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Here’s an interesting story from California’s past.

Huh?

Well, I tried!

I have a small (tiny) business doing freelance writing, something to bring in a little extra money in retirement. Things started to pick up in 2021, so I thought it a good idea to pay quarterly taxes on the earnings to avoid any problems down the line.

Seriously, I tried.

Three times today I tried to use the IRS’ online payment system (they use third-party vendors), and three times my credit card was declined. The first two times I called VISA — no problem with my account. They did say, however, I had entered the CVV number wrong. Weird, since I use a password manager and form filler that’s had no problem in the past. So, I tried a second time and double-checked the information.

Declined again.

I called VISA and, this time, they said the expiration date was wrong: I had input 01 for the month instead of 10. Except… That’s also filled by the password manager. So, I tried a third time.

Declined again.

This time I noticed something that gave me a possible explanation: for the month, they use month names – January, &c. So, my form filler correctly chose “October.” But, I have some experience with databases, and I wonder if the lookup table that stores the date information has October miscoded as “01,” a typo in the coding, that it then feeds to VISA, triggering an error.

I bet that’s what it is. It figures that the same government that hired the people who designed the Obamacare web site would would hire people who would miscode dates, too.

Regardless, three times is enough. After checking VISA to make sure no charges went through, I filled out a paper form and mailed a check.

But I did want those Amazon points, danggit.

Summary: An interesting monograph on the topic of murder in the Roman Republic and Empire, but marred by the very large ax the author has to grind. Recommended with reservations.


A Fatal Thing Happened On The Way To the Forum: Murder in Ancient Rome, by Emma Southon, should be of interest to the general student of Roman History and the history of law, because it covers because it explores an intriguing question: how did the Roman people and state view the deliberate killing of one person by another outside the context of war? In our time, murder, the unlawful killing of one person by another, is viewed as a grave crime warranting the intervention of the State through the police and courts. But how did the Romans, from whom we take many of our concepts of the Rule of Law, themselves see it?


Southon, who holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, over the course of nine chapters explores these differences, which can be striking. Looking at homicides ranging from the highest classes of Roman society, emperors and consuls, to the lowest – slaves, gladiators, and prostitutes – she looks at a fundamental question: whose deaths were, in the Roman perspective, even worth caring about? From there she goes on to “Okay, this person is dead. Now what?”


(It should be noted that Southon uses a very broad definition of murder, essentially equating it with homicide: “…I have used a very comprehensive definition of ‘murder’ to include basically all killing. Rightness and wrongness are products of social space, where gender, status, race, location, means, time, wealth and infinite other variables shift and move and come together to create rightness and wrongness that are never static. Because of this, I have interpreted the concept of murder very (very) broadly.”)


In looking at these questions, Southon makes two valuable observations (at least, two that stick with me days after finishing the book). The first is that not all lives mattered. In our Judeo-Christian/Anglo-American ethics and jurisprudence, the ideal is that the murder of “someone important” is no different from the murder of a nobody: killing a homeless person is just as much a crime as killing a billionaire or a celebrity. Each is of equal worth as a person and each has an equal right to life.


Southon points out, I think rightly, that the Romans (and, I suspect, much of the Ancient World) would scratch their heads at that. Society was rigidly divided into those who came from powerful families and did important things and who had dignity, the honestiores, and those who didn’t, the infames (“infamous”) who were barely above animals. Romans and the Roman State simply didn’t see the killing of the latter as any big deal. Stab Julius Caesar, for example, and the civil war is on. Beat Publius the slave to death because he broke a vase and, oh well, you can always buy another slave.


She’s also right to point out the inferior and more vulnerable position of Roman women, though I think she errs by omission by failing to point out the status of women in, for example, in Classical Greece was far worse. In Rome, at least, women could own property and businesses. They were, however, still at the mercy of their husbands and fathers.


And this leads to another interesting observation Southon makes, that murder in Rome was not a crime against the sovereign (the Crown in the UK and the People in the US), but often a private family matter. Killings were often kept “in house” lest exposure cause scandal and a stain on the family reputation. If someone committed a crime worth killing for, such as plotting to poison dear old Pater to get his money, it was usually up to the family to deal with it themselves. There was no public prosecution as we think of it.


One could seek to take a killer to court in Rome, but this was again a matter of a family bringing its case to a court and hiring an advocate to speak for them. (Cicero being among the most famous) A variant on this lead to one of my favorite stories in the book, regarding how the Emperor Tiberius personally investigated the case of a woman found dead and determined her husband had murdered her. But, again, Southon’s point holds true: all of the actors in this story were Important People whose lives were considered to have worth. One doubts very much if the Emperor would have investigated the killing of a tavern keeper’s wife.


Southon, as I see it, approaches her topic from a leftist-feminist perspective, looking at class, gender, and power relationships. This itself I have no problem with, even if it’s not a perspective I share; different lenses or filters bring other facts into focus that can provide insight.


The problem as I see it, one that hurts an otherwise worthy book, is Southon’s tone and style. The book, and especially its notes, are written in a casual, even foul-mouthed style as if one were talking with a colleague in a bar over beers one evening. And there is plenty of “Can you believe they would do this shit?” anger on behalf of the victims throughout, as well as humorous references to modern pop culture. (Southon co-hosts a podcast called “History is Sexy,” so I gather this style is her metier.)


At first, I found this refreshing and enjoyable, but, after a couple of chapters, it became tiresome. I found myself thinking “Okay, I get it! The Romans were scum and they casually killed people in really horrible ways. The horse is dead, you can stop beating it now.” After a while, I was yearning for just a dollop of boring old scholarly objectivity. In short, the attempt to be relatable and casual with the reader wound up distracting from the message she was trying to get across.


Format note: I read “A Fatal Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum” in Kindle format. The copy was clean, with no editing or formatting mistakes that I saw. Too often, Amazon tolerates these. I was happy to see the publishers took care with this book.

So, after a little less than three years, I recently finished the Portuguese course on Duolingo. Yes, even the dreaded subjunctive tenses. I started because I had studied it in college and wanted to knock the rust off. How would I evaluate the results?

Reading: Pretty good. I can work my way through newspaper articles and short stories without being stumped too often. A dictionary is required, however. Buying Portuguese-language Kindle books has been a great help.

Writing: Good, but not great. Prepositions are tricky (in any language), and my vocabulary is still small. But, practice will help.

Speaking: BWAHAHAHAHA… (takes breath)… BWAHAHAHAHA!!! Duolingo is not a site for speaking or listening comprehension; their electronic voices are awful. My pronunciation is okay, because I learned from guy from Rio, but I plan to take online lessons from a tutor in a small-group setting. That should help.

So, would I recommend Duolingo? Well, yes and no. If you’re willing to put the work in (an hour a day online, maybe doing some extracurricular research), you’ll get to an intermediate level. Its main advantage is that it’s free. Its main disadvantage is that you have to be very self-motivated and willing to put up with some frustration*.

Still, I think it was worth it.

*(I’ve referred only partially in jest to their pedagogical methods being “learning through frustration.” The answers database can be sloppy, not containing answers moderators say are acceptable, or even having flat-out errors. This would be fine if they were fixed promptly, but some have gone unrectified for years. They also have a bad habit of giving you sample sentences to translate that contain grammar or syntax you haven’t been taught yet, which means you have no chance to get it right. Since their system is set up to reward getting as much right as possible, that can be… “annoying,” let’s say.)

Penric’s Fox by Lois McMaster Bujold

My rating: 3 of 5 stars




Lois McMaster’s “Penric and Desdemona” series of novellas represents the kind of fantasy I most enjoy: “small” adventures rather than yet another Grand Quest To Save The World(tm). A mostly ordinary person caught in unusual circumstances faces a problem – now, how does he solve it?

In this series, the main characters are Penric, a minor noble who shares his mind-space with a demon that is itself host to the personalities of all the beings it “co-habited” before. It’s name is “Desdemona.” To learn to deal with his condition, Penric became a sorcerer-priest of “The Bastard,” one of the five gods of Bujold’s setting. Together, Penric and Desdemona’s adventures (so far), involve solving murder mysteries in a fantasy medieval setting. In that, they are a fantasy version of the well-known detective team trope.

The fifth book in the series, but third in the setting’s internal chronology, “Penric’s Fox” wasn’t as satisfying, but still enjoyable. The actual mystery itself wasn’t hard to figure out, the clues being rather “on the nose.” It felt almost as if the purpose was less the mystery than to see familiar characters develop a bit and to set the stage for later stories.

Still the writing is good, the characters enjoyable, and the setting interesting. Recommended for fantasy fans looking for a good, quick read.



View all my reviews

If you’re like me, the annual sight of blissfully happy couples on Valentine’s Day makes you ill. Not because of their cloying sweetness and dopey “eyes only for you” looks (though that’s part of it), but because you never get to join in. If your romantic life has stunk as badly as mine, you’ve often felt like that little kid looking in from outside the fence and wishing he could play, too, but never gets the chance.

Admit it: every Valentine’s Day is an annoying reminder of that. Don’t deny it, revel in it — wallow in the mire you yourself have created! Give in to the dark side…

And, while you’re at it, enjoy this Valentine’s Day report from The Onion.

You’re welcome.

Merry Christmas!

I hope Santa brought all that you could desire. 🙂

History is weirder and more wonderful than we can ever imagine:

And everyone in town seemed to have an opinion. When William Barton was sued for divorce on grounds of impotence:

Several women also inspected William Barton’s genitalia, including one who agreed that William’s “rod and testicles appeared sufficient to serve and please any honest woman.” But some women had less glowing comments about William’s genitalia, supporting his wife’s accusation of impotence. Robert Lincoln, however, countered that these particular women had handled William’s penis too roughly and with such cold hands that “on account of shame, his rod retracted itself into William’s body.”

I can see porn stars as neutral court-appointed expert witnesses these days.

via Real Clear Investigations

So, I retired from UCLA last June 29th. I have to say that, so far, it’s been pretty damn boring.

Financially, it made absolute sense to retire. With the changes to my deductions after I entered the UC Retirement system, my net pay went up a little more than twenty percent, even though my gross pay went down about two percent — and that will catch up next year. So, while I’m not a millionaire, money is not a worry.

But… well… there’s not much to do. Between pandemics and riots and lockdowns, the little things I’d planned to do to add some variety to life -try new restaurants, take short trips to new places, tour the Los Angeles area, join organizations to meet new people, etc.- have all been placed on indefinite hold. And, since I live alone, things are pretty quiet around here.

Too quiet.

(Except for my upstairs neighbor stomping around and playing her music too loud.)

And that’s the problem: very often there’s no one to talk to. I have hobbies, but part of the fun of hobbies, for me at least, is sharing them with others. Online message boards and Zoom get-togethers just don’t cut it. I could write, I’m a very good writer, but the lack of interaction and intellectual stimulus kills any sense of creativity or energy.

I suppose boredom is like that.

It doesn’t help that not only are places that might be destinations largely closed, but the neighborhood has gone downhill, too. Not just with business closures, but an increased population of mentally-ill, drug and alcohol-addicted homeless wandering the streets and a rising crime rate makes it less and less safe to just go wandering about.

And that adds to the stuck-at-homeness and the sense of ennui that comes from it.

Not that I regret retiring. In the last few months before I left UCLA, we had already shut down most operations and were working from home. Busy work. Useless time-filling tasks to justify our salaries. From what I’ve seen of my former coworkers, things haven’t gotten much better, and they’re all miserable. In at least that regard, I can say I picked the right time to leave.

Nevertheless, it’s clear I need to make a major change.

The question is “What?”

(Comments closed, since this is really just me mulling things over.)

This is a preliminary review of Beth Bensperger’s “Not Your Mother’s Slow Cooker Recipes for Two”, as I haven’t made any of the recipes in it yet, but I have read the book and have some comments on it as an e-book. First, it loses a star for the index; it’s almost useless, lacking page numbers or active links. You’re better off highlighting things you want to refer back to. There are also an inordinate number of typos: words split into two, “1/2” rendered as “1.2,” and so forth. I found myself using the “Report an error” feature on my Kindle more than I liked. This is indicative of an OCR scan that wasn’t properly edited afterwards, which should be unacceptable with e-books. Thus, another star lost. And I believe her recommended internal temperatures for poultry were high at 180 (Kindle location 1940) as against USDA recommendations. This could reflect older practice, though.

On the other hand, many of the recipes do look good, particularly for someone who doesn’t want to spend all day in the kitchen or the weather is just too hot to be dealing with an oven. And this book is perfect for one or two people, a boon to those of us who live alone.

Recommended on a provisional basis. I look forward to actually making the recipes.

While Italian isn’t my favorite cuisine, I do enjoy it, and there’s nothing like a plate of pasta with a spicy tomato sauce on a cool night. (With wine, of course) “Laura in the Kitchen” by Laura Vitale presents recipes meant to be easy for the home cook, quick to prepare on weeknights, taking a little longer on weekends, but none of them hard to make or requiring obscure ingredients. The dishes are of a variety of cuisines: Italian, Italian-American (“Bring on the cheese!”), and a smattering of others. I haven’t made them all, but I particularly liked the “sauteed garlic & lemon zucchini, ” a very tasty side dish. I’ll have to toss it with pasta as the author suggests.

I also like her writing style: Laura doesn’t waste time with her philosophy of cooking, unlike some celebrity chefs who’ve let their egos get away with them. Instead, there’s a brief introduction, the obligatory pantry-stocking pages, and then it’s “Let’s get cooking!” This is a book by a woman living her dream and happy to share it with us. Highly recommended.

Blue Apron is a company that sends “meals in a box”: prepped ingredients and detailed instructions delivered weekly to your door, ready for you to finish on the stove or oven. I don’t subscribe to their service, but their menus looked intriguing enough that, when I saw they had a cookbook, I decided to give it a try.

As a self-taught cook, I need a lot of hand-holding – step by step instructions, lots of pictures of what things should look like at each stage of the process, and clear notes about what kind of equipment is needed. The Blue Apron Cookbook does all that, and I happily recommend it, especially to beginner-level home chefs like me who want to make fancier looking (but still easy) meals.

There’s the usual chapter on stocking your kitchen (equipment and staples), and thankfully it tells you something I wish more cookbooks did: define what a “medium” this or a “large” that really means. It’s annoying when a recipe says “use a medium pot” and you’re left wondering “okay, does your ‘medium” mean my ‘medium?’” So, points earned, here.

Recipes are divided into chapters both by type of methods (e.g., braises and roasts) and by type of meal (sandwiches and risottos). Directions are step-by-step and have plenty of pictures, and always tell you up front what equipment you need. There are helpful tips and sidebars, such as how to clean leeks or capers, and suggested variations.

None of the recipes are difficult, though I think sometimes some are aimed at higher than average budgets; how many of us have leftover roast lamb for sandwiches? Still, there aren’t any real budget-busters in here either, particularly if you ignore their constant admonitions to buy the “freshest, best ingredients.” Sometimes, the pack of Foster Farms breasts on-sale will have to do.

I’ve only made a few of the recipes so far, but they were delicious: for instance the white risotto with parmigiano-reggiano and the crispy-seared chicken thighs with mushrooms. I’m looking forward to cooking my way through the whole book.

I have two complaints about the book: one niggling and one serious. The minor criticism is their constant use of the word “flavorful.” Honestly guys, there are synonyms and you can look them up online.

More seriously, this Kindle version (I own both hardback and Kindle copies) commits the egregious sin of having a flat index – no tappable links. Page numbers in the index don’t match the page numbers in the e-book, so you have to search manually. That’s inexcusable for such a nice cookbook and this far into the age of e-books. So, one star deducted.

That aside, I do like the Blue Apron Cookbook quite a bit and recommend it for people looking for impressive, tasty yet easy to make recipes in a book that has instructional value.

Actually, a link to my review on Goodreads. If you’re a fan of either R.E. Howard’s “Conan the Barbarian” stories or the other writings of Poul Anderson, save yourself the trouble and read this, first. It commits the greatest sin a Conan story can: it’s tedious.

 

 

Happy New Year!

I hope you had a helluva party last night and that you have a helluva good year to come. 😀

Leopold!

Just got back from a performance of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra at Royce Hall at UCLA. The last of the series I bought, and it was great fun. I’m looking forward to future performances. Tonight we heard:

Sarah Gibson’s “Warp and Weft,” a Modernist piece composed specially for LACO. The best I can say for it was that it wasn’t nearly as painful as other commissioned pieces I’ve heard on earlier occasions. That itself was a moral victory.

Mozart: Piano Concerto #17. Very enjoyable, and I don’t believe I’ve ever heard this one before. The pianist was impressive. There’s something about Mozart, though. Maybe it’s all the Warner Bros. cartoons I watched growing up, but I kept expecting Elmer Fudd to chase Bugs Bunny onto the stage, shotgun blasting in counterpoint to the music. I would have paid extra for that.

(And if you haven’t seen “The Rabbit of Seville,” your life is a wasteland.)

Ruth Seeger: Andante for Strings. (1931) Let’s just say this was misnamed. I believe it should have been called “Flies buzzing around a dead cow by a placid lake.”

Beethoven: Fifth Symphony. My first time ever hearing this live, and it was magnificent. There are composers I like better than Beethoven (Haydn, Schubert), and there are Beethoven symphonies I like better than the Fifth (#s3 and 7). But the 5th symphony quite literally epitomizes Classical music. If you’ve seen “300,” it is the Leonidas of symphonies. Instead of screaming “This is Sparta!”, the opening grabs you by the collar, gets in your face, and yells “THIS! IS! MUSIC!!” before kicking you off the stage and into the cheap seats. I have rarely seen a work demand such sustained concentration and intensity from performers. It is exhausting and exhilarating for both performer and audience, and it is something everyone should see at least once.

Merry Christmas!

I hope Santa brought all that you could desire. 🙂

When Paul Johnson writes biography, the intent is not simply to recount the facts of someone’s life: it is didactic. Johnson is an historian who intends to teach a lesson with this writings, to show us what we should draw from the subject’s life, works, and thoughts to better our own lives.

Thus it is with Johnson’s biography of Socrates, the first and perhaps still the greatest of the moral philosophers. Rather than a dry recitation of what we know of Socrates’s life and works, Johnson looks at themes in Socrates’ life –bravery; his love for Athens; an absolute commitment to doing what was right and just; and irony– and uses them to illustrate those things that should be valuable in our own lives, and thus improve our lives for being valued. Johnson reads much into the texts and context, sometimes making assumptions and presenting them as facts because he’s sure they must be true, and there is the occasional odd error, but the broad lessons Johnson teaches (or, rather, relates what Socrates taught) and the beauty in his writing make them forgivable. The Kindle version is clean, with no typos that I could spot, though it is rather expensive for such a  short book.

Recommended as an introduction to the person, to help make the philosophy more accessible.

One of the time-honored genres of science fiction and fantasy literature involves men from Earth who suddenly find themselves on other worlds, whether through super-science, magic, or mysticism, rather than visiting as, say, a “normal” space traveler. The most famous early example would be Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “John Carter of Mars” series, but among others are Lin Carter’s “Green Star” books and Andre Norton’s “Witch World” series. In the modern age, the popularity of games such as Dungeons and Dragons in the late 70s and 80s helped revive the genre, with books such as Norton’s “Quag Keep,” Joel Rosenberg’s “Guardians of the Flame” series (especially book 1), and Brian Daley’s “Coramonde” books.

“Starfollowers of Coramonde” is the second of two books, sequel to “Doomfarers of Coramonde,” which introduces us to Gil McDonald, an American soldier fighting in Vietnam. One moment, McDonald and his armored personnel carrier crew are fighting an enemy ambush, and the next they’re in combat with a dragon. (Spoiler: APCs beat dragons. Barely.) McDonald and his men learn they’ve been summoned by magic to Coramonde, a kingdom under grave threat from the evil wizard Yardiff Bey. McDonald chooses to remain behind in the world and helps to restore the rightful ruler, Prince Springbuck, to his throne, foiling Yardiff Bey’s plot. “Doomfarers” ends with Yardiff Bey escaping and taking with him as prisoner Dunstan the Berserker, Gil’s friend.

“Starfollowers” picks up soon thereafter, with Gil, Springbuck, and their friends and allies deciding to take the war to Yardiff Bey and his masters. McDonald and a small party head west to return a magic sword and an infant heir to the land of Vegana, currently under siege by the enemy, as well as to investigate what it is that Yardiff Bey seeks in a long-dead wizard’s writings. Meanwhile, Prince Springbuck forgoes responding to the attacks on his own land and instead leads an army to the lands of the enemy and the city of Shardisku-Salama, wherein reside Yardiff Bey’s masters.

And therein lies the problem with “Starfollowers of Coramonde.” After that set up, the book becomes one long pursuit and series of battles leading to a climactic confrontation in front of the city, itself. The large cast of new characters is thinly drawn, and it is assumed that the reader has all the background information he needs on existing characters from reading the first book. Thus there is little to capture one’s interest and give one a reason to care if one is reading “Starfollowers” first. Without the ground laid in “Doomfarers,” this becomes a rather standard fantasy quest.

But it is well done and enjoyable nonetheless. Mr. Daley showed promise as a writer, even with the occasional tendency toward a Gygaxian abuse of the thesaurus, and it’s a shame he died relatively early in his career. His setting in Coramonde is interesting, and I would like to have seen it developed further. And, similar to other books of that time, I have to wonder if this was the author’s home D&D setting. If so, I would have enjoyed playing there.

I read the book in Kindle format and was disappointed in the quality of the file. There are simply too many typos that could have been fixed with decent proofreading. Not enough to spoil the book or make it impossible to read, but enough to be an annoyance. The publisher should issued a copy-edited revision. There is also a paperback copy available.

On a scale of one to five, I give “Starfollowers of Coramonde” a straight three: enjoyable, but best read if one reads “Doomfarers” first. However, I recommend just that: buy both and sit back for a good late-summer’s read.

 

If you’re like me, the annual sight of blissfully happy couples on Valentine’s Day makes you ill. Not because of their cloying sweetness and dopey “eyes only for you” looks (though that’s part of it), but because you never get to join in. If your romantic life has stunk as badly as mine, you’ve often felt like that little kid looking in from outside the fence and wishing he could play, too, but never gets the chance.

Admit it: every Valentine’s Day is an annoying reminder of that. Don’t deny it, revel in it — wallow in the mire you yourself have created! Give in to the dark side…

And, while you’re at it, enjoy this Valentine’s Day report from The Onion.

You’re welcome.

Happy New Year!

I hope you had a helluva party last night and that you have a helluva good year to come. 😀