Thursday, December 8, 2011

Ulysses Plot Peeves: "Padding" or, "The Breakup"

Current Reading: The Bible Repairman, by Tim Powers

Inspirational Quote: "It is better to have loved and lost... Ah, forget it. Give me two beers." -- Me, I guess.

Dear Scribe;

I'm a reader. You're a writer. For the most part, it's been a good relationship. We've had some great times. Remember Chapter 3 of Massive Zombie Death Parade? When Redd Meat decided to clear his block with the customized lawn trimmer and the improvised flame thrower, only to discover that the noise and smell attracted even more undead? I'll always remember that. You kept me up nights, and I love that in anyone I take to bed (to read).

But lately, I just haven't been feeling it. I'm sorry. I hate to tell you this, but I think any relationship has to be built on honesty if it's going to last. So.

It's not me. It's you.

I got into this relationship because I thought you could fulfil my need for a good story. I thought you could excite me, satisfy my desire for a great character and a terrible situation that forced him to struggle every moment, only to have his struggles make everything worse. It started out wonderful. I couldn't wait to riffle through your pages, to soak up every word. But somewhere around chapter 5, we lost the magic. That was when you went into that long passage about Redd's brother, who'd been a Marine before but had been killed by an IUD in Hackysackistan. That was a great bit, and I shed a tear when he realized his first foray into unknown territory was going to be his last, that although there was no risk of pregnancy, there was also no possibility of escape.

But what did it mean? What did it have to do with anything? I spent all 20 pages of chapter 5 wondering how Dedd Meat's death would inform Redd's story, how it would change or at least explain some of his actions. But it didn't. It was just there. A one-night stand which both parties quickly forgot.

How could you do that to me? I put myself in your hands. I trusted you. You promised me a story, and I thought chapter 5 was part of it, but it wasn't. It was just a fling. It didn't mean anything. I suppose I could have overlooked it, but then in chapter 7, your have that bit where Redd goes out to get some groceries, kills a couple of zombies and gets back to his hidey-hole with a crate of twinkies and the last ripe tomato in the city. The presence of the supplies didn't trigger any catastrophe. The trail of bodies he left behind didn't lead the wild dog pack to his door. The whole episode changed nothing in Redd's world.

Do you even know how wrong that is? Do you understand how you cheated? All those words didn't mean anything! The plot didn't move an inch! At the end of those passages, I was right back where I started. I'd wasted 60 pages of my life on something that was going nowhere.

How could you do that to me? You know that every scene has to have a point. You know that every scene has to change the direction of the story, that it has to make victory more unlikely, survival less certain. You know every scene has to challenge Redd's principles, and force him to sacrifice one thing in order to obtain another! You know all this, and yet you ignored it. For what?

Well, I've had enough. That's the last time you disappoint me. I'm putting your work down, and I'm not picking it up again unless I have to dust under it. I've had it with pointless diversions. I've had it with padding that seems to serve no purpose beyond elevating word count. You led me on. You were all promise and no payoff.

So I'm leaving. Good-bye. You can have your bookmark back. I'm going down the the bookstore and I'm going to pickup that vampire novel, "Dusk," that all the kids are going crazy over, and we're going to have a wild time together while I forget all about you.

Sincerely, your Ex-reader.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

MUPPETS!

If I have to say more than that, then I'm afraid I don't even know who you are anymore...

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

November Ain't Just About Facial Hair


Current Reading: Techniques of the Selling Writer, by Dwight Swain

Inspirational Quote: "Adoption is not about finding children for families, it's about finding families for children." -- Joyce Maguire Pavao

November is National Adoption Month.

I'm an adoptive dad. Telemachus and Aeneas (obviously not their real names) are biological brothers we adopted when they were nine and six. That was 8 years ago.

What's it been like?

Here's the truth of it: it hasn't been pretty, it hasn't been easy, and it's going to get worse as they get older.

But, as I've tried to tell them so often, nothing worth doing has ever been easy.

Is it worthwhile?

Yeah.

It's hard, and some days all I've got as a buffer between me and despair is the knowledge that no matter how much I screw up, I'm still better than what they had before (which was nothing). Sure, there's likely someone out there who could do a better job than I.

But they're not here. I am.

Adopting older children is tough. The damage has been done, and no force on earth can undo it. You have to live with kids who bear so many scars it's a wonder they're still kids. You can't make yesterday better. All you can do is make today the best you can and give them some hope that tomorrow will be brighter.

That's your job.

The day doesn't go by when I don't screw something up. But I'm there. Every day. I'm there in the morning, and I'm there at night and I do my best to make our home a safe place.

That alone makes me the best father these children have ever had. Because of me, they have a shot at a good life.

Consider adoption. You could be the greatest thing to ever happen to a kid.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Book Report: The Hobbit, by Some Guy With a Lot of Initials.


I've always loved The Hobbit. In fact, it got me reading fantasy. It was one of the first books we were supposed to read back in Grade 9 English class, and one of the only ones I remember finishing. As such, it holds a special place in my heart, and as such, it bears re-reading because my reaction to it at 13 (in 1979) is unlikely to be the same as my reaction to it now at 45.

And this is true.

Popular history has that the Hobbit was originally composed as a bedtime story (or, more likely, a series of stories) for Tolkien's son Christopher. Whether this is fact or apocrypha seems to be a matter of debate. I don't know what bedtime stories were like in the years between the two World Wars, but this book is altogether more erudite and literary than anything I've ever tried to read my daughter. It's also a lot more violent and suspenseful. It reads more like a story out of Boy's Own Adventures than something to be read before bed, which tells me that the children of the 1930s were likely a considerably more rough-and-ready bunch than the screen-potatoes of the Internet age.

It's a rambling tale, with diversions and digressions that occasionally go deep into Middle-Earth History (Quick: who was Bolg, and why is knowing this important?), and when you read it you hear the voice of the narrator taking you one step away from the action. I picture Gandalf, using Ian McKellan's voice, reciting the story while sitting by the fire with his feet up. He speaks directly to the reader, occasionally referring to "you," as he plumbs the depths of Bilbo's plight.

I wondered many times, while reading this, what a modern writer would do with the material. John Scalzi has reinterpreted H. Beam Piper's Little Fuzzy, and so I wonder what someone like Jay Lake or Neil Gaiman would do with the material if they were given a chance.

It be an interesting read.

Bottom line: It's a book out of time, a classic, and although I'm no longer 13, I find things to appreciate about it that never entered the head of the teenager I was.

Ulysses Rating: 4 - I loved this, and will probably read it again in twenty years.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Ulysses Plot Peeves: Pass the Idiot Ball!

Current Reading: Techniques of the Selling Writer, by Dwight Swain

Inspirational Quote: "Genius may have its limitations, but stupidity is not thus handicapped." -- Elbert Hubbard

I've mentioned this before. I'll mention it again. And probably again. And again. Because if repetition causes just one writer to avoid this pitfall, my time on this Earth will have been justified.

Plot-Induced Stupidity occurs when the characters in a story do something that no thinking being in their right mind would ever do simply because the author has decided that the needs of the plot outweigh the needs of common sense. Characters will forget what resources are available to them and ignore previous experiences, all so that the author can move from point A to point B on the plot diagram.

Here's a perfect example: The Fellowship of the Ring. Earlier in the story, Gandalf summons Gwahir to save him from his imprisonment atop Orthanc. But then the wise wizard drops a bucket of I.Q. points and decides that a perilous walk into the enemy's stronghold is the best way to bring an end to the peril facing Middle Earth.

Idiot. That flash of brainlessness got hundreds killed, including himself (even though he got better).

I'd love to present an example from Massive Zombie Death Parade, but really I think I'd have to work way too hard to improve on Tolkien's fine example. And it just ain't worth the effort.

So, if you're a writer, please do your readers (and me) a favor. Remember the Principle of Maximum Character Effort: Every character wants something, and if it's important enough to be in the story, it's important enough for them to hold nothing back in their efforts to achieve it.

If you've got a situation where your plot says a character must act in a certain way, but that character's intelligence and resources make it more likely they'll act in some other way, then you've got a problem.

The problem is either you've got the wrong character for your plot, or you've got the wrong plot for your character. Say Redd Meat used to be a special forces weapons expert, but your story requires him to be unable to shoot an approaching zombie because he's not sure how to fire a pistol.

Yeah. I'm done reading now. You've pretty much trashed my suspension of disbelief, and honestly, I'm a little insulted.

This isn't to say you can't handicap your characters in order to make their stupidity believable. Robert Ludlum elevates this to an art when he gives super assassin Jason Bourne amnesia on the very first page of Bourne's very first book.

I'll let you get away with it if you're as good as Ludlum. Otherwise, I'm closing the covers and we're done.

Maybe Redd's been partly blinded by some chemical the Military dropped on the city in hopes of dissolving the undead. In that case, a weapons expert with a bogus aim makes perfect sense.

There is always room for extenuating circumstances.

Sometimes, when you're writing, you've got to trust your instincts about the character. If they wouldn't take action A, which is called for by your sense of plot direction, what would they do? The answer to that kind of question can often lead to some very interesting places, sometimes more interesting places than action A was going to take you.

On the other hand, if action A is really cool, maybe there's a better character you could use to run your plot. Instead of a weapons specialist, make Redd a cross-eyed hairdresser, or an Imperial Stormtrooper, neither of which are known for their facility with weapons.

This doesn't take into account stories where the character is actually meant to be an idiot. Maximum Character Effort means maximum for that character. If Redd's color blind, he's going to have some trouble jump-starting a car with red and green wires. If Redd's a moron, he's as likely to shoot himself as the approaching zombie, which makes me wonder how he got this far, so you've got to be careful.

So, summing up: Dumb character acting dumb for plot's sake, okay. Smart character acting dumb for plot's sake, not okay.

Next up: who knows? I'll go read some more. I'm sure something will occur to me.
Or not.
Life's a crap-shoot.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Overthoughts

There's something fundamentally wrong with putting real maple syrup on toaster waffles.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Ulysses Plot Peeves: If I Said You Had a Beautiful Body, Would You Do Nothing?


Current Reading: Techniques of the Selling Writer, by Dwight Swain

Inspirational Quote: "We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!" -- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit.

I read a fair bit, although nowhere near as much as I'd like. I also read a fair number of manuscripts as part of belonging to various critique groups. So, from an avid reader to those who (like me) aspire to write well, I present:

Ulysses Plot Peeves.
These are things I keep coming across that really string my bow.

To illustrate them, I'll refer to a fictional work of fiction (uh... what?) entitled "Massive Zombie Death Parade," Starring Redd Meat.

The first is the PASSIVE PROTAGONIST.

These are the guys (and gals) who don't do anything. They're the dull eye of the storm while things happen all around them. They don't cause anything, they just suffer the effects.

Redd Meat is walking down the street (hey! A rhyme!) and he sees a zombie trying to drag a still-living victim from a car. A few minutes later, he passes an alley and attracts the attention of a zombie horde which chases him (very slowly) into an abandoned apartment building. He barricades the door and waits until the zombies lose interest. Then he leaves to see if there's any pizza left in the restaurant across the street.

So far, I find MZDP undeadly dull. As a writer, I just want to show you this cool zombie world I invented, so Redd's a tourist. He doesn't actually DO anything. He just sees and experiences a lot of stuff that's really interesting.

Except it's not.

As a reader, I don't care. I don't care about Redd because he's not interesting. I don't care about your world because my tour guide is boring. I'm not involved in anything that happens, so I'm going to put down MZDP and go read my horoscope.

It's not enough for a character to be a Reactor either. A Reactor is someone who reacts to everything. The car incident? Horrible! Redd recoils! Zombie horde? Terrifying! Redd runs! Reactors are the Scream-Queens of the literary set, without the skimpy costume. They're fun for a minute, but any story you try to build on them is going to collapse before the end of the first act.

For a character to be interesting, I believe they've got to do SOMETHING. They've got to be proactive. For them to be proactive, they've got to WANT something, and be willing to go to exciting extremes to get it in every single scene... because a story is all about the getting, or failing to get.

Let Redd want to save the car victim, the only other living being he's seen in a week. Let him want to off both the zombie and his victim/soon to be comrade because his hate of the walking dead verges on the pathological. Let him show his determination and THEN you'll pique my interest. You'll capture it by making it almost impossible for him to get what he wants. Instead of having him just wait until the zombies leave, force him to escape. There's a window, but he's on the twelfth floor, although he might be able to make it by jumping from balcony to balcony. The only other way out is crawling through the space between the drop ceiling panels and the real ceiling, right out over the milling horde.

Either way, he's going to take action, and that action is likely to be dangerous, and I'm going to keep reading even though it's three a.m. and I've got to be up for work in 4 hours.

So, summing up: Don't be dull. Give me a character who wants something and goes after it.

Next, I flog a dead (not undead) horse: Plot-Induced Stupidity.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Book Report: The City and The City, by China Mieville

This is a mystery, a police procedural, a hard-boiled detective noir, but it takes place in a city unlike anything I've ever imagined.

In fact, it takes place in a city that I have considerable difficulty imagining. The City is Beszel, a middle-European town whose best days are behind it. The OTHER City is Ul Qoma, a modern and upscale metropolis heading boldly into the 21st century. The odd thing about these two cities is that they share the same geography. They overlap.

And that's where I sprained my medulla.

I thought they overlapped in the sense of parallel dimensions: that Ul Qoma overlay Beszel with occasional areas of bleed-through ("crosshatching" in the novel) or shared territory, that you would stand on one street in Ul Qoma and see one set of sights, but would be standing on another in Beszel and see a completely different set. However, I've recently seen the possibility that their division is less physical and more psychological: that the cities are separate only in the minds of their inhabitants. Some neighborhoods are Ul Qoma only, some are Besz only, with the citizens conditioned to see and interact only with those things that are in their city. In crosshatched areas, they have to be extremely careful to ignore anything they might see or hear from the other city.

That the whole thing is told in first-person by a Besz native to whom all this is second nature just makes the truth of it all the more obscure to the reader. The division is never fully explained. The reason for the split is lost to time. It just is, and the citizens have to deal with it.

It's weird, but fascinating.

The story follows a Besz detective investigating a murder in Beszel of a woman from Ul Qoma. In unraveling the mystery, he has to travel from one to the other, a journey more about psychology than geography. The mystery is complicated by extremists who believe the cities should be united, other extremists who believe they should be fully separated, politicians vying for power, and academics and conspiracy theorists who suspect there may be a third city hidden between the other two. There is also Breach, the terrifying and implacable organization which investigates and punishes those who cross the border from one city to the other without going through the proper checkpoints.

It's tightly written and atmospheric, the way a good crime novel ought to be, but it also brings up questions of urban identity and how much our environment shapes our society, like the best science fiction. I recommend this highly, and would love to find out what other people think is REALLY going on with the separation of the Cities.

Ulysses Rating: 4 - I loved this.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

A Fiction Writer's Tool Wishlist

Current Reading: The Bible Repairman, by Tim Powers

Inspirational Quote: "At each increase of knowledge, as well as on the contrivance of every new tool, human labour becomes abridged." -- Charles Babbage

In order to be a writer, you really only need two things: something to write with and something to write on. But on a certain level, that's like saying all you need to be a brain surgeon is a patient and a sharp knife. It's a pretty high-level view of the situation.

I'm not saying the better your tools the better your results. Results all come down to skill and knowledge, and you can't get them from tools. I've often said that the test of the artist is his (or her) use of an imperfect tool.

But using a good tool can make getting better results easier.

When it comes to writing, the current tool of popular choice is a word processor (although there are those out there who still prefer freehand, and typewriters have not yet gone the way of the Dodo). Writing and editing with one are easy. But I find that as wonderful as they are for WYSIWYG presentation, and as terrific as they are for a broad range of documents, they really aren't designed with fiction production in mind.

I use Microsoft Word in my day job, and I create some pretty nice technical documents. I can keep track of tables and figures and refer to different sections, documents and URLs. I can create indices and tables of contents and control the layout so that documents come out ready for binding.

However, when I sit down to wrestle with the Magnus Somnium, none of that helps.

For my fiction, I use Libre Office (it used to be Open Office before politics and economics tried to run on the same track in opposite directions). It's a like Word, but... well, it's like Word.

I'd like something better, please. Something that makes my work easier.

Here's my wish list for fiction writing software:

1. The production of words has to be its primary function. So it's a word processor foremost. Some of the usual features are things I don't need, I bet, like tables and lists (but that might be just me).

2. WPs are really good at breaking down text into sections and subsections with headings. I want to break down my manuscript into scenes, and then...
a) I want to be able to group them into chapters and/or acts, or books or some kind of higher structure.
b) I want to be able to move them around, change their order or placement in the manuscript.
c) I want to be able to mark them as unused, so that I still have the work, but it doesn't show up in the manuscript or word count.

3. It'd be nice to be able to track characters and settings, to ensure consistency whenever they're described and as they evolve (in scene 12, she's got a cut over her left eye. A day later, in scene 18, why is it over her right?). I've got NO idea how you'd pull this feature off without magic.

4. I want to be able to create different versions of my manuscript. I work with software, and I'm familiar with CVS and other versioning systems. I'd like something like that for my work. It wouldn't be as complex as software versioning because we're usually dealing with only one author and wouldn't need the "check out/check in" operations. You load up your current version, make some changes and save it. The changes for this version are tracked. When you've finished your draft, you give it a "draft number," and all the changes are locked in. All subsequent changes are made in reference to that draft number. This way, if I decide I like last Thursday's version better than today's, I can just jump back to Thursday's version and work from there. At the moment, I accomplish this by tacking the date and a draft number onto the file name, but it makes it hard to find the draft I want to backtrack to.

To say nothing of littering my hard-drive with files.

5. Other stuff. I'm a user creating requirements for a software system. As such, I reserve the right to make ad-hoc demands, change my mind, define everything as a priority and insist that it be ready for testing by the end of the month. Oh, and I might arbitrarily slash the budget, reassign people to other projects, demand hourly updates, and schedule customer demos of unfinished features without your knowledge.

But that's okay, right?

(image from here)Link

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

In Defence of Books About Writing

Current Reading: The Bible Repairman, by Tim Powers

Inspirational Quote: "A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult that it is for other people." -- Thomas Mann

One of the criticisms leveled against books on writing, frequently by writers themselves, is "You can't TEACH art."

It's a blanket statement and an absolute. I can't argue with it. I can give you a paintbrush, but you're not going to paint Da Vinci's 'The Last Supper.' I can give you a guitar, but you're not going to play the Beatles 'The White Album.'

But on the other hand, if I plunk you down in front of Vermeer's 'The Music Lesson,' or put Fleetwood Mac's 'Rumors' on repeat, sooner or later you're going to learn something about painting or about music, about how it's done.

Count on later. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but it's a slow way to learn.

If someone comes along and shows you how to use the brush, how to mix paint, how to create texture and depict light and draw the human form with some degree of accuracy (not required for Cubism, BTW), then your learning time will be considerably shortened. Those are valuable skills that can be applied not just in recreating an Vermeer, but in painting a Chagall or even something wholly original. Learning them will do more for your development as an artist than taking a magnifying glass to any number of Vermeers.

The same is true of writing. And by writing, I mean more than just putting correctly-spelled and gramatically-used words down on paper. I mean writing something compelling, something that readers want to read. I've read the Great Gatsby, and the Lord of the Rings and Watership Down and The City and The City, and Pinion and... well, there's a partial list to the left. I've read a fair bit, and after all that, I can honestly say only this:

I don't know art, but I know what I like.

If you can read these books, or other books, and absorb their lessons on technique and construction and rhythm, then congratulations. I hope you will use your genius for niceness instead of evil. I, however, am a bit thicker. Ideas don't readily penetrate my skull. I appreciate having someone peel back the skin and show me how the muscles work. Books on writing do that for me. It makes it easier for me to go out and bring some life to my own creations.

I believe I'd be a fool to denigrate or ignore anything that makes me think about what I'm doing and that gives me some ideas about how to do it differently (possibly even more effectively).

Book Report: Writing Fiction for Dummies, by Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy


Writing Fiction for Dummies, by Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy

Note: For the first time ever, I am including a link to my local (relatively) independent bookstore. I didn't even know they had a web site, which shows that sometimes I just don't THINK. Support your local indies, folks.

Anyway: you'd think after all the entries I've written here and my own tiny successes in the publishing arena that the last thing to open my wallet would be a title like this.

There are two schools of thought on fiction textbooks:

1) Don't read them. Go straight to the source. Read good books. Study how others do it. Imitate. Practice.

2) Read them. These people have been down the road and seen the sights and made the wrong turns and stopped at that hole-in-the-wall that looked promising but served cold Campbell's soup. They likely have a few things to say that'll resonate and cut a few miles off your own journey. Also: it's easier to learn if you're being taught.

Obviously, I belong to the 2nd school. Take from that what you may.

So why a book that insults me from the cover? Because it's done by this guy. That particular article inspired a few thoughts and raised a few questions, so I thought I'd see what else he had to say.

This book presents a real, fundamental, mechanic's view of story construction. I use the term "construction" intentionally, as the techniques he and his co-author present are practical, simple and functional. How do you make a character interesting? How do you put together a scene? A story? They show you ways and provide numerous illustrations of the principles at work in a selection of novel excerpts. If you follow their advice, you will finish with a working story.

Of course, it may not be a good one. That's where art comes in, and skill and practice. You can't get those out of a book.

I found this book quite insightful because it concentrated on how to create certain effects, how to structure scenes and acts, what things can be done to draw in a reader, to control pacing and ensure that the ending is satisfying. You have to bring your own art, but if you've got that, then this book will give you a few ideas about what you can do with it.

Ulysses Rating: 3 - I enjoyed this.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

A Few Thoughts on Evolution



Current Reading: The City & The City, by China Mieville


Inspirational Quote: "Evolution is a tinkerer." --Francois Jacob


I've been thinking about evolution lately. Not where it's brought us from, but where it's taking us.


Evolution is the theory that organisms change over time, and that changes which allow that organism to be more successful in its environment are more likely to be incorporated into future generations of the organism.


A couple of months ago, I first heard an interesting theory about the mechanism of evolution. I had always believed that evolution arose from natural, random genetic mutation. Trial and error. It seemed to me that this scattershot approach, where a mutation arises and gets squashed or propagated via natural selection, would take forever to create a man (or woman) out of a fish. A few hundred million years didn't seem long enough to manage it.


This other theory proposed that the mechanism of evolution was incorporation. We aren't just people. We're also colonies of bacteria. They live in our skin, our blood and our organs. The most well-known set of these are the ones currently inhabiting our digestive system. These are symbiotes that actually aid in our digestion. This theory proposes that organisms have a habit of annexing symbiotic bacteria, incorporating their genes into our own whenever these bacteria do something that improves our chance of survival. This explains a little better why we evolve in fits and bounds, and why we see so little evidence of failed mutations.


I don't know whether this new theory reflects reality, but it opens up some interesting lines of thought. If we assume that the human organism is a machine built to evolve, and is therefore always on the look-out for useful things that will give it an edge, then we can assume that bacteria have always been the method of evolution because they have existed in the sweet spot between abundance and efficiency.


That's no longer the case. You can see that. Especially if you walk down any busy city street.


Cell phones. Tablet pads. Computers. Networks. Our own technology is taking the place of bacteria as the evolutionary mechanism. True, we aren't incorporating it into our DNA, but that's because we don't know how. Instead, we're insisting these things become smaller and more portable, so we can carry them around with us (in a somewhat less icky way than we carry around our intestinal bacteria). People with cell phones and internet access are likely to have larger social circles (even if they are mostly virtual) than those without. More numerous and varied social contact results in more numerous and varied reproductive opportunities (which has always been "winning" in the evolutionary race). These things are a competitive edge.


We're not incorporating them into our DNA, but there has been talk of "Wearable Computing" for decades now. We want these things close to us. We want them to become part of us. In a more invasive manner, exoskeletons have been demonstrated in Japan (where else?) to help paralyzed people walk, and to help ordinary people carry heavy loads (like the power loaders in Aliens).


We are using technology to enhance our capabilities, to evolve.


And the most interesting thing about that is how conscious the process is. We are designing and making our own enhancements in response to demand, in response to perceived weaknesses in our capabilities. As a result, instead of "evolving" across hundreds of generations, we are now evolving across years and the time-frame is getting shorter.


In the short term, the improvements seem to be all around communication. It's about connecting us more, eliminating distances, changing the nature of community from "people close to me," to something more like "people who share my views and interests." But I see two branches of current research with tremendous potential to change what is to be human.


The first is nanotech. It's a big thing in SF stories right now because the science is still so early in its development. The potential of microscopic machines to create and reshape matter on the molecular level is tremendously exciting and very scary. I think the idea of bacteria-sized factories is a little too far-fetched to ever completely become a reality, but there is talk of injecting micro-machines into the human body as a way to deal with medical issues like cancer, plaque buildup in arteries and weak immune systems. Already we have surgically implanted pacemakers and insulin pumps available, making it possible for cardiac arrhythmia and diabetes patients to survive. In evolutionary terms, we are physically incorporating technology, making them part of the organism (is that even going to be the right word?) we define as "human."


But purists will tell you that's not evolution because it doesn't change our essential DNA.


True. We're organic, and no matter how fond we may be of our cell phones, they aren't. To that problem, I see two possible solutions: organic machines and inorganic humans.


Organic machines already exist. We call them organs, specialized structures in our bodies which carry out a single task while consuming one thing and producing another. If we accept genetic engineering as an eventual reality, then we can envision designing our own organs and incorporating their construction into our DNA. Children born with the ability to communicate across radio waves as well as sound waves would have a considerable advantage over the rest of us.


For inorganic humans, I have to bring up the second branch of current research with the potential to change us. Artificial intelligence. We're still decades away from true artificial intelligence, of course. But computer processing power is still growing according to Moore's Law, while we're jamming more and more memory into smaller and smaller devices. It's conceivable that we won't have to wait too long before we have machines with the capacity and capability of the human brain. In order to create a real artificial intelligence, though, we have to understand our own and I think that's going to be the toughest task. Our brains are a mass of organs and chemicals that it's taken nature billions of years to develop naturally. We're summations of our genetic heritage and organic urges and individual pasts thrown together into a mass of spaghetti thoughts that make the Gordian Knot look like a simple half-hitch.


But if we can do it, if we can create a machine intelligence capable of rational thought, what does that mean to humanity?


I know you're thinking about the Terminator, and the Matrix and every other machine intelligence that has ever decided to wipe us pitiful humans off the planet. Stop it. It ain't going to happen. Asimov saw that possibility, and created the Three Laws of Robotics to illustrate the solution: since we create the AI consciously, we determine its capabilities. Unlike us, the AIs we create will not be encumbered with a lizard brain and a monkey brain and a human brain all at war with each other inside its skull. It's not going to have to deal with the burdens and barriers of a million years of natural evolution. Of course, we could create an AI soldier (and probably will) programmed to destroy, but likewise we can create an AI nanny, programmed to nurture and teach. Eventually, we'll have AIs complex enough to exceed the capabilities of humans.


And then we have the robot apocalypse, right?


Not likely. It wouldn't make logical sense. Their bodies are different from ours, and it's unlikely we'll compete with them for food. Electricity, maybe, but there's enough sunlight to power everyone if we can learn to use it efficiently. With no competition for resources, the major reasons for widespread conflict evaporate. If we teach them well, and see them not as tools but as children, we'll have an opportunity to pass on the best of ourselves without the burden of the worst. Given machine bodies, these AIs will be able to exceed our capabilities and our boundaries. With no need for oxygen, they'll not be restricted to the Earth's atmosphere. If they are given the capability to renew their bodies, there's no longer a concept of mortality or age. Interstellar journeys will finally be within the capability of humanity, although it won't be the squishy kind of humanity we picture when we use that word.


What we will have is the next major stage in human evolution: the change from organic to inorganic. A merging of technology and humanity will require that we change what we define as human, that will eliminate our dependence on DNA modification for evolution.


There are complications and stumbling blocks to all of this, of course. It's speculation. It's dreaming. But we're human, and right now, that's something we do.


An AI equipped with raw materials and nanotech that his capable of altering its physical form, of evolving not across generations, but across whims might very well be the ultimate destination of human evolution. Whether you're terrified by the thought or inspired by it, it's a possibility that bears some thought.


Monday, September 12, 2011

Book Report: Grail, by Elizabeth Bear

Grail, by Elizabeth Bear

This is the final installment of the trilogy begun in Dust and continued in Chill. In it, the nano-tech infested generation ship Jacob's Ladder finally makes it to the planet it had been launched toward centuries before. Unfortunately, that planet is already inhabited by humans who leapfrogged the Ladder while it was marooned. Moreover the inhabitants have engineered themselves socially with the same extreme fervor the crew of the Ladder engineered themselves physically. As the two cultures meet, extremists on both sides attempt to derail negotiations.

I found this book quite a satisfactory conclusion. The ending actually surprised me. Up until the final few pages, I wondered if there were going to be another book, as clarity and resolution seemed to remain distant prospects. Then came a twist I didn't see coming, one which in retrospect makes perfect sense when I considered the main theme that ran through the books (evolution).

My only complaint was a moment when the captain of the Ladder, aware of conspirators on her ship and the presence of an enemy capable of circumventing their defenses, left the ship. That seemed a moment of plot-induced stupidity to me.

But it's a quibble. The trilogy is an interesting exploration of post-humanity, of what we might become when we take our bodies and our minds under conscious control.

Ulysses Rating: 3 - I enjoyed this.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Incivility



Current Reading: Grail, by Elizabelth Bear

Inspirational Quote: "Under certain circumstances, profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer." -- Mark Twain

I have a problem with profanity.

I don't believe I'm a very profane man. I try not to swear in public, although I find that when I'm around others who swear, I tend to adjust my language downward. It's an unconscious adaptation, and not one of which I'm proud. Even so, I tend not to get anymore rude than “feces” or “damn” or “Hell,” the latter two of which are perfectly acceptable because they occupy a prominent place in the Bible and therefore cannot (according to the dictionary definition) be considered profane. Of course, one has to let off steam, and there's nothing like a good curse for that. My father was a sailor of Irish descent, and the kind of man who could swear in complete sentences, sentences that were grammatically correct but extremely... busy.

Like anything, however, profanity tends to lose its potency when used so casually. His frequent use of the worst words left him at somewhat of a loss when he experienced moments that were perfect for a curse. I remember him hitting his finger with a hammer once. His exact words were, “Oh, for crying out loud.” Myself, I tend to hold my use of profanity for extreme instances when it's required by anger, or pain, or frustration. The rest of the time, I use things that are less offensive although they're rarely appropriate. My favorite word is “Shostakovich,” the name of an Austrian composer who's been dead long enough that I doubt he'd take offense at my appropriating its use. It's a good word. A nice soft “sh” to start off with, followed by a hard “t” and “k” and a nice bite of “ch” at the end. It's got all the sounds necessary to let off steam, but none of the baggage that goes with all those other words.

There are lots of words (most associated with sex and other body functions) that I honestly believe have no place in civilized dialog. But I'm apparently in the minority. These are words I hear every day. I hear them at work. I read them on the internet and in books. They make their way onto television and into the news and definitely into modern music and movies. As a result, I hear them out of the mouths of my children (my constant refrain is, “just because they go in the ears doesn't mean they should come out of the mouth.”) and I hear them shouted across the school yard and I cringe.

I used to listen to George Carlin. He made profanity funny but I always felt embarrassed laughing at him when my parents were in the room... even though it was their album. I also used to listen to Bill Cosby, who was funny and safe for all ages. I listened a bit to Eddie Murphy when he hit it big in the 80's, but I realized that people were laughing at what he said only about half the time. The other half the time they were laughing because they couldn't believe anyone could get up on stage and talk that way.

Honestly, I know they're just words. They're how people talk these days. Their status as “dirty” words is an archaism, a relic of a time when soap was used to wash out mouths as often as it was used to wash one's face. And perhaps I'm a relic of that time too, because the moment someone resorts to profanity in the course of an ordinary conversation, I automatically revise my estimate of their I.Q. down a few dozen points. Profanity in conversation always tells me that the person is far more interested in how they say something than in what they're saying.

Photo from here.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Book Report: Pinion, by Jay Lake


Pinion, by Jay Lake

This is the finale in Lake's steampunk (Gearpunk? Clockpunk? Who can keep subgenres straight anymore?) trilogy. The earlier books were Mainspring and Escapement.

As with the previous books, Pinion presents a fully realized world that is as fascinating in its depth as it is bizarre in its construction. This book is a direct follow on from Escapement, continuing the adventures of Paolina Barthes, Boaz the Brass man, the Mask Childress as well as the clerk/assassin Kitchens, and the librarian Wang whose minor appearances in the earlier book evolve into central positions in this one

Each character has their own goal, the the book follows their progress by interleaving scenes from their point of view. Paolina is still searching for a way to control the power given her by the clockwork "gleam" she created. Her undisciplined use of it has brought England and China to war. Boaz is searching for her, although what he finds along the way would make him his people's savior if only he could be sure they ought to be saved. Childress wants to use her commandeered Chinese submarine and her stolen position among the Avebianco to bring an end to the war, but both sides would rather see her and her crew at the bottom of the sea. Kitchens seeks to discover the fate of the lost expedition to tunnel through the wall, and must find a way to carry out an assignment from his Queen which will cost him his life. Wang wants to bring the Mask to justice, but his own journey makes him wonder if she is the criminal his superiors have made her appear.

That's a lot for one paragraph, and it's a lot for a book. But it is a big, sprawling, complex epic that nonetheless manages an intimate tone as it follows each character's story. As before, the world building is lush and detailed, and I would kill for this man's ability with description that etches everything so indelibly in the reader's mind. Also as before, if I had to pick a weakness here, it would be plot. I thought many of the characters (Wang especially) seem to be along for the ride, acted on by other forces instead of acting on them. As a result, it felt to me as though their overall goals shifted and the eventual climaxes for each story struck me as weaker than they could have been.

Still, it says something that I found "plot issues" a minor quibble. This is a beautiful book.

Ulysses Rating: 3 - I enjoyed this.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Book Report: Coyote Destiny, by Allen Steele

Coyote Destiny, by Allen Steele

This is the fifth, and if the author is to be believed (and why wouldn't he?) last of the novels in the Coyote series.

A spaceship from Earth, the first in years, reaches Coyote with word that the messianic prophet called the Chaaz'maha survived the explosion that destroyed the first Coyote starbridge. The news sets off two story lines: the quest to bring the Chaaz'maha home, and the hunt for the person who created the explosives responsible.

This one struck me as more of a coda than a climax. Previous books have dealt with weighty threats to survival, liberty and faith. This one is more intimate, dealing with loss and hope on a personal level. The book also sees the passing of the last of the first generation of Coyote settlers, something that carries considerably emotional weight for those who have read the series since its beginning.

All in all, I found this less impressive than the earlier books... BUT! That doesn't make this any less an amazing novel. Steele draws characters which are familiar to us in a landscape which is unfamiliar and yet as detailed and consistent as any location we might visit here on Earth. Although this is the last book, the reader can still feel the future of Coyote stretching out beyond our ken, full of stories.

Ulysses Rating: 3 - I enjoyed this.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Junk Drawer Ramble


Current Reading: Pinion, by Jay Lake

Inspirational Quote: "To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk." -- Thomas A. Edison.

Yesterday, Virginia decided it didn't like it's current location, so it picked itself up and moved itself about a quarter of an inch. It then settled back down, either content with its new location or exhausted from the move. No one can be sure. There are no certainties when geography gets restless.

A few days ago, Jack Layton, a Canadian politician who lead the federal New Democratic Party to it's current position as official opposition, died of cancer. In a rare move, the Prime Minister of Canada decided to hold a state funeral to honor his fallen opponent. Mr. Layton was only beginning to exert his influence in federal politics, and I think the business of the Nation will suffer for his absence.

The 2011 WorldCon SFF convention was held this past weekend in Reno, Nevada. I was not there. My absence was, of course, noted by almost no-one except me. However, I've been watching the Hugo Awards, which is the next best thing to being there in exactly the same way that hearing someone talk about Matchbox cars is the next best thing to driving in the Grand Prix. Next year, WorldCon is in Chicago. I want to go. However, since it falls over the same weekend as my 23rd anniversary, the odds of my being able to convince Penelope to tolerate my going (or even... gasp... come with me) are about equivalent to the odds of an ice-cube surviving a thermonuclear detonation.

Sigh.

So: every house I know of has a junk drawer. I don't know why. I think it's traditional. The junk drawer's express purpose is to serve as a repository for all those bits and pieces and odds and ends that don't really have any other place. Shoe laces. Batteries. Mismatched screws. Extra scissors. Mine has nightlights and doorstops and baby-proofing hardware leftover from before Cassandra stopped crawling.

Junk drawers are notable for three things:

(1) They're always in the kitchen. If you're ever walking down the street and suddenly find yourself in need of a button, or elastic band, or a bit of string, just walk into any house. Find the kitchen and start opening drawers. You'll find what you need inside of five minutes. Guaranteed. I don't know why it's always in the kitchen. Probably because that's usually where you are when you realize you need something obscure. Possibly because it's one of the few non-bedroom rooms in the house that has lots of drawers.

(2) They have a tendency to swell. When you move in, you've got one junk drawer that's half-full of stuff you know you're going to need eventually. A few years later, the drawer's full. A few years after that, it's a drawer and a bin on the kitchen counter and you've got no idea what's in it. Once in a while, you open it up and go "Hey! That's where that went! I haven't seen that in months. I'll have to remember it's there!" Then you close the drawer and five minutes later you've forgotten all about whatever it was. Soon it becomes a closet... but only the first two shelves. Or four. Or, okay, the whole closet. We'll find somewhere else to keep the blankets.

My parents have a shed. It's basically a massive junk drawer outside the main house. It contains nothing anyone would ever possibly need, but it's all stuff they don't want to get rid of because... well, you might never need it but the moment you get rid of it you're going to wish you hadn't.

(3) They contain everything. The cure for cancer is sitting in someone's junk drawer right now. So is Jimmy Hoffa. The end of Schubert's unfinished symphony was stuck in a junk drawer and lost to the ages. Einstein postulated that the average junk drawer contains a sufficient mass of esoteric matter as to form wormholes. Every junk drawer is in fact merely a visible manifestation of a single universal drawer which contains the missing dark matter required to close the universe.

Of course, the mathematics proving this were lost when Albert stuck the proof in a kitchen drawer and forgot about it.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Ad Astra

Current Reading: Scientific American. I have a lot of issues to catch up on. I'm about 6 months behind.

Inspirational Quote: "Per ardua ad astra." -- Motto of the RCAF.

On July 21st, the space shuttle Atlantis landed at Kennedy Space Center. It was the last flight of a program that began in 1981 with the maiden voyage of the Columbia. I remember watching the mission, although I can't recall details. I was 13, and it seemed like the stars were opening up to us. Within a few years, I thought, we'll have a space station as a jumping off point for Luna. Then, from Luna, in a few years more, we'll have the first manned expedition to Mars.

Of course, I was disappointed. But then, the aliens from Close Encounters never landed in real life either, and I'm STILL disappointed by that.

For the next 3 years, I watched every launch I could. After that, I was at University and spent more time reading and making things go bang than I did watching the news. The rest of the world grew more apathetic as well, as shuttle launches began their migration from front-page news to footnotes in the newspaper science section... if it had one. Of course, the disasters disrupted the program and made the shuttle news again, but on the whole, space travel became a regular part of life on earth: "Pauly Shore has made a movie that isn't funny, the space shuttle Discovery did something, and the Maple Leafs failed to make the playoffs..."

Now, the program is over. Outer space is once more a distant frontier, with the Americans depending on the Russians to act as taxi drivers if they need a trip to the ISS.

We were discussing the demise of the shuttle program a few days ago when a friend asked me what the program had contributed. What had it done? Why was it a big deal? I thought about it for some time before giving the wrong answer: something about the ceramics knowledge that was developed while they were trying to create the heat shield tiles.

The real answer is that science isn't a matter of breakthroughs. It's about expanding knowledge, and the shuttle was a tool that made possible a myriad of incremental expansions. I don't know of any major leaps forward in science or technology that the shuttle created, but I know hundreds of experiments, some by school kids, would never have yielded results without the shuttle's ability to carry them into orbit.

But more important, the shuttle was a dream given form (a quote from Babylon 5). A generation of kids grew up seeing the shuttle launches and landings. They saw space not as something distant and unachievable, but as a place next door that they could visit someday. Heck, they even let Canadians on the thing. We never got around to going back to the moon. Mars is just a place we throw big hunks of expensive metal at every few years. But for a little while, we regularly stepped outside our atmosphere and stood on the threshold of the infinite, looking out at the still-distant stars and in at the blue marble where we lived.

By the time the shuttles retired, they were 30 years old. Aeons in technology terms. They are museum pieces now, as they deserve to be. They are reminders of what we can achieve, and of what we have yet to achieve, and I'm going to miss them.

*Image courtesy of NASA.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Pimp my Ride


Current Reading: Grail, by Elizabeth Bear

Inspirational Quote: "Get a horse!" - Anonymous

I have a new chariot.

Well, new is relative, actually. It's new to me. It even smells new. Of course, it smells like it's been new for a long time.

But I digress.

My previous chariot was a '98 Saturn SL2. I loved it. It ran. It complained very little. Once in a while I had to replace things, or repair bits that broke or fell off, but on the whole it ran reliably and handled my daily 30km commute with as close to grace as you can get in a 4-door economy car.

In the last year, though, it began to develop some... quirks. The catalytic converter disintegrated one fine morning, announcing its death with a deafening growl that encouraged the entire neighborhood to wake up at 7am and enjoy the early spring sunrise. The wheel bearings had suffered the ravages of one too many salt-stained winters and had begun to hum. Riding in it was like riding inside a beehive stuffed with bees the size of elephants. The horn stopped working. If I used the "mist" function on the windshield wipers, I could never be sure when they would finally turn off. The record run was 2.5 days. It reduced my wipers to rubber strips.

But the unforgivable failure was the hole that appeared in my steering column expressly for the purpose of emptying the system of every drop of steering fluid.

It took some time to find a used car to my liking. I have standards. They're low, I admit, but they exist. During the search period, I kept myself on the road by purchasing buckets of steering fluid and administering them to the car whenever I started to need a torque wrench to make a corner. In retrospect, it would have made more sense to hook an I.V. under the hood. As a result, my preferred parking spaces at work, the grocery store, my home, and everywhere else I went became decorated by a Rorshach oil blot the size of a large beaver. I could follow my progress around town by the lines of shiny drops I left everywhere. I was environmentally hostile, and I was ashamed, but I had things to do and places to go.

Finally, I found something I could afford. By "afford," I mean, of course, "manage by entering into a level of debt that was just under the maximum I could manage without courting bankruptcy."

I was due to pick it up on a Monday at 6pm.

Sunday afternoon, at 4pm, I was on my way home from picking up my sons. On the downhill run to an intersection with a highway, the radio suddenly went morse-code with static. The gages on the dash twitched like an epileptic wearing a joy buzzer. I did not regard this as a good thing, and expressed that view to my children in a series of metaphors I shall not repeat here. We came to a halt at the stop sign, and when the way was clear to the horizon, we started across. Snails have demonstrated greater pickup.

I floored it. We were going a staggering 20k/h by the time I reached the far side of the highway. I kept it floored, the speedometer and tachometer ignoring my efforts as the engine accelerated in its own time, until I'd achieved something like the proper speed.

At which point the radio tuned itself to static and every single gage went to zero. The AC and fans continued to work, but everything else, including the automatic transmission, died. I commented upon this occurrence vigorously, furthering my children's education in the profane arts.

We made it home, stuck in what I believe was third gear. Once I had the chariot safely parked, I turned off the ignition. Because I am the type of person to poke bruises and pick scabs, I tried to start the car again. It laughed at me. I could hear it. "Hur hur hur hur," it said.

So I pulled the key out of the ignition for the last time, climbed out, and took a moment to study the hunk of metal and polymer that, for thirteen years and 320000km had gotten my sorry tail where it wanted to go. I'd bought it new. It was my first car. It still sits in my driveway, empty and dead. I haven't been able to bring myself to call the wreckers and have it towed away. A friend of mine wants to take it off my hands. He thinks it can be resurrected, with a little work. I'd like to see that.

The new car is nice. Cruise control. Heated seats. The horn works and the wipers turn off right away.

We'll how it handles the years.

*Image from here.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Beep.

Apologies.
Still alive.
2011? So far, the worst year of my life.

Further entries WILL be forthcoming.
I'd play a test pattern if I had one.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

All Is Vanity

Current Reading: An issue of Canada's History Magazine (formerly The Beaver).

Inspirational Quote: "I'm not confused, I'm just well mixed" -- Robert Frost


Well, obviously, not ALL is vanity. Some of it is apples. And a little bit of it is people with red hair. But, you know, OVERALL, it looks like vanity if you squint.

I apologize yet again for the long delay between posts. I have plenty of excuses, but none of them will go back in time and force me to fill in the blanks, so they're useless.


Of course, sometimes I haven't been able to think of anything to write. This is a fallacy, of course. I'm looking at things the wrong way around. I simply need to write what I think and stop waiting for the perfect planetary alignment, or geological convergence, or whatever to light the fires of inspiration.

It's true that this approach will lead me to post nonsense that nobody outside my head could possibly care about.

But then the same phrase could describe the archives in their entirety. So, the more things change...

I really have to comment on the election. It was remarkable. We elected a majority Conservative government, which I fear to my toes because Mr. Harper's heavy-handed techniques and autocratic style make me suspect that his decisions will be hard on those of us who are not rich and priviledged.

I hope he proves me wrong.

Outgoing Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff watched his party shrink to a tiny fraction of its former size. I don't think anybody saw that coming. One of his final comments struck me as prophetic, though. When asked what their defeat meant for the federal Liberal party in the next election, he said that it was good news. "Nothing could be better for the Liberal party than four years of Conservative majority government with an NDP opposition."

The Bloc Quebecois was likewise annihilated. I'm okay with that. I think a party that espouses a distinctly provincial agenda and advocates disruption of the federation really shouldn't be in federal politics.

Now we have the NDP as official opposition. It has a few members who have been in the House before, but for the most part they are all rookies, and many of them are barely out of their teens. I get the feeling that most of them were watching the returns with as much disbelief as the rest of the country. "What the hell do you mean I won? I can't win! I don't know how to do anything!"

Yeah. Neither does anyone else. Congratulations on your outstanding qualifications. The job's yours.

Of course, they are the official opposition to a majority government, so even if they had the most savvy politicos on the planet running their caucus, they STILL wouldn't be able to do anything more effective than boo loudly. They are a tale told by an idiot: full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

The interesting thing about politics, though, is that after such a tremendous popular upheaval in which everything changed... once the new parliament sits on June 2, it'll still be business as usual.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

To Be, Or Not To Be

Current Reading: A combination of Scientific American and Discover Magazines from the last few months.

Inspirational Quote: "Lord we may know what we are, but know not what we may be." -William Shakespeare

I went to see a movie last month: Limitless. It's about a man who takes a pill that amps up his intellect. It's an intriguing premise, but the movie didn't take it in a direction that interested me, instead devolving into a pseudo-thriller/pseudo-superhero tale with superfluous violence. Good for popcorn sales, not so much for intellectual stimulation.



What intrigued me about this is the idea behind this line from the trailer: "How many of us ever know what it is to become the perfect version of ourselves?"

Of course, before we even start to think about this, we need to know exactly what we mean by "perfect." Defining "success" is hard enough. Defining "Perfection" is a task close to impossible.

Still, we can ask some simpler and more specific questions: How do we make ourselves the most creative we can be? The smartest? The most courageous? How do we overcome our weaknesses, our fears and doubts, and become the best we can?

How do we realize our potential?

In the film, it's a pill. I don't think that's a good way to go. It'd be revolting to think that my personal development depended on something that "wore off."

But beyond medication, there's the billion-dollar self-help industry. Dale Carnegie. Steven Covey. Every MBA with a book. They'll give you 12 steps, or 7 habits, or 9 favored aspects which, if followed religiously, will set your highest and best nature free of its restraints. They promise success (whatever definition may apply), and they may well deliver for all I know, but I honestly question how effective they are at promoting generic personal development.

But speaking of following something "religiously," there's religion itself. There are lots of belief systems, each of which is the only one you'll ever need. Each, if you follow its precepts, promises enlightenment or salvation or the chance to become a higher, better being.

I'm not dumb enough to even try to comment on the effectiveness of this approach beyond saying, "It works for some people."

I believe the realization of personal potential is the goal of individual existence. I often hear people ask themselves, "What am I here for? What's my purpose?" as though they're looking for some niche in which they can slot themselves and say, "this is it." I don't think it works that way. I think our purpose is to try to become our best selves, nothing more, but in attempting that I have no doubt we will do things more wonderful than we ever thought possible.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Book Report: Small Gods, by Terry Pratchett

Small Gods, by Terry Pratchett

Accurate But Misleading Plot Summary: A layabout with an unsettling reptile fixation disrupts life in a religious community.

One of Pratchett's earliest works and one of my favorites. Small Gods is the story of a thick young monastic with a phenomenal memory who meets a tortoise that may or may not be his god.

It's full of humor, as are all of Pratchett's DiscWorld books, but I find something special in this one that makes me turn to it again and again. It takes place in a world where Gods are not merely real, but also quite intrusive (atheists tend to find themselves attracting a lot of lightning), and it asks some huge questions about what Gods require of us, and what we in turn require of them. It's about belief and religion, about God and His followers, and most of all it's about people trying to figure out where they belong in the spectrum between the godless and the devout.

Oh, and there's a penguin.

Ulysses Rating: 5 - I'll read this again and again.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Huh.

If you want to hear a six-year-old laugh hysterically, I recommend trying to sing John Denver's "Sunshine" in your best Sylvester the Cat voice.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Overthoughts

As a souvenir of Tibet, I once bought a stuffed alpaca. A few months later, I was privileged to be in the crowd outside an auditorium where Tibet’s exiled spiritual and political leader was giving a speech. As he came out, he stopped occasionally to shake hands with individuals. He stopped near me and held out his hand. In a moment of unthinking foolishness, instead of shaking his hand, I handed him my souvenir. He took it with a smile.

Yes, I gave the Dalai Lama a llama dolly.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Book Report: Love's Labour's Lost, by Bill S.

Accurate but misleading summary: "Visiting royalty is forced to deal with the attentions of an amorous group of schoolboys."

Again, reviewing Shakespeare is like discussing bowel movements: nobody cares what you think, and everyone wishes you'd just shut up. However, I can't help myself.

I didn't enjoy this one. Nothing much happened until the 5th act, and when it did I wasn't interested.

Ulysses Rating: 2 - I had a tough go.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Yep, That's About Right


Fiction writers tend to the dramatic (of course), and as a result we tend to forget that there are other kinds of writers out there. These other writers are prey to the same maladies as those of us who, let's face it, just make stuff up.

The proof is here.

Once More With Feeling!

Current Reading: Scientific American and Shakespeare... draw your own conclusions.

Inspirational Quote: "Hell, I never vote for anybody, I always vote against." -- W.C. Fields

Yes, last Friday my beloved homeland, the True North, dissolved its parliament and called for a federal election.

Again.

Fourth time in seven years.

Democracy is getting a workout.

The newspapers and stations are going on and on about the waste of taxpayer's money, time and effort. I disagree. $2,500 for a working lunch is a waste of taxpayer's money. $1.5M in air travel a year is a waste of taxpayer's money. I can't ever consider shelling out for an election a waste. We live in a democracy, a system of government that is supposed to guarantee people the right to throw out their rulers just like they've done in Tunisia and Egypt, only without all the shooting, looting and property damage.

The current government was found in contempt of parliament because of some fiscal shenanigans they declined to explain adequately. As a result, a vote of non-confidence was called and the minority government of prime minister Stephen Harper was defeated.

That's good. Mess with parliament and you should be sorry.

What's bad is that now we're in an election with some of the least appealing party leaders I've ever seen.

First is the ex-prime minister whose iron-fisted rule of his party and autocratic approach to governing have led directly to this disruption in the business of the legislature. I fear that if he is given a majority this time out, we'll see behavior that borders on the dictatorial.

Next is a man who was an expatriate until someone mentioned that he had a shot at leading the Liberal party. He insists that he's a committed Canadian, but leaving the country is a funny way to show it.

Third is the current head of the National Democratic Party, a man with a touch of charisma and maybe even a Plan, but he's leading a party with a reputation for overly socialist tendencies and reckless fiscal policies.

Last is the leader of a party founded on Quebec Nationalism. Given the opportunity, he'd take his home province right out of the country, so it's hard to believe he has the best interests of the nation at heart.

What Canada needs is a real leader, a man with charisma and vision and yet lacking in the monomania that so often accompanies those traits.

I'd run myself, but the country would melt from my awesome.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Well, This Is Awesome


Most readers are familiar with my fondness for Terry Pratchett's work. The man combines outrageous humor with tight plotting and a humanistic outlook to create some of the most entertaining and thought-provoking work I've ever read. Video adaptations of his work have been, in my opinion, inferior affairs mostly because you cannot take everything that makes the books amazing and transfer it to a screen (what's the video equivalent of a footnote?). However, they've been pretty darned enjoyable.

And now, this! Terry Pratchett's world and characters in a series scripted by a Monty Python alumnus. It is possible to get better than that, but only by coating the whole thing in Belgian chocolate.

I am pretty excited, although I guess I'd better get working on earning my British citizenship if I want to see it. I can only hope that at some point it makes its way across the pond.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

In Which I Ponder a Mystery


Current Reading: Love's Labour's Lost, by Bill S.

Inspirational Quote: "I don't have a photograph, but you can have my footprints. They're upstairs in my socks." -- Julius Marx (Groucho)

For a man who overthinks things, the world often throws up inscrutable puzzles.

About a week ago, I bought some new clothes. This is something I do when forced to the extremity either by natural decay or by an aversion to laundry machines.

Immaterial.

What is material is that I happened to pick up a bag of socks. I won't comment on the oddity of putting socks in a bag. In this modern consumer society, you can't find anything in a store that isn't wrapped in plastic, surrounded by boxboard or secured by wire. Sometimes all three, with a security tag attached to kick it up to 11. So, really, the oddity of bagging what are essentially cloth bags to hold your feet hardly bears comment.

On an unrelated note, the diversity of human nature is such that someone out there enjoys putting ketchup on tomatoes. The world doesn't have to make sense.

So I exit the store with a bag of socks and get home to discover that it's no ordinary bag. No. It is a RESEALABLE bag. It's not just closed off with the usual hermetic heat seal, but adjacent to that is a zip-lock assembly. Apparently, I can take socks out and seal the bag up to keep the others... fresh? Yes, there's nothing like that fresh-sock scent (!?!). Or perhaps, I can put socks back in and seal them up to keep them from... escaping? Unlikely. I'm a fairly conservative dresser and not even my socks are wild enough to require any form of corral, even a flimsy polyethylene one.

It's a mystery. Why is my sock bag zip-locked? Admittedly, zip-lock bags are handy for all sorts of things. I often use them for keeping food fresh in the refrigerator or my lunch bag (which has a real zipper, not one of the plastic-rail zip-lock constructions), but the very thought of appropriating my sock bag for wrapping sandwiches leaves me in fear of accidentally contracting athlete's mouth. I suppose I could use it for jigsaw puzzle pieces, or beads, or game tokens but I honestly don't use those things enough for resealable bags to be in high demand.

Sad, I know, but let's stay on topic.

I spent a few minutes opening the bag and taking out socks, then sealing it again. Then I spent a few minutes opening the bag and putting socks back in before sealing it again. I felt I had to. The sock manufacturers must have gone through a great deal of trouble to include this feature, and I'd feel terrible just recycling the bag without trying to take some sort of advantage of it.

I suspect that all this is actually due to a very clever and effective bag salesman.

"Look, for an extra five cents a thousand, we'll throw in a reseal option."
"Oooh, I've heard about that. Very popular with sandwich bags."
"Right, and a hundred other household uses like..." [Here my imagination fails me. Just throw in four or five clever and effective examples for yourself. I've got nothing.] "So it's a great deal."
"Yes! I'm sold! Where's that contract?"
"Right here in my resealable briefcase." ...unzip...

I doubt very much that any but the most OCD-afflicted among us would find the notion of purchasing socks in a resealable bag at all appealing, and those who do would probably balk at the thought of using bags that had been just hanging around in a store where people could --shudder-- touch them.

Why sell socks in a resealable bag? They're not cereal, or potato chips or cookies that need to be kept fresh. This is a puzzle that is, frankly, beyond me and I know it would be better for me to just let it go and move on with my life.

Unfortunately, I've just taken a close look at the bag my underwear came in...

Monday, March 21, 2011

Book Report: At The Mountains of Madness, by H.P. Lovecraft


At The Mountains of Madness, by H.P. Lovecraft


Ah, Lovecraft. I can't imagine what I could say about him that hasn't already been said. I don't think there's ever been a more admired, reviled and imitated fantasy/science-fiction/horror writer. He's a verbose, paranoid, racist, sexist mama's boy with an English culture obsession whose work nonetheless fascinates for its spin on nightmarish weirdness.

This is one of his longest works, a novella about a university trip to Antarctica which discovers a city and preserved denizens from before the evolution of man. It's hard to read now because its language, full of adverbs and adjectives and words that will send a modern reader scurrying for a dictionary, is almost a century behind the current fashion. Even so, it stirs the occasional chill and is a leading example of the stories written in Lovecraft's famous Cthulhu Mythos cycle.

It's not a fast read. It's not an easy read. It is, however, a milestone in the evolution of modern speculative fiction and should be read as much for its impact as for its entertainment value.

Ulysses Rating: 3 - I enjoyed this. I've read it before and will probably read it again.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Overthoughts

Visual evidence that I am not the only one on the planet who is spending way too many processor cycles on trivia:


... and of course, one cannot discuss a weighty subject like Rock, Paper, Scissors without giving serious consideration to its expansion set:

Monday, March 7, 2011

Bedtime Song

Cassandra has inherited her father's love of Muppets (yay!).

On an unrelated note, her bedtime routine includes some reading time (by both she and I) and about 15 minutes of made up story-telling (by me) featuring whatever characters she wants to hear about, and then... if she hasn't had enough one-on-one time, a song.

My singing voice is a cross between a plugged vacuum cleaner and a bagpipe in a trash compactor. No matter. She likes it just fine.

Anyway, she gets stuck on different songs, wanting to hear them over and over again until something knocks her out of her orbit... like Dad just getting tired of the same song. One night about a week ago, in a fit of ennui, I broke out into a rousing chorus of "Grandma's Feather Bed." Well, it's become her favorite. So I can't wait to show her this...

Accepting Rejection


Current Reading: Love's Labour's Lost, by Bill S.

Inspirational Quote: "I could write an entertaining novel about rejection slips, but I fear it would be overly long." -- Louise Brown

Whether we know it or not, whether we acknowledge it or not, we artists (writers, actors, painters, sculptors... whatever) hate rejection.

Art is a fundamental attempt to communicate with others and to be told, implicitly or explicitly, that we have not done that well enough to reach our intended audience is a blow to the ego. Compassionate human beings attempt to soften rejection where they can: "Not right for us." "It's good, but it's not as good as the other 400 submissions we received this month." But you can't really soften rejection. It's like softening granite.

Like granite, and feldspar, limestone and all that other bedrock, rejection is a part of life. Not every door is going to open at the first knock.

So, what can you do?

Develop a thick skin. Read your rejections as "not yet," instead of "never." Hope. Believe. Learn. Practice. Work.

And content yourself with the realization that sometimes rejection is editorial policy.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Hey, Look! Stuff is Happening in the Middle East!

Current Reading: Love's Labour's Lost, by William Shakespeare

Inspirational Quote: "I am on a drug. It's called Charlie Sheen. It's not available because if you try it, you will die. Your face will melt off and your children will weep over your exploded body." -- Carlos Erwin Estevez (Charlie Sheen).

Say what you will about Charlie Sheen (and everyone is), he gives great quote.

Meanwhile in real news, people in the middle-east have been inspired by the revolt in Tunisia to demand political change in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Oman. It's also caused some unrest in Iran and, strangely enough, China.

It underscores the unwritten rule of human existence: No assembly can govern without the implicit consent of its people.

That simplifies things dramatically, I know. Dictators have held power for years on the backs of armies and secret police devoid of consciences and armed with machine guns. Defying them is usually an act of fatal courage, and few people are willing to give their lives without knowing if their deaths will change anything.

Governments, armies and police officers keep their positions because the people of their countries are unaware of one crucial fact: those in power are always a minority. The police know that they cannot arrest every single citizen. The army knows it cannot shoot every civilian. The government knows that it cannot rule every individual at every moment. They rely on acceptance. Here in Canada, the unspoken acceptance is "I will follow your rules because I believe doing so will help me and those around me live, prosper and seek happiness, eh?"

That's the covenant that ought to exist between governed and governor. In Canada, it's a shaky thing because each of us has a different (occasionally conflicting) definition of prosperity and happiness and a different opinion on how best we can obtain these things. I imagine it's that way in the majority of the world that doesn't make the six-o'clock news (when was the last time you heard from Finland? Belgium? Trinidad?).

In these middle-east headline places, the governments have broken that covenant (notice that one of the biggest griefs to tip the scales is not "they came in the night and took/killed my brother," but "there are no jobs." People can prosper without their brother, but not if they can't afford to eat). As a result, the people have looked out into the world (largely through the web) and realized that their rulers are a minority, and that the people who want change and are willing to make change happen outnumber that minority by a significant margin.

Enough people making enough noise can force a government out regardless of what tanks or terror tactics are used.

This is a good thing.

I recognize that many people are going to die before regimes change. It's a terrible loss, but unavoidable when people who don't want to give up power are forced to do so. My heart goes out to the survivors.

And what happens after? Many are shouting for democracy, and that's fine because democracy makes explicit that implicit consent I mentioned earlier. In a democracy, you can rule so long as you convince people you're doing a good job promoting their interests, or at least not angering too many of them at any one time. But honestly, anything is fine, provided those in government recognize that their mandate is to promote a good life for their people, and not to ignore that in favor of personal advantage.

Oil is one thing that could cause all this upheaval to end badly. If Tunisia (ranked 54th in world oil production) gets a little unstable, well that's okay. Egypt (29)? Well, some people are going to start to pay attention. Libya (18)? Suddenly unrest is dangerously close to threatening oil supplies. Turmoil in Iran (4) is something no industrial nation can afford to ignore, and the urge to meddle to ensure a political outcome favorable to "domestic" interests is irresistible. The moment things start to destabilize there, every country in the world will be in there like bums in a soup kitchen, trying to fill their bowls with as much oil as they can get.

For comparison and general interest, Iraq is now #12 in the world rankings. Its pre-war output would have ranked it #7 today.

2011 is shaping up to be one of the most politically interesting years in my life.

And, for the record: like Charlie Sheen, I too am a "total bitchin' rock star from Mars."