Monthly Archives: January 2014

Be Thou the unseen guest at every meal

My wife wanted a farmhouse table for Christmas this year. She found plans online, and apparently the window boxes I made her for Mother’s Day  (incredibly rustic and simple window boxes, I might add) impressed her enough that she came to believe I could actually construct furniture.

Out of wood.

Sometimes I don’t know whether to be pleased or frustrated with her confidence.

I consulted with my master-carpenter father on the plans, but this was my first significant DYI project flying solo. I’m actually quite pleased with how it turned out.


The only modifications I made to the plans were cutting the length of the table top down by about 16 inches, pushing the two outside supports back from the table edge by 20 inches to allow seating at the ends, and adding an extra layer of 1x6s between the tabletop and the outside supports for additional reinforcement.


A hand-held jig saw was essential for cutting these corner pieces. I built the three supports first, from untreated 2x4s and 2x6s. Predrilled all holes and then added wood glue. When they were dry I stained with two coats of whatever my wife picked out (dark walnut, I think).


A Kreg jig was essential for the tabletop to drill the pocket holes. The tabletop consists of two panels of 1x6s drilled into a 2×4 frame. The central support rests on the 2×4 in the middle of the table, but the original plans had the outside supports resting on only the 2x4s at the table’s edge. I added the extra layer of 1x6s at each support to address this. (Kids tend to climb on tables at our house.)


The top also got two coats of stain and then three of polyurethane. This guy seems pretty happy with it. The plans estimated the total cost of the project at $125 dollars, but the plans omitted some lumber and then I bought some bad 2x2s. With stain and polyurethane and maybe buying myself a cheeseburger or something on one of my multiple trips to Lowes, this project cost us $200 and three days worth of labor.

My wife helped me wrestle the tabletop up from the basement, out the back door, and around into the dining room where it was all assembled.

I may have miscalculated though, because now she seems to believe I should be able to construct additional furniture-type items.

Merchants of Doubt

Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global WarmingMerchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming by Naomi Oreskes

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was asked a while ago by a local paper to comment on the issue of global warming. When I had difficulty reducing my views to a quotable byte, I wrote an editorial for the paper. In the editorial, I used the term “manufacture a controversy,” alluding to the fact that while the scientific consensus on global warming is established and has been for decades, there remains the perception for most people that climate change is not well understood and the science is questionable.

This manufactured controversy is what Oreskes and Conway, two historians of science, explore in this book. In several exhaustively-researched chapters, they draw links between “expert” deniers of the dangers of tobacco, second-hand smoke, ozone layer depletion, acid rain, and finally global warming. In each of these cases, Oreskes and Conway argue, there was a clear scientific consensus deliberately attacked by a handful of skeptics. These attacks resulted in perceived controversy for the popular press and ultimately influenced politicians and policy—usually as an argument for not doing anything.

The story the authors tell begins with the tobacco industry, which—as scientific evidence regarding the dangers of smoking and second-hand smoke mounted—enlisted individual scientists and publicity firms to mount a campaign of doubt, making it appear as though the scientific community was divided and more research needed to be done. Oreskes and Conway draw much of their evidence from documents that have been recently made public through the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library ( After this, they argue, many of the scientists and organizations enlisted by the tobacco industry took the same approach to a wide variety of environmental topics, including and culminating with global warming.

Popular perception is biased against the true scientific viewpoint by two factors: a “fair reporting” approach that placed the skeptics’ viewpoint (even when only held by a small minority) on equal footing with the mainline scientific opinion and the fact that skeptics published most of their work in the popular press while the evidence and research on global warming done by the actual scientific community appeared (and continues to appear) in peer-reviewed journals with very small audiences.

So what’s at play here? Do Oreskes and Conway have a conspiracy theory? No. What they have is a group of scientists who came to prominence during the Cold War and then, late in their careers and after their own research days were over, came to see environmentalism as the newest threat to American liberty. The common theme running through tobacco smoke, acid rain, DDT, ozone depletion, and now global warming is that each represents a market failure—a situation in which the true costs are hidden or not quantifiable by the free market. In such situations, government regulation is often necessary. The villains in Oreskes and Conway’s narrative are a small minority of scientists who did not want this to happen and so collaborated with industry, policy-makers, and the media to perpetuate a sense of controversy where the science was clear.

The narrative is compelling. I recommended the chapter on global warming for a discussion group, and though each chapter is densely researched, a friend told me that it read for him like a murder mystery. The historical chapters show two historians of contemporary science at their finest. The concluding chapters, in which Oreskes and Conway offer their take on why controversy is created on these issues, blaming it on “free market fundamentalists” who cannot accept government regulation in any form and are willing to smear any science that disagrees with them through unscientific means, hit hard and—I feel—largely accurately. Finally, Oreskes and Conway offer some insight into why the public often goes along with this: a misunderstanding of how science actually works and a confusion between scientific consensus (attained) and absolute proof or clarity (never attained in science).

Read it. Recommend it to your friends. It is easy to understand why the tobacco industry would want to manufacture doubt about the true costs of their products; it should be fairly easy to see why many today would want to do the same regarding the true cost of fossil fuels. This book connects the dots.

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Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing CityTeardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City by Gordon Young
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I did not grow up in Flint, so I’m pretty sure I cannot call Young’s memoir a book about my hometown. But many of my relatives lived and still live in Flint, and I grew up just outside it and spent quite a bit of time in and around it. I remember going to Autoworld as a child. My father worked for GM. My mother worked for Hurley. Though I definitely lack cred as a true “Flintoid,” I consider myself among this book’s intended audience. I must have been, because I couldn’t put it down.

Young’s memoir is not perfect. I would have liked to hear less about Gordon Young and more about Flint’s history and the neighborhoods Young rediscovers. Young’s account of his own home-purchasing odyssey in San Francisco– though it helped illustrate the poor choices that led to the housing crisis and paint a sharp contrast between Flint and the West Coast– was tedious, as was the narrative thread of Young going back and forth about whether he should help the city out by buying and refurbishing a house in Flint. To his credit, Young finds another meaningful way to contribute to his hometown.

Yet the book itself might be his most important contribution. Young’s accomplishment in this work is letting us see Flint through both his past memories and his present journalistic eyes and communicating its history and today’s reality. A comprehensive story of Flint would be a considerable contribution to American history, involving histories of labor, industry, race, capitalism, technology, and urban construction and de-construction. That work remains to be written, but Young makes a powerful case for why it should– and his helpful bibliography points to many additional resources. More than this though, Young’s book gives a compelling picture of the city– of both the harsh economic realities on the ground and the spirit of those who remain to face them.

I have a personal interest in this story. My sister and her husband moved back to Flint after he completed his graduate degree, bought a house in the city, and are at the epicenter of many of the changes and challenges Young describes in this book. Flint’s story is one that needs to be told, and Young’s work is an effective and compelling first chapter. He doesn’t offer many (or any) solutions, but he introduces some of the characters, fills in the background, and gets you rooting for the underdog.

Honestly, I don’t know if this book would appeal to those who don’t already have a place for Flint in their hearts. But if you’re from Flint, or especially if you’re from one of those Flint satellites like Burton, Flushing, Fenton, Swartz Creek, Grand Blanc, or Gaines and grew up hearing of Flint’s glory days alongside ominous accounts of how bad it had become– read this book. It’s your story too, whether you realize it or not.

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The Glorious Revolution

RayGun cover

This was the first short story I published, back in 2008 (though going by actual word count, I suppose it’s technically a novelette). It appeared in the now-defunct Ray Gun Revival, and I was paid $10 for it. An author whom I highly esteem told me that I should have held on to it and tried to sell it to a professional market, but at the time I think the boost of confidence I received seeing it actually in print was much more valuable than the money. (He may have been right though. Ray Gun Revival was the first market I sent it to, so I never had a chance for feedback from places like Asimov’s, Lightspeed, or Clarkesworld.)

From the editor’s description in the introduction to the issue in which it appeared, “The Glorious Revolution” almost didn’t make it: “The Slushmasters were divided on this story. It has a strange cadence, a unique voice, a construction that almost struck me as epistolary, a dialogue in written letters. Some will hate it. Some will love it. I thought it was worth the risk.” Ambiguous praise, at best, though much of Revival‘s remit seemed more geared toward the pulpy blasters-and-spaceships variety of fiction.

One reader had these thoughts: “It was really a beautiful story, dream-like and creative. Left me rather in awe! The author’s ability to describe wonder, and majesty, and evoke the indescribable — excellent. I think I will remember this story for awhile. It reached inside me and rattled around and really made me feel what was happening in the story.”

“The Glorious Revolution” is what I would call a science fantasy. It’s about a rebellion that turns out to be much larger than it seems. It plays with ideas of social mathematics akin to Asimov’s psychohistory, hierarchies of scale, the ideal of monarchy, and (of course) falling in love with a princess. Call it sentiment for that first publication, but I’m still rather fond of this one.

You can read “The Glorious Revolution” here. (It’s on pages 22 through 34).


PeacePeace by Gene Wolfe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of my favorite books. I still don’t completely understand this book. With Gene Wolfe this is not a problem (at least with his earlier works—for me, the jury is still out on some of his latest novels). His books are layered, and they always repay the slow, careful re-read. I’ve gone through this one at least three times now, and each time I pick up something new. Wolfe remains my favorite author, and Peace I think is an excellent introduction to his work, especially if you’re not coming from a science fiction or fantasy background.

On the first level, Peace is the beautifully written memoir of Alden Dennis Weer and a paean to life in a Midwestern town from a childhood among horses and coaches to old age among factories. The language itself makes it worth the read. Wolfe is a craftsman, and his skill with description, dialogue, and the creation of characters is showcased in any of his works but especially shines throughout Peace. I would be interested to know how much of this work is biographical. (Though Wolfe grew up in Texas, he’s stated that there’s more of him in Weer than many critics recognize.) There’s a richness to the memories that Weer relives throughout the novel—places and people and lost pocket-knives—that carries a deep reality, as I suppose is true with any great work of literature. Yet Wolfe is a “genre” author, so he can wrap this in surreality and twist it in strange ways. (One of my favorite passages is a story-within-a-story when Weer’s childhood housekeeper is telling a story she heard as a child from her own housekeeper. Wolfe deftly telescopes the narrative until, like looking down a tunnel of mirrors, you realize that narrator narrating the story-within-the-story is perceiving you, the reader.)

On a second layer, Peace is a book about memory and death. Weer is writing at a time when all the characters in the novel are dead, and his narration moves back and forth seamlessly between memory and across years. He writes his story from various rooms in a house he claims to have had built to encapsulate various locations from his long life, and he seems to be haunting his own memories like a ghost. On this level, the novel is a tale about childhood and old age and all the memory and loss that goes with both and in many ways reminds me of “Forlesen,” one of my favorite Wolfe short stories.

On a third level, Peace is about storytelling. The novel is a patchwork of stories embedded within other stories, something characteristic of much of Wolfe’s fractal-like writings. Some of the stories, such as the one Weer reads as a child about the princess in the tower, clearly relate to episodes from Weer’s own life (in this case his Aunt Olivia’s succession of suitors). Some are much more ambiguous, and some relate to the novel’s overall story in ways I still don’t perceive (such as the epistolary tale from the carnival near the novel’s conclusion). There are ghost stories and there are stories left unfinished. There are threads I have not yet unwoven, one of the things that keeps me coming back to Wolfe’s work and keeps internet listservs humming with speculations.

And finally, Peace is a mystery and a horror novel. Yet it’s subtle horror, buried so deep that upon first blush, much like Wolfe’s short story, “A Solar Labyrinth,” there doesn’t seem to be much there at all. But by the end of the book you’re left with the distinct impression that Weer has killed at least two characters and possibly more. Nothing is said directly, but the clues are there, the lack of direct acknowledgement making it all the more chilling. Other characters simply disappear. (Did Margaret Lorn’s father ever make it in from the storm?) Things happen off-scene that carry significance the narrator only hints at. Is this because he’s recalling things seen from the vantage point of childhood? Or because there are things he simply does not want us to know?

And then there is Weer’s fate itself, again something that is never spelled out (far be it from Wolfe to have such a low estimate of his readers’ astuteness) but that is made fairly clear from the clue of Eleanor Bold’s tree and the vignette of the necromancers at the grave’s edge (as well as the title of the novel itself).

Strange and dark things happen in Peace, but they are of the horror and wonder that is a large but unseen part of anyone’s life. I think this is what makes Peace so effective: like Weer, we all have our secrets and memories of the ephemeral and the ghastly. Peace is a life story, which always eventually becomes a ghost story.

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