Wednesday Sep 10, 2008

Haiku for 9/11

Autumn sunlight streams
Through unblocked western window
Where two towers stood.

I originally wrote that in September 2001 for my sister, whose former office faced the World Trade Center site. Found it while consolidating half-written blog entries and various random files.

Wednesday Sep 03, 2008

Donner's Biblio Tech blog migration

Marc Donner, a friend with whom I discuss way too much sci-fi over way too much breakfast, has begun migrating his Biblio Tech meanderings from IEEE Security & Privacy to his personal blog. He brings the advantage of perspective (having consumed a huge swath of the genre since he was able to read) with a near-perfect recall. I've only been able to stump Marc once, with an oblique reference to Heinlein's Goldfish Bowl. His history of cyberpunk is worth the read.

Monday Sep 01, 2008

"Old Man's War" Triology Plus One

Once I hit cruising altitude on any vacation, I can typically read a sci-fi book a day. That rate of consumption assumes ample idle time by some body of water (bathtubs included) for reading and ruminating along with the complete lack of late-night calls or slide tweaking. The hallmarks of a real vacation, in other words.

This past week I finished John Scalzi's "Old Man's War" trilogy - Old Man's War, The Ghost Brigades, and The Last Colony. As an added bonus Zoe's Tale arrived the day I finished Last Colony and I was able to devour it before I had filed the first three on the "books to share" shelf. Zoe's Tale is the third book retold from the perspective of a character principal in both the second and third books, and it fills in a few of the plot holes left by the close of the trilogy. The books read quickly and had me thinking about imperialism, colonialism, emerging markets and politics. It's much more of a political science than hard science read - comparisons to Heinlein's Starship Troopers on the jackets of the books are appropriate.

Thursday Jul 10, 2008

Ghost Rider

Just finished Neal Peart's Ghost Rider, the story of his "healing road" of motorcycle travels after the tragic deaths of his daughter and wife within 10 months of each other. Normally I find travel literature really boring; I'd rather go and explore and get a sense of places first-hand than have context prescribed for me. But Peart uses the travelogue to establish the context for his moods, his thoughts, and in the second half of the book, a series of letters to his friend Brutus (who co-stars in Roadshow: Landscape with Drums, the successor story to Ghost Rider).

Snippets of Rush lyrics (written by Peart) appear at the opening and close of various chapters, and as adjuncts Peart provides along the way. It's eerie to see how some of his attitudes and thinking pre-tragedy shaped his recovery after those events; it's even eerier the Rush CD Roll the Bones deals with death and matters of circumstance, written long before Peart experienced those first-hand. At the close of the book, he describes the process by which he began to pen lyrics again, for the Rush CD Vapor Trails (and it's easy to pick up on the themes that later braced that CD, starting with small personal victories).

I turned the last page of the book last night, and was left with two striking thoughts that paired with a difficult day of work:

1. Tormented by time and space where he was, Peart rode his motorcyle. Fast. Speed and distance (changes in space over time) counted for more than direction. Forward progress.

2. He rediscovered hope by building on the things that gave him joy: first his motorcycle, then nature, then caring about the environment, and eventually meeting his second wife.

I put on Rush's Snakes & Arrows, a CD about hope and faith, in some ways the third part of the Peart mental travelogue, on the way home. It's audio Anne Lamott.

Wednesday Jul 09, 2008

Facebook For Business

I get (at times) grief for investing as much time as I do on Facebook, from creating groups to seeking out friends to thinking about how to build small, vibrant communities. One of my friends claims it's my competitive nature that makes me a "friend hound;" my kids insist I do this mostly to embarrass them (as if other embarrassment vectors weren't sufficient).

As I was reviewing the "Missing Manual" (O'Reilly/Pogue Press) for Facebook, I scribbled notes about business uses for the social networking site, from promoting themes and memes to building a readership to locating new channels for ideas. One of those channels hit me head-on a few weeks ago -- an old friend found me on Facebook, read some of my Sun blog entries that get imported as notes, and decided I might make an interesting interview for the Innovations Exchange for which she consults.

Today that Facebook "friending" turned into about 45 minutes of interview (which I'll recap another evening) and hopefully will show up on their site as a thought piece on where technology can disrupt the healthcare provider market.

Sunday Jun 15, 2008

Facebook Performance Art

For the past two summers I've goofed around about wanting to do a prose adaptation of Bruce Springsteen's Jungleland. Couplets of the song's lyrics have such a wide range of interpretation that you could spin a number of fast-reading short stories; my goal was to make the jump from technical writing (long, but factual) to blogging (narrative but short) to short story -- which is probably a koan of all writers who fail at tackling something novel-lengthed. My problem: I can't write dialogue. Some might argue that's because I rarely participate in dialogues myself, but conveying context through someone else's conversation is difficult.

Inspiration struck about a week ago -- not only would I do a modernization of a 33-year old story of New York hoods, but I'd do it with modern tools. If the Rangers were in fact having a homecoming in Harlem, they'd probably arrange it via Twitter, text messages and perhaps a Facebook group. Idea #1: When I sit down to pound this out, the whole work will be a sequence of Twitters, texts, and Facebook status updates. Map the characters into a vector of phone numbers, Facebook identities and Twitter URLs, and you have the ingredients for a forward story. Problem #1: As with song, there's no way to tell backstory; you enter the storyline in mid-stream and follow along, riding to some conclusion -- in the song it's nearly 10 minutes and a saxophone solo away; in narrative I think it's a shorter short story.

Always eager to find the transitive closure of goofy ideas, I went one step further: what if I actually captured screen shots of each electronic update, with enough time stamp information in subtle corners to indicate the pace of a song that could be the audio equivalent of an episode of 24. Why not go another step: get a half dozen people to create Facebook and Twitter identities for the characters, set up a group to "announce" the live performance of the story, and get up to 5,000 people to friend up and follow along, in real time, as social networking tools make art imitate life for a day.

With microblogging through Twitter and Facebook status updates, and cross-posting of blog entries as notes, we're essentially telling our own stories for a wide audience in real time. Why not tell someone else's story? And before anyone complains that Facebook accounts are for "real people" only, I'll point out that Doogie Howser has a fairly accurate Facebook profile; I doubt that any of the 3 people who claim to be the Devils' Zach Parise really are; and I noticed that a few FBers who might have been corporate or campaign fronts seem to have disappeared (Michelle Obama most notably and recently; she's back in page form). If a real person is following a script, generating a show in real time, then I'd think that the Facebook content kings would be thrilled with the chance to plug advertising into the event stream. Add in comments, wall postings and other content generated by people viewing the production, and you have truly interactive entertainment.

But as with all fun ideas, it starts with Square #1: I still have to write something.

Thursday Jun 12, 2008

Separating Ourselves From Our Culture

Last week I had the pleasure of catching up with Cory Doctorow over a breakfast orders of magnitude more healthy than the last meal we had shared. Our topics

I've been fascinated by Someone Comes To Town, Someone Leaves Town, Cory's third book, which someone called "the weirdest book I've ever read." It's not obvious; it's clearly allegorical; it's rich and funny and any reading must include pauses for putting the book down and letting your brain absorb connected lumps of ideas. Each of the main characters has some feature that makes them decidedly not-quite-human; most of the characters go by an alliterative appelation that mirrors a baby name book more than a work of science fiction at times. Eventually you realize that all of the "A" names are the same person, as are the "B" names, and so on. Cory explained that the book is about second generation immigrants, finding themselves between a new, rich world and an old one with its own set of names and rules.

This struck a chord with me: growing up I heard my grandmother speak of Yukisiel, Kusiel and sometimes the slightly more formal but muffled Yezekiel. What I learned later is that those were all variations of Ezekiel, and I never learned if she was referring to my father (Ezekiel is his middle Hebrew name, Yezekiel in Yiddish) or one of her old-world siblings. As Cory pointed out to me, drawing on his own Russian grandparents as inspiration for the story, "everybody had five names." The strange, and often foreign, clothes, foods, tastes (in food and clothing), names, and mixed pronunciations that I heard in the 1960s are no more foreign than Doctorow's character Alan, who has no navel, a mountain for a father, and a washing machine for a mother.

I've previously written that Cory is one of a few Canadians with whom I can talk for an hour and not mention hockey. But in recapping our morning, I have to draw on a favorite hockey book, Roy MacGregor's The Last Season because of the common thread of dealing with the foreign nature of our own cultures as seen a generation or a continent removed from their origins. In MacGregor's book, [spoiler alert] Felix, the Canadian protagonist, is a second generation Polish immigrant, an NHL role player (read: fighter), and in the denouement of his career. Felix cannot fathom why his grandmother refers to him as a monster, and refuses to show him even the least affection; only later when truly desperate for a sense of his identity and some direction does Felix' father share that he was born with a caul, triggering superstitions his parents felt belonged back in the old country. Felix learns that his grandmother insisted that the caul be saved, dried and fed to him, so that young Felix would acquire the strength to ward off the apocryphal evils otherwise awaiting him. His parents rejected this bit of old world wisdom while Felix became a stranger in the strange land of his grandmother.

In Someone Comes To Town, those not-quite-right quirks end up saving the day, at least once, in scenes that you can literally smell coming off the pages. If we understand and respect the cultural bits that got us from Point A to Point B, things work out reasonably well. For Felix, his attempt to appease old school myths is upended by his father's insistence that they live wholly on one side of a cultural weirdness barrier. He grabs an unmarked, unnamed jar convinced he's found what his grandmother stashed decades before, but what Felix mixes with his breakfast is poisonous, not just the storied antidote to a toxic tale. The results make Last Season the saddest hockey book I own (aside from my own, which can't seem to write itself).

I just loaned my copy of Doctorow's book to a teenager, eager to hear how she reacts to the story, having matured in an era of rapidly changing, globally aware Gen Y culture that tends leave those from the "old school" on the other side of the social networking weirdness barrier.
[edits: minor midnight grammar cleanups].

Monday Jun 02, 2008

More on Context: Building Better People Networks

Finished editing my previous entry about providing context in a social networking world to find that my "hobby blog" was sporting new comments for moderation. Normally this is something I take care of about once a week, akin to pulling weeds out of the cracks in the steps leading to my front door: unpleasant content, usually, that smells bad.

Today's comment pile had two gems: first from my own mother, commenting on my exorcism of the demons of the 1972 NLCS, reminding me that my childhood friends' mother lost her battle with breast cancer as few years back. In recalling Glenn & Scott's mom I can overlook the fact that having your parents comment on your blog is somewhere in the embarrassment-weird spectrum between having the school bus chased down the street for a forgotten lunch bag and finding your grandparents on Facebook.

Even better, author Jack Falla, whose books I mentioned as my grace note to the hockey off-season, found and commented on my reference to his writing. Woo-hoo. And I discovered he's got another book in progress (recommendation economy, anyone?) This is the kind of social context that has approximately epsilon probability of creation purely in face to face settings, but happens through a few search engine clicks, trackbacks and blog entries. The fact that Falla is one of the daily dozen readers who happen upon my "other" blog tells me that he is as genuine a person as his writing would lead you to believe.

It's not even 8:00 AM and this is shaping up to be a reasonable Monday.

[edit: fixed missing href tag close]

Monday May 26, 2008

The Cost of Freedom

I can only count one contemporary killed in active military duty -- my middle school and high school classmate Steve Voight, the subject of one of my very first blog entries. While I've had family members who served in active duty in both World Wars, I and my own peers have been a bit young for Vietnam and a bit too old for the Persian Gulf, at least young recruits. When my high school class last got together in 2000, we had few details of Steve's death; a bit of Google work on this Memorial Day reveals more about his active service. An excerpt from his last letter (included on the site) captures the seriousness with which Steve approached even the mundane of his service:
Breakfast: Forty-five minute wait in line. Every meal is the same. Standing in line sweating. That's OK, though. There are people in my country who neither know or care that their freedom is being protected at this very moment. That too is OK, because I do know. I'm doing it.

Steve wrote that in 1996, just days before he was killed in a search and rescue mission. While most of us were watching Top Gun in cable TV syndication, Steve was embedded in reality resembling the last scene of the movie. In the dozen years since, I think most Americans have developed a much deeper sense of what's happening in the Persian Gulf, and we've all formed opinions of our continued presence there. Whatever you believe about the foreign policies of the United States, never for a moment doubt the integrity, courage, patience, and confidence of the men and women of our armed forces.

Find the cost of freedom, buried in the ground. -- Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Written during the later days of the Vietnam War, equally applicable to the Persian Gulf wars.

Monday May 05, 2008

"Little Brother" Release

Cory Doctorow's Little Brother has been released, and if happen to have anyone in the teenage (oops, Milennial) generation in your house, make this required reading. Doctorow loves to borrow titles and ideas from his favorite writers, turn them on their proverbial listening ear, and remix them with his own view of near-present reality, and Little Brother is an appropriate homage to Orwell's 1984. Writing about Big Brother was de rigeur for anyone of roughly my age and public high school demeanor, a cultural artifact left over from Red Scares and fear of a Communist planet. It was supposed to warn us about what would happen if Democracy with a capital "D" failed.

Dcotorow captures what happens when the representative government fails in the closed, not open position. I think Little Brother should be recommended, social, culturally critical reading for anyone who leaves a digital trail a mile wide on their FaceBook profile. The book is a great read and should incent much-needed conversations about data privacy, data security, and the delicate balance of power that needs to be maintained between privacy, security, trust and public safety.

Best of all, the book is available for download in a plethora of formats, under a Creative Commons license. How better to spread the words of freedom?

Thursday Apr 24, 2008

Jon Armstrong's "Grey"

I finished Jon Armstrong's sci-fi novel Grey last night and all I can say is "Wow." I can see why it was nominated for the 2007 Philip K. Dick Award, and at times it reminded me of Cory Doctorow's Eastern Standard Tribe, William Gibon's Idoru and Pattern Recognition, the Fake Steve Jobs blog and my own horrible sense of fashion, dumped into a blender and set to "puree". It's set in a world in which fashion, heavy metal music, and family politics are all taken to extremes -- a world which is entirely plausible. Armstrong's descriptions of the talking heads on "channels" as forward extrusions of bloggers, and his exquisite use of detail in describing what passes for haute couture are alone worth a few nights spent reading the book. They provide a balance to the violent, morally upsetting scenes through the book, all of which are seen through the protagonist's fashion goggles. I got more than a few chuckles along the way, and I'm convinced that if I were truly able to use radioactive elements as fashion accents (as several characters do) that my inability to pair ties and suits might be overlooked.

Wednesday Mar 26, 2008

Jodi Picoult's Change of Heart and Other Voodoo

Finished Jodi Picoult's latest novel, Change of Heart, this week. As disappointed as I was with her two previous works, this one is a definite top-three list nominee. It is as rich and detailed as My Sister's Keeper, but rather than what felt like forced literary devices or a plot that rushed to get through difficult turns, this one moves smoothly from start to finish. I didn't guess a single surprise (which makes them surprises), and her new lawyer type is a wonderful character with a neurotic Jewish mother, neither of whom venture into stereotype. Most of all, her treatment of religion and belief is fantastic, in both the fantasy and exemplary use of the word. I think the book should be required reading for anyone who shapes their personal conduct framework on an element of faith.

On the heels of a recommendation, I picked up Neil Gaiman's American Gods next. The themes are similar; but Gaiman deals in non-mainstream religions while also making me question exactly what constitutes true home-grown religion in America -- something faith based, or something consumption oriented, or something we construct? And I'm reminded of William Gibson's Mona Lisa Overdrive that asked some of the same questions (using some of the same phraseology) in a very different way.

Monday Mar 17, 2008

Bear Market for Advice

I really, truly, dislike most "financial advice" vehicles. I stopped subscribing to Money magazine about 15 years ago after their year-end tax advice included "consider moving to a lower-tax state." I find interviews with fund managers deceptive, because they talk about specific stocks as if they were the sole focus of a fund's existence, rather than part of a (narrowly) diversified portfolio. But most of all, I despite talking heads, particularly those that aim to be a cross product of ESPN commentators and Barrons in its 1980s glory days.

Take Jim Cramer proclaiming Bear Stearns would be bought for upwards of $12B. That was written two months ago, with a straight face and supposedly valued insight. Huh? Cramer says "I think you will make great money." If you followed his advice, you effectively lost every bit of money you put in, once you subtract transaction costs. Bear was purchased at 99% off, not 90 points below its high of last spring.

Big bets without a surrounding portfolio (risk mitigation or diversification strategy) only increase the risk of ruin -- a phrase for gamblers, not investors.

Thursday Mar 13, 2008

Who's Afraid of Virginia Postrel?

Clearly, not Eliot Spitzer, or perhaps he'd still be governor of the Empire State.

Postrel pretty much called this one five years ago in her blog, when Spitzer was gaining in prominence and power. I ran into that entry when Googling for other references to the so-called Antarctica Liberation Front and found an old classmate had the same funny memories I did of Spitzer's over-the-top self-importance being completely deflated by a bunch of really funny, really smart (and in one case, really short) guys with nice dramatic effect. There's an even more detailed description of the 1980 dismantling of Spitzer-dom, followed a few months later by the true story of why I continue to crack up, 28 years later, genesis of "Daniel P Arovas Hall".

I've tried really, really hard not to devolve into politics here, because my views are my own, and because they tend to be a bit stilted. But I think there's an HR object lesson in all of this: if you're going to be tough, be tough consistently (and not selective in your enforcement); if you're going to claim morality; be consistently moral. But most of all, don't ever, ever get so serious that you forget to have fun.

Monday Mar 10, 2008

Locus Magazine Recommended Reading for 2007

Every year Locus magazine, the trade journal for science fiction and fantasy writers, puts out a recommended reading list. I usually end up reading about half of it, sometimes based on re-inforcements from sources like Cory Doctorow (himself a frequent name dropped on the list), BoingBoing or a nod from another author whose work I enjoy. The 2007 list has been published, and I just ordered a half-dozen books from the tally in search of new sci-fi authors and genres.

I'm a bit surprised to see Michael Chabon on the list; his work impresses me more like that of E. L. Doctorow than Cory Doctorow (and they're not officially related). Richard Morgan's "Thirteen" and Charles Stross' "Halting State", both great reads, made the "Best Sci-Fi" subsection. Doctorow (Cory flavored) shows up for his "Overclocked" collection and "After the Siege," a novella recently turned into an insanely great comic book, capping the six-part series by publisher IDW. Ellen Klages' "Portable Childhoods" also makes the "Collections" list, and it's freakishly good in the spirit (pun intended) of Neil Gaiman.

One thing I found with last year's list, which was heavy on Vernor Vinge and earlier performances by Doctorow: more of the sci-fi stories involve what might happen, rather than alien races, bending the rules of general relativity, space operas and human extinction. This year's list builds from an historical fiction point of view (especially Jo Walton and Michael Chabon's works), so perhaps the locus of popular science fiction opinion is shifting to helping us understand and plan for eventualities that are easily conceived and potentially instantiated, rather than those which are merely fun fictions.


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