Touchstone’s very funny delivery of the seven degrees of the lie, I was stuck at how familiar it was to me. It wasn’t until my first year of teaching and I was using the essay in a class that it came to me, the essay was a source for the Touchstone speech. This coincidence has been with me for the past forty years. I’ve become more interested in the connection between Shakespeare and Montaigne after reading Will in the World, How Shakespeare became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt and Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts to an Answer. There are so many more books on each of these men and about both of them that I need to consult. I am content for now with this simple little investigation of the influence of Montaigne on Shakespeare. I only regret that Montaigne didn’t live longer so he might have enjoyed some Shakespeare. I’m fortunate to enjoy both of these brilliant men.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Hypothermia


Arnaldur Indriðason's Hypothermia begins with a bizarre suicide. Karen has been offered the use of Maria’s summer cottage on a lake for a fall weekend retreat. When  Karen arrives she finds the cottage in disarray and Maria hanging from one of the beams in the living room by the picture window that over looks the lake where her dad drowned in a boating accident many years earlier. Maria has been depressed following the cancer death of her mom two years earlier. Karen is concerned and explains to Erlendur Maria’s belief in the supernatural and gives him a cassette of a séance Maria attended. Further complications arise when Maria’s husband, Baldvin, a doctor, has her cremated. With the seemingly closed case, Erlendur opened a few missing person cold cases. Since the death of his brother when they were very young and his body was never found, Erlendur has always been drawn to missing person cases. An obsession you might say, his colleagues do anyway.
In time pieces of concern begin to emerge about Maria’s death that suggest something other than a simple suicide. The supernatural seeps into the questioning and life of Maria. Erlendur sleuths out a former medical student, now homeless, who was part of a weird experiment to kill and man and bring him back to life. Maria’s husband was part of that student trio. When Erlendur is asked why he is investigating Maria’s suicide he uses: ‘Because of the suicide,’ Erlendur said. ‘We’re taking part in a joint Nordic study on the causes of suicide.’ Not a lie since there are such studies, but not in this case.
Finally we get a full account of the events that caused Erlendur’s brother to die. Erlendur reads the account to Eva Lind, his daughter. It also helps us to understand Erlendur’s obsession with looking for missing persons. Today is a perfect Icelandic winter day, strong blowing winds, cold, and precipitation. Another day to stay indoors with a good fire and a good book. The woodman came with another half cord of good red oak wood that we unloaded and I then stacked to air dry for quicker use. That is one thing I would never have in Iceland, are good wood fires. They don’t have forests or wood to burn. If any place needed good wood fireplaces, it is Iceland. It is certainly a cure to Hypothermia, the subject of this novel.
Lots of coincidences are keeping Erlendur moving from one coincidence to the next. And still he is doing all of this on his own and still milking the suicide survey and good police savvy. There are lots of lakes too, lots and lots of lakes. What an intriguingly neat little package this novel becomes. Hypotherma, don’t try this at home.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Arctic Chill


“‘How awful, the sixty-five year old widow said with a sigh, ‘this happening in our flats! I just don’t know what the world’s coming to.’” The ‘this’ was the fatal stabbing of a ten year old half Thai half Icelandic boy after school on a frigid day in January. Two too familiar themes: racial prejudice towards immigrants and children being murdered is how Arnaldur Indriðason's Arctic Chill begins. These incidents are relatively new to Iceland. Iceland has been an insular culture and society. Now the world is learning more about it and visiting it and immigrating there. Multiculturalism has come to Iceland.
“‘This is all new to us. Immigrants, racial issues…we know so little about it, ‘ Erlendur said eventually.” Indriðason is taking on a couple of very new issues for Iceland as we must remember geneticists use Iceland in their study of genes.  As has also been pointed out the killing of a child is alien to Iceland too. It seems Indriðason is addressing some issues the world has been dealing with all too much regularity and Iceland, a new, young, and still developing nation has entered into these human numbing issues.
As I am reading this novel, I’m reminded of the number of Asian visitors I met while in Iceland during my last trip in December. The issues of multiculturalism is finally coming to Iceland after nearly a thousand years and Indriðason is bravely tackling the issues and using this novel to confront racism and how it must be confronted in Iceland.  This is a brave novel.
Woven behind this tragedy is another one that we get glimpses of. The case of a missing woman is in the middle of its course when the ten year old is found stabbed to death. The missing woman may be alive, may be dead, and is the third wife of a man Erlendur doesn’t like nor do his exes. Is she calling him and leaving cryptic messages and then hanging up? As always Erlendur is haunted by his dead brother, his son, and his daughter, the latter two probing to know more about their uncle. A little more is being revealed. There is the interaction with his former boss, Marion, in hospital waiting to die. The only bright spot for Erlendur in this other wise dismal Icelandic winter is Valgerdur.
The word ‘boring’ reared its ugly head during my last years of teaching. The word was used by so many students it became trite. Everything was boring to them, not just school, but life. It reeked of apathy to me and caused so many idiotic things to happen in the name of boredom. Boredom reared its ugly head in The Arctic Chill in an all too chilling manner. As a retired teacher this novel was personal and struck home.
Caveat: It may be ironic with the multicultural aspect of this novel, but an American editor should have been used to fix some of the glaring ‘cultural’ errors.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Draining Lake


I’m loving how so many of the people I’m reading about are reading and taking some time off. Erlender, another of my favorite police officers, is taking some time off from work when his reading is interrupted by a phone call that will call him back to duty in Arnaldur Indriðason's The Draining Lake.
By page eight I was howling with laughter with a lovely description of Iceland: ‘Sigurdur Óli was standing by the skeleton when Erlendur and Elínborg arrived at the lake. A forensics team was on the way. The officers from Hafnarfjördur were fiddling around with yellow plastic tape to cordon off the area, but had discovered they had nothing to attach it to. Sigurdur Óli watched their efforts and thought he could understand why village-idiot jokes were always set in Hafnarfjördur.’
I’m glad for some good dry Icelandic humor in otherwise bleak surroundings and a brooding Icelandic detective reading “a series of accounts of people who had got lost and disappeared in the wilds of Iceland.” Each of the lives of our three detectives is being delved into, revealed to us. We know them, have some inklings of their lives beyond work, but in this fourth in the series we are being let in even further.
Indriðason is using The Draining Lake to educate us about Iceland during the Cold War as this mystery unfolds. It may seem insignificant, but just as Iceland was a player in WWII, it was also a player in the Cold War. A German Ambassador relates this to Erlendur: “I know you’ll find it amusingly absurd,” she said, ‘but in terms of the diplomatic service, Iceland is the back end of gthe world. The weather’s dreadful. The incessant storms, the darkness and cold. There is hardly a worse punishment imaginable than to be post people here.” Of course Erlendur has to ask her when he leaves, ‘”Why were sent to this dreadful country?” I love to see Erlendur showing this spunk and patriotism. Spying does go on in the Cold war and Iceland is in play as we will learn. Returning Icelandic students from East German universities provide this intrigue that reveals itself when the lake begins to drain because of natural disaster or was it divine so as to let them ‘take a closer look.’ The main international airport on Iceland, Keflavik, was the American military base before it was turned over to Iceland. And who can forget the classic chess match between Fischer and Spassky in 1972? Although our murder takes place in the early 60’s, the tension can’t be neglected and consider the importance of the chess match which helped put Iceland on the map and into the minds of the people of the world.
Elínborg, the female detective of the trio, wrote a cookbook that received rave reviews. She and the youngest member of the detective team are having a BBQ at which Erlendur comes without his female acquaintance, everyone is eager to meet. At this point, I wish Indriðason had been more detailed about the cooking process just as Martin Walker is in the Bruno series. Icelandic food is very, very good and learning more about it, especially from an insider and a member of Erlendur’s team would enhance the storyline as it does The Bruno series.
So much has advanced in this book for all three of our detectives. It is rich in humanity as we watch them grow and share more of themselves to us.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Devil's Cave


Martin Walker’s Bruno Courrèges is a most delightful and agreeable character. He is the Chief of Police in a little community called St Denis in France. Bruno is a hunter, a cook, a horseman, a lover, a non-politician with great political skills, and a good cop. I’m always amused by the description of the elaborate meals he cooks for himself, his lover, his friends. His knowledge of wine is also superb. He is human, unlike so many of the other cops and detectives I’m reading about. In the fifth in a series, The Devil’s Cave, we are introduced to a drifting punt on the local river containing the dead body of a dead woman surrounded by all the accoutrements of a Black Mass. During his horseback rides on Hector, his horse, he meets a lovely intriguing woman. On a canoe trip to determine the source of the woman’s place of embarkation, he meets another lovely woman. His main squeeze, Pamela, is off in Scotland taking care of her comatose mother. Isabelle re-enters into his life for a cameo with a special surprise. So much is going on in such a short time and it is all so human as well as related to the business of death and other happenings of a small community for the local police.
The complexity of the stories, the interweaving of so many pieces makes these books intellectual gymnastics and so addicting. Walker has built an incredible series and with each installment we get more complexity, glimpses to the past books and current events built on information we already know. He has drawn us into the St Denis community.
The Author’s note at the end of the novel is excellent, especially the first paragraph which is great satire.
One of the treats of this series is the meal. Apparently his wife has a food blog and his daughter maintains a webpage for Bruno that has recipes. Here is an example of the type of meal Bruno enjoys throughout the entire series:
He left J-J and Isabelle sitting at the table on the terrace in the sunshine, watching Balzac explore his new home. Bruno took from his kitchen a small knife and bowl and went looking for lunch. He could never understand Pamela’s obsession with eradicating dandelions from her lawns; he presumed it was some odd British idiosyncrasy like its royal family and its warm beer. Everyone in France understood the pleasure of young dandelion leaves in a salad, but Bruno went further. He looked for the tiny green buds of the future flowers, snipped them off until he had a couple of dozen and then added some leaves of fresh parsley. He went back into the kitchen to peel a few cloves and wash the white asparagus. (This was obtained earlier, picked in the wild.) Humming to himself with pleasure at entertaining his friends, he cut some slices from the big smoked ham that hung fro the main roof beam. He put water on to boil for the asparagus and he tiny new potatoes, cracked a dozen of his own eggs into a bowl and took plates, glasses and cutlery out to the table where Isabelle and J-J were chatting about politics.
He tossed a know of butter into a large frying pan and turned on the gas, opened a bottle of Bergerac Sec and took it with baguette of fresh bread and a bottle of Badoit, his favourite mineral water, out to the table. Back in the kitchen, the butter was starting to bubble and he added some crushed garlic and the dandelion buds, and began stirring the eggs with a large fork. He seasoned the eggs with salt and pepper and turned back to the buds. When he felt the little buds begin to soften under his spatula, he added the eggs and began to swirl them around the pan. He broke off briefly to stand the asparagus in their special tall cylindrical pan that he’d found in a broucante; now they were ready for the boiling water.
‘Can I help?’ Isabelle asked, coming into the kitchen, Balzac at her heels, raising his nose to sniff the tantalizing new scents of a kitchen. “It’s so good to be back here, watching you cook. It’s even better with the sunshine and a dog at our feet. It feels like summer.’
Bruno threw her a smiling glance before starting to fold the omelette. Last summer had been that first, glorious rapture of their love affair before she had decided to pursue her career in Paris. He could never decide whether he wanted a clean and surgical end of it, or to go on with their thrilling but frustrating reunions on snatched weekends. Just to look at her was to know he could not give her up, although in the back of his mind he knew that her inevitable departure would leave him miserable and guilty at the sense of betraying the distant Pamela.
“You can take this out to the table, ’ he said, sliding the folded omelette into a large oval dish, and then tearing up the parsley leaves to sprinkle on top. Before she picked up the plates, Isabelle took his arm and turned him to her to kiss him gently on the lips. He felt her tongue tease him briefly before she broke off and picked up the dish.
I smell truffles, but I don’t see any,’ J-J, fork in one hand and bread in the other. His wine glass was already empty. Bruno refilled it.
‘I left a small one in the egg box,’ Bruno replied. ‘Egg shells are porous so they absorb some of the flavour, not enough to overwhelm the pissenlit.’
When they finished the course, Bruno went back to the kitchen and sliced butter into the frying pan to melt before he drained the potatoes and asparagus. He put them into new dishes, poured on the melted butter, sprinkled more parsley on the potatoes and rejoined the others. (pp 166-68)
Bon appétit!! I am always hungry when I read a Bruno crime story but sated.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Vault


Inspector Wexford has retired and he is enjoying the good life, reading the latest Booker award winners, reading other books, playing with his grandchildren, and puttering about. I can relate to this man, I’m doing the same. But all too soon, he is back at it, police work. He is not a good spokesperson for retirement. There are those who can retire and those who can’t. Could Ruth Rendell be setting up Wexford for future private detective work in The Vault?
One of Wexford’s many quirks is his aversion to the clichés people use. Counting these and finding them is a fun diversion as I read. The story demonstrates a real dilemma for new retirees as Wexford learns to stay home and not play cop. But when he plays cop, he does good. Eventually he gives retirement a fair shake by traveling with his wife. I’m glad I have come to Inspector Wexford at the end of his career. Now that the Pope announced his retirement, I know I’m in good company.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Care of Woden Floors

Care of Wooden Floors caught by eye on the new books shelf at the library.  This first novel by London architect Will Wiles begins with the very sentiment I had after I put down a wooden floor in my apartment: PLEASE YOU MUST TAKE CARE OF THE WOODEN FLOORS. This sentence was placed in the middle of a very lengthy (4 A4 pages) letter written by the owner of the apartment, Oskar, to his former college roommate who will stay in the former communist city flat to write a novel while Oskar is in LA working on his divorce. Oskar, a musician, is very anal about things and uses notes to communicate with those who share his living spaces, college and the flat. The wooden floors provide two delightful scenes in the very first day. The two cats living with Oskar have figured out the glide of these floors and the current resident also tries his luck with gliding only to injure himself. Of course, the guest leaves a red wine stain on the floor near the sofa on which the cats are not allowed, but always seem to be found, he has fallen asleep. He becomes obsessed with this stain and its eradication. It has become like Poe’s classic “Tell Tale Heart.”

Wiles weaves an entertaining tale as the narrator informs us of his and Oskar’s college days woven into his daily touring and obsessing over the stain. These two are opposites. A series of cascading accidents take over the plot as Oskar’s friend has stumbled into his own little hell. I was reminded of an incident that occurred to me a quarter of a century ago or more. I was at a party in NYC. The house was like Oskar’s, but instead of wooden floors this house has plush white rugs and furniture, perhaps an Iranian as described early in Wiles novel about Iranian jails. Anyway, I spilled a glass of red wine on the white rug. Immediately a woman grabbed a glass of white wine and poured it on the red wine spill and used a cloth napkin to soak it up. With more white wine and more napkins the red stain was gone. She was a flight attendant and explained the science behind her actions of using white wine to extract the red wine from the carpet. A trick she learned for passengers who spilled red wine on themselves on first class cross continental flights. Oskar’s friend may have been wise to also buy some white wine, although Oskar did leave the red wine for his guest.

Friday, February 8, 2013

When the Killing's Done, a Lovely Day


I’ve picked up another cheeky TC Boyle novel, When the Killing’s Done, a nautical tale in the Northern Channel Islands of California. Drowning is probably my biggest fear. Imagine my delight when he reintroduced the Tokachi-maru, a twelve-thousand ton freighter out of Nagoya, Japan in this book, the same vessel he had a Japanese sailor jump from to start East is East, my first Boyle novel.
I’ve spent all day of rain inside, by the fire inhaling this novel of conflict, deceit, selfishness, rain, death, and above all hypocrisy. What a celebration of misadventure of man and nature. Of man attempting to right nature, to correct nature, to control nature. It’s all an accident with the predator competing with predator. This is one of the most karma-laced books I’ve ever read. Man and his Eden always in conflict.
It's stopped raining, moved north to wreak havoc on the NE with Nemo. I'm off to the beach to see the waves and enjoy my little Eden. It has turned into a Lovely Day

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Waging Heavy Peace

My son, Tommy Nellen, gave me Neil Young’s Waging Heavy Peace   (Part 2) on my last birthday in October. I took my time reading it. I wanted to savor it. During a bike trip to Staunton, Va, last October a fellow rider and I were speaking of Young at breakfast. He and his wife from Belfast, Northern Ireland had made this trip at this time to see Young in Pittsburgh. He had already read the book. I told him I had it, but hadn’t started it. All he said was he liked it. At this point I’m going to start all over again from the beginning. It’s a cold week here on the beach in Maryland, so I’ll read it while sitting in front of the roaring fires I’m having in my lovely fireplace. I love this fireplace and my fire pit in the backyard and my backyard which gives me such a glorious view of the night sky and the moon sweeps across when it is roaming the sky. I am 8 miles from the beach. This is my spiritual home, the place where I am centered and where I commune with the Spirits daily.
Part of this new beginning for me is getting my LP’s and 45’s out of the boxes and shelved. Then I need to replace the turntable I broke in my last move. I haven’t heard these vinyl memories in years. I know the sound is better than my CD’s. I’ve refused the MP3 era, except what I have on my computers and through online music sharing programs. The local brewery has vinyl night ever Tuesday. Now that my vinyl has been freed, I will be partaking in these evenings. I’m fascinated by Young’s desire to promote Pono, a music system that will rejuvenate listening to vinyl quality in the digital age, if I understand what he is trying to do. At 65, Young is bouncing back and forth between then and now and constantly letting us know “I’ll keep you posted.” This book is his way of getting on with the ideas that flow inside that genius mind. He is multitasking and is straight especially after some of the medical emergencies he has recently had. He’s back to pure, no drugs, no tobacco, and no alcohol. Like Crosby. I’ve loved him with CSN, Horse, and solo and am now enjoying getting the back-story on these times.
As he talks about the Green Board, a tool that he hopes brings him back to life, and Feelgoods, the garage housing his extensive car collection, each has a story, I’m reminded of my situation now in this rented house with my possessions. This is the first time in decades when I have all my possessions in one place. I’m unpacking my life, box by box and slowly reassembling myself. I love the friendly conversational method of this book. His ultimate obsession is LincVolt, the ’59 Lincoln Continental that will resurrect Henry Ford’s idea of using biomass as fuel for automobiles. Biomass and ethanol to power this monster and Pono as the sound system. Yes, he is certainly a dreamer, but he is doing things to make these ideas real.
The conversational tone is magnificent as if it were me and Neil just having a conversation, like best buds. He does start lots of things. Attaching memories and events in life to ‘things’ and people is a common attribute we all share. Young shares these with us and some are very personal and damning at the same time. Writing this book has to be cathartic and perhaps the first time he has actually said these things to himself as he reveals them to us. It’s very spiritual for him and us. It is making me reflect on my friends who have passed and on some things I possess because they have a story.  One is an old gray Neil Young & Crazy Horse hat a former girlfriend threw at me after going to a concert without me. We did a lot of CSNY concerts together and a couple of Crazy Horse as well. We saw the Greendale debut at Madison Square Garden. It’s the only thing I have from that relationship. I wear it to every Young concert I go to and interchange it with my Imagine Peace hat these days.
Young certainly does ramble on and on, repeats himself, tells the same story a couple of ways or the same way. And he jumps around in time, jettisons off into another story in another time in the middle of one story. When he says “I’ll keep you posted” on something, he doesn’t always do that.  This has certainly been an intimate and entertaining look into the life of a man I love. Thank you Neil. Thank you Tommy Nellen for getting me this book.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Renegade Champion

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I purchased Renegade Champion, The Unlikely Rise of Fitzrada by Richard Rust because I knew the author, his mother, and his garandparents. Richard was my best friend growing up. He was the best man at my wedding in 1972. I then lost touch with him until I found this book. My first memory of Richard and his family is from 1953. We were living in Watch Hill where Richard’s Family had a beautiful house on a high hill across from the library in Watch Hill. A specific memory of that time is the hurricane Carol that was intense in the area. To our sadness it took down the ferris wheel in Westerly. Our crazy mothers, who were best friends and two of a kind took us down to the top of the beach road to watch the power of Carol. We also went to see the flooded town of Watch Hill before retreated to the safety of the house on the hill owned by Col and Mrs Pohl. Perhaps the most impressive image was watching these two crazy women swimming in the huge waves the next days after Carol left and provided some of the biggest surf I have ever seen and our mothers ride those waves, laughing and screaming with joy as each wave came. My mom taught me how to swim in these waters of Watch Hill and Jane taught me to ride on the trails in Leesburg, VA. Our mothers were always chatting, laughing and enjoying each other’s company. My mom was a frustrated professional in a man’s world. These two commiserated with each other while chain smoking and consuming pots of coffee. Richard taught me how to shoot a rifle in their Leesburg, VA home. Jane taught me how to mount a horse and get back on it when I fell off. I can’t say I ever learned how to ride a horse, but she did her best as she always encouraged me to gat back on as I was getting off the ground. Richard’s Grandmother, Jane, taught me about palm reading, a passion of hers. Before I went to Vietnam, she and I had many conversations about the power of reading hands and palms may be very helpful for me as it was for her husband when she read palms of his troops before the D-Day invasion. Today, I am now the caretaker of two still life paintings Grandma Jane Pohl painted. She gave them to my parents who proudly displayed them in our houses and now I have them. Another vivid memory was Jane’s marriage to a man named Moore. I didn’t like him. I don’t think Richard did either. The guy was very strict and had Richard doing intense body building exercises. We were both into light weight lifting and basic physical exercise like push ups, chin ups, and sit ups.  Moore took this to another level that wasn’t wanted nor even fun anymore. Our visits were sporadic and sudden during those years. After reading the book, I understand now.  Our visits to Leesburg and theirs to our homes were fewer.  Before I went to Vietnam, I visited Richard on a ski slope at West Point. His uncle had died in Vietnam. When I returned, he was the best man at my first marriage. When he left with one of the bride’s maids that day I never heard or saw him again. Last December, I did a Google search for him. I had taken a trip to Staunton, VA early that fall for a bike ride and drove through Leesburg. I made a note to search for Richard. I didn’t get to it until December and was devastated to discover he had died in 2008 and Jane had died in 2001, before 9/11. The only Google reference to Richard was the book. I knew this book, since Jane often told us stories of Fitz. The family was an amazing group of unique people and I was always sad to have lost touch with Richard after my marriage. I always attributed that to the life he had in the military.. As I started reading this book so many memories overwhelmed me. The most impressive memory was how Jane and my mom were such good friends.  Probably the only female friends both had.
I knew many of the stories told in this book and as always in awe of the ribbons she won. I was never aware of how important she was as a female rider. It makes perfect sense.  “The new Olympia classes were opened to women in anticipation of the rule change. A 1949 headline in a Dayton, Ohio, paper read, ‘Jane Pohl Rust Helps Prove Why Women Should Ride in Olympics.’” (p 153) In addition to the importance of Jane’s role in women participation happened in the year and city in which I was born. The part of the story about Fitz taking off on that field in Hawaii always impressed me. She or someone added that when she was finally picked up after jumping off to save her life, a soldier said to her, “Lady you were doing great until you fell off.” I was so happy to hear about her visits to Iceland and rode their unique horses. During my trips to Iceland I was tempted to ride these horses and remembered Jane fondly as I chose not to mount one knowing I wasn't a rider. Whenever I saw groups of riders on Iceland I always thought of Jane and knew she'd love this place to ride and was so happy to hear that she had made a couple of trips to Iceland to ride. I was happy to read about her and Richard’s life after 1972. When a horseshoe’s open ends face up that means “good luck” and when the horse shoe ends face down, “bad luck as it drains out.” Was it intentional to have the horseshoe used throughout the book to separate parts on page 199 to face down as that section speaks about the dismantling of the US horse cavalry? I loved this book as it reconnected me with a family that had a huge effect on me in my life. RIP