We're back from our holiday in Sweden. I was mostly surprised about how focused Swedes appear on their own country and their own language. Although most people speak some to a lot of English, many act surprised at first when you want to talk to them in a language other than Swedish. A lot of Swedish people appear to take holidays in their own country. Most signs and explanations in museums and places of interest then are only available in Swedish. You tend to only get an English or German translation of the introductory/overview kind of signs. Coming from such a tiny, crowded country as the Netherlands, where the people don't take much pride in either the Dutch language or culture, it's refreshing to see a people take pride in their national language and culture in such a natural, low key, non flag-waving, non self-aggrandizing way.
Guess I'm taking over the baton from David, who managed two whole posts more than I did in the past weeks, so kudos to David :-) Actually, I was blissfully offline for two whole weeks in Sweden, holed up in an old cottage, so much in the middle of nowhere, that I can't even find a map service that knows the street it's on. Yesterday I backpedaled through two weeks worth of Slashdot and a couple of blogs, so a few posts of me catching up will follow shortly.
Plain text comments
In a comment to a post at Feministe referring to this blog, Annie J. complains that I don't allow HTML in the comments. The primary reason for not allowing HTML in comments is that it is a potential security risk. If you allow all HTML tags in your comments, then people can try to insert scripts or automatic redirects in the comments, which could cause problems for the webserver (because now the script is running on the same machine as for instance your blog tool), or the visitors, who fall victim to said scripts or redirects.
Not allowing any HTML is the simple answer and I feel that not much is lost in terms of usability or expression that way. Filtering (additional filter link) all submitted content would make the use of a restricted set of HTML tags in comments possible, and I may spend some time implementing it, but imho it doesn't add much to the site. The moral of the story? Be aware of what you let others contribute to your site ;-)
Whitelist vs blacklist
It appears as if more and more discerning websurfers who previously preferred Opera are switching to Mozilla Firebird. Firebird has a lot going for it, but there is one area where Opera beats it hands down: cookie handling.
The dilemma with cookies is that in general they're useless and omnipresent, but there are certain sites, like your online banking website or forums that you are involved with, that you would like to be able to set cookies in order to remember your login details. Opera handles this brilliantly with a whitelist approach, that allows you to tell Opera which websites you want to allow to set cookies. Firebird on the other hand, uses a blacklist approach, where you have to tell Firebird for each and every website whether or not it is allowed to set cookies.
I think there's no other way of putting it, but to say that this is a fundamental flaw in Firebird. It is not a user-centric solution and it seriously hampers the workflow. Even the latest Internet Explorers work with a whitelist approach to cookies... (Very meaningful trailing dots there.) I hope this gets fixed in the next builds.
While the music plays
In two very interesting columns Robert Cringely talks about what he calls Snapster: the Son of Napster. You might want to read about Snapster first, to see how the argument develops to his vision of Snapster 2.0, the revised version of the idea. Basically, what his argument comes down to, is that under Fair Use and Copyright laws, it should be possible to set up a company as a mutual fund. People can buy shares in this mutual fund and these shares entitle them to peruse the fund's assets, of which they are now co-owners. If these assets are music recordings in the form of CDs, then under Fair Use and Copyright laws, shareholders would be entitled to use those CDs or a copy thereof. A copy of the CD would easily be distributed over the internet, while the original remains in the company's warehouse.
The only limitation appears to be that for each original recording in possession of the company, only one copy may be actively used at the same time. So while one shareholder listens to Madonna's latest CD, other shareholders cannot listen to that particular CD, unless the company acquires more copies of the CD. For this system to work then, it becomes necessary to devise a scheme where a listening request for a particular CD locks it down and prevents other users from accessing it simultaneously. Cringely describes it as follows:
It is a token passing scheme, and only the shareholder with the token can play the song. It is legal to loan your CDs and also legal to loan control of your CDs, thereby justifying possession of a fair use copy at a remote location.
This little statement truly tickles my funny bone. If it is legal to loan control of your CDs or a copy of a CD in your possession, why would we need to go through a company capitalizing on the process? I as an individual can grant the right to any other person to "lend" my music, but while someone else is playing it, I myself cannot listen to that particular song or CD.
Let's say I have something like 300 CDs. I'm not listening to more than one at the time and on top of that, most of the time I'm not listening to any CDs at all. If I'm lending my CDs to other users through a P2P application and the system would make sure that each song or CD I posses is only used by one other user at any one time, then I would not be breaching any Fair Use or Copyright laws. Of course, the system should make sure that when someone has listened to a copy of a recording in my possession, their local copy is deleted after listening. Otherwise my CD would remain locked to their copy and I would not be able to play it myself.
In the end, if the whole thing holds up in court (read Cringely's more detailed discussion of that), the P2P solution might actually be more stable and scalable, because everybody participating would contribute their own music collection and you wouldn't be dependent on some company's acquisition policies. Besides, many people like Madonna, so from the start there would be many copies of Madonna's latest CD available to listen to, not just the 1 or 100 that the Snapster company decides to buy.
So why would people go on buying CDs or electronic versions of songs if they can listen to them pretty much when they like for nothing or close to nothing? I can just give a personal reason here, but if I really like an artist or band, I want that person to make more music that I like, so I'm inclined to support that musician or band. Right now my only choice is buying a €15 to 20 CD, of which the artist receives maybe €1. Depending on their contract, the artist will have to pay the record company for stuff like studio time out of these proceedings. If I could donate money directly to the artist through his or her website, I would gladly pay somewhere between €1 and 5 to own the recordings and support the artist. This money would go directly to the artist and would conceivably yield the artist more income than s/he would get from a deal with a record company. If the recording is also published in an attractive 'hard copy' format, I might be inclined to pay even more for the additional box, booklet, posters, or what have you.
My research rig was almost ready when I returned from our holiday, so I picked it up last Tuesday. There's an important lesson to be learned right away: when buying a LCD monitor, always insist to check the screen for dead pixels, before paying for it. If the shop won't let you do this or if they say that it's under the manufacturer's warranty, just don't buy the monitor from them. I'm really glad I checked out my monitor before buying. I had ordered an Acer AL732 LCD monitor to go with the system, but when hooked up to a test system in the shop, it showed two defect blue subpixels; these subpixels stay on at all times, showing up as bright little blue dots. The computer shop agreed, even advised me to not take the monitor home, and said they were going to inquire with Acer about swapping the monitor for me.
It turns out that Acer will only replace LCD monitors that have two or more defect pixels in the middle of the screen. I guess two defect subpixels towards the edges of the screen doesn't qualify, regardless of the annoyance factor. What's worse for Acer though, is that the shop advises me to order a monitor from another manufacturer, because they're not confident that ordering another Acer monitor will yield a trouble free screen. In fact, they say that the chance of getting a monitor with defects from Acer is greater than when ordering a monitor from LG or Iiyama. Interesting... I'm just glad I didn't take that monitor home, because as it turns out, I would have been stuck with it.
So now I have to do some research on suitable LCD screens again, since I had settled on that Acer screen because of its 16ms response time. Quick response times in LCD screens are good for reducing ghosting and trailing, which is like the afterglow of an image on the screen with those old green and amber phosphor monitors. The quicker a (sub)pixel can switch between off and on, the less 'afterglow' will be visible on the screen.
In case you're wondering how to check a LCD screen for defects in the store, here's how. If the shop has a PC with an internet hookup, go to the Monitors Direct Toolkit, run the Flash based toolkit from their website and check the screen for dead (always blacked out or always on) (sub)pixels. In my case, they didn't have internet access in the shop, so I used the desktop appearance settings in the Windows Display Properties (right-click the desktop and choose Properties). Set the Background Picture to None, minimize the taskbar to that 2 pixel high grey/blue line at the bottom of the screen and then cycle the Desktop background color through: white, black, red, green, blue. Really put your nose to the screen and inspect every square centimeter. Don't forget to drag the desktop icons around to look at the pixels 'under' them.
Firebird eats CPU time
It's a bit annoying that Firebird v0.6 gobbles up 80 to 99 percent of the available CPU time when I have 25+ tabs open at the same time. Not just for a couple of moments, but at all times. This is on a 600 MHz AMD Duron box with 384 MB RAM. Memory usage is around 60 MB, which isn't that bad. Not a whole lot of disk activity either, so it's not swapping heavily either. Guess I have to close a bunch of those tabs then...
Once or twice I've had a latte with a swirly motive created by the mixing of the the dark crema and the light foam of the milk. I never realised it's called "latte art", that it is a hard to master art, and thus that it is the sign of a master barista, until I happened upon a discussion (or two) on the Coffeegeek.com forums. There is a lot of information about latte art on the web, so here are just a couple of links: how to make latte art interview, latte art 101 article, some windows media movies how to pour good latte art, submit your own latte art. And just because we wandered into a great coffee shop in Gothenborg, that had the whole range of Isomac espresso machines on sale. We need one, you see, because we need and appreciate good espressos and lattes... because the steam wand of our crappy, way too cheap Krups machine snapped off a while ago, and because that Krups thing doesn't really make espresso anyway, just something marginally better than drip coffee. We're not addicted... we're afficionados.
Recent virtual worlds links
A bunch of somewhat related "virtual worlds" links I collected over the past week or so:
• V6.0 update of the MMOG Active Subscriptions graph
• Interview with Edward Castronova: MUD-flation, Cross-Gender Play, and Hobbes
• Wired: Commerce drives virtual world
• Wired: Online games: Free for thee
• Programmersheaven.com: A new economic model for massively multiplayer games
• Gamesindustry.biz: The biggest threat to online games
• Korea Times: Police say game sites hotbed of cyber crime
• RPG Vault: Roundtable on the levelling treadmill of many MMOGs.
• Legal Affairs: To kill an avatar
• IGDA: Games and rhetoric: A rhetorical look at gameplay
• Game Girl Advance: Not yet, you fools, Richard Bartle on voice communication in multiplayer games
• Digiworld.tv, now available online for the whole world, but still in BBC Ceefax format... I'm not sure they're doing the world a favor ;-)
• Amazon.com: Designing Virtual Worlds, by Richard Bartle.
• SSRN: Virtual Worlds: A First-Hand Account of Market and Society on the Cyberian Frontier, by Edward Castronova
• SSRN: The Price of 'Man' and 'Woman': A Hedonic Pricing Model of Avatar Attributes in a Synthethic World, by Edward Castronova
• KidFenris.com: The gallery of hideous box art
Three more links
These links don't really go anywhere...
A real coilgun pistol: Gauss gun Pskov 1100. Now if I could only remember the name of that Amiga game where you'd play up to 4 soldiers running around quite large cities, doing search & rescue and search & destroy missions. The gauss gun in that game was pretty cool and we played it a lot.
Typepad.com goes live with a preview release.
Unison File Synchronizer, now I've got to figure out how to set up a VPN server.
Not whistling through my teeth
Well, that was a fun filled day, having one of my wisdom teeth brutally removed from its usual spot in my jaw. It only took 7 hours for the anaesthetic to wear off, so now I can feel again how my jaw is slightly unhinged, how I can barely swallow, and whether I'm biting my own tongue or not. Oh joy.
I always try to avoid blogging about the weather, it's usually a sign of having nothing interesting to say. Right now I don't have much to say, but that's mostly because of the weather. I guess it's about 34° Celsius (~94° Fahrenheit), maybe more, and frankly, that's a bit ridiculous for us Dutchies... I guess Tom says it best. Besides, the hardware monitor is telling me that the temperature in my computer case is about 45° (113°F) and that my CPU is running at about 60°. I don't want anything to melt, so I'm going to shut down everything for a while, including my brain.
Very interesting read about manufacturing synthetic diamonds. Kind of reminds you of all those alchemists trying to turn lead into gold, but this time for real. Worth a read.
Feministe points to two digitally retouched images (1 and 2) in the portfolio of a retouche artist/photographer. With roll-over images he shows clearly how normal people are not beautiful enough to appear in magazines. Maybe I should send this guy a picture of myself... a new and improved me for promotional use only ;-)
Taking a cue from Alex Halavais' blog, I took Bloglines.com for a spin around the block. Bloglines is a free (for how much longer?) web-based newsfeed reader. Since it's a web-based application, it doesn't quite have all the features and finesse of other newsreaders that run on your own computer, but it gets the job done. In fact, as far as newsreaders go, I rather like it.
I've tried a bunch of different newsreaders, but I must say that I'm not very enamored by the whole RSS feed thing. For general news sites such as NYT, BBC or C|Net, it's kinda neat to quickly see what's new in headline style. With blogs I miss the personality... the voice of the author of the blog. I think blogs are not just what you write, but also how it is presented and packaged on your website. I don't like squeezing every blog through the newsreader blender so that it looks the same, just for the sake of easy consumption. Besides, it's not like I'm trying to keep up with a zillion blogs 24/7. Twice a day I spend the time of sipping a large latte browsing through a limited number of favorite blogs, and I enjoy both.
The Bishops Arms
In Gothenburg, Sweden we encountered a pub called The Bishops Arms (sic). Click the image for a larger version and read the signs next to the door... I'm not sure if "interesting value for money" for "a range of hot & cold food over 23 years of age" is really an endorsement for the place. Too bad it was closed both times we passed it...
Inertia and the best machine for the job
Robert Cringely wonders in his latest column why large organizations don't use more Macs, even as the number of Linux machines rises. According to Cringely it comes down to the fact that Macs in general need so little attention from the IT staff, that they would effectively be making themselves superfluous.
I used to think it came down to nerd ego. Macs were easy to use, so they didn't get the respect of nerds who measured their testosterone levels by how fluently they could navigate a command line interface. Now, I think differently. Now, I think Macs threaten the livelihood of IT staffs. If you recommend purchasing a computer that requires only half the support of the machine it is replacing, aren't you putting your job in danger? Exactly.
Cringely thinks that Windows and Linux have enough knobs to twiddle with to keep the IT staff busy. For Cringely this is only part of another, bigger argument, but thinking about the big organisation I'm working in myself, a university, I think there are a couple of other factors to be considered. Especially when you think that our IT department recently refused to take any responsibility for a pretty standard PC that wasn't purchased through them. And this is an organisation that a few years ago squeezed the last Macs out of the only Mac stronghold we ever had: the philosophy department.
So why are only the Dell machines purchased by the IT department supported? I think the main factor is inertia (and the other reason of course is bureaucracy). Wintel machines make up the bulk of all office machines deployed and changing that is like changing course on an oil tanker: it can be done, but you need miles and miles of wide open sea to even make the slightest adjustment in direction. Inertia is not only a technical thing, where all the backoffice stuff like automatic updates, Systems Management Server, and the training of the IT staff is geared towards supporting Wintel machines, but it's also a social thing, because people, IT staff included, generally don't appreciate change and the new as much as they like what they already know. Gradual change, enhancements are often chose above radical changes. So why is Linux making some inroads? One benefit it has over Mac OS is that it generally uses the same hardware as Windows. That might seem only a small issue, but thinking about it in terms of inertia, it means that you're repurposing existing hardware (that you already know) to run a new kind of software, whereas switching to Mac OS means that you're going to deal with both new hardware and new software. Probably another reason why an X86 port of Mac OS X would be a good idea.
I give up
As I wrote a while ago, I've been meaning to buy Cory Doctorow's novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. I prefer a bound paper copy, even though I can download it for free from the author's homepage, because a) I like reading a book, b) I don't have a suitable e-book type of device and I don't like reading from my monitor, and c) I like to support the author.
However, Down and Out has only been released as hardback, with the trade paperback due in November/December. None of the usual Amsterdam bookstores have the book in stock. They're willing to order it, but that will take about 6 weeks, and it will cost me €28 or more. The cheapest Dutch online option is still €24.50 including shipping. And I think that's just a bit too expensive for 'just' a novel... even with the $5 donation that Alex promised to make in my name to an online project of my choice.
I figured I'd give it one more chance today and I decided to look for a used copy of the book on Amazon. I found one for $11, which with the insane overseas shipping cost of $8,98 would make $19,98. As the euro is strong, it would actually cost me €17.88. That's an okay price for a hardback I think. So I click to order this copy from the seller who is offering it through Amazon. Enter name, password, click. Select shipping address, click. Wrong! This particular seller will not ship to Europe.
Okay, I give up. It's not meant to be. I'll just wait till December and pre-order it.
I'm sure that while trying to wake up this morning, I was writing a really interesting post in my head. But by the time I had showered and had breakfast and coffee, it was completely and utterly gone. I wanted to blog that post, which is kind of the opposite of what Elizabeth experienced, when halfway through her holiday trip she (finally?) stopped blogging things in her head.
History erased via the substitution of an identical object
on page 194 of Pattern Recognition, and triggers every paradigmatically rigged neuron I possess.
Madonna Action Figures
In a big heap of Sobig fallout and more banal spam I couldn't help but chuckle when being offered the chance to buy some Madonna Action Figures. And to think that it was Madonna personally who send me that e-mail!
Limited Edition Madonna
as Susan from the movie
"Desperately Seeking Susan"
3 Eight inch Collectable Figures
For $19.95 each
Blog is now an official word
Apparently the latest Oxford English Dictionary now has entries for words like "blog," "egosurf," "hacktivist," and other techie neologisms. Reported by TechDirt who refer to an Associated Press article over at CNews.
Better webstats with Zempt
I've been using Zempt for a while now to post to my weblog. A quite unexpected side-effect is that the webserver statistics for this site look much more reasonable. My own IP number is no longer the biggest visitor of the fragment.nl domain. Because I used to post and do maintenance through the MovableType interface, I would log quite an amount of hits and a fairly serious amount of traffic each month. Because Zempt talks to MT through an xml-rpc interface, I'm no longer requesting all those interface elements that MT uses to talk to me. If you have a high-traffic website, it probably doesn't show as much in your stats, but with a rather modest website like mine, it's very visible.
Anja redesigned Flickwerk, her weblog. I really like the idea behind the design (isn't that the *cough* design philosophy?), which is to have a whole year worth of posts available on one page, but I don't think it's the most practical of layouts. Still, an experiment worth thinking through/with.
Week without the web
I'm not going to surf the web for a week. I'm not going offline or on a holiday, I'm just not going to use the web this week.* It's too easy, I've noticed since I got back from holiday, to get distracted when looking up something on the web. At times it's very useful to have a mind that works well along the paradigmatic axis, but on the web it's too easy to keep moving sideways and not getting anywhere. Seductive too. Everything's always only a click away.
A week without the web then. Nice alliteration there, a Week Without Web. Looks sexy too if you write WWW, even though it's not easy to pronounce in English (easier in Dutch: way-way-way... maybe I should trademark it). Instead of the web, I'll turn my attention to reading print books and articles, and writing some of my own. For distraction I suppose I'll just have to look out the window. I'll blog about it too, if that proves necessary. It's not like I'm not going to be away from my computer much, since I'll be working as usual. If you feel like it, send me an e-mail, I might actually send you a reply rather quickly this week :-)
* A small qualifier. Like I said, I'll be working and writing as usual, so if I need to access the library or find someone on the university net, I'll still fire up the browser, but I'll control my trigger finger when moving over my bookmarks or other enticing links.
No web update
I cheated already. Yesterday the car dealership informed us about the cost of the repairs our car needs to get it safety approved for another year. Looks like we're better off trading it in and buying something new. So yesterday I've checked a big second hand car website for prices and available cars in our price range. Today I've spend some time looking at new weblogs for possible inclusion in the sample for my study, so that doesn't really count. I haven't spend any time trawling my usual news and tech outlets though, so that's good.
A double vowel in Dutch is pronounced long. The double A in "schaap" means it is pronounced as "aah," sort of like the long A-sound in "aardvark" as opposed to the short A-sound in "apparatus."
Actually, I don't even care how you pronounce it (and it's the SCH that proves the biggest hurdle for most non-Dutch speakers), but I would appreciate it if my name was spelled correctly. Lately I've seen some people link to me, misspelling my name with only one A and two Ps. I'm not writing that misspelling out here, because I don't want Google to think it might be right. Now, when you search for that misspelling, it helpfully suggests, Did you mean: "frank schaap", and I like to keep it that way.
A couple of quick lines about the books I've read during the holidays, in chronological order.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling
I finished the last 100 or so pages of The Order of the Phoenix while getting sunburned on the first day in Sweden. I enjoyed reading it, just like the previous books, but it's becoming increasingly clear that the story's characters lack a certain personality and emotional depth. Although Rowling gives Potter more introspective moments in this book, he and the other characters remain rather one dimensional embodiments of specific narrative structures and needs. Still, Rowling shows off her inventiveness in all the nooks and crannies of the world that she's creating and despite the fact that the story is repeating the moves from the previous installments, I can't but admire the fact that she makes me want to finish the book. In one of his quick reviews Martin probably says it better than me.
reMix by Jon Courtenay Grimwood
I tend to read several novels at the same time, enjoying how otherwise incongruous storylines suddenly co-exist and sometimes intermingle, so next up were the last 150 or so pages of reMix. I think this novel isn't quite as good as the Arabesk trilogy (Pashazade, Effendi, Felaheen), but it's still a great read and carries all the detail of Courtenay Grimwood's other novels. The story is set in a futuristic time and the author is working hard to flesh out the possibilities of a world much like ours, but determined by a different course of history. What happens when France had remained an empire, with a descendant of Napoleon as its emperor, but now is on the brink of falling under the assault of its eternal enemy: a Germany that appears to have won WW I and consequently hasn't experienced WW II. And that's only the sprawling backdrop for the story about a French girl getting kidnapped on her way to an orbiting boarding school, and the "once famous for a fluke dance hit success" musician send to rescue her. In short, this is one dense and gripping story.
Pattern Recognition by William Gibson
I felt a bit hesitant about starting in Gibson's new book. It'd been a while since I read something by him and I wondered if it would (could) be as good as I remembered his writing. After only a page or two I wondered how I could have ever doubted. Gibson's prose is as inventive and pointy as it always has been, and the current day setting of the story only underlines the author's observational powers. Unfortunately, my copy missed pages 153/154, which is a rather crucial point in the story, where Cayce is about to receive the number from Taki, so I had to put the book aside. The bookstore gave me a good copy without much trouble and I finished reading after we got back from holiday. While I got back into the mood of the story pretty quickly, it's too bad that I didn't get to finish it in one or two days. It's a very tightly written narrative and in the unfolding story of discovering who is placing mysterious film fragments on the net, the characters and their world keep gaining meaning and disparate elements of the story start resonating more strongly. Because I only got to finish Pattern Recognition after two weeks or so, I had to flip back and reread some parts to get the full gist of the story. Guess I'll have to read it again in one sitting in a couple of months then. And that's as far from a punishment as you can get!
Needle in the groove by Jeff Noon
Peeved by the fact that I had to put Pattern Recognition aside, I turned to Needle in the Groove. I had picked up this book because of its cover design, as it sat among Noon's other very nicely designed paperbacks on the shelf in the bookshop. The book totally blew me away. It was 4am when I finished it and the lingering adrenaline meant I slept badly for a couple of hours afterwards. 4am in the summer somewhere in the middle of nowhere in Sweden means it's already light again and an aborted night like that somehow fitted very well with the novel. Reminds me of the handwritten scrawl in the back of The The's Mind Bomb CD booklet: "To obtain maximum pleasure & effect from this album, please play VERY LOUD!, VERY LATE, VERY ALONE... & with the lights turned VERY LOW!!!"
Needle in the Groove tells the story of how a bass player ends up laying down the bass line for a dance track called Scorched out for love and gets caught up in the past of the band's drummer, whose personal history is intertwined with the Manchester popular music scene over three generations of musicians. Noon's (literally) lyric prose drives the story into the soul, like a deep, deep bass tugging at the base of your spine. It's hard to explain Noon's staccato, song text like writing, so here's a little quote.
jody at my side, headphones on, working some controls / her changes, perhaps the strangest of all / less driven somehow, less fiery / and when she takes the phones off, her hair, her once-upon-a-time goddamn cut-to-zero hair sticks up in sharpened tufts
—funny, she says
—funny, how she turned out
the singer sees me then / it's a barely there glance, and I guess she's nervous about the recording / I hope that's it
it's one year, just gone / and in all that time... ah / leave it alone
A blurb on the cover asks: "If music were a drug, where would it take you?" If writing ever came close to music, it's in Needle in the Groove.
The Blue Place by Nicola Griffith
I read Griffith's previous novels Ammonite and Slow River, but kind of lost track of her because The Blue Place is not filed under sci-fi/fantasy by the bookstores. Indeed, The Blue Place has been out for so long that the follow up novel, Stay, is already out. I read somewhere on Griffith's homepage that she thought that the ending of The Blue Place was a bit cruel for her protagonist. I have to agree it is. Those final pages took a good bite out of my soul, but, in retrospect, I may even appreciate it more, because it doesn't feel like Griffith took the easy way out.
It's hard to characterize this book, but in a way it is a hard-boiled detective noir, with a part Norwegian, part English, part American, wholly paranoid ex cop hired by a beautiful brunette to solve a murder. The twist here is that the protagonist, Aud Torvingen, like all Griffith's protagonists, is lesbian, but actually, it's not a twist. Griffith's characters are deep and believable, and their sexuality is a natural part of who they are, rather than the focus of the narrative. The detailed descriptions of the protagonist's world are almost romantic, maybe even baroque, and although very enjoyable, those were the places where I occasionally found my attention slipping. The second part of the book is set in Norway, and has Torvingen introduce her employer to the country's history, habits, and food. Having never visited the Scandinavian countries before, many of the things that Torvingen introduces, and even some of the words for them, resonated strongly with our experiences in Sweden. It's weird to read about the characters visiting a "stave church" and having jam made from "polar circle berries," when you have just visited a stave church and bought a jar of that jam yourself. Weird but good. I've already ordered Stay and I can't wait till it arrives.
Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon
This is a moving story about an autistic man, Lou, who does mathematic modeling for a large multinational corporation, together with his half dozen autistic colleagues. They manage to live in the 'normal' world fairly well, until the corporation acquires a company that is working on a GM/molecular biological cure for autism. Lou is faced with a fundamental question about who he is. Autism has formed his identity and to the rest of the world he is not 'normal.' Much of his life revolves around adapting to 'normal' behavior. What would happen to him if they went in and changed such a fundamental part of who he is? The story's biggest achievement in my opinion is that it is written from the perspective of Lou and that I managed to get a glimpse of what it means to perceive the world as an autist. To normal people an autist's need for regularity may seem extreme and his/her fears petty or irrational, but Moon does such a great job, that I really had the feeling I understood what drives those needs. The too saccharine ending was a bit of a disappointment, but the rest of the novel more than makes up for that.
Ship of Fools by Richard Paul Russo
Okay, I'm cheating a little, because I read this novel before the holiday, but it's so good, it needs a special mention here. I knew Russo from his hard-boiled cyberpunkish "Carlucci" novels, but Ship of Fools is nothing like that. The story is set on a huge spaceship that has been out exploring for generations. This means that for the people it carries, the ship has become their universe, even though the vastness of space stretches out at the other side of the hull of the ship. The ship's community has bred its own 'nobility,' whose power plays and intricate allegiances achieve Victorian proportions. The story takes a dramatic turn, when a small exploration detail discovers a horrible secret on a planet they visit. A signal leads them to another spaceship, drifting deserted through space. I think the last time a novel managed to spook me out of my head so thoroughly, was when I was thirteen. The only thing that comes close to this kind nail-biting horror, is the first time I saw the movie Event Horizon (which, it is said, shares more than a few details with Tarkovsky's Solaris, but I haven't seen that movie, nor its more recent remake). Although I can recommend all the above books, I would say this one was the dark horse that won the race for me.
What surprises me most about my holiday readings, is that I managed to pick such a great selection of books. No duds this time. Feel free to recommend a book or two in the comments :-)
I've mentioned Blogmatcher before, but I just found it again in my referrer list, and it seems to have been updated and polished since I last visited. More related blogs too, which is cool. It's been added to my weblog neighborhood in the sidebar... quite a list already.
2 become 1
Owen points to a very interesting dual screen hack for Windows, Win2VNC, and Matthew Haughey's comments on controlling multi-computer, multi-monitor set-ups from one keyboard and mouse. Could come in handy soon when my research rig moves from the window table to my desk. Oh... and apologies for that very cheesy Spice Girls reference. I just couldn't resist.
F*** you too Microsoft
My strong suggestion is that someone at Microsoft is decapitated for messing up in a small, but supremely annoying way. It has to do with how Office 2000 handles multiple documents.
There are basically two ways for working with multiple documents. Method A opens a new instance of the program that handles the document in a new window. This is the way that for instance Internet Explorer works. It means that you can find the various instances of IE in your taskbar and you can close them independently from eachother. If you encounter programs that work this way, you expect the upper right corner of the window to look something like this: only one close button (snapshot actually from Word 2000).
Method B's way of handling multiple documents is to have one and only one instance of the program handling the various open documents. This is the way that a tabbed browser, such as Opera handles multiple documents. There is only one instance of the browser visible in the taskbar, but within that program's window, you can deal with multiple documents. If you're working with a program that handles multiple documents in this way, you would expect the upper right corner of the window to look something like this image: double close buttons, the upper close button for closing the program and all its documents, the lower close button for closing only the active document without closing the whole program (snapshot actually from Excel 2000).
Now what did those nitwits at Microsoft do wrong? They made it so that Word 2000 uses Method A, but Excel 2000 is using a messed up version of Method B! When you open more than 1 document in Excel 2000, you get a second instance of Excel in your taskbar... but not really! That second taskbar icon is really only another Excel document. If you use the upper close button in one of the instances of Excel, ALL instances of Excel will close. That is NOT the behavior that the user expects. If you have multiple taskbar icons, then these programs must be closable independently. I didn't lose much work, but I'm extremely annoyed. Let some heads roll.