Reading: Connie Willis

Many years ago I was knocked out by Doomsday Book, Connie Willis’s novel of time travel to the dark days of the Black Plague. But then I tried another of her books, found it disappointingly shallow, and gave up on her.

This month I decided to give her another shot. I borrowed To Say Nothing of the Dog from the library, rolled up my metaphorical pant legs, and waded in.

Imagine a Victorian sitcom. Imagine Lucy and Ethel wandering around in Victorian England, trying to fix up a mixup that just gets worse and worse.

The history department at Oxford is using a time machine to travel back from 2057 to 1940 in order to do a blazingly trivial bit of research (the whereabouts of a spectacularly ugly vase that vanished during the Nazi bombing of Coventry Cathedral). But there are complications, so the narrator takes a detour Read more

Networkin’ Coolness

A couple of readers of this blob suggested Remote Desktop Control as a way to circumvent an irritating problem I was having with computer ergonomics.

After a tiny bit of research, I downloaded TeamViewer, which is free to individuals, though pricey for businesses. I tested it by connecting my MacBook Pro to the wired router, and found that running the Windows machine from the Mac was a piece of cake.

So I popped for an $80 wireless router. Installation seems to have proceeded without a hitch (I still don’t trust this wireless stuff…). Tests indicate TeamViewer works just as well wirelessly, though it’s not quite as fast as wired. Since the program I want to use is mainly about typing text, a bit of time lag is not an issue.

Now I’m set: I can sit in my easy chair in the living room with my Mac on my lap and operate Windows software on the PC in the other room. Sometimes everything does work the way you hope it will.

Hobbyist Programming

Trying to get back into TADS 3. It’s an incredibly powerful language in which to write interactive fiction, but it’s not for the faint of heart. The first time I tried learning it, I found myself crying, “Classes and templates and macros, oh my!” By now I’ve written one long game in TADS, one shorter game, and one medium-sized game co-written with Eric Eve, who is not just a TADS expert but the TADS expert.

But that was last year. Now I’m trying to re-learn what I’ve forgotten and nail together what I never knew. Tonight I got hopelessly frustrated trying to create an odor. TADS has not one but two classes for the purpose — Odor and SimpleOdor. There’s quite a bit of documentation (written by Eric) on how to use them. And I still couldn’t figure it out.

Eventually I got it working, but I’m sure my code is very amateurish. I tend to use a ballpeen hammer for tightening screws.

Yesterday I was working out how to cause the player character to automatically sit down when the player types ‘get in car’. If you don’t take care of the posture change, TADS will report, “Okay, you’re now standing in the car.” But changing the PC’s posture can have side effects. That took an hour too.

Sometimes I wonder why I bother with this stuff. It’s as much work as building a ship in a bottle, and at the end of the day, what you have is about as useful as a ship in a bottle. But it beats the heck out of watching Jeopardy.

Never Satisfied

This is a sad story about technology.

I own two very nice laptops, a Mac and a PC. The PC is my office machine, and is normally hooked up to a second monitor, a Firewire audio interface, a USB hub, a router via Ethernet, and so on. The Mac sits by my easy chair in the living room, and I use it mainly for idle hobbyist stuff in the evening.

This week I wanted to do some idle hobbyist stuff with a Windows program called TADS Workbench. Fortunately, I picked up a free copy of Crossover last fall, during Codeweavers’ one-day giveaway. So I can run Windows programs on the Mac.

Sort of, but not quite. Workbench loses its preferences every time it’s shut down, and its Options box doesn’t display properly. A bigger issue is that I would like to use a very nice freeware applet called AutoHotKey, because there are some QWERTY keystroke combinations I like to use in Workbench. And AutoHotKey is so system-level that it won’t run at all under Crossover.

So last night I turned off the PC, unplugged its cables, and took it into the living room to mess around with Workbench. Now I’m happy with the software side, but the hardware is driving me crazy. The PC laptop has a quiet but annoying acoustical 60-cycle hum, apparently due to a physical connection between the power supply (or possibly the fan motor) and the exterior case. Also, it runs hotter, so my lap gets a little toasty after a while.

While I’m using it, I can’t check my email or do anything on the Web, because I’d have to buy and configure a wireless router to do that. And when I’m finished playing around with Workbench, I have to hook up all the cables again.

Buy a cheap PC laptop just so I can fiddle around with Workbench? That seems strangely misguided. Plus, it would take hours to set it up. First I’d have to verify that Workbench and AutoHotKey are even compatible with the new OS.

I have two powerful laptops, and I’m still not satisfied.

More on Musika

A few days ago I posted a piece detailing my attempt to suss out the services offered by Musika — according to their banner, “The nation’s leading music lessons provider since 2001!” Okay, I like to stir up a little trouble once in a while, and I’m naturally curious about the competition.

I also care about music students. Whether they’re studying with me or with someone else, or are only looking around for a possible teacher, it’s important to me that they get the best, most qualified instruction available.

Musika’s website claims to be able to line you up with a cello teacher in Livermore — someone who will come to your home, even. So I filled in the form with a fake name and told them I wanted cello lessons for my nonexistent daughter, Jessica.

Musika was entirely unable to find a cello teacher for little Jessica. They list two cello teachers on their site, but quite obviously these are fake names, not real teachers.

At least they were straight about not being able to line up a teacher. And prompt. And they didn’t ask for money up front. That’s the good news.

What mystifies me is how they think they can make money on a nonexistent service. On their Jobs page, the site says very specifically, “We are currently not accepting applications for teaching with Musika at this time. Please try again at a later date.” So … they claim to be able to hook you up with a cello teacher in Livermore, but they can’t do it because they don’t have one, but yet they’re not looking for teachers. What kind of sense does this make?

I’ll let you dream up an answer for yourself. Maybe they’re just terminally clueless. But they do seem very businesslike, so that theory may not hold water. What sort of people would operate in a businesslike manner, yet provide no visible services? Hmm…

Vinyl Flashback

My turntable still works. I have a small but provocative collection of LPs, some of which I’ve been carting around for more than 40 years. Amazingly, even after being boxed up at the back of a storage locker for the first few years of the new millenium, all of the discs I’ve tried are still in good condition. Eno, Gentle Giant, Pablo Casals — what an odd, eclectic bunch of stuff.

Just about the first pop LP I ever bought was Judy Collins’s In My Life. Listened to it tonight. What great songs! And of course Joshua Rifkin’s nearly classical arrangements added a lot.

I’m probably less enthralled by her singing than I was in 1966. She was pretty darn good, but that was long before Tori Amos and Laurie Anderson and a lot of other great vocalists who are also great stylists.

I don’t want to kvetch, though. I just want to celebrate the miracle that the vinyl still plays. And also, I suppose, the fact that even the songs I had entirely forgotten (Marat, Sunny Goodge Street, La Colombe), when the opening chords rang out, I knew every nuance, every line of the lyrics.

I pretty much played that record to death in 1966 and ’67. That was the year after I graduated from high school. It was not a happy time in my life, and Judy Collins helped to see me through.

Reading: The Dragons of Babel

Elves, centaurs, dragons, trolls, witches, hippogriffs, and other creatures even more fantastical throng through Michael Swanwick’s The Dragons of Babel. But it isn’t what you’re thinking. Swanwick has taken classic fantasy and mythology and done a cheerfully brutal mash-up with the seamier elements of our own modern world. There’s plenty of technology (from cigarette lighters to subway trains with electrical third rails), explicit sex, and casual profanity, not to mention overt references to actual historical figures like Mozart and Flaubert.

The first 2/3 of the novel seems almost picaresque — young Will is wandering through the world without much direction, falling in with whoever he meets, getting into trouble, falling in love, and so on. But Swanwick has a deeper design. Eventually the story is revealed as a modern expression of one of the timeless fantasy themes.

I’m not even going to tell you which theme, because that would spoil it. This book is a winner. If you’re looking for something fresh in the fantasy genre, you won’t want to miss it.

Photoshop Junkie

Remember the Mac IIci? Great computer, for its day. Back in 1992 or thereabouts, I found myself with a loaner machine in my home. On it was a copy of Photoshop.

I can’t draw, so Photoshop was an ideal program with which to discover the joys of being a visual artist. Apply three or four filters to areas selected with the magic wand tool, apply a few color contours, and you can end up with stunning abstract textures that you might never think of if you could draw. I had a few of my best images printed (not cheap, in those days) and framed (not cheap either). Four or five of them hang on my walls today.

Computers are a lot faster now, and I’m sure Photoshop is more powerful too. But it’s also expensive! Plus, I don’t need a bad case of mouse hand. So I’ve been able to resist temptation.

Last night I was looking for some basic photo processing software to crop some images, and downloaded Gimp. Oh, no! It’s Photoshop! And free! (Yes, I know it’s properly GIMP — the Gnu Image Manipulation Program. I just hate names that are in ALL CAPS.)

I still don’t own a digital camera, but I do have a nice scanner in my office, so old family photos are fair game. Not only that, but the possibilities for presentation of digital artwork have progressed rather markedly. In 1992, there was no such thing as a personal website, let alone flickr.

The possibilities go far beyond that. I’ve had a look at Ren’Py, a free program for building interactive visual novels. The folks who created it seem to be devoted to anime-style comic books, but you could do a slide show with it. The slide show could be nonlinear. It could include embedded Python code that would do some odd or provocative things.

This could be fun!

Video: Battlestar

I never saw the original BattleStar Galactica series. The new series looks pretty good, though it’s far from flawless. Last night I watched the pilot miniseries, which is essentially a 3-hour movie. I’ll try a few more episodes before making up my mind.

Script: Pretty good. Plenty of human elements, and it’s always nice to have Truly Evil Bad Guys that you can love to hate. I love seeing a woman fighter pilot who (though apparently heterosexual) smokes cigars with evident enjoyment.

What the Cylon sexpot is doing inside Gaius’s brain is a bit hard to decipher. Why the Cylons would build a new Cylon race that was all but biologically identical to the humans — mystifying. What the Cylon was doing lurking in the weapons depot — even more mystifying.

Effects/animation: Very good. Marred mainly by a few concessions to what TV viewers will expect to see. The fighter spacecraft look way too much like conventional jet fighters — and when we see a profile of a pilot in the cockpit, the stars in the background are whipping past! This is just wrong. The stars would appear stationary unless the craft were spinning rapidly, in which case it would be out of control.

Casting: As Commander Adama, Edward James Olmos looks the way Captain Kirk should have looked, but didn’t. Too bad Olmos can’t act. He seems to have only one facial expression: craggy.

And speaking of Star Trek, when Galactica is hit by enemy fire in the final battle … you guessed it, everybody on the bridge staggers sideways and falls down, and sparks fly from the control panels. We have so been here before.

But overall, it’s not too bad.

Traduzione italiana

A few magazine articles that I wrote (years ago) were translated into other languages, but none of my books has ever been translated … until now. The Inform 7 Handbook is being translated into Italian! I can’t read Italian, but the first chapter (at looks to be very good.

The fact that I uploaded the Handbook both as a PDF (for easy reading) and as an OpenOffice document (for easy editing) allows Leonardo Boselli to keep the document formatting. I imagine it might make it easier for him to do the translation, as well.

Thanks, Leonardo!