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,