Diving back into books

Working for a library is THE BEST JOB. I’ve been lucky enough to work for my local library since 2013, and I’ve loved every minute. Working in circulation (on the desk where you actually check the books out to people) was a lot of fun. You get to talk to people about books and reading every day, which is a great way to get and give recommendations. You get to SEE thousands of books every shift, but the majority are going out with the people you’re helping.

These days I work in the Home Library department, taking library materials out into the community, to people who can’t get to the library. Since Covid, we’re naturally taking extreme precautions, wearing PPE, and dropping the materials off at doorsteps in paper bags instead of going in. The added advantage of Home Library work is that I have a certain amount of time at my desk every day, with time to check through the catalogue – it helps when patrons ask me about specific authors or books if I know what’s coming out.

All this is a roundabout introduction to say that (like a lot of people, I suspect) the amount of reading I can manage each month fluctuates wildly. In February my appetite flared, coinciding with a sudden influx of my reserves coming in. (I posted pictures of four of the books at the head of this post).

I kicked off with Charles Soule’s “Light of the Jedi”. This is the first book about the new Star Wars era, the High Republic. I’ve been a Star Wars fan for decades, and I enjoyed the opening of the book very much, but the size of my To Be Read pile meant I picked up some of my other tomes at the same time.

“Laziness Does Not Exist” is a non-fiction book by Devon Price Phd. Since I’ve consistently described myself as lazy for years, I was keen to see what the thrust of the book was. Reading non-fiction is harder on my brain, but it’s nicely written, with plenty of personal experiences to illustrate the points. It’s mostly looking at the culture of work in the US, where vacation and sick leave seem to be regarded as signs of weakness. I liked the way the book presents the idea that we use “lazy” as a pejorative, even when we’re discussing behaviours that aren’t driven by sloth or a lack of application.

Charlaine Harris is best known for her Sookie Stackhouse books, but recently released the third in a series about Gunnie Rose. I had missed the first when it came out, so now I grabbed all three at once and ended up devouring the first book “An Easy Death” in a single night. The books are set in an alternate America, where Roosevelt has been assassinated, and the country is divided up between Britain, Canada, Mexico, the fleeing Russian Royal Family who have set up the Holy Russian Empire, and Dixie (the Southern States), as well as New America. The pacing is great, the characters are interesting, and what I liked was that, while things are hard on the protagonist, she’s competent at what she does, and the odds never overwhelm her. I’m now a quarter of the way through the second book. (*edit* I took a couple of days to finish this post, and I have now read all three Gunnie Rose books. Go do the same. Right now.)

I’ll get back to “The Light of the Jedi” very soon – Charles Soule is an excellent writer, and the new era is full of interesting characters and tense situations. The reason I was able to put it aside was knowing that this book sets up the whole High Republic Era storyline, so we’re moving from a period of stability into conflict. So, bad things happen, and sometimes they happen to good people. Like I intimated above, I’m not great at enjoying the misery of protagonists, even when it’s essential to the plot. But, because it’s been a couple of days since I started writing this post, I now have another non-fic to bounce off too.

Hope your “To Be Read” pile is as engaging as mine has been!

Project 150 February round up

I didn’t want to do two Project 150 blog entries in a row, but the book review post I was going to do has slipped because I’m enjoying the book so much. Maybe next week?

So, a long time ago, when I was looking at other blogs regularly to try and boost my readership (and therefore my sales), I found a playwright’s blog that essentially began :

“Welcome, friends! I am starting out on a project to write an epic play based on Greek Mythology. I have decided to chronicle my journey here on this blog, and I invite you to come along with me, as I research, and write my new play!”

That was the only entry. It was a year old when I found it. And I had sympathy for the author, because starting is easy. One of the main reasons I picked 150 words as the daily target is because it isn’t intimidating.

And yet.

I don’t write every day. Not even my 150 words. February has been a good month for paid work (YAY!), but if someone’s paying me up front, that means I do that work ahead of anything else.

Despite this, I have managed a few episodes of writing on the 150 project, and since 150 words isn’t much, in those sessions I have managed to keep ahead of the word count I would have reached if I’d stuck to my goals. Does that make sense? Well, here’s the numbers.

Right now, the project stands at 13,433 words, which is very nearly where I should be at the end of March. I still have a month in hand, so to speak. I have to work harder on outlining, because for a while I was just having fun amusing myself while the plot dribbled away to nothing, but that’s something I can handle.

So, hello March! I’m not afraid of you, because I have gotten ahead of myself.

Project 150 : The plan and the reality

2020 wasn’t a great year for productivity (and I’m fairly confident it wasn’t just me.) I start almost every year with the determination to be more organised, write more, write better, use my down time more productively…. And yet, usually by this time of the new year, I fall short of my high aspirations.

This year was going to be different, like all the other years were. For one thing, I wasn’t listing the projects I was going to do – no page in my journal saying “2 one-acts, 5 sketches and a full-length by July”. Madness, they say, is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results. Well, not this time!

Zurg Buzz GIF - Zurg Buzz Lightyear - Discover & Share GIFs

I thought about the times I had written long fiction – Eddie and the Kingdom, or Tribute. Each had come out somewhere around 50,000 words, and been pretty much ok. I wanted to do that again, but the conditions were very different. Back then, I was going to Ringette practices, to violin lessons, and I would have time to kill alone with my laptop.

So I took the total number of words I was looking to write and divided them by the number of days in the year.

50000/365 = about 137.

I was surprised. I only had to write 137 words a day? What does that look like? Well, this is what 150 words looks like:

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I could easily write 150 words a day, right? So I began project 150. I wrote a quick outline of the first couple of chapters of the sequel to Eddie and the Kingdom. Writing is easier if you know WHAT you’re writing. Pantsing can be fun, but I’ve found int he past I write myself into corners that way.

I soon found that 150 words a day is not only easy, it’s REALLY easy. Before long I had passed my goal for the whole of January. This meant that, on a couple of days off work, when I didn’t get to write what I wanted, I did not feel guilty. This is huge.

So, here I am, on the 26th of January, with 8,003 words in the bank. I’m planning to keep going, because 150 words is really, really doable.

The final Chapter of the Lit Fic Zombie Novel

The Final chapter of a Lit Fic Zombie Novel, written by a Professor of Creative Writing at Goomfloof University. “No, I haven’t read any other Zombie novels, I don’t read *genre* my good man. All MY novels have to have ‘A Novel” on the cover, so people don’t mistake them for eggplants or Shower curtains.”

Chapter 45

The great atrium of the library should have been silent. It should have been heavy with the enforced noiselessness of the intellect at work, the mental mastication of centuries of written wisdom. Instead, the mindless masses pounded their brainless fists against the ancient oak doors, their only thoughts of filling remorseless stomachs, of consuming life as theirs had already been consumed.

Samson glanced at the doors.

-theyll be through in no time.

Finolla picked up a chair.

-Ill be ready for them when they do.

Once again Oscar blew out a huge sigh. The aged, but still handsome, professor clearly resented his role as the sole voice of reason, but he had long ago become accustomed to the fact that his was the  only intellect capable of wrestling with the onslaught of vapidity that ran amok in the modern world.

-Samson

He said

-you won’t find the answers to our problems in that catalogue. And Finolla, your poor chair will be no defence against the horde when they break down that door.

The other two survivors gazed at him in wonder as he stood up from his seat. Though he was very nearly six feet tall, he looked taller in these last moments of humanity. Perhaps it was his towering genius that leant him height, perhaps just a trick of the afternoon sunlight slanting through dustmotes to strike his elegant grey hair. He paused for a moment, looking at Finolla and remembering all those grad students who had fallen in love with him during the course of his educational career. Those poor children, who may have been blessed with the bodies of athletes and dancers, but whose semi-formed minds could never hope to keep his affections, let alone his attention. Each one had to be regretfully put aside, and they would inevitably “report” him for “sexual assault” or “stalking”. Well, those days were behind him now. He faced his two companions again.

-that mob out there won’t be impressed by violence. They won’t respond to reasoned argument. There’s no secret escape route hidden in these books for you to find, samson.

Samson looked close to tears. Finolla too, turned her back. Probably trying to suppress her attraction to the professor.

-well then professor

Asked Samson

-what can we do.

The professor smiled. As always, the solution that was so simple to him completely eluded the others around him. Only his mind could slice through the foliage of the nonsensical world to the path of truth.

-it’s simple, my friends. Those creatures lack intellect, while we can still think. We won’t overpower them from without, but if we absorb as much knowledge as we can, our very mind will overcome theirs from within. They may take our physical beings from us, but our mental processes will take them over.

The two exchanged looks.

-really professor?

Asked Finolla, ever the skeptic. He smiled, beneficently.

-of course, my dear. Here, a first course for your mental meals. I happened to have these with me.

He passed them copies of his own first book ‘The Garden of Aritosthenes’, a brilliant but overlooked work that laid bare the essence of the modern male and his role in society despite the vicissitudes of the cruel “feminist” movement. He took his own, well-worn copy from a pocket and read again the dedication he had written to himself in the front of the book. He smiled again and together, they turned the first page as the first sounds of splintering came from the doors.

When they broke, they would not be letting hunger in, but letting genius out.

Word of mouth

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - Wikipedia

The first Sci-Fi I ever remember reading was The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy. It made a huge impression on me, to the extent that I bought a version of Ford Prefect’s bag to take to school, and made sure I always had a towel in it. Luckily, since I was only about ten, and there were only fifty kids in my whole school, this wasn’t an issue.

In the book, technology is accessible. Eddie, the shipboard computer, has a personality and responds to voice commands. He doesn’t always respond by carrying out those commands, but he hears and understands them. Around the same time, we got a Cheetah Sweet Talker module for our BBC Micro B, and we could make it talk!

If you watch the above video, you’ll see that the Sweet Talker was very basic tech, and we had to tell it what to say. Getting the computer to respond to a query was possible, but it would only be a response that you had programmed in. And to a query that you typed.

Many years later, I had a PC running Windows. Somewhere in there was the Windows Speech Recognition system. I still wanted a voice responsive computer, but the most common thing I wanted to ask for was for it to play my music, to skip a song I didn’t want, or to pause when the phone rang. I couldn’t get the system to START the music player, and once the music was playing, the computer didn’t seem to be able to hear me to ask it to pause the music.

All this was brought to mind last week, when I had an issue at work and went to ask Terry to sort it out. (Because Terry CAN sort things out, that’s why. Every office has a Terry.) He had to send an email, and was irritated by the fact that he had to type it out by hand.

“Wish this computer had Siri.” he muttered, “Then I could just dictate this.”

I was a bit amazed. As a writer, naturally I have tried dictation as a method for getting the stupid words out of my head and onto the screen. Sadly, as soon as the little microphone icon goes red to show it’s listening, my head goes blank, and the screen starts filling up with “er…once…er. I mean… Hang on… No. No. Stop. Delete. Delete. How do you stop this?” I once spent ten minutes yelling at my PC because I kept saying “it” and the software kept writing “Eat” or “at”. It sounded like a Monty Python sketch by the end, with my trying every phonetic variation to try and get the computer to understand me.

You used to train the computer to understand your voice. There were some paragraphs you had to read that contains the most common phonemes. I remember an episode of “The Archers” where someone is trying to raise some money, and naturally they decide to become an author (because that’s where the big money is, right?). They’re no typist, so they get dictation software and spend ages reading it “Winnie the Pooh” stories to train it. Trouble is, when they’re reading, they use a BBC “Alexandra Palace” voice, but dictate in their regular voice.

Direct voice dictation didn’t work for me. The myriad mistakes meant that any time saved on typing was more than used up in editing. For a time, the only thing that I could operate by voice was the function to switch off the computer (but only if I said “switch off” not “turn off” or “shut down”). Last month, I found this had been removed by Microsoft.

Despite the rude things I said about streaming services last year, we went ahead and got Spotify services. (Spock’s rule from Wrath of Khan applies here.) You would think that a system designed to be used with stuff like the Google Home Spying Device would actually work well with voice activation, wouldn’t you? Well, you’d be wrong. I can’t ask for specific songs by artists. Well, I can, but I can get anything from completely different songs by other artists, to recipes. Seriously – I ask the thing to play me a specific song, and it gives me a recipe instead. Is it my English accent? Since I traveled south at age 7, I have a boring RP accent, and yet the Google Always Listening In Case You Want To Buy Something can’t tell Taylor Swift from Ed Sheeran.

Incidentally, if you say “OK Google, I forbid you to play any Ed Sheeran song ever again” it will reply “Ok. Playing Ed Sheeran on repeat.” Or that’s what it says to ME, anyway.

I’ve whinged before about Microsoft deciding that the PC is their tool for monitoring you, not your tool for doing work, and this is another symptom. Voice recognition is something people expect – you see it depicted in movies, tv shows and comics all the time. We want to talk to our devices in a naturalistic way, and have them respond. But the companies behind them don’t want that. If they did, you’d be able to rename your Alexa, your Google Home, and have it respond to a name of your choosing. It would learn how you speak. It would get the bloody song right, and never play Ed Bloody Sheeran when I’m in the room.

Maybe there’s a brighter future ahead, where I can ask the tv to just find the movie I want, or tell the coffee pot I want coffee at 7am. Right now, I doubt it.

The inevitable 2020 roundup

This is the latest 3d printing project of mine. It’s a version of the Armourer’s helmet from The Mandalorian tv show. Riding the skytrain to work this morning, I was thinking glumly about how I was likely to write pretty much the same 2020 roundup post as everyone else (people ARE still blogging, right?). Then I thought about the helmet and realised, that IS my 2020 roundup.

See, this project began with enthusiasm and ambition. This was a bigger and more complex helmet than any I had tried before with the printer. It wasn’t pre-sliced, so I had to slice it up myself, and then make sure all the printed pieces would go together. The only YouTube tutorials I found on this process didn’t quite match what I was trying to do, which is weird, because I would bet big money I’m not the only Charlie trying to do this.

Anyway, it seemed like I had barely begun when things went off the rails. The first two pieces were beautifully printed and went together perfectly. The third did not fit. At all. Worse still, each piece was using a LOT more filament than I had anticipated. I soldiered on, starting (belatedly) to keep notes of the slicing process so I wouldn’t make the same mistakes again. I didn’t, of course. I made whole NEW mistakes. Some of the parts didn’t print cleanly. Some of the ones that weren’t too bad didn’t glue in place properly. As I reached the time of writing, I haven’t achieved nearly as much of the project as I had hoped – the front half of the helmet is still missing two pieces, and the back half hasn’t been done at all (unless you count the two pieces that won’t fit with anything else…)

The saying goes “half a loaf is better than none”, and like many people this year, that’s the philosophy I’m clinging to. Yes, I’ve got slightly less than half my loaf, and it’s going to take a lot more time, effort and materials to bring it up to scratch. But, let’s not forget, THIS WAS 2020.

I don’t know if 2021 is going to be more productive. I know I hope to get more done, and I’m planning to get more done, but I will accept half a loaf, if that’s all there is next December.

Missing the Material World

My first music player (of my own, rather than a family one) was a cassette player. It was old and second-hand, and only played well if the Play button was held down continuously. I managed that by balancing a skateboard on a cassette box that rested on the button. The first music album that I bought on cassette was “Go West” by “Go West”.

This has been on my mind as I tried to get hold of Taylor Swift’s new album. For various reasons, I don’t have a data account for my phone, so if I’m listening to music while I’m out and about, it’s music from files on my device. That’s not a problem most of the time, because ( like a lot of people my age) I have a large library of music that I had bought as cds and moved on to a computer for ease of storage.

Until very recently, buying a new album or individual track and downloading it was easy. Google Play Music had a large library, they had my payment details, so I could search up a title and click the button. When I wrote about Van Halen in a recent post, it took only ten minutes from thinking of the album “1984” to having it playing on my phone. But then, a couple of days ago, Mrs Dim asked me if we had “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” by Barenaked Ladies and Sarah McLaughlin. We did at some point, but I couldn’t find it, so I went in search of a new copy. Google Play Music is no more, replaced by a streaming service that allows you to stream almost anything, but not download files. I tried all the recommended services, and all of them offered me the chance to pay a monthly fee for streaming only. At one point it DID look like I could buy the album in MP3 format and download it, but then the payment system said I wasn’t connected properly, To connect properly I would have to go to a different screen, which failed to load. I found that was the US version of the website (just a little company called Amazon, you won’t know them) so I went in through the Canadian site and found that A: There was no place that the album was available as MP3 and B: I couldn’t install the Windows specific Amazon Music app for my laptop because I was now “Signed in from another region and must sign in there.” I read that last sentence twenty times and it didn’t make sense. If I was signed in from another region, why would signing IN there again help? If I was signed in there, why didn’t it work? If I was signed in there, but physically HERE, why don’t Amazon know that? They’re pretty damn specific about not letting me watch shows on Amazon UK Prime, even as they let me pay the UK Prime fees.

Although it was late, and I was tired and angry, I went to the “Contact Us” page. Like most people who end up there, I just wanted an email address that I could drop all this into. I wasn’t expecting help, or resolution, just an outlet.

But no. Email was not an option. Or rather, there was an email button but it was greyed out, with the words “These issues are best resolved by phone or chat” superimposed. I opened the chat window, and under the “How can we help you” segment, I poured out all my irritation. When poor Priyanka logged into the chat to ask how she could help, I wished her a goodnight and logged out, leaving her to read the tangled mess in the box above. She didn’t, of course. She logged the chat as unexpectedly ended, sent me a record email and advising me to come back to the chat another time so they could resolve my issue.

They can’t, of course, because they have no incentive to. Amazon doesn’t want me buying files that I can keep and listen to over and over after paying just once. They, like Spotify and YouTube Music and all the others, want me to pay a monthly fee for music I have no ownership of, that is subject to their availability. People had paid to have a copy of George Orwell’s “1984” on their Kindles, but when there was a problem over rights, Amazon withdrew the book and it vanished from those devices overnight. You might have been watching “Friends” on Netflix, but last month, their rights to it went over to Crave tv. If you don’t pay Crave, you can’t watch that show. I can, because I have all ten seasons on DVD. Paid once, watch as often as I like.

Younger me liked the idea of a streaming service, because younger me thought it would be run for the betterment of people’s lives, for the best entertainment value. Want to watch a movie? Go to the library online, and just watch it! The reality is that we have four streaming services that we pay for each month. When we think of something we want to watch, it’s a fiddly job to search those four different services. Sometimes the thing is there and we can watch. Sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes it’s there, but on a subset of one of the services that requires an additional payment to access. The job of the streaming services is to make money for the streaming services, not to provide the best entertainment options. If it were, then there would be a central location where you could search for the show you want, and your monthly fee would be split between services according to what you watched from each. Better for the consumer, worse for the service.

So, it looks like I’m going to end up buying a cd version of Taylor’s album, run it into my computer and send it over to my phone. Taylor gets her cut, I get the music, at least the two of us will be happy. And I’ll buy it at an actual shop, so sorry Amazon, you’re going to miss out this time.

3d Printing

Lots of things in the modern world could have stepped out of science fiction from fifty years ago. The mobile phone, meetings over Zoom, electric cars that charge by solar panels on the house roof… All of these things are miraculous in their way, and would have blown my mind when I was a kid. But I think the thing I would have longed for most would have been the 3d printer, and I believe this because I wanted one desperately even though I was over forty.

I was very lucky to hear from someone who had one they’d reconditioned and wanted to sell off cheap (ish). But the question was, what was I actually going to use it for? Because this thing was potentially an endless source of action figures, and I knew that would just cause trouble.

There’s a website for this, of course: https://www.thingiverse.com/ I got myself an account there and started collecting a balance of things I wanted, but didn’t need, and things that would be useful around the house. The first thing I tried was the awesome – looking bird-feeder.

This was too big for the machine I have (Flash Forge Finder), so I had to split up the model. However, since it’s a repeating pattern, I only had to use two parts (I cut the piece into quarters, and one quarter cut in half horizontally made the two pieces I used.) I printed each piece four times and glued them together, and was more than a little surprised to find the whole thing fitted together.

So, one for the house. I used the printer to make the gun for my latest costume idea, and have made a couple of gauntlets too:

I tried making an entire helmet – many, many more pieces to get one big enough for a head.

This week I printed another useful thing – a nose clip for mask-wearers who have glasses. Mrs Dim is very pleased with that, so I treated myself to an entirely useless Porg.

So far I’ve spent $60 on the reels of PLA used to make these things. Whether that’s cheaper than buying them…I dunno. I do know it would be hard to buy exactly these things in these proportions. I also know I have a lot more than $60 worth of projects piled up in my Thingiverse account.

But 3d printing is fun, and occasionally useful too. It is science fiction come to life, a Star Trek Replicator of my own, with a few limitations.

Silver Wedding Anniversary

Twenty five years is a long time. Not as long as it feels since it was March, but a long time. Mrs Dim and I were different people in many ways, and we’ve changed each other as much as we’ve changed ourselves along the way. Both of us seem fairly content with the result.

We celebrated the day of our anniversary with a family meal, carefully booked at a restaurant that had space to distance and was looking after its staff. Our first plan of a dream holiday in Hawaii had been scuppered a couple of months before (though we were lucky enough to be reimbursed for the cancelled flights). Instead, we booked a more modest weekend away in Naramata, at the Naramata Inn. Mrs Dim is big seafood fan, as well as appreciating good wine. I appreciate her, so we would both have enjoyed the trip.

Except THAT had to be cancelled too – new restrictions cancelled travel outside the Fraser Valley Health area, and we were spending the week at home, with all three kids.

We’re luckier than a lot of folks – our house is a reasonable size, even with five adults in it. We have a garden, and the trails on Burnaby Mountain right on our doorstep. Mrs Dim and I divided our time between working on the garden and house and getting out into the fresh air. We revisited some favourite places, and took advantage of the fact that we didn’t have to get up and go to work. It was a lovely week. On the Friday, I booked us a meal at the Port Moody Boathouse, which also does some lovely seafood.

I enjoyed my week at home, but I’m sorry that we didn’t get to mark such a milestone with more of a landmark celebration. It’s no one’s fault, in a manner of speaking – if more people observed the rules about masks and social distancing, the latest set of restrictions might not have come in, for example.

All things being equal, I’d like another twenty five years, please. But whatever is round the corner, each day has been a gift that I didn’t expect and will work to be worthy of.

With thanks to Eddie Van Halen.

1984 was a GREAT album. I listened to it a great many times when I was a kid, but I never had a copy. Not even a badly-recorded cassette ripped from a friend’s copy of a friend’s copy. Because in 1984, I was NOT cool. But I had a brother who was (and still is, by the way.)

That’s him, with the ice cream. I’m the string bean in the plaid shirt behind him. From my perspective, Ronnie was effortlessly cool as a teenager. He’s almost two years older than I am, and where we grew up, there were a bunch of kids that divided pretty neatly into older siblings and younger siblings. We all spent a certain amount of time hanging out together, but the older set had definite advantages.

Anyway, it was Ronnie who had the record player and the good albums. I heard “Night at the Opera” for the first time as it floated down the hallway from his room. At one time I could sing along to almost any “Marillion” song, but I couldn’t tell you the names, because duh, I didn’t ever SEE the albums. 1984 got a decent amount of airtime on Radio Ronnie too.

When I heard the news about Eddie Van Halen today, I thought of 1984, and “Jump” in particular. The internet being what it is, I bought a copy online during my lunchbreak, and played it in the car all the way home.

It sounds just like I remember, and I found myself singing along to songs I thought I had forgotten. The synthesizer is right in your face, day-glo orange and yellow, and as plastic as the toys and fashions of the 80’s, and I did not care at all. I remember the miseries of teenage, and I remember the fear and anger of the 80’s with the threat of nuclear war, the miners’ strikes, Thatcher, unemployment….and yet this music is unashamedly optimistic. It bounces. Sometimes, yes, it sounds like the horny teenage boys of the eighties too, with too much confidence and not enough respect, but set against the endless funerial drumbeat of “Covid…Trump…Covid…Trump” it was a welcome breath of fresh air.

Now that we all have a world wide soapbox to air our grievances on, you often hear people complaining that this or that has “ruined their childhood”. Playing 1984 today showed me that it’s not that hard to recapture some of the great feelings from yesterday, and that nothing speaks to the soul like music.

Thank you, Eddie Van Halen.