The Feel of a Book

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I really do wish I could switch to an all-digital book library, buy every print book in this house in some e-book format, and haul all of this shit to the goodwill, or sell it in the Amazon used section.  Someday, books will kill me, and I’m not talking about being buried alive via hoarding.  I mean, these books are all collecting dust mites, and I’m horribly allergic to dust mites, and I’m sure ten out of ten allergists would tell me, “well, just get rid of all of your books and watch more TV.”  And of course, 87% of the books I have here aren’t available on the Kindle, and even if they were, the second I’d buy all of them, they’d change the Kindle format to some incompatible thing and force me to re-buy everything, just like the whole vinyl > 8-Track > Cassette > CD > MiniDisc > DVD > BluRay > whatever trail of tears.

I tried remembering when my whole relationship with books started, and of course, I can’t.  My parents started buying me books before I can remember, those “I Can Read” books like Danny and the Dinosaur that you got from the grocery store or some mail-order club.  I remember being in the Weekly Reader book club, getting these corrugated cardboard mailers every week or two, containing another few hardcover books, each one getting progressively more advanced.  I thankfully learned to read before I started school.  I lived in a tiny village in Michigan with no kids as neighbors, in an age before cable, when an endless amount of adjustment to a set of rabbit ears got you four or maybe five channels of TV, so those books were my lifeline.

In thinking about this, I think one of the reasons I like to collect books is their physicality.  I’ve still got a couple of these Weekly Reader books, from almost forty years ago, and I loved the oil paintings in color on the cloth-bound hardcovers, a square spine and a design that is obviously very pre-Photoshop. Some books had spine lettering faintly embossed in a metallic gold color, and looked distinguished and official.  Some were paperbacks, the Choose Your Own Adventures and Encyclopedia Browns and pocket editions that felt the perfect size in your hand.  I devoured all of these books, and no matter how many of them showed up in our rural route mailbox, I always wanted more.

I always got locked into these series books, things like junior encyclopedia, where they’d sell the first volume at Kroger and then swindle you into mailing away for the next twenty.  I remember this junior history series I had, an endless collection of books on American events like the construction of the White House or the battle of Iwo Jima.  My parents would sometimes go to a friend’s house to play euchre, plop us in front of a TV in their living room, and hope we’d fall asleep eventually.  I would always drag along a huge collection of these books, so that instead of watching a Love Boat re-run, I could read the illustrated history of the Washington Monument or the D-Day invasion.  And I would always have to bring an entire armload of them, partly because I felt a need to always have access to every volume (this predates Wikipedia by a few decades) but also because I enjoyed the physical feeling of having all of these books, the weight and feel of these perfectly square books filled with illustrations and maps and pages that smelled like fresh paper and ink.

I always wonder about this with kids that are being born right now and handed an iPad thirty seconds after they leave the womb.  There’s something magical about being able to zap an animated book filled with background music and hyperlinks to your kid, but are they missing something by not having an actual, physical book in their hands?  A device that plays Angry Birds and shows videos is pretty cool, but do you miss out on something that you get by hoarding these little bits of dead tree?

I do like loading up my Kindle with books before I get on a plane.  And most of the books I sell are on the Kindle.  But it doesn’t feel like I’ve “bought” a book unless I have it sitting on a shelf, and I like the physical rituals of either going to stores or having a delivery person hand me a cardboard mailer filled with books.  I also don’t like that I always hold the same device when I’m reading different books, the same size and weight and thickness, and I’m even deduced to the same exact font and margins. I’m not pro- or anti- on the e-book, but it makes me hesitate before I buy anything, and I end up purchasing the best stuff twice.  I can’t seem to fully jump on either bandwagon, which means I probably will either be buying a spacesuit to keep out the dust mites, or googling away to find clinical trials of some new steroid treatment to keep my eyes from swelling shut.

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The Loudness War

The loudness war is a weird k-hole I recently fell into, trying to find out more information about a Stooges remaster.  Let me explain.

Okay, have you ever owned some album, and listened to a song a million times, and then heard the same song on an FM radio and it somehow sounded different?  It was probably because the station used dynamic range compression in their outbound rig.  Here’s my best attempt at a no-math explanation of compression.  Let’s say a sound wave is a bunch of waves, ranging in strength from 0 to 11.  (I was going to say 10, but, Spinal Tap.)  So a song, in some greatly simplified form, would be something like this:  ”0 8 11 8 10 2 3 7 7 8 11 0 10 7 2 4″.  If you wanted to make the song sound way louder, the obvious way to do it would be to change that to “0 16 22 16 20…” and so on, but 11 is the most you can get.  But what you can do is boost the lower numbers, and keep the higher numbers the same, and the song will “seem” louder.  So, you’d run it through some magic digital box and it would change to something like “0 8.5 11 8.5 10 7 7.2 8 8 8.5 11 0 10 8.5 7″ or whatever.  It basically smooshes the lower end frequencies, and makes the song seem louder at the same volume, although this sacrifices some of the sound quality, which isn’t as big of a concern when you’re just schlepping pop music across the airwaves and you want your station to get the most attention when someone is flipping through channels.

The loudness war started back in the days of jukeboxes, because you the consumer can’t change the volume on a jukebox, and everyone wanted their 45 record to sound the loudest.  On a digital CD, that magic number 11 I mentioned above is called “full scale”, or the point where signal has reached as much as it can go.  A measurement called dBFS, or decibels relative to full scale, is used to measure levels, where -6 dBFS is 50% of full scale.  Most albums were mastered with -14dBFS being used as the highest peak level of the album, or what used to be the “red zone” of an analog record.

At some point in the 90s, the thinking changed on this, probably around the time record companies started re-releasing old albums, so if you bought that Iron Maiden album on CD in 1988, you suddenly had to buy the remastered version in 1996.  Yes, they would fiddle with bonus tracks and new artwork a fake gold CD and yes Ray, they included that fourth side of the Live After Death album you bitched about for twenty years, but they also fiddled with the mastering so the “hotter” album would make the old master sound wimpy.  And new albums started getting massively over-compressed in this loudness arms race.

I started googling all of this because of the 1996 Columbia remaster of the Stooges album Raw Power.  When recorded in 1972, Iggy Pop did the initial mastering himself, and through the magic of heroin, decided to put all of the instruments on one side and the vocals on the other, and do all kinds of weird shit with the tone.  The record company refused to release it unless it was remixed, and got David Bowie to spend a single day in a crappy studio, getting the album to sound mostly normal.  For the 1996 re-release, they gave Iggy free reign to go back and remaster the album, and his response, in an attempt to bring back the raw aggression of the original recording, was to completely turn every knob to 11.

I don’t know if this is still the case, but when I bought the 1996 remaster on CD (back when people bought CDs), it had a huge warning label on it, saying the CD did not meet the Phillips Red Book standard and could destroy your equipment.  I thought that was cool, threw it in the player, and set my volume at something marginal, like 5 out of 10.  ”Search and Destroy” came on, and it sounded like someone had replaced my speakers with those paper-cone things you got with the stock Delco stereo on the AM radio of a 1981 Chevette, except with pencils jabbed through them.  Within ten seconds, my receiver SHUT OFF with a strange error message on the display, and I had to unplug it from the power, wait the longest 60 seconds of my life before restarting it, almost certain I’d bricked my stereo.  I was only able to listen to the CD by ripping a copy to MP3 first, which I guess just clipped the hell out of it in the computer’s digital-to-analog conversion.  Still a great album, though.

Another Stooges fun fact:  if you really like the album Fun House, you can go over to iTunes and pick up a complete collection of everything they recorded for the album.  It’s a 142-track “album” that contains every take of every song, plus all of the studio dialogue recorded – basically everything that ran through the sound board back in 1970.  At $99.99, it’s definitely in the “do not accidentally click purchase” category for iTunes.  I haven’t bought it – I think if it was $30, I would be tempted, but I know I would only listen to it once or twice.

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Snowcone and Haystack

I didn’t remember it until this morning, but today is the anniversary of the first moon landing.  It’s hard to imagine it was 42 years ago (mostly because I was -1 years old at the time) but it’s also hard to fathom that it’s been something like 33 years since Skylab fell back to Earth, and I actually remember that one happening.

Space exploration in general is a huge k-hole for me, and I can burn up unlimited amounts of time by googling the Apollo missions or the Mir space station or the Space Shuttle.  I got knocked back into this last weekend, because we saw Apollo 13 at the Paramount Theater, and that got me thinking and reading Wikipedia and researching how exactly that tank explosion happened and who was originally supposed to fly that mission and all that.

A great lull in manned space flight, at least from the US perspective, happened when I was a child.  The last Apollo mission happened in 1975, with the Apollo-Soyuz test project. I was four then, and shortly after was when I got into space exploration trivia and started poring over encyclopedias and searching every garage sale for one of those GI Joe Mercury capsules.  The US didn’t fly into space again for six years, and it seemed like back then, the Soviets were sending up guys every other week, and keeping them in orbit for weeks and months at a time.  I couldn’t confirm this though, with a lack of internet connectivity and an impenetrable Iron Curtain preventing the free flow of information on the Russian space program.  There were those Mars probes, and Voyager and other unmanned stuff, but aside from an occasional reference on a PBS program, this stuff got almost no mention in our Indiana newspaper.

That meant that before they sent up the first Space Shuttle, I memorized everything I could find on Apollo.  I knew about Apollo 13 before there was a Tom Hanks movie on it; I could tell you about the 1967 pad fire, and explain translunar injection, and tell you all about lunar landers and lunar rovers and lunar life support backpacks and lunar samples and how Wally Schirra was a lunar asshole when he got sick on Apollo 7.

The technology of the Apollo program amazed me as a kid, because it seemed like the future, like we’d be going back to the moon any time now, that the Space Shuttle program would flourish, and they’d start cranking those things out like Boeing puts out 737s, until pretty much everyone hitched a ride into space like most of us have flown an MD-80 from one regional airport to another.  In the 70s, computers were rapidly getting smaller, and it only seemed logical that we’d all be astronauts in a couple of decades.

Now, Apollo seems astounding to me because it was so low-tech.  The computer they carried in the command module and lunar module had roughly the same amount of processing power and memory as an Atari 400.  (Luckily, it had a better keyboard.)  The command module talked to the Earth at a fast rate of about 50 kilobits/second.  And not only were all of those checklists analog printed material (this was long before the iPad could have made them obsolete), a lot of the calculations done by the crew were made with an analog computer, aka a slide rule.  I’ve seen a couple of the command modules at museums, and the interiors resemble a low-end Volkswagen from the 70s more than a high-tech interplanetary space vehicle.  It’s simply amazing that people would climb into these tin buckets, strap on a million horsepower of explosive rocket power, and aim for the moon.

It’s also odd to me that thirty years after sitting on the floor of my grade-school library poring over every book about space, I’m now just a couple of miles from Alameda, which is now home to the USS Hornet.  When Apollo 11 returned and splashed down in the Pacific, the Hornet picked up the crew and capsule, and then quickly ushered them off into a converted Airstream trailer, where they sat in quarantine for 21 days, to make sure they weren’t carrying any moon viruses.  I’ve been to the Hornet a few times; the trailer is still there, as is an early test capsule and lots of patches, photos, and other assorted stuff from the program.

Now we’re back in one of those lulls.  There’s no Space Shuttle, and I guess there’s people going up to the ISS on Russian rockets.  There’s also China’s space program, which has been successful as of late. But it feels like it did back when America didn’t really have a space program, except this time, there’s no Shuttle plans in the future to look forward to. There’s a lot of talk about privatized space travel, and maybe that will be the future, but I probably won’t be driving out to SFO and buying a ticket on Delta to go into low earth orbit.

Oh well.  Maybe I can scrape together my cash and try to build a working rocket for one of those GI Joe capsules, like this guy did.  I see much eBay sniping in my future.

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Listicles Are A Window Into The Soul

I am stuck in that “what do I post here” mode lately, so it’s time for another big long list of random stuff.

  • I’ve been re-reading Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs, a book I think I haven’t read since 1995.  It has not aged well, for two reasons.  One is that the technology is obviously obsolete.  It talks about using a modem to dial into the Information Superhighway; the main character calls a travel agent to buy a plane ticket; people still use fax machines; Microsoft releases products people buy.  The other is that in 1993, a peek into the working day at Microsoft was revolutionary to straight America.  Now, every company from here to Kansas has tried to replicate their corporate culture, so much so that it’s incredibly cliche to have free soft drinks and ask interview candidates why manhole covers are round.  It’s still an okay read though, although it’s more of a glimpse into the distant past for me.
  • Two new donor Commodore 64s arrived via UPS today.  Both are missing a couple of keys; one is missing a couple of chips.  I plan on building a computer inside of a C-64 case, ala the x64, but for several hundred dollars less.
  • Allergy season is full tilt right now, and I’m contemplating a move to northern Alaska.  It’s been almost two years of allergy shots with very little improvement, plus my allergy clinic is dropping my insurance this fall, so I’ll need to find a new one.  I don’t know if switching doctors and trying something more drastic will help.  I’ve already tried OTC meds, prescription eye drops, nasal spray, inhalers, and pills, acupuncture, and allergy shots.  I’m thinking if there’s a stem cell therapy treatment, I’d be willing to sink five or ten grand into trying it.
  • I have not been watching baseball this year.  The Rockies have something like a dozen position players on the DL right now.  I heard the other night, one of their backup infielders went on the disabled list because of an infection he got from his watch.
  • I haven’t been writing much since the last book came out.  This is always the most depressing time for me, and it takes a lot of effort to get a good idea percolating, which is where I’m at.
  • I helped my brother-in-law buy a new TV the other day, and we went to Best Buy to look at their selection.  That place is seriously circling the drain.  There was almost nobody there on a Sunday afternoon, and their TV selection was worse than what they had at Target.  They were also fiercely pushing their “TV calibration” service, which as far as I could tell, involved paying hundreds of dollars to have a high-school dropout set the brightness and contrast on your new set.  Do people seriously pay for this?
  • I went through all of my old books and pulled all of the bookmarks out of them.  I usually use business cards, but I extricated this stack of store bookmarks (Elliott Bay, Morgensterns, Title Wave in Anchorage, Coliseum) and a bunch of receipts and bank slips, some of which were humorous.  Like I found a grocery receipt from Mr. D’s groceries in Bloomington from 1994 that was nothing but candy bars, TV dinners, and beer.
  • I have somehow become addicted to the show Friday Night Lights.  These things would not happen if it were not for Netflix streaming.
  • I am trying to avoid Benadryl, because it messes with my sleep schedule too much.  I don’t dream correctly when I take it, and then I’m hung over the next day.  I’m taking Allegra instead, although it doesn’t knock it out as well.

OK, that’s all for now.

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Calculator K-Hole

Something I sometimes do when I don’t have time to waste but still want to lock into some useless pursuit that will eat up hours is to try and find various things I owned as a kid.  The other day, I started thinking about old calculators, and went on an endless search to find some of the ones I used in high school and college.

It’s odd to even think about a time when people used calculators.  Now, when I want to figure out if an actress is 18 yet by subtracting her date of birth from the current year, I either use the calculator app on my computer or my phone.  I also have an actual four-function solar calculator I stole from my job’s office supply closet in maybe 1996, which was useful when I used to balance my checkbook, back when I actually wrote checks and couldn’t just look the crap up on my phone.  But the calculator on my iPhone is generally easier to use, and I know where it is at any given point.

I recently had a discussion with my sister about old calculators.  When we grew up, our parents had some old TI calculator, from maybe 1975, which had a hundred buttons and a flickering red LCD display and took a giant 9-volt battery.  We had no idea what TAN or SIN meant, so we’d randomly hit the buttons, trying to get the machine to print out some cool stuff.  We also had one of those Little Professor calculators, which had a face on the front of it (which always looked like an owl to me) and would print an equation like “7 + 9″ and then wait for an answer, printing EEE when you entered an incorrect answer.

Calculators weren’t allowed in school for years, because when you’re supposed to be learning how to multiply single-digit numbers, a pocket calculator was as unfair as having a multiplication table in your hand, if not worse.  And then when I got to high school, this completely reversed, and some classes required you to have a calculator.  In a physics or trig class, the ability to quickly multiply and divide was a requirement, and we were suddenly allowed to use these electronic devices.

Something I never thought about, though: I was probably the first generation to have this luxury. When I was born in 1971, the first solid-state calculators were being manufactured.  In 1965, Sharp introduced the CS-10 calculator, which weighed 55 pounds and cost $2500.  By the end of the decade, they were fitting in shirt pockets (like those big Android phones “fit” in a pocket) and cost more like $500.  When I started grade school, you could probably get a good four-function calculator for $50, but minimum wage was also something like $1.60.  Prior to my generation, the only way you could “cheat” on math was maybe writing the answers down beforehand, or using a slide rule, which was probably more difficult than just memorizing stuff.  When I started high school, did they change lesson plans to accommodate the ubiquitousness of digital calculators, or did math suck that much more before then?

I took an electronics class in my freshman year, and we were told to buy a scientific calculator.  I don’t remember the requirements we were given, but I know it was something beyond the level of the crappy calculator you’d get for free at a Shell station with the purchase of a tank of premium.  I got a Radio Shack EC-4006, which at the time was a pretty amazing machine.  It ran on two AA batteries, and had a ten-digit display.  It could convert hex to decimal and display (some) letters on the screen, plus it handled negative numbers, trig functions, and had some amount of basic programmability.

What I remembered most about calculators back then was nobody had the same make and model.  There were dozens of different permutations of the basic calculator from TI, Casio, Radio Shack, Sharp, and lots of no-name or knockoff brands.  The cream of the crop was the HP, which were incredibly expensive and used RPN.  Someone in my class had one of these, and it looked nice, but I could never get the hang of entering all of the numbers and then entering an operator.  I also remember Ray having some high-end Radio Shack that unfolded and had the display and main keys on one side, and a set of advanced function keys in the inside lid.  Any time anybody touched it, he gave a twenty minute lecture about how you weren’t supposed to bend open the cover all the way, or it would stretch and break the microscopic conductive traces between the two halves.  (This meant that everyone would try to take his calculator when he wasn’t looking and vigorously fold open the cover as far as it would go.)  But we were all, in some sense, defined by the calculators we used and carried.  Some of us took great pride in the calculators we used, while others were ashamed of their hand-me-down crappy drugstore ripoff version that couldn’t even do exponents.

I think I kept the same calculator until my second year of college, when I replaced it with this Casio graphing calculator, the fx-7000G.  I still have that one in storage, although I don’t have batteries for it.  (It used flat watch batteries.)  That one had a 96×94 pixel screen and could be programmed in a crappy version of BASIC, although it had a whopping 422 bytes of memory.  I remember spending the Christmas of 1990 at my then-girlfriend’s parents’ place in Toledo, trying to write a chess game in BASIC on that thing, which of course was impossible, as was actually saving anything with no disk drive or printer.  My math career didn’t last much longer than that year, and I never had a good reason to carry around a graphing calculator, so I didn’t use it after that.

What’s astounding to me is how familiar the key layout of that Radio Shack calculator looks to me now.  I carried that thing around for years in my book bag, toiled away on those chicklet-style keys, and spent many a boring lecture trying to spell out 7734-derived numeric sequences that, when the display was flipped, would spell out words.  The layout of those grey and orange keys is burned into my head, and reminds me instantly of when I was hacking out story problems back in 1987.

What’s also amazing is how collectible some of the old calculators can be.  I was looking to see if I could score one of those old HP calculators on eBay, and even the most basic of the RPN scientific calculators are untouchable for under a sixty or eighty bucks.  HP, after twenty years of not releasing them, brought them back in limited editions, and you can get a brand new HP 15C for about $99.  There are scores of web sites with pictures of old eighties calculators, just like the obsolete computer museums you find online.  I don’t foresee myself doing anything more complicated than calculating interest on a loan, and it’s probably easier to use one of those online calculators for that, so I probably won’t be buying one.  But it’s neat to see that people are still into it.

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New Tires, Joe Meno

I bought new tires the other day.  I got one of them patched a few months ago, after attracting a nice bolt into the tread, and the TPMS light flickered alive last week, signaling a slow leak either in that plug, or from something else.  And my car, after almost five years and just shy of 50,000 miles, still sports the factory rubber, and although I don’t drive too much anymore, I felt a need to get a fresh set of tires.  So I went to this local tire place, a hole-in-the-wall run by this Mexican guy who’s far more honest than the corporate-owned tire hacks that would probably look at me and see their next four boat payments, pushing all sorts of extensive warranties and protective coatings and laser alignments with stories of catastrophic failure and imminent death if I did not comply. Also, the guy working there pronounces the Yaris “Jar-ees” which I find hilarious.

While I waited on the new rubber, I read the bulk of the new Joe Meno book, Office Girl.  I had mixed feelings about picking up this book, but I was in Alameda a weekend or two ago, and wandered into their local non-chain book store and felt a need to buy something there, and it was either this or drop the money and serious time investment to read 1Q84 in its new three-volume paperback edition.  And yes, I should be reading Infinite Jest, but I needed a quick break from that for the time being.

I read Meno’s Hairstyles of the Damned years ago, and liked it, although I try to avoid reading that kind of story for the same reason an early-90s Michael Jordan should have avoided watching baseball games: it makes me think I’ve got a book like this in my system that I need to write, which distracts me from my actual mission, which is writing fucked up and absurdist fiction, something much more within my wheelhouse.  Hairstyles, the story of a Chicago metalhead brought over to the punk/alternative side by a female best friend who he eventually falls in love with, is the kind of formula I always wanted to apply to a book that took place in an Indiana of the late 80s.  In 2009, I spent NaNoWriMo hacking out such a book, the bulk of the time chipping at a manuscript while I was off in Mexico.  I passed the 50K mark on that book, although it’s only maybe 25% done.  I looked at it recently, and it is fairly horrible and beyond help.  I hoped I could get through Meno’s new book without stirring up those feelings again.

This book has to do with a girl and a guy who are proto-hipsters at the end of 1999, in Chicago.  They drift from office temp gig to office temp gig, and fall in love, but neither one wants to fully acknowledge it, and blah blah blah.  The book reads quickly, because it’s broken into incredibly small pieces, each one being a minimal but effective capture of mood or description.  It’s almost entirely character description, and it works well.  One of the things I liked best about Hairstyles was that ability to trap the perfect qualities of a person or a scene, in a minimal amount of words.  (Basically, the opposite of what this rambling excuse of a review is doing.)  Office Girl does a fair amount of this, too.

My problem with the book was the entire hipster angle.  I guess it grated on me because when I was in New York in this timeframe, a similar demographic surrounded me, and I sat just outside of it.  I worked at a place in my late 20s where almost everyone around me was in their early 20s.  While tech writing and working on internet crap was my career and something I’d been doing for almost a decade, these were all Ivy League trust fund kids who stumbled into the job as project managers and spent all of their free cycles simultaneously living a life of poverty and wealth in the way you can only do in New York.   Meno’s book chipped at the edges of that, albeit in another city, but it’s almost like the few bits of plot choice in the book were taken from a hipster magnetic poetry kit purchased at Urban Outfitters.  The characters have goofy glasses and share apartments with crappy roommates and consider ironic hobbies.  There is no mention of star tattoos or “oh, I don’t have cable” or organic groceries, so I guess he did stick to the ’99 timeline well.

I was also distracted during the read, as some guy talked far too loud about his MG convertible.  And then at the corner of Market and Grand, some kind of protest started, one of these “let’s end violence by shouting violently at traffic” things I did not fully understand.  Shortly after I finished the book, I got my keys back to the Jar-ees and took off, my wallet $320 lighter, but once again feeling a solid 11/32″ of tread.   Awesome.

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Re-reading Infinite Jest, part 2 of 863

So I’m now just shy of 300 pages into my re-read of Infinite Jest, which is just over 25% of the way through according to the Kindle, although I think it’s closer to 1/3 done when you consider the last hundred-some pages are all endnotes.  Here are more random observations as I continue:

  • I think reading it on the Kindle does make it seem to go faster than print.  I don’t know the exact numbers or metrics, but it seemed like one print page of the hardcover contained something like 1200 words, where a normal trade paperback contained something like 250-300 words, meaning each page of IJ seemed four times longer.  With the Kindle, each screen has the same number or words, more or less, as any other book I read, be it Vonnegut or George Carlin or Tolstoy.  This makes it seem like the pages are going by faster, although it obviously takes several page turns to get through a single virtual “page”.
  • The endnotes don’t seem to be as much of a pain in the ass as they were back in 1996.  Part of that may be that they lend themselves to hypertext much more, and the Kindle’s links are more convenient than flipping between two bookmarks.  Or it could be that if (and once again, numbers are bogus) there were two endnotes per printed page, and there were six page turns per printed page, it would seem like there were three times fewer endnotes per “page”.
  • It’s so interesting that Wallace created this near-future world that happens in what others have determined to be 2009.  I’ve always disliked when near-future books predict worlds of jetpacks and robot butlers in the year 1991, like pretty much every Philip K. Dick book or 60s pulp Scifi novel.  DFW managed to create a world that largely felt like 1996, except for tiny changes in things like video conferencing and politics and TV media formats.  And that’s pretty much what has happened.  Granted, teleconferencing is just starting to take off because of Facetime, and the DVD and later BluRay were the displacing technologies of video entertainment, but his Boston of the late -00s is pretty close to the Boston of 1996, which I enjoy.
  • There is, however, the issue that this near-future now takes place in the past.  When it was supposed to be 13 years in the future, there was much more license for suspension of disbelief.  Now that it’s three years after the events should have taken place and the futuristic film cartridge system has not been invented, you need to not think about stuff like that.
  • I notice that in some ways Wallace can out-Leyner Mark Leyner.  I never fully understood the relationship between the two, and thought DFW eclipsed Leyner in greatness and popularity, but it also seems that Wallace admired or looked up to Leyner’s work prior to his own fame explosion.  I’ve always thought Leyner had no real peers in his absurdism and almost sketch comedy approach to writing, and always thought DFW was less ha-ha funny and more NPR/Franzen funny or whatever.  But then I see some carefully-placed reference or innuendo in part of IJ that would seem even too absurd for Leyner’s humor.
  • It amazes me how IJ pads itself with pretty much every inside joke or urban legend that Wallace heard over the course of a decade, but manages to pull it off so all of this stuff is an integral part of the story.  At points, it’s almost like he was looking for some excuse to kill pages, like he was getting paid by the word, and said “aha!  I’ll recycle the Jamaican Toothbrush Bandit story, and make it part of Gately’s back story – that should eat up a good 5000 words.”  But of course, it always works.
  • I have the unfortunate issue that whenever I read about Orin, in my mind I envision CJ, the punter who was on Real World: Cancun.

That’s all for now. I’m keeping track of my page count over on goodreads, if you want up-to-the-minute (or -day) tallies.

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Patents, Apple, Whatever

There’s been a lot of coverage in the news about Apple’s various patent wars against Samsung and others, and the gist of the coverage is that the patent system was 100% fine up until Apple woke up one morning and decided to destroy anyone making a rectangle-shaped touchscreen phone.

I have no real arguments for or against the system, but one argument I keep hearing is “well what if someone patented the car?”  Funny thing is, someone did.  Check it:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_B._Selden#The_Selden_patent and the patent itself: http://www.s363.com/selden/549160.pdf

George Selden was granted a patent for his “road locomotive”, and forced all other car manufacturers to license it, for a .75% royalty.  Ford later fought this in court, and lost; it was only on appeal that they were able overturn the patent.  The eight year legal battle almost bankrupted Ford.  This happened, by the way, over 100 years ago.

Another example of the fact that the patent system wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns until the invention of the iPhone: did you know that the Wright brothers were awarded a patent on the airplane?  More specifically, it was a patent on flight controls in all three axes, but they vigorously fought (and initially won) a huge lawsuit against Curtiss. It effectively blocked the building of airplanes in the US until the first World War, when the government stepped in and formed a patent pool.  (More info: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wright_brothers_patent_war)

There have been countless patent battles in the last century, and this Apple/Samsung thing is just the latest iteration.  I think it’s different now because people have such an attachment to their devices, that their brand loyalty becomes the newest us versus them.  Look at the comments on any of these news blogs from the Apple or Android or Microsoft fans (or whatever pejorative term you prefer) and you’ll find a level of hate and vitriol usually seldom found outside of a political news web site.  And in the days of page count-generated revenue, it’s far too easy for the gizmodos and engadgets of the world to throw up a daily article saying “is the new XYZ an iWhatever killer?” and let the ad imprints roll.

I am an Apple user, and that obviously influences my opinions.  But I also worked at a Samsung R&D lab, and saw things internally that strengthen those opinions. I should probably go back and re-read my NDA and exit papers before I say anything about Samsung and their design aesthetic.  I wouldn’t want Samsung to send me to prison for libel.

Anyway, the patent system may be horrible and broken, but the idea that it suddenly happened recently is off by a century or so.

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Sleep Has No Master, now in paperback too

I’m proud to announce my new book, Sleep Has No Master, is now available in glorious dead tree print format.  234 pages of doesn’t-matter-if-you-drop-it-in-the-tub, readable-on-the-beach, loanable-to-friends, no-DRM, no-batteries-required goodness.

If you read my previous book, The Earworm Inception, you’ll like this one.  It’s 27 slices of absurd humor in the same breakneck style, loosely tied together into a novel. Check it out on Amazon here. There’s also a Kindle version available here.

The book includes the following pieces:

  • Signs and Symbols and Spraypaint
  • Sleep Has No Master
  • Tesla Motors Doesn’t Have A Blowjob Referral Program
  • The Nostradamus Scat Porn Prophecies
  • The Marshall Manifesto
  • Sugar Tooth Sockets and Psionic Cancer Induction
  • This Is Like A Dog Trying To Crap A Peach Pit
  • A Matter of Trust
  • The Gamecube Junkie Abortionist’s Revenge
  • The George Washington Buttplug
  • Art Garfunkel is My Copilot
  • The Log Lady Incident
  • Krill Warriors
  • Time Travel And The Posse Comitatus McDonald’s Standoff
  • Princess Di’s Mercedes and the Dead Man’s ASL Chimp
  • Dwarf Meth Madness, Again
  • Jethro P. Teats and the Ass Bandits of Bureaucratic Somnolence
  • Cereal Towelbars and the Navaho Garage Sale
  • The Locality Principle
  • The Shark Boy Hitchhiker
  • Oil Change Introspection Therapy
  • Fifty Shades of Napalm
  • Tree AIDS and the Slurpee Abortion Speech
  • The UFO Mafioso Call-In Hour
  • Peak Oil
  • These Three Things
  • With Friends Like These, Who Needs Enemas?

As was true previously, I’ve tried to make the price as low as possible to keep this affordable, but the print version obviously has a higher price than the kindle edition. Beaming electrons is always cheaper than chopping down forests.

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Re-reading Infinite Jest, part 1 of ?

Okay, I gave in and started re-reading Infinite Jest the other night.

I’m 8% finished as of last night, which is roughly like running the first two miles of a marathon.  It’s enough that I’m getting some momentum, but so little that I feel like it could take me a while.  I dug through my 1996 paper journal last week and found that it took me something like 20 days to read it last time.  Of course, I did not have a TV, was single, had no social life, and this was before Facebook, Twitter, and a million other things were invented.  In fact, I think I was still dialing in at 14.4K back then, and my computer was a Linux machine that wasn’t running X, just a naked command line prompt on a 12″ monochrome monitor.  The closest thing I had to a tablet computer was made by Mead, spiral-bound and college ruled.

My first strategic move on this attempt was to eschew the print edition.  The only print copy of the book I own is a hardcover first edition, signed by the author with the “smiley face” next to his name, which might or might not be more rare or indicative that he was in a good mood when he read in Seattle.  The print copy killed my wrists last time around, and this was long before I’d developed all of my wrist, back, neck, and other chiropractic RSI issues.  When I read in bed, I tend to hold the book with three fingers and my thumb on the cover, and my pinky under the book, as a sort of stand.  This means when a book weighs any tangible amount, it strains my small fingers, and if that book is a thousand pages long, it starts to feel like they’ve been slammed in a car door.

So I went with the kindle ebook.  This solves another problem, the “how many bookmarks do I use?” issue.  Unless you memorize page numbers in some Rain Man-esque fashion, you’re going to use at least one bookmark on a read of the paper edition.  Most people agree you should use two, with one marking where you are in the body of the book, the other marking where you are in the endnotes.  Some people also advise you to keep a bookmark on the page describing the Subsidized Time timeline.  Nobody ever told me about that, but there weren’t web pages about how to read IJ in 1996.  That said, there also wasn’t a wikipedia page I could reference instead of using a third bookmark.

In the kindle edition, endnotes are hyperlinked.  And thankfully, there’s a “return to text” backlink after each endnote, so you can quickly get back to the text.  The only issue with this is that the kindle software will return you with the line containing the endnote reference at the top of the screen.  So, for example, if you’ve got 30 lines per screen (arbitrary – I didn’t count) and on line 16, there’s endnote 44, you can click that, read it, click “back”, and that line will now be at the top of the screen, not on line 16.  That means you lose some context and might need to back up a page, depending on how you read.

I started reading on my iPad, and then switched to my actual Kindle.  The advantage to the real Kindle is that it’s paper-white on the e-ink display, and it doesn’t have Facebook, Twitter, and a bunch of games on it.  But I ended up going back to using the actual iPad.  Why?  Because it’s a bigger screen, and because clicking on endnotes is much easier.  I have the keyboard Kindle, which requires you to navigate around with the little stub of a joystick to get to an endnote and click on it.  Then you have to wait a second for the screen to refresh, and then you have to repeat the procedure.  It’s much faster and less of a hassle to do it on the iPad.

Another huge advantage to reading on the Kindle is that I can click a word and the definition pops up.  I’m finding that Mr. Wallace has a much more, um, big vocabulary than me.  I don’t know if looking up definitions like this is teaching me new words, but I’m much more likely to click on a word rather than dig out a copy of Webster’s.

I’m finding that this time around, it’s been much easier for me to get in the swing of things, but I don’t know if this is because I already know the general plot of the thing.  When I read it in 1996, I didn’t know a single other person trying to read it, and there was no wikipedia to help me.  I am avoiding any secondary reading during this pass, though.  I’m not looking at any of the blogs or fan sites, and I haven’t bought Elegant Complexity or any of the other reading guides.  No sherpas, no supplemental oxygen on this climb up Everest.

My impression so far is that the book is reminding me so much of 1996 and the events around then.  I had a horrible time of it back then, something I’ve alluded to on here, but something that was incredibly painful to read about when I dug around my paper journals back then.  I was about a year into my stay in Seattle, a year removed from my college life.  I hadn’t seriously dated anyone since the end of 1993, and was certain I never would.  I had some kind of stomach disorder going on and was certain it was gall bladder cancer or unchecked appendicitis (it wasn’t), and I seriously didn’t know what the fuck I was doing with writing.  I now look back at Rumored as my favorite book I’ve written, but back then, I spent all of my energy trying to convince myself I needed to stop working on it entirely.  All of this influenced my perception of the book, and now as I navigate his prose, it brings back a lot of those memories, which is both good and bad.

I don’t have any other great insight at this point, but I felt that if I kept mentioning the reading project on here, I’d stick with it.  So, there you go.

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