Step on a Crack

On a cruise ship books can make the rounds, passing from one reader to another fairly quickly. Two others in my group read Step On a Crack by James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge before I did. They both agreed that the book was not very good (to paraphrase their summaries as gently as possible), so it’s fair to say that my expectations were low when I picked up the book.

My expectations were met. Had I something else to read, I would have put this thing down around chapter four and never looked back. (The chapters are very short). The first sentence is a confused and awkward bit of imagery (the back of a jacket turns away…) and that sets the tone for the whole book. We start with a murder, the untimely demise of one of the finest people the world has ever known. Her highly-trained bodyguards, who have been protecting her for several years now, are apparently unable to respond to what should be a routine medical emergency. It seems no one told them that their charge was deathly allergic to peanuts so they weren’t able to do anything about it. Oops! (The bad guy knew about her allergy, however, well enough to execute a months-long plot to infiltrate a fancy restaurant in order to put peanut oil on her dinner. Wow.) On top of that, somehow on this particular night the woman forgot to pack her own medicine. And so begins the work of the greatest criminal mastermind of the century.

But wait! Before we go any further with tales of murder and mayhem, it’s time to meet a whole bunch of Perfect People. These people do nothing to influence the plot of the story; they’re too busy being perfect. Perfect children. A perfect stranger to take perfect care of the perfect children in the time of crisis. Perfect people everywhere, doing the perfect things with perfect consistency. Bleeargh. Did I mention they have nothing to do with the plot? They are there, in fact, to perfectly NOT encumber the detective we will be following as the threadbare story develops.

Begin the crime of the century. A crime so big and so audacious it must be the work of a criminal genius. How do we know? Because the authors tell us so. With exclamation points! And occasional nonsensical italics! The NYPD is starting to look like a bunch of incompetent fools, and the press is going to have a field day. If hostages are killed, the press will rake our hero over the coals.

Only, hostages die, and for a long time it looks like the bad guys are winning, but the authors can’t be bothered to portray the actual coal-raking. In fact, the stakes for the good guys never escalate. There is no heat. (One reporter does criticize our hero in her paper, but then immediately expresses remorse and stops her persecution — taking her own step toward perfection before she can cause too much trouble for the authors.)

Then there’s the time the detective walks in and finds his grandfather dressed as a priest! (That’s their exclamation point, not mine.) Wow! what a shock! Only, it turns out that Grandpa has been a priest for years, everyone knows it, and seeing him dressed that way was no shock to anyone. The authors were just yanking our chain a bit. Whee.

Meanwhile, most of the hostages experience life-changing revelations. The perfect hostages become perfecter(!). The imperfect ones get better! For instance, the ‘fashionista’ resolves to go to rehab and stop being such a bitch all the time. Once she makes that decision, that’s it for her in this story. She makes a promise to herself to undergo a complete personality realignment and we believe her and move on. Well, the authors seem to believe her. I’m skeptical.

I hate to spoil it for you, but the good guys win in the end. In fact, they don’t have to work very hard to defeat the brilliant criminal mastermind. Sure, the bad guys got away at first, but just a little routine investigating and bam, there you have it. To avoid the authors having to get too clever, the criminals conveniently explain all the loose ends for us.

I finished the book. It didn’t take long; the type is big and there’s about fifty pages worth of blank space between chapters. One-third of what is left is a sentimental parade of sap that does nothing for the story. I set the book aside and decided not to review it here. There’s plenty of awful prose out there; you don’t need my help finding it. Then I read the back cover. “THE STUNNING #1 BESTSELLER” it says right across the top. Then it lists several newspapers who listed the book as a top-seller. What!?! This book?

I’m stunned, anyway. I decided to write a little review after all, not so much to criticize the book as the system that allowed it to attain such stature.

Usually, even with books or authors I don’t like, I can understand at least to a certain degree how they became successful. Dan Brown’s not very good but he has excellent pacing and managed to anger the right people. This book leaves me baffled.

Some guy at Booklist says, “Totally gripping and downright impossible to put down.” Gripping? No. No it isn’t. The characters are boring, there is no escalation of the stakes (unforgivable in a thriller), no character growth, not a breath of humanity anywhere to be found in these pages. The criminal plot depends on the incompetence of the good guys. Potentially gut-wrenching scenes are glossed over so we can get back to the Perfect People for another dose of sentimentality. Not gripping. USA Today chimes in as well, along with Publisher’s Weekly and a handful of book-review Web sites. Did they read a different version? One without so much suck in it? Are these people even literate?

Don’t waste your time with this book. In fact, just to be on the safe side, stay away from Patterson entirely until he proves this was just a fluke. Probably best to stay away from books published by Little, Brown, and Company (responsible for the hardcover version of this fluff) or by Vision. Somewhere there is an editor who approved this book, and I want to make sure I never encounter anything else that crossed her desk. As long as we’re learning from the mistakes of others, it’s time to take Booklist a lot less seriously as well.

The only explanation for the sales that I can come up with is the name: James Patterson. Apparently he’s pretty famous. Bookstores will pre-order a lot of copies, which drives the rankings up, which drives sales by people who won’t even read the first sentence of the story before taking it home. If it weren’t for the big name, not many people would have read the second sentence of this thing. The few that were carried through the first part by the suggestion of sex would have bailed out soon thereafter.

Is Mr. Patterson concerned about protecting his name? It doesn’t look like it. This book can’t be good for his reputation, no matter what the sales were. (I am assuming that at some point he wrote good books to establish his reputation.) He can read, I’d be willing to bet; he must know this novel is junk. Eventually, people are going to hesitate to pick up his next title, after getting insulted by a previous purchase.

Ooo! Or maybe — just maybe, mind you — Michael Ledwidge knows something. Something James Patterson would rather not become public. You see where I’m going with this? Ledwidge wrote the book but somehow coerced Patterson into putting his name on the thing as well. Farfetched? It’s a lot more plausible than the story in Step on a Crack.

And can someone tell me what that title had to do with anything?

Note: if for some reason you ignore my dire warnings and use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.

Do Not Flush Whilst Seated

Warning sign in our cabin telling us that the kettle worked

Warning sign in our cabin telling us that the kettle worked

This boat is, apparently, a very dangerous place. Everywhere one turns there are warnings of the mortal peril we face every day. Here is a sample of the dangers we are warned about. Each warning is written in six languages, so it requires dedication to find where on the sign is the warning for you.

  • On a free-standing placard on the little table in my cabin: Warning: the water in the kettle may be very hot. (I would perhaps have written the sign, “Good news! The water in the kettle may be very hot!” or perhaps “Warning: kettle works properly.”)
  • Above every toilet on the boat: Do not flush whilst seated. (The lids and flush buttons are set up to make it practically impossible to flush whilst seated as well.)
  • At the top and bottom of every stairway: Mind the step. (That small blue sign with writing in six languages is much easier to spot than the entire damn staircase after all. But what if someone falls on the next step? Shouldn’t there be a warning on each step on the staircase?)
  • On the side of the boat while docked at Kagoshima (but not in other ports): KEEP CLEAR OF PROPELLERS (English only)
  • In the shower: Caution: Test the temperature of the water before using the shower.
  • Part of a safety warning in every issue of the daily the bulletin delivered to our cabin: “… multiple plugs are not permitted in the cabins…” (Our cabin came equipped with a multi-plug power strip plugged into the only outlet.)

Of the above, the warning that is the least silly is actually the one about flushing (except it’s also posted above urinals). The toilets use some sort of vacuum system to flush, and if one were to form a seal between nethers and seat, who knows what might happen? Thus the heads onboard have been built with a design that would require a gifted contortionist to flush whilst seated.

Around the ship there are plenty of other warnings and safety instructions as well, a different sort of warning, given pictorially rather than in six different languages — things like “go this way if the ship is sinking.” Some of those admonitions actually seem reasonable, or even (dare I say?) helpful.

Oddly, there are no signs warning guests to not fall over the rail and into the ocean. I guess it’s OK to do that.

Happy 50th, Mom and Dad

I am here on this cruise because my parents thought this would be a great way to celebrate their fifty years of wedded bliss. Last night we had the big celebration at dinner, with all of us as dressed up as we could reasonably get. We got a group portrait taken and we were served a special cake at dinner (after the regular dessert). Good times.

Fifty years they’ve been married. That takes some doing. Earlier in the day I had to smile as we walked down a market street in Kobe; my parents were holding hands.

Congratulations, guys. Here’s to many more years of hand-holding in exotic locations.

Follow the Carp

It took a little longer to shake off the cobwebs this morning, a combination of getting used to the time zone and (more significantly) staying up too late last night. I didn’t have all morning to lie about, however, I needed to be fed and ready at 8:15, when the family was gathering to get our instructions for the trip to Kyoto. Thirty minutes later I had a number 16 affixed to my chest and we were on our way.

Our guide, with carp, near a big tree

Our guide, with carp, near a big tree

The trip started with a coach ride from the port of Kobe to Kyoto. The guide of coach 16 was a friendly fellow with lots of interesting stories about the little things that give a city its character. I didn’t hear all the stories; I was seated in the back, next to Obnoxious Italian Guy. The coach was full, and Obnoxious Italian Guy and his girlfriend simply needed more space than the seat provided. Not because they were big, but because he in particular was animated. He sat semi-sideways in the seat, using my shoulder as a back rest, and laughed and joked and waved his arms in a culturally-correct manner, and generally annoyed me. If I had said something he probably would have been quite all right with that; my quiet annoyance was probably just as culturally abrasive to him as his space-invading histrionics were to me.

In any case, we got to Kyoto. Our first stop was a Buddhist temple, built by a powerful Shogun and cousin of the Emperor. Before we got off the bus our guide showed the baton he would carry. At the end were two mini carp kites. “Follow the carp,” he said. He reminded us again when we were mustering after getting off the bus, where another tour guide was giving the same advice to her group, holding up an almost identical carp-festooned baton.

The Golden Pavillion, built by some shogun guy in Kyoto Japan

The Golden Pavillion, built by some shogun guy in Kyoto Japan

The place was was, as you might expect, beautiful. The most striking building was the golden Pavillion, a three-story structure. The upper two stories were covered in gilt which reflected in a still pond, while the ground floor was dark wood. “It is best when it is raining,” our guide said. He moved his hands to indicate a downpour. “When it is raining very hard. Then the upper part seems to be floating in the air. Very beautiful.” It was hot and humid; I hoped for rain, but no such luck.

We toured the grounds, pausing to hear stories of carp transforming into dragons and so forth. Almost right away my camera battery gave out. That was OK, I was surrounded by photographers. I concentrated on looking around.

All too soon we were done with the place, and I felt for the first time the downside of a group tour. We were in a place of quiet contemplation, a place designed explicitly to be a good place to sit and think (or not think). But, I was with forty other people and we had places to go. A tour can hardly schedule time for forty antsy tourists to stop for a moment, breathe, and feel the harmony of the surroundings permeate their own souls. We got back on the bus.

A small shrine in a Zen garden, Kyoto

A small shrine in a Zen garden, Kyoto

We drove past the Emperor’s Palace grounds, over the river where once thrived kabuki and brothels, to our next stop, a Shinto temple. We were instructed in the proper cleaning ritual, a symbolic preparation to enter the place and in itself a sort of prayer. I tried to get myself in the proper frame of mind as I washed left hand, right hand, mouth (cover your mouth when you spit the cleansing water back out – do not show God your teeth), then finally the handle of the water scoop, to make it ready for the next person.

Thus cleansed and in the proper frame of mind we entered the temple grounds. The buildings were massive and brightly painted. The place was a half-sized replica of the Emperor’s palace, which was burned down a century or four ago. Our group crunched over the white gravel of the grounds and approached the main shrine, which houses the spirits of not one but two great Emperors. We bowed respectfully, clapped, and made our wishes. (I did not wish for anything as base as a cooling rainstorm.) One can also purchase fortunes at the temple, not all of which are good. There are trees white with the fortune slips, as people who are not happy with their fortune will tie it to a branch and get a new one.

Get your coin in the bowl and go to heaven!

Get your coin in the bowl and go to heaven!

Back on the bus half an hour later and on to the next stop, a famous market street bursting with fresh seafood, intriguing snacks, enticing aromas, and the vibrant energy that any good market has. (Remind me to look up the name of this street.) Then it was back on the bus once again for a trip to a fancy hotel for a buffet lunch with dozens of dishes, from the familiar to the mysterious. I ate too much, trying to balance exotic and mundane. The afternoon included a visit to another, particularly cool temple perched on the hills overlooking the city, and time to shop in the streets that lead up to the temple.

I was feeling a powerful thirst, so I paused and drank a beverage called Pocasi Sweat (or something like that – “sweat” was in the name). It is what Gatorade used to be before it got sweet — a not-very-tasty-but-effective thirst quencher that replaces electrolytes. It was indeed refreshing.

Finally, we went to the train station and boarded the Shikansen (rhymes with ‘bullet train’) back from Kyoto to Kobe. According to fuego’s GPS-phone, we reached speeds of almost 280 km/h, the maximum the train is allowed to go in urban parts of the country. The trains don’t stop often and when they do it is not for long; we were warned by our guide that while the train would stop for almost two minutes in Kyoto, in Kobe we would have only a minute to get off. I think our huge group delayed departure a few seconds. Hopefully they were able to make up the time on the next leg.

Back in Kobe we boarded a different bus and were shuttled back to the boat, tired, pleased, and just a bit frazzled, considering all the places of peace and tranquility we had stampeded through. Better to stampede, though, than to not see it at all.

The Big Day

The eclipse is past, it was a success, and the folks on board are ready to party. Fortunately it’s still practically deserted here in the aft lounge on deck 9, tucked away behind the casino. The pianist has been joined by a trumpet player who is quite obviously not on the payroll but what he lacks in prowess he makes up for with a sweet tone and a good attitude. Everyone seems jolly this evening. We saw a total solar eclipse together today.

I woke up early, but not as early as I had planned. Outside our porthole the sun shone brightly over calm seas. By gum, it looked like it would be a good eclipse-watching day.

Many paused for a moment of reflection, and veterans told their stories.

Astronomy buffs prepare for the upcoming eclipse as the boat passes Iwo Jima

My plan called for breakfast first, a big meal in case the excitement later took precedence over meals. When I got up on deck, I changed my plans. Pictures first. On the port side was Iwo Jima, about as close as tourists can get to it these days. It is hallowed ground, dedicated to the memory of the blood shed over a few square miles of rock in the middle of the ocean. I thought about the marines who had looked over the waves at the same island so long ago, knowing that soon they would step ashore there. I took a couple of pictures in cooperation with Stereoptic Pete, who I have not mentioned yet in these chronicles, but I’ll get to that another day.

The island behind us, we set course for the center of the path the eclipse would take, balancing the longest possible totality with the occasional banks of clouds. “We’re good for Plan A,” the organizer said over the ship’s PA system. I went for breakfast and to make sure that I was as ready as possible for the main event. memory chip cleared, battery (and backup) fully charged, no funky settings on the camera. I went over in my head what I would do for the six and a half minutes of totality. 1) Look at eclipse 2) take pictures of eclipse. I reminded myself to get the priorities right. There would be plenty of pictures to share among the family, but there won’t be another eclipse as long as this one for more than a century.

Also, before I took my position on the sunny deck, I needed better sun protection. My hopes of finding a decent sun hat were thwarted, but the gift shop on board had baseball caps, and one of those would be better than nothing. I sprang for the hat, slathered on the sunscreen, and headed topside.

Sun goggles on! Sunscreen on! Hat on (for now)!

Sun goggles on! Sunscreen on! Hat on (for now)!

I took up a position on the patio at the stern of deck 10. It was less crowded (most of the patio is covered by an awning) and it was close to the beer. It also had the benefit of having a good view to the rear, and I hoped to see the cone of the shadow overtake us as second contact approached.

It wasn’t long before first contact – the moment when the disk of the moon first impinges on the sun. I pulled out my sun-looking-at shades and watched. Near me was a German couple and their cute-as-a-button daughter. The eclipse was going a bit slowly for a girl her age, so I took the daily newsletter, unfolded it, and punched a pattern of holes into it with my pen, creating the largest array of cameras on the boat. We had a good time looking at the dozens of crescent shapes projected onto the table top, projecting them on each other, and generally goofing around.

The day grew dimmer, and cooler. The ship adjusted course to run right down the center of the track, prolonging the totality by a fraction of a second. (“Because we can,” the director explained.) Unfortunately, due to poor math on my part, I had positioned myself directly under the ship’s exhaust on our new heading. As the deck became crowded with the ship’s crew, I crossed over to the other side of the boat, pausing to get a beer on the way. I found a spot on the rail, introduced myself to my new neighbors, and made another check of the camera. I was shooting with a big ol’ zoom lens and it seemed like about halfway zoomed would give the best results. I checked ISO, focus, shutter speed, and aperture. I was ready. The plan was to not spend too much time thinking, but just step through a whole bunch of settings, assuming at least one would give good results.

Second contact, the photo shaken as I grabbed in futility for my runaway hat.

Second contact, the photo shaken as I grabbed in futility for my runaway hat.

The cone of darkness appeared behind us as the world dimmed. The temperature, cooling steadily for the last hour, dropped abruptly further. The light took on an odd twilight aspect. I looked up, and saw the last flare of the sun vanish behind the rugged lunar terrain. Second contact, they call that moment in the biz. I raised my camera, almost vertical, and lined up my first shot. Shoonk went the slider for the zoom, pulling me back from the image. Fwip went my brand-new hat as it tumbled off my head, over the rail, and into the sea far below. I took the picture.

You’ve seen eclipse pictures before, better ones than these. Probably you’re read descriptions of the time spent in the shadow of the moon. Twilight in the middle of the day. Sunset-pink clouds on the entire horizon, 360 degrees. All I can add is “spooky”. Venus appeared, then elusive Mercury and some of the brighter stars. The whispy streamers of the corona cast an eery glow over the sea, and the sky was a color I’d never seen before.

I raised my beer to sun and moon and corona and speedy little Mercury and I silently toasted the spectacle.

The inner corona of the sun, with streamers and stuff

The inner corona of the sun, with streamers and stuff

I took some more pictures, pausing now and then to take it all in, not thinking about anything but the thing itself. Well over six minutes passed that way, then came the first peek of the sun through a valley on the lunar surface, a flash known as the diamond ring that means that we have reached third contact and the magic is coming to an end. I quickly made an adjustment to the camera and fired up at the emerging brightness. And waited as my camera beeped off ten agonizing seconds before taking the picture. It turns out I had adjusted two things. Maybe I was lucky, however; the picture came out right nice.

I hadn’t taken any shots of the crescent sun before totality, but afterwards I found a piece of solar filter blowing across the deck and held it over the lens with one hand while shooting with the other.

The "diamond ring" as the sun peeks through a valley on the moon, while the corona is still visible.

The "diamond ring" as the sun peeks through a valley on the moon, while the corona is still visible.

Eventually it was time to abandon my post and find the rest of my group, in the more crowded areas forward of my position. “Did you get good pictures?” people asked as I moved around. “I don’t know,” I said. I hadn’t gone back to look at them. It didn’t even occur to me until later. I was pretty sure that I was moving the camera too much anyway.

Before fourth contact, while the moon was still slinking back into obscurity, the moon geeks began to break down their fancy telescopes and clever moon-watching devices and the party atmosphere began. The ship hoisted the official ‘successful eclipse’ flag and cheering ensued. Our boat shared horn blasts with other boats that had come to the ideal viewing spot. My cousin sweet-talked the head of bartenders on the boat to slide me a free Eclipse Cocktail.

The central lounge on the boat was packed this afternoon, filled with clusters of people (like us) reliving the experience, checking photos, and partitipating in the traditional cruise activities for the first time in days.

As the eclipse geeks below begin to celebrate, the moon slowly moves along.

As the eclipse geeks below begin to celebrate, the moon slowly moves along.

Tonight after dinner (celebrating fuego’s mother-in-law’s birthday) I followed my nephew out to the foredeck, kept dark for this cruise only, to allow people a place to see the stars. There was the Milky Way and a buttload of stars, along with the fiery trail of the occasional meteor. I stayed out there for quite a while in the dark and quiet, listening to the low conversations around me and thinking about how big it all is, this universe measured in time, and how tiny was the little island we had passed that morning.

Sun and Moon collide
bound by ancient formulae
meteors are free

Sunset off the Stern

Sunset Panorama

Sunset Panorama

Last night I ditched a family dinner to sit on the fantail of the boat and watch the sun set, to ponder life and all the little moving parts that are required to sustain it, and to take a few pictures. This is built from a series of fourteen still photos, and came together pretty well. You can click to see a less-shrunk version. The sunset got a lot redder after a while, but I didn’t go back and take another set for a panorama.

Sunset off the stern of the boat

Sunset off the stern of the boat

Lost at Sea

I’m sitting at the stern of the boat right now, looking back at our wake stretching behind us over calm seas to the horizon. The sun is setting behind us, giving the clouds lined up on the horizon a glow around the edges. It’s nice. As the sun slips below the horizon I will be here to document the event. It’s only fair.

We are far from land now, just a small town with a motor sliding over the briny blue (which is noticeably bluer today). Dinner will be soon but I’m not really hungry and certainly not interested in being in a loud and crowded restaurant. The food’s nice but right now I just want peace and quiet. I’ll grab something later if I feel like it.

There was a group of us a while ago, and while the conversation was interesting, I didn’t feel like saying much. I enjoyed the company, but wasn’t inclined to mix in. We were discussing subjects that others knew a lot more about than I did (things like 3D imaging), and so I did my best to increase the listen/talk ratio of the group, and to keep track of the sun and make sure it set correctly. So far so good. The sun is partially obscured by a high layer of cloud, while below fluffy clouds line up below, raising occasional pillars as sentinels, their towering shapes gilt-edged by the rays of the sun.

A little bit of color is starting to manifest now, hints of salmon in the gap between the most distant clouds and the horizon. The sun is easing behind a cloud, allowing the fainter tones to shine forth. The colors are interrupted in one spot by what appears to be a squall. At other points the horizon has bumps – presumably the tops of yet-more-distant clouds.

I’m pausing to take pictures now and then, using my wide-angle lens because it’s already on the camera and I can be reasonably confident that somewhere in the shot will be a picture. On the tiny little video screen, the pinks don’t seem to be coming out the way my eyes register them. I’ve had that problem before; not sure what to tweak to fix that. I’ll deal with it later. Like everything else.

I like being at sea, but I don’t think it makes me very good company. There are days for thinking and they seem more common out on the water. I crave solitude; I want the chance to explore the melancholy I’m feeling, the wistful longing that can lead to good fiction. Unfortunately it’s really hard to be alone here for any stretch of time; in this small town it’s impossible to go anywhere without running into an acquaintance or someone who shares a common interest and would like to discuss it. Then there’s family. I thought that dinner time might be a chance for me to sneak off if I skipped the meal, but it was not to be.

The sun is now long set, and the boat chugs on for our historic leap and hop through the moon shadow. I’m tired, still not alone, and I want to get some work done before bed. Despite the fact I’m lousy company right now, I’m still not alone.

A Public Health Reminder

When you were a kid I’m sure your mother told you to be careful on cloudy days because while you may not be motivated to do anything to protect yourself, you can still get sunburned.

I just wanted to let you all know that this fact is absolutely true, and applies in foreign countries like, say, South Korea as well. If you were to go out without a hat and without adequate sunscreen you could really fry your face, turning your forehead bright red. If you happen to have your hair pulled back because of the wind, the sunburn can get way up on your scalp. Nobody wants that.

There’s no particular reason I’m telling you this now; it’s just something that occurred to me yesterday afternoon.

On the Boat!

I’ve never been on a big ol’ cruise ship like this one, and so far I must say that I’m having a fine time. Getting onto the ship was a bit of a hassle, however. We started with a 3-hour bus ride from our (very nice) hotel near the Beijing airport to Tianjin harbor. It was a pleasant ride, if a bit crowded, and the guy next to me was an experienced eclipsist — this will be his twenty-somethingth eclipse. He gave me a sticker from the 1991 wing-ding. I’m debating whether I should glue it to Ol’ Pokey, my faithful if battered laptop.

Organization deteriorated at the ship terminal. We clustered outside under the eaves to stay out of the gentle rain while a trickle of passengers passed their bags through the x-ray machine. Finally it was my turn and I plunked my bags down on the conveyor and entered the large, noisy, already-crowded building. No one was looking at the screen of the x-ray machine; all hands were busily handling — or increasing — the mild chaos inside. Eventually I made it up to the second floor where cruise check-in was. It was a long, slow line and fortunately I had some pleasant people around me to converse with. We talked about eclipses, mostly.

It took a long time to check in, and then the waiting really started. To get on the boat we had to first pass through Chinese immigration, which was back downstairs. Only thing was, they weren’t open yet. More busloads of passengers streamed in, and the downstairs area of the terminal was getting crowded. Our group stayed upstairs relaxing and watching the cauldron of humanity below. Upstairs and downstairs were connected by long escalators and at one point there was a logjam at the bottom of the downward escalator as people who got there simply had nowhere to go, as the heedless mechanical stairs carried more and more people down on top of them. Fortunately no one was hurt.

Still, people clustered downstairs, because it was closer to the final destination. As if that mattered. Finally employees of the cruise line and white-gloved policemen stood at the escalators discouraging people from adding to the confusion below. More busses arrived, carrying more passengers.

It turns out the boat had been late arriving in the harbor, and wasn’t ready to take passengers. We bought a couple of warm beers at the duty-free shop to help time pass, and then the ship’s galley delivered sandwiches (after a mild sandwich disaster on the up-escalator). Those downstairs milled about in their seething masses while the more patient upstairsers snacked. Time passed, and eventually the boat was ready to receive her next wave of passengers.

Finally, onto the boat. We had been informed that we would be searched again, and that we were not allowed to bring our own beverages aboard, thwarting my plans to dodge shipboard prices. Curses!

It was still a few hours before we were under way. We slid out of the harbor with a four-tugboat escort. My nephew Gerald, fuego, and I watched the lights of Tianjin slide by, and took piles of pictures. I think Gerald’s came out the best, as he had a tripod and generally knows what he’s doing with a camera. fuego scored a couple of good ones as well, and I think I got a couple of keepers. Overall, it was a pleasant evening.

Now it’s morning, and I’m ditching a talk on eclipse photography to get a little quiet time to work. Maybe I’d better get to it.

Another Pre-Travel All-Nighter

So it’s coming up on midnight, and the shuttle is arriving to carry me away by the dawn’s early light. My suitcase is still in the closet, but I have created a pile of electronic gear in the middle of the office floor. I now own socks that are a color other than white and I have added another tie to the collection. Honestlly, there’s not much more to do until 5:45 in the morning.

Visitors to these pages please be aware that for the next two weeks I aim to collect a bunch of stories, but I don’t know when I’ll be able to share them with you. I’ll be on a boat most of the time, and when I’m exploring the back alleys of Bejing I’ll not be bringing my laptop with me. I hope to b able to update occasionally, but there’s no guarantee.

Meanwhile, I have a story idea (almost) literally fizzing in my head (hold out for NaNoWriMo… hold out for NaNoWriMo…) and a blog episode about advertising on the verge of exploding out of my ears. The creative juices are flowing, boys and girls!

Manwhile, stay tuned, and talk among yourselves. You guys really don’t need me anyway. Maybe you can all coordinate holiday plans or something. MuddlePallooza 2009!

A New Grammar Low

One of the common grammar errors that really sets my teeth to grinding is the use of “login”, “backup”, and the like as verbs. “Click to login” drives me nuts. I’ve mentioned it before, and my august sister pointed out the perfect argument to make my point: “You would never say ‘I loginned’, would you?” Today, this sentence reached me:

**EG-Delicious-Sync** backups the Delicious links into WordPress links database, and gives you many Delicious features.

I suspect that the writer of the above sentence was not a native English speaker, but has seen backup misused so often that he naturally treated it as a regular verb. This is how it begins. Backups, as the plural of backup, will get by the spelling checkers, but come on. I imagine that in another couple of decades we will indeed be reading and hearing about people who backupped their data. And I will be the crazy old curmudgeon grumbling in the corner.

The Moon is Waning

Less than three days from now I will find myself at the airport, documents in hand, ready to go chase the new moon. Some moons, you see, are newer than others, and the upcoming one is going to get smack-dab between the Earth and the Sun. It will also be a particularly close new moon, so it will cast an unusually large shadow. My goal, and the goal of a brotherhood of geeks that my parents belong to, is to be in that shadow.

The best place for viewing this eclipse will be at sea, and happily there are enough moon geeks to encourage a cruise ship or two to make a special trip out to the middle of nowhere so people can spend a few hours risking eye damage. Our boat will be aiming for optimum totality time, modified by where clouds are at the critical moment. We eclipsists don’t like clouds so much. The boys steering the boat will have all sorts of gizmos to tell them about the weather (sailors have always been funny that way) and will try to put us in the ideal spot.

When the moment comes, we will be able to look almost straight up and see the moon eat the sun.

With only a couple days’ prep time left, I really should think about packing. I even went out and bought a pair of long pants just for the trip. Actually, most of the credit for that goes to my sweetie; left on my own I would have procrastinated on the slack-buying mission (slack slacking? Am I a slack slacker?) until just about now, then rushed about in a panic trying to find some. Apparently onboard and around and about in Asia, “semi-formal” doesn’t include cargo shorts and aloha shirts. What the heck?

Which brings me to the item that now I have to rush around in a panic to find. A suit jacket of some sort. Not only are we out there to ogle astronomical phenomena, we will be celebrating my parents’ fifty years of wedded bliss. There will be a dinner celebration on the boat, and it will be a fancy (on the Seeger scale) affair. I’m pretty sure I have a tie around here somewhere, and I have button-up shirts without flowers or martini glasses printed on them, but the coat is going to be tricky. Anyone have a spare they can loan me? Something in a meduimish size? I can roll up the sleeves if they’re too long.

Other than that, I’ll be packing a camera, lenses, laptop (but which one? the one that can edit photos or the one with a working battery?), a smaller camera, battery chargers (what plugs do they use over there and on the boat?), shampoo, and a toothbrush. Ooo, and a swimsuit. Snorkel and corrective diving mask? Probably not. Oh, and shoes. They’ll probably come in handy for that formal dinner thing.

Programming Note: Sweetness

Sometimes I write an episode that I’m particularly pleased with, only to have it greeted by the sound of crickets chirping. It’s possible that while people enjoyed reading it, they didn’t have anything to add afterward, so there are no comments. That’s what I tell myself, anyway. Soon we’ll put that assertion to the test. The results may prove depressing, but I am experimenting with a feature that will allow readers to say “I liked that episode” without actually leaving a comment.

There are definitely some aesthetic issues to resolve, but there is now an option to vote on episodes you like. It’s not a big deal, just a way for you to say, “thanks, Jer, for sharing your genius with us on the topic of the proper way to belch after a meal.” Or whatever world-shaking topic I’ve chosen to tackle in a particular episode. Don’t be shy out there, if you like lots of episodes, feel free to shower me with kudos! Really!

After I get the episode-voting in, I intend to add a similar system for comments, so when someone leaves a particularly good comment the rest of the blogcomm can clap. If no one ever votes for any of my episodes, I will cry silent bitter tears and remove the feature.

Keeping up with Jim

A few days back my sweetie and I were at Target on a quest for the propane cartridges that fit our grill. Those are hidden away in the sporting goods section, and while we wandered up and down the aisles looking for them, my better half discovered the exercise gizmo department right next door. Uh, oh. We already work out three days a week, but we wanted to get something to help us on the off days. After some deliberation we decided on the TriCord Total Body Workout Kit. It was inexpensive, and since the TriCord TBWK includes three cords of different resistances, it was a TBWK that the two of us could use at the same time. “I’ll use the low-resistance cord, and you can use the medium,” my sweetie said. Perfect! Home came the TriCord.

The box contained four things: three colored rubber tubes with handles on the ends, and a DVD. The DVD is where the real value is for things like this, providing a routine that fits in a known time and provides a more-or-less complete workout.

Monday day we got into workout clothes, broke out the rubber bands, and popped the DVD into the player for the first time. The intro told us how great the product we already owned was, then introduced us to the workout. There were three people to lead us, arrayed on mats at the edge of a pond in a beautiful Japanese garden. Charles was a big muscly man, the guy whose name appears on the box, and who narrated the DVD. Advanced users, he said, people of strength and virtue, should follow him and use the high-resistance band. To his left, Eve and her large breasts were going to pursue a more aerobic workout with the medium-resistance band.

Then there’s Jim. To the instructor’s right was a graying gentleman, not tall, obviously not a “fitness professional”, just a regular guy. “For you losers out there,” Charles explained, “you fat and worthless wastes of oxygen, here’s Jim. Jim will use the lowest-resistance band and cheat on every exercise to make them easier. He will shrink from exerting himself while he ponders what TV shows he’s missing. We paid him in donuts.” (I don’t think that’s quite exactly what Charles said, but you get the idea.)

The introduction ended; the time had come to work out. I took in hand the green medium-resistance band, emulating Eve and her large breasts. I stretched the band a few times, experimentally. Feeling good. After a few limbering-up exercises it was time to start pulling rubber. Clumsily I assumed the first position and stretched along with Chuck, Eve’s breasts, and Jim. So far, they were all doing pretty much the same thing. We moved on to the next exercise. Most exercises involved combining a body motion, like a lunge, with the pulling action, so that the routine had aerobic and resistance training at the same time. Most of the real work in this routine seems to concentrate on arms and shoulders, so I’m not sure about the “Total” in Total Body Workout Kit. Still, I was starting to break a sweat, and there was a long way to go yet.

Soon I abandoned following Eve and turned my gaze to Jim, the gray-haired beer-drinking slacking cheater. The guy like me. The thing is, after a while Jim was kicking my ass, too. “Four more,” Chuck said gently while soothing music played. I made one more attempt to pull both arms up and gave up. One thing I’ll say for the TriCord TBWK, it keeps you honest. I discovered just how much weaker my left arm is. It’s easy to cheat on exercise machines. Yet there was Jim, swinging his arms up, elbows straight, a bored expression on his face.

In the end, Jim kicked my ass and didn’t break a sweat doing it. To be fair I was using a higher-resistance band, and I didn’t have some big muscly guy standing between me and the beautiful woman exercising with me, so I did score a couple of points toward a moral victory. Still, Jim kicked my ass.

But not for long, folks! I’m gunning for Jim and his wooden expression, his deceptively-toned muscles, and his stomach flatter than mine. Someday, when he least expects it, I will triumph over him, and with the green rubber band, to boot!

Quest for the Perfect Moon Widget

You may have noticed that as of this moment there are three different moon phase widgets over on the sidebar. None of them are perfect, alas (although the Japanese one is perfectly inscrutable). I looked around at other WordPress widgets and did not find one that gave out all the information I was interested in (especially for the eclipse) and was aesthetically pleasing. I thought I might spend a few hours and make my own.

The design was very simple. I would write a little Flash thingie that read XML data from a server and draw the moon with great precision and also look nice doing it. In addition I could put numerical readouts for more interesting (to me) numbers. Piece of cake.

I started my quest looking for a server with current moon info. The US Naval Observatory has all sorts of lunar data available, presumably calculated with far greater precision that I will ever need. The only problem is, they didn’t have data for right now. They had almanac generators and whatnot, but nothing that I could ping and get back a message that said, “at this moment, the moon is…” I couldn’t find anything at NASA, either. I broadened my search and found that nobody seems to be providing this service. “fine, then,” I thought. “I’ll make my own moon server. I’m sure there are plenty of places I can find algorithms for calculating this stuff.”

Only, that didn’t turn out to be so simple, either. The motion of the moon is incredibly complex. There exists a thing called ELP 2000-85 which is the latest attempt to make the math match what the moon actually does. What the thing does is loop through a set of calculations a bazillion times, each time with tweaked coefficients that make smaller and smaller corrections to the calculation. Compiling the tables of coefficients must have been a real pain in the butt. Refining the tables is still ongoing. The accuracy of your calculation comes down to how many times you loop through the coefficients before you decide that the computer power is better used for something else.

Nobody in their right mind would actually use all the tweaks in the ELP 2000 for anything as simple as a moon phase widget, or, for that matter, a moon landing. Along came a guy named Jean Meeus, who published a book full of handy formulas for calculating where things are going to be. He includes simplifications of the ELP 2000 (only looping through 64 iterations), and while they’re not as precise, they’re pretty damn good. I don’t have that book, either.

Time wasted so far: 3 hours. Completion of widget: 0%

But now my search began to bear fruit. I didn’t have Meeus’ formulas, but other people did, and had written software. I found some open-source code that implemented some of his stuff. Yay! I implemented the code, moving it from c to PHP so I could run it on my server. After a few routine hitches the code was up and running and telling me just where the moon was, relative to the Earth, accurate to a couple of arcseconds.

Time wasted so far: 6 hours. Completion of widget: 5%

Unfortunately, it didn’t tell me anything else. This particular code did not provide any information that required data about the sun — like, say, the phase of the moon. Harrumph. Back to the Internet I went. Fairly quickly I found some different code, this time in JavaScript, that also cited Meeus. It was much, much, simpler, ignoring many of the more difficult-to-calculate corrections, but I figured that the first code sample had already done most of that. It was simply a matter of adding the new code to what I already had. Naturally, despite having the same source reference, all the variable names were completely different.

After a great deal of forensics (that’s a big word for ‘wasted time’) I established which quantities I had accurate versions of and which I still needed to calculate. I got everything set up and ran some tests. The results were not good.

Time wasted so far: 12 hours. Completion of widget: 3%

I had expected some problems like this – perhaps in one body of code an angle was expressed in degrees and the other expected radians. Things like that. I started working through things. Only after another day of head-scratching did I test the code I’d based the second half of my project on. It was wrong. So there I was with Frankenstein’s monster of code sewn together from different sources, and one of the sources was broken before I even started. Sigh. Back to the drawing board.

Time wasted so far: 20 hours. Completion of widget: 2%

I should mention along in here somewhere that there are people who sell moon software for quite a bit of money. My little server could potentially put a dent in their sales by bringing accurate calculations to anyone who asks, but its not really the calculations they are selling, but the application around it. I’m not too worried for them.

Back to the Web and by now I was getting better searches because I knew the key terms to look for. I found two more code examples, both of which take precision to the most extreme available. One is a complete implementation of the ELP 2000-82b. This honey consists of 36 files with tables with hundreds of rows of numbers, and a sample program in Fortran that shows how to use them. For ridiculously accurate calculations, I couldn’t do much better. But… It only calculates the position of the moon, just like the first code I implemented. I’d still need to work out the phases and whatnot.

The other code I found is based on earlier math, but really concentrates on what an observer would see from a given point on the Earth. It includes corrections for the optical effects of the atmosphere and for the friggin’ speed of light. It’s got a lot of stuff I don’t need (other planets, for instance), but it has everything I’d be looking for. The thing is, the code is horrible. It’s in c, and the writer apparently never heard of parameters or returning values. Or structs, or anything else that might help organize the information. It is impossible to read a function and know what it does or where all the numbers it uses come from. It would be a big task to translate the pieces I need, mainly because it’s very difficult to tell which pieces I need. Still, it’s an option.

Time wasted so far: 24 hours. Completion of widget: 3%

And that’s where I stand. You know, maybe I’ll wait until I’m on a boat full of moon geeks. I bet one of them even knows a Web site that gives current moon data.