Thursday, March 23, 2006

Netgear FWG114P, with Sighs

I went to a lot of trouble to find an old/new stock Netgear FWG114P firewall/router with wireless in order to replace my malfunctioning older Netgear box, which needed to be reset constantly. I wanted something that was not cutting edge. I wanted that one because it had a built-in USB print server, which turned out to be fairly useless, because it only supports a small handful of printers. Sigh number one.

The much-maligned Airport Express seemed to support a lot more printers, except it didn't work, at least not for printing big images, and it needed to be rebooted, for no apparent reason, quite frequently, despite installing all available updates.

Anyway, I've had the new box up for a few months now, and it has worked flawlessly, until yesterday, when it stopped providing internet access. Sigh number two.

There was nothing wrong with the cable modem or the uplink. The iMac could connect to the wireless network. The router had just lost its ability to do DNS lookup or talk to hosts out on the internet. So, I want to log in and check the status. I thought it was supposed to be administered only by a wired connection, but I seem to be able to get to the admin page via the Airport. Hmmm. That's not what I intended, since we run an open wireless network (yes, deliberately). Anyway, I can't log in. It doesn't seem to recognize the password I'm pretty sure I assigned it. Try the permutations I can think of; they don't work. I'm locked out. Sigh number three.

Pull the power, and plug it back in; it works again, although I still can't log in.

Was the router compromised in some way? I don't know. If I can get it to reset the password without losing its logs, I might be able to find out, but more likely, everything will be wiped, and I'll have to re-load my saved settings (at least I saved them!) and see if I can limit admin access to a wired port. Sigh number four.

Rant: why is this so hard? I am not doing anything exotic with this box. It is mostly just there to let my wife use her iBook from downstairs and to protect my PC (running Windows 2000 or Linux) from various attacks from the wired network. Almost all the ports on the router are closed and in "stealth" mode. The PC was off, and my PowerBook wasn't connected. The network consisted almost entirely of the uplink to the cable modem, the firewall/router, and Grace's iBook. The iBook isn't running any servers. Grace runs Mail and not much else. Yet, the box just up and stopped working.

This thing is supposed to be an appliance. Do I need to reboot my refrigerator every month and throw out all the food? Does my toaster need a firmware upgrade periodically? I don't think so. As far as I'm concerned, my experience with the Airport Express and with these two Netgear appliances has led me to believe that the whole category of appliance firewall/routers is suspect. I'll have to stop recommending them altogether, and when someone wants to know how to set up a simple home wireless network, I'll have to throw up my hands and say "hell if I know." Thanks, Apple! Thanks, Netgear! Grrr...

Le DX-7 est arrivé

Isaac is starting to take keyboard lessons and wants to learn to play synthesizer. We have been considering options for some kind of a keyboard with full-sized keys he could use at home. I was looking into cheapo home keyboards, low-end digital pianos, and a used Yamaha KX-88 MIDI controller keyboard. Advantage of the KX-88: it is built like a tank, it has weighted keys with realistic action. Disadvantages: it weighs 75 lbs.; it doesn't produce any sound (I'd need to find a sound module, like an Alesis NanoPiano); and some of the key expressiveness you could get with the nice tactile key mechanism would be unavoidably lost in translation to MIDI.

After looking at a KX-88 available locally for $300 and scouting tone modules on eBay, and scratching my head for a while, I finally decided to bid on an original Yamaha DX-7. I lost the auction, but apparently the high bidder didn't come through, so I got a second chance offer, and yesterday a humongous box arrived, filled with packing peanuts, bubble wrap, and the DX-7 in a nice padded soft case, along with two ROM cartridges and original manuals, all for about $250 including shipping.

The DX-7 was one of the most popular synthesizers sold in the 1980s and had its debut in 1983. I first used one around 1986, in college. The College of Wooster's music teacher, Dr. Brian Dykstra, gave a concert on the DX-7, which I attended. My friend Jim Batman was a piano player and also interested in the synthesizer, so he got permission from Dr. Dykstra to go in after hours and play around with the DX-7. Jim had the keyboard chops and I had the geek chops, so one night we took a casette deck and spent the entire night in the music studio. We would listen to sounds and I would work on modifying them until we had something cool, and then Jim would improvise a composition and we'd record it. I got a crash course in programming the DX-7, and Jim got to record some neat compositions. Of course, like most of the truly useful and fun things I did in college, it had nothing to do with my classes and involved staying up all night and ruining my concentration the next day. I still have the tape and will get it online sometime when I am able.

The DX-7 is a quirky brown beast, extremely well-built and nearly indestructible. It does not have realistic piano action, but the keys are full-sized, solidly built, velocity-sensitive, and springy. It uses FM synthesis, also known as subtractive synthesis. It produces some kinds of sounds that are very realistic and rich-sounding, and some that are really mediocre or poor. In general, it was extremely good at producing sounds with a lot of high harmonics and metallic ring modulation. I'm not sure just why this is the case, but basically instruments with metal mouthpieces, strings, reeds, pipes, or bells can be quite nicely rendered by the DX-7, and most other kinds of instruments can't be. It probably has a lot to do with the generation of even and odd harmonics.

The DX-7 had several electric piano presets that, despite sounding somewhat artificial, had very rich, pretty bell-like overtones; other synthesizers of the time could not produce electric piano sounds that were anywhere near as nice-sounding, so the DX-7 sounds became extremely popular: synthmania: DX-7 electric piano sample

The Rhodes electric piano simulation has what I would call a surreal gloss or saccharine sound which made it fit very well with highly-polished (some would say over-produced) '80s ballads. You can hear that sound here, used on a Whitney Houston track: synthmania: Greatest Love of All excerpt

The DX-7 harpsicord (another of the metallic sounds at which the DX-7 excelled) is almost supernaturally realistic: synthmania: DX-7 harpsichord sample

The DX-7 does great chimes including this tubular bell simulation: synthmania: DX-7 tubular bells

There is a nice clavinet that reminds me of Stevie Wonder: synthmania: DX-7 clavinet sample

The strings are less realistic, tending to sound less "fat" than analog synth strings, and its replicas of wind instruments like flute are not very good, although it does generate a number of very fine organ sounds (reproducing metal pipes or reeds): synthmania: DX-7 organ sample

On one of the cartridges is a harmonica sound (again, a metal reed instrument), and although not all that realistic, it was charming and homey enough to make it into a popular Tina Turner track, where it makes a good counterpoint to the somewhat sad lyrics synthmania: What's Love Got to Do With It excerpt

The "fat" analog sound of the Prophet 5 and ARP is not really possible on the DX-7, although some DX-7 percussive and metallic synthetic bass sounds became popular and got a lot of play in dance music (I believe New Order may have used a DX-7): synthmania: DX-7 bass sample New Order also used some hollow, spooky human voice sounds, which I think also came from a DX-7, although I could not find a good example.

Programming for FM synthesizers is trickier than programming a traditional analog synthesizer. The oscillators interact in unintuitive and unpredictable ways. You don't have filters in the usual synthesizer sense; you can't just grab a knob and twist it to change the frequency envelope as you play. All the parameters are available via menus and there is a single data-entry slider. A lot of trial-and-error is involved.

It is relatively easy to start with an existing patch and modify it to make it sound more interesting. That was how I got most of the sounds I used for the tape. Starting from scratch building up sine waves with operators will usually give you something that sounds weird and metallic and hollow and not very "pretty," and it is not very clear how to get closer to "pretty" except by accident. Thus, the DX-7 also has a kind of second life in gothic and harsh rock music like Nine Inch Nails, especially when some of these metallic sounds are fed through effects like distortion and ring modulators to fatten up their harmonic content and make them more suitable for lead or bass lines.

I'm recommending to Isaac that he stick with playing his exercises and not worry at first what all those operators and modulators mean. We're putting away the programming manual for now. If he wants to learn to program it, though, I won't discourage him, and I'll happily show him what I know, which is not that much, and let him dig into it. It will certainly teach him the virtues of patience. If he likes the DX-7, there are lots more interesting synthesizers available on eBay, so he can start saving his allowance.

The DX-7 is long out of production but FM synthesis still has many fans and there are plug-in versions (FM-7) and rack versions (the FS1R), so the great sounds and the quirky FM synthesis techniques live on. Vive le DX-7!

Monday, March 20, 2006

Eulogy for my Grandmother

This is the text of remarks I read at my grandmother's funeral on Saturday, March 20th, 2006, in North East, Pennsylvania. This is the text as written, not a transcript, and I improvised and edited slightly as I went, but this is the substance of what I said. My grandmother was Mrs. Marcella Armstrong. In the text I refer to her as "my grandmother" or "Grandmother" because that is what we always called her, never "Grandma" or anything more familiar. During the eulogy I slipped once and referred to her as Marcella -- she would not have approved of this breach of etiquette by her grandson!

[The minister had just read the text of cards that were handed in from those in attendance, each of which contained a brief note about the guest's best memory of my grandmother].

First I'd like to say that my wife Grace is busy in the nursery, but if she were here I know she would want to express her appreciation for the kindness my grandmother showed to her each time they met, and the way that my grandmother welcomed her into the family.

I want to talk a little bit about time.

My grandmother had a lot of time on this earth and she knew a lot about time. She taught me how to tell time. She had an alarm clock, and she sat down with me one day and set the hands to different positions until I could reliably tell her what the clock said.

A while ago I was on my way home from work. I was very hungry, and I had a long drive ahead, so I stopped at a Taco Bell. I used to get bean burritos at Taco Bell in 1993, because they could fill you up for 59 cents each.

I almost didn't recognize Taco Bell in 2006. They had items on the menu like Baja Chalupas and Fiesta Gorditos. The paper cups had rims that you could unroll to find out whether you had won a prize. The drinks were all strange, like Code Red and Pepsi One, and the cups were enormous -- I think they were trying to sell me a half-gallon of soda. There were ads on the placemat, ads on the napkin, and even ads on the wrapper around my bean burrito. The one utensil they had available was a plastic spork.

Taco Bell has become all about advertising and gambling and huge doses of caffeine and sugar. It has nothing to do with dining and civility. I'm thirty-eight years old and eating at Taco Bell has already become an extremely weird experience for me, after only a dozen years. I want you to take a moment and think about how strange and disturbing the world today would seem like to someone born in 1904 -- someone who lived to be 102 years old.

1904 was the year that the ice cream cone was invented, and the year that the first New Years' Eve celebration happened in Times Square. In 1900 there were only 10 miles of paved road in the United States and 8,000 cars. In 1906, 15 states had speed limits of 20 miles per hour, and it took 52 days to go across the country by car.

One of my friends read this and commented that not only did they not have cell phones in 1904, they didn't have the technology behind the cell phone, or the science behind the technology behind the cell phone. Modern quantum mechanics, which is the theory that eventually produced technologies like the transistor, was still at least 20 years away.

In 1904 the Pope was Pius X. That was 8 popes ago. The president was Theodore Roosevelt. That was eighteen presidents ago.

The film _The Great Train Robbery_ was released. It was twelve minutes long, and at the end featured a gun fired directly at the camera. A lot of people who saw the film thought that they were actually about to be shot and screamed in terror.

This sounds stupid, but think about the first time you saw an astronaut walk on the moon, which happened when I was about the same age as my daughter is now. When I listen to the news about the latest technology, like cloning, and robotics, and genetic engineering, sometimes I want to scream in terror too! It's all coming at me a little bit too fast.

In 1905, there was a silent film called _The Gay Shoe Clerk_, which featured a shoe salesman who managed to get a look at the ankle of one of his female customers. The clerk even gave her a kiss, which was pretty scandalous, and this resulted in his being attacked by the young lady's escort.

Although Grandmother was born a few years after Queen Victoria died, the culture she grew up in was heavily influenced by the Victorian era. Grandmother didn't keep her ankles hidden, but she was always very nicely dressed, and her manners came from the Victorian tradition. Grandmother was all about civilized dining and letters, especially thank-you notes. She was not entirely formal, though. She also had a great sense of humor, and I remember her laughing. She knew that it was rude to laugh at other people, but she was humble and always willing to laugh at herself.

In the Victorian era, a young lady would be expected have an escort when she was out in public. She would be expected to know how eat an eight-course meal off of fine linens and china and know the difference between a a fish fork, a tea fork, an oyster fork, an ice cream fork, a pickle fork, and a lemon fork. I've never even seen most of these, but I'm quite certain none of them was much like a plastic spork from Taco Bell, and I don't think they would have been eating Baja Chalupas off that fine china.

There were very elaborate social rules. If you wanted to visit someone, you would leave a calling card with the butler, then go home and wait for a note that would suggest a time for your visit. This seems like a lot of work, but at least people knew how to write back then. These rules all prevented a lot of rudeness, like when bill collectors call you during dinner, or when you are talking on the phone with one person and call waiting cuts in. Rudeness, like drinking a sixty-four ounce soda in your car while driving and talking on your cell phone. These are the things that we call "modern conveniences."

Compare Victorian table manners with the life of modern convenience, and maybe you can get a feel for just how far away from home my grandmother must have felt. Modern life made her very nervous. It certainly makes me nervous.

It reminds me of Gandhi's answer when he was asked "what do you think of Western civilization?" He said "I think it would be a good idea!"

Grandmother and I had some things in common. I studied English and loved writing, and she could understand and appreciate that. Our best communication with each other took place via letters. But my hobby was always computers, and that's what I've mostly worked on, and so I was never really able to explain to her what I did for a living.

Maybe it's understandable that when my mother told my grandmother that she had gotten an e-mail message from me, Grandmother frowned and asked her "did you write it down?" To Grandmother, e-mail would have been a little like a telegram without the piece of paper -- something you couldn't save and read later. Written letters represented careful thought and good manners and the preservation of civilization. Telemarketers and Taco Bell and grandchildren who didn't write thank-you letters on time represented just the opposite.

It was just this year -- 2006 -- that Western Union discontinued telegram service. They had been sending telegrams for 143 years. Does anyone think that the technologies we use now will still be largely unchanged in another 143 years, in the year 2149? Things are changing faster and faster, coming at us like bullets. I'm starting to feel pretty far away from home myself.

A lot of time has gone by since my grandmother taught me to tell time -- not 143 years, but maybe thirty years. To my grandmother thirty years must have seemed like nothing. I am sad that she had to spend her last thirty years without a husband, since my grandfather died long before she did, and that she gradually had to give up many of the things that she loved, such as her independence and her work at the church library. She could no longer see well enough to read or write, or drive a car.

I last saw Grandmother two weeks ago. She could barely hear, even with two hearing aids, and barely see me. Even so, she told me how much she appreciated my visit, and she did her best to listen to news about my family, and told me that she hoped that I would bring them all next time.

She lost many things as she got older. But she did not lose her dignity. That was very important to her. I am grateful that she died peacefully in the company of family. It is a blessing, and it gives me hope that one day I will die with as much dignity as she did.

Although I don't feel like I knew my grandmother all that well, I am a better person for having known her. She was a bridge to another time and she had a message for us from another century -- a message about love, civility, dignity, and faith. Se was, in her own way, a defender of civilization.

My son Isaac, by the way, was born in 1994, 90 years after my grandmother was born, and my daughter Veronica was born in 2004, 100 years after my grandmother. A century. I have hopes that one day in the year 2104 Veronica will be 100 years old, and that she will get to know her own great-grandchildren. I also hope that there will be at least a little bit of civilization left for her to defend.

The last time they were here, Veronica and Isaac sat at a table with my grandmother. She couldn't hear them or see them very well, but they hugged each other and held hands, and they communicated their affection for each other across that huge gulf of time.

I don't think I've ever seem anything in my life that taught me more about the meaning of time. It was a blessing and a miracle and I am grateful that my time and my grandmother's time overlapped for as long as they did, and that I could learn some of what she had to teach me.

Thank you.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Carnacki the Ghost-Finder

I've been reading the Carnacki stories (from _The House on the Borderland and Other Mysterious Places: The Collected Fiction of William Hope Hodgson Volume 2_, published by Night Shade Books.

I'm enjoying them so much that we are forgoing our Saturday evening video tomorrow and will instead do a reading of the second Carnacki story, _The Gateway of the Monster_. I previewed the story this morning before leaving for work -- they are quite short, which is ideal for someone without much free time to read. Last night I read the first one, _The Thing Invisible_.

The text is out-of-copyright and is actually available online: see Wikipedia which has links to a couple of online versions of the texts. If you don't want to buy the new Night Shade edition, which is very nice, you can read it online or print it out without violating copyright. The wonders of expiring copyright! In fact, I'm going to do this so we have a couple of reading copies and can keep the bound copy in nice condition.

The two stories would make a good screen adaptation, and could be done with a relatively low budget. If you read the text closely, you realize that the protagonist is not a very traditional hero: he is actually an introvert, and rather self-deprecating. There is an undercurrent of "of course, I knew there was a rational explanation all along!" humor.

While Carnacki is skeptical, he also gets worked up into a state of terror (much to his embarassment) even when nothing actually supernatural is happening -- his imagination runs away with him. This is a great device as it encourages the reader's imagination to do the same. I can imagine Hugh Laurie playing Carnacki. In my mind he is not a tough guy. He is very competent technically, and fascinated by the supernatural, and brilliant, but when he hears a creepy noise under the right circumstances, he gives out an embarassingly high-pitched scream of terror; in _The Gateway of the Monster_ he keeps twitching and knocking over his vials of holy water and other protective devices when threatened by a supernatural entity. In _The Thing Invisible_ he crashes headlong into his camera while wearing a dressing gown over a suit of armor. There is a definite element of slapstick here, but I would not want it to veer into pure camp.

In the written stories the framework -- consisting, basically, of Carnacki inviting some friends to have dinner with him, then sit around and listen while he tells the story, and perhaps ask a question or two at the end -- would need to be beefed up a bit. He probably needs a housekeeper or gentleman's gentleman -- I can't imagine that he cooks the dinners himself. It would be nice to see the telegrams that summon Carnacki to investigate the various supernatural phenomena. Some of the occult artifacts might benefit from a little history.

I'm going to take a crack at writing a Carnacki screenplay. I'll try to get Isaac involved -- he needs some writing assignments. If I think the result is worth reading, I'll make it available here.

Kicking the Dog

Me: speaking to the little "Search" animated dog in Windows XP: "Find all files containingthe phrase "xxxx" looking in "yyyy"
and including all files and folders, searching system folders, searching hidden files and folders, searching subfolders, not case sensitive.

Dog: "OK! I'm done! Here ya go!" (6 files found)

Me: Wait a minute! How come you didn't find

"path\file" ??? Bad dog!

Dog: Drools, wags tail, scratches self, licks self inappropriately, piddles on the screen, gnaws on desktop icons. "Where do you want to go today? Huh? Where?"

Me: How about if you look for only *.zzz files containing "xxxx" ?

Dog: "Woof! I'm all done! No files found!"

Me: "It's time for the shock collar... and where did I leave that rolled up newspaper?"

Dog: "Thank you for using Microsoft Windo... YIPE!!!"

Me: Grrrr....

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Whew, That was Painful

The previous shots were taken by the built-in camera on an iMac G5 and warped with the very clever little come-with application called Photo Booth, which does real-time filtering including several surreal funhouse mirror effects. It makes me laugh!

My, What an Imploding Nose You Have

My, What Big Glasses You Have

My, What an Oblate Spheroid Your Head Is

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

My, What a Big Nose You Have

Googling Oneself Considered Harmful

Don't Google yourself. You might be frightened by what you find.

Apparently there is, or was, a garage band out of Penn State called Blasting Trout Overbite. They seem to be primarily influenced by Neutral Milk Hotel. So far, so good. _In the Aeroplane Over the Sea_ is one of my favorite albums and I love garage bands in general. I listened to a few of their songs and it would have been fun to hear them play live. The recordings are a mixed bag. Their earlier material is more fun, and songs like "Written or Burned" make hunting through the rest of them worthwhile. I could do without the use of the word "faggot" -- as lyrics go, surreal is great, silly is great, strange is great, even plain incomprehensible is all right, but hateful is not cool.

They have a number of covers. Their version of XTC's "Making Plans for Nigel" sounds like a Residents song fed through a ring modulator, and lacks any sense of the rhythm that propels the original. It is bad, very bad. Their cover of "King of Carrot Flowers" is considerably better although it feels a little flat and lacking in instrumentation.

After splitting up some of the members have been involved in spin-offs. One of these seems to be called "The History and Civilization of the Great Black Swamp." They have a single called "Paul Potts" with a B-side called "Been Down to the Grape." The single (MP3 files and artwork) is available here:

The site includes the lyrics. They are a bit odd, and include the verse:

Paul Potts, in the middle of a clearing under a tree
Paul Potts, can you hear me terrify me?
Paul Potts, an orphan's what I'll grow up to be
Paul Potts, get you away from me

The track is not actually very good; the drumming in particular seems absolutely terrible, although I admire the enthusiasm. I should be clear: I admire anyone who gets together and makes live music. Everyone should try playing in a band at least once. I remember my own attempts at playing in high school garage bands and even though we were horrible, I wouldn't trade that experience for anything.

My only real question is whether I am the Paul Potts in question, and if so, where my name came from. It isn't a very common name, although there have been a couple of other people named Paul Potts, including an English author. I grew up in North East, Harbocreek, and Erie, and these are not far from Penn State, although if the students where were in this band graduated in 2004 or 2005 I am about fifteen years too old to have known any of them in high school.

On second thought, maybe I don't want to know. Once after I left for college someone committed some crimes in Erie and apparently used my name as one of his aliases. I also get e-mail messages from people either jokingly, or maybe seriously, thinking that I am Pol Pot.

I left a note on the Blasting Trout Overbite forum introducing myself. I guess I do have one more question. Should I record a cover of the song? It would seem only appropriate. If so, in what style? Most of my music gear got sold off get a bit of cash in my last round of unemployment in 2004, but I could probably improvise something...

Monday, March 06, 2006

Smart Baby Girl, Half-Crazed Baby Girl

Veronica is 16 months old. Grace took Isaac to a counseling appointment, and his counselor came in the waiting room and said "my office has moved -- I'm in room 9." Isaac went to his appointment.

Later, Veronica got bored in the waiting room. She walked down the hall and looked at the room numbers on the doors. She went right up to room 9 and knocked on the door!

It seems that maybe those alphabet and number videos are doing something useful after all.

I got her a Little Touch LeapPad (a sort of baby laptop) hoping that she would play with it when her mom used her laptop. So far it is not a great success. She loves to push the on/off button, because it says "bye-bye" when it goes off, and she knows what "bye-bye" means. But it is not actually a very well-designed toy for the baby to actually use herself: it requires that someone (presumably the adult) push a button to tell it when you have turned the page, and then a second button if you are using one of the separate activity pages.

The touch-sensitive area requires a fair amount of force on a finger-tip in order to register the touch, which is probably why Vera prefers to push the hardware on/off button, which is easy to push and produces a predictable response. When she touches the pad, she prefers to bang on or lean on the tablet part, which gets an unpredictable response, so it is not really rewarding for her. She can draw with a crayon, so she ought to be able to touch images in the book, but it is not working out well. The booklet pages are not tearable (they are Tyvek), which is good, but they can be marked with a crayon, much to Veronica's delight and my frustration.

She treats it a bit like the way she treats her cookie monster toy: instead of playing with it as intended, which is to feed it cookies and listen to it say "Me want cookie!" and then "Yum yum yum yum -- thanks for cookie!" or "Oops, no cookie," she figured out that if she holds his mouth shut, he will make a horrible machine-gun ratcheting sound, which she finds infinitely more entertaining than his talking and animated mouth. She even figured out how to wedge it under a lamp or table so it will continue to make that noise until the battery runs down, so that she doesn't have to hold it with her hands. Maybe that makes her a geek at heart.

Trying to get her to listen to me read the story and trigger the sounds, or do it herself, has not been a big success. But she seems to be approaching developmental tasks out-of-order: she just now has started to occasionally crawl, which she originally skipped entirely in favor of running. She likes to put the LeapPad booklets neatly away in the little laptop bag, and it is funny to see my own behavior patterns reflected back at me!

Her hair is out of control, and it is about time for her first haircut. I don't think we can put it off until her second birthday -- to many knots, even when we comb it out every day. Although maybe I will see if I can find a baby conditioner.

Her personality is a little bit out of control as well -- she is approaching the terrible twos early. She doesn't scream "no" yet, but she is getting close. She is drawing on the wall with her crayons -- something Isaac apparently never did.

She can understand us when we tell her and show her not to do that, but pretends not to -- the "I'm just a sweet and innocent baby!" act. If you take away the object of her current interest, she throws herself on the floor, shrieking as loudly as she can -- which is quite loud! -- the "I'm going to make the neighbors think you are beating me" act.

She is nothing if not strong-willed! Quite a challenging little girl to deal with. And everytime she acts out, Isaac gets in on the act in another way: getting angry, or frustrated. Getting angry at a sixteen-month-old girl for being naughty is like getting angry at a thundrstorm for ruining your picnic plans -- utterly pointless -- hence, Isaac's counseling. I thought I had learned some useful skills working with Isaac from age 5 to 11, but clearly I have more parenting to learn -- and our children are very different!

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

What Paul's Reading, 01 March 2006 Edition

I'm halfway through Murakami's latest novel _Kafka on the Shore_. Murakami is my favorite contemporary writer and this is a great work -- not as long and dark as _The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle_, his most powerful book to date, but fascinating. Murakami's books have the property of inevitability -- you are not sure how he will get you to the end, but when you reach the end, it feels as if everything has reached the only conclusion possible. Strangely, rather than making the reader feel claustrophobic, it feels liberating and enlightening, as if you were watching a newly proposed law of physics convincingly demonstrated.

I've been re-reading the last book of David Zindell's "Requiem for Homo Sapiens" books. They consist of _Neverness_, a standalone volume, not technically part of the trilogy, but that introduces the trilogy, and then the trilogy itself, _The Broken God_, _The Wild_, and _War in Heaven._

Zindell's science fiction world is filled with religious yearning and mysticism. His style is flowing, almost stream-of-consciousness in its depth, but not first-person. The negative side of this style is that it results in very, very long books. Conversations take longer to read about than they would to speak. Every word is fraught with meaning and associations, but very little is left for the reader to imagine and associate -- instead, the author pretty much lays everything out for you. This can feel a little tedious to readers who like to draw their own conclusions.

Some books, such as _Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix_, leave you feeling that the book could have benefited from a careful editing. The situation with these books is not so clear-cut; it is in digression and the onrushing flow of descriptive language that these books shine, and not clear to me how they could easily be shortened without brutalizing the style that the author achieves with a lot of words. Zindell's hero, Danlo wi Soli Ringess, experiences frequent headaches, as he encounters one challenge after another, and after a couple of volumes ranging between 600 to 900 pages, the reader could be forgiven for feeling that same headache.

That said, I still admire these books, and have found them worth re-reading; they fit somewhere into the extropian, man-becomes-God-or-at-least-Godlike tradition that includes A. A. Attanasio's _Radix_. Zindell's universe is built on incongruous elements: computer consciousness, pure mathematical visualization, meditation, memory, tantric sex, candle-light, incense, and raw, bloody seal meat, and warrior-poets, who elevate killing to a high art. Somehow it works, and if you are willing to push on through the very long text, it feels inspired, although some of Danlo's adventures into inner space, and some of the words used to describe them, can start to seem a little redundant.

I'm also hung up on several other books: I've been very slowly working my way through _In Green's Jungles_, the middle volume in the Short Sun books. It took me several tries and a running start to see the qualities of Wolfe's Long Sun books, so this is not unexpected, especially since I don't get much uninterrupted time to read these days.

In my pile is also _Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell_, which I was enjoying, but somehow got stuck on. Also in the queue is James Tiptree's _Up the Walls of the World_. I am looking forward to that after enjoying _Brightness Falls from the Sky_ very much. The latest by Stephen R. Donaldson is in the pile too, as well as China Mieville's novel _The Iron Council_. I was very impressed by Mieville's books _Perdido Street Station_ and _The Scar_.

I've been meaning to re-read some Philip K. Dick as well, particularly _A Scanner Darkly_, in advance of the Linklater movie adaptation due later this year.

In non-fiction, I am re-reading _The Little Schemer_ and working my way further into Paul Graham's _On Lisp_. The Scheme is going along with my work on Sudoku in Scheme. I probably won't be able to do a great deal with _On Lisp_ until I have some uninterrupted hours to sit down with a Common Lisp implementation and really work through the macro examples.

I've got a pile of other books on category theory, lambda calculus, Smalltalk, Prolog, Lua, and state machines. Always too many books and too little time!