The Den of Ubiquity

Thursday, June 19, 2003:

We Travel On The Quiet Road

Yeah, I'm on again. After this you won't see me until July--not an assurance, just a prediction based on past behaviour.

I actually almost felt like doing writing tonight, but guess what? I didn't. It took me too long to try to decide on a project to actually work on. My novels are too daunting, even though I kind of feel like I should try to whip _The Shadow & The Flame_ into shape for Worldcon. Even my short stories, the ones that need revision, are pretty daunting. Starting a new one would require me to come up with an idea--which I've been known to do from only
four words, but I just wasn't in the mood. The only story I have in progress, which I started back in April...of last year, I think...doesn't inspire me. So here I am, instead.

It's a good sign, though. Civilization is not eating my brain right now, and neither are the X-Men comics sitting beside me right now, being resistible. I'm up to #170, into a stretch where there were never that many gaps, so little is new and exciting.

My current book is not captivating, either. I'm reading Julie Czerneda's Ties of Power, second in her "Trade Pact Universe" series, because the third one, To Trade The Stars, is an Aurora nominee this year. I read A Thousand Words For Stranger when it came out, and was underwhelmed. It was overwritten, and badly in need of editing(if that's not redundant), and it did that annoying thing where some chapters are in first person and some in third person. The only novel I can think of where that was done well is Spider Robinson's Mindkiller. But I digress.

So I've been dawdling in Ties of Power, even though I've got China Miéville's The Scar sitting there, due back to the library on the 28th, one of the Hugo nominees I haven't read yet. I've also got Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice & Salt, but that one has managed to come out in paperback so I got a reprieve from the library copy. There's also Karin Lowachee's Warchild, another Aurora nominee(that's for Canadian SF, FYI). Let's not forget that Darren's copy of Harry Potter & The Order of The Phoenix comes in on the weekend--we're taking delivery of it for him because he made the silly mistake of going to Europe for a month and a half, and leaving three days before the new Potter. He'll get to read it in August. Hee.

I've been reading a lot of other stuff, too, of course...

Susan Blackmore: The Meme Machine. Nonfiction, but on the topic of memes, which I love. It's an attempt to start off a real science of memetics, so it doesn't always take the focus I would like. For instance, it's not, in general, an attempt to catalogue memes, but an attempt to use the existence of memes, and their general characteristics, to make predictions and explanations that match reality better than other theories. In that aim, it's fairly successful.

It seems to outdo biogenetics in providing reasons for many human behaviours--they're not encoded into the genes, but they are successful meme complexes that tend to dominate other memes. Memetics also seems to explain such things as the rise of agriculture, the development of human brain and of language, and religious celibacy. Agriculture is actually nobody's idea of a good life, compared with hunting & gathering, but it necessitates large families, so a growing population, and a hunger for more land for that population to cultivate. So cultures with that meme take over from cultures without it, simply by outnumbering them. (Not to mention all those diseases that originated with farm animals...)

Most interesting was the theory that the "I" of self-awareness and consciousness is mostly a construct exploited by memes who are constantly trying to say "I believe..." or "I want...". On Blackmore's web site, she said that she's working on a textbook on theories of consciousness--not just presenting her own, but examining others put forth throughout history. That sounds interesting too.

Maybe I should change the description of my blog to something about spreading memes... Have to think about that one.

Robert J. Sawyer:Humans. This is the second book in his "Neanderthal Parallax" series, and while it isn't quite as exciting as the first one, Hominids, it's not too bad. Doesn't have much of a plot, apart from the two main characters(one "human", one "Neanderthal")eventually deciding that they should try to have a relationship, despite their cultural differences. So, in some ways, it's just a love story, with a lot of neat SF stuff thrown in. I don't think it will get my Aurora vote this year...

Dean R. Koontz:The Servants of Twilight. Not one of his best, either. It has some promising elements, but in many ways it's a bit too formula...single mother with young boy is threatened by bad guys, seeks help of nice-but-tough guy(in this case, a private eye). Nice guy falls head-over-heels in love with single mother, which develops quickly into a physical relationship. In this case, the bad guys were revealed a little too soon--we had many viewpoint chapters from them, so there was little mystery to the reader about what was actually happening. Things get worse and worse and worse--just like Koontz prescribes in his How To Write Bestselling Fiction book--and then, at the end, the resolution is so improbable I almost laughed out loud. The supernatural elements are barely there--not that Koontz feels required to include them if he can use a mundane explanation instead(like he did in The House of Thunder). Oh, and there's a dog--two dogs, really. Okay, it kept the pages turning, but it felt a little empty.

Stephen R. Donaldson:The Man Who Killed His Brother. This is the first of a series of mainstream mysteries that was originally released under the pseudonym "Reed Stephens" in the early 80's. I'd managed to find a copy of the second one, and the library had the third one; this one has now been rereleased under Donaldson's name, and I think there was supposed to be a new, fourth one out, too. It's a bit short, compared to books these days, but that's not always a bad thing.

The first-person protagonist--whose POV Donaldson sticks to throughout the story--is interesting, one of those self-destructive characters Donaldson does so well. He did, in fact, kill his brother, by accident, and as a result has become an alcoholic. His partner, from when he was a P.I., drags him out of the bars and sobers him up to help on a case every once in a while. This time is different, because it's his brother's daughter who's disappeared, and he doesn't get the time he usually needs to dry out. So he goes through the pains of alcohol withdrawal during the course of the book.

I found the villain a little easy to spot--I had him pegged from his first introduction as a likely suspect, and he stayed likely throughout the book. Still, there was a little more to it than that, and it was an enjoyable read. Definitely have to try the next book someday.

John Emsley: The 13th Element:The Sordid Tale of Murder, Fire & Phosphorus. This is one of the nonfiction books that Darren lent me a while back, and I found it quite interesting. It's sort of like a biography of a chemical element--phosphorus, of course--from its first discovery by alchemists in the 1700's to the present day. It covers such topics as its use as a medicine, despite its toxicity, through to the 20th century; the match-making industry, and the human tragedy of its working conditions in the 1800's; various cases of murder by phosphorus poisoning on record; the development of nerve gases and pesticides; and the truth about phosphorus detergents.

The latter was among the most interesting. The initial conclusion was that an increase in phosphates in sewage water was causing extreme algae blooms, to deleterious effect. Phosphates were lobbied against, and generally reduced by detergent manufactures. Several well-reputed scientific studies have demonstrated since, though, that likely the problem was a different set of toxins, which reduced the numbers of the zooplankton that ate the algae, swelling the algae through lack of predation. This is the kind of thing that encourages me to continue not trusting the simplest explanations..."Even Occam occasionally cut himself shaving."

Alexei Panshin: Masque World. This was the third book in Panshin's Anthony Villiers series, dating back thirty years or more. I read the first book, Star Well, long ago, and recall liking it well enough, if finding it somewhat reminiscent of Jack Vance. I hadn't realized that The Thurb Revolution, which I have not yet read, came next, though I doubt it really mattered. The fourth book, The Universal Pantograph, though advertised at the back of this one, has yet to see the light of day.

The book is almost devoid of plot, in the sense that there is little conflict or complication. There are whimsical characters, perhaps too many of them. There is a highly intrusive narrative voice, which is fitfully amusing, but more often just pretentious. And the whole thing fails to congeal into anything much.

For another viewpoint on the Villiers books, here's an article at Strange Horizons on their recent rerelease in one volume. From the sounds of it, I should be looking forward to reading The Thurb Revolution, notwithstanding the disappointments of this one.

Cory Doctorow:Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom. Doctorow is a web-celebrity, and this is his first novel. It's interesting, though barely short enough to be published on its own, especially these days. And while its events and characters are interesting, if not absorbing, the background is almost too improbable to consider.

Money has been eliminated, as has involuntary death, due to cloning, brain-backup, and the like. Money has been replaced by an intangible called "Whuffie", which is just, in general, the regard that one receives from other people. Popular people have lots of Whuffie, unpopular people have little. I find it hard to think of how this revolution might have taken place, despite a few scenes shown in flashback of the development of the Ad-Hocracy. (A term right out of Alvin Toffler's Future Shock, as I recall...)

The main character, who lives and works in Disneyworld with his "ad-hoc", is faced with conflict involving a rival ad-hoc that moves in and takes over a neighbouring ride, and seems to have sights on the other ad-hoc's territory... Our hero is often a bit annoying in his reactions, albeit in a realistically human way. He's not always that likeable, though generally his Whuffie drops when he's not. It all works out okay in the end, more or less.

What I found annoying, though, was the whole "Whuffie" thing. Not so much the concept, as the very word. "Whuffie". What is it? The term was never explained in the book; nobody seems to have been credited with coming up with it, there's no hint of its origin. The best I could think of was an acronym--WFI? WFE? World Friendship Index? Whatever. So after I read the book, I went looking on the Web, where I was confident I would find an explanation. And I did. It's a term that his friends used in high school(which I now discover is thought to originate from "woofing" at Arsenio Hall shows). ...Yeah. Something that Cory Doctorow's friends used in high school is going to be a term that catches on all over the world. Maybe now, because of the book and the website spreading the meme...but it's an annoying word, and I hope it dies a horrible, painful death. Uncharitable of me? Perhaps. And maybe I wouldn't have been able to come up with any better. But I like to think I could have...

William Gibson:Pattern Recognition. I'm not a rabid Gibson fan. His cyberpunk trilogy was okay, and I'd have to say that I liked Count Zero a bit better than Neuromancer. Idoru was a good book, and All Tomorrow's Parties not bad either. But this is definitely my favourite of his so far.

It's barely science-fictional, though it is up-to-the-minute, with "google" used as a verb, for instance. The main character, a woman with an allergy to trademark symbols(the Michelin Man, for instance, makes her quite sick), is one of many who is obsessed with this sequence of short films, "The Footage", which has been released mysteriously over the Net, a piece at a time, over a period of time. She is hired to try to find The Footage's origin, with the aid of a colourful crew of acquaintances, and against the resistance of a jealous adversary. It doesn't sound exciting, but it's spellbinding. Gibson's characterization is sure, and manipulations of unrelated and seeming unrelated events is deft. I highly recommend it, even if you can't stand that cyberpunk stuff.

Lynn Abbey:Sanctuary. I don't think I ever actually posted a review of this book. It was a bit slow going, but I did finish it. It's been a long time since I last read Thieves' World books, and some of the references might have gone by me, but in many ways it stands on its own. It refers to the series, but now in a way that someone who hasn't read it will miss a whole lot.

Almost all the characters are new creations, and while our main protagonist is sometimes annoyingly stubborn, he does okay in the end. Almost more interesting than the actual plot of the book is the backstory of what happened in the interval between the end of the shared-world anthology series and this book. Some of those elements are crucial to the plot, but the book could have been much tighter without them. The book had practically better be setting up for a new series of anthologies, or at least novels. It'll catch the nostalgia crowd, like me, at least.

And that's about it. Never fear, there's always more to come...

Getting late, so on to the countdown:

312. Billy Joel:Don't Ask Me Why, from Glass Houses

This song is an excellent blend of wry but witty lyrics, jaunty music(a lot of rhythm guitar, but with occasional flamenco breaks), and Joel's fine, clear vocals. It's fun to sing along with, and that's certainly part of what I look for.

311. Talking Heads:The Overload, from Remain In Light

I remember describing this song to someone as "mostly instrumental". It does have lyrics, but they are almost such a part of the slow, deep, menacing music that they meld with it seamlessly. This is from an album where apparently the music came first before the lyrics, and here I can certainly believe it.

Different all twisty a of in maze are you, passages little.

Aaron // 12:08 a.m. Clix me!

Tuesday, June 17, 2003:

What Took Me So Long?

June also seems to be a busy month.

So what have I been doing for the past few weeks? Well, still playing a lot of Civilization, and reading a number of books. Weekends busy with family or other tasks, and I don't know if that's going to clear up before July, at this rate.

We did manage to go out and see one movie, "X2:X-Men United". And that's got me rereading my X-Men comics.

I inherited at least the start of my comic book collection from my brother, though I kept it up myself for a few years. He started collecting X-Men with fair consistency from #130 onward, and with some back-issue shopping(and the help of the "Classic X-Men" reprint series), I've filled in most of the gaps from #93 through to #230-#240. I started to slow down my comic buying around the time of #200-#210, mostly out of disenchantment with all the world-wrenching plotlines and multiple crossovers that were plaguing Marvel Comics at the time. I'm still tentatively pushing forward in the timeline.

The movie was okay, but nothing great. The wholesale messing around with the team's background is the most annoying part. Rogue and Wolverine joining at the same time, Iceman being a student while Cyclops and Storm are full members... Colossus and Kitty Pryde being minor characters, and Nightcrawler just being introduced. (And who was that kid with the scream? Was that supposed to be Siryn?) Not to mention that Magneto and Mystique never worked together, that I'm aware of...

Then again, for all I know they reinvented the entire team and its history ten years after I stopped reading. All I know is the classic Chris Claremont stuff.

At least it looks like they might be setting up for the Phoenix storyline for the next movie. Especially with the ending shot...I half expected Phoenix to come shooting up out of the water right then, but I guess we'll have to wait until the next movie for that. Of course, unless they're going to introduce the Hellfire Club and the Shi'ar Empire(neither of which would bother me in the least), they're going to be messing with that storyline too.

It seems to me, though, that movies are just the wrong way to bring a comic book series to the screen. A series was a continuous thing, with no definite end in sight. I remember Jon Ostrander(of "Grimjack")comparing a series to a short work like "Dark Knight" or "Watchmen" and pointing out that while those told great stories, there was still merit in writing an ongoing work that followed characters for a longer span of time. He did it, Claremont did it, and so have a few others. Robert Jordan is practically doing it, albeit in prose.

So, obviously, what's needed is a TV series. Maybe it's not yet feasible to produce the kind of FX that would be required for a weekly series, but hey, Babylon 5 managed pretty damn well. Maybe not yet, but in a few years.

Of course, the problem would be where, precisely, to start. The pre-Claremont X-Men was, from what I've heard and what I've read myself, often pretty bad. But where would you be without Cyclops and Jean Grey's history, without their history with villains like Magneto and The Blob, etc.? For that matter, without all the other Marvel comic books--the Beast was with the Avengers during most of the Claremont run, the Fantastic Four guest-starred, and the whole Ms. Marvel/Rogue/Carol Danvers/Binary thing involves a lot of backstory.

But all that could be dropped in. It'd be nice to consider the team to have a bit of history, and flashbacks could be done genteelly. If I ran my own TV station and had unlimited dollars to play with, you bet your ass they'd be casting the show right now. Right along with Robert Jordan's.

We're in the middle of moving our office right now. The space we have is too large for the size of our company, and we're paying too much for it. They've looked at moving before, but this time it's really going to happen.

We'll be in a slightly larger building--fourth of five floors instead of second of two--with underground parking, an elevator, a real lobby, and all that. After parking my car outside in rain, snow, relentless sunlight, and whatever guck comes off of the trees from the apartment building next door, I'm really looking forward to the underground parking. Plus, I get a taxable benefit on my T4 slip! (That's a tax thing, for you non-Canadians...)

This week will hopefully be the worst. I actually took a few boxes, mostly containing computers, monitors, and scanners, over this morning, so I've finally gotten to see it. It is of course smaller than ours, but mostly it's narrower. Our "lunchroom" is six feet wide--no way we'll get a table in there. I will probably be eating at my desk or something. Friday is the official move day, but that's mostly just our furniture--what we're taking with us and not trying desperately to sell off so we don't have to pay someone to take it to the dump.

I've been mostly doing reading for the last few weeks. I've got enough of it--books on RMI, Enterprise Java Beans(which is not what Riker has in his coffee), Jakarta Struts, Extreme Programming, Ant, and all sorts of things.
Extreme Programming is the most interesting, as a whole new programming methodology, which feels more in tune with what I've always done than the more traditional software engineering methods ever did.

Part of Extreme Programming is the practice of "pair programming". Apparently, if done properly(which may take a few months of getting used to, apparently), two programmers who are working together at the same terminal--only one typing at a time, obviously, but perhaps switching off--it can be faster and more productive than two programmers working separately. Unintuitive, but they must've done studies or they wouldn't be claiming it, right? So we've sort of been trying it.

We made a recent sale of our software to Russia--well, Kazakhstan, really. I know it's not Russia in any way, but it's part of the former Soviet Union, and there's still a lot of Russian spoken and written. So we brought in a translator, a Russian student studying at the U. of A., on his summer break. When they found out that he had some Java experience too, they decided he could be my pair-programming partner.

It's slow going so far--I've got some initial design worked out, which is supposedly all I really need with Extreme Programming, and I'm still trying to figure out Struts and JSP and EJB, which are going to be at the core of the software. Ilya(not his real name)has probably spent about as much time learning Java as I have, but we probably covered vastly different areas. Hopefully we will both learn something, but he still seems to be struggling to keep up, so I've been doing most of the typing. When I don't get stuck for three days on a seemingly basic area of Struts that I can't get to work right.

And he'll be going back to school in the fall, too. Well, we'll see how it works out.

I'm very far behind on the CDs, and, let's face it, I will probably never get caught up. But I'll try to mention a few highlights--the ones that make it onto my wishlist, to start.

Meredith Brooks' "Bad Bad One" is much better than her last album, "Deconstruction", more on a par with her first, "Blurring The Edges". Looking at the cover photos practically tells the story--"Deconstruction"'s was immaculately made up and airbrushed, but the other two show Brooks more unkempt, more her real self. "Blurring The Edges" was riding on Alanis Morissette's wave, and it has to be said that the strongest song from "Bad Bad One" is probably the most Alanis-like, "You Don't Know Me". The rest of the album is somewhere between there and Pink, which is not necessarily a bad thing; the most Pink-like is perhaps "Pleasure", which features Jennifer Love Hewitt on backup vocals. "Walk Away" seems to be moving in her own direction, though, with a more idiosyncratic sound.

Incubus's "Morning View" was a pleasant surprise for me. I confess that I had them filed under "heavy metal" in my mind, and was expecting another sludge-rock band. Instead, I found something that, while perhaps on the heavier side of rock, was still trying harder to make interesting music than to stun with a wall of guitars and bass. Its closing track, "Aqueous Transmission", was a wonderful sonic sculpture.

Pink's "Missundaztood" was also a great album. I'd heard lots of it on the radio, and I'd still have to say that "Don't Let Me Get Me" and "Get The Party Started" are among the best songs on the album. But the rest of the album holds up too, with lots of contributions from Linda Perry(she does seem to get around these days...) I don't know how autobiographical the lyrics are supposed to be, but a lot of them, in some quite powerful songs, allude to a very unhappy childhood.

When I listened to Kim Barlow's "Gingerbread", I was expecting yet another lyrics-heavy folk-songwriter album, like Gillian Welch or something. But instead, I found that Barlow was an innovative songwriter who was willing to spend as much time on her music as on her lyrics. The latter could be quite affecting, like in the sad story of the anorexic girl in "Like A Baby", or in the wry Hansel & Gretel update of the title track, where the brother and sister mistake each other for the evil witch in an interesting look at gender politics.

Jewel's "This Way" was also somewhat more interesting musically than her previous albums, as the dynamic leadoff track "Standing Still" had already alerted me. And, again her lyrics were often thoughtful, as in "The New Wild West" and "Serve The Ego". It's good to hear her stretching her musical wings.

Neko Case's "Blacklisted" is still filed under "country", but you're never going to hear her music at the Grand Ol' Opry. It is still closer to that genre than to any other, but she's not playing for country radio. The most striking song on the album is "Stinging Velvet"--not quite as mesmerizing as the title track to "Furnace Room Lullaby", but still quite nifty. "Things That Scare Me" and "Pretty Girls" are also standout tracks.

You know, apart from Incubus those are all female vocalists. After Michelle Branch, I thought I was starting to get tired of female singer-songwriters in the legions that seemed to emerge after Alanis Morissette's success. I guess I'm not. I'll still take a constant stream of those against a diet of Default, The Calling, Nickelback, and Lifehouse any day.

My car's tape deck has been almost nonfunctional in the mornings, for some reason, so I've been listening to more radio than usual. Most of that is still the university station, but some of that is "96X" as well. I'm somewhat impressed by the Ataris' cover of "Boys of Summer", which manages to be faithful both to the band's own sound and the original version. I was able to recognize it from the opening guitar line, for instance, and I thought it was quite amusing the way they changed the Deadhead sticker for a Black Flag one. But I still don't like the Ataris' sound overall--the singing is fine, but the guitars are still too punk(or is that emo?).

A song that's getting airplay in Canada, at least, is the latest from Melanie Doane, "Still Desire You". The line at the heart of the song is "You leave a lot to be desired, but I still desire you", and that's pretty much the central message--how it's possible to be in love with someone who's far from perfect. Doane was almost a one-hit wonder, with her wonderful "Adam's Rib" from a few years ago, but I'm glad she was able to resurface. I think Doane herself is a violinist, but this song is pretty straightforward alt-rock.

For some reason I've started collecting vanity license plates. Not the plate themselves--that would, of course, be stealing--but I have been jotting down their contents when I see them. I'm averaging about 2-3 a day.

Alberta is not the best place for license-plate hunting, though, because a few years ago, in what was probably a cost-saving measure, it was decreed that you only need to put a license plate on the rear bumper of your car. Some people still have old ones they put on the front, or you can get joke plates as well. But the net result is that I can't scope out the plates of cars that are facing towards me.

I started my list when I saw a Ford Windstar with the provocative plate "J 007 B". Yes, James Bond's minivan. I'd seen a pickup truck with "WAZNTME" parked on our street for a few months now. And I've seen many(though only one recently)of the form "VE6ILU", which don't really look like vanity plates...but unless I'm mistaken, that looks like a ham radio callsign. I even saw a Nevada plate that said "H82LOSE".

The most inscrutable one so far was "EPILUNG". A Google search on that pulls up zilch, and it's been a long time since I saw that. Maybe it's an Indonesian given name or something.

There's probably a site out there for vanity plates, but I'm too lazy to look for it right now.

Time to sign off now, with another pair from the laboriously climbing countdown of my favourite songs:

314. Alanis Morissette:Head Over Feet, from Jagged Little Pill

You can't deny the power of this album--well, you can, but I can't. This song is deceptively simple, but still compelling. And for some reason I keep wanting to sing it like David Bowie or something. Well, that's just me, I guess.

313. Paul McCartney:Take It Away, from Tug of War

This song takes me way back, to when this was one of a very albums that I listened to over and over again. I could practically sing this entire album from memory. But this song has held up over the years, as a simple tribute to--what else?--music.

'Aquarius--Abandon hope for future plans.' --They Might Be Giants, "Hide Away Folk Family"

Aaron // 10:44 p.m. Clix me!

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