I read The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe


The road to The North

I didn’t recognize this delightful novella by Kij Johnson as Lovecraft homage until nearly the end, when I looked up the name of a strange creature mentioned within, and discovered its original appearance in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. From there, surprised, I learned of all the connections between the two century-separated stories. Johnson does not mean to deceive; she names the original work in her book’s acknowledgements, and makes clear her motivation for setting the story in the older book’s world. She writes of a desire to “make adult sense” of a personally formative work she loved as a child, in spite of its transparent racism and its utter lack of female characters.

The territory that Johnson borrows from Lovecraft is “the Dreamlands”, a dimension which appears to be knit by men — and men, specifically — dreaming a certain boys-own-adventure dream in resonance. The sky resembles a rippling, patchwork quilt, highly intelligent housecats travel with agendas, and all the world’s people fear an unseen but very real pantheon of childish, squabbling gods. In one corner of this land, tucked away like the Shire, Vellitt Boe teaches at a women’s college. A student, the daughter of an important patron, elopes with one of the dreaming outsider-men, promising ruin the the college (either basely financial or divinely wrathful) if not amended immediately. And so Boe, herself a retired adventurer, straps on her kit and grimly sets out to retrieve the runaway.

Seen through Boe’s eyes, the Dreamlands resemble a world that only grudgingly accepts notions of gender equality, and without letting go of thoroughly male-dominated hegemony. This comes in part, it seems, because men vastly outnumber women in the Dreamlands — something that Johnson layers on to Lovecraft’s vision to explain certain discrepancies in hindsight. Of course, it doesn’t feel at all difficult to draw parallels between Boe’s trek through her fantastic landscape and a real-life woman’s mundane travels. Her perspective reminded me strongly of that of the protagonist in Charlie Stross’s The Annihilation Score, also a middle-aged woman, and who just like Boe finds herself struggling to belong to the only world she has even as it renders her increasingly invisible.

For all this, Dream-Quest keeps its focus on Boe’s quest, larger than this one burden she carries, however constant. Assisted perhaps by my accidental lack of expectations stemming from my unfamiliarity with the source work, I loved the whole strange, engaging adventure, whose satisfying conclusion I arrived at in a single sitting. The author makes clear her own lifelong admiration of Lovecraft’s surreal settings — and the weird creatures and cultures that populate it, both above and beneath the earth — and deploys them with such an original and interesting voice that, as I said, I had no idea until the end that I read a remix.

The other facet that stood out notably (in that I took notes about it) involved Boe’s obsession with her own age. Perhaps understandably, having not rambled through the Dreamlands in decades, she sees at every step visions of young Vellitt, incandescent with beauty and foolish confidence. She thinks constantly about the differences between that woman and her present self. In the middle of her adventure, she reconnects with an old flame, but realizes with distaste that he sees her as she was, now how she is. Does Boe realize the irony of her (not unrightfully) rebuffing him, when she lets herself carry the very same delusion? Perhaps so, and maybe that helps her better accept her particular transformation at the end of her quest.

I read The Underground Railroad


The road to The North

Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad presents its prologue and opening act as straight historical fiction, introducing us to young Cora, born on an antebellum Georgia cotton plantation, the daughter of its only successful escapee. After years of enduring the plantation’s dehumanizing tortures and privations, she embraces her inherited inevitability, stealing off with two other slaves to a rumored safe-house. And here, the novel plays with divergence: the Underground Railroad of Cora’s world exists as a literal subway line, coal-fired locomotives groaning through vast, dark tunnels. The abolitionists risking their lives to act as this railroad’s station agents feel modeled on history, while the stations beneath their homes, and the engineers manning the trains, exist in a surreal half-reality that reminded me of the “Red Room” dream sequences from Twin Peaks.

Through this mechanism, Cora slips between alternate-history views of the United States before emancipation. Each stop on the line carries her to a new state and — it seems — to a neighboring reality as well. South Carolina, here, has somehow become a free state, but its white hegemony still manages to see its black population as a problem to study and solve. Cora, reluctantly, must move on. North Carolina is neither a slave nor a free state, instead opting to bar all blacks from its borders — as well as any whites who would harbor them — on pain of public execution. And if Railroad’s Tennessee has achieved a measure of racial equality, it comes at the cost of universal diminishment, its blasted lands ravaged by fire and plague on an otherworldly scale.

Cora travels through all these states, arrives at a coda elsewhere, and then moves on from that as well. While she does meet friends and allies, Cora is hounded and harried in all these places, without rest, by a society that wants to destroy her. She has committed the crime of stealing herself, and so must run and fight like hell to protect her most personal property from a world which, whether through means overt or insidious, refuses to acknowledge that Cora belongs to Cora alone.

This reading puts me in the mind of Ta-Nahisi Coates, who also writes of the black American experience from a viewpoint that must begin with slavery — an evil whose soul survived emancipation, living on within the pervasively institutional racism that still thrives today. But Coates, like Whitehead, wrote his book before Trump’s election, and one cannot avoid feeling tightly contemporary resonances running through The Underground Railroad. The narrative of a woman fighting for her own bodily autonomy carries a new urgency, of course. As I write this, social media carries reports of American immigration agents breaking up families and deporting life-long residents, and — dizzyingly — I read of refugees fleeing the perils of America for Canada, for the uncertain safety of The North.

All of which challenges one to ask: What state do you live in?

I heard of this book in the most uncanny fashion, its author receiving mainstream acclaim for it just as I finished reading The Noble Hustle, a short and wryly self-effacing account of his brief go at the World Series of Poker. I picked up that book at random from my local library’s stacks because I wanted to read something about Poker, and that book looked new and short. I hadn’t heard of Colson Whitehead before, but his author photo let me know the book would count towards my ongoing mission to read more books by people besides white dudes. So I read and enjoyed it and then serendipity decreed that I would find myself suddenly awash in news features celebrating The Underground Railroad, Whitehead’s brand new novel about the titular 19th century American abolitionist network. Okay!

How to erase your phone quickly and reversibly


You may find yourself in a situation where, in order to protect the private data on your phone — as well as the data on all the services accessible from your phone — from imminent seizure, you will need to erase that phone as quickly as possible. In such a situation, you may be unable to spare the attention necessary to fiddle around in the guts of your phone’s utility applications, hunting for its rarely used self-destruct command.

With a bit of foresight, you can set up your phone to allow erasing all your sensitive information without leaving its lock-screen — and then give you the ability to restore your data later.

  1. Set up your phone to back up its data regularly.
    • iPhone: In the Settings app, under iCloud, turn on backups. (You will need to set up an iCloud account if you don’t already have one associated with your phone.)
    • Android: (I don’t know! Feel free to tell me.)
  2. Set up your phone to erase itself after a certain number of incorrect password attempts.
    • iPhone: In the Settings app, under Touch ID & Password (or just Password on an older phone), turn on the Erase Data switch.
    • Android: (I don’t know! Feel free to tell me.)

Having done this, if you find yourself needing to make your phone’s data inaccessible quickly, you can lock it, then proceed to rapidly and repeatedly tap an incorrect unlock code — 1111, say — until you trigger the phone’s erasure. (Caveat: I haven’t tried deleting my own iPhone’s data this way, so I don’t know if one can expect having to navigate past “You’re about to erase this phone” dialogs or the like, as well.)

When your phone and your attention have both returned to your full control, you can get yourself to a Wi-fi spot and restore its data from its most recent backup. (On iPhone, this option clearly presents itself from a just-erased phone’s setup process.) You can also continue using your phone in its “factory-fresh” state in between its erasure and its restoration, but without access to your data you’ll have to (for example) manually enter your friends’ or family’s phone numbers in order to contact them. It may be a good idea, therefore, to complement this plan by carrying a few key phone numbers on a physical card that you carry separately in your purse or wallet.

I offer this advice as a white American who seldom crosses his country’s national border, such that I don’t feel it that this advice necessarily applies to myself today — but, reading the news, I have prepared my phone as I describe above just the same. I invite readers with different backgrounds or experiences than my own, and who wish to offer counter-narratives, to get in touch; I will amend this post as warranted.

Earning to give, near and far


Near and far.

When I launched my flight-turbulence prediction tool in December, I expected it to remain the focus of my attention through 2017. However, the global chaos that has followed Trump’s ascendency beckons me to shift my priorities. Surrounded by crises both suddenly shocking and subtly insidious, I can’t help but turn to less uncertainly entrepreneurial channels in order to assist the new American resistance.

BumpySkies won’t go anywhere, in the meantime. Having achieved minimum viable product, it has reached a sort of local minimum of stable utility; it does its one thing well, and requires little attention from me. I would love to turn BumpySkies into an income-generating venture, somehow, and I can see many paths to profitability I could start investigating — but any one such journey would require a very large personal investment in time and attention.

In the other timeline, I might have felt happy to begin this adventure immediately. In the world we have, though, I feel instead the call to return — at least for a while — to my consulting work, racking up a lot of billable hours and finding new but dependable routes for recurring project fees. I have, for the last couple of weeks, thrown myself into doing good work for my clients, approaching my professional relationships with renewed vigor.

This has meant that, on weekends when my friends and family have been marching in protests, I’ve stayed in my office, my head down over a hot text editor, refactoring code and writing automated test suites. And yet I march with them in spirit, because our goals are the same, and I have conviction that this method, indirect as it may seem, represents the best way I can assist the American resistance. I choose to trade away a larger slice of my time and attention for an activity that pays me well specifically so I’ll have more money to give away to causes I believe in, causes that will in turn help to keep my country and my world on-track.

A friend of mine told me recently that my new conviction resembles the philosophy known as effective altruism. Its Wikipedia entry describes that in rather specific terms, but also links to a related strategy simply called earning to give, which resonates immediately. Effective altruism, when practiced by the book, features an oddly passionless mandate for maximizing charitable efficiency — choosing, for example, malaria-prevention concerns over any charity of closer relevance to one’s own life, because money so applied will help far more people in measurably profound ways, dollar-for-dollar. Earning to give decouples this principle from the simpler pledge of pursuing the highest-paying career one can in order to tithe away a significant fraction for society’s good, leaving the specifics of targeting for the heart to decide.

What does my heart say? At present, there exist two major beneficiaries of my charitable giving; I have set up automated and sizable monthly donations to both. I reserve the right to adjust my sights in the future, but for now I like keeping to a strategy of having one near charitable recipient, whose actions lie close to home in terms of both location and time-span, and a far one concerning itself with long-term, world-wide issues. I do not mean to imply that these charities are the best, or even the most worthy within their spheres. They’re just the ones I give to right now.

ACLU. The near-term one, obviously. I last gave to them once the latter Bush administration grabbed the opportunity of a terrorist attack to enact its own abusive regime. If I recall correctly, I gave them a single gift of $100 — an amount commensurate with my financial status more than fifteen years ago. Today, I can afford to give more, and more often, and I do. Like countless others, I see its leading the swift legal fight to nullify Trump’s thoroughly un-American travel ban as immediate proof that I have invested wisely.

Union of Concerned Scientists. Prior to last November, I couldn’t have named a single politically active organization dedicated to legally challenging the forces who would keep the world ignorant about the threat posed by climate change. Now I know at least three. I learned about UCS first, and began monthly donations to it on November 9. I have since then encountered both EarthJustice and NRDC.

I may re-examine and rebalance my giving; UCS seems to emphasize communication and organization, and I may prefer supporting a group that favors direct action and legal challenges, in the same vein as ACLU. In any case, I find myself as frustratingly susceptible as anyone else to losing focus on climate change’s fearful, long-term promises when surrounded by closer crises of every kind. I very much want to support an organization that will pay attention to it — and act on it — in my stead. For now, UCS will do.