Thanksgiving

Macbeth the Usurper
Thanksgiving went well for us. We had our quiet day in. Jenny did the bulk of the cooking. We made lamb steaks, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, green beans, crescent rolls, and pumpkin pie. The in-laws came down from NJ, and we all had a grand time.

Whisper Networks

Macbeth the Usurper
Here's a rather good discussion of Whisper Network in Fandom, and other associated unsavory topics.

I'm glad to have a word for that. I've almost never been in the whisper network of any social group that I belonged to. People always just assumed that I knew, which was maddening, and when prompted for information, never could think of anything that I might need to know.

I hate whisper networks.
Macbeth the Usurper
I've wrapped up readingThe Heir of Sea and Fire by Patricia McKillip, 1977. I originally read this back in the autumn of 1980, when I was fourteen. I effectively had no memory of this book, other than it broke distinctly from the first book.

Our heroine, a betrothed woman, goes out to look for her missing man, building up a cohort of adventurous women, butting heads with the autorities, and generally being uppity. The overall characterization was good, the pacing was fun, the motivations were clear. Best of all, the conversation in this part of the book were highly naturalistic and contained great humanity. I found the first half, maybe 60% of this book, absolutely delightful.

Where concepts are explored, they are explored nicely from inside the context of the story. You get to understand what this idea of land heir means, and how its magic, and how it matters to everyday people. I can do with more fantasy like that. Even the heroine realizing and developing her magical powers were naturalistic and engaging.

Alas, from a great beginnig came a mediocre ending. For some reason that I can't fathom, McKillip broke up her dream team and sent them home. Our heroine developed some magical powers for herself that let her do stuff. At first this all worked well, but everything accelerated towards the end, shoving our heroine towards the end of the book at a breakneck speed. I wound up getting to the end of the book so fast that I just didn't get the point of getting there.

In particular, McKillip had troubles with transitions in this book. In one paragraph, the heroine would be talking to some person, and in the next paragraph, ride a day, then speak to another person, so that if you weren't paying attention, the reader would miss the transition, and if the reader was paying attention, would still find that transition rather abrupt.

I found the heroine's sudden accelleration in magical power confusing and rushed. Towards the end, I had no idea what she was every trying to do with her magical powers, other than wish fullfillment.

Then there are some things that are both wonderful and terrible at the same time, such as McKillip's description of magic. In places, this works well, avoiding technobable and letting us see the humanity in magic. In other places, the descriptions are so thick and colorful that all the colors run together into mud. Despite the wonderful descriptions, you really don't know what the hell just happened, and worse yet, you don't really care.

Overall, the quality of this book is a good cut better than The Riddle-Master of Hed. McKillip's successfully avoided repeated her mistakes from her first book, which is a very good sign from any writer. So go and enjoy the first half of this book, but when you hit the slog, just skim. 

Weekend

Macbeth the Usurper
We skilled our usual Friday date night to go to the Silver Fountain on Saturday and have dim sum for lunch. Yummy as always. My daughter devoured two pineapple buns on her own and ate a smattering of other things. As usual, the place was packed with Chinese folks. 'Nuff said about that.

I did some more cleanup outside. Mostly I binned more material that was piled up from previous weekends. I worked my way down some of the vine mounds, too.

Sunday was meh. I came down with a cold or something for the day. I spent a while playing Dragon Age 2. My staying home from church made my daughter want to stay home, but I kicked her out anyway. I didn't want any competition while staying home alone. The computer would be ALL MINE.

I watched through extended version of The Desolation of Smaug. As usual for Jackson's films, the additions made for a smoother film with more coherence, but at the cost of an even longer film. That man really has to challenge himself by making some 90 minute films.

We still haven't lined up the last two episodes of Doctor Who. 
Macbeth the Usurper
Our next read is the Riddle-Master of Head, by Patricia McKillip, 1976. The book follows the adventures of Morgon, a man with three mysterious stars upon his forehead. What are they and what could they mean for himself, his land, and his world? Plenty.

I found the opening chapter for the Riddle-Master of Hed very rough. The opening chapter introduces us to Morgon, who seems to have no good sense whatsoever, gets into a random fistfight with an array of characters, meets a harper, and barely makes a reference to the three super-important stars on his head. If i were to judge this book by the first two or three chapters, I would put it into the recycle bin. The opening simply does not work for me. The first few chapters utterly fail to achieve a narrative. My belief is that these beginning chapters were among the earlierst of McKillip's work, and that inexperience shows.


Why do I call Morgon an idiot? Well, Morgon is a riddle-master, trained in knowledge. He tells the story of how he went to a tower to win a crown from a ghost. Fair enough. Yet somehow, despite being trained in knowledge, he did not know that the King of An had offered his daughter's hand to whoever won that crown. Even more spectacular, his best friend is the son of that king and the brother to the girl, and he still doesn't know these things. How does that happen? The only possibly explanation is that Morgon is an idiot, which explain much of the remaining book with ease.

The beginning does feature a wonderful narrative, one that I wanted to know more about, but that narrative is only referred to. Morgon goes to the ghost of a dead king, willing to lose his life to win that crown. Why? A great story hands on that, but that story wasn't told to us.

The opening chapters also dump a vast amount of information at you. Rather than read these chapters, I fell back to scanning through the text. The signal to noise ratio of those early chapters was rather poor. In my opinion, there was too much noise to too little narrative. Even later on in the book, I found myself skipping all the details, often skimming from dialog to dialog.

McKillip is certainly a detail-oriented writer. She goes on for extended lengths on what is: what is seen, what is done, what is noticed, and what is said. Her prose is very literalistic, leveraging very little simile and metaphor within description. If anything, this betrays her inexperience. In later books, her narratives read far more naturalistic.

The novel itself follows a walkie-talkie structure. The plot turns around people who get together, share information, come to reasonable conclusions, and then move onward. So much plot lies within conversation that I find it a bit maddening. The conversation are also chock full of lore and detail, but almost entirely absent of human emotion or social jousting. To ridiculous extents, people in the story are quite well behaved and rational even when they are neither well behaved nor rational.

Areas seems to have the simplistic, modular structure that is so familiar to fantasy. One area is a city of THIS while another area is a city of THIS. This is a fine fantasy tradition, which hails back to Swift, certainly, and possibly to the Odyssey. However, areas doesn’t really seem to matter and everyone acts mostly the same.


Of special note is the harper. I had forgotten just how prevalent harpers were in 70's fantasy. I must remember to subvert that tradition in my own books. That they play of role of information gatherers fits well with other harpers of the time. If anyone wants a good paper to write, pick the user of harpers in high fantasy of the 1970s.


Of the fantasic elements, McKillip had some interesting ideas, such as land rule, the nature of wizards, and the great unsaidness of magic, but I think that these were all underplayed and poorly executed. I say that because in later books, she figures out how to present these to the reader in a far more effective and engaging manner.

In summary, I found the novel somewhat simplistic and dull, betraying in no way the improvements that would soon follow in her narrative. I was left with almost no opinion of the characters, neither fearing for them nor sympathising with them.

Called it on Missy

Macbeth the Usurper
I successfully called Missy on Doctor Who without hitting any boards or reading any conjecture. YES!
Macbeth the Usurper
In Endhaven, steel is king and there's no obscurium or unobtanium in sight. "What's with that?" my shill in the audience asks?

When I began my Endhaven series, I fully intended to have adamantium and other exotic metals. They seemed fun. They seemed cool. They looked like they would work well in the story up until I got to the point where I actually needed to know what these metals did and why they were so important. Needing a bit of inspiration, I hit the books and surveyed the literature on metals, especially steel. Whatever this fanciful metal was, it had to work better than steel.

Here's a hint: NOTHING works better than steel. OK, that's a simplification, but it's pretty much true in the case of weapons. If you want a sword today, you are going to buy one out of steel because, after a thousand years, steel is still better than anything out there. It's not just that steel is hard, or that steel is flexible, or that it weights enough to give you a good punch without weighing too much. It's because it does all three of those things so well that any challenger has to do better. Steel was picked as the metal of choice for weapons because it hit the sweet spot so well.

Steel armor also does pretty well, to the point where we put it on soldier's heads through two world wars, and still insert it into body armor today to ward against sharp weapons. Where steel doesn't do well is against bullets, but you already knew that. If there were no bullets out there, I'd lay good money that we'd still be using steel in armor. (If you know something that's better in terms of weight vs. protection, speak up.)

Steel was developed before 1000 AD, but it took a while for the technology to spread. Smiths who knew how to make steel kept that knowledge secret so that they could corner whatever market they could. Up until the industrial revolution, the manufacture of steel was incredibly labor intensive, and therefore incredibly expensive. Once the blast furnace hit, the cost of iron plummeted, soon followed by steel. What was once rare became far more common.

So you can imagine what an unbelievable advantage that a group of steelmakers would have if they invented the blast furnace 500 years sooner than anyone else. They could undercut all their competition with lower prices while raking in a monster share of the profit. That's a pretty nice place to be.

One would also imagine that the secret of steel production would be worth an incalculable amount of money, so whoever had it would defend it vigorously, if not kill to keep it, like so many ancient technological secrets. (Read about silk sometime.)

With all this setup coming out so engaging, why would I go and invent a new metal? Steel is already the wonder metal. I literally could not make up better. So, I threw out adamantium and embraced steel. 

Weekend

Macbeth the Usurper
On Saturday, we hosted the Parents of Young Children potluck for church. We had several families and everything just went swimmingly. We had just enough room for everyone to sit around the coffee table and eat dinner while my daughter and her friend played like mad.

But something was up. Design Girl had fallen asleep on my lap while I talked to Yvonne, the new youth minister. DG didn't feel hot, which is when she usually curls up and naps. In this case, DG fell asleep on my lap. A few hours later and she was hot, running a 102 degree fever. She was so sick that when her friend wanted to watch a My Little Pony episode, she said yes. All through Sunday the girl was up and down for random times, which resulted in an unexpected gaming boom for me. By this morning, DG was feeling far better, able to eat, and getting back to her old perky self.

Design Girl's favorite place to sleep yesterday was her bed. Lately she's been noticing that our bed if far more comfy than hers, so with getting sick, she decided to occupy the comfiest place in the house. I can't blame her one lick.

The "new" game is Dragon Age 2. I bought it two years ago when it was on sale at a rediculous price. Like all Bioware games, it features an unengaging plotline that I can live without, lead characters that don't really matter, and events that feel like they were check marks on a design sheet. Like all cinematic RGP game, there was too much dialog and too much cultural siloing. (Cultural siloing is where this culture does THIS and that culture does THAT, each culture in its own silo busily not influencing the other culture around it or being influenced, but it's all flavor and doesn't really matter anyway.) I should really do a fuller review of it.

As I was keeping the sound off because my daughter was asleep, I kept reading the dialogue in female Shepards voice from Mass Effect, which worked wonders as I like her voice better.

Friday night featured a rewatching of Hairspray at Design Girl's request. She had fun, which pleased me to no end.

I did more digging about the yard. I filled up yet another trashcan full of yard waste for recycling. I'm still in the area that's been grandly neglected, so I'm making slow progress. Digging sassifrass out by the root takes time and obstinance. That seems to be the lesson that I've learned this year. If you can dig it up by the roots, then by God, rip the bastard out of the ground.

1989 Honda Civic

Macbeth the Usurper
In 1989 I bought my first car: a beige, base model Honda civic hatchback. This car came equipped with a 4-speed manual transmission, air condition, and not much else that wasn't required by law. Ticket price for this treasure was $8. The funds for this car came from my first job, working the night shift at a gardening supply warehouse, delivering gardening supplies to stores all around Baltimore. A few months after I bought this car, I lost that job.

Learning to drive a stick was irksome. I knew the basics of stick, but getting all the coordination down took forever. Shifting at road speed was easy, but starting and stopping was where all the challenge was. I remember adrenelin rushes every time that I had to stop and turn. I never knew if I would stall the car or not.

I named my car Basil after the character Pazu from Laputa. They both seemed like little beige troopers that could.

For the life of me, I couldn't find a picture of a beige Civic, and I couldn't find of my own pictures of my Civic, so here's a silver one. My didn't have any sort of moon roof, but it did have hand-cranked windows that those louvered rear windows.



Three months later, I found a new job. I would use my fledgling PC skills to repair PCs at pharmacies all over Maryland, Delaware, Northern Virginia, a bit of West Virginia, and southern Pennsylvania. Back in those days, the bad old days, computers sure did like to die terrible, horrible, no-good deaths at the bat of an eye. They were big, expensive, and businesses held onto them for a long time. To get more out of them, some had custom DOS OS's that let terminals access them.

During my first winter, and my first snowfall, I discovered how sucktacular my tires were. I am surprised that I made it home during my first snowfall. The tired did nothing but slide. Not long after that, I replaced my tires out of self-defense. My tires weren't snow tires and they hated driving in the rain. My new tires actually worked in the rain and worked well in the snow, too, which converted me to the cult of good tires. I'll happily get overchanged for tires because I know what bad tires are like.



My friends ribbed me for getting a civic. All my school friends bought Ford Probes or other nice, sporty cars. I bought a Civic. My D&D group at the time suggested that I turn my Civic into a sports car as a joke. In time, the joke would be on them. I would never turn my Civic into a sports car, but others were. The Civic had a few traits which made it a great car for modding. First, the Civic was light. I could push that car up a hill by myself. I could pop start it drifting backwards across two parking spaces. (I frequently forgot and left my lights on.) Despite being light, the car was very stable, with a very low center of gravity. Put that together with an easily tinkered engine and a low price, and you  had everything necessary to be a great beater. Every HP that you put into one of those cars came straight back out. By the late 90's, the Civic was among the favorite cars for street racing. Little did I know that I might be ahead of the curve.

The only real modding that I did was to put a wooden shift knob onto the stick, and put a wrap around the steering wheel. The knob was for show, but the extra grip on the wheel was absolutely needed. Also, car seat covers because vinyl seats are for the birds.

I had a tendency on this car to drive using my wrist. The bottom of the wheel was open, so I would just hang my wrist there and cruise along, never having to worry about my arms getting tired.

I must confess to leaving the windows open during the summers. On more than a few days, I came out to a soaked front seat, so I worked out various ways of not getting my seat wet, but the results were never any fun. Keeping your behind on a wet seat for hours is a repice for woe and an itchy ass.



When the gulf war hit, the Civic made me a mint. As I drove about for a living, I earned mileage on my private vehicle. My Civic got me 40 mpg, and well tuned, could hit 45 mpg. As gas prices spiked during the golf war, the payments spiked as well. My little gas sipper barely noticed. I wound up earning so much from mileage in 18 months that the mileage flat-out paid for my car, and that's taking out insurance, gas, and tires.

My Civic was usually good in the snow. I rarely got stuck. I took the thing out after a major blizzard with no trouble. Ice was a different story. I was driving out to Herndon with Paul in tow when we hit a patch of ice on 270. A brief bump swung the car around in a graceful twirl, leaving us going backwards on 270 at 60 mph. Knowing this was bad, especially as there was a stuck car ahead of us, I flicked my front-wheel drive wheels, gunned a bit, and righted the car back around. After that, it was as easy drift over.

That wasn't the only accident or near accident. I did have to dive off the road once to avoid the tail end of a bus. That was easy. Scarier, I had a truck towing a race car decide that it wanted to be in the left lane for no goddamn reason. The car pushed me into the medium out in western Maryland. Fortunately, everything turned out OK.

The only accident was when I tail-ended a woman on the Washington beltway. I still feel bad about that. I jammed down my foot, but put the weight onto my heel, not the toe, so I didn't brake well enough. Bam, she got it in the rear and I got an almost perfect circle poked through my bumped. I drove it home, too. After my car had gotten fixed, I found that the mechanics had taken all my spare change from the car and one of my mixed tapes. To this day, I don't remember what was on it, but I still wonder. It's like a lost pet. It's gone, but you don't want to forget.

I did eventually get a radio for the car. Crutchfield provided everything that I needed. Wiring the antenna in was the hardest part as I had to get the antenna down through the frame to a place where I could find it. Everything else just got pulled to where it needed to go. Once I had a cassette deck, I had happiness. That was the golden era of mixed tapes for me as I really liked having my tunes on those drives. Albums got put onto loops for days at a time. Particularly good survivors were the Bangles' All Over the Place, both Voice of the Beehive albums, all the Reivers albumbs, and Concrete Blonde's Bloodletting.

I wasn't very social before I started driving around in that job. I had never needed to be. My social skills were truly terrible. But visiting pharmacists over and over got me lots of social practice and my social skill pretty much went through the roof. Going to a job site became going to visit friends and fixing their computers. Me and those pharmacists had a great time together (except for those killjoys who werent' any fun.)

The hardest part of driving was that no amount of rushing could get you there faster. You could go faster, but really, it didn't matter. I just had to be patient and drive there. Sometimes the tedium of driving got to me. Getting bored of the highway system, I dropped back to using the rural route system which predated the highway system. The back roads were usually far more interesting than the main road, which helped me to stay awake, by God. I didn't drink coffee back then, so something had to keep me engaged. I knew my routes by the time that I was done. I could tell you how to get between any two pharmacies in my territory, off the top of my head, including how long it would take to within five minutes. Yeah, I was good.

Staying awake during the winter seemed especially hard. I would bundle up, roll down my windows, and stay awake in the cold.

On the job, I learned PCs and learned them fast. The techs down in Richmond were used to working with idiots who always needed to get talked through things. I usually only needed one call to learn something. This surprised them to no end, which I still find pathetic. By the time that I was laid of from that job, I had my foundation as a solid PC person.

I wound up selling the car in 1996 after I bought my Subaru. The dealership offered me $200 for it, so $500 seemed like good-enough to me. The girl who bought it from me didn't understand that you needed to hold it the clutch to start it, so that gave her some fits, but she worked through it. Meanwhile, I felt like I had sold my car down the river. 

Veterans Day

Macbeth the Usurper
Yesterday, I woke up and drove to work just like I always do, only to find the gates closed. It was Veteran's Day and I had just driven into work for no good reason. In positive news, I now had the day free. In even more positive news, I didn't try to go to the DMV while not knowing it was Vertans's Day.

I love my quiet days at home. I get so few that they are Swiss chocolates with champaign. Even the cat was kicked outside. Good times.

Design Girl had her parent-teacher conference in the afternoon. She's doing just fine in most things and needs work in others. Pretty normal, really. (By normal, I  mean that she's not perfect and some imperfections are more problematic than others.)