October 29, 2004

Fear Itself

by peterb

Here's a photo of a 1949 political billboard from Pittsburgh. The photo, courtesy of the Pittsburgh Courier Archives, is by Charles "Teeny" Harris, who took over 80,000 pictures depicting black life in Pittsburgh. The billboard is by the Republican party, which I guess hasn't changed much in fifty years. I originally saw this on Orcinus, who credits d. eaton with pointing it out to him.

I think this image serves as a cogent and simple reminder that the political appeals to fear -- by either party -- are not some sort of new technique. They're not a unique outlier of a type that has never been seen before. They are part of the grand and sordid tradition of American politics. In a very real way, the terrorists of September 11th are the best friends of those in power in the US; they've provided a new set of images for our leaders to use to try to keep us scared and docile.

If those images weren't here, our leaders would use other images -- whether it's Democrats talking about my Social Security being taken away, or Republicans talking about how protecting the environment from being poisoned will somehow make me lose my job.

The only question I really want to know the answer to is: how do they sleep at night?

Posted by peterb at 08:03 AM | Comments (1)

October 28, 2004

Brief Outage

by peterb

Due to a power outage at our ISP, followed by a hard drive crash, Tea Leaves was unavailable for most of the day. But, thanks to the hard work and dedication of the folks at Telerama Internet, we're back online without even having lost any data (other than perhaps a few comments.)

Here's a big plusplus going out to the team at Telerama. Thanks, guys!

Posted by peterb at 09:02 PM | Comments (0)

October 27, 2004

Red Sox Win

by psu

My first Red Sox World Series experience was in 1975 against the Reds. My dad didn't let me stay up for game 6 and Carlton Fisk's home run. Of course, they lost game 7.

In 1986, I was in school and didn't even realize the Sox were in the series until we tuned in on game 6. For game 7 I was at a Billy Joel concert. He's a Mets fan.

Last year, I picked up the Sox again in the ALCS, and remember thinking that we had it locked just as it all fell apart.

I tried to watch the playoffs this year with a certain detached optimism. Time after time it looked like it would all fall apart again, and yet somehow this year it was always the other team that had Red Sox Moments. We get two calls reversed in Yankee Stadium? We get that fateful ground rule double that keeps the score tied in game 5. We get the Cardinals making weird base running errors. And, we survive eight errors in the first two games of the World Series against one of the best offensive teams in the league.

But ultimately, in the last two games I think the Red Sox showed that they were just playing better baseball. Great hitting, great pitching and great defense. A thing of beauty all around.

Let's hope we don't have to wait 86 years for the next one. It would be cool if my son could see this happen before he's 38.

Posted by psu at 11:45 PM | Comments (3)

October 26, 2004

Strange and Norrell

by peterb

Strange and Norrell

I'm currently reading Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which I'd characterize as Jane Austen meets Neil Gaiman's The Sandman.

Most reviewers have compared the book to the Harry Potter series, undoubtedly because the book is "about" magic, and takes place in England. This isn't any more accurate than comparing Catch-22 to A Farewell to Arms simply because both are "about" war and take place in Italy. Stylistically, the books could not be farther apart. Where Potter is breathless and credulous (not unreasonable attributes for a public school coming-of-age story), Strange & Norrell is sophisticated and subtle. It's quite enjoyable and would make a fine addition to anyone's winter reading list.

Without going in to enough detail to ruin the plot, let me discuss the broad outline of the book. The year is 1806. For many years, magic had been a potent force in the North of England, with the coming of a fierce, faerie-raised youth, known as the Raven King, in the 1400s. Since the departure of the Raven King, magic has been in steady decline. At the time the book opens, there are no known practicing magicians in the realm. All is theory. Until, that is, a challenge is issued to a reclusive scholar, one Mr. Norrell. Mr. Norrell accepts, and literally makes the statues in York's cathedral talk and sing. The notoriety gained from this demonstration helps establish Norrell in London society, and enables him to pursue his dream of restoring English magic. The novel is the story of dour, somewhat cautious Norrell and -- later -- his bolder and more impulsive protogé, Jonathan Strange, and how these two men work with, and against, each other.

It is very mannered novel. This isn't an unreserved compliment. What readers like about Austen is not, in the final analysis, simply the look she gives into the Regency era. There are plenty of novels that do that, most of them unreadable. What makes Austen compelling, at least to me, is the drama. The drama comes because for Austen's characters, finding a financially secure husband is a matter of life or abject poverty, not merely an issue of creature comfort. The seriousness with which Austen takes these issues is reflected in the moods of her works. Clarke's writing is wrapped in the trappings of the day, but not actually concerned with them. There are many descriptions of London parties, eligible young gentlemen who have livings of 1000 pounds a year, etc., etc., but there's no impact behind it. It's not a life being lived; it's a mere mise-en-scene.

That being said, it may just be a mise en scene, but it's a fun one. What Strange and Norrell brings to the depiction of magic is a sense of true menace and mystery. It's this element that some critics (notably Byatt) have found lacking in the Potter stories. The most apposite comparison of the magic in the novel would be that found in the works of Neil Gaiman. Gaiman's magic, with its emphasis on the inhuman lands Faerie, and the dire consequences of transgressing against rules you may know nothing of. In the world of Strange and Norrell, magic is not merely an expression of forces beyond human power, but also of worlds beyond human morality. It is in this context that the quotidian setting of early 19th century Britain is effective. The fastidiousness of the actors serves to throw the wildness of the hidden world into sharp relief.

Strange and Norrell will appeal to those who like their books thick and fast. For although it is 800 pages long, it reads quickly. It's not, in the final analysis, Great Writing; 10 years from now, I won't be waking up in the middle of the night with my head ringing with the power of Clarke's prose. You can be haunted by the magic of Rushdie or Garcia-Marquez, or oppressed and elated by the eloquence of Martin Amis, or hear echoes of Italo Calvino as you wander through daily life. Clarke's writing will engender no such emotions. But that's OK: I'm praising with faint damn. If I only read books by writers with the power of Garcia-Marquez I would read very few books indeed. Clarke is telling a great story, and telling it well.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is almost certainly available at your local library, bookstore, or from amazon.com.

Posted by peterb at 09:39 PM | Comments (2)

October 25, 2004

Northern Spy

by peterb

One of the best features of the Xbox home console system is that you can rip music from music CDs to the hard disk. Some games then allow you to play that music back in-game. The classic street racer Project Gotham Racing is one such game. One of the first things I did upon acquiring an Xbox was to rip a whole bunch of surf music on to the hard drive. Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet. Los Straitjackets. Huevos Rancheros. And a small, barely known band called Barbacoa, who have a song called Northern Spy which, as you would expect, was a sort of Canadianish James Bond-y sort of thing.

It wasn't until many years later that I learned that "Northern Spy" is actually the name of a variety of apple. I'd certainly never tasted one. I decided I wanted one because, well, y'know. It's called Northern Spy. It has to be great! They seem to be very hard to find -- everyplace I've asked has just said that they don't carry them, or that they're sold out. But tonight, at Whole Foods, I found a cache of Northern Spys. So I brought some home.

They're a blotchy red and green, and quite large. The flesh has the texture of a Red Delicious, but the skin is much thinner and thus not so intrusive. They're on the tart side, which I consider to be a virtue -- not as tart as a Granny Smith, but nearly so, and much juicier. They're apparently considered a "pie apple," presumably because people only like eating super-sweet things out of hand. But I enjoyed the one I've eaten in hand so far. I intend to eat more.

I've looked online to find someone who specializes in interesting and unusual apples, but haven't had any luck, at least at reasonable prices (I found one place offering to send me a box of 15 Stayman-Winesaps for something like $40. No, thanks.) Mail order is fine, but I'd be willing to take a road trip, too. If you know of any place like that, please add a comment, below.

Additional Resources

  • Christina recently recommended "honeycrisp" apples, another variety I've never tried (although I have had Macouns, of which they are a hybrid, and I enjoy those very much).
  • If you're in the Pittsburgh area, in addition to Giant Eagle, you can try some of the local orchards. The most well-known include Soergel's in the North Hills, Trax Farms to the south, in Finleyville, and Schramm's Farms to the east, near Greensburg. The availability of different varieties changes often, so call before going.
  • To this day, Project Gotham Racing just doesn't feel right unless I'm listening to surf music. I drive especially well if the song is a Canadianish James Bond-y sort of thing (500 kb mp3 excerpt). The Barbacoa CD is woefully unavailable unless you go to one of their shows, but you can buy a compilation of surf music which has Northern Spy on it.

Posted by peterb at 09:27 PM | Comments (5)

October 22, 2004

Stop Hurting America

by peterb

This morning on the way in to work I made the mistake of tuning in to NPR. Steve Inskeep was interviewing Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) about partisanship. In so doing, Frist made the point that the Democrats have blocked 10 Federal Circuit Court nominees from consideration and that, and I quote, "the blocking of 10 justices, has never been done in the history of this country."

My mouth dropped open, because this is a lie.

It's not a little lie. It's not even a big lie. This goes past "big," all the way into "pathological" territory. This is a lie that says "I'm lying, I know I'm lying, and I think the people listening to me are complete morons." It shows not just disrespect for truth, but disrespect for the people he's talking to. That would be you and me.

To his credit, NPR commentator Steve Inskeep immediately sought a clarification, disbelief evident in his voice:

Inskeep: "I'm sorry, blocking of 10 justices has never been done?"

Frist: "Yes! Absolutely. We have for the first time in 200 years a party, that is the Democratic party, has refused to allow the Senate to give 'advice and consent' on circuit court nominees from the President of the United States. It's never been done."

Inskeep: "If I may, Senator [...] Republicans, when President Clinton was in control, blocked many many judges using other methods."

When confronted by the truth (and he knows full well that over 60 of Clinton's judicial appointees were stuffed down in committee) Frist stumbled, and then went on to repeat the talking point.

What disgusts me is not that Frist lied. What disgusts me that he thought he would get away with it.

And I don't know that I blame the Senate Majority Leader for that because, frankly, when he first uttered the lie, I thought he would get away with it, too.

I think this is exactly the sort of thing that Jon Stewart has been talking about when he criticizes the media for their lack of analysis. If Frist had been on Hardball, or Crossfire, or Meet the Press, it seems likely to me that he would have delivered his lie, and no reporter would have challenged him on it, even if they knew it was false. When Inskeep called him on his lie, you could hear that Frist was stunned. "How dare he?" I imagine him thinking. "How dare he?"

Frist is responsible for his own lies. But our media -- by which I mean "every reporter who acts as a conduit for an untruth and doesn't identify it as such for his readers, listeners, or viewers" -- is responsible for creating an environment in which political liars can have a good faith belief that their deception will probably go unchallenged.

I'm glad that Inskeep was willing to call the Senator on his patent deception. I'll be more glad when that's the journalistic norm, and not the exception. I don't want my journalists to be nothing more than conduits for the propaganda of any political party -- even a party I support. If I want to read press releases or public relations, I can go to the party's website and get that. To quote Jon Stewart: we need their help. There is too much information for readers to know what is true or untrue.

We need journalists to do their jobs.

In the days when the Soviet Union was still Communist (or, for that matter, still around), two of their major newspapers were Pravda (literally "Truth"), which was the Communist Party newspaper, and Izvestia (literally "News"), which was the official government newspaper. A popular aphorism for many years was "There is no pravda in izvestia, and there is no izvestia in pravda." Please, CNN. Please, New York Times. Please, Fox News. Please, freelance and full-time journalists everywhere. We need more pravda in our izvestia. We need it now.

Additional Resources

  • You can hear the entirety of the interview between Steve Inskeep and Bill Frist here. The exchange I quoted starts at around 1 minute 55 seconds in to the segment.
  • You can read the English-language edition of Pravda online, although I'm told that the American edition has higher production values. Izvestia is online also, but only in Russian
  • If you don't know what I'm talking about when I mention John Stewart's push for media accountability, you can read this article.

Posted by peterb at 07:03 PM | Comments (0)

October 21, 2004

Red Sox Win

by psu

The Red Sox are in the World Series. That's pretty cool.

Posted by psu at 12:14 AM | Comments (0)

October 20, 2004

10 Things I Hate About Tcl

by peterb

I really, really, really don't like Tcl. Here are some of the reasons why.

1. The syntax for basic language elements is broken and inconsistent. Look, go ahead and put dollar signs in front of variables. Or don't put dollar signs in front of variables. I don't really care. But make up your mind; don't make me have to figure out which syntax I need to use from context.

2. No syntax checking until the program actually executes a given line of code. Look, guys, maybe this made sense twenty years ago when you were running on a DECstation 2100, but those few extra milliseconds really aren't going to kill us. Conversely, the interpreter is forced to reparse all syntactic blocks (for loops, if statements, and so on), every single time they are executed. So you spend cycles reparsing the syntactic blocks that actually execute at runtime, yet I still have no confidence that the syntax of every line in my script is correct, unless I use some external tool like procheck. Way to go, boys! Welcome to 1986!

3. The backtraces. Oh my god, the backtraces. Python has backtraces, and yet somehow they're useful. No one has ever, in the entire history of Tcl, fixed a bug based on its unreadable and baroque backtraces.

4. A special case of item 3: if you're taking the trouble to tell me what line offset in a given function the bug you encountered was, maybe you could spend another thirty bytes or so and mention, casually, what file the error was in? No, that would make too much goddamn sense.

5. Idiomatically, the existence of exceptions in the language is used to excuse lousy programming. Here's how every Tcl program in the world that has ever been written since the beginning of time handles exceptions:

try { set somevar [10000_lines_of_code [1000_lines {$arg}]] } catch { error "Something went wrong!" }

6. Tcl wants to use { and } in places where God intended us to use ( and ).

7. The "expr" construct is hateful. Which of these makes more sense?
value = value ^ 2
set value [expr $value ^ 2]"?

8. You have to explicitly invoke expr, except it's automatic in if and while conditions, which is pretty much the one place where you don't want it.

9. No real data structures to speak of. Everything is a string.

10. Tcl doesn't actually have scoping "rules." Really, they're more like scoping "polite suggestions." You can examine and change (!) variables in your caller's stack frame (upvar). You can execute blocks of code in your caller's context (uplevel). You can tear your own face off with your toenails and devour it, ending your life as a slavering, pathetic beast, whimpering in a pool of your own blood.

In summary: I really, really, really don't like Tcl. Thank you, and good night.

Posted by peterb at 09:51 PM | Comments (6)

October 19, 2004

Calamari Misterdarcy

by peterb

What are all the cool kids playing on their consoles today? Katamari Damacy!

It's the sort of game that only comes along once every few years, where the controls, theme, and tone all coalesce perfectly to create a kind of Platonic gaming mood. Katamari Damacy is a Namco release for the Sony Playstation 2.

Katamari Damacy

The plot is a tissue thin excuse to justify the madness. Your father, the Lord of All Creation, got drunk and accidentally destroyed all of the stars in the sky. Your job is to go to Earth and roll around a small ball, called a katamari. Anything smaller than the katamari sticks to it. As more and more objects stick to it, the katamari gets bigger, and can pick up more items. So you'll start off the size of a thimble, able to pick up things like thumbtacks, chessboard pieces, the occasional butterfly, and the like. As you grow, you'll be able to pick up larger and larger items -- teapots, small dogs, children, people, bicycles, cars, islands, and so on. After each level, you're graded on your performance and, if you collected enough stuff your katamari (and everything it picked up) is turned into a star.

The best thing about the game is it's simplicity. There's basically one rule: if it's smaller than you, it sticks, and if it's bigger than you, you bounce off (possibly knocking parts of you off). Likewise, the controls are elegant. No buttons are absolutely necessary to play: just use the two thumbsticks, and drive like a tank. Push both forward, and the katamari rolls forward. Pull them back, it rolls backwards. Push one stick forward and the other back, and you turn. There's initially some emotional guilt the first time you pick up a mouse, or a kitten, but soon enough you are lost in the sheer joy of it, and you're gleefully chasing a shrieking Mrs. Tanaka down the street on the way back from her grocery shopping. Amusingly, the game also gives you a brief description of every object you pick up, and a biography of every person you ruthlessly murder reunite with the cosmos.

Visually, the game is whimsical and charming, without being cloyingly sweet. It's pretty clear that hallucinogens played at least an inspirational role in the game's design. Lines are crisp and cartoony, with a rich and varied palette, polygons are blocky in a Fisher-Price sort of way. It's clear that Toy Commander for the Dreamcast was a big influence on the developers. The problem with Toy Commander, though, was that it was much too difficult. Katamari Damacy imports the best parts of that earlier game, and leaves the hugely complicated game mechanics at the door. The mechanisms of the game itself also suggest Atari's Marble Madness at times, although this is a much more chaotic, open-ended, and less abstract game than that arcade puzzler.

The reason the simple controls work so well is that the gameplay is so subtle. The fact that your katamari changes in scale during each level is transformative in and of itself. So in the early parts of a level, larger objects are effectively obstacles, and serve to delineate the landscape in which you move. By the time you've tripled in size, you can simply roll over them and absorb them. In this way the landscape manages to be dynamic even when no objects in it are moving. Effectively, you're playing in four dimensions.

The soundtrack is infectious and simple. The starting theme song (listen to a brief sample here) has been lodged in my brain all day (only being driven out when I occasionally play The Girl from Ipanema). There's a variety of other songs in the game itself, and if there's a soundtrack album, I'm buying it. The music is eclectic, jazzy, infectious, and perfectly appropriate. Here's another brief sample for your enjoyment.

Lastly, one of the best aspects of Katamari Damacy is that it is available, retail, for a mere $20. (I guarantee you that someone at Namco, right now, is kicking themselves repeatedly). At that price, there's no excuse to not get it if you have a PS2.

Many of the strangest Japanese games don't make it to the US market. I'm hoping that the wild (and perhaps unprecedented) success of Katamari Damacy is the thin edge of a wedge that opens us up to more strange and delightful things. American publishers and distributors, take note.

Additional Resources

Posted by peterb at 08:49 PM | Comments (11)

October 18, 2004

Hedging My Bets

by peterb

My mom is convinced that John Kerry is going to win the election.

I think she couldn't be more wrong. I'd like for John Kerry to win. I'd like for George Bush to lose. But I don't see it happening. I do have to say that her logic is pretty compelling: she says that I'm a guaranteed jinx when it comes to politics, and since I'm so certain that Bush is going to win, he won't.

She was pretty sure, though, so I got her to put her money where her mouth is, and we made a bet. If John Kerry wins, as she says he will, I have to buy her a couple of bottles of the Nippozano Reserva Chianti by Frescobaldi (plus maybe a few bottles of Two-Buck Chuck), totally about $50. If George Bush wins, as I bet he will, she has to buy me the videogame of my choice, up to a value of $50.

It turns out that Halo 2 will be out the week after the election. So if Kerry wins, I'll be thrilled to send my mom the wine she wants. And if Bush wins, at least it will mean that I'm getting a free copy of Halo 2. Even if you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, I'm still going to try.

At 8 pm on Tuesday, November 2nd, as election returns roll in, I plan on not watching them, but will instead be online playing Counterstrike. Drop me a line if you'd like to join our little group of people shooting each other and shouting "LA LA LA I CAN'T HEAR YOU" at the electorate.

Posted by peterb at 08:36 PM | Comments (5)

October 16, 2004

Turning of the Tide

by peterb

If, like me, you're not in the habit of watching CNN, you probably missed the Daily Show's Jon Stewart lay a righteous smackdown on Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala. I did. Sure, you can read the transcript, but that doesn't really do it justice.

For the full-on effect, if you have a fast internet connection, you'll want to watch the video

Jon Stewart, I salute you. On the one hand, it's depressing that it takes a comedy show host to raise this issue and not, say, a journalist. On the other hand, I guess mocking the powerful has always been the right of jesters and fools. Jon Stewart is a superb fool. And I don't mean that as an insult.


Posted by peterb at 12:02 AM | Comments (2)

October 15, 2004

Looking in to the Eyes of God

by peterb

...that's how I feel tonight, because my fabulous employers gave me, as a gift, a 19" flatscreen monitor. It's a ViewSonic VX910.

It's pretty. Oh yes, it is pretty.

The big problem, though, is that now I am having the feeling that I need to upgrade my computer so that I have a game playing box worthy of the monitor.

The other problem is that I'm running Win2k, so I don't get any ClearType antialiasing love. How painful is upgrading from Win2k to Windows XP? Will it throw me into a dimension of transinfinite pain? Assume for the sake of argument that I'm not willing to do a clean install, but must do an upgrade install. Because I'm not.

Excuse me, I need to go stare at my screensaver for a while now.

Posted by peterb at 09:16 PM | Comments (1)

October 14, 2004

Slow Food

by psu

Who would have thought that a pizza with fresh mozzarella and roasted potatoes would be a great thing?

Anyway. To go back to the beginning. There is an organization in Pittsburgh called Slow Food Pittsburgh which is a local chapter of an international group of the same name. They are dedicated to the proposition that we need to defend traditionally prepared regional foods against the onslaught of large scale generic mechanized "fast food". I think the organization got started in Italy when McDonalds started to open stores there.

In Pittsburgh, this movement has spawned a series of local food events that have been graciously hosted by Roberto Caporuscio, the owner of the excellent Regina Margerhita pizzerias.

Roberto has been hosting these events for the past few months. The theme of the series is "A tour of Italy" so each night covers a different region of the country. He serves two salad courses, several appetizers, and several pizzas. The dishes are made with ingredients and techniques that reflect the region of Italy that makes up that night's theme. The beauty of the food is that it consists of just a few ingredients and requires no specialized techniques. But, it transcends this simplicity and is like nothing you've had before.

The last one of these we went to was this last Tuesday. The courses were as a follows:

- Zucchini salad with olive oil, lemon, grape tomatoes and sheep's milk Romano cheese.

- A "caesar salad" with greens, balsamic vinaigrette and homemade croutons.

- Marinated artichokes, porcini mushrooms in a tomato sauce, spinach with raisins and pine nuts, roasted onions and roasted eggplant with tomatoes, garlic and Romano cheese.

- Pizza with Italian broccoli (rape), sausage and smoked provolone cheese.

- Pizza with artichokes and pancetta

- Pizza with roasted potatoes and rosemary.

Simply amazing. Nothing fancy, expensive, pretentious or complicated. Just simply amazing food.

I have this experience with food in only one other context, and that's when my mom shows up at the house, pulls random stuff out of the fridge and makes a set of Chinese stir fry dishes that are so far beyond anything I've ever managed that I just sit there at the table gawking in disbelief.

This is food like your mom made, if your mom could cook. Food that evokes your favorite food related times from your childhood. And I think that's the important point here. The issue is not slow food vs. fast food. Nothing in the menu above is particularly slow to make. The issue is preserving the memory and spirit of every mother's cooking. The issue is making sure that we don't end up burying the world in an ocean of conveniently packaged, mass produced, frozen, tasteless dreck that is so deep that no one remembers what real food is anymore.

Posted by psu at 04:58 PM | Comments (1)

October 13, 2004

Hot Dog Rules

by psu

I have an almost irrational fondness for sausage that extends even more irrationally to hot dogs. A good hot dog can be a thing of beauty and a stupendous culinary experience besides. A bad hot dog is at best sad and at worst something that will make you vomit in a dark alley somewhere far away from home.

After some years of obtaining hot dogs in various locales on this planet, here are some guidelines for their proper construction.

1. Fried or grilled are much better than steamed or boiled.

2. Generally, you want more dog than bun. Too much bun is bad. I don't really go for poppy-seed buns either.

3. A limited number of condiments is better than putting a whole salad bar on top of the poor piece of sausage. There is no reason to ever have more than three things on the dog at once.

4. It is not always the case that chili and/or cheese on a hot dog is a sin.

5. Under no circumstances, however, should you ever put ketchup on a hot dog.

6. Some people like sauerkraut. I'm neutral.

7. Never, under any circumstances except possibly the threat of death to you and your entire extended family, buy a "hot dog" in Paris, France. Almost everything related to food is better in Paris, but they know nothing about hot dogs.

8. Hot dogs taste better at the ball park.

My favorite hot dogs are made at a place called The Original, or "The O" in Pittsburgh. My favorite O dogs are the big all beef dogs with onions, a bit of mustard and maybe pickles or relish. I also love the same dogs with chili and/or cheese and onions if I'm in the mood. O dogs are grilled on a big flat grill for hours so they have a nice crunchy crust to them that is a pleasure to bite into. They also tend to be larger than the bun.

Of course, what I like may not be what you like. So on the one hand, the list above is really just my own personal set of guidelines. On the other hand, if you disagree with them, chances are you are a sniveling freak who wouldn't know good food if it came up to you and bit you on the ass. Just my friendly opinion.

Posted by psu at 03:39 PM | Comments (19)

October 12, 2004

Something Rotten

by peterb

The bad part about buying books in Canada is that they are often from Great Britain.

This sounds wrong, intuitively. For me, at least, mentioning "books" and "England" in the same sentence conjures up an image of a sober, thoughtful old gent, reading a thick, leatherbound volume with a sewn-in silk bookmark while comfortably -- but not indulgently -- ensconced in a leather chair. The smell of pipe smoke is in the air. Later, when the boys come by and the time for reading is done, the port will be passed.

Perhaps your image of "British books" is similarly reverent. If this is the case, I urge you not to buy any, for if you do, your image will be destroyed when you buy your first one and realize that British books suck.

Oh, not the writing, I imagine that they have the same distribution of quality as anywhere else in the world with readers and writers. I mean the books themselves. The physical objects. The paper is garbage. The ink smears. The bindings are weakly glued. They are absolutely disgraceful along every axis.

I always manage to forget this when I visit Toronto, and am overwhelmed by the heady perfume of paper and ink and the fact that I'm in a city that seems to have 2 used bookstores per block, and I spend $150 on books, some of which are inevitably of British manufacture. The final straw came on my most recent trip, where I bought a copy of Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and the last pages in the book started falling out before I'd finished the second chapter.

So why buy them at all? Impatience, mostly. Some books never make it to the US except as imports (some of Iain M. Banks' works seems to fall into this category, for some reason I can't discern.) Other books are simply released in Britain (and therefore Canada) somewhat earlier than in the US. Like Jasper Fforde's latest, Something Rotten; the trade paperback is available at Bakka and other fine bookstores. And it's worth mentioning, given the the long introduction, that my copy hasn't fallen apart yet. Knock on wood.

I was originally of two minds about Something Rotten. I enjoyed it because it continues the adventures of Fforde's Thursday Next character (it's the fourth book in the series), and manages to bring them to a satisfactory conclusion; a logical stopping point, even. I was worried, though, because I felt like it might not be the end. And I wanted it to be the end. I've really, really enjoyed Thursday Next. And it's time for Fforde to stop writing about her for a while.

I needn't have worried -- while not explicitly saying he's done with Thursday Next for eternity, Fforde indicates on his website that his next project will be something more, as he puts it, "standalone." Good.

Something Rotten is a delight to those of us who have been reading the Next story from the beginning. In addition to the usual gamut of amusing names (a stalker named "Millon DeFloss" is the one that sticks in my mind), it's clear that Fforde has been spending a lot of the past year listening to the way politicians talk:

'Thank you, Tudor. Yes, I condemn utterly and completely the Terrible Thing in the strongest possible terms. We in the Whig Party are appalled by the way in which Terrible Things are done in this great nation of ours with no retribution against the Somebody who did them.'

It was only a page or so later that I had my first involuntary audible giggle:
'...I'd like to wander completely off the point and talk about the Health Service Overhaul that we will launch next year. We want to replace the outdated "preventative" style of healthcare this country has relentlessly pursued with a "wait until it gets really bad" system which will target those most in need of medical treatment -- the sick. Yearly health screenings for all citizens will end and will be replaced by a "tertiary" diagnostic regime which will save money and resources.'

Come November 3rd, no doubt, you'll find me under my bed, weeping hysterically, reading and re-reading that paragraph. But for right now it still makes me laugh

Something Rotten is a much stronger outing than Fforde's previous novel, The Well of Lost Plots, which was essentially an extended exercise in elaborating on things that ought not to have been elaborated on. So much of the vitality and freshness in The Eyre Affair came from the jovial sense of chaos imparted to the reader by the discovery of the strange universe of books and their characters. It was enough to know that this world existed. Delving into the details of the world's rules simply destroyed the mystery. Something Rotten veers sharply away from this overexplication and is, at its core, a much more emotionally open and human book.

As I said, if you've been with Thursday Next from the start, you'll enjoy Something Rotten. If you've never read any of the Thursday Next books, I can't in good conscience recommend that you read Something Rotten yet. But the first novel in the cycle, The Eyre Affair, is yours for the taking, and that I can recommend without hesitation.

As for me, I'm looking forward to his next, Nextless, novel.

Additional Resources

Posted by peterb at 10:22 PM | Comments (1)

October 11, 2004

What I'm Reading (Library Version)

by peterb

Since I spent so much time raving about the Carnegie Library recently, it's only fair that I indicate what I've actually been reading. What follows is a laundry list with some brief comments on each item. The hyperlinks in each item will take you to Amazon, in case your local library isn't as good as mine.


  • I, Fatty by Jerry Stahl. Stahl's fictionalized autobiography of the celebrated and then later villified Fatty Arbuckle is gripping. I don't much care for his actual writing, which I find clumsy and lacking a unique voice (it reads, to me, very much in the same voice as Permanent Midnight -- it feels almost like he got a 1920s slang dictionary and did a search-and-replace in his word processor after finishing the book), but Stahl knows how to tell a great story. Fatty Arbuckle's tale is a sad one, and I suspect one that most people don't know much about.
  • The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket. I love the idea of a world in which Lemony Snicket exists. I like the concept of the book. I like the suggestively Goreyesque art on the cover. I like the name "Lemony Snicket." I like everything about the book except, it seems, the book itself, which talks down to the reader in a way in which -- you know I'm going to say it -- J.K. Rowling's work doesn't. Snicket also suffers in comparison to Gorey because Gorey doesn't feel at all bad about brutally murdering his protagonists, whereas Snicket pulls every punch he throws. Perhaps I'm being unfair on a book which is, after all, being expressly marketed to children. But take that as a measure of my disappointment.
  • The Little Kingdom: The Private Story of Apple Computer, by Michael Moritz. There are probably hundreds of books about Apple Computer, but this one is the best of the lot, in my opinion, because it is firmly focused on the early, pre-Macintosh years. It gives you a real sense of what life is like at a start up company, and here I'm talking more about the finance end then about the long hours and technical challenges. It gives you an idea of how much of Apple's success wasn't due just to the machine Woz and Jobs built, but to the businessmen they chose to help them manufacture, market and sell it. I enjoyed this book immensely. It can be a bit hard to find, and so is a great candidate for borrowing from your local library.
  • Various Terry Pratchett books. I've managed to avoid reading Pratchett for all of these years because I think the Discworld premise is stupid. But, with A.S. Byatt singing his praises to the heavens, I felt obligated to try some, and she's right: he does write amazing sentences. I still think the Discworld is stupid, but it's a sign of Pratchett's talent that he can make me enjoy it, at least while I"m actually reading his amazing sentences.
  • The Rule of Four, by Ian Caldwell. I only picked this up because it's the only item that comes up when you search for Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, which has been on my "find a copy and decide if you want to read this" list for several years. I haven't read it yet. My impression from skimming the first chapter is that they're trying to cash in on the Da Vinci Code phenomenon.
  • Proudly Serving My Corporate Masters by Adam Barr. I'd say something witty here, but if I ever decide to interview at Microsoft I'd probably regret it.
  • Apple II Assembly Language by Marvin De Jong. Don't ask. Just...don't ask.

Graphic Novels

  • Promethea, by Alan Moore. Enjoyable if overwrought in that typically British hysterical Kabbalistic way. Why do writers always have to make Kabbala open a gate to a mystic dimension of pure thought? Hey, guys, sometimes meaningless numerological wanking is just meaningless numerological wanking.
  • Tom Strong, by Alan Moore. I can't really put into words exactly how much I hated this, but I'll try. Like Dave Sim and Art Spiegelman, Moore's work is self-referential to the history and form of comic books. Sometimes this works, but often it weakens the stories they want to tell. I like most of their work because I understand the references because I grew up reading "comix". The problem with larding every page of your work with references to other works is that only those readers that have read the other works get the message. Meanwhile, younger independent artists (Danny Clowes, for example) produce work that is much more vital, and not as fettered by the past. The difference between a Moore and a Clowes is the difference between evolution and revolution (Footnote: I stole that line from Apple ad copy, as revealed in The Little Kingdom. I can be self-referential too!). As in his masterwork Watchmen, here Moore is obsessed with superheroes (he might prefer to call them "archetypes," but I claim that the moment you slap some spandex on an archetype, it's as serious as an orchestra playing Mozart on kazoos.) Tom Strong wants to be a witty, lighthearted riff on the action-adventure serials of the 1930s. But there's a difference between leveraging a cliché to say something new, and simply repeating it. Tom Strong just repeats the clichés. It's the worst thing Alan Moore has written in years. It is, quite literally, not worth the paper it's printed on.
  • The Books of Magic, by John Ney Reiber, various volumes. I had started reading these years ago, but never really kept up. It was nice to get the rest of the story in one concentrated dose. In many ways this is the Harry Potter story (and aren't they all?) with significantly more menace and danger. I like it.
  • À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, by Marcel Proust, adapted by Stéphane Heuet. I've been putting off reading Swann's Way for about, oh, 6 years now. So I picked up the graphic novel version of it. I feel warm, happy, and fulfilled. Now I'll be able to pretend that I know all about Proust at those sophisticated cocktail parties I attend. "Oh, but of course, my dear, your view of this is like the young Proust's first view of the cathedral at Balbec." Yes, I'll be the toast of the town. Unless they read my weblog. Oops. In any event, I have great respect for what, in my head, I term "classics comics." I remember reading The Iliad -- in comic book form -- w hen I was 10 years old. If you've ever been even marginally interested in Proust, this book might be the spark to convince you to start reading the real thing. I know that it inspired me to move the original, text-only version of Swann's Way back on to my "read this sooner rather than later" shelf.


I have 19 other items on hold, currently. How do I find the time to read all of this, and still get my work done, you ask? The answer could not be simpler.

I don't sleep.

Posted by peterb at 06:24 PM | Comments (7)

October 08, 2004

Arrested Development

by peterb

Comic books are for kids

I was at the Carnegie Library last night, trying to track down volume 2 of Alan Moore's Promethea. A very nice librarian was helping me, and we got to talking, and she said "So, are you really into..." There was a long pause. "...graphic novels?"

Now, I'm sure she was just making conversation, but there was a very large part of me that was sure that the real question being asked was "Why are you reading comic books? Aren't you past that yet?"

I'm sensitive about this, in part, because of something someone said to me not too long ago. They were saying that they read my writing and thought it surprising that a guy in his thirties "still played videogames." I laughed it off, but inside I was stunned. It had never occurred to me, even for a moment, to entertain the idea that playing videogames was something that one would set aside with adulthood, like playing with dolls or making mudcakes.

There are lots of games that are for kids, sure. There are lots of movies for kids, too. I'm imagining someone asking Martin Scorsese when he will be graduating to actually writing something substantial, like a book, now that he's exhausted the infantile palette available to him in film. Or dismissing books as a medium, because, y'know, Charlotte's Web was for kids.

I could stand around coming up with counterexamples of videogames (or, for that matter, graphic novels) that are clearly written by adults and for adults, but that is a tired argument, and not very interesting. It's fascinating to me how pervasive the meme is, the idea that an entire medium is unworthy of serious consideration, regardless of the message it carries.

My suspicion is that in large part this comes down to marketing and money. The entire graphic novel channel is geared towards delivering cheaply printed, mass-produced content at high profit margins to kids (and the Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons). That's who has traditionally spent the money on comic books. That's changing, but very slowly. Videogames have changed more quickly, largely because those of us who grew up with them won't accept anything less. You can still see the fault lines, though: would anyone walk up to a 66 year old retiree in a Vegas casino and tell them that the videogame slot machine they're playing is "for kids"?

It is, in the end, all a matter of perception. Go to any chain bookstore and you'll find a "Science Fiction/Fantasy" section full of crappy writing with half-naked barbarian women in chainmail lingerie on the covers of their books. You'll also find some superb writers and wordsmiths, such as Gene Wolfe or Terry Pratchett ("Who writes amazing sentences," says A.S. Byatt, whose own Babel Tower includes a story-within-the-story that would be right at home on the chainmail bra shelf, as would the similar story in Margaret Atwood's Booker prize-winning novelThe Blind Assassin). Meanwhile, the best science fiction story of the 20th century is probably Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children. You'll find that on a different shelf, because some over-privileged Yale prat only gets paid if he decides that some works are Literature, and other works merely Genre.

This serves the interests of consumers, but not, necessarily, the interests of readers.

I'm in my thirties. I read books. Some of them have pictures. Some of them don't. I watch movies. I watch TV. I play video games. I write, and publish what I write, without necessarily expecting money in return.

Welcome to the new adulthood. See you on Xbox Live.

Posted by peterb at 12:14 AM | Comments (3)

October 07, 2004

Film and Digital in 2004

by psu

I have a book by the late great Galen Rowell called Mountain Light. The book is filled with breathtaking landscape photographs from all over the world and the stories of how the photographs were created. Rowell worked with a series of 35mm color slide films during his career: Kodachrome, Velvia, and so on. At the end of the forward, he talks about how a friend of his had periodically told him that in the next few years, a digital camera would come out that would put his film to shame *and* be easier to use besides, and that he had been hearing this story for the last decade or two.

Well, if Galen had lived to see the year 2005, I think his friend truly might have finally been right.

To the outside observer of the Internet message groups, the digital/film debate seems to center primarily around technical issues. Back in 2001/2002, reams of bits were wasted in a useless argument over a web page that claimed that the digital camera that Canon had just released, the D30, was "better" than 35mm film as tested by some guy who runs some web site. Almost every discussion of this issue between then and now that I have read can be summarized like this:

1. Digital guy says "my digital body is just as good as film, I hate you."

2. Film guy says "that's ludicrous, it would take 50 bazillion megapixels to match a single frame of my super chromaticasm iso 25 ultra slide film, especially if I shoot 4x5. Also, I hate you."

Both of these arguments are, in fact, wrong. It is a fact that there are things film can do that digital cannot (make a nice fiber print, for one). It is also true that for all intents and purposes, you can buy digital cameras that for the most part will get you prints that are as good or better than any color film made.

Let's be clear. There are no technical issues one way or another that clearly distinguish between digital capture and film. Digital cameras have evolved to the point where within each price class the technical playing field is level. If anything, from a technical standpoint, the current crop of thousand dollar digital SLR cameras are probably better in most ways than the 35mm cameras they are based on. By this I mean:

1. At equivalent ISO and print sizes up to 12x18, the prints you hold in your hand will be better in almost every way, especially at higher ISO ratings. If you don't believe me, go shoot some ISO 640 35mm color print film and let me know how 18x12 prints look. I have such prints made from a D100, and they are stunningly good. Even at ISO 400, my old 3mp point and shoot made great 8x10 prints.

2. They handle the same.

3. They are just as convenient to use from the standpoint of extras that you have to haul along. A laptop and card reader are just as easy to carry as 40 or 50 rolls of film, and they won't be destroyed by x-ray machines.

Nice fiber prints aside, the technical argument is done. Digital as described by Rowell's friend has arrived.

But, you should keep in mind that digital had started to taken over many areas of photography long before we had reached this level of technical parity. If you delve deeper into the message board arguments, you will see why. At some point, there will be an exchange like

1. The digital guy says "digital rules because I can just download my pictures and in 5 seconds I have a web site to show everyone."

2. The film guy says "film rules because I don't have to fuss with the damn machine. I just drop my film off and an hour later I have prints to show everyone."

In other words, what you are doing to do with the image trumps any sort of technical compromise there might be in the tools you are using to create the picture. Galen Rowell made 35mm color landscape photography viable because the tools fit his style and allowed him to get pictures that transcended the limitations of the medium. The important aspect of his decision to shoot 35mm is not the technical question of what kind of "image quality" he could capture, but the pragmatic question of how to get the tools to where the pictures were, and what he wanted to do with the images once he had captured them. Small cameras let him take pictures on mountains. 35mm slide film let him publish pictures in the magaziines that were his major market.

So the question for you to ponder about film and digital is what you want to do with the pictures. If you hate computers and have the time and the love needed to put into the darkroom, or you just want a shoebox of nice 4x6 prints, digital is not for you. Ignore the hype.

On the other hand, if you are handy with the machines, and all your buddies have e-mail, and you want to be able to share baby pictures quickly and easily, what are you waiting for.

Posted by psu at 08:48 PM | Comments (0)

October 05, 2004


by peterb

Reminder: the 10th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition has begun. Anyone and everyone is welcome to play and judge the games.

We used to call them "text adventures" instead of "interactive fiction," but you know these crazy kids with their loud rock and roll music and their hamburger sandwiches and their french fried potatoes.

Posted by peterb at 06:43 PM | Comments (0)

October 04, 2004


by peterb

On Sunday, the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh -- one of the greatest libraries I know of, outside of the New York Public Library -- opened for the first time after completing their extensive renovations. It was a magnificent celebration. There were tours, there were children listening to stories and singing songs, there was free pizza. There were books, and music, videos, and people everywhere. The place was completely packed. In a strange way, that was the best part of the opening. Not just that the library exists, but that lots of people care. In a world where we're constantly bombarded with messages about how Americans are uneducated and ignorant, it's wonderful to look around and see that this convenient stereotype is not, in fact, universal.

The physical plant has been opened up and retouched. There's now an interior courtyard open to the sky now. There's a coffee shop (finally!) where we can use the wireless access the Carnegie has been providing for the past few years (they've always been ahead of the internet curve) to good effect. The stacks and upstairs research areas remain mostly the same -- staid, quiet, reserved, suitable for concentration and study. The downstairs area has been made more vital, more chaotic, more noisy. Terminals (for catalog services, or just for websurfing) dot the landscape -- basically, wherever you might want one, it's there.

The thing a lot of people don't seem to realize about the Carnegie is that it's not just books. They're committed to archiving all sorts of media. There are tens of thousands of music disks in the music section (and, of course, extensive collections of sheet music and related items). There's a superb movie and DVD collection (I'll probably never buy Claude Lanzmann's Shoah, and Blockbuster will surely never carry it, but the Carnegie makes it possible for me to see it.) They have Xbox games, for crying out loud. And graphic novels. And visual art.

I love the Carnegie Library. I imagine myself sitting around saying "If only there were some magical place where I could go in and they would have Aimee Mann's latest music and Adam Barr's Proudly Serving my Corporate Masters and I could sit and drink coffee and read and then take them home with me for free, and maybe it would be cool if I could log on to some web site while I was at work and say 'Hey, send me an email when this item comes in, so I can swing by and pick it up.'"

And then -- poof! -- it turns out that place really exists.

Thank you, Andrew Carnegie, and thanks to all of you who work at the Carnegie Library for making my dream come true.

Additional Resources

Posted by peterb at 05:34 PM | Comments (3)

October 03, 2004

I Giochi Inesistenti

by peterb

A typical Star Trek game

Last night I dragged one of my Apple IIs up from the basement and set it up, and searched through every disk I own, searching for a game that only I remember. It was a version of the old text-based Star Trek games that randomly printed out page-long quotes from Marcus Aurelius' Meditations.

I didn't find it.

Unfortunately, I only have about half of the disks I had from that era -- I don't know what happened to my "main" box of disks. Probably, I brought it to college with me and lost it during some move. I love playing "Ask the Game Geek" for other people, so it's somewhat driving me crazy that I can't find this one. I found lots of other interesting things that I had forgotten about -- frankly, I'm surprised that so many of those 5 1/4" floppies still worked.

You'd think that we'd have everything about the Apple II written down on the web somewhere, but we don't. The Asimov software archive (among others) is very good, and very comprehensive, but also disorganized and incomplete. And short of downloading every disk image you find and trying it out, you just can't data mine for information about the games. In frustration, I've offered to pay Google Answers $10 if they can find me the game itself or adequate identifying information. The same offer is open to any of my readers: if you can ID this game, I'll Paypal you 10 bucks. Here's the information I gave to Google:

"There's a standard type of noncommercial, amateur-produced "Star Trek" game that has existed for nearly every computer, from mainframes on down. Typically it is played in a grid of sectors, where each grid itself is composed of a subgrid. The Enterprise might be represented by an "E", klingons by "K", etc. You play by entering commands to the Enterprise -- for example, "T" and then a number 1-8 to indicate a direction to fire photon torpedos, "M" to move with warp drive, "I" with impulse, etc. The implementation details of these games all vary, but they're instantly recognizable when you see them.

In the early 1980's, I played a particular version of this game on the Apple II computer. The odd thing about it was that at random times, for no apparent reason, it would spew out long quotations from Marcus Aurelius "Meditations". I mean, long quotes -- we're talking a full screen of confusing philosophical text -- "And it is this which makes us ask what the difference is between the representation of a thing and the thing itself, which is to say a thing in itself, yadda yadda yadda" (I just made that quote up completely to give you an idea -- it's not a literal quote from the game/meditations).

My question can be answered in one of two ways:
(1) Identify this game, naming the precise game name or executable name, and author, and if possible publisher or distribution channel). The identification must be sufficient to distinguish it from the hundreds of other versions of this game -- "The game is called 'Star Trek'" is not an adequate answer.
(2) Alternatively, point me to a disk image containing the game.

Again, I want to emphasize that I already know there are many versions of this game that don't emit obscure Marcus Aurelius quotes. I have most of them. I'm only interested in the one described here."

It probably doesn't help matters that most of these games have completely generic names -- "Apple Trek" "Star Trek." The most distinctive name of the bunch is "Stellar Trek" by Rainbow Computing and Tom Burlew. I played it for a while, but was not Marcus Aurelianized.

Someone else has apparently approached this problem from the other end, and is trying to collect a massive database of all Star Trek games ever made. Unfortunately, I can tell just by glancing at their list of Apple II games that it's incomplete. It's amazing, though, seeing how many versions of what I think of as the "mainframe Star Trek" game. There's even an Atari 2600 version! Now that's one I need in my collection.

The history of these games is pretty well documented -- you can look at their source code in the original Fortran, and then look at derivative versions, see them be translated to other languages, and watch them change, grow, and gain new features. It's a fascinating activity in and of itself. But looking for the specific version I'm describing feels like looking for a single piece of eight in a treasure chest (or, let's be frank about this, looking for a piece of obscure junk that you for some reason have a strange emotional attachment to in a box full of other pieces of obscure junk.)

Which leaves us with the last remaining question: why? Why do I care about this at all? Surely, each time I think about something like this I am losing another skirmish in the ongoing war against nostalgia. My only explanation is that the Aurelius-quoting aspect of the game was so strange, so completely a non-sequitur, that it has at times left me wondering if it really happened. More than anything, I want to know the story behind this game. Who created it? Why Aurelius? Why those quotes? Where is the author today? I want to know.

If there are any games that you think only you remember, ask me in the comments, below. It would be nice to be able to solve someone else's mystery, since I've reached the frustration limit on solving my own.

Additional Resources

Here are some links to some of the resources mentioned in this article.

Posted by peterb at 10:29 AM | Comments (4)

November October September August July June May April March February January

December November October September August July June May April March February January

December November October September August July June May April March February January

Powered by
Movable Type 2.661