The Fine Art of Poking Holes

I’m a hole poker, and people don’t much care for hole pokers. I learned this lesson years ago, when I was the boatswain aboard a large sailing vessel. The boatswain is the highest-rated seaman aboard who isn’t an officer; his job is to keep everything on deck and above in working order, and supervise the other seamen. The word boatswain comes from Old English and Norse, but you don’t often hear it spoken. Instead we say bosun, which should properly be punctuated as bo’sun. Sailors don’t like to move their mouths much, which is one reason why I wasn’t a great success as a sailor.

In the capacity of bo’sun I often found myself delivering bad news to the First Mate, who didn’t always appreciate it. The First Mate, by the way, is the highest rated officer aboard who isn’t the captain, so there was a certain symmetry to our relationship. He didn’t really mind it when I pointed out something that was broken and needed to be patched with money, but when the news was more of the anticipatory “if we don’t fix this then its possible that might happen” variety, he would get a little irritated. I was dreaming up work, which I certainly wouldn’t be doing if I had work to do.

I ended up spending nearly a whole summer aboard a laid-up ship with that same First Mate, and I like to think we developed some respect for each other’s approach. I never forgot that lesson, however, and I’ve had it repeated more than once since, in venues as distant from each other as the deck of an oyster dredger is from a boardroom. Which is to say that while I never forgot it, I never learned it either.

As a species our inherent distaste for hole poking is illuminated by our distaste for criticism. We look down on professional critics, thinking that if they had any real talent they would do things, and not simply criticize the things others are doing. But it takes imagination to criticize, and poke holes. You have to be able to imagine something as other than it is, and then imagine the consequences of that. Novelists should make pretty good hole pokers.

The problem with our aversion to the poking of holes is that there is one thing we fear more than having the flaws in our plans highlighted before a large audience: the consequences of not having those flaws highlighted. We are terrified of Bad Things happening. We hate risk so much we’ll shut down half the world’s airspace rather than chance flying through the Invisible Cloud of Death. We hate it so much that we’ll put colored cellophane around it and call it something else, like Collateralized Debt Obligation.

The way to avoid Bad Things happening as a consequence of flawed plans is to poke holes in the plans before they are put into operation. But that would require admitting that we, the authors of those plans and designs, didn’t possess sufficient imaginative powers to envision and close the revealed gaps before the hole poking began. Perhaps the best thing for all of us is to sit tight, pretend we’ve covered the bases, and then when things go south rise in righteous indignation and demand that our politicians pass a law to keep it from happening again.

On second thought there may be some flaws in that plan.


Rising from the ruins once again. About a week ago I opened up the site and learned that it had been crapped on by hackers. Here’s what apparently happened, as far as I can piece together from what has been posted online: Network Solutions, where I host this blog, had their file system permissions set up such that users could read each other’s root directories. I connect via FTP and can only see my root directory, but the attackers apparently found a way (ssh or something else) to read other directories on the volume. That let them read the wp-config.php file in my wordpress install, and that let them get the database login and password.

They then overwrote the value of the siteurl option in the wp-options table with the url of an iframe that sucked in a bunch of links that they wanted to get SEO bumps on. In addition they dropped a file named users.js in the js folder under wp-includes, and that’s probably not all. I didn’t detect any malware installation attempts, but I have seen reports that others who had this hack did have install attempts, so if you visited the site and saw the messed-up homepage I would suggest scanning your system. I’m sorry for any inconvenience that might cause you.

Repairing this mess required reinstalling WordPress, themes, and plugins, cleaning the database, changing all the passwords, and debugging a number of issues caused by the fact that some plugins that were installed when the attack occurred were older than the versions available when I rebuilt the site, and I did not have a known-good backup. I’m not going to bash Network Solutions because over the last four or five years I’ve found them to be a pretty good host, and would say that they have provided good value for my $12 a month. I do hope this doesn’t happen again, because it’s a major pain in the ass.

Books for Former Fantasy Lovers

Somewhere along the line, between devouring everything Tolkien wrote nine times, and putting down the eighth volume of The Wheel of Time in disgust, I lost my appetite for fantasy. There was a time when I would have departed for Middle Earth in a heartbeat, if you had shown me the door. I used to prance around my bedroom wearing my Dad’s Korean war-era bayonet as Sting. It was way too small to be any other sword, but as Sting it was ideal, even if I was far from the archetype of a hobbit.

I never recaptured that feeling with any other story, although I have read very many fantasy novels and series since. I have some favorites, such as The Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay, or Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. I have my least favorites too, like The Wheel of Time, and The Wheel of Time, not to mention The Wheel of Time. In general, though, I’m just not that into it anymore. Part of this is no-doubt because I grew older. Another part of it is certainly because fantasy grew weirder. Whatever the reasons, I haven’t purchased a new fantasy novel since George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Kings.

That doesn’t mean I have lost my taste for swashbuckling adventure, the struggle of good vs. evil, and the days when men were men and wore armor to bed. Far from it. But I have lost my tolerance for what feel to me like the excesses of modern fantasy. Fortunately, to replace it I have gained a huge appreciation for historical fiction. After all, European history is awash with exactly these sorts of stories. So, for those of you who, like me, are a little worn out on High Fantasy, or no longer high enough to appreciate it, I present some alternatives that will take you to places just as epic, and just as moving.

Bernard Cornwell. Mr. Cornwell is the reigning Master of Dark Ages and Medieval European historical storytelling. Begin with The Last Kingdom, first in his currently five-part Saxon Chronicles. If that whets your appetite, and it will, finish out the rest of the series and then dig into The Archer’s Tale, which begins his three-part Grail Quest story. Speaking of grails and quests, be certain not to miss Cornwell’s Arthurian Cycle, beginning with The Winter King. It is one of the best renderings of that subject matter that I have ever read, second only to Mary Stewart’s, which I will get to below. Bernard Cornwell is a highly accomplished storyteller whose narratives will grip you from the first page. I devour every new one like a bag of potato chips, and even when I want to linger I can’t possibly.

David Gemmell. Mr. Gemmell was to the pre-Roman Classical Age what Bernard Cornwell is to the post-Roman Dark and Middle Ages. You can pretty much throw a dart at a list of his works taped to the wall, and be assured you’re getting something excellent and satisfying. If I were just discovering Gemmell I would start at the end. His Troy stories, the last series he wrote before his death in 2006, begin with Lord of the Silver Bow, and tell the story of the conquest of Troy from the perspective of Helikaon, Achilles, Ulysses, Priam, Andromache, and many other well-known characters from Greek Mythology. The last installment, The Fall of Kings, was finished by his wife Stella after he passed away. Once you’ve dined on those tasty dishes, don’t miss Lion of Macedon, and Dark Prince, or any of the Rigante books, beginning with Sword in the Storm. Like Cornwell, Gemmell was the very essence of a master storyteller.

Lady Mary Stewart. For my part, when it comes to the Arthurian tales, nobody has told them like Mary Stewart. I read the first book in her five-part series, The Crystal Cave, back in the early eighties and quickly finished off the three additional volumes that were then available. Since then she has published a fifth, The Prince and the Pilgrim. My favorite aspect of these stories is her treatment of Merlin’s character, and the way she weaves Arthur and his family seamlessly into actual events taking place in Britain at the close of the Roman era, and the dawning of the Saxon invasions. If you love stories of King Arthur then Lady Stewart’s cycle is not to be missed.

What you will not find in any of these books are flashy magic, elves, dwarves, orcs, goblins, amulets of power, or rings that can save or doom the world. What you will find in abundance are the essential qualities of epic storytelling: compelling characters, irresistible historical forces, honor, loyalty, treachery, betrayal, the clash of mighty armies, and the saving of the occasional female in need. In other words, all the good stuff, and none of the hokum. Enjoy!