On Meeting Idols

May 13th, 2013

I met Ursula Le Guin the other day. It was a short meeting, at which I asked her to sign my copy of The Left Hand of Darkness. It’s the copy of the book that belonged to my father, which I nicked when I went off to college, carrying away the few classic science/speculative fiction novels he had in his personal library. I try to keep these author encounters short these days. I want to meet them, and Le Guin is possibly my favorite living author. I hope you’ll forgive me, but favorite author is a difficult choice to make.

Le Guin was appearing in support of an adaptation of The Left Hand of Darkness. I will be seeing that adaptation in a few days. She was interviewed by an OPB radio host who did a fair job of asking questions. Le Guin is, of course, an old hand at this. It is understandable if a few of the questions seemed rote or trite to her. She handled them with grace and just the amount of elderstateswomanly harumph that she has earned (as much as she wants).

After the appearance, I went over and asked her to sign my book. A young woman of 8-12 in costume had just done so, and I felt a little silly. Le Guin asked me if I wanted my name in the book. I always feel a little odd about that, so I said no. She immediately said she understood, but I suspected she figured my copy (an old Ace softcover) would soon be on Ebay. I considered explicitly telling her I would never do that, but it seemed like I would sound like I was protesting too much.

Triumphant, signed book in the back of my cycling jacket, I returned home, confident I had managed for once to encounter a beloved author without making an ass of myself. (I often joke that embarrassing myself in front of authors is my superpower.) As I rode, I became more convinced that she figured me for reselling the book, which blunted my feelings of triumph. When I got home I discovered that the ancient copy, now with author signature, had broken in half in my pocket. The Ace spine, a cheap production not meant for many rereads, had broken in the middle of one of my favorite scenes, with Genly and Estraven crossing the ice. I was left with two halves of a book, thinking about why we try to get author signatures in the first place. The stuff the author considered meaningful is already on the page.

Password Security

March 1st, 2013

I do not claim to be one of the great experts in password security. I know a thing or two about stupid passwords, as I had to reset people’s passwords occasionally when I worked for an ISP. Everyone wants a stupid password. That’s old news.

Today I had forgotten a password for a site I use. I used the forgotten password link and they emailed me a new password. All well and good. Like most email based resets, they urge you to pick a new password upon logging in successfully. After all, they just sent an unencrypted email with the password in it. It’s not very secure. So, dutifully, I go to reset the password and find a single blank to enter it, which did not disguise the characters once they’d been entered (admittedly a bit silly). What does the site do then? Why it emails you confirmation of the password change with your new password in a fresh and equally unencrypted email.

Which I think somewhat misses the point.

The Year of Long Books

December 27th, 2012

I don’t think I’ll declare 2012 a banner year in my particular life. Many things that I had intended to do with the year went undone, many of the goals I set for the year went unmet. But there were positive things in it, and a bit of a reversal of one of my long held opinions.

I read a lot of long books this year.

I have, in the past, used this space to extoll the virtues of shorter fiction. Friend will not be surprised to find I nodded along with Ian McEwan’s short essay on the virtues of the novella. There are a lot of long books out there, and it takes a lot of our precious time to read them. Why waste your time on them? Because sometimes, even I have to admit, they are worth it.

What amazes me is that I am backing off on my previous stance in a year when I read such frustrating long books. On the list of very long form fiction I read this year, you can find 1Q84 (which I found to be inferior to almost all of Murakami’s prior work, despite critics declaring it his magnum opus). You can also find the first five books of the Song of Ice and Fire (which has numerous length and time based detractors), the two published parts of the the Kingkiller Chronicle (book 2 is almost as long as the entire damn Lord of the Rings trilogy, and begins to drag), and Reamde (enjoyable if totally disposable Stephenson. I also toyed with the Baroque cycle, the Ramayana, Dream of the Red Chamber, and Gormengahst, without really starting in on them. You can also add a few more, because every year is the year I intend to read Gravity’s Rainbow, Infinite Jest, and Ulysses. I just never get around to those. And my friend Colin always loved Mason & Dixon, so I’ll probably give that a shot some day, despite disagreeing with him about Delillo’s Underworld.

So, why have I changed my mind? Middlemarch. I read it in parts over the whole year and it rekindled the idea that by attempting more in the long form, more could be achieved. I’d stumbled through Bleak House in 2011 and hadn’t hated it, but as with most Dickens had been unable to look past what I see as the flaws (for all his reputation for brilliant characters, most of them strike me as single note entities existing as a parody of the human condition). George Eliot’s characters felt real to me. By the end, though the setting is as limited as many other English country novels, I had remembered that by risking the attempt of the enormous, greater effect can be achieved. It was a refreshing feeling. It also got me to add Daniel Deronda to the list of larger novels I plan to attempt.

I also read a fair number of shorter books with had either no effect or struggled to survive the very conceit under which they were conceived. I’m looking at you Sugar Frosted Nut-Sack. It was the first year as a reader that I’ve abandoned books with any regularity. I almost always go back to books, no matter how long it takes. I maintain a list. I maintain too many lists. But it is unlikely that I will ever pick up The Thin Place or The Tragedy of Arthur again. Despite recommendations from people I trust, the voices of both these books left me very cold. That’s not to say that their authors failed, but I appear to have finally reached a point where I can say, “it’s not you, it’s both of us,” to authors.

So that leaves me with 10 books of 800+ pages on a list of 202 books that I still intend to read before I die. There will be others of course, but these are the ones that have been set aside to read for reasons other than a particular spine serendipitously falling into my hands. Perhaps I’ll get to all 10 in 2013 (highly unlikely). But at least I won’t be picking them up grudgingly.

Lyrics

November 8th, 2012

Sometimes you can’t quite make out what the vocalist is saying. Maybe you really want to know. You love the song, but after multiple listens you can’t get it right. So you Google it. Congratulations, the internet gets to troll you.

Not always, but more often than it should, the lyrics some yob uploaded are amazingly wrong. The internet should be able to crowd source this sort of thing. You should not be told that “illustrious” is “celestious.” I don’t even know how you could make that mistake. It’s not a real word. Though, out of curiosity I Googled it. I doubt the song has a shout out to a WoW character. But I could be wrong.

And it’s: Skipped through to the end to see if you got help from someone there up on high /
may have heard the beacon’s faint cry.

Not: Skipped through to the end and you’ve got help from someone else /
I thought I met her in the biggest fake crowd.

I mean damn. That’s an amazing mishear, which I can only attribute to the person who posted the lyrics being drunk.

It is late 2012. Please, musicians, save us. Post your lyrics on your damn websites so idiots don’t tell people you’re singing about meeting people in fake crowds.

Outdated Software and Support

September 27th, 2012

I run outdated software on my home computer. I know it to be outdated (OS X 10.5). I have an old computer (going on 5 years) and though I could probably run the next two iterations of the OS, I just haven’t bothered. Yesterday, a problem came up in my browser and it got me off my duff to fix the problem.

While I was working on that though, I started browsing the support forums for the browser. I was reminded why I stopped working in support. People have a great sense of entitlement, it is one of our true American traits. I feel for the Chrome support team right now. Leopard is from 2007, but there are people on the support forums genuinely raging and accusing the Chrome team of being lazy. It brought back memories of the guy who got mad at me for not supporting Windows ME (a 2000 release) in 2007. That support call was over dial-up networking. That’s right. I got yelled at in 2007 for not helping a guy set up dial-up on his Windows ME box. Just like these Chrome users, the ME guy used the language of crowds. What did I mean I wouldn’t support this outdated software? “Millions” of people still used Windows ME and dial-up connections (despite not living in the country, which doesn’t [didn't?] always have broadband available). Customer please. I could see from the account info he lived in a major metro area. He had no reason to expect that his software and connectivity situation would be fully supported. The same applies for OS 10.5 users. And how many of them actually use Chrome?

All of these people post on the support forums rage quitting Chrome. It’s sad really. I’d tell them on Google’s behalf what I told that customer. Software goes out of date, if you have out of date software, don’t expect it to be supported. A good rule of thumb is that 4-5 years after release of the software, the company will feel comfortable ignoring your cries for support. This is natural, most of their customer base will have moved to the new software in that time frame. The entire industry moves along and keeping everything working with setups that are 6+ years old leads to software bloat. It’s just not feasible.

Oh, and Google is a huge company while 10.5 users are a small base at this point. I don’t have solid numbers, but six months after 10.7 was released, it was estimated that 10.5 was 14% of the installed user base. We’re several months past the release of 10.8. What does that tell you. Apple’s laptop/desktop market is somewhere under 30% of the national user base. I don’t have the exact numbers, so I’ll aim low. If you’re less than 14% of 30% of the market, do the math. Even using really generous numbers, that still puts you at 4% of the total user base. (you aren’t) Don’t expect a lot of kowtowing from support. Being angry does not magically inflate the size of your software demographic, and unlike it would be with social demographics, it’s not bigotry if they run right over you.

Smoking the Gear Addicts

September 20th, 2012

My wife and I own but one car. When we moved from the Twin Cities, we sold the second car. I became a full on bicycle commuter. When I need to wear a suit, I take the bus. Sometimes the bus drivers give me guff about wearing a tie. I prefer to bike. The cost of maintaining a bike as a regular cycle commuter beats bussing or owning a car easily.

The psychic cost is another thing. There are a lot of things that wear on a bicycle commuter, and while I expected drivers to be the biggest issue, I have been surprised by my fellow cyclists. We are not, as a group, as realistic with our abilities as we should be.

There is on group in particular that I am not particularly charitable towards: middle aged gear addicts. I’m sure you’ve seen the type. They range from a bit heavy to very tubby, they’re wearing bike shorts, have clipless pedals, a super expensive bike, and they aren’t going very fast.

Look, I’m sympathetic to the idea of buying the gear so that getting your money’s worth is motivation to keep at it. Maybe they want to lose some weight, get in better cardio shape, whatever. That’s great. But maybe just the bike would have cost enough to motivate them? Either way, this subsection of the cycling community seems to take the fact that I’m in jeans and a t-shirt or maybe a button up shirt as proof I’m going to be slow. They don’t bother observing my actual biking, they just plop their buts in front of me at stop lights and then proceed to poke along. Now I have to pass some guy who anointed himself a speedster because he’s wearing tight pants.

I bike out of the downtown core. Traffic is often fairly heavy on the path I take. I’ll take the lane if I have to, but it’s not something I’m excited about. Yet cyclists who only catch up with me when I stop for lights seem to think that getting stopped at the light means you need to get passed. They go popping out right after the light changes. Fellow riders, the intersection is often a bad place to pass. The cars accelerate faster than you do, so you’ll be forced back into the bike lane almost immediately. What does that mean? It means you’ll be cutting off the cyclist you were just ineffectively trying to pass. But despite the fact that this happens on about two of every three rides home, never once has one of these guys, as he huffs to try to put on a bit of extra speed to get around me, considered that he’s working awfully hard just to get around a guy who was pulling away from him a block before.

When will these guys learn that blowing almost 3 grand on a swank carbon frame did not automatically catapult them into Cat 3 racing circles? The racers pass both of us, and good on them. Me? I’m just trying to get home as fast as possible without breaking any traffic laws. I’m tired of getting caught behind these chuckleheads, so I’m going to the gym. My goal is to make sure I smoke them in the first 10 feet and don’t have to worry that my inferior commuter acceleration gets me stuck behind any newly minted gear addicts and their total lack of staying power down the stretch.

In my youth, Highlander was popular. Not world beating everyone knows all about it popular, but popular. Several movies were made. There were, I believe, two television series. From around seventh grade on, people would ask me if my name was like the Highlander’s.

The first thing that was absurd about this was that they always said, “Macleod, like the highlander?” There seemed to be some suspicion that I would surprise the world, and English spelling, by saying “No.” Of course Macleod like the damned highlander. It was, in fact, spelled the same way.

The second thing that annoyed me was that they always seemed to want me to gush about the movie or show. Now, while they’re hardly high art, there are certainly worse things that humans have produced. But that doesn’t mean I’m a particular fan. I don’t own the DVDs or any of that. So it baffled me why people always seemed to expect me to gush about the Highlander franchise. As if I was somehow expected to be grateful that my surname was somehow lifted from obscurity to the heights of stardom. But it’s really the “no relation” category that’s supposed to bother you, so Highlander being fictional, it felt like I was not allowed to be annoyed. While there are plenty of at least marginally famous Macleods out there (many spellings) none of us seems to have risen to the point that I have to declare that I don’t know them. (I checked on Wikipedia by the way, it seems that there are several Macleods writing science fiction, several politicians, and one female Macleod who’s greatest claim to fame is being topless in Snakes on a Plane. Thank god that movie didn’t do well at the box office, Highlander was annoying, I’d hate to have to answer “Macleod, like the lady who got her tit bit in Snakes on a Plane?”)

You can imagine that I’ve enjoyed the franchise’s slip into relative obscurity.

There are many men named Ian. It was once one of the most popular names for boys in Britain.

But I was informed by my sister in law this holiday season that “Uncle Ian” is the villain in Alvin and the Chipmunks. My nieces and nephews apparently love that franchise. So now, sharing baldness with the villain, it appears I’ve got a new piece of cultural detritus to live with. Other Ians, please become more famous. I need you to overshadow some chipmunks.

Obviously for filing under first world problems.

I have not, until a month ago, had a smartphone. I joined the rest of the people I knew in the modern world when I bought an iPhone 4S. This is somewhat amusing, as three years spent in IT left me with Facebook and Google+ feed full of people posting reasons they won’t ever buy another Apple or MS product. Well whatever, I got a damned iPhone, and those friends can deal.

For the first two weeks, Siri actually did a fantastic job recognizing the names of my friends. I was flat out amazed. It did it right out of the box, and never seemed to miss a beat. But over the past two weeks, results have progressively declined in value. My wife’s name is Kelli. She spells it with an i, and I tease her for it. But Siri handled it just fine until a week an a half ago. Then I would ask it to call Kelli, and it would say I didn’t have any contacts named Kelly. It stuck to this, and eventually I got it to work around based on using both first and last name. Now Siri insists that it can’t call anyone named Kelly McCloud. It handled my last name just fine last week. It brings up, a list of my family members, all spelled Macleod, as an example of how it doesn’t have any McClouds, but it could call one of these other wastrels if you want. But fuck all if you want to call someone on that list, it won’t do it. You have to add the layer of telling it, no, you idiot, you pronounce it right when you read it out to me but you insist on some other spelling.

It’s really this break between the insistence on spelling while still being able to correctly pronounce the names that makes it infuriating. Two of my best friends ever are named Eric and Erik. I will continue to omit their last names, but those are different. When I ask that it call Erik 2 it says it doesn’t have an Erik, but it could call Eric 1 or Erik 2. Note that I use his full name to give it context. It pronounces both first and last back to me, saying it doesn’t have an Eric 2 but it could call x where Erik 2. So, it really gets it all right, but insists that no one would ever name their child Erik or Kelli.

I understand that when two spellings are pronounced the same way, it has to make a choice for display, but it sees that there is an alternate spelling in my contacts list, indexes that alternate spelling, suggests that alternate spelling, but insists that the only valid spelling of the pronounced names Erik and Kelli is Eric and Kelly.

The overall effect is darkly comical. Siri is the spelling police. No you crazy Americans with your alternate name spellings, Siri draws a line in the sand, a line that says Erik is wrong. Only hateful idiots would use a spelling other than the Siri approved one. Have you considered misspelling the names of your friends in Siri to get them to index correctly? Siri would like you to consider doing that.

I’ve read over this, and I think I’m having a hard time expressing how surreal it feels. I just said: “Call Kelli Macleod” and Siri replies with audio and text: “I don’t have a Kelly McCloud, but perhaps you meant one of these “Jamie Macleod or Kelli Macleod” and reads those names to me with correct pronunciation. Madness. I would have just said, “Oh well, it’s voice technology and it’s not quite there yet” if it had not worked perfectly well two weeks ago.

Dreamhaven is Closing

October 27th, 2011

One of my favorite book stores will be closing in January. When I lived in Minneapolis I was just two blocks north of their old location. I would walk down to Dreamhaven and marvel at all the old science fiction paperbacks. I got all my Delany and Lovecraft there. Beautiful old paperbacks with that scent that comes off the cheap paper when you unseal the plastic protector. I sometimes found myself contemplating how much better my childhood would have been had I grown up near Dreamhaven. I would have read a lot less of that TSR crap that got shoved out by the bucket, and a lot more of the grand masters of imagination.

I moved to Portland, and Dreamhaven moved south to a different storefront at the same time. The sale was fantastic, and I stocked up on Lieber, Dick, Heinlein, Sturgeon and so many others. The nice paperbacks cost a bit more, but if you weren’t worried about the pages falling out from time to time, you could practically get books by the pound.

Neil Gaiman once said that you had to love the place because it stocked a category called “vintage smut.” I respect that kind of cheeky, but the staff (and the books, as discussed above) were what brought me back. They were always some of the nicest people I’d see all day. That mattered when they were in the dense pack of used bookstores that you find in Uptown Minneapolis.

Apparently moving to the new smaller storefront went well for a while, but Greg, who runs this blessed place, says that foot traffic has gone down over the last year. I’d be tempted to blame the location change, but that would be getting my timing wrong. I’ve been gone over three years, and he says the walk-ins slowed just last year. Still, when I go back to Minneapolis I try to always make it down there, and it is harder in the new location, but that may be because I’ve always been sort of bound to Uptown.

I won’t be back in the Cities before January, so, sadly, I’ve been to Dreamhaven for my last time, and I didn’t even know it. The website will still sell, and Greg is apparently keeping the location, but just to use as a storehouse. It’s good to know it’s not the complete end of Dreamhaven, but you can’t get that Ace Double smell off a website. I’ll miss you Dreamhaven.

CDs

September 26th, 2011

Just over five years ago, I moved in with my then girlfriend, now wife. At the time, my apartment was disorganized, and a cadre of friends descended on it while I was at work, threw stuff in bags and left those bags at the new place. I was partway through ripping my CDs to my hard drive. When I was grumpy about my CDs no longer being organized by whether I had ripped them or not, I was reminded that I hadn’t been sufficiently prepped for the move, hence the trash bags. Today, five years later (five years two months actually), I have finished ripping those CDs.

Ramos Gin Fizz

September 12th, 2011

With a little bit more time on my hands, I’ve decided to get back into mixing shape. When I mixed a drink for friends recently, I’ve felt slow. Stuff I used to love to make just doesn’t come out right. For some things this was not surprising. For whatever reason, I find that my timing on a martini gets off if I haven’t done one recently. I got through the same motions, but if they aren’t practiced, the drink just doesn’t taste quite right.

So of course in jumping back in I picked a drink that always used to haunt me: the Ramos Gin Fizz.

It’s a pain in the ass, and I’ve never ordered it in a bar because it takes so much of the bartender’s time. The mojito takes a while, and I’ll only order if it things are slow. I don’t want the bartender having to rush and potentially mess up the drink, and I sure as hell don’t want him frustrated with me for rushing him. The Ramos Gin Fizz takes, I don’t know… four times as long?

Many have mixed it before me, and they probably did better. It’s always been a drink that haunts me. I either get separation or tiny little balls of curdled milk-fat in it, depending on whether I shake it little or too much. I think I got it right once, and fortunately my wife was there to taste it too.

Ramos Gin Fizz

• 2 oz. Gin
• 1 oz. cream
• 1/2 oz. lime juice
• 1/2 oz. lemon juice
• 2 teaspoons sugar
• 1 egg white
• Tiny dash of orange flower water

Toss all that together and shake without ice until your arms start to feel tired. Then add ice and shake again until your arms are tired. Pour into glass and add soda to top. You’ll know it worked if you taste it and don’t think how much cream you put in, but instead get a light airy taste of citrus and flower. In my experience if you let it sit for a while it can still separate, so drink up. I won’t go into the disasters that can happen here, but let’s just say you won’t like it if it goes wrong.

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Sure, they’re going for subtext, but most of them aren’t that good at it.

It would be nice if Huntsman won. He’d have a hard time getting my vote, but I’d rather have someone who I trust to just run the government in a way I dislike. The rest seem like they would burn the nation to the ground if they could only get to be president of the smoldering wreckage.

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