MR. PENUMBRA’S 24 HOUR BOOKSTORE

Robin Sloan

Clay Jannon has been laid off at NewBagel, where he had worked as an advertising designer.  This occurred shortly after the 2009 recession, memorable for being ignored and denied by politicians and megacorporations alike…  He waffles about, trying one thing after another until one day, walking along Broadway in San Francisco, he passes an obscure, dimly lit building with a sign saying “Help Wanted”.  It’s a bookshop, thinly situated between “Booty’s” on one side and a nondescript edifice on the other…  Entering on impulse, he is addressed by Ajax Penumbra, the owner/operator, briefly questioned, and subsequently hired to work the night shift.  Clay rapidly discovers peculiarities.  Very few customers enter and when they do, it’s to exchange a book they bring with them for another one in the stacks.  The bookstore is separated into two areas:  a smaller set of shelves in the front featuring well-known and popular titles commonly sold to the public, and a rear section, much larger, both deep and tall, in which thousands of volumes, thick, dark and heavy, are located.  Clay gets to recognize the very few visitors to the rear area, as their sole interest is to exchange the book they’ve brought with another from the dark zone, lurking menacingly toward the rear.  Mr. Penumbra explains, when queried, that these people are on a mission, and Clay later discovers that each person is trying to decipher the code in which the individual books are written.  When they finish with one volume, they exchange it for the next one on the shelf.  This procedure seems to have order, with a serial progression covering all the books in that area.  Each decoder/person apparently is at a different stage in the series…  Intrigued by this, Clay gets together with his room-mates, one a computer programmer and the other a miniature model maker, and they decide to attempt, conjointly, to design a computer program that would make a three-dimensional image of the entire store, as seen from the front window.  They acquire enough information to enable them to include several generations of user/decoders as they follow the imaginary lines connecting and revealing the linear progression of each participant in their chronological pursuit, studying volume after volume.  Finally they run the program and it reveals a picture of a man:  looking through the front window, the whole place produces a ghostly image of a face not unlike that of Mr. Penumbra!  This requires, no, demands, explanation, and Mr. P co-operates:  these “customers” belong to a club dating back about 500 years, called the “Unbroken Spine” fellowship. It was started initially after the death of Aldus Manutius (actually the figure revealed in the computer program) in the fifteenth century.  He was the first printer of the Greek and Roman classics, and at his death left a CODEX VITAE, a secret book which supposedly, if decoded, gave the secret of immortality.  The bookshop and it’s fellows all over the world, with headquarters in New York, are dedicated to decoding this book;  the method they’ve chosen requires the members to practice deciphering each book that 500 years worth of affiliates have written, compiled from studying the original text of Manutius’s.  Not only that, each fellow has written, in code, every possible detail they could think of from their own lives, as any tiny fact might lead on to the interpretation of the C.V.

Well, things get complicated.  More.  It turns out there is a master library in New York in which members who have completed decoding all their assigned volumes graduate to, as sort of assistants to the head librarian, Corvina.  This “reading room” is also where the C.V. is located, which, even after all the long years, has never been deciphered.  The Master is desperate to do this, as he’s getting older and wants immortality.  NOW.  All the plotters, Clay and his friends, travel to New York and invent a plot to copy the C.V.  Clay does the dirty work, sneaking into the library and photo-copying the book and almost getting caught, but escapes by the proverbial skin of his teeth.  Once the crew has the copy, they return to Google village, south of San Francisco, and convince a sometime girl-friend of Clay’s to use the computing power of the tens of thousands of Google machines, world-wide, to break the code.  After some finagling, the process is instigated, and…  you guessed it, the massive computing power of twelve bajillion computers is unable to decrypt the code.

After waffling around some more, Clay realizes that the only clue left they have is the font of Gerritszoon type that has been lost for a hundred years.  This font was invented by Manutius, and is apparently irreplaceable, being the original used by A.M. himself.  Clay finds a few clues and ends up locating the font of “punches”(the individually carved stamps for each letter) in a museum warehouse in Nevada.  And examining the font in detail, through a microscope, he makes an astonishing discovery…  As you’ll discover when you read the book…  sorry, haha..

I was pretty well convinced that modern books were categorically bad and unreadable but this one has turned my mind around.  It was witty, informative, complicated, entrancing, and eminently satisfying.  I’d recommend it to all.  I’ll look for more of Sloan’s work.  It was a lot of fun…

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THE TURK

By Tom Standage

By the 18th Century, clockwork mechanisms had become well-known in Europe and England.  The Dutch were the first on record to invent a weight-driven clock regulated with an anchor escapement, and the technology spread quickly, technicians using this somewhat arcane knowledge for mechanical creations other than clocks.  One of the first and most popular inventions was by an ex-monk named Vaucanson.  Fascinated by automata, he built increasingly complicated mechanical birds, learning by experimentation how to employ bellows and tubing, camshaft linkages, studded drums and appropriate valving in the construction of his clockwork simulacra.  The most famous ones were a moving figure of an old man playing the flute, and a mechanical duck that waddled and quacked.  Actual music was produced by bellows and tubing and the movements were governed by a rotating drum with studding on the outside which operated cams that opened and shut valves.  Vaucanson toured Europe exhibiting his creations and inspired other mechanically inclined persons to further develop his ideas.  One of these was Wolfgang von Kempelen (1734-1804), who as a young man became enthralled with the idea and reality of automatons.  His ultimate fabrication was “The Turk”, a mechanical chess playing robot.  This consisted of the upper torso of a Turkish pasha, mechanical of course, on one side of a table with a chess board in front of it;  it had two arms, one of which grasped a long thin hookah;   the other was constructed in such a way as to enable it to raise the chess pieces and move them from square to square.  Maria Theresa, the current empress of Austria, invited von Kempelen to her court and employed him in an entertainment capacity.  Soon, after a sojourn there of some years, she released him to go touring around Europe, which he did for two years.  The Turk became quite a rage and the question as to whether there was a person inside the mechanism operating the chess-playing arm was the subject of universal debate.  During the theatrical performance in which The Turk was presented, von Kempelen would wander about the theater while the latest challenger was playing the automaton, talking to members of the audience, and occasionally returning to wind up the clockwork via a crank on the side of the table.  The performance was initiated by von Kempelen opening up the doors in the front of the table the chess board sat on and demonstrating to the audience the gears and cams inside that drove the actions of the Turk.  He would open the rear doors also and shine a candle so that the onlookers could see all the way through the cabinet, verifying that there wasn’t a man hidden on the underside operating the mechanism.

Acrimony developed over the mystery between scholastics and scientists, engineers and magicians, to the point that von K became alarmed for his own safety and that of his creation.  Eventually he returned to the court of Maria T., put The Turk into storage, and led a quiet life, pottering about in his workshop for the balance of his life.  But that wasn’t the end of the story for The Turk.  It was sold and restored and came into the hands of a born entrepreneur named Johann Maelzel, who promoted and advertised Kempelen’s invention, showing it all over the continent, the British Isles, and America as well.  He would install The Turk, as well as numerous mechanical creations of his own (one of which was a moving reproduction of the burning of Moscow during the Napoleonic wars) in a local theater and use his advertising genius to drum up audiences.  Maelzel made a lot of money but he spent it just as rapidly.  So he had to travel a lot in order to engender new business:  he was a master showman and turned his automata into global attractions.  As time went on, though, he had to be more and more inventive, and develop new strategies to keep the audience mystified.  He held chess tournaments in major American cities and invited chess masters from all over the country to play The Turk.  Most of these games were won by the automaton, but not all.  Speculation was rampant for a long time regarding the leading question of whether Maelzel’s robot was really playing or if there was some sort of trickery involved.  Many well known figures published articles on the subject, including Edgar Allan Poe, the editor of a small magazine in which “Maelzel’s Chess-Player” was printed.  In fact, many eminent persons had been associated with the mechanical chess maestro:  Benjamin Franklin, P.T. Barnum, Charles Babbage, and others.  Finally, after receipts were declining and popularity was decreasing, Maelzel decided to move his show to Havana, in hopes of initiating a tour of South America.  But in the process of moving the large number of crates, some of the exhibits were damaged and others were lost in transit.  Discouraged and tired (he was 65 at the time), M took ship back to New York.  On the way he drank a case of wine and died.  Poe’s family doctor, a man named Mitchell, acquired and reassembled The Turk some years later and had it erected in the Chinese Theater, a well-known venue situated in Philidelphia.  After a number of years, the Theater caught fire and The Turk was destroyed.

But enough of the plans and structure of the automaton were saved that, after five years of research and fabrication, a man named John Gaughan created a new version in Los Angeles, where it remains today, an object of curiosity to those mechanically inclined persons who chance to visit.

Games between humans and machines have developed to the point that modern computers can beat any chess master, and the competitions have evolved to featuring matches between computers, eliminating the human element.  The latest computer chess genius is Deep Blue;  it’s never been defeated.

So what do you think?  Was The Turk a genuine mechanical chess player?  or did he have some help?  The answer is in the book, but No Spoilers!!

RUDDER GRANGE

Frank Stockton (1834-1902)

The narrator (Frank, i presume) has just wedded Euphemia and they are looking for a house to live in, fairly close to Frank’s work in the city.  High and low, every place they look at is too expensive or too far away or too – something….  After a prolonged investigation, they happen on a canal barge for rent, eagerly offered by a disreputable – looking individual lolling about on the edge of the river.  They move in, investing money and labor in creating their own home-like space.  Needing a bit of house – keeping help, they hire several maids who prove unsatisfactory until Pomona arrives.  She was a young orphan who decided that they needed her and peremptorily moved in.  Because money was still short, they also rented a room out to a Boarder (no name given).  There are certain disadvantages to these arrangements.  Pomona loves to read out loud (the only way she knows how to deal with a book) in a consonantally emphatic style that is beyond annoying, and the Boarder must have his garden, for which he carries wheelbarrow loads of dirt onto the foredeck, directly over the bedroom, through which ever after, thin streams of mud trickle down onto the coverlet.  Things happen:  the boat breaks loose in a storm and floats downstream to become stuck in a mudbank, partly due to the Boarder’s removing of the rudder to use for a table (hence the title) and Frank has to wade through acres of swamp to rescue it and Euphemia and Pomona and the Boarder.  Next, burglars invade in the middle of the night, spurring the Boarder and Frank to fire off rounds aimlessly decorating the interior with bullet holes.  They accost the burglar and throw him through the window into the river and soon discover that the interloper was actually Pomona, who was late getting back from a visit to the orphanage.

Finally, the canal boat is destroyed in a storm which catapults it bow down into the center of the river, from where it cannot be extracted;  the inhabitants manage to rescue most of their belongings, but are now in the position of having to look for another place to live.  They eventually do so, and name the small farm “Rudder Grange”, honoring their first unforgettable domicile…

The Boarder and Pomona move in with them, helping with the chores and providing entertainment:  Pomona  makes a garden fence out of hambones and reads her favorite book (The Bridal Corpse, or Montregor’s Curse) and teaches herself how to milk the cow.  The Boarder chops wood and cuts hay and helps deal with an aggressive tramp (they wrap him in muslin, put him in a box and mail him to the local jail).  Euphemia decides to cultivate chickens;  by her own calculations, starting with ten chickens, she, in five years, will have accumulated 64,800 of them.  I should mention Lord Edward, given to them by a thoughtful neighbor.  A large ferocious dog who loved chasing hobos and salesmen, two of which he treed on the same day, on one occasion, causing consternation on the parts of his owners, who, with great difficulty, rescued them after managing to lure Lord Edward off with pie.  The hobo carved a “do not stop here” sign on a tree in front of the house.

Frank and Euphemia finally get to go on a honeymoon and leave Pomona in charge;  she does well, dealing with a pushy lightning rod salesman, who she strands on the roof for several days, and installing a sign saying “House for Rent, due to unpaid taxes” on the front gate, just to discourage itinerant peddlers and Bible – thumper types.  Then she lives in the barn, so as to avoid showing light inside the house.

Pomona marries a local youth from a swampy area where everyone is sick all the time from malarial infections due to all the mosquitoes and lack of quinine.  They also go for a honeymoon, during which Jonas, the recent bridegroom, has a plan to cure Pomona of her predilection for bosom-ripping novels and sagas from the days of chivalry.  He takes her to a nice location in the country where she meets Tom Thumb and Andrew Jackson’s widow.  It’s not long before Pomona realizes she is in a lunatic asylum.  They can’t leave because they don’t have a doctor’s permit to do so, so they escape over the fence one night in the company of the Widow and Tom.  Looking for the doctor to write them a release, they stay overnight in a local hotel, where the Widow turns on all the gas and nearly conflagrates the building.  She disappears and is later discovered dancing in the street with Tom during a prevue of a traveling circus.  At this point the Boarder shows up again, rescues them all and gives P and J tickets to the circus but when they are walking in that direction, closer scrutiny reveals that the tickets are actually for an entomological exhibit.  Disgusted by the travail and accidental adventures, the two return to the swamp farm.  Meanwhile,…  (as may be evident at this point, Stockton’s book is episodical, and continues with ever increasing imaginative inventions…).

Some quotes depicting Stockton’s wry humor:  “the driver ripped out an oath, which, had he thrown it across a creek, would soon have made a good-sized mill pond”;  “none of the houses in which the rent was named would do at all”.  I’ve found Stockton to be one of a kind, almost…  dryer than Twain and zanier than Artemus Ward, he’s in a class of his own.  Very funny and recommended highly!

another bicycle ride

That’s me holding up my daughter’s bicycle that she gave me because it was a 27 speed bike;  she used to be an Iron-man participant and had trouble shifting into the right gears when engaged in the bike-riding section of the race…  that’s Albert in the background…  I converted it into a one speed and altered the chain ring and rear sprocket so as to attain a reasonable, for an oldster, pedaling speed.  I usually only wear the hat in the woods.

Last week it was another beautiful day, so it was a good opportunity to try out my latest addition to my bicycle:  the bright red pedals (not shown).  I drove over to the library across the river, parked and unloaded mr. bicycle and took off.  Lots of people out mowing their lawns and raking up leaves in the sunshine;  it was almost like, what’s that next season…  oh, spring:  i almost forgot.  I was pedaling along the bike path that runs along the river on the northern side, admiring the pollution emanating from the stacks of the local paper mill (i’m being facetious, of course), ripping along at an exhilarating speed (about 10 mph) when it started being harder to pedal;  i thought i was going up a hill although i knew i wasn’t anywhere near one for awhile yet, but soon realized it was something more dire.  So i stopped and looked over the machine, and, surprisingly enough, one of the bungee cords strung along my home-made bike rack had come loose and cleverly managed to wind itself around the bottom-bracket axle, where the pedals attach.  Horrors, he said to himself.  I was able to carefully unwind it and restore it back where it belonged;  apparently no damage either to the cord, rack, or pedal axle, so i remounted and started off again.

At my usual halt:  the local megamall place, i paused for a bottle of orange juice and a jelly donut (bad habit – yet another one to give up…).  i rode around the corner for a bit of quiet time and consumed the goodies, then got on again and pedaled over to the local highway.  It has one of those complicated pedestrian arrangements with a fuzzy voice that’s hard to understand and electric signs on both sides of the street that say “WALK” and the opposite.  Waiting there, an older fellow that quite strikingly resembled Santa Claus without the beard, being taller and heavier than I, pulled up beside me on an unusual bike.  I asked him about it and he said it was a 26″ frame that he’d installed 20″ wheels on, apparently in order to make getting on and off easier.  Looking closer, i saw that it had caliper brakes front and rear that were held on by U-bolts.  He saw me observing that egregious example of low-tech engineering and stated, with conviction, that it was perfectly safe and worked well…  We exchanged a few more words, then the light changed and the Cross sign came on and he walked off down the street, pushing his bike;  not riding it…  i watched him for a while, but never did see him get on it…  hmmm, he said…

Across the busy avenue, we (me and the mr. bike) traveled along the nice bike-riding zone that the city had marked out for us, next to the sidewalk, and soon arrived at the local dike trail that meandered along the canal/slough that carried local run-off over to the river.  Ducks of several sorts were paddling through the water in various self-absorbed capacities, traversing their duckish universe.  I took a short cut after a while, leading over to a road with a hill i wanted to go down.  For the fun of it.  When i got there, I realized how steep it was and felt a little apprehensive, but, living it up and exercising my freedom of choice, I took off down it.  And scared the bejeezus out of myself…  It had been a long time (fifty years?) since i’d done anything like that, and made me realize i wasn’t so young any more…  But it wasn’t all a negative experience:  even though i was beyond acting like a young idiot, i could still act like an old one…  So i rode over to a nearby parking lot and recaptured some of the verve of youth by swooping around the parking bumps and signs, pretending like i was a jet plane.  It WAS fun.

Sobering up (endorphins, not alcohol), i remembered that i still had some honey-dos to  take care of, so i pedaled back to the car, loaded the bike up and went off to do them… A nice day, with interesting events and things to see;  doesn’t, imo, get  a whole lot better…

The Consolidator

THE CONSOLIDATOR

DANIEL DEFOE (1660-1731)

A new era is emerging:  Russia is modernizing it’s transportation system, so travelers to the Far East are encouraged to travel via a staged route through Russia, Mongolia and China to reach Tonquin, the purported hub of Chinese civilization at the time.  Having done so, the narrator discovers amazing facts about the little-known kingdom.  Many of the arts and inventions just revealed in Europe actually began in China:  Printing, Gunpowder, the Compass, Magnetism, were all products of Chinese creativity.  After visiting many interesting locales and persons, the narrator discovers the Great Library at Tonquin, where he becomes acquainted with Lbra chizra-le-peglizar, Historiagrapher-Royal to the Emperor of China. Present in the library, amid myriads of ingenious inventions, was a Meckanical Engine that printed books in Diamond Plate, thus preserving them for future generations.  Perusing the many volumes, it’s revealed to the narrator that the Great Flood, as described in the western Bible, was caused by a war between the Emperor of the time(this happened about 6000 BC) and the dwellers in heaven.  The Emperor had caused to be built giant cannons which fired huge cannon balls straight up and breached the floor of Paradise, causing a great storm which flooded the world, wiping out most civilizations.  Before the Flood occurred, Tangro the fifteenth (said Emperor) had a fleet of ships built, some 100,000 of them, which held the total population during the war, and enough food and water for 120 days, so that the people were saved from drowning.

Among the many original and unique inventions present in the library was the Consolidator.  This was a Meckanical Engine designed to travel to the moon.  It was made of feathers, all of equal size and breadth, used to build two wings, and had a larger feather in the middle for navigation.  The inventor was a far traveler from the moon named Miracho-cho-lasmo, who, persuaded by the current emperor to stay on earth, was responsible for enlightening the Chinese as to “the secret operations of Nature, how Sensation is convey’d to and from the Brain;  why Respiration preserves Life;  and how Locomotion is directed to, as well as perform’d by the Parts.”  Miracho’s explanation of the brain and it’s functions involved segmenting the internal gray matter into glass cells between which messengers raced back and forth at light speed, delivering information to all parts at the same time, so as to lend the impression of consciousness.  The theory covered all the brain’s operations, including Memory, Lying, Forgetfulness, Revenge, and many others.  At any rate, after a thorough analysis and examination of the pertinent texts, the narrator becomes bent on traveling to the moon to investigate the country and talk to the inhabitants.  To do so, he must operate the Consolidator (in Chinese:  DUPEKASS;  in Tartar:  APEZOLANTHUKANISTES).  As indicated above, the two wings are made of 256 feathers each, with a larger one used for steering.  The Consolidator must be rebuilt every three years, as it wears out in that span of time, being buffeted, cursed, overworked, and vilified(at this point the reader might note the number of members in the English parliament).  So, moving right along, we find ourselves on the moon, after some rather unfortunate and potentially disastrous bumps in the road.

The balance of the book is concerned with describing the countries, the wars and the religions of the Moonites, and comparing them with their counterparts on the earth below (by the way, inhabitants of the moon regard the earth as their moon, so, both bodies being moons, the persons thereon are all moonies…).  As the narration progresses, it becomes evident that the problems and behaviors found on the moon do not differ much from those infesting the earth:  cross-purposes, unexpected results, and fiendish conniving are rampant, all resulting in mass discontent and unhappiness.  The only episode in which a temporary peace occurs, is when one party, the Crolians (their counterparts on Earth were the Dissenters;  in DeFoe’s time, being Presbyterians under attack from a hostile government), develop a commercial ascendency over their opponents, allowing them to effectively rule the country and overcome any oppositional reactions.  I should mention that earlier, in Tonquin, was discovered a special sort of telescope lens made of hog’s eyes (introduced by Miracho), that enabled the user to see very much farther and with greater clarity than the averagely-sighted person.  But the use of this sort of telescope didn’t seem to improve the social behavior of the moonies..

Reading this remarkable volume, i wrote down about twenty pages of detailed notes, which, if all were taken into consideration, would have made a post about as long as DeFoe’s book.  All i can say, is if you don’t mind long involved sentences and obscure references, it’s well worth reading;  if for no other reason than to admire the author’s amazing grasp and memory of the political shenanigans and religious conflicts contaminating the period of his existence.  And of course his gift for satire, the use of which is so penetrating as to boggle the brain.  A lot like Swift, actually…

HARRY HEATHCOTE OF GANGOIL

Anthony Trollope

Harry was an orphan in England with a small fortune.  After a desultory education, his resolute nature led him to emigrate to Australia, where he purchased a squatter’s lease in Queensland:  a sheep ranch consisting of  120,000 acres of forest, desert and woodlands.  At that time a rancher who had obtained land from the Crown was known as a “squatter”;  as opposed to a “Free-Selector”, who had merely occupied a given tract with no legal rights pertaining…  Harry and Mary (Mrs. Heathcote, who had been an orphan as well) along with Mary’s sister, Kate, lived in a three-room cottage surrounded by various ramshackle buildings with designated uses:  kitchen, horse barn, woodshed, bath-house, etc.  Other employees were Sing-Sing, the cook, Jacko, Boscobel, Nokes, Karl Bender, sheep hands, and Mrs. Growler, the housekeeper.  This workforce aided Harry in tending to his 30,000 sheep.  The neighbors were the Midlicots and the Brownbies.  The former were free-selectors-sugar cane farmers- who had occupied land on the Mary river within Harry’s ranch and the latter were no-account criminals who stole cattle and drank.

At the time the story opens, it is Christmas:  a time of blazing heat and torrid weather. Harry is occupied twenty hours a day riding his fence lines and caring for his sheep and watching out for fire.  Any spark would, in a matter of hours, blown by the almost constant east winds, instantly fire the grass and wipe out fences, woods, and buildings in a very short length of time.  And Harry has enemies.  The Brownbies would love to see him burned out and the Medlicots seem, initially, to harbor hostile attitudes, responding to Harry’s resentment at their inhabiting what he regards as his land.  The acrimony is enhanced when one of Harry’s employees, Nokes, after being fired for dereliction, is hired as foreman to Medlicot’s sugar cane mill.  Subsequently, Boscobel quits after an altercation with his boss, and moves over to the Brownbie ranch, bringing his indignation with him.  Harry is worried that his enemies will try to burn him out.  And with good reason.  Soon the Brownbies begin a program of planned destruction.  Nokes is seen attempting to burn down the sheep barn but no physical evidence remains with which to enlist the aid of the local authorities.  Meanwhile, Medlicot pays a visit to the Heathcotes, trying to improve relations between the two establishments;  in the process, the bone of contention between the two families is revealed and Medlicot later fires Nokes who moves in with the Brownbies.  Several small fires are discovered by Harry in his nightly patrols, near the boundary between his place and the Brownbies, leading Harry to suspect that a major move on the part of the criminals will soon be forthcoming.  Soon after, a malefactor is observed running along the border with a lit branch, igniting the grass and initiating a major conflagration.  Harry recruits as many helpers as he can and through extremely strenuous exertions, manages to start a sufficient number of backfires to redirect the flames to the south.  During this action, Medlicot and a few mill hands show up to help.  Shortly afterwards, the Brownbies arrive on horseback, wielding clubs, and with full intent on mass murder.  The defenders, after a short but violent encounter, succeed in driving the B’s off, but not until Medlicot suffers a broken collarbone.  Exceedingly fatigued, they return to Harry’s place, with the wounded Medlicot, and Harry immediately sets off to ride to the nearest doctor, thirty miles away.

In the interest of preserving suspense, i won’t reveal the final disposition as regards the various characters;  suffice it to say that there are some surprises…

This book reminded me a lot of some of the western movies i’ve seen:  Harry would have been played by John Wayne, Nokes might have been Jack Elam, and Wallace Beery would have been great as the elder Brownbie…  It’s not a long novel, and, contrary to Trollope’s habitual practice, was quite concise and thrilling.  I’d recommend it to any reader in search of a respite from one or another of T’s long series…