Friday, June 11, 2021

Life in the Time of the Virus: Finale

Dawn in Pennsylvania, Edward Hopper, 1942
 This is the last entry of this type. Not because COVID is defeated, but because we are moving into a (yet another) new phase. A new normal, with all the abnormalities we have seen in the previous new normals.

I am vaccinated. The Lovely Bride is as well (no side effects from the second Moderna, other than she took the day off anyway). Our housemates are vaccinated, as are the other members of our Pandemic Pod. We have resumed in-person gatherings of the Pod in the backyard as the weather has improved. We even held an in-person gaming afternoon over Memorial Day weekend and a dinner at a local restaurant (patio, but still). We have made plans to visit our families in Pittsburgh. And to make a trip to Disneyworld in the fall. 

So to claim that we are in quarantine, fighting the virus with distance and time, is no longer applicable. We will still be cautious, wearing masks for safety and courtesy. But things are changing. Like cicadas, we are now emerging from our long sleeps into a changed world. And like cicadas, there will be screaming.

At the time of writing, there are about 500 deaths/day in the US. For comparison purposes we are looking at approx 100 car deaths and a similar number of firearm deaths/day (all numbers per the CDC). So, good news by comparison, but still dangerous. The overwhelming amount of new cases are among the unvaccinated, and now we are vaxing teenagers, which makes sense. This past week, the Washington State Government has inaugurated a Vaccine Lottery that you are entered into when you get your shots. Vaccination sites are overrun again with those who have put it off. Man, I hate it when marketing works.

We are still talking about coming back to the office in the fall, and decisions are being made to what degree. I've been thinking about what I enjoy about working at home, and the list has been extensive:

  • No commute.
  • More flexible time to work, and I get to work earlier.
  • No driving in the dark in the winter.
  • I am available to run errands, go shopping, and do heavy lifting for the Lovely Bride.
  • I am reading more.
  • I am exercising more.
  • I've been amazingly healthy. I've had a runny nose or a clogged head a few days, and I was exceedingly Meh after my shot, but I have not been taking sick days. 
  • The cats like me to be around the house.
  • Hummingbirds outside my window.
  • Able to enjoy the rhododendrons and wisteria this spring more.
  • Able to mow my lawn over lunch.
  • End of the day alcohol on my back deck in summer.
  • I can get comics at noon on Wednesday.
  • No surprise snowstorms in winter.
  • I've taken to singing show tunes while I work.
  • I've walked more, but have not had to use a cane for about a year.
  • I've lost a little weight over the past year. Yeah, be jealous. 

On the other hand coming back to office gives me .... um, hang on, give me a moment, I'll come up with something. Oh, here we go:

  • It's good to talk with others.
  • Closer to IT when your computer goes down.
  • Someone might bring their dogs in.
  • Odds of me pouring an entire bag of cat food out on the kitchen floor severely reduced.

So what this means in no more entries titled "Life in the Time of Virus" (I hope). Plague books go back to just being books. Life does not return to the way is was, but then again, it never does.

More later


Monday, June 07, 2021

Plague Books: Grey Britain

The Long Week-End: A Social History of Great Britain 1918-1939 -  Robert Graves and Alan Hodge, W. W. Norton & Company, 1940.

Provenance: Purchased on Amazon. Found out about it while searching the net for other things.

Review: I'm a fan of the Call of Cthulhu RPG, and as a result have done a lot of reading on the period Lovecraft set his tales, in the 20s and 30s. These are called the "Interwar Years" in some references since they are neatly book-ended by WWI on one side and WWII on the other. In America the period is broken up to the Roaring Twenties, and (a phrase that I've heard more often lately) The Dirty Thirties. In Britain, the authors separate them into the Careless Twenties and the Threadbare Thirties. I any event, I am always paying attentions to histories of the era, in particular ones written close the events they describe.

One of the best of these histories was Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920's by Frederick Lewis Allen. Published in 1931, it was a great reference to the previous decade, published close enough to it to be spared a lot of hindsight, plus it reveals what people thought was important at the time. So I had high hopes, in the this book as it was sent to press just as the Germans were pushing the British army back to Dunkirk. And when this version of the book was re-released in 1963, the original lead printing plates had already been melted down for bullets, so they had to reprint it verbatim without the benefit of historical revision. Further, the book was co-written by Robert Graves, who entertained with I, Claudius and Claudius the God (two books I have perennially re-read). So I had high expectations.

So how is it? Not nearly as good as I had hoped. 

Part of it, admittedly, is the fact we're dealing with England (and chiefly London) for the period, so we are separated in space as well as time. There are be references to Chartists and King Zog and the T.U.C. that sent me scrambling to the Wikipedia for clarification, and assumptions that the primary audience (British) would know all this material already, particularly in that time frame. But part of my frustration is that the authors wander about within a single chapter, throwing up a lot of chaff but very little in the way of a through-line. In the course of a single chapter we move from architectural styles to department stores to women's fashion to motorcars to agricultural policy to vitamins. All interesting, but I had to stop a few places to figure out where I lost the lost the thread, and to speculate on where this way all going.

The authors also come off as scolds, particularly for populist movements and "lowbrow" entertainments. Short stories, dance crazes, women's dresses and in particular American jazz were looked down upon. More modern gender roles and alternate lifestyles were to be castigated. Graves and Hodge come off as judgmental against anything that post-dated the Great War. Looking through their wiki biographies, this is a bit of a surprise, as both authors lived lives that could only as being lived by sensitive poets in the 1920's. Here they come off as being so deeply in the closet that their mail is postmarked Narnia.

Particularly to be shellacked for their modern barbarities were ... the Americans. The United States had "enriched themselves at the expense of Europe" during the war, and was held in contempt for its toleration of gangsters and no-enforcement of prohibition. Everything bad came out of America - Jazz, crossword puzzles, advertising, media consolidation, and the Depression (well, they aren't totally wrong, but the US was hardly as the author quotes "A new home of tyranny.") The Germans, who at the time of publication were right across the channel (with guns), were given a lot more leeway - after all, the authors said, they did get the rough end of the stick at Versailles, and details how appeasement was hailed as a victory (until it wasn't). And besides, Edward VIII should be forgiven for meeting with Hitler - the abdicated King was living in Austria at the time, after all.

Politically, within these pages, the Left was usually wrong, and when it wasn't wrong, it was beastly unpleasant about being right. The Conservatives were more thoughtful, but relatively inert through this period. Everyone was more afraid of Communistic Workers' Rebellions than Nazi Authoritarianism. Any mention of British Fascism needs to be balanced by a dig or three at the Communists. The feeling you get towards the end is the authors would hope that this would all just blow over, and things would go back to way they were before the Depression. With less of the American dance styles, of course.

The book had a lot of good leads and concepts for running a campaign in London of the age. England did not have Prohibition, but it did have the Defense of the Realm Act (DORA), which gave the government wide sweeping powers to protect the Kingdom. While it finally wore out its welcome in 1921, and lot of its regulations, including licensing to control pubs and nightclubs, wore on throughout the period (some of these restrictions would continue up to the 1980s), and the government kept a fairly tight lead on the media.

The book gives you the feeling deja vu, as the authors whinge about things that are still whinged about today. On Media, the authors state at the outset: "The more newspapers people read, the shorter grows their historical memory ... And news heard on the radio is forgotten even sooner." Sounds a lot about complaints about people getting their information of Facebook. History never repeats, as Twain is quoted, but it often rhymes. 

Ultimately, The Long Week-End is that long weekend visiting your Tory great-uncle, who is always talking about how things were (better) before the war. It has a lot of good insights, partial histories, and catty commentary. But if you are looking for a good book on the 20s in America, check out Only Yesterday.

More later, 

Wednesday, June 02, 2021

Plague Books: Comfortable Robot

Fugitive Telemetry by Martha Wells,Tordotcom Books,2021

Provenance: Well of course I'm going to read the new Murderbot book. I've come onboard for this snappy series, and have stayed with it. Apparently, the book itself has branched, so now we have Murderbot novels, as well as shorter Murderbot novellas, which are the Diaries. In any event, when this one showed up I ordered it from Amazon in hardback along with two Shakespeare DVDs (King Lear with James Earl Jones and Much Ado About Nothing with Sam Waterston) to present to the Lovely Bride after tax season ended on 15 April. Then they pushed back the deadline a month (which, and this may surprise you, did not endear the IRS to all the tax preparers), so it was mid-May before I gave them to her. And she promptly devoured this one. Then I got to read it.

Review: Over in the Mystery genre they have what they call a "cozy". There are number of related definitions of it, but is usually involves an amateur detective, usually female, usually grudgingly accepted by the professional force, who accidentally discovers murder most foul, but in general has a low threat level and well-known surroundings and a supporting cast. Miss Marples and Jessica Fletcher are the best-known embodiments of the "cozy." Hardboiled writers like Chandler and Hammett HATED the cozy branch of their genre. But in the genre, a cozy is a comfortable read.

Fugitive Telemetry verges on the cozy. It stars our sarcastic friend, the Murderbot, and we are treated to their inner thoughts, which normally involving thinking about how stupid the humans are around them, and if they just spent five minutes not trying to get themselves killed, they could get back to watching pirated space adventure soap operas on their feeds. We are five books in (six counting a novel), and Murderbot (SecBot to everyone else, because, you know, identifying yourself as a Murderbot make fragile, squishy humans a little panicked), is no longer quite as bitingly sardonic, but comes off as cranky, verging on grumpy.

They also digress within their digression, and their personal asides have asides. Which as a writing style is rather contagious. Fortunately, I am resist to such influences (mostly).

Anyway, 

Fugitive Telemetry is a mystery novel at its heart, in which the talented amateur gets involved, despite their better judgement. A body is found in a hallway of Preservation Station, the entry port for Murderbot's new home planet. Who it is, who dunnit, and how it got there are all unknown. Murderbot is asked by their friend/sponsor to check it out, because it might be connected with the evil corporation that wants their friend/sponsor and all of her poly/research family dead. 

And grumbling, Murderbot agrees, having to deal with the head of security, who in no way is going to let Murderbot get access to all their mainframes, which would make the job a lot easier. Murderbot brings a lot to the table both with their hacking abilities and their basic assumption that humans at not the brightest tools in orbit. Murderbot's status as an artificial construct makes certain avenues of investigation (like talking to other constructs) blazingly obvious and overlooked by the more organic investigators.

Mysteries in SF (and in Fantasy as well) are difficult in that the author and the reader do not share the same baseline knowledge, and you have to explain the world without tipping your hand that this is why you explaining it. Or why this particular clue is a clue and not part of the world as people know it. In the Mystery genre, people have a basic assumption of how things work - the role of the police, the nature of evidence, how cars and guns work, general history, that sort of thing. In SF, you have to do a lot of groundwork to deal with the fact you are on a space station spinning in a vacuum with a number of different classes of man-made sentients running around (robots, AIs ships, SecBots, and the like), and and how that ultimately affects the story.

And it all works. Murderbot gets stuff wrong, makes bad assumptions, and goes down some blind allies before understanding what is really going on. And it feels ... comfortable. There a no dark bits of their past revealed, no major conspiracies, no serious revelations for the character. It almost feels like the pilot for a series on Netflix, where the Outsider installs themselves as the specialist that Station Security brings in for big cases. So Murderbot doesn't have to deal with the paperwork, just with the cool stuff.

And it makes for a comfortable read. Not quite a cozy, but you can see it from there.

More later,

Sunday, May 30, 2021

Plague Books: Sharpe's Image

Sharp's Rifles by Bernard Cornwell, Penguin Books, 1988

Provenance: Purchased at the Page Turner in downtown Kent. During my sojourn of selling off my comics collection, I swore that I would make no purchases until I had sent all the comics off. However, with the last group I took some store credit, and splurged on a number of volumes, including some Ellison, Derleth, Forester, Fraser, and some of the Sharpe's series. 

Review: I really liked Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey and Maturin sea novels, which dealt with the age of fighting sail during the Napoleonic Wars. So I was looking for something of the similar era and had heard about the BBC production of this series. No, I didn't watch the series, but I picked up a volume or three. This is purportedly the first, from the number on the spine, but really is the ninth published and the sixth chronologically in the series (The protagonist had before we meet him here had been in India and at Trafalgar). 

So, not really the first book in the series, or the first book written, but the first book of the Spanish campaigns. So a lot of this is backstory setting up the character. Anyway, how is Richard Sharpe?

Not that good. A solider-of-the-line rifleman who was promoted to Captain for heroism (from previous/later books) and squirreled away as Quartermaster for his unit on the Iberian Peninsula to resist the invading forces of Napoleon Bonaparte. Other officers don't like him because he is not a "real" officer - from the Upper Classes. Those he commands don't like him for the same reason - they believe officers are born, not made. So he's pretty miserable. Then the superior officers are wiped out, and it is up to Sharpe to lead his recalcitrant men to something resembling safety. In the middle of this, he gets involved with a Spanish Nobleman who is carrying a mysterious treasure, who is being pursued by his own posse of enemies. 

Sharpe is not great at his job. He knows more than most of his superiors about tactical combat, but is out-thought and out-maneuvered by his enemies and his supposed allies alike. His main asset is a bulldog determination and battlefield cunning that makes him grit his teeth and get the bloody job done. 

What Cornwell does well is both setting up his battle plans and showing how they quickly disintegrate upon contact with the enemy. His battles are described in sand-table accuracy, and the results of combat in grande guigol goriness. He captured the smoke from the pans of the rifles and the screams of the horses.

By the same token, his writing tends to tell as opposed to show (you want to know what they mean by this, take a look here), particularly with internal characterization. We are taken into Sharpe's head with long reflections and recriminations. And sometimes we are bounced out into another characters' head to share something that is not fully revealed from other characters, which is a bit frustrating as well. In combat, Cornwell pulls it all together.

There is also an element of fantasy here that would almost fit in Greyhawk or the Realms.  Sharpe's supposed Spanish ally, Blas Vivar, is on a quest to take a holy relic to a city held by the French, to raise it in a church with a ceremony to rally the people of Spain against Napoleon. This entire plot pitches the gritty reality of the Peninsular campaign towards high fantasy, and while Sharpe doubts, he goes along with it. As a result, he gets played by Blas Vivar multiple times. 

What can you say about Sharpe at this point? Well, he's got room to grow, though the multitude of books before and after this indicates that it may be a low learning curve. The writing is solid, and I have a couple more volumes on the shelf. But I think I will try a few other things first.

More later, 

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Plague Books: TED Talks in Text

The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman, Revised and Expanded Edition, Basic Books, 2013

Provenance: I was part of a online seminar a while back, and one of the other participants, Brannon Boren, recommended this book strongly. Picked it up via Amazon, and soon discovered that it was a bit of a Bible among those engaging in games design, in particular UX (User eXperience) and UI (User Interface).

Review: Even before this book, I was sensitized to UX/UI, due to my job. In part, an Amazon goal is to make processes (ordering stuff, playing games, watching a video) as frictionless as possible, and I am as a result aware of every bump, hiccup, and obstacle on the net and in real life that gets in my way. Just as an example, I am calling out those self-checkout kiosks at the grocery store, which are so bunged up they require live employees to stand by to help out us troglodytes who flail away at them.

But trogs we are not, says Norman - it is primarily the fault of bad design, that does not take into account how people actually use the things they use,communicate with them easily, and can handle when the user does not do the expected thing. And this book is filled with examples of bad design, good design, and evolving design, and the challenges that one faces when trying to create utility for objects that will be used by people who are not in the same room as you, and whom you cannot yell at ("No, turn the knob to the right. Clockwise! No, the OTHER clockwise!").

And this is familiar territory. You've hit things that don't work the way they should - doors that look like they push when they pull. Knobs that don't map directly to the burners on the stoves. Light switches that are not even in the same room as the lights they control (I have a LOT of these in our house, much to the frustration to guests who walk into a darkened bathroom and don't realize the light switch is Back Out in the Hall). The book has a lot of examples, and Norman returns to them several times to push various points through the text.

The book itself is written in bite-sized, readable bits, and is better for reading over a section, considering it for a while, then moving on to the next. IDeal  if, say, you're commuting on a public transport. Or between meetings. Or, well, in the bathroom. This is (I have to admit) where the bulk of my consumption of the book took place. It is like a bunch of short videos distilled down into a readable bite-sized form.

And it has a lot of organizational buckets for its ideas - The Seven Stages of Action. The Five Whys. The Three Levels of Processing. Yes, they sound like competing Martial Arts Schools, but Norman makes they all explainable and how they all fit in together. Indeed, he has the bits that look they evolved neatly into the "Flywheel" process that Amazon and other companies have adopting for product development and adequately using feedback loops.

And he lays out Norman's Law, which summarized, says "As soon as a project starts, it is behind schedule and over budget". Because I've been there, too.

Does he get everything right? Not completely. He uses his own book's organization as an example of text that can be read in any order, because non-fiction is different in fiction in that it is not yoked to a narrative through-line. However even nonfiction has a narrative flow in that it is making an argument and building its conclusions on previously presented material. You go immediately to the back of the book for answers, and you miss out on the logic that gets you there.

The Picturephone - 1970.
Yes, I was alive at that time.
Also, amusingly, he sites as a example the continuing failure of the videophone, which showed up at the end of the 18th Century as a concept for long-distance communication, and continued to never take hold up through the 21st Century (There was an ad for the videophone that was shot in Pittsburgh, and they wheeled it out whenever they were pushing the idea). Of course, in the past year, that entire concept has blown up not by a dedicated device, but by the fact that everyone HAD to teleconference, and with it, the rules changed and suddenly people were zooming/chiming/discording/tiktokking and what have you, even though this expanded volume came out less than a decade ago.

However, in general I am looking at a great little book that is easily consumable, and packs a punch on design issues, and I will strongly recommend it for everyone in "da bizniss", as it was recommended to me. Go forth and be sensitized on the issues.

More later, 

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Plague Books: Kafka-esque

The Book Tour by Andi Watson, Top Shelf Productions

Provenance: Lent to my by Stan!

Review: Fretwell is an author on that most burdensome of writer's tasks, the Book Tour. He goes from store to store on a fruitless quest to make personal appearances (that no one cares about), meet his public (who don't show up), and sell his books (which do not sell). The suitcase containing his books have been stolen, his publisher is ghosting him, and his wife is nothing more than a distant voice on the telephone.

Oh, and he's a suspected serial killer. 

The Book Tour is a graphic novel by Andi Watson which moves leisurely through its absurd urban landscape. Watson's style is quiet, and his dialogue short and filled with assumptions on both parties' parts. Fretwell wanders through an ornate, deeply illustrated city filled with self-involved, minimalist characters, most of whom are so wrapped up with their own lives to the point that Fretwell does not register, much less matter. And Fretwell himself takes it all without losing his cool or pressing his own advantage.

Fretwell's hell is Kafkaesque. I got that feeling from the very name of his doomed book - "Without K", as K was the last name of victim in Kafka's "The Trial". And like The Trial, Fretwell comes under suspicion of a crime he did not commit, and confronts a universe that is not maliciously uncaring in a Lovecraftian sense, but uncaring in its own right.

Stan! tells me he took his time with the book, and I can see why - in addition to being an author, Stan! is a cartoonist, and the pacing of the story as Fretwell moves from encounter to encounter is excellent, his characters frustratingly obtuse, and his city is both malignant and detailed. I on the other hand, moved through it slowly because it raised a lot of my dark ghosts of my own previous book appearances, ranging from the ones where no one showed up, to those where we violated some local idiosyncrasy, to those when we were literally in the shadow of better-known authors (as in, right beneath a banner that says "Meet Tom Clancy!". Every writer has those experiences - buy me a beer and I'll bend your ear, but this book unearthed them in all their undead glory.

But back to the book. Watson's universe is uncaring, but not in a malicious way, but rather just self-absorbed. Fretwell is a irritant to the inhabitants of that world, and his relentless desire to push on through his adversities (which quickly pile up) forms the hub of the story. I think I know who the serial killer is, or at least, who I want the serial killer to be.

In the end, this a post-war British black comedy, something produced by Ealing Studios with Alec Guiness as Fretwell, directed by that young Hitchcock fellow who had already left for Hollywood. And that's a movie I would be glad to see.

More later,


Sunday, May 16, 2021

Life in the Time of the Virus: Signs of Life

Morning Sun by Edward Hopper - 1952
 It's not over. Not yet. But it feels like there is a long, group, exhalation from holding your breath for too long a time.

The good news is that fatalities are down in the Seattle area, and cases and hospitalizations have leveled off. A recent map of the region put the vacc rate at 70% for at least one shot, the vaccine is plentiful, and a lot of sites are taking walk-ins. But we are still seeing new cases, particularly among younger people. I haven't seen a precise reason yet, but I wonder if it is connected in any way with the re-start of in-person schools. Of course, this was a thought that occurred to me as I was driving over to Covington Labs for a blood draw, and found myself behind multiple school buses. 

The rest of the world continues to pitch and yaw with the disease. India at one time was so untouched that people strained to come up with reasons why. Now it is being hit hard. Russia was under reporting its damage, which is of little surprise. Brazil remains a dumpster fire, and Sweden, who banked on herd immunity, has suffered worse than its Scandinavian neighbors. Island nations keep a tight watch on their borders. And our own official national count may be low as well, and the "real" number of deaths may be up to twice of what we reported.

On a more regional level, the governors are taking it on the chin, red or blue, for a) doing too much, b) not doing enough, or c) doing both at the same time. And even though I am wary of returning to "business as previous", I have to admit we have seen improvements. But improvements are not eradication. 

But the CDC has gone on record in the past week on  pulling off the masks, and though they bunker it in cautious, adult terms (IF you are vaccinated and IF you are outside), it seems like the reaction is as if Landru suddenly shouted "Festival!" (Original Star Trek reference, for the younger kids).  Will we see a bigger fourth wave moving forward, or are enough folk vacced to give us a fighting chance?

At the personal level, the local groceries are still masked up, and I'm good with that, and I will continue to wear masks when indoors in public, and likely when I am outdoors in among strangers as well. My personal favorite mask has a purple octopus on it, and people assume that I am supporting Seattle's nascent hockey team. Our Pandemic Pod has resumed outdoor meetings when the weather is good, all of us grabbing various forms of takeout and camping in the backyard. The Lovely Bride has gotten a brazier for fires, and Housemate Anne has a mosquito-repeller she says will keep the Washington State Bird at bay. The pair have been renovating the garden with surprising speed as the LB emerges from tax hell.

And my company has been putting things together to return people to the office in some form. A lot of my former project-comrades have moved on to other things, but I still have my desk in the office (though last time I was there I had forgotten what floor we were on). And much of Queen Anne Hill and Lake Union are blocked by newer buildings that have gone up in the interim. I did manage to save an overstuffed chair that I call "The Story Chair", where people would come by and our team would talk about story with them. A lot about his (and many other things) is still unknown and unrevealed, but we are moving forward to some semblance of the before-times. 

But for me, I have adapted to working at home well. I've done it before, in the land of freelance, and the ever-available online calls mitigates some of the communication challenge. I have a tidy desk in the corner of my home office dedicated to "the day job", and from here I can see the hummingbirds at the feeder and the crows at the pond fountain. The wisteria and rhododendrons are in bloom. We're holding up OK, and looking forward to the next stage. 

More later,