Literacy 2023: Book 13: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Neil Gaiman’s fairy tale about childhood, magic, memory, and forgetting

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

A man returns to his childhood home and feels compelled to visit the farmhouse at the end of his street. While there, he remembers the first time he visited the farm as a seven-year-old, when he met his friend 11-year-old Lettie Hempstead, along with her mother and grandmother, and went on an errand that brought back something horrible.


  • Neil Gaiman in his element, writing about all the things he does best: magic, myth, wonder mixed with terror, childhood, and the melancholy of adulthood.
  • Doesn’t pull its punches, feeling genuinely dark and horrifying but without crossing the line into gratuitous violence or edginess.
  • Combines all of the flavors of terror unique to childhood: fear of monsters, fear of getting in trouble, fear of loneliness and abandonment, and the sinking feeling that you’ve done something wrong that you can never take back.
  • Feels epic and weighty in scope while remaining a focused, concise story — it feels exactly as big as it needs to be.
  • You only realize after the fact that there is a non-magical explanation for everything; the story as presented seems so much more matter-of-fact and more real than any attempt to explain what really must’ve happened.


  • A little bit too vague for the sake of maintaining a sense of mystery. This is absolutely not a book about the “rules” of magic, and is instead meant to evoke feelings and the sense of impossibly ancient forces at work. That said, I still wish that there had been more of a sense of structure to what was going on, instead of characters constantly speaking in riddles.

This is Neil Gaiman doing what he does best, and it’s one of his most satisfying books. He has a talent for writing about childhood and magic that conveys the full weight and melancholy of adulthood, but with a sense that as grown-ups, magic is only mostly dead to us, not entirely.

Literacy 2023: Book 12: Lovecraft Country

A brilliant combination of genre fiction, supernatural horror, and real-life horror

Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff

In 1954, African American veteran Atticus Turner returns to his hometown of Chicago on a summons from his estranged father. When he arrives and discovers his father has gone missing, the trail leads to a small town in New England. Atticus sets off on a road trip with his uncle and a childhood friend, eventually getting pulled into the machinations of a centuries-old cabal of wizards trying to perform a ritual to summon eldritch powers and bring about the apocalypse.

Spoiler Warning
Mild spoiler warning below about the format of the book, which surprised me and ended up being one of my favorite things about it.


  • Clever, funny, genuinely horrific, with characters that you can’t help but root for even when they’re being abrasive.
  • Somehow has all the fun readability of pulp and genre fiction, and illustrations and accounts of the tragedies and injustices of living in the US in the Jim Crow era. The sci-fi/supernatural horror and historical fiction aspects of the book inform each other and are perfectly intertwined, without sacrificing any of the fun of one or any of the weight of the other.
  • The characters are smart, capable, and possibly most surprising, sci-fi and astronomy nerds. It feels like one of the most pernicious stereotypes in popular media that African Americans aren’t interested in the kinds of nerdy stuff that tends to be depicted as only appealing to white males. Even “nice racism” tends to suggest that black men and women are just too cool to be interested in science fiction or horror, which is, of course, complete bullshit. (And yet, when I saw “Tightrope” for the first time, I still found myself surprised that someone as cool and drop-dead gorgeous as Janelle Monáe made a three-album concept series inspired by Afrofuturism and casting herself as an android).
  • Because of the above, all of the characters are matter-of-fact and practical when faced with supernatural horrors, making the story work as horror and action/adventure as they find a way out.
  • The format was such a wonderful surprise: the initial story is relatively quickly resolved, and then the book becomes more of an anthology of inter-related stories, each focused on a different main character. This allows the book to have sweeping changes in subject and tone — ghost story, sci-fi fantasy, supernatural heist story, body horror — all of which feel as if they’re part of the same story but never slowing down the pace.
  • Each story brilliantly acts as a parable/illustration of the injustices African Americans faced in the Jim Crow era: redlining, sundown towns, needing the Green Book to travel safely, the Tulsa riots, etc. It refuses to obfuscate or sugar-coat any of these topics, but it also never feels too heavy-handed. The topic is always given a supernatural twist, where the reality of life in the US is often at least as harrowing as whatever cosmic horror the gang is faced with this week.


  • Slow reading for me, as several parts made me so angry that I had to put the book down for a while. This might be specific to people like me who are super-sensitive to reading about injustices, having never been the target of them ourselves.
  • Encounters with the real over-the-top eldritch horrors are wrapped up fairly quickly, which does avoid overly long and drawn-out descriptions of the indescribable, but also feels a bit anti-climactic.
  • If you’re vindictive like me, you kind of want to see the bad guys made to suffer a bit more.

I absolutely loved this book. While it sometimes made me so angry that I had to put it down for a couple of days, the anger at the injustices just make the victories feel much more satisfying. I’m even more eager to watch the TV series now, especially knowing that the novel was originally conceived as a TV pitch.

We Have Always Been At War With DOMA

Unpacking my own hypocrisy (maybe?) and avoiding getting gaslit by the Obama administration.

After I read Kal Penn’s memoir, I was pretty salty about how it just barely even mentioned being not-straight1For lack of a better description, since I don’t know exactly whether Kal Penn identifies as gay, bisexual, queer, etc., and instead treated it as if had been a non-issue. He casually says that in his mid-20s, his friends already “knew that [he] was dating dudes;” he makes a passing reference about figuring out his sexuality; and he has a chapter about his partner that is more about NASCAR than anything else.

That’s pretty much it. It stands out because so much of the book is about facing discrimination as an Indian-American working in Hollywood, or as an actor (at the time primarily known for his work in stoner comedies) working in the Obama Administration, but makes absolutely zero attempt at describing any kind of intersectionality with his sexual orientation.

It’s been bugging me for the last few weeks, since I’ve been wondering how much, if at all, my criticism makes me a hypocrite.

Continue reading “We Have Always Been At War With DOMA”
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    For lack of a better description, since I don’t know exactly whether Kal Penn identifies as gay, bisexual, queer, etc.

The Magic of Being Quiet for Once

Balancing a healthy skepticism about marketing with the humility to keep your mouth shut when you don’t know what you’re talking about.

Today there was an Apple marketing event to announce the new iPhone 15 and Apple Watch Series 9. I don’t want to tell Apple their business, but there was one big disappointment for me:

In the section where they show how two of the cameras on the new phones can be used together to record spatial (3D) video for the Apple Vision Pro headset, they show a woman on the beach somewhat awkwardly squatting to keep her musical family in frame. Then they say “spatial video lets you feel like you’re right back in that moment in time,” while cutting to the woman lounging comfortably on her living room couch wearing the Vision Pro headset. And all I’m saying is that it would’ve been one billion times funnier if they’d cut to her in the middle of her living room, squatting awkwardly.

Apart from that, I’ve got no complaints. I even thought the Octavia Spencer-as-Mother-Nature bit was fine.1Incidentally, was one of the Apple execs played by the Flight of Passage “you can… uh… fly” guy? Everything shown seemed like a worthy-if-not-jaw-dropping successor to the previous generation, and set the stage for future updates. I’ve spent the past few years developing for iPhones, so I’m on the update plan, personally, and am pretty much fated to get the new model every year until there’s absolutely zero reason to upgrade.2For me, the camera updates always justify the upgrade. And the guaranteed resale-ability of previous year’s models justify the environmental impact.

I had Mastodon open during the video. It’s blissfully much less of a “<tap tap> is this thing on?” type of venue than other social media, so the ratio of people being earnest to people trying to be funny to get attention is mercifully low.3On the other hand, the ratio of genuinely funny people to… not as much… is also lower than other social media. Still worth it. That plus the fact that I mostly follow game developers or tech journalists who are already mostly pro-Apple means that it was a reasonably pleasant, conversational experience.

And it reminded me of the announcement of the Apple Vision Pro earlier in the year, a special event where Mastodon was somehow graced with hundreds of posters who were all experts in AR and VR software and hardware, along with marketing, engineering, distribution, and sociological impact. You’d think it would be rare to find even one person who knows everything there is to know, and even if you could, their expertise would be at a premium — and yet that day, the internet was lousy with HMD gurus willing to share their enlightenment for free.

Continue reading “The Magic of Being Quiet for Once”
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    Incidentally, was one of the Apple execs played by the Flight of Passage “you can… uh… fly” guy?
  • 2
    For me, the camera updates always justify the upgrade. And the guaranteed resale-ability of previous year’s models justify the environmental impact.
  • 3
    On the other hand, the ratio of genuinely funny people to… not as much… is also lower than other social media. Still worth it.


Lorcana, memories of Magic the Gathering, and the value of novelty

There is absolutely no way I can justify buying the new Disney Lorcana trading card game. I’ve still got a few boxes full of Magic: the Gathering cards that have followed me across several moves, even though I was never that big into the game, and I haven’t played it in almost 10 years. I’ve got several other trading card games, and even more deckbuilding games, that I’ve accumulated over the years, and they’re all sitting unplayed.

But I mean, come on. It would be absurd for me to even try and pretend I’m not going to pick up at least a starter pack of the Lorcana decks, so why even bother going through the motions, when we all know how this is going to turn out?

In an attempt to pretend to be responsible, I imposed a rule that I have to get rid of all my Magic the Gathering cards before I can bring any new TCGs into the house1I really should find new homes for my copies of Netrunner and Doomtown while I’m at it..

And it was while I was sorting through the cards that I hit upon the epiphany that launched this post: hey, you know what, Magic is a really well-designed game!

Continue reading “Tapped”
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    I really should find new homes for my copies of Netrunner and Doomtown while I’m at it.

Literacy 2023: Book 11: You Can’t Be Serious

Kal Penn’s memoir about his experiences as an Indian American actor in Hollywood and as a member of the Obama administration

You Can’t Be Serious by Kal Penn

Kalpen Modi writes about his upbringing as a member of an immigrant Indian family in New Jersey, his path to becoming an actor, his time on the Obama campaign and in the Obama administration, and his career afterwards.

I really dislike memoirs, so I was predisposed to dislike this book. I’ve got an irrationally low tolerance for hearing someone talk about themselves at length, and I feel as if it takes an extraordinarily good storyteller or an extraordinarily interesting life to overcome my impression of narcissism. So instead of the usual “Pros” and “Cons” I’ll just make a list of observations about the book.


  • Frequently goes from being toothless to dismissive without ever coming across as gossipy, and full of bizarrely specific details. All of that made it seem more like Kal Penn fan fiction than a memoir.
  • It was interesting to see Modi describe his community in New Jersey as being diverse and intersectional instead of insular, since I’ve rarely seen immigrant communities depicted in the media and when they are, they’re almost always shown to be some kind of homogenous monolith that strives to keep to itself. Modi writes more about bar and bat mitzvahs than Indian ceremonies.
  • The book was written with a ton of gratitude and respect for his parents for working so hard to give him a stable life where an uncertain career in acting could be possible.
  • Has a much-needed reminder that being recognizable or even famous doesn’t always equate to being rich. He says that Harold & Kumar gave him a ton of notoriety but didn’t provide a runway beyond a half year.
  • Generally, he talks a good bit about financial insecurity and having trouble finding work, but also seems to have a stability that I would’ve been very envious of in my college years and 20s.
  • His description of the Obama campaign and the election was vivid enough to make me nostalgic about that time and the feeling of hopefulness that came with it. His respect for the Obamas and key people in the administration is evident every time he writes about them.
  • Goes into absolutely no detail about being gay, the process of coming out, any discrimination he’s faced because of his sexuality, none of it. Almost all of the book treats it as a total non-issue. The chapter about his fiancé is all about NASCAR, to the point that it feels like he’s deliberately refusing to discuss it. Obviously, people can choose to be private and choose what they want to write about. But this book taught me the names of his middle-school classmates and that he has a tree-nut allergy, but nothing about his experiences that I might actually be able to relate to. It’s especially jarring when he’s talking about Don’t Ask Don’t Tell or marriage equality while seemingly refusing to talk about them as things that might affect him personally.
  • The next-to-last chapter ends the book on a sour note, insisting that the fate of his series Sunnyside was due to systemic racism and a lack of support and promotion from NBC. Obviously, I don’t know the real story, but one thing I do know is that I’ve had a crush on Kal Penn ever since he was on How I Met Your Mother, if not earlier, and the trailer and the pitch still couldn’t get me interested in the series. It seems like working in TV for 20 years would have given plenty of examples of how sometimes stuff just doesn’t work.

As I mentioned, I don’t like memoirs, so it says a lot about the readability of the book that I finished it at all. I saw it at a queer book fair last weekend, and I was surprised to see it on the shelf, since I had no idea that Kal Penn was “dating dudes” as he describes it. It turned out to be a humorous but infuriating account of how people of color are treated in the entertainment industry, and a bit of nostalgia for the days when you could actually feel good and hopeful about a Democratic presidential candidate. I just guess congratulations are in order to Kal Penn for being the one person in America to come out in the early 2000s and have it be a completely uninteresting non-issue.

All That Heaven Affords

Observations about the optimism of design and designers

This was prompted by a recent blog post by Cabel Sasser called “Fantasy Meets Reality.” He writes about various cases where the design of physical spaces (mostly theme parks) breaks down when it comes into contact with actual human beings.

Cabel mentions how design needs to make different assumptions based on culture and location; even within the subcategory of “Disney theme park,” for instance, there can be dramatically different ideas of how much guests are compelled to follow the rules, and different understandings of what the rules even are.

There’s a sense of optimism in that post — not just because of Cabel’s inescapably infectious enthusiasm for things, but because of the sense that is often common among designers, that these are problems that can be solved, and that thoughtful design is often the answer.

Continue reading “All That Heaven Affords”

Literacy 2023: Book 10: The House of Silk

Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson investigate a widespread conspiracy in a story so scandalous it had to be withheld from publishing for a century

The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz

One of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson’s later adventures, in which a seemingly straightforward crime involving an American gang leads the detectives to a dark conspiracy that reaches the highest levels of the British government, and gets Holmes arrested and imprisoned for murder!


  • As with Horowitz’s James Bond books, this does an excellent job of suggesting Arthur Conan Doyle’s style, but with a more modern story.
  • Captures the serialized feel of some of the original Holmes mysteries, where seemingly self-contained cases could balloon into longer, more complicated sagas.
  • Cleverly explains how a “missing” Sherlock Holmes story was published in the 21st century, by saying that Watson found the whole affair so scandalous he insisted it not be made public for 100 years.
  • Feels like a “fair” mystery, with clues that are made clear throughout and reward the reader for careful observation.
  • Matches the feel of the original stories without being too obvious an impression.


  • So much of it was so familiar that I strongly suspect I’ve read this book already, but completely forgot about it.
  • Filled with so much exposition, or just recounting events that happened elsewhere, that it all feels a step or two removed from any actual action.
  • Takes the character of Mycroft Holmes, who’s described as “stout” by Arthur Conan Doyle, and goes to such lengths to describe him as morbidly obese that it can’t help but come across as fatphobia on Horowitz’s part.

A solid but somewhat forgettable Sherlock Holmes mystery. There’s enough of an update to give the story a modern feel despite its fitting completely within the existing canon, but there’s not enough novel in it to make it feel as fresh as something like the Sherlock BBC series. Anthony Horowitz’s books are completely and dependably readable, and he was the perfect author to trust with the characters.

One Thing I Like About The Haunted Mansion

Sometimes it’s just nice to feel targeted.

I really enjoyed The Haunted Mansion. I hadn’t expected to like it, to be honest, because movies based on theme park attractions don’t have a great track record, and I tend to be possessive about the source material.

And it does feel overstuffed, as if there are a few too many characters, a few too many distracting cameos, a few too many plot lines, and a few too many rewrites. But then, you could say the same thing about the ride itself. Honestly, the movie shares a lot of the feeling of the ride — a ton of talented contributions towards something that’s unfocused and disjointed but memorable.

It gets the tone right, too: it’s both creepy and funny but never too goofy and never too scary. LaKeith Stanfield goes harder than he needs to, honestly, but his performance is a huge part of keeping it from feeling just like a commercial IP synergy exercise. It often feels like Danny DeVito’s and Owen Wilson’s characters were leftovers from earlier drafts of the screenplay, but at the same time, the movie wouldn’t have worked nearly as well if any of them had been edited out. It ends up feeling surprisingly like an ensemble movie, where everybody in the ensemble is more talented than they need to be.

But one thing I like about The Haunted Mansion is that it is so deeply committed to paying homage to the theme park attraction that it finds a way to include both Disneyland’s and Walt Disney World’s versions.

Most of the movie takes place inside Disneyland’s New Orleans plantation house version of the mansion, but there’s a side trip to another historical house that looks exactly like the Magic Kingdom’s northeastern version. An especially nice touch is that the establishing shot of the house is seen from exactly the same angle as you see when entering the queue of the Magic Kingdom attraction, much like the “main” mansion is most often seen from the same angle as the entrance of Disneyland’s queue.

It is 1000% fan service, and the movie is full-to-bursting with it, and I was entirely on board for all of it. Just about every scene of the ride gets a depiction in the movie — the only scenes I didn’t see were the body trying to get out of its coffin in the conservatory, and the singing busts in the graveyard. Several of the ghosts depicted in paintings throughout the queue and the ride are made significant characters. All of the rooms make an appearance, most notably the stretching room and a version of the seance room. The movie even finds a way to include the rhyming headstones from the queue.

There are so many references to the ride, and they’re done so faithfully, that it’s impossible to cynically dismiss them as nothing more than an IP cash grab. There’s no question that the movie was made with affection for the attraction, by people putting in the extra effort to do justice to a beloved attraction. It often feels like a fan film made with a Disney budget.

One of the most charming things in the movie is the idea of “ghost winks,” signs that the dead give us to let us know they’re still with us. The movie itself spends a lot of time winking at us, feeling like shared love for a favorite ride.

Remembrances of Block Rockin Beats Past

Blindsided by the nostalgia bomb delivered by The Chemical Brothers

Several weeks ago, I was feeling down, and an emergency trip to Anaheim wasn’t helping. On the drive back home, I decided to listen to The Chemical Brothers’ album Dig Your Own Hole from start to finish, something I haven’t done since the early 2000s, most likely.

I was completely surprised by how much of a cozy, warm, weighted-blanket comfort record that had become for me. It instantly took me back to the days of working on Monkey 3, going to see The Saint1Forgettable movie, incredible soundtrack at a screening, and weeks of driving around Marin County listening to “Setting Sun” and freaking out. It was such a surprisingly good memory of such a specific time, before reality started creeping in, and I could just be overjoyed with where I’d found myself in life.

And I was surprised that it’d be Dig Your Hole that became such a comforting2Or, since it’s British, homely record, since at the time, I just imagined it was music for wild, drug-fueled raves held in converted ruins and ancient-dungeons-turned-nightclubs all over the UK. The band’s marketing sure leaned into that image, with everything looking like a TV series where Prodigy was in charge of MI6, until I’m assuming they’d sold enough records to be able to take control over their own image, and hire people like Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze to make their videos.

I’ve never been to a drug-fueled rave, UK or otherwise, so the images it conjures for me are of Fairfax and San Anselmo, CA, going to lunch at wacky Thai or Casa Mañana, the theater in Corte Madera, Tightwad Tuesday at the theater in Novato, taking the long way to work that went through redwoods, watching The X-Files at my best friends’ apartment, and getting that first spectacular view of San Francisco as you come through what is now called the Robin Williams tunnel. I was very happy to get all those memories back, and I was singing and car-dancing like a maniac all the way up I-5.

There’s just one unanswered question from those days that still haunts me, though: who is this doin this synthetic type of alpha beta psychedelic funkin’?

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    Forgettable movie, incredible soundtrack
  • 2
    Or, since it’s British, homely

Subverting the Thing

Barbie, David Letterman, and the impossibility of being a mass-market radical

I didn’t like the Barbie movie very much, but I can’t stress enough how much that doesn’t matter. I didn’t dislike it, because it’s got some really good performances by actors who understood the assignment completely, a couple of stand-out gags1Especially the narrator’s voice-over about how appropriate it was to cast Margot Robbie, and it works pretty well as a modern homage to so many classic fantasy movies that inspired it. In that interview with director and co-writer Greta Gerwig, she mentions Barbie greeting Astronaut Barbies and saying “Yay, space!” and it really is a fantastic, charming moment.

The most clever thing about the trailers for the movie was the tagline that went something like “If you love Barbie, you’ll love this movie. If you hate Barbie, you’ll love this movie.” It might simply be that I’ve never had a strong opinion about Barbie one way or the other, so I couldn’t get into this movie. But it’s a toy company spending tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars to deliver an honest and earnest message about feminism to as wide an audience as possible, so what could possibly be the problem?

My biggest issue with it isn’t that it’s bad, but that it was so on-the-nose that I never felt like I had anything to engage with. It was two hours of characters always saying exactly what was on their minds, explicitly delivering a message that I already agreed with. Everything that seemed like an original or clever twist on the basic premise (which I’d already seen on SNL, to be honest) had already been given away in the inescapable torrent of marketing for the movie.

It’d be churlish and hypocritical to be too critical of anything I thought was “just fine overall,” much less one that explicitly comments how the patriarchy demands that women be exceptional just to be recognized as having any worth at all.2And especially when a bunch of dipshits have tried to leverage Mattel’s marketing budget to take their own idiotic potshots in their own stupid attempt at a culture war. I don’t actually have any strong opinions about the movie, but about the idea that it was subversive.

Continue reading “Subverting the Thing”
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    Especially the narrator’s voice-over about how appropriate it was to cast Margot Robbie
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    And especially when a bunch of dipshits have tried to leverage Mattel’s marketing budget to take their own idiotic potshots in their own stupid attempt at a culture war.