February 2005 Archives
It's almost trite at this point to refer to Alice Munro as the "best short story writer alive" (comparisons to Chekhov are also popular). I'm in no position to dispute or assert this claim, not being a huge short story reader, but I can tell you that her lastest collection, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, is excellent. Munro has a preternatural ability to capture character in a line or paragraph. Highly readable; highly recommended.
The Untouchable, by John Banville: similar in structure to The Book of Evidence (noted here), this is a man looking back at his regrettable life, sometimes with insight, sometimes with obliviousness. Can't say enough good things about the Banville I've read so far; it's nice finding an author with a body of work to go through. Can't do a review post without a quote, so:
What is it, I ask myself, what is that everyone knows, that I do not know?
This morning early, before some busybody should come and move him on, I went down to have a look at that wretch on the steps. He was awake, reclining in his filthy cocoon, his frightful eyes fixed on horrors in the air that only he could see. Indeterminate age, cropped grey hair, scabs all over, mouth blackly agape. I spoke to him but he did not respond; I think he could not hear me. I cast about for something I might do to help him, but soon gave up, in the glum, hopeless way that one does. I was about to turn away when I saw something stir under his chin, inside the collar of his buttoned-up overcoat. It was a little dog, a pup, I think, mangy brown, with big sad eager eyes and a torn ear. It licked its lips at me and squirmed ingratiatingly. Its tongue was shocking in its stark, pink cleanness. A man and his dog. Good God. Everyone must have something to love, some little scrap of life. I went back up the steps, ashamed to have to acknowledge that I felt more sorrow for the dog than I did for the man. What a thing it is, the human heart.
Today marks the fifth birthday of marginalia. While hardly an early adopter, I have an email from a Vancouver weblogger dated April 2000 noting that with my weblog Vancouver was up to four (which was probably an undercount, but not by much). Things have taken off a little bit since then.
My first post was about Apocalyptica, a band of 4 (now 3) crazy Finnish cellists that play heavy metal covers (and have since branched out to their own heavy metal originals!). That they have not become world famous remains a mystery to me. To celebrate the day, I'm going to burn through some bandwidth by offering up one of their songs: Sad But True, by Apocalyptica (broken link fixed, sorry about that). Turn it up, dude, and enjoy.
Thanks for reading, and keep coming back.
Watch it while the bits are hot: A Scanner Darkly trailer. I love the look they've achieved.
In an effort to improve the clarity of my written and spoken communication, I'm noting words that I use too much. A partial list:
- Basically: empty word I use way too often, especially when defining or explaining something. E.g.: "This extension basically makes it easier to extend mozilla." Basically adds nothing to this sentence except 9 letters.
- Interesting: my go to word for expressing enthusiasm about something. I think it's lazy, as I rarely explain what I find interesting. Getting at the reason for my interest would be way more, well, interesting than just a statement. (Also file this under: criticial thinking skills, need for improvement of.)
- Kind of, probably, likely, mostly, sort of: Weasel qualifiers used so I can avoid definitive statements. I do this a lot and I've decided that pre-couching statements with plausible deniability is getting in the way of communicating clearly.
- Very, really: reverse of previous point. Started noticing the use of these after reading Mark Twain quote: "Substitute 'damn' every time youčre inclined to write 'very'; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be."
- Dude: (spoken communication only). Typically employed in a jokey, ironic fashion but it's become a crutch, and I'm sure it makes me look like a doofus at times.
It's hard to act as editor as I'm writing but it'll be worth it if I can internalize good habits. (I had to remove kind of from the previous sentence.)
José Saramago is a writer that has not only won a Nobel Prize, he's generally acknowledged as having been a good choice (something that seems pretty rare) - a typical comment from one of the blurbs in the front of All the Names: "In the case of the Portuguese writer José Saramago, the Nobel Committee got it right for once." Having read several of his books now, I'd definitely agree with the notion that he was deserving of the prize (and the greater recognition it brought him, there's no way I would know of him otherwise). All the Names is the latest book I've read by him, and I would recommend it as a starting point if you haven't read Saramago before. At the bare plot level, it's about a low-level file clerk who becomes obsessed with a woman he knows only as a bare biographical sketch on an index card; this is expanded into an exploration of loneliness, love and identity.
Definition of an unsupportive parent: leaving bad reviews of your son's book on amazon. Ugh.
Ellen Ullman, my favorite writer on the interactions between computers and humans, has an oped in the nytimes today on multitasking:
[D]istraction is built into the fabric of today's electronic world. Icons on the PC toolbar flash; ads on Web pages shimmer and dazzle; software companies send e-mail messages to say your software is out of date; word processors interrupt to correct your spelling; Web pages refuse to show themselves until you update a plug-in; lights on laptops blink at you every time the hard drive whirs into motion (which, I'm here to tell you, happens a lot more often than you would ever care to know). The screens of TV cable news programs make three-ring circuses seem calm. You can't even enjoy the 10th rerun of your favorite "Law and Order" episode without a glittering promo fluttering at the corner of the screen.
Notice that it's supposed to be the chip, not the human, that goes off to do something else while the keyboard idles. But internal engineering principles have a way of becoming external; software designers unconsciously adopt the values of the machine they're working on. After years of working in an environment where efficiency is a god and idleness in any component is intolerable, a programmer comes to think it's logical to keep humans as busy as possible.And soon we, the users, give in to the idea that rapidly switching the focus of our attention is not just normal but advisable. So we drive and eat and talk on the cellphone, check e-mail in the middle of conversations, stop writing a paragraph to check its spelling, get used to ads that dazzle us while we try to read Web pages or watch TV. Everything in our machines encourages us to be like them: busy, attention-hopping.
This articulates far better than I ever could something that I've noticed about myself - I hate computer distractions, be they sound (all potential notification sounds are turned off) or popups (ooh, my download is finished, how important!) or anything else that seeks to interrupt me. This desire for lack of computer clutter is funny if you see any room or desk that I spend any time at: clutter city. For me, though, physical clutter doesn't distract (or at least, not in the immediate productivity-destroying way computer stuff does; Getting Things Done is slowly persuading me that clutter can have a more indirect impact on, er, getting things done.)
(Further parenthetical aside: Maybe this is one of the reasons tv on dvd is so compelling for people - being able to watch something without bouncing network promos allows for a more immersive experience.)
There are still other things I could do to cut down on distractions - does it really matter if I have email? or new items in my newsreader? What other behaviours have I learned that are more about the dictates of machines than doing what I want to do? As Nelson puts it, we need calm user interfaces.
I'm going to see what I can do to make this happen - I'm turning off all the notifications I have set up, but the hard part will probably be learning that I don't need to check these things as compulsively as a computer does.
I complained recently about wanting more bands to offer RSS feeds; some folks have actually done something about it and created Band News, which offers news from the official sites of over 600 bands, with the ability to create a custom feed of bands that you're interested in (eg, my bandnews feed. If they're quick about adding missing bands, this could be a very very handy resource.
Update: Pretty cool, but bands starting with The shouldn't be in the T section.
I first heard about the women divers of Korea's Cheju island when I visited in 2003; today's NY Times has a nice overview of their history and the news that the lifestyle may disappear due to its success.
The girls begin going to sea at age 8 or 10, first picking up seaweed near the shore. The best divers can plunge 40 feet deep and hold their breath for over two minutes. (To avoid overfishing, scuba gear remains illegal.)
With a flat tool attached to one wrist, the sea women try to dislodge abalone from under rocks. Occasionally, though, the abalone clamp down on the tool and trap one of them underwater. At least one sea woman dies every year while diving.With the number of sea women declining, and with tourism giving Cheju men more opportunities, it is unclear what will happen to their daughters' status in their communities and home. What is clear, though, is the pervasive sense that the end of something is near.
Magazines I would subscribe to if I were totally made of money:
- Metropolis: mostly wank-free design mag with a focus on architecture.
- New Yorker: no explanation needed
- Harpers: occasionally annoying, but they publish a lot of really good authors.
- New Scientist: so I can pretend to know what dark matter and strings are.
- Brick: A Literary Journal: even the subscription appeals from the comptroller are amusing and well-written; excellent contributors. Plus: Canadian.
- Paris Review: excellent interviews and fiction.
- Economist: excellent current events coverage from around the globe, something all North American newsweeklies pretty much suck at.
Just finished: Book of Evidence, by John Banville. This guy can write:
Indeed, when I was young I saw myself as a masterbuilder who would one day assemble a marvellous edifice around myself, a kind of grand pavilion, airy and light, which would contain me utterly and yet wherein I would be free. Look, they would say, distinguishing this eminence from afar, look how sound it is, how solid: it's him all right, yes, no doubt about it, the man himself. Meantime, however, unhoused, I felt at once exposed and invisible. How shall I describe it, this sene of myself as something without weight, without moorings, a floating phantom? Other people seemed to have a density, a thereness, which I lacked. Among them, these big, carefree creatures, I was like a child among adults. I watched them, wide-eyed, wondering at their calm assurance in the face of a baffling and preposterous world. Don't mistake me, I was no wilting lily, I laughed and whooped and boated with the mest of them -- only inside, in that grim shadowed gallery I call my heart, I stood uneasily, with a hand to my mouth, silent, envious, uncertain.
John Banville, Book of Evidence, pp. 16-17.
Needless to say, highly recommended. (Oh, you want plot: it's the jailhouse confession of a destitute gentleman who has inexplicably - even to himself - stolen a painting and murdered a girl in the process.)
Calla's album Televise was one of my favorites of 2003, so I was pleased to read today that their new album Collisions will be coming out in the early summer. They have a song from the new CD available, It Dawned on Me, and it is well worth the download. I hope this will mean a west coast tour soon as well.
The modern record label's approach to the consumer in a nutshell: yesterday I was shopping at Virgin and there were two editions of Brian Eno's Music For Airports, one for $17.99 and one for $22.99. The $22.99 edition had the evil evil copy protection system more and more releases seem to be sporting. Now I'm sure there's a reasonable explanation for this (I think a bunch of Eno's stuff is being remastered and re-released) but the message seems to be clear: please pay more so you can do less. Although seeing as the copy protection schemes so far devised are easily bypassed, the message is to please pay more so you can be slightly inconvenienced when you attempt to rip this CD, but that's not quite so pithy.
I'm horrible about keeping tracks of what books I've read, but here's a braindump of the last month or so:
- Exuberance: the Passion for Life, by Kay Redfield Jamison Jamison made her name with research and books on mood disorders, particularly manic depression and how it intersects with the creative impulse (see Touched by fire). This book focuses on one positive emotion, using it as a touchpoint to explore many stories of the exuberant in the sciences and arts as well as bemoaning the current lack of research into the area of positive human emotion. Some of it is a rehash of her previous work on manic-depression, but overall I found a lot to take away from it, including about half a dozen more books to read.
- Sheepshagger, by Niall Griffiths The easy way to describe Griffiths is Cormac McCarthy with some Irvine Welsh thrown in, which is to say: lyrically violent, faithful rendering of Welsh dialect, unapologetic depiction of drug use, etc. This is a ferocious book, focusing as it does on Ianto, a mostly-feral rural Welsh ("sheepshagger") character who is driven into madness and murder by the loss of his familial home (hovel, really). The writing is what keeps this being entirely off-putting and horrific, Griffiths has an amazing ability to draw you into events; I found a chapter that portrayed a rave and its violent aftermath particularly engrossing.
- Kafka on the Shore, by Haruki Murakami I don't know that I can add anything to the endless list of reviews of Murakami's latest (see metacritic or complete review if you need them); I'll just say that as a Murakami fan I wasn't disappointed, even if it didn't reach the heights of my two favorite Murakami novels, Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World or The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, both of which I'd recommend to the first-time Murakami reader.
- Underground: the Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche, by Haruki Murakami Inteviews with Tokyo gas attack victims as well as some current and ex-members of Aum, the cult that perpetrated the attacks. Fascinating for the divergent perspectives on being a victim of such a random event.
- Jimmy Corrigan: the Smartest Kid on Earth, by Chris Ware A painfully well-realized graphic novel on loneliness and sadness. Ware's drawing style is amazingly clever and inventive.
- Persepolis: the Story of a Childhood, by Marjane Satrapi Autobiographical graphic novel about being a child during the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Honest and compelling.
- Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell Six distinct-but-tenuously-connected narratives, each with their own time, place and narrative voice. I enjoyed the separate narratives (mostly - the middle section started to feel as interminable as the opening section of Alan Moore's Voice of the Fire), but I'm not sure I got the overall point(s) they were meant to cohere into. It probably didn't help that my hopes were pretty high for this book based on the ecstatic nature of some of the reviews; it was clever and well-written, but not earth-shatteringly good.
A rare first edition of Miguel de Cervantes' "Don Quixote", published 400 years ago, has been unearthed in Spain, Spanish television reported late.
A group of experts are investigating whether the tome, found near the southern city of Murcia, is a first edition from 1605.
Only 18 are known to exist worldwide, four of them in Spain.
The tome emerged when the hamlet of Alhama organised a Quixote exhibition, calling on local children to bring a copy from their parents' collection.One child brought along an edition explaining it was a family heirloom which had belonged to an ancestor who lived in Cuba.
The BBC Radio Show Chain Reaction has a clever conceit: a famous entertainment figure interviews a person of their choice; the interviewee then chooses someone for next week. This week's is Alan Moore interviewing Brian Eno. I can't find any archives, unfortunately, although there is a transcript of Alan Moore being interviewed by Stewart Lee here.
Diveintomark put it this way last year: mozilla is the emacs of browsers. What does this mean? emacs is a popular text editor for geeks, and one of its core principles is that it is highly extensible: you can add functionality and change behaviour to suit your needs. There are some people that basically spend all their computing time in emacs, using it as a software platform on which they develop and work.
Now take a look at some of the popular extensions for Firefox, the most popular browser from mozilla:
- ForecastFox - weather right in your browser window.
- BetterSearch, which gives you thumbnails (plus some extra handy links) when using all the top search engines and some of the popular bookmark management sites.
- Greasemonkey, which lets you add custom behaviours to sites that you browse. (This extension basically makes it easier to extend mozilla. If that doesn't scream emacs, I don't know what does.)
These add to Firefox's functionality in useful and interesting ways, without requiring any help from the mozilla team itself. Firefox has become a software platform of its own, attracting tons of smart people that want to do cool things on the web and use Firefox as their main tool. As it continues eating away at IE's browser share, you'll see more and more activity in this area. This month's wired has the story behind its development.
PS: If you want a brief explanation of why you should be using Firefox (if you're not already), read this.