“A Safe and Entertaining Environment;” LumaCON’s Policy

I said I would write more about Luma-Con’s prominently posted Inclusion and Anti-Harassment policy. It may be a far less interesting topic than costumes, whether Marvel or DC has the best heroes, or which space opera game is the best, but it is important. Because so many examples at conventions lately have been of failures, I would like to discuss a policy and approach that appears to have been successful.

In the past several years, the veil of harassment (usually, but not always, sexual) has been lifted at many national themed conventions in the speculative fiction world, exposing a long-standing pattern of unwanted sexual comments, touching, pejorative language, homophobia and bullying. Most of the people exposing the behavior — again, not all — have been women. As cosplay becomes more popular and more young people choose it as their way to express their creativity, the issue of inclusiveness and a safe environment becomes crucial.

John Scalzi, who is a well known science fiction writer, blogger and personality, pushed this issue somewhat by saying that he would only agree to participate in cons that had a published anti-harassment policy. On his blog Whatever, he went so far as to delineate what he thought the policy should involve.

  • The policy is clear on what is unacceptable behavior.
  • The convention uses several modes to disseminate the policy (for example, posting, and on the website, and discussed in the opening comments).
  • All harassment reports will be dealt with promptly and fairly.

How does Luma-Con’s policy measure up?

First of all, here’s the policy:

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I like that it starts with what they want; a safe, entertaining environment. Then they spell out, including that dreaded but necessary phrase, “including but not limited to,” what is not tolerated. Why is that phrase necessary? It’s needed because a certain category of miscreant will push any boundary, look for any crack or pinhole in a rule or policy. “I was just standing close behind her and breathing heavily. I wasn’t doing anything. Are you saying I can’t breathe now?” The type of bullies who enjoy telling their victims that they should toughen up and learn to take a joke are frequently the biggest whiners when they are called on their aggression. This policy removes plausible deniability.

I did not find the policy on the LumaCON website anywhere, but this poster was right beside the registration table. You might have chosen not to read it, but you couldn’t claim you didn’t see it.

Because I got there late I didn’t hear the opening remarks, but I think the staff wore badges. If I had seen a problem, I would have gone to the registration table or the First Aid table first.

Isn’t this overkill for a fun, family event, where most of the participants were very young, and many were with their parents? For the first convention, it might be erring on the side of caution. This con is going to grow in popularity. They are less likely to ever have a problem because they have developed a policy and set a tone from the very first LumaCON.

How did they rate? I give the policy a B+. They were thoughtful about crafting the policy and they had it well displayed. (I would have liked to have found it on the website.) And they got some bonus points with me for having one at all. The planners of LumaCON did their homework and it shows.

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Luma-Con a Stellar Event

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The first Luma-Con, Petaluma’s Comic Book Convention, was a huge success. They had such a turnout (“thousands of people” per the local paper) that they overflowed their venue. The guest artists were friendly and interesting, cosplay was great, and there were many, many gifted young artists.

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I love this T-Shirt

Sponsors tell you a lot about an event. The Sonoma Library, Copperfield’s Books and Petaluma Friends of the Library were the main sponsors of this event. The library system has a librarian who is a champion of graphic novels and comic books; who understands that they teach us about narrative and character, they encourage youth to read, and that they’re just great fun. Having the library come in was awesome. Copperfield’s Books, particularly the Petaluma store, also has a champion of comics and speculative fiction. His name is Ray and he was working the booth when I was there. Copperfield’s also has a crack team of event planners, and a commitment to creating events that support community. Friends of the Library is a non-profit group that helps at events, fund-raises and manages book sales for local libraries.

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Other donors included Brian’s Comics, Outer Planes comics and The Comic Box. The food concessions were donating their time and materials, I think.

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She looked that way before I raised my camera. Honest.

Great sponsors aside, an event needs a planning committee and this one did a fine job. I say they overflowed their venue; that is a comment on the success, not lack of planning. They chose the largest building at the Petaluma fairgrounds. My only recommendations would be; next year consider Luchese Park, across the freeway, which has some larger rooms, and/or move the food concession to a smaller nearby building, which would free up about 25% more space.

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Princess Leia helps with crafts.

The event had great panels. I was late and missed the one I would have enjoyed the most, which included Eisner-award-winning novelist Brian Fies and Paige Braddock, an artist who works with the Schulz Museum and is the creator of the popular and hilarious Jane’s World. However, there was plenty to choose from. Other topics ranged from self-publishing to Star Wars.

Large panels of easel pads and colored pencils gave fans a chance to draw or write something about their favorite fandoms. Several teen and young adult artists had tables, and there are some talented young people in this county! There were two craft areas for younger children.

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If Sherlock was bored, he wasn’t at the same event I was.

Outer Planes had various-sized grab bags of comic books for set prices, while Brian’s Comics focused more on new releases. Copperfield’s provided a nice mix of graphic novel, print novels and how-to, and I picked up a copy of How to Draw Marvel Comics for Mockingbird.

Paige Braddock autographed both copies of the Martian series she is illustrating with writer Jason McNamara, The Martian Confederacy. Imagine every rural, redneck stereotype you can think of; the trailer trash bimbo, the dive-bar-and-junkyard owner, the smart and affable loser, the corrupt politician, and put them on a colonized Mars that has become an economic backwater. That’s basically the story.

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And then, cosplayers! Some were my age, most were younger, beautifully decked out in customized or fully handmade costumes.  I asked Brian’s daughter Robin why she and her sister hadn’t come in costume.  “You never cosplay at the first convention,” she said. “You check it out first, then maybe at the second convention, you do the cosplay.”

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More about this is a subsequent post.

Words of wisdom.

I am hoping and planning that there will be a First Annual Luma-Con next year. I may even volunteer. This was an exciting event! I hope next year’s is in a bigger place. And, next year, maybe I’ll go in costume.

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For More Information:

The Con website.

Brian Fies’s Thoughts.

Paige Braddock’s home page.

The local daily.

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The Imitation Game

This holiday season’s biopic, The Imitation Game, gives a good overview of the lives of one of the 20th century’s most interesting people, Alan Turing. Turing was a computer scientist and mathematician, computer inventor and pretty much the man who single-handedly broke the German Enigma Machine during World War II. He worked at Bletchley Park, Britain’s code-breaking center. He was fascinated by the idea of machine intelligence and we have named a “test” for machine intelligence after him. What he called The Imitation Game, we call the Turing Test.

The Imitation Game follows three distinct timelines; 1951/52 in Manchester, England, where reclusive college professor Alan Turing’s house has been burglarized; 1941, when a brilliant an abrasive young Turing comes to work at Bletchley Park; and the late 1920s, with a young Turing going away to boarding school and coming face-to-face with cruelty, mob mentality and first love.

The film sets each of these timelines in geographically and physically distinct locations so that it is not hard to make the shift, with the film, between the 1940s and the 1950s. This might have been hard otherwise with Benedict Cumberbatch playing Turing in both timelines (a younger actor does a fine job in the boarding school section). As good as Cumberbatch was, there were several times I felt I was watching him give a performance, not watching Alan Turing. There were other occasions, though, where I felt that the character of Turing informed Cumberbatch completely, and those scenes were depicted mostly with body language; the way he picked up a cup, or the set of his shoulders.

While the movie clearly compressed and dramatized, I loved the section that dealt with Britain’s attempt at breaking the Enigma codes. Once they have found a way to decipher the messages, the war becomes a war of intelligence. In a scene that has to be dramatic license, the code-breakers themselves struggle with the cruel calculus of war; if they notify a convoy of an impending German attack, the Germans will suspect their machine has been compromised and they will make design changes. If the code-breakers keep silent, hundred of civilians will die, but they will be able to use their machine to say thousands more. The scene is sentimental but powerful.

I thought the choice of the writers and director to play Turing as a person somewhere on the autistic spectrum (as well as having OCD), instead of just being a man who is brilliant and abrasive was taking it a bit too easy on the audience. Turing fell somewhere between Sherlock in Sherlock and Sheldon in Big Bang Theory. You don’t need to talk down to us, and it did feel that way at times. Turing’s sexual orientation is a major issue in the 1950s timeline, where he was convicted of “gross indecency.” Here, I felt that Cumberbatch delivered, explaining haltingly that he chose “chemical castration” (estrogen injections) rather than prison because he could not complete his work in prison.

Keira Knightley plays Joan Clark, a mathematician who comes to Bletchley and becomes friends with Turing. Unlike with Cumberbatch, I thought Knightley was convincing throughout as this woman who is not only brilliant but smart.

The movie is beautiful and filled with lots of well-known British actors doing there usual excellent jobs. I liked the film and it made me want to go out and get the book it’s based on. From me, that’s high praise. So far, it’s the best mathematics film of 2015.

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The Bay Model; a Cool Thing

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The San Francisco Bay Model isn’t a best-kept secret. I’m just ignorant. I knew there was a Bay Model somewhere in the area because I saw a film about it years ago on PBS, and because the Mythbusters used in an episode (the Escape from Alcatraz ep, I think). I never twigged to the fact that it was in Sausalito… basically, an hour from my house.

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This model is astounding. It covers an acre and a half, a scale model of the San Francisco estuary and watershed encompassing the San Francisco Bay, San Pablo Bay, the South Bay and the San Joaquin/Sacramento River Delta. It was in regular use until 2000, and it was manual, not computerized. The Army Corps of Engineers built it, and it was used to test models and theories, to run simulations of “what-ifs;” “What if we filled in this part of the bay? What if we dammed this tributary? What if the Sacramento River flooded? What if we had drought years?”

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This photo and the next two show the journey snow-melt makes from the Sierra Nevada

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The lights change from white (snow) to blue (water) and trickle across the Delta

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Through the estuary and into the Pacific ocean

Currently, the Bay Model exists as an educational center and museum. They’ve packed in a lot of information about snowmelt, estuaries and the purpose of estuaries, fisheries, and the history of the Army Corps of Engineers. Six or seven interactive exhibit share the ground floor with the Model, and a short tunnel leads you to the overlook, about a half story above the scale model waterway.

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So Cool

The Model is to scale as to size. It can’t be to scale for depth. Parts of the bay are so shallow that if the depth were to scale there wouldn’t be enough water in the model to measure. The simulations adjust for that by using the copper pylons that stick up. They use electrical resistance to adjust the currents and flows to match what the proper depth of the water would be.

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This is one of the copper conductors, and my inexpert attempt to show the water current.

It’s been updated, but this thing was built in 1956-57, and used until 15 years ago. (It seems like it could have been used a bit more. Building out on fill didn’t prove to be such a good idea when the Loam Prieta earthquake happened and the fill liquefied… although I guess the Model wouldn’t have demonstrated that.)

 

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I would love to see a simulation, but it’s worthwhile just to see the model with some water in it, and get an idea about the scale of this watershed. It is an amazing, dynamic system and when you are in that warehouse walking around it, suddenly it doesn’t seem weird that sluice-style gold-mining in the Sierras in the 1840s led to the silting up of the San Francisco Bay, a couple hundred miles away. You can imagine how deforesting acres in Humboldt County, for example, would have a direct effect on the water supply of Oakland or San Francisco.

Built to Answer Questions

The Model was commissioned by Congress in the mid-1950s to answer some questions about an ambitious – or I might say “catastrophic” – plan called The San Francisco Bay Project. This is, I must say, the kind of political name that has helped make me so jaded. “The Clean Water Act,” the “Freedom of Information Act,” etc, where the name is the opposite of the proposal’s intention. The San Francisco Bay Project, brainchild of a retired actor and theater producer named John Reber, would probably have been more accurately called the San Francisco Channel project. Reber made an impassioned and eloquent argument for damming the north and south ends of the bay, the mouth of the San Pablo and the mouth of the South Bay, and turning them into fresh water reservoirs. Across the top of the two massive dams he pictured an eight-lane highway (this was in the late 1940s and early 50s) and train tracks. He decided they would continue to dredge a channel through the Bay for shipping. The dams would provide fresh water for human use and allow humans to “reclaim” thousands of acres to build homes on: on fill, in the shadow of a massive dam, in earthquake country.

Reber was persistent in selling his vision; talking about the miles of “recreational beaches and boating opportunities” the lakes would provide, how they could put in an airport on the reclaimed land and have military installations. He talked about how this plan would make the Bay Area easier to defend than it was now. (This is post WWII). While I don’t see for a second how adding two massive strategic targets makes an area easier to defend, the military liked the idea. So did business people, and so did central valley farmers who thought they would be able to get water from the reservoirs.

Frankly, it’s kind of miraculous that this atrocity wasn’t perpetrated, but Congress instead allocated $400,000 ($3.5 million in 2014 dollars) for the building of a model that would test all of Reber’s claims. The model took two years to build and they tests ran for several years. Reber died in 1960, never learning the outcome of his plan. In 1961, the Army Corps of Engineers submitted a report that showed conclusively that Reber’s claims were not supported scientifically. It also covered in detail the bad results; the death of local fisheries, the loss of shipping and many others.

Worth the Price of Admission

Using that sub-heading is kind of mean, actually. This fascinating science center and scale replica is free. It is open to the public Tuesday through Sunday from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm. There is a plastic box for donations, but frankly, neither of the two docents I spoke to encouraged me to donate. Of course I did, and I was pleasantly shocked that the place doesn’t even charge a token admission.

So why this, when you can do these simulations on a computer in 3D now? You can, and it’s handy. Seeing the model in real-life 3-D improves understanding. It did for me, anyway, almost instantly.

An Orphaned Center finds a Non-Profit Partner

The Bay Model Center is not a national or a state park. It is owned by the Army, and in 2000, when the army stopped using it, they came pretty close to bulldozing the whole thing. With a donation system only, the Center is not contributing to its needs in a meaningful way, and that makes it fairly vulnerable. I think the ACE sees it as a good thing, but a “good thing” that does not provide an obvious benefit to its owner and doesn’t contribute anything to its self-support is a vulnerable thing. The days of government keeping things alive because they provide benefit to citizens is long gone.

Fortunately, the Center recently partnered with the Aquarium of the Bay and formed the Bay Center Alliance. Strangely, when you go to their website, there is something missing. There is no Donate button. I hope they correct this oversight soon!

Other Exhibits

The Center also manages an exhibit about Marinship, the World War II shipyard. Here is a nice piece of local history.

The Center has a set of picnic tables facing the harbor. It’s a good place to eat a bag lunch, or you can drive less than a mile south and have lunch in downtown Sausalito; seafood, Italian or French food, burgers, tacos or ice cream.

Disappointments

There wasn’t much I didn’t like but these few things stood out.

Parking was free and great. Unfortunately, it was hard to find and the markings were confusing. Actually, the entire place was hard to find and the two signs I saw for it were tiny. “The Bay Model.” That doesn’t tell you much. The woman staffing the bookstore talked to me about this. She said people, hearing where she works, ask if it’s a talent agency.

Advertising and Branding? Not much of either for such a cool place, although under the umbrella of the Aquarium they may begin to consider outreach.

I went there on a Wednesday. It was me and five other old people (retired, I’m guessing.) Where were the busses full of school children? People I’ve talked to remember having field trips here; but fewer and fewer schools are doing field trips these days.

The woman at the Visitor Center, who was very friendly and knowledgeable about downtown Sausalito, gave the Model one sentence, “North of town there’s a bay model, and it’s kind of a science center thing.” This is not good enough!

Who Should Go?

Soapbox/On. Everyone! Every school child north of Fresno should visit this thing twice; once in the fifth grade when they’ll just think it’s cool; once in the eighth grade when they’re starting to think about the bigger world.  Every single policy-maker in California should go to it and watch a number of simulations; not just every elected official but every single city planner, building department head, water agency manager should see this.  Soapbox/Off

Okay, since that’s not going to happen, anyone who likes the Bay Area, or likes science, or enjoys drinking water should go. Anyone who is ever going to design a video game that will have a world in it should go. Aspiring science fiction and fantasy writers should go. Take your writing group. Seriously. Writers like me, who struggle with the temptation to write, “A river ran through the middle of the city” and call that world-building should spend half a day here. We should consider how the rebel group hiding in the hills would think about the vulnerabilities of the tributaries to that capital city’s river. We should consider how the tides and currents affect the evil horde that is planning to invade by boat, or how you’re going to smuggle the royal infant to safety if the tide is coming in. And if the tide is coming in, do you really want your hero clambering around in the sewer channels under the city?

Seriously, people, it’s free. If you take a group you can use the carpool lane. You can hang out and buy souvenirs in town afterward. What’s not to love? This is one cool place.

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Seeing Sausalito

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We had lunch at the Lighthouse Cafe — more accurately, we had breakfast about 1:30, sitting at the counter of this tiny, packed diner, watching while the cooks made scrumptious food. The Ultimate Breakfast includes eggs, sausage or bacon, hash browns or home fries, and a pancake that covers the whole plate. Mine was studded with fresh, juicy blueberries.

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The woman in green to the left of the cook was our pleasant server.

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We didn’t order the bacon cheeseburgers, but that’s what they look like.

The Lighthouse Cafe doesn’t take reservations and it is small — maybe six booths and ten seats at the counter. In addition to a regular breakfast and lunch menu; sandwiches, burgers, etc, it also features a Danish section. I know, right? We went for the classic and we were not disappointed.

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The fountain in Del Mar Park

This is after we drove down Highway 101, almost to the Golden Gate Bridge, and took the last exit before the bridge. It winds down to the town of Sausalito, or you can curve left and visit the Marin Headlands, with its lighthouse, it’s stunning view of the mouth of the Golden Gate and the bridge, and during the flyover, hundreds of varieties of birds.

We didn’t do that, though. My goal was to get a sense of the town, particularly the area near the ferry landing, for a short story I was writing.

So, a few tips about visiting the sparkling little tourist town of Sausalito.

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Parking, not as hang-loose as you might think.

Parking: Expensive! Three dollars an hour. No, seriously. One hour’s parking now costs more than a gallon of gas in most parts of this state. If you are on Bridgeway Street, look around for some areas marked “Three hours free parking” and grab one. It will mean some walking, but walking’s the best way to see this picturesque waterfront anyway.

A couple of websites also helpfully point out that, although it isn’t advertised, the hourly rate is cheaper the farther you go from the ferry pier, so check out some of those lots.

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Looking east.

Views:  From the Ferry Terminal you have a view of the Tiburon penninsula and Angel Island, and, once the fog lifts, you might be able to see the Bay Bridge. We did.

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Ladybug Florist has a great selection of bromeliads and orchids

Tourist Shops:  Bridgeway Street is lined with galleries, high-end clothing shops and little tourist shops with toschkes and souvenirs. It boasts a couple of expensive restaurants and a couple of bars. I found a bicycle pin and Linda scored a frog figurine at one shop with imports, run by a friendly French woman who is probably a couple of years older than me.

Food: The Lighthouse Cafe; recommended! You can go upscale — very upscale, as in expensive, with the Spinnaker, the “grande dame” of Sausalito restaurants, which is right out on the point, or Le Garage, new and uber-trendy, or Bar Bocce, on the north end of Bridgeway. Poggio is right downtown across from the terminal.

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Stair-step houses and clearing fog.

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And just the house I was looking for.

Ambiance: Sausalito winds up the hills to the west of the waterfront, and about a block off the tourist drag you start seeing houses from the 1930s and earlier. I was looking for a particular style of house and I found it on Caledonia Street, which also houses a market, the police station and the fire station, and some other businesses.

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Cormorants

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Snowy Egret

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Greater Egret

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Harbor Seals

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Pelagic Cormorant

Marine Life: This was a bonus. I was there looking for the shape of the town, and, as I said, a house. As we were walking around a local who was dog-walking pointed out the walkways along the marina, directing us to the birds and harbor seals who make up the aquatic population of the town.

History: In 1838 an Englishman named William Richardson got a large chunk of land north of the Golden Gate in a Spanish land-grant. By the late 1860s he was broke, and sold most of his land to the Sausalito Land and Ferry Company (visionaries!) who plotted out a town and bought a small steamship, the Princess, to run potential buyers over from San Francisco.  In the first half of the 20th century, Sausalito was a transportation hub. It was a popular spot for bootleggers during Prohibition. When the Golden Gate Bridge was completed, ferry service was suspended and the town languished until world War II, when it became the home of a shipyard. After the end of the war it again slipped into relative obscurity until it was discovered by artists, writers and poets, who kept it thriving until ferry service started back up in the 1970s. I don’t have many details because the Visitor Center was closed the day we were there. The most intriguing part of the story is the town’s history during the Volstead Act. I’d love to find out more about that!

The town is a great place to go gallery walking, has good eats and most importantly, great photo opportunities!

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The Books We Got for Christmas

This year, we each got more potential books than physical books to unwrap. I got two gift cards to bookstores, including one to the Four-Eyed Frog in Gualala, and Spouse also got two. (One of his is for Mockingbird Books.)

Spouse got The Boys in the Boat, about the 1936 Olympics, and a book about gold called, well, Gold. Gold is written by Matthew Hart, who is a novelist as well as a non-fiction writer. The book does not go into great depth, but it is a good overview of the search for one of the planet’s most sought-after metals.

The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown, is about the USA crew team at the 1936 Olympics in Germany.

I got one book to unwrap; The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber. This is a strange literary novel, a meditation on the missionary experience, the nature of spiritual faith, and what keeps a marriage together. It’s thought-provoking and at time just plain old provoking. Naive, devout preacher Peter is sent through space to a planet in another solar system. It can support earth-life, and it has an intelligent, self-aware species who wants a Christian minister to teach them about Jesus and the New Testament, which they call the Book of Strange New Things. This is a dream come true for Peter, except that he is not allowed to bring his strong, devout and loving wife Bea along. This is a real detriment for Peter, who is not very perceptive, and could really use Bea’s insightful gaze. Although they can send a version of e-mail to one another, they cannot communicate face to face or send pictures, and the relationship begins to fray under the pressures of two planetary environments. The book is not science fiction in any way, really; it’s more that Faber wants to create a missionary experience that by definition carries none of the weight of our missionary history. Peter’s weaknesses, and his profound strengths, play out perfectly, and Faber’s honestly is a sharp and honest as a scalpel.

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Stay Tuned: @Large on Alcatraz Island

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On the ground floor of the Alcatraz cell house, the south-facing wing holds the cell-blocks. They look like every cell-block you’ve seen in every movie; two story,  tiny cells with barred doors, no privacy at all. @Large set up its final exhibit in Cell Block A, a block at the east end of the space, one that is usually not open to the public. Entering through the unlocked gate, the first thing I encountered was a spiral staircase, one way guards got up to the catwalk on the second story, I guess. I skirted the staircase and took a look at the cells.

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Some cells had a sign on the door, and a small stool inside. In most of the these cells the fixtures – toilets, washbasins, cots – had been removed from these spaces, and paradoxically, that made it obvious how very small they were. There was sound in each cell; music, a song, a poem, a speech, a story. These are the voices of people speaking out for freedom. Some are historic; a Martin Luther King speech is included; there is a symphonic piece from a German composer from the 1940s who was jailed in Germany for questioning the direction of his country’s government; a Persian poet who died a few years ago, who was imprisoned for writing poetry critical of the Shah’s regime. Others are contemporary. There is a South African protest song, to the tune of “Oh, my Darling Clementine” protesting the treatment of diamond miners; Pussy Riot has the final cell, with their punk-protest song, “Virgin Mary, Put Putin Away.”

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In this area, the sound was confined to each individual cell. Directly across from each cell, on a scroll, was an English translation of the work we were hearing, and a brief biography of the prisoner.

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This experience made me imagine, at least for a moment, what it might be like to be deprived of freedom just for your words. I admire the courage of these artists, poets, writers and regular people who stand up and speak the truth. And I feel the cold and damp of Alcatraz and realize what a powerful weapon imprisonment can be.

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This site gives reservation information about the installation which will be in place until April 26, 2015: http://www.for-site.org/project/ai-weiwei-alcatraz.

The Alcatraz ferry (ferry fees are included in the cost of the ticket) leaves from Pier 33, about a mile north of the San Francisco Ferry Terminal Building on Embarcadero.

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Bars and the Human Spirit; in the Cellhouse at Ai Wei Wei @Large

The next two locations for Wei Wei’s installation were in the cellhouse, which is at the top of Alcatraz. It seems like an odd place to house prisoners, since the few windows there  boast stunning views of the city and the east bay, but of course the prisoners didn’t have windows. The cell house was built where the fort had originally been.

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Enlightenment and Blossoms both were housed in the infirmary and in the mess hall. It was a little hard to find. There were lots of docents for the show, but for some reason it was hard to track one down at first for this part of the exhibit. We took the flight of stairs up to the second story and found two large banners describing the installation. “Enlightenment” featured chanting and sound from a Tibetan festival, and from a Hopi ceremony. The sounds were played in the prison’s two psychiatric cells, which are next to each other. The cells are walled with porcelain tiles. They aren’t padded. It was instantly obvious that the concern was less with preventing self harm and more with the ability to mop up quickly for when the cell was needed again.

This part of the installation failed for me. The Hopi chant was wonderful, but the close proximity of the cells meant that the Tibetan instruments bled through and overpowered it. I understood the exercise intellectually (or I think I did; “mental institutions” being one way dissidents are  controlled in cultures) but it didn’t resonate; or maybe it resonated too well, literally.

I talked about the importance of collaboration; this looks like a failure of logistics. The concept of having those sounds in those two cells was excellent; it probably looked great on Skype; unless you were there you couldn’t tell there would be bleed-through.

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We wandered around the infirmary and didn’t see much else, except for a couple of rooms/cells that were roped off. I wondered who the joker was who had filled the toilet in one with polystyrene peanuts. Linda came back after reading the banners and said there were supposed to be thousands of porcelain flowers growing out of the fittings in the cell. Armed with that knowledge we took a closer look and realized that they weren’t peanuts, they were flowers. Up closer, this effect worked better, but overall, the hospital portion of the installation was less than satisfactory.

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In the mess hall, the docents and volunteers had racks of post cards addressed to the prisoners who had been depicted in Traces. They encouraged us to take a minute to write a message of hope to them. This is the interactive section of the piece, and this worked well. For a moment, after confronting the echoing music in the cells, seeing the rotting walls, and imagining hope and human spirit growing like fragile flowers out of a prison toilet, I really did feel a connection with these people who have done nothing more than ask for equality, fairness and honesty.

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Three Braided Strands; Ai Wei Wei @Large

Nearly a week after seeing Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei’s installation @Large, located on Alcatraz Island, I am still overwhelmed by its depths, and struggling to find a way to write about it. It is a rich, thought-provoking, heart-touching exhibition. For something of this size and complexity, three strands have to come together: the vision, the craft and the collaboration. In @Large, these three shining strands braid together to form a powerful experience.

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The installation is placed in three areas on Alcatraz; the New Industries on the northwest side of the island; the Cellhouse dining hall and infirmary; and Cell Block A, a block which is usually not open to the public. Each location has three art exhibits or pieces.

The Vision: Ai Wei Wei is a dissident artist whose passport has been revoked by the Chinese government, and who is under constant surveillance. Wei Wei has a fine grasp of the power of social media and his own importance as a globally-recognized artist. He uses this to play a tightrope-walking game with his government; a brinksmanship that he has to know he won’t win, but is dragging out as long as he can.

He accepted a commission to do an installation in a prison. It is no surprise that he chose Freedom as his theme. The installation works with various levels of freedom. Wei Wei’s vision is perfect for the location, which is amazing since he could not be there to oversee the installation and will probably never see it in situ.

The other part of his vision is lies in use of unusual materials to make a point. Wei Wei uses conventional Chinese dragon kites in part of the exhibit, and he also has 175 portraits of people who has suffered political oppression (many of them still imprisoned) in Legos blocks.

The craft: Portraits done in Legos could be silly if they weren’t done correctly. These are done correctly, ranging from some that are expressionistic (it’s possible there isn’t a good photo of the person, or that the person doesn’t want their portrait public) to ones that are realistic enough that I think I would recognize the person if I saw them on CNN. The dragon kite that comprises On the Wind is beautifully dyed, with statements from various political prisoners on the disks. The long pinions of the dragon wings in Refractions are perfectly shaped and proportioned.

The collaboration: I am always skeptical of artistic collaboration unless they are by writers, who usually seem to know how to do it. For visual arts, they often implode into a seething soup of egos. Wei Wei’s exhibit requires layers of collaboration; the 10 international artists who helped him assemble the works; the functional and fiscal collaboration between the artist, the For-site Foundation, the California State Parks Foundations, and the Park Services; the collaboration of the artists here in California (some of them are the same) who re-assembled the work on Alcatraz.

If any one of these strands had frayed or broken, you would have an installation of far greater power. The real risk is that this would have looked interesting but amateurish. It is anything but. It gets into your mind and heart and stays there.

The New Industries Building:

When Alcatraz was still a prison, this was a two-story building where the prisoners worked. It’s made up of long rooms, with wired windows that face the mouth of the San Francisco Bay on the west. This seems like a kind of taunting; showing the prisoners a vista of open-ended freedom that most of them would never have again.

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The first long room held On the Wind, a fabric art display dominated by the dragon kite. Wei Wei says for him the dragon does not represent the Emperor (the traditional Chinese representation); it represents the people.

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In the second long room you find Traces, a room with what looks, at first glance, like stretches of carpet. They aren’t carpet; they are zones of Legos portraits. File books set up around the room lets us read the stories behind the faces and the names.

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Refraction, the third part of the New Industries exhibit, is downstairs, viewed through a narrow gallery. You peer through small squares of broken glass at the spine and wing of a dragon, or a large bird. The blades of the wings are made from a refractive metal used for solar heating in Tibet; many people use solar heat to cook with, and on the ends of the pinions the viewer sees kettles, teapots, and skillets. At first glance this is a delightful piece with no real political message, until you remember that this piece is all about Tibet.

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I was frustrated that I could only see bits of this powerful creation through such a thick barrier, with only a few chinks to let me catch glimpses of the thing, not the whole. And then I got it. It’s about Tibet.

The decay and oppression of the building; the narrow gallery, the steep stairs, the isolated location, do not let you forget that you are in a prison. That reminder gets stronger in the next two parts of @Large.

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The Art of the Sell

Mark, one of the owners of Mockingbird Books, is diligent at what I would call up-selling. When a person comes to the counter with a Stephen King paperback, he always remembers to point out the hardcovers on the 50% off cart. When someone buys a Jan Karon, he points out some specialty book in the series that we might have. He does not seem pushy or insincere when he does this. It’s clear that he wants to sell books; it’s also clear that he wants customers to get what they want.

I do not have this skill.

I was complaining to Brandy about that. She said it’s hard to do and she doesn’t have it either, although she feels comfortable making recommendations once a conversation has started. It is difficult to recommend books for people you don’t know.

Thursday, about three o’clock, a young man came in. I would guess he was twenty-four or twenty-five. He was shopping for Christmas gifts for his parents, and he wanted ideas. He thought maybe he wanted a coffee table book about planes for his dad, who is a pilot. I took him over to Transportation, where we had two coffee-table books, one about bi-planes and one dedicated to the Havilland Tiger Moth. He pulled both of them out and looked at them. He seemed to have some trouble deciding, but he was confident it would be one of them.

“What does your mom like?” I said.

He shrugged. “She likes a lot of stuff,” he said. “She likes books. She’s a librarian.”

An imaginary lightbulb compact-fluoresced over my head. “I know just the book,” I said, and hustled him over to Reference. There is was on the third shelf, my favorite funny grammar book, Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynn Truss. I reached out, and as my fingers nearly brushed the surface he said, “Oh, yeah! She loves that book. She gave it to all of us for Christmas one year.”

Curses! A go-to gift, foiled. “Does she read novels?”

“I think so.”

“Do you know if she likes a writer named Margaret Atwood?”

“I’ve heard her talk about Margaret Atwood, but I don’t know which ones she’s already read.”

“Louise Penny?”

A shrug.

Strike Two.  I guided him into the fiction room and positioned us in front of the Poetry shelf. “Does she like poetry?”

“I guess so. She must, because I like poetry and she read it to me when I was a kid.”

I’m not too sure about the logic of that thesis, but I think he meant he learned to love it from her, but again, he didn’t really have any good ideas.

“Does she have hobbies?”

“She walks. She gardens.”

“What kind of garden?”

“You know, herbs, flowers, stuff.”

“Okay.” Back to the front of the store, to the Gardening section, we went. I pulled out a picture book on Japanese gardens. He really liked it. Going in another direction, I pulled out a beautifully photographed book on herb gardens. He really liked that too.

“I remember she likes the guy who write The Little Prince,” he said. “Did he write any other books?”

“Yes, he did,” I said, and Brandy helped me out, checking the database to find Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s memoir Wind, Sand and Stars. We had a rare edition, priced at $60, which we all agreed probably wasn’t what he was looking for. She checked the internet for him and found that it was reprinted in 2012. We suggested Copperfield’s could order it for her.

“Or you could get her a gift certificate,” I said.

“I could, but they live in Colorado.”

That was my third strike, but after he looked at our copy of Wind, Sand and Stars, he picked up the book next to it, a collection of Alan Ginsberg’s letters. When he left, he bought the bi-plane book and the Ginsberg book.

“That was a nice bit of hand-selling,” Brandy said.

I thought that sounded vaguely obscene. “I didn’t get him a book for his mother,” I said.

She shrugged. “No, but he knows where he can get one, and he walked out of here with two books,” she said.

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