In a Word

I thought maybe I’d take a break from mediocre Space Opera and find something more fulfilling to read. One good thing about the modern age is that with a suitable device one has access to countless classics of literature. I’ve read more than one of those.

Robinson Crusoe recently caught my eye. I have vague recollections of a least one movie based on the story, those memories smelling slightly of Disney. Guy gets shipwrecked, has adventures, gets rescued. I think there was a dog, and natives. I have no doubt that the original will be substantially different.

If I can manage to read it. Here’s a sentence from near the beginning:

“In a word, as the sea was returned to its smoothness of surface and settled calmness by the abatement of that storm, so the hurry of my thoughts being over, my fears and apprehensions of being swallowed up by the sea being forgotten, and the current of my former desires returned, I entirely forgot the vows and promises that I made in my distress.”

My eyes were getting blurry by the end of my count, but I came up with a total of sixty-one words to finish a thought that started with “In a word…” But I am in no position to criticize someone for rambling.

There has already been one Interesting Idea (that the happiest people are in the economic center of the spectrum, and that adventuring is not for people who have a chance to be actually happy), but Daniel Defoe spends so much time talking about the people trying to convince Robinson to stay home that he kind of neglects the far more interesting expression of what that desire to roam feels like. There’s nothing visceral in his descriptions; I don’t feel the pull of the sea. Maybe I’m viewing this through a modern lens, but I want to understand his irrational decision from an emotional level, rather than just be presented with it. Other than the weeping of his father (factually presented), there’s not much emotion to be found.

And to be fair, Crusoe is telling this story from the point of view of regret. All those people telling him to stay home were right.

The first storm has come and gone and Crusoe has managed to convey his fear well enough even without any visceral imagery – but it felt flat to me. One sentence stood out, however (yours truly stops to copy sentence, realizes the sentence is easily more than 100 words long and the good part was just a piece of it):

“I expected every wave would have swallowed us up, and that every time the ship fell down, as I thought it did, in the trough or hollow of the sea, we should never rise more; in this agony of mind, I made many vows and resolutions…”

Were I in a writing workshop with Mr. Defoe, I would have advised him to go back and add the groaning of the timbers of his fragile ship, the cursing of the crew, the water washing over the deck, and the feeling in his gut when his little boat slides off the crest of a wave and into the waiting trough, and the juddering in his legs as the boat smashes her bow into the wall of water rising above her, to repeat the cycle.

Although this was a pretty minor storm; maybe Defoe is saving up his descriptive prose for the real thing. That might be an excuse, but you never forget your first storm at sea, I bet. The next day Crusoe’s pal says “that was nothin’!” But wouldn’t Crusoe’s terror be all the more meaningful when reviewed in that context?

I’m pretty sure I could have helped a lot of authors of classics really get over the top with their “great works”. Story idea: I and Michael Bay go back in time to fix a bunch of boring old “literature”.

1

Casual Conversation in my Home Town

“Turns out a bear had dragged it across the street and into our back yard.”

3

… its own Reward

I just prevailed in a design discussion with my boss. The result: I get to implement the feature.

1

And Now We Wait

I have been working on a big project for the better part of a year now. It is a massive overhaul of the systems my department uses in their daily grind. Over time, those systems have become downright awful, and much of the awfulness was beyond our ability to address. A key part of the system was run by our IT department.

That system was never very good, but as our needs changed, the system… stayed the same. Any change would cost hundreds of thousands of funny-money dollars and take a year just to find out that it was going to be another year, and another bucket of funny-money. It’s budget-dollars, not real dollars, but spending on that system would take budget-dollars away from other projects.

This antique system left the rest of our tools making terrible compromises so that the missing functionality could be wedged in. It was time for a change, and I set out to replace that system we didn’t control with a better one that we did.

Hand in hand with that, is that my department’s servers are very, very old in server years. My employer, meanwhile, has created new services so departments like ours don’t need to maintain our own hardware. So this change became not just a massive software update, but a major infrastructure upgrade as well.

I underestimated just how much our applications had been warped to accommodate the crazy compromises. Unwarping them was worthwhile, but time-consuming, and none of these applications had been built with testing in mind. On top of that, the new infrastructure placed its own limits on the applications that required further refactoring.

The goal: to pull the tablecloth off the table without disturbing the dishes, then to slip in a new tablecloth.

For the first few months I worked alone, but as the Big Day approached (and receded), the rest of my team got increasingly involved. I managed to hand off the DNS and server config stuff to my boss just in the nick of time, before the complexity of that exploded in my face.

Not totally alone; I must amend. There were people in many other groups — the people creating the pretty dang awesome new infrastructure tools we are using, who went out of their way to accommodate me and help me along, even though my group is tiny in the scheme of things.

I mentioned the Big Day. That’s not quite accurate. Much like “Happy Hour from 3-7 p.m.”, the Big Day started three hours ago and lasts through the weekend. Right now a script is running, a complex bit of software I have devoted hundreds of hours to, that pulls the data out of the old databases, reconciles an incredible number of different ways the data can disagree, patches the Definitive Data together and houses them in their new, shiny home. When the script is done tomorrow morning, it will never be run again. It will be archived as a historical curiosity and that’s that.

So this evening my boss put all our systems on hold, and we began the migration. After the first giddy flurry of excitement as we all worked to make sure we were ready, I started my script. “And now we wait,” I wrote to the team.

5

Headstrong is Code

In my last episode I mentioned that he use of “headstrong” to describe a female character is almost as bad as calling her “beautiful”.

Headstrong. I suppose I should explain why I find that appellation awful, even as it is widely regarded as a strongly positive trait for female main characters. We can add to the list ‘rebellious’ and ‘independent’. In a man, the exact same traits would be spun positively as ‘confident’.

Why is confident considered a separating characteristic for women? Why is independence a trait worthy of a fantasy hero?

Independent and whatnot are all traits that, applied to a fictional role model, imply that she is somehow special. But hold on there, Sparky! None of those things should be regarded as special. “She a woman… but.. she’s also independent? MADNESS!” Let’s just stop right there.

All those descriptions are code for “hasn’t met the right man yet.”

Seriously, I wish I was wrong. While there are a couple of notable exceptions, there exists shit-tons of novels and series of novels based on the simple premise that an otherwise-powerful woman must somehow care about the merits of her multiple asshole suitors, and when she chooses the best asshole-suitor prosperity ensues. Each asshole is almost-perfect, and fans can form teams around the assholes. But that misses the point.

Our girl doesn’t need any of those assholes.

So let’s get to the real headstrong. She’s got her opinions, and she’s ready to defend them, but she will also listen gracefully and accept when she’s wrong. She’s strong that way. She loves hard, and when her best friend says, “that woman is using you,” she says, “hope you’re wrong,” because she’d not going to stop loving. She’s not one to let go easily.

But she’s headstrong, and change isn’t so easy. It’s a curse she lives with every day, the inability to let go of the little battles to win the war. Her lover whispers in her ear every night, little nothings that add up to something, but nothing will erase the big picture, even for a moment. You can never stop being a hero.

2

OF COURSE She’s Beautiful

I haven’t been getting much writing done lately, and an important way to break out of that slump is to make sure I spend more time reading. So this afternoon I was poking around the ol’ virtual bookstore looking for one of those free “first taste” novels intended to get one hooked on a series.

Today I found a book by Morgan Rice, the first of eight installments (and, presumably, counting.) That many installments in the story can be a red flag; the world does not need another Robert Jordan fumbling his way though an epic he knew how to start but not how to finish. As each book of Wheel of Time got longer, the amount that actually happened went down.

That notwithstanding, if each installment of the saga can show vestiges of a beginning, a middle, and an end, it could be a fun read.

There is one thing that annoyed me right off the bat, however. This is the first sentence of the blurb:

17 year old Ceres, a beautiful, poor girl in the Empire city of Delos, lives the harsh and unforgiving life of a commoner.

Beautiful. Not “resourceful”, not “paranoid schizophrenic”, not even “headstrong” (which is awful for different reasons). From that sentence, I am left to believe that her primary tool for escaping poverty will be her beauty. That’s the least-interesting tool imaginable.

And come on, she’s the hero in a pulp drama. There is no way anyone on this side of the blurb even considered the possibility that she might not be beautiful, or that the most worthwhile men she meets won’t also be beautiful. I get it; the beauty is part of a fantasy shared by the primary audience of this story. But the first high-impact word in the blurb — arguably the most import word in the whole description, the one word that will influence the success of the novel more than any other single word — is a throwaway.

She’s beautiful. Big fuckin’ deal.

1

For Some Reason, there are Hungry Children in this Nation

Call yourself a Reublocrat or a Democlan, I think when pressed you would have to agree that the presence of hungry children in this prosperous nation is preposterous. It’s mind-boggling to me that we even have to have fundraisers to make sure kids in this country have enough to eat.

But here’s a fundraiser so that at least a few kids can get a meal at least once a day, for a while. Structural change is needed, but for now, let’s just make sure the kids get enough to eat.

In this case, you can get a signed photo of Harlean (taken by me). I am sometimes surprised at the results our shoots. Even better, there are books by the most awesome William Taylor Jr., a writer of words that make you think.

On top of all that, there’s the painting based on the photo I took of Harlean.

But if you don’t want any of that stuff, you can just throw cash, and let my employer match magnify your contribution.

It starts at https://poeticpinup.com/nkhfundraiser/

It ends when we don’t have to do shit like this.

1

An Unexected Disaster

I have been jonesing to get some writing done, so rather than go straight home, I went to one of my favorite local taverns. I ordered a beer, and while I was rearing to send a message to my sweetie informing her of my decision, I lifted my beer off the table.

Only, it was just the to half of my beer that lifted; the bottom half remained rooted on the coaster, and a full mugs-worth of beer gushed forth, cascading over the table, over my clothes, and over my lato.

Immediately I hoisted my comuter over the flood, shaking it to rid the keyboard of moisture. Waitstaff resonded quickly, with towels and aologies, but it seemed no lasting harm had been done.

I came home, still determined to get some writing done. But, it seems, there is a catch.

One key doesn’t work. I’d tell you what that key is, but I can’t tye it. erhas you can guess which key it is.

Addendum: I took the laptop to my company’s repair depot. “We get a lot like this on Mondays.”

I heard back this evening: All systems show signs of liquid damage. Recommendation: replace the computer. Just for the p key? And maybe the sound, but I never have the sound turned on anyway. (Seriously, never.) But… all systems.

I’m typing on a loaner right now, a machine that will probably become my new portable. No biggie, I really don’t need massive specs or super-duper whatnot, except for one thing. The other screen had a lot more pixels. That means a lot more lines of code. I’m feeling constricted.

3

Baseball Thoughts

I spent the day with baseball in the background while I cursed at computers (cursing at computers is my day job). At first it was a forgettable contest that the A’s found a way to lose, then a really good game between the Dodgers and the Cubs.

You know it’s a good baseball game when two players are described as “hockey players” because of the way they play. There’s not much of a better compliment you can give a player of any sport than to compare them to hockey players. “That guy plays like a soccer player,” would not be flattering. Even an American football player would be flattered to be compared to a hockey player.

That there was enough grit in this game to invite the hockey comparison was a good start. Then there were two strong pitchers, and two managers with a lot to do. It was a National League game, and would not have been nearly as intricate with the designated hitter rule. (No! Nay! Never! to the DH in the National League!)

In contrast, The San Diego Padres were visiting their pals in Denver, for the conclusion of a pitching-optional statfest in which we were reminded that the “modern era” in baseball starts in the year 1900. Because there were numbers coming out of this matchup that transcended time. Any one of the games in this series would have raised eyebrows with ridiculous scoring, but what stood out was the sustained, continuous ridiculousness that happened over the last four days in Denver. Records were broken, but neither team should feel proud.

The games were downright silly, resembling NBA back-and-forth over baseball’s rare-burst scoring.

Aside: In Soccer, scoring is rare, and most of the time not likely. In hockey, scoring is rare but almost always possible. In baseball, scoring is rare, but points come in batches — the winning team is the one that gets the most out of each batch, and there are players whose specific skill is stopping the other team’s run. In the NBA, if you defense succeeds half the time, you will go down in history.

Even though the fuckin’ Dodgers won, it was a great game, the outcome uncertain up to the last diving catch of a dying flare. If that ball had hit the grass, the game would have gone the other way. And that’s sports.

For Some Large Values of Two

Spanish, apparently, is a more honest language.

2

Burn by James Patrick Kelly

I was bopping around looking for some good ol’ space opera to read, and I came across Burn by James Patrick Kelly instead. I found it on manybooks.net, and after I registered I sat down to read it.

It’s really good.

We get a glimpse of far-future humankind, with tech that borders on magic, but there’s also a little mysticism. Or at least luck. That future is merely a backdrop, however; the actual conflicts, the personal and the political, are very human, and told from the point of view of Spur, someone we can understand. His acestors decided to abandon the tech and go back to a simpler life. While Spur knows that the “upside” exists and is filled with tech marvels, he also knows that the same technology at some point must undermine the humanity of those who wield it.

Of course he knows that; he’s been taught that his entire life.

There’s a shade of Buck Rodgers here — not the swashbuckling space hero nonsense I love so much, but “the future as seen by someone like me” narrative. Except Buck doesn’t have to deal with differences between past and future that are quite so fundamental as the ones Spur struggles with.

Spur is badly wounded fighting a fire that is almost a diabolical intelligence on its own. While convalescing he is in a hospital that gives him, for the first time in his life, a glimpse of the upside.

While healing, Spur is given a chance to reach out to the universe. It is a guilty pleasure, an idle conceit as he convalesces, one he knows his friends will not approve of. He pokes at the universe, almost randomly. But then the universe answers back. The fuckin’ universe answers back. Luck, it’s just luck. The event that triggers this story (or the part of the story we see here), is one of near-fantastic luck. It would be difficult to swallow, except, well, luck is a real thing.

The author does an admirable job of avoiding judgement; there is no absolute “right” and “wrong”. While characters make judgements, the author does well to not color the debate with his own leanings. One person says “terrorist”, another says “martyr.” “Us” and “them” gets tangled. And there are subtle elements, as well. Spur is married, but the marriage is on the rocks. There are the usual reasons, but perhaps he was in love with someone else all along.

One quibble: if pukpuk had been capitalized like most organizations of humans are, I would have parsed the opening sequence (which is pretty hectic) more cleanly.

Like all human conflicts, not everything is wrapped up in a neat package at the end of this story. The immediate conflict is resolved in a satisfying way, and the final choice Spur makes rings true. There are still large questions outstanding, about the future of the planet and the clever indigenous species. But Spur has had a taste of what the upside has to offer, and in the end this story is about him, and the choice he must make.

I wrote some of the above on the manybooks.net site, then I decided to share my findings here as well. As per tradition, I went to Amazon to get links to share. It was then that I learned that this story has earned the Hugo and Nebula awards. Well then!

Note: if you use the above link to buy the book (or an Antique Silver Multi Cut Rhinestone Bridal Royal Tiara Headband) from Amazon, I get a kickback.

I Just Want To…

Any time a user laments, “I just want to…” you have encountered a software failure. The failure might be in the design, it might be in the implementation, it might just be in an overloaded server somewhere.

But “I just want to” is real, and if UI designers and the engineers that support them heard every “I just want to” out there — millions every day, I’d bet — then the software we use every day would be a lot better.

Because here’s the thing: “I just want to” is followed almost always with a well-defined use case, often with a very realistic expectation.

As a software guy I can tell you that often the requirements we get for making the things we make are horribly vague. We make those applications to spec (as far as we can tell) and feel good until actual humans start to use the system.

During testing of a system, you get fairly convoluted feedback. But that frustrated voice saying “I just want to” is almost always followed by a very specific and reproducible case. Tonight, I just want to add a link in WordPress 5 that has a description that is not identical to the URL.

That’s a REALLY DAMN BASIC THING. But I don’t see how to do it. I’m sure it’s possible; WordPress 5 block editor couldn’t possibly be that impaired.

Less-ethical companies might just keep the mikes on and listen for “I just want to…”. But if I could say “Hey Siri, I just want to put a link in WordPress 5 with a different description,” and Siri said, “Well, have you tried…” and when I say “Yeah, that doesn’t work,” Siri would say, “I will tell WordPress that all you want to do is…” and the bug report would be filed.

I just want to tell Siri my problem and have it be handled.

2

Ah, Marketing

Science: As far as we can tell, the gasoline you choose has no effect on your mileage.

Chevron: No gasoline has been shown to give better mileage than Chevron!

1

The Year Uncle Solomon Saved the Crop

That is what my family calls that year, anyway. Other people around here have different names for the event, but right up front I want to remind you that whatever they have to say, they wouldn’t be saying it if they had starved to death.

Life on a colony is never easy in those first few years; you are on a planet that has plenty of protein (or something like protein), but nothing the human newcomers can metabolize. There follows a time of biological warfare, as humans try to assert flora and fauna friendly to their metabolisms into the local ecology. There is a great deal of preparation, and megahours of simulation time, but sometimes the unexpected happens, and colonies die.

The scientific papers now call it a “loose gene”, but at our colony on Peridon IV we called it “What the fuck just happened?” Any time you thought you had a handle on things, everything changed. A new virus, a new weed, or perhaps new Big Fucking Bugs.

We had managed to establish a grain with a distant relationship to barley, but the planet had resisted most of our other imports, in a rolling battle with our geneticists, who were ever trying to gain the upper hand. We were making progress, however, and the barley was the triumph that would give us a little more time to tame the planet.

While the planet had sported hundreds of catalogued varieties of Large Interesting Bugs, the BFB’s came from nowhere. They were 10cm armored appetites, implacable and fearless in their quest for nutrition. And while our vegetation was just as unpalatable to their pests as their vegetation was to us, somehow the BFB’s had evolved over two growing seasons to be voracious for our barley. Just like that, Peridon IV’s loose gene had surmounted the protein gap.

We threw everything we had at the BFB’s of course — chemicals, viruses, you name it. They adapted around each attempt to eradicate them. Enter Uncle Solomon.

He was not, technically speaking, a scientist, and it is not officially known how he got access to the genetics lab. (Unofficially, he was sleeping with the chief scientist.) But Uncle Solomon was in the “Live to regret it” school of action, and on the day we were preparing to burn half our fields so that we might save the other half, my uncle emerged from the lab with a very large box, which he pulled behind him on a motorized wagon.

“Stay your flames!” he cried out, and perhaps because of the archaic language we paused. He smiled, stopped next to one of the infested fields, opened his box, and unto Peridon came the Even Bigger Fucking Spiders.

Uncle Solomon has been vague about where some of the DNA for his creation came from. The loose gene is in there, however, along with the BFB’s crossover metabolism. Uncle Solomon’s spiders were an enormous success, demolishing the BFB population.

And, alas, the Large Interesting Bug population. And all the other indigenous bugs as well. The crops were saved. WE were saved.

We just have to be a little more careful now, is all. Our crops are absolutely safe — there are no vegetarian spiders, and Uncle Solomon’s creations (and the loose-gene spinoffs) are true to that rule. And after the spiders eradicated the pollinators we needed to sustain our crops, a new sort of spider emerged to fill that role. That has to mean something, yes?

It will be a few more years (or at least months) before the spiders evolve to the point they can breach body armor or penetrate a reinforced home. That’s plenty of time for Uncle Solomon to come up with something that can eat the spiders.

1

It’s Funny Because it’s Painful

I just heard an ad that said “millions of Americans can’t be wrong.”

1