Category Archives: Reviews

Review: Spirits of Place

I’ve just finished reading Spirits of Place, edited by John Reppion, the Daily Grail-published collection of writings on place, narrative, history and spirit. I was not disappointed.

Reppion opened by – among other things – describing an event of the same name he organized earlier in 2016 hosted on the same site as a degraded Neolithic tomb. The event itself raised sacred space in spectacular fashion and is, perhaps, a lesson and charge for the coming year without the participants having known just how stark it feels. As Reppion states, “To create a space that is emphatically ‘anti-racist, anti-fascist, anti-sexist’ on the grounds of so malevolent an enterprise and to fill it with events for young people does seem redemptive. Yet to perform in such a space can never be lighthearted.”

There’s a bit too much to unpack in a proper review – the collection is part essay grouping, part philosophical studies journal, part occult newsletter – but the essays in each case stand proudly for themselves with each raising their own space. Whether it’s Gazelle Amber Valentine talking idenity, Warren Ellis writing on radio signal as bomb blast radius, Maria J. Perez Cuervo illustrating the process of secret, dangerous and necessary libraries growing seemingly of their own magnetism or Vajra Chandrasekera on fascism, nationalism and grief, the contents are topical and fascinating and juggle between dreamily speculative and heartbreakingly eloquent. Chandrasekera’s contribution in particular felt crucial and grounding, setting the tone almost as clearly as Reppion’s introduction:

In our periodic riots, Sinhala mobs in search of Tamil or Muslim people to assault but still unable to identify them on sight (because we all pretty much look the same) would demand that potential targets perform their Sinhala-ness or Buddhist-ness with shibboleths: pronouncing particular words to test for accents, or reciting Buddhist prayers that people of other religions were unlikely to know. For example, the ඉතිපිසෝ, which in a great irony is a recitation of the virtues of the Buddha, probably including suitably incongruous things like kindness and compassion. I say probably even though I know it by heart (I suspect my not-particularly-pious parents insisted on me learning these prayers by memory in anticipation of future riots) because the prayer is in Pali, not Sinhala, and I’ve long since forgotten what the words mean: to me, it’s just a string of sounds that represent thuggish fanaticism.

With my breath fully taken away by lines like:

Grief is a nation, like the dead are a nation. These are the nationalisms I can get behind.

I name only a few here not to suggest they held themselves over the rest, but precisely because I could go on and on about the other writers included and so bore you to death and draw my review out to outlandish and unhelpful proportions.

I do want to single out the piece by Damien Patrick Williams, one of the primary reasons I picked up this book (along with the topic itself and work by luminaries like Ellis and Alan Moore). In addition to being a friend, Williams has been quoted in WIRED magazine and interviewed on the Flashforward and Mindful Cyborg podcasts on the intersection between magic and technology, one of my primary interests. His contribution to this book excelled my expectations as it seamlessly covered biographical explanation, philosophical exploration, virtual space and place, mythology and psychology. He covers two more of my favorite topics, ravens and synchronicities, and pulls apart the phenomenons of my experience masterfully:

But the concept structure of ritual space can be applied to any time or place which, for reasons of mentality and mood, must be set apart. In sociological and trauma studies, we discuss this idea in terms of “safe spaces”; in martial arts, we have the dojo; in magic, the drawing of the circle. In all of these instances, we use words, or a knife, or chalk, or a song, and we carve out something sacred from within the profane, and the 1990s Internet was pretty much a perfect expression of this. The complex protocols to log-in, the aforementioned terminology and conceptual framing, all of it conjured an intentional Otherness of place and mind.

The ever-magical Alan Moore closes out the collection with a fantastic and thoroughly electrifying piece that serves, as Reppion laments not doing with the actual event in April, as a closing ritual for the book. And as many of the other pieces do, spiraling ever outward from Reppion’s convocation, Moore’s entry exists in a sort of trifold space; it covers the past, it applies to the present, and reaches out to the future with a mystical, speculative beckoning:

Everywhere the grind and rumble of epochal gears, the flat stones of Satanic mills as they commence to turn. A creaking at the limits, at the edge of our condition, a raw frontier of our lust and fear and capability.

The topics truly covered across the book are legion; if your interests cover anything around philosophy, place, folklore, magic, immediate urban experience, history and future of politics, this book will absolutely have something for you. My suggestion: seek the book out, raise your own space, read it and proceed from there. It’s easily one of my favorite books of 2016.

Aleister & Adolf: Great, Thoughtful, Quick

A few days ago I picked up the new graphic novel from Douglas Rushkoff and Michael Avon Oeming, “Aleister & Adolf.” I’m more familiar with Rushkoff through his reporting and expansion of ideas through nonfiction – first the excellent Program or be Programmed, and now as I read through the interesting Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus. Rushkoff has a tendency to explore the immediate and farther-reaching implications of not just technology but the way we utilize and integrate it. I had no idea, and was frankly quite excited, to see him work through an interest in sigil magic. Grant Morrison’s introduction sets the tone for the rest of the book – especially given his own sigil work – and it proceeds accordingly.

Aleister & Adolf’s premise is this (more or less): amidst World War II, a skeptical American soldier is sent to England to meet the great occultist Aleister Crowley. Crowley fancies himself locked in direct magical combat with Adolf Hitler (a not-outlandish premise as anyone who watches the “History” channel surely knows by this point). From there it gets deep into the practice and practicalities of sigil magic in the race to save Europe.

The protagonist is straight-laced but not without a history of his own. You’d expect him to be militantly opposed and disbelieving but as the book continues he follows a different path. It’s in both repeating the blueprints of our parents and trying to transcend their results that we often find ourselves – and so does Roberts.

Rushkoff’s treatment of Crowley is interesting to me – a stern man of ideas, perhaps a bit more disciplined than the man himself but not without reason. Crowley feels like a condensation of the real man for the sake of moving the story along swiftly, as does Daphne, the female support character. The pacing feels off. The book feels rushed. But it still manages to lay out some decent philosophical groundwork that comes close to rivaling, say, Grant Morisson’s Nameless.

Aleister & Adolf does have its satisfying moments. It’s an interesting and curious reframing of Crowley, World War II and some more modern elements. It doesn’t sew itself up neatly but surely does leave me wanting to know more about what happens after. I want to know more of Hugh and how he continues to manifest his change. How it and the knowledge affect him and change his approach to a life he already seems thoroughly displeased with. Maybe even a deeper treatment of corporations and occultism as well as Hugh’s client in particular.

While it felt a bit condensed Aleister & Adolf was a great and quick story that kept me entertained and left me hoping it continues in some deeper fashion. Job well done, I’d say.

Review: Normal, by Warren Ellis

Out of the twenty-four books I have read so far in 2016 Warren Ellis’ novel Normal is easily my favorite. This isn’t surprising given that I’m on record as a card-carrying member of the Cult of Ellis. He’s directly or tangentially referenced in more than a few posts here and I’m not exaggerating when I admit he’s been an intellectual model of mine for years, ever since Crooked Little Vein. What’s surprising is how fresh and new Normal is amidst both his previous body of work and fiction in general.

Normal follows foresight strategist Adam Dearden through his intake at Normal Head, a psychiatric facility that caters to a very specific clientele: those who have spent too long looking into the future. This includes both civil futurists and their shadow-siblings working for military or intelligence taskmasters. Referenced on the cover as well as throughout the book, one of the few pervasive ideas is abyss gaze: as a futurist you spend so long looking into the abyss that the abyss looks back into you. Every patient at Normal Head is brilliant, and every patient is broken.

Normal is a locked-room mystery. A patient goes missing on Dearden’s very first night. It’s also a psychological exploration not just about academia but ourselves – what the world does to those who gaze at it and how we cope. In the very first scene LOLcats are featured prominently and serve as an escapist technique. But the patient in that case has no internet access, and no cats – that absence forcing her to more directly confront what brought her to Normal. The novel’s rife with self-deception and false dichotomies, both of which are eventually called out. But there’s also a basic and unflinching recognition of the importance and necessity of the work that futurists do.

Ellis excels at weaponizing typical imagery – the specter-like figure lurking on the edge of the forest, the isolation of the setting – with advanced futurism the likes of JG Ballard (who himself wrote a missing-asylum-patient short story that casts Normal’s conclusion in an interesting light). Ellis also brings darkly intelligent humor such as the opening scene with the LOLcats, a wildly frenetic and joyful and chaotic asylum-wide reckoning, the overwhelming desire to be medicated and the ridiculous things done to cope with abyss gaze. He’s also got the balls to make an economist (Clough) a primary truth-teller in the story, though he acknowledges this irony later through the madly bright figure of Colegrave.

Normal pulls down a theme common in Ellis’s work that manifests in different ways: progress through transgression. It could be macro-scale societal progress through transgressing bodily norms. Or as in this case the micro-scale violation of crossing from the civil forecaster to mil/intel strategist side of the cafeteria pushing the story forward, letting the dog finally see the rabbit. It’s never a neat process and often results in whatever group is involved dissolving into a bunch of howling, shit-throwing monkeys but things do move forward.

Normal is at once a darkly amusing locked-room mystery and a deeper statement on the often destabilizing, quixotic nature of doing the right work and still getting blown over by it and having to catch your breath in whatever way you can. It draws on Ellis’ incredibly well-read and cross-disciplined nature. And both his instant, defensive pessimism and his beliefs and hopes about people.

I can’t recommend it any more highly. At 150 pages it’s a quick and well-paced story with a lot of technology and character fluidly unpacked and laid bare.

Pirate Utopia: A Quick Review

Just finished Bruce Sterling’s new novel Pirate Utopia and it ended up being more than expected. I went into it naively expecting a post-modern, pre-millennium cyberpunkish politics romp. I instead received an absurdist realism novel, an alternative history constantly balancing romantic ideals, their execution and its evolution. It’s a book rich with surreal exaggeration and fantasy but using that to explore the more realistic and bleak practicalities of anarchism, communism and fascism – and democracy.

Pirate Utopia drops us into the Regency of Carnaro, the spontaneous self-government of the state of Fiume after it rejected Italy’s delivery of Fiume to Yugoslavia after World War I. Largely featuring Pirate Engineer Lorenzo Secondari it also introduces a maniacal manufacturist in the personage of Frau Pfiffer, a combat ace turned second-in-command the Ace of Hearts, all operating under the leadership of poet-statesman Gabriele d’Annunzio – otherwise known as the Prophet.

Secondari’s a fascinating protagonist to be sure. He’s presented as previously dead but now alive and self-charged with the mission of moving ownership from those that possess to those that make. He’s a stubborn, spontaneous anarchist maker of a sort though distinctly different from the type you’d see today. There’s no mention of his distributing either model or means – he doesn’t seem the type to upload notes, designs, schematics etc for the world to create his designs for themselves. His utopia is necessarily personalized and he can’t seem to conceive of one outside himself.

Ideals and actions are presented alongside each other constantly and both shift across the course of the story in interesting ways, as a sad exposition on how these things typically progress when people act as they do. It’s not a gradually sliding progress bar so much as Sterling slipping the characters and their organizations along the slippery, evolving surface of a self-justifying Moebius strip of power and violence. It’s hard to tell how or where one side became the other. A seamless transition in which all eyes are still on dragging the future towards them by way of the gravity of their personalities, but they’ve had time to polish their boots now and they’re the ones in control of the artillery on the hill.

The exception to this is Maria Pfiffer, Frau Pfiffer’s daughter and a favorite of Secondari. She’s an unnatural, shining, extrasystemic object – beautiful and consumptive, unprepared for spectacle, an unconcerned alien amidst clandestine conversations despite her polyglot intelligence.

Sterling also manages to sideline two historical devils in amusing ways. But the Moebius strip politics continue according to the realistic streak in Pirate Utopia: absent those two devils, others rise accordingly.

Pirate Utopia’s a short, fun read that doesn’t alternate between stark and wacky but manages to hold their continuing tension in exquisite and exacting fashion. It also comes with a great and timely introduction by Warren Ellis that came out before the election but seems spot-on after, and some supplemental materials at the end that explored Sterling’s writing of the book. This latter appealed directly to the process voyeur in me and I’d love to see it in more works.

Pirate Utopia: Highly Recommended Reading.

Archangel

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I caught up with William Gibson’s new graphic novel Archangel a few days late. Knew it was coming out but missed the Great Unveiling until people were raving about it on twitter. Gibson’s been an interest of mine for roughly two decades now and this new collaboration with Michael St. John Smith, Butch Guice, and Tula Lotay on covers promises to be no less fascinating. This post contains a few images and some storyline from the first issue, of course, so if you haven’t read it yet and want to go in fresh you should stop reading.

My content consumption is almost all digital now, so it struck me somewhat fun that I grabbed Archangel by way of a system that allows me to pay with certain magic numbers and beams the comic to my tablet after innumerable digital handshakes. I love digital platforms and it’s one of the reasons I’m so willing to pay even with a pretty low disposable income level – I want to see creators and digital platforms both thrive like hell.

I grabbed the comic and it immediately struck me as interesting. Tula Lotay’s cover hit high notes across a discordant noir theme, injecting a mass of color into what was about to be an absolutely bleak landscape in both timelines. Archangel’s beginning contrasts interestingly with a lot of Gibson’s literary work; his novels often begin with a coming-together, and Archangel kicks off with several comings-apart, from the material sense to the societal and interpersonal. Gibson’s a trickster of a deep and joyous sort who loves fucking with the baseline, so it’ll be interesting to see how this affects the story. But in typical Gibsonian fashion it also comes into focus in equal parts grit and technology but not a lot of flash.

Watching Gibson collaborate in a visual medium should be fascinating thanks to little visual cues he enjoys, bits of tangential errata accessible only by keen rememberers or re-readers. One of the first of these is a drop pistol in a drawer, trigger guard removed, grip wrapped in tape to prevent fingerprints:

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One wonders in which act it’ll be fired. Another instance of these interesting little artifacts is the mechanized, electronic insects buzzing around in the pilot’s cell – in 1945:

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Gibson also treats the story itself in interesting ways. He performs a thorough split of resources with fun implications: a crashed stealth plane from the future goes to the Brits (how will that affect the timeline?), the pilot and copilot (one alive, one dead) go to the Americans. But both sets are in a passive mode so far – British studying this new plane, Americans studying the mysterious tattooed soldiers with implanted gadgetry. But the only group native to that timeline with any agency so far are the Brits, as their intelligence officer works what lines she can to get access to the future pilots and takes some stuff for testing as the Americans don’t have the capability.

Meanwhile Junior and crew arrive on scene with agency, but they’re very visibly portrayed as alien – a smirking alien face on Junior as he’s flanked by two conspicuously massive guards. The three are imposed on that last scene as if it’s a background, rather than them being a natural part of it.

Gibson’s Peripheral involved some interesting timeline stuff but that was an open system with continuous manipulation of the target timeline. If we take things at face value the target timeline in Archangel is now a closed system. That certainly changes the game.

And to please me even further, the comic includes a damn fair amount of backmatter. I’m a process voyeur and seeing Gibson talk about the process so far, both in writing collaboration and in art, is like manna from heaven. I’d read a whole book that’s just about the process, I think. But luckily we’re getting it for free.

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So far Archangel is Gibson at his best: wrapping multiple plots around objects or visuals and letting things play out in the foreground while you’re still staring at something specific and wondering about it.

I want to know when Givens’ dodgy little revolver fires. I want to know what put Torres in a wheelchair. I want to know how a Montana research facility survived whatever everything else didn’t, and why the hell there’s a copy of the White House on-site.

Intensely looking forward to the next issue.

Review: Coming Out Like A Porn Star

Just finished reading my nineteenth book of the year, Coming Out Like a Porn Star: Essays on Pornography, Protection, and Privacy edited by Jiz Lee. On its face the book consisted of, as the description says, “personal stories of porn performers “coming out” to family, friends, partners, lovers and community.” Beyond the immediate experiences of that were intricate, complex portrayals of identity and self that quickly serve to shatter the stereotype of shallow or uneducated porn performers and sex workers.

In part the book serves as a new call to justice – a rallying cry for an end to the stigma around such sex work. The book itself is performative – as Dr. Mireille Miller-Young notes the history of Stonewall and similar acts as “the mounting awareness and activism of a new generation of queer people who did not wish or were not able to keep their sexual and gender identities and expressions “in the closet.” They bravely defied abuse by eschewing the tactics previous generations of queer people employed to survive harassment.” Careful to explain she’s not drawing an equivalency between sex work and racism, sexism or homophobic oppression, Miller-Young emphasizes that “these oppressive forces overlap and intersect in important ways” and such work has begun “claiming visibility as a tactic for gaining freedom.” The essays therein serve a dual purpose – some make bold, unapologetic, damn strong arguments for the destigmatization of sex work.

Others simply and heartbreakingly examine the penalties society levies for engaging in such work. Cyd Nova laid out one of the clearest and most stark visions – stalking, disownment, firing or objectification and estrangement. Nova condensed the threat of coming out perfectly: “This is the real grip of the painful coming-out narrative. It interrupts the concept that certain types of love are unconditional. In our society, it is considered acceptable for someone’s family to decide to take away their love for their child because of a choice they make.”

Emma Claire provided a related poignant moment in explaining how even less-harsh family narratives served to hurt more than help. ‘I heard, “We will love you no matter what” when I came out as a woman, which kind of sounded like I did something wrong rather than, “I have unconditional love for you and celebrate you.”’

So many other good points were made throughout the book. Tobi Hill-Meyer’s calling out of the ways porn is treated differently, as it’s criticized for rampant sexism while so much more popular media and even “educational” material got a pass. Both Tina Horn and Milcah Halili Orbacedo joining Jiz Lee in highlighting that their activities in porn were products of informed, negotiated consent and control, pleasure and performance combining with the personal agency long mythologized as absent from sex workers. AliceInBondageLand on getting into porn because she couldn’t find any that represented her identity. Zahra Stardust on how sex workers are “not a walking research project to appease the voyeurism and sexual tourism of middle-class careerist professionals who want access to our sexual communities while avoiding stigma and protecting their reputation” – something that struck me I had spent most of the book doing, to my discredit.

The other theme that struck me as both important and lovely were the ways in which contributors wrote about their own identity. Identity’s a funny thing with me as I’ve been through many of them over my thirty plus years, less sexual than existential, and multiple essays spoke to that idea in incredibly eloquent ways. Gala Vanting’s loving exploration of her “multi-whore identity” as central and normal, capped off with “What if I concerned myself more with coming in to me than on how best to come out to you?” Hayley Fingersmith’s incredible description of wearing masks. James Darling’s countless coming-outs amidst a certain amount of holding back. Lorelei Lee on truth and names.

There is no better topic to end on, I think, than the hopes and wishes of authors in Lee’s ‘Coming Out Like a Porn Star.” Amidst their past hurts and elations, alongside how they carry themselves presently, many covered how they’d like dialogue to continue. How they want to see it – or how they are consciously trying to shape it through they way they live. Which goes back to Miller-Young, destigmatization and defying a culture that requires sex workers to adhere to victimhood and shame. Lee’s own point about not subscribing to spectrums of shame, that “it doesn’t help to throw other kinds of porn or sex work under the bus,” stands out. Andre Shakti’s commonsense approach to treating “a supposedly radical issue (queerness, nonmonogamy, atheism, gender nonconformity) with the same nonchalance as you would a less controversial topic (accounting, marriage, cooking, the weather).” Drew DeVeaux on recognizing that porn stars, trans folks and others are not only recipients of care or services but also providers – that they have agency, goddammit. They not only play important, active roles in their own lives but those of many others as well.

(I spent ten minutes on that last sentence – “but those of” threw me off, which is sort of the point. How do I articulate that sex workers or other marginalized people are a massive force in the world at large without using a marginalizing term like “mainstream society?” Or by using “but those of many cisgendered folks as well” suggesting that services towards cisgendered folk are inherently different, in a separate category? I am so new to all this.)

To sum all this up bluntly – Jiz Lee’s “Coming Out Like a Porn Star” allowed me to enter a lot of personally painful areas of those involved with no threat to myself, other than to my preconceived notions. The essays were not just accessible but often brilliantly written and covered depth I hadn’t even conceived of surrounding the issues involved. I recommend it to everyone. Five stars, no bullshit.

I’ll leave off with one of my favorite quotes of the book, from Cinnamon Maxxine: “Fuck that. Fuck them. Do you.”

Hamilton

I’ve spent most of my life deep-diving through various subjects. There are few ways now to blow me away. I won’t say “I’ve seen it all before” but I’ve at least pondered it, rolled most of it around in my head, felt the intellectual consistency of most things.

I spent Saturday night being blown away.

My wonderful actor friend Jennifer Austin invited me to accompany her to Hamilton – An American Musical. I’m not by nature a “musical guy” – Hamilton marks my first-ever Broadway show. While the creativity of musicals interested me I felt no calling to or skill in music and so didn’t follow the field much. But Jen saw Hamilton previously. She linked me to a video of the writer/composer/actor Lin-Manuel Miranda performing one of the tracks at the White House and her passion for the show quickly infected me and I was thrilled when she invited me along.

So for the first time in twenty years or so I found myself in New York City – not a small thing, I should mention, since I’m significantly crowd-averse. Dealing with both depression and anxiety often lead me to prefer curling up at home and the anxiety in particular likes to flare up in crowds and off my home turf. But the various bits I’d seen about the show were enough to convince me to make the trek.

As stated above, Hamilton marks my first-ever Broadway experience. I don’t know the right terminology for various things I’m about to talk about, but even if I did I’m not sure I’d be able to find the right words to express it all. So bear with me.

Hamilton – An American Musical is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s work inspired by Ron Chernow’s book. With painstaking accuracy it follows founding father Alexander Hamilton from his arrival in the Americas all the way through and after his death. And it’s an incredible, sophisticated, well-engineered, clever, heart-rending and laugh-triggering work of genius. Quickly-paced, Hamilton leaves no unused moments in the narrative flow and yet manages at several points to double-back on itself in incredibly creative ways, strengthening dramatic moments by highlighting earlier foundational ones without any sort of storyline disruption. The times when storytelling edges towards nonlinear are few but percussive – designed and carried out to multiply emotional and cognitive impact.

I’m entirely new to musicals but storytelling is an old, old love of mine. And I spent the first half of Hamilton three rows back, jaw dropped in awe and wonder. Second half repeatedly holding back tears. Hamilton utilized a great mechanism by which each emotional part was followed up not necessarily by tension-breaking humor but often by an expression of inner strength that fortified the character involved – and me. The show intended, then, not to break you but pull you deeper into each moment. No cheap temporary thrills or sads but organic and personal, each a load-bearing narrative thread helping hold together the entire woven story.

The end arrives on a note of extreme emotion and strength, the rising up of a female character and her conscious and consensual contribution, indeed what ended up being the genesis of the story that we have now, as she sublimates powerfully deep and compounded grief into action. Very natural but very purposeful efforts were taken to ensure the many female roles were at least as complex and developed as the male ones, something still rare in storytelling and so all the more appreciated.

Nothing was simple about Hamilton and yet it stood on so many moments of simplicity. Particular smiles and gestures, familiar drives and weaknesses, the nearness and distance of characters, even just the presence of a box to stand on. A stage that rotated in two directions sending characters in their own revolutions (or counter-revolutions). The ubiquity of pen and paper, the impact of each piece of paper, each list and note and correspondence, driven home. Not repetitious or overdone but simply owned. The strength of the endnote depends on this voluminous scribery in fact, highlights it and humanizes the players as it also contributes to the individuation of Eliza.

I was amazed by the immensity of the production as well. The ability to provide such thorough atmosphere without overbearing spectacle. And the sheer amount of coordination between and concentration of each actor to maintain that – the temporal, spatial and communal cohesion to keep the surface tension of reality from bursting the bubble of theater.

After the show my friend Jen treated me to another joy – “stage dooring.” After shows many cast members will appear at a certain door outside the theater to sign autographs, take pictures and engage with fans. I had no idea this was even a thing and the experience of it added to the impact of the entire night for me. We stood outside the door of a Broadway theater and waited through intermittent downpours talking excitedly about the show. Steam rose from a wet crowded street and our bodies and we tried not to drip on people on either side of us from the umbrella. And then suddenly were shaking hands and exchanging a few words with many of the principal parties of the show – including Christopher Jackson, Daveed Diggs, Jon Rua, Renee Elise Goldsberry, Leslie Odom Jr. and the man himself – Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Incredible on stage, this cast was also so wonderful person-to-person. Down-to-earth in the best of ways and so genuine, I am exceedingly grateful that they were my first “stage door” experience. Each of them took time to just sort of be with and honor the presence of the fans lined up to meet them. I didn’t see anyone hurrying nor anyone trying to tug themselves away even in the pouring rain.

I’m not sure what other medium this kind of thing happens in and wonder if the unique nature of live theater contributes to the phenomenon. In any case, the Hamilton cast members we interacted with took time not just to interact but to acknowledge us and it was a totally thrilling experience.

For a history geek like me, Hamilton – An American Musical was already a likely winner. Great writing upped the ante further. Add the skill and cohesion of a fantastic cast and their wonderful nature in a few personal moments and I am sold for all time.

Countdown to Zero Day: Read it.

Spent a chunk of this week reading Kim Zetter’s Countdown to Zero Day: Stuxnet and the Launch of the World’s First Digital Weapon and found it to be a good, timely book. Zetter, a senior staff writer for Wired, spins a well-focused narrative relevant not only to Stuxnet but to one of the more active issues in US politics right now: the Iranian nuclear program. Zetter goes into deep but comprehensible detail about nuclear weapons production and Iran’s specific methods and capabilities.

Another place the book shines is the way it leads the reader through malware detection and reverse-engineering processes. Zetter maintains an active and involved storyline that feels not at all like a technical report about either a virus or uranium enrichment. Add that there was no discernible political agenda and you’ve got a pretty damn good read on the details and wider contexts of Stuxnet.

Highly recommended.

Review: CUNNING PLANS by Warren Ellis

Just finished CUNNING PLANS by Warren Ellis, the $0.99 ebook formatting of several talks he’s given recently. Ellis is a comics and prose writer as well as a much-sought public commentator at this point, especially on matters of technology and culture. He’s of the storyteller vintage old enough to be labeled ‘olde’ and viewed out of the corner of one’s eye at all times to avoid losing sight or looking directly at him. The talks interweave the long and weird history of Britain with how we all approach technology today and often end up a call to action for listeners to go beyond anything he’s done. An avatar of the mechanism that Terence McKenna used to talk about of the universe seeking to transcend itself.

A few highlights for me:

A world without magic and ghosts is a world where we believe we can put the last ten thousand years in a box and consider it a done deal, just as scientists a hundred and twenty years ago considered science a completed enterprise aside from the nagging mystery of the luminiferous aether.

And:

Now imagine a world where space travel to other worlds is an antique curiosity. Imagine reading the words “vintage space.” Can you even consider being part of a culture that could go to space and then stopped? If the future is dead, then today we must summon it and learn how to see it properly.

SanDisk’s Wireless USB Drive Makes Me Sad

As one of the many hapless individuals stuck with a small-capacity iPhone, I’m always on the lookout for ways to extend its size and usefulness. Complicating this process is the fact that I’m hopelessly addicted to information. I crave it day and night, especially in audiobook and podcast form. So you can imagine my chagrin at being stuck with an 8GB iPhone.

I’ve been tied into the Apple ecosystem for a long time, often as an early adopter. Within relatively short order I’ve sported a first-gen iPod Nano and Touch, as well as a first-gen iPad purchased within a month of them coming on the market (my luck extends only so far, though, as I’ve never had the scratch for a Mac). The overwhelming majority of my music came straight through iTunes. I slogged through edu institution podcasts before iTunes U was a thing and then raided iTunes U on a weekly basis once it was. So, yeah. The platform works for me.

I spent years with Android phones, though. Didn’t have the money for an iPhone for a long time (I stuck primarily to prepaid carriers and would’ve had to shell out $600 up front for one). So for a long time I carried my Android phone and my 32GB second-gen iPod Touch.

Life got even better for a while. I worked a good job, made good money and decided to take the plunge back into wireless contracts so I could grab an iPhone; my first, a 5C 16GB “free” on contract. I immediately found the size constraining but made do for months on end shuffling things around and keeping a minimum of apps on the phone.

Life got worse. In December I lost my job of ten years and found it necessary to, embarrassingly enough, jump on my father’s wireless plan. But not to fear! We could get iPhones.

I ended up with a 5C, 8GB. I’ll spare you the details and just emphasize here that there is no way this device can meet my demands. Which is not its fault; and I’m not really complaining here. I’m damn happy to have a phone at all. But realities being what they are, I had to find a way around all this crap that didn’t involve carrying around 2-3 devices.

The SanDisk Connect Wireless Flash Drive entered my consciousness early this year with vague promises to cure my phone storage woes. “Stream music and videos straight from the device! Use on the go without a network around! Augment your phone or tablet with up to 64GB of extra storage!” And yes. I should’ve known better. But this seemed like a tailor-made answer to many of my problems. For some it was.

The Connect comes in two models: a 32GB model or 64GB model. Really, they’re USB/wireless chassis for Micro SD cards, but with an important distinction: the 32 only supports FAT32 formatting (you’ll see why this is a problem in a minute). The Connect also sports two modes: one where it broadcasts its own wifi network and you connect directly, or another mode in which you set it up to connect to a nearby wifi network so that you can maintain your mobile device’s connection to the internet while still accessing the Connect. The two different modes and the multiple connections they can service simultaneously are pretty neat.

Problems appeared as soon as I began to set the device up. The first? The Sandisk Connect’s default mode of operation is to broadcast an unprotected wireless network through which you must connect, via a mobile app, to set the device up. There is no way to set up the drive through a physical connection, no attempt at a unique generated key printed on the device or even a default password. Just an open wifi network until you work your way through the setup and reboot the damn thing into broadcasting a password-protected network instead.

The second problem is the app. Apps are available on iOS and Android, and both appear to be relatively buggy. The iOS app was worse, often inexplicably losing connection to the drive in either direct or indirect mode. This occurred over two different iPhone 5Cs, an iPad Mini, a Nexus 7 and a prepaid Android 4.4 phone whose make and model I’m forgetting at the moment. But was much more pronounced on iOS. The iOS app occasionally crashed or failed to see any drives, or simply failed to navigate or load folders on the drives. Manually killing and restarting the app often fixed these problems, but that’s no real fix at all.

The third problem hit me where it hurts. As stated above, these are simply chassis for Micro SD cards, so I grabbed a SanDisk 64GB microsd and put it into the lesser M model. No dice: it wasn’t formatted FAT32. So I format the card, through a whole lot of data on and everything’s going swimmingly. I now have *two* 64GB Connect drives. Wanting to see how one of SanDisk’s major selling points worked, photo transfers from phones, I began the (relatively easy) process of uploading saved iOS photos to the drive Connect. Here’s the problem: formatting microsd cards over 32GB as FAT32 can lead to data problems. So when I tried to download the photos *from* the Connect, I began getting significant errors. I was able to salvage 20 out of 132 transferred pictures. Admittedly I was pushing the boundaries of the lesser model, but if one push merits unrecoverable data…

The fourth problem occurred when I engaged with the music/audio functions of the Connect. On iOS this requires playing through the Connect app rather than the native Music app. I often go to sleep listening to audiobooks of books I’ve previously read so I set my iPhone up to stream one off the Connect, locked the screen and laid back. Some time later silence prematurely descended and I realized the book had stopped. Perplexed, I checked my iPhone and realized that the wireless connection had quit and the Connect app only played until the end of the cached file rather than continuing to the next track. Confirmed in a conversation with a SanDisk rep the next morning: once you lock the device it will only play until the end of the file. Streaming is not maintained despite a number of apps (think Pandora or other radio) having figured this out long ago.

SanDisk has known about this problem for several years, as the message board postings I’ve seen go back that far. And apparently have no plans to fix it.

So, okay. I can download whatever book I want to listen to that night *into* the Connect app on my phone instead. It’ll take up room and is a little more cumbersome but it means one less device (an audiobook-heavy one) to lug around. This worked only passingly because the SanDisk Connect app is the most spartan app I’ve seen since “Yo.” You can download files to your phone or tablet, even create folders and subfolders. But you can’t arrange tracks or set up playlists at all. The files are simply *there.* And given that more than a few times the app arranged tracks in an odd order, that meant that multi-track listening was out unless the order was inherently correct OR I just wanted to listen on shuffle. There’s no way to port tracks to the native iOS Music app from Connect, so you’re stuck dealing with their simple no-frills player and half-cocked file organization structure.

Not surprisingly, Android did not have this problem. Once you’ve downloaded an audio file into the Connect app from the wireless drive, Android indexes it and automatically adds it to the native Android music app. This approaches pretty passable functionality and had my experience only been on Android it would be much more glowing.

Where the Connect did help significantly was my podcast habit. I’m subscribed to about forty podcasts at this point and try to listen to at least one or two a day. An 8GB iPhone interferes mightily with that as I regularly have less than 1GB of space left at any given moment. What I’ve found is that I can download all my podcasts via iTunes on my PC and simply transfer the Podcasts folder to the Connect. From there I download a few a day directly to the phone and play through the (ugh) SanDisk app. But the workflow does make the process simpler.

Management of other file types felt surprisingly better. Grabbing a PDF from the Connect and opening it in any app of my choice worked well, as did ebooks, word processing files and comic book files. I could throw my digital/non-DRM comic book collection on the Connect in its entirety and while on the go decide to read any of them within about a minute.

You can access it by way of computers, too. Unfortunately SanDisk has failed to provide any kind of app to support the Connect for computers so you’re stuck accessing it through a slightly convoluted web browser mode that only allows you to browse the drive and download. No uploading at all. Which seems…pretty shortsighted.

I had such high hopes for the SanDisk Connect Wireless USB Drive. It could have supercharged my iPhone like nothing else I’ve found, in so many ways. But after engaging with it deeply, dealing with streaming and playback issues, app and wireless flakyness and even some inherent limitations of iOS I find it to be seriously hampered.

If it worked on iOS like it worked on Android: B

If streaming worked like the marketing suggested: a goddamn A

Half a grade taken off for:
-iOS being hampered but that not acknowledged in the least in marketing material
-App unreliability
-Inability to do much wirelessly from PC
-Broadcasting unprotected by default!

Full grade taken off for:
-No background streaming
-The lack of thought, design and operability in the mobile apps
-SanDisk’s lackluster response to the streaming issue

Full grade GIVEN for:
-how easy it makes my podcast habit, given the storage-handicapped iPhone
-Good for dealing with non-audio/video files such as PDFs, digital comics

Which leaves what could have been a remarkable, beautiful device like the SanDisk Wireless Connect USB drive with a grade of: D.

I know I expect a lot. And I push things harder than they’re meant. But I expect a hell of a lot more than that, SanDisk.