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Cityish Alt-ish Fortyish

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Interview To A Kill [Feb. 3rd, 2010|05:07 pm]
Cityish Alt-ish Fortyish
Whoa, I had an interview today! That's only my second real one since 2005 or thereabouts. It was even more surprising given that I only applied for the position at about 11am this morning. The guy liked that I used the word "overgnomes" in my cover letter and recognized that I would probably be a quick learner, but had some very reasonable doubts about my ability to hit the ground running with the technologies in question, given that I haven't been properly immersed in techiedom for yeeeeeeeeeeeears.

Still, I have a few days to investigate the latest advances in PHP, MySQL, JQuery and Ajax, that sort of stuff, with particular reference to the CakePHP development framework that they use. Anyone have any insights into that kind of stuff? If I can make myself not completely clueless in a very short time I might be in with a chance, I am an extraordinarily cheap hire after all.

Either way, an actual job interview in Victoria! I thought they were an entirely mythical beast.
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Surrealist Dwarf Boxing [Jan. 21st, 2010|10:23 am]
Cityish Alt-ish Fortyish
I am becoming immoderately obsessed with this book:



I happened upon a list of "10 Overlooked Odd SF Classics" by someone called Rich Klaw, and it reminded me that not all books are very boring. Thanks to it and Michael Moorcock's list on the same site, I now have Kim Newman's Anno Dracula, Colin Wilson's The Mind Parasites, TH White's Mistress Masham's Repose and a random Jonathan Carroll novel out of the library, sweet.

But The Exploits of Engelbrecht is clearly a properly overlooked odd classic, not to be found in Victoria Public Libraries. It was published in 1950, and seems to have had a reprint in 2000 based on outcry from the SF literary community, but it remains defiantly out of print. Copies on Amazon etc will set you back a good 50 pounds or $100.

There are lots of glowing writeups from various luminaries at the other end of that link, and even a sample chapter PDF which is very jolly. How could anyone resist a book which, according to Dave Langford, contains these sorts of shenanigans:

One particularly crazed cricket-match features a literal demon bowler (kept in a well-stoked furnace between overs), against whom Salvador Dali bats, unsuccessfully, with a chest of drawers. Earth's soccer game against Mars has a vast panhistorical team--"Some unlikely characters have scored, even Heliogabalus, Bishop Berkley and Aubrey Beardsley"--and the winning coup involves planting Engelbrecht as a hidden influence inside the ball. Surreal chess on a huge, literal battlefield echoes World War II; eventually a pawn promotes to Atom Bomb, and despite the enemy's immediate resignation insists on detonating. Remember Dark Star?

This does feel like another reason not to inflict more writing on the world: if we can't even keep lovely stuff like this in print despite the efforts of activists, then what right have we to keep shovelling billions more words on top of the existing corpus, burying it alive? It's a poser. Oh well, back to it, I suppose: Tessa may go into labour any day now and then disappearing for hours to write will be Much Frowned Upon.
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Jolly Rogers [Jan. 20th, 2010|09:19 am]
Cityish Alt-ish Fortyish
I don't want to jinx anything, but the writing is going moderately well. I have a short story that I think I will make it to the end of, and another couple brewing for later. I am a slow and indolent writer, and only managing to produce ~1000 words a day, but who cares, I have no NaNoWriMo-style end-of-month target, and at least this is sustainable.

I looked at the website for the magazine Tales of the Talisman, who pay a princely $10 for each SF/fantasy story published - who says it's hard to make a living as a writer? I was amused by the sample piece on their site, because, am I wrong, isn't it a thinly-disguised piece of fanfiction about The Silver Surfer and Galactus?

The Canadian equivalent of Netflix to which Tessa and I subscribe is called Rogers Video Direct and it doesn't seem to have much that's good or obscure, so I've been resorting to blockbusters I missed at the theatres instead. Juno, not really a blockbuster but still, was pretty good but annoyed me because, despite a refreshingly unconservative approach to the players in a teenage pregnancy drama up till then, of COURSE the friendship that's been struck up between the 16 year old girl and the thirtysomething would-be-adoptive-father-of-her-baby turns out to be something Scandalous and Wrong. It makes me so mad that in our brave new world of paedophilia hysteria there's no shrift given to the idea that people from different generations might, you know, just one another. If Lewis Carroll was alive today he'd never have been allowed to get near Alice! Thank goodness for Harold and Maude being out there, and still not re-edited by the censors to add in a "healthy" dose of Judgmental.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine was pretty bad, but gets some sort of pass for not being as bad as X-Men 3: The Last Stand. (That said, being kicked repeatedly in the balls by a professional football player gets that pass too.) Tessa had fun playing the game of correctly completing people's lines of dialogue for them, all of them being completely banal and predictable. I myself spent a lot of time irked by the repeated motif of good guys having the bad guys at their mercy, and then giving the sanctimonious spiel about "I should kill you know... but I'm not like you", leaving the villains to kill again, and again, and again. I know many of you are anti-death-penalty, and I am too, but only because the possibilities for miscarriage of justice are too high. I don't think I've ever seen anyone playing a roleplaying game refuse to slit the throat of an orc on moral grounds, in fact roleplayers are generally blood-crazed maniacs, so is there really any mileage in this holier-than-thou stuff? If I ever get the drop on Sabretooth in my kitchen, I'm going to slam the fridge door repeatedly on his head until there's nothing left of it but mush.

Poll time I guess.

Poll #1514132 Blockbuster Morality

Could a middle-aged person and a teenager become actual good friends?

No problem.
45(90.0%)
It's a bit too weird.
5(10.0%)

If you kill a mass-murdering psychopath who's tortured and killed various of your friends, are you "no better than they are"?

Of course not, they deserve it.
37(75.5%)
Yes. Murder is murder.
12(24.5%)

Want to read and critique any of the stuff I'm writing?

I'd be delighted to.
41(93.2%)
Ugh, make a writing filter and keep me off it.
3(6.8%)
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Scribblejitters [Jan. 15th, 2010|11:11 am]
Cityish Alt-ish Fortyish
The good point is raised by strange_complex that if I can't bear the thought of being a historian (because I wouldn't be able to just make stuff up), then maybe I should try my hand at some historical or pseudo-historical fiction.

I am, as it so happens, doing a spot of writing at the moment. And the question of what to write is enormous, and paralyzing. Writing in a reasonably exciting, entertaining style seems quite easy. Deciding what to write about is the titanic black monolith in whose shadow I cower in dread. Even before you get to nitty-gritty like plot and characters you have to decide if you want to:

* set it in the real world. I don't feel like I understand the real world at the best of times: no matter how many times people explain to me that the way a tape recorder works is really simple actually, I just can't get my head around it. I haven't done myself any favours by moving to Victoria, a town I don't comprehend or feel at home in at all, and which is a bit too dull probably to be convincing fodder for a "through the eyes of an outsider" story. I should have stayed in London, a city which I certainly was feeling, and where walking down any street with writerly eyes open was mining a rich seam of people and living history. But if I'd stayed in London, I'd have found myself too busy and/or stressed to write, of course.

* set it in a fantasy world. This feels on the surface like an easy option because I can just make shit up. But this is deceptive because you quickly realise the entire world still needs to be consistent. If I start the story with a few core ideas, and then just make colourful stuff up as I go along, eventually things will stop making sense and be revealed as obvious improv, and I will be loudly hated on in much the same way as Russell T Davies. Of course I could invest some time into building a consistent world before I start, but I don't want to turn into D. M. Cornish, the scoundrel whose book "Foundling" we are currently wading through at bedtime. It's got like a 200-page glossary of terms at the back, and as for the story, the man can spend three pages describing the ingredients and process for making a restorative potion. 200 pages in, nothing of real importance has happened, but the reader has had it thoroughly hammered into them that the world is very well thought out. God, I hate compulsive world-builders, they're the worst.

* set it in history. Historical environments are less boring, at least through the rosy lenses of nostalgia, then the modern world. You get pre-built plotlines and the advantageous fact that, since the reader likely knows the ending already, it's easy to toy with their emotions along the way. (Wasn't the ending of Inglourious Basterds fun, by the way? That's a level of reverence for historical authenticity I could really get behind.) The problem with history is that with the amount of bloody research you have to do, you might as well have gone down the fantasy route, and people will still find things that they don't like, everyone's an expert on everything these days. Also, all the best historical plotlines have probably been done to death, good luck reading through all the competition and making sure you have something new and interesting to add to the mix.

And obviously different people are turned on by different approaches, do I want to limit my appeal to the little enclaves of people who read a lot of fantasy, or historical fiction? The ones I know seem quite scary. Ideally you want something that almost anyone will want to read, maybe something that's a bit fantastical but basically non-threatening, like Harry Potter or Dan Brown or The Time Traveler's Wife. It's very hard! Writing a book is an investment of hundreds, probably thousands of hours of your time, how can you be sure you're writing the right one before you start out?
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From Blown SPQR [Jan. 14th, 2010|10:35 am]
Cityish Alt-ish Fortyish
The other night Tessa and I finished the last episode of the 1976 BBC adaptation of I, Claudius, which we enjoyed immensely. It filled in some shameful gaps in my classics knowledge - I never took any of the ancient history options at Oxford, and wouldn't have been able to put the first five Emperors in order if my life depended on it.

Of the Emperors on parade, I found George Baker's Tiberius by far the most interesting and congenial. A pretty nice guy with a gloomy streak, the woman he actually loves and his beloved brother Drusus are lost to him early on through his mother's despicable machinations, he's thrust into a position of absolute but contaminated power that he has no real desire for and eventually he just says screw it, I'll be a monster. Augustus seemed much too pleasant and reasonable, Caligula much too mad: while John Hurt gleefully gallops away with the part, I don't think eating his unborn child from his sister's womb is even in the Graves, much less in history. An attitude of total entitlement combined with a warped sense of humour would probably have been enough. Nero only appears in one episode and is grievously shortchanged by being depicted as merely a fat, buffoonish, pyromaniac mummy's boy. I mean come on, they cast Christopher Biggins in the role. Christopher Biggins!

And Claudius, well, the conceit of the stammering cripple being the smartest and noblest man in the Emperor is one that is dear to bookish people everywhere, as we all self-identify as stammering cripples to some extent after early humiliations on our school playing fields; but he's just a bit too good to be true really, and the idea that the many bad things he accomplished in his reign were just ploys to catalyse the eventual return of the Republic: that just sounded like so much nonsense. Oh, and the women in the saga are all hateful power- or lust-crazed bitches, almost without exception. A feminist reappraisal this ain't.

But so what if the history is wrong? Last year I was thinking about going back to university to study more classics, so seriously that I popped into UVic and talked to a tutor there. But I, Claudius helped me remember: while I was an undergraduate I was always plunging off into flights of speculative fancy, which my tutor would invariably rein in with "hmm, no, I don't think there's the actual evidence for any of that, no". I tried to read some of Suetonius' Twelve Caesars in parallel with I, Claudius and it was so comparatively dull, I'd rather have my eyes stabbed out by Caligula with a fork. If I went back into classics I'd be back in the world of factual substantiation and minutiae, and that is strictly oppositional to the leanings of my soul.

I am very angry, really, that the modern age has harnessed the word "true" to such evil ends. When, in times past, someone said "the arrow flew straight and true", did they mean that "the arrow definitely, empirically did fly: we have several reliable witnesses"? They did not! They meant the arrow did a most excellent and serviceable job for its owner. Who is to say that Jack Pulman's embroidery on Robert Graves' reworking of Tacitus and Suetonius and Josephus' angry and biased accounts of things that actually happened is not the most honest truth of the historical matter yet? It has a 9.3 rating on IMDB, after all, I'd like to see Cassius Dio or Velleius Paterculus beat that.
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Those Who Can, Do; Those Who Can't, Blog About It [Jan. 12th, 2010|01:41 pm]
Cityish Alt-ish Fortyish
For a long time I was steering clear of LiveJournal because (a) it doesn't work as a write-only medium, it's only any good if you read everyone who's reading you; and (b) keeping up with my overstuffed flist had become a full-time job, I had to commit a good number of hours to it a day to do it justice.

The fact that I have slightly returned should not be construed, though, as the final admission that I have nothing better to do with my time. Rather, I have had a startling idea, which is, when sitting down to LJ, not to read back more than 100 posts into the past! Hard to believe this never occurred to me before. I still feel a bit guilty for doubtless missing many treasurable updates from all my favourite people in the world by this approach, but it's a small price to pay for being here at all.

I am just back from my noonday walk with Finn, and was delighted to see that our friendly local vexillologist, with whom I had such a lovely chat about the Burmese flag his house was sporting a couple of weeks back, is now flying a white rose on a pale blue background; which brought back many fond memories of the_alchemist and battles given in vain.

Now I suppose jobsearch calls. Like many people whose careers were not firmly established before the world's money supply ran out, I am finding this particularly vexing these days. My parents were kind enough not to saddle me with a work ethic, but this comes at a price. As it is obviously absurd that I should *want* to do any of the stupid, onerous tasks for which employers conventionally offer moderate to large sums of money, I am forced to look for jobs that I don't really want, but would be willing, to undertake. Except there aren't any of those any more! Every job ad seems to require the specialist degree and the five years of progressively responsible experience that are the marks of a person who *desperately wants* this career (n.b. these are jobs that pay $10-15 an hour, so they'd better desperately want it). If I apply to minimum-wage bookstore or customer service jobs I am knocked back, allegedly because of the danger I'd move on when something "better" came along.

It's a bit of a poser. I don't desire any particular career enough to go back and invest time and money in retraining for it (especially as that is a gamble, not a guarantee), but apparently the burden is on the would-be employee to fight tooth-and-nail to obtain their position. Obviously I would be highly incentivised to do this if the alternative was grim starvation, but honestly it seems impossible to starve to death in the modern first world. Where's my motivation, when I'm able and willing to work, but not desperate? It seems quite shortsighted of governments to underwrite people's survival and even relative comfort, while fostering an environment where to get a job you have to be positively hungry for it.

I would call myself above averagely happy right now, above averagely bored perhaps but still very happy. I apply for jobs that I know I can do no problem, and in my experience as well or better than any of the people I end up working with; I don't feel too sad when I fail to stand out from the other 800 or whatever applications, those are difficult odds to beat. There should just be better mechanisms for matching people up with work that needs to be done. There must still be plenty of work out there that needs to be done... mustn't there?
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Not Safe For Classicists [Jan. 6th, 2010|08:40 am]
Cityish Alt-ish Fortyish
Depressingly, they no longer teach Latin in high schools anywhere in British Columbia, and actually I think nowhere in Canada apart from Ontario and possibly Quebec. I quested around for a reason for this appalling state of affairs, and think I have located the culprit: SESAME STREET.



How is any child meant to get a grasp on Roman history when Claudius and Spartacus are glibly conflated in this way? On Latin grammar when the nominative and accusative are apparently interchangeable? It's almost as bad as Matt Groening's treatment of Homer, and you know what, if I could poison Jim Henson's figs a second time round I think I would.

The takeoff of the I, Claudius title sequence is the best thing ever though.
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Game Hospital [Jan. 5th, 2010|07:11 am]
Cityish Alt-ish Fortyish
There's a very nice chap called Eamonn who comes to our boardgames group, very nice and possibly possessed of more disposable income than sense, as for Christmas he bought me/the group a very beautiful looking boxed boardgame called The Market of Alturien, a sort of euro take on Monopoly by award-winning game designer Wolfgang Kramer.

A complete rundown of the rules can be found at the top here, but briefly:

Players take turns putting customers of various spending power on the board, then take turns in putting down market stalls in the paths of those customers. On a player's turn they roll a die and must move a customer, hopefully onto their stall; that customer then provides income to the owner of the stall he landed on. Stalls on lucrative dark grey spaces also provide income to their owners if a customer was already there at the start of the turn, not just if they were moved there this turn. The player collects income and then may buy up to one improvement (e.g. a new market stall, or an expensive Prestige card three of which will win the game). Next player's turn.

At some point not too far into the game appears a thief called Gustavo the Weasel. You can move him instead of moving a customer: if he lands on a stall he steals from it, you get the money, and you get another turn (you can use the thief a second time but you don't get another turn if so). When the thief steals from you, providing you are not the richest player you get a Guard card which grants immunity from the thief; if you are the richest player the Guard passes to the poorest player instead.

Simple enough and certainly more fun-sounding than Monopoly, eh? Except it's rubbish. We speculate that Wolfgang Kramer may have been on a six-game deal and knocked this one out to fulfil the later requirements of his contract. We played it with 2 players and it's all about the die rolls, except that whoever's currently losing has a big advantage from the thief until they start winning, and then it reverses (i.e. the game goes on and on and ON). We played it with 6 players and it was even worse. With no possibility of planning ahead, you just sit on your hands between turns, while the thief wreaks random havoc: the Guard card passes around at high speed between all the players not currently in the lead and has no measurable effect.

It's possible that this game would work better with 3-4 players, but to be honest I don't think we can be bothered trying. Instead some house rules are clearly called for. Short of introducing a customer-eating Wolverine token to the marketplace, I'm currently thinking along these lines:

* On each player's turn, every player rolls a die and displays the roll in front of them. Each player than secretly nominates one of the seven (6 customers, 1 thief) tokens to move. Starting to the left of the player whose turn it is, each player reveals their nomination and moves that piece the number of spaces indicated on their die. If the piece rests on a dark grey square at the end of this sub-turn then income is paid out immediately; otherwise income is calculated only after every player has had their sub-turn.

* At the same time as nominating a token to move, each player secretly indicates whether they want to retain the services of the Guard this turn. This costs $N+1, where N is the number of Prestige cards held. Any player paying this retainer is insured against damages from the thief this turn, and can pay the thief-moving player from the bank instead.

Oh dear, I was hoping people could help me work out how to fix this game, but it might be too abstract a problem until you've actually played it. Failing that, anyone ever had any ideas on how to fix Monopoly to make it a good game? Did you know that Norm (glorious leader of the olde-time Monochrome BBS) once asserted to me that he was so chuffingly awesome at Monopoly that he was practically guaranteed to beat anyone at it in a one-on-one contest, every time? Have I missed something or is that not like claiming to have elite Snakes & Ladders skills?
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Odyssey Two [Jan. 4th, 2010|11:15 am]
Cityish Alt-ish Fortyish
So, 2010, eh?

I can't remember, and can't be bothered to look up, when the last time I was posting regularly to LiveJournal was. A year ago? Two? The suspicion remains that I still don't have much of interest to blog about. I am happily married and live in a sleepy seaside town in a country that is exactly the same as America apart from being really boring. I haven't had a job in a good six months but, being evidently a person of little character, have nothing much else to show for that time. There is a baby on the way but if you haven't had babies yet that sort of stuff is revolting to hear about, and if you have I'm sure it's all old hat.

Once a week I play boardgames with a selection of very nice boardgames - though baby may put a stop to that. I got the Agricola expansion "Farmers of the Moor" for Christmas and it cements its status as my favourite game ever, though I'm sure it must take about 15 minutes to pack up afterwards by this stage. I used Christmas money to get a shiny new DSi and Tessa and I are racing to complete our one copy of Zelda: Spirit Tracks. If I ever work again maybe we'll get a PS3 and revisit the video game cutting edge, but it seems a faraway dream for now.

TV-wise Doctor Who remains a key obsession. Unlike almost everyone else I felt the first part of End of Time was perfectly acceptable, but that the second half was rubbish. Russell T Davies is a master of the buildup... and then blowing it all on cheap self-indulgence and idiotic plot resolutions. At least he doesn't get to do it again in 2010, but it's worrying that Matt Smith's teasers so far have been a ticklist of standard RTD-era stuff. Obviously Steven Moffat wants to retain the current show's massive audience, but let's hope he doesn't do a craven retread.

In late 2009 we also watched every new episode of Glee, which is usually very good, and How I Met Your Mother, which is now absolutely dire; also I became a late convert to The Office (US) which I admit is lovely despite not having the original's core of utter black despair. On DVD I caught the brilliant second season of Arrested Development, and now we are watching the slightly less brilliant third, and also I Claudius, which is a lot more fun than Suetonius' Twelve Caesars, which I thought I might read side-by-side. I've now seen the first two episodes of Misfits, which seems charming, and want to watch Being Human too, in time for the 2010 runs. Also looking forward to new Chuck and Survivors.

In the reading stakes I'm doing quite well by my standards in recent months, through the expedient of reading children's stories aloud in bed (Octavian Nothing by M.T.Anderson; Foundling by D.M.Cornish) and always having something on the go in the bathroom (Flann O'Brien's jaunty At Swim-Two-Birds through Ed Brubaker's Lawless graphic novel into Zelazny's preposterous Jack of Shadows). I am a failure at choosing reading in preference to other forms of entertainment though.

The last couple of films I saw, Sherlock Holmes and Avatar, were pure popcorn, non-nutritious, difficult to finish and forgotten shortly after leaving the cinema. 2009 was also another terrible year for music; most of the albums I did like came out in January or so. Favourite of the year probably The Hazards of Love by the Decemberists, just for their commitment to storytelling. The Animal Collective album is deservedly poll-topping, and I also liked Micachu & The Shapes for sheer sonic craziness and Pram Town by Darren Hayman for being the best ambassador of elusive Britishness to these benighted colonial ears. As usual barrysarll's end-of-year list allowed me to seek out all the things that, in exile, I would otherwise miss, so Pagan Wander Lu and Brontosaurus Chorus have both been recently tickling my fancy, and not just because of their excellent names.

Well, that's the semi-obligatory Stuff post out of the way. If I don't think of anything less materialistic to write about sooner, have a good year and see you in 2011!
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Moral Effects of Tea-Tasting [Dec. 7th, 2009|09:34 am]
Cityish Alt-ish Fortyish
The long-continued use of tea has a distinct effect upon the character. This has been too often noticed and remarked to be questioned. There are tea-sots in every great charitable institution - particularly those for the maintenance of the aged. Their symptoms are generally mental irritability, muscular tremors and sleeplessness. The following is an account of one of the cases observed. The immediate effects upon him are as follows: In about ten minutes the face becomes flushed, the whole body feels warm and heated and a sort of intellectual intoxication comes on, much the same in character, it would seem, as that which occurs in the rarefied air of a mountain. He feels elated, exhilarated, troubles and cares vanish, everything seems bright and cheerful, his body feels light and elastic, his mind clear, his ideas abundant, vivid and flowing fluently into words. At the end of an hour's tasting a slight reaction begins to set in; some headache comes on, the face feels wrinkled and shrivelled, particularly about the eyes, which also get dark under the lids. At the end of two hours this reaction becomes firmly established, the flushed warm feeling has passed off, the hands and feet are cold, a nervous tremor comes on, accompanied with great mental depression. And he is now so excitable that every noise startles him; he is in a state of complete unrest; he can neither walk nor sit down, owing to his mental condition, and he settles into complete gloom. Copious and frequent urinations are always present, as also certain dyspeptic symptoms, such as eructations of wind, sour taste, and others. His mental condition in peculiar. He lives in a state of dread that some accident may happen to him; in the omnibus fears a collision; crossing the street, fears that he will be crushed by passing teams; walking on the sidewalks, fears that a sign may falls, or watches the eaves of houses, thinking that a brick may fall down and kill him; under the apprehension that every dog he meets is going to bite the calves of his legs, he carries an umbrella in all weathers as a defence against such an attack.

- At Swim-Two-Birds, Flann O'Brien
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