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Sunday, December 30, 2007

Book reviews: compare "The Da Vinci Code" with "Quicksilver"

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown vs. Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson

Not recommended. This book was disappointing. All style and not enough substance. I was looking forward to something that would be informative or entertaining but it really dragged.

The idea is that in the late 1600's to early 1700's an imaginary individual called Daniel Waterhouse was involved indirectly and directly with all of the luminaries of the day; Cromwell, Charles II, various nobles, various proto-scientists of the Royal Society, or alchemists (Hooke, Boyle, Newton, Liebniz etc.) Of course, he lives in Cambridge with Newton, he assists Hooke with vivisection experiments and is somehow on the scene when anything vaguely significant or exciting happens in this time period. The Plague, Great Fire of London etc. etc. Plus, our hero founded MIT, as well as naming New York city. I mean, who writes this stuff?

An early cameo, which introduces Ben Franklin as a boy was, shall we say, a really obvious plot device...and this was page 8...a mysterious stranger meets a smarty-pants kid in Boston in 1713, the kid's called Ben...Oh, I's going to be Benjamin Franklin . Sadly, it was. One of those books that's grown out of the effluent of the creative writing courses so popular in the USA. "Imagine yourself meeting an important historical character..." Well, why not imagine meeting all of them? Sigh. At least with Ahab's Wife (Sena Jeter Naslund) which is of a similar vein, the writing was compelling.

The style of Quicksilver, is unfortunately, sorely lacking an editor's lash. We're not really sure why it's called Quicksilver, except that various characters are trying to poison themselves with it (mercury). Kind of a shame it didn't work faster, really. The few passages that read quite eloquently are usually abruptly followed with a short paragraph of jarring drivel. In addition the writer persists in following an especially irritating spelling scheme which feigns the language of the period - but only about once in a hundred words - adding in something like "philosophickal" or "fabricks". Together with a lot of modern-sounding expressions and occasional fairly modern puns, it just doesn't ring true.

The plot is unconvincing. There is occasional excitement to be sure, albeit a gratuitous and long drawn out encounter with pirates (Blackbeard no less, none but the best for our hero!) but again, I was unmoved. By the time this 440 page martyrdom was half done, I was ready to give up. Who cares about this...but, gentle readers, I persisted. Shame, it got worse if anything.

There are a number of gruesome depictions of everyday life in the period. Crap everywhere, toothless rabble, grotesque punishments (assorted hangings, brandings, nose removal, heads on pikes etc.) but again, unconvincing. Even the walk-on parts for actresses and whores (about the only female speaking roles) didn't have any life to them. Not to mention the laughably ungraphic sex scene, about page 418/440, which basically means a long wait for very little hide-the-sausage.

Don't waste your time with this book. When I got to within 20 pages of the end and realized that I'd have to wade through the sequel (and, of course, the obligatory last book in the trilogy) to get to a resolution of the plot, I decided that I wasn't going to waste any more time or money on this.

The Da Vinci Code:
One star, is that the lowest I can give? Too much for this junk.

I know it's popular but it's crap folks. Pseudo-scientific claptrap with ancient conspiracies, romance and a gripping thriller theme.

I mean, grow up, y'all. While the plot is OK, if you like that kind of thing (ripped off though), the characters are really poorly-drawn, with motivations about as obvious as if they had signs hung around their necks:
"I'm the masterly, athletic, scholarly hunk from the good ol' USA who's going to sort out this den of foreign rogues and charlatans." I mean have you seen what a literary scholar looks like after getting a PhD and spending years in the stacks? Not credible.

As for the improbably gorgeous French tart oo talks like zees and was mysteriously traumatized by seeing her grandparents shagging in front of a bunch of party animals; does anyone seriously believe this? Doesn't anyone edit this stuff anymore? This is a teenage wet dream, surely.

The crippled but wealthy British nobleman who appears to be a friend but is really a villain...that has to be to stupidest comic book characterization that I've read in many years. Anyone who didn't see this one coming is an idiot.

It's just the kind of thing that grown up fans of Harry Potter will love, but it's a bodice ripper. The sex scenes are well done, and the villains are pretty compelling. However, don't waste several precious hours of your life reading this, when you could be walking the dog or emptying the cat litter box. Don't buy it for heaven's sake. If you must, borrow it from the library. You'll have to beat 40 housewives and pensioners to get it, fer sure.

In summary, I think the Da Vinci Code is the better book, although it is crap. Dan Brown (and his editor) do a reasonable job of keeping the plot moving and you can't see the joins. Certainly it has more excitement, and cynical suspension of disbelief apart, is a much better read. At least it wasn't a struggle getting to the end, although I felt as guilty as if I had binged on a whole box of Turkish Delight. Quicksilver is a waste of time; should have been much more tightly edited. Stephenson has got some interesting turns of phrase here and there, but it doesn't work in the full-length novel form. Could do better.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Loyalty in the workplace

I picked up a copy of some sheet music when I was a co-op student in IBM (1978, Havant U.K.)
These were of three old (1930's ) songs written for and about IBM. One of them here will give a taste. They were hilarious in the '70's, perhaps rather sad now, I think. Simpler days.

The idea that one would give up spare time to go and sing in front of a company rally is pretty funny. Wearing a company uniform? Hilarious. Aren't we all just wandering journeymen now? Well not exactly.

There is a lot of leverage in having a team that is loyal and in-harness so to speak. Very responsive to changes, willing, happy even. Most people will work like dogs if they are interested, engaged and have the respect of their peers. Even old farts like me will pull long days to get the job done, keep learning and try to be smart. And you do want your staff to be smart.

My observation, from working at IBM as a student in those long gone days (when that company prided itself on never having laid off a worker! lol) until now, is that the loyalty unit has got smaller and smaller. Sometimes to small companies, perhaps to teams, then to individuals. Obviously finally, to self. This subdividing of loyalty is not the most productive configuration. The power of one is, well, small.

There are some people, whom everyone respects, wants the respect of, and to whom people will be loyal. If you can hire and engage those folk, they will make it easier for other people to find reasons to work hard. They are not always the hierarchical team leads or ranking managers. They are not always the best designers or programmers. They are always smart. There's a light in their eyes when they get enthusiastic about something.

The rewards people get from their teams are simple. Respect. Sometimes it's just having someone you respect compliment you about something you've done. Sometimes it's being taken seriously when you want to discuss something. It's working alongside someone who can actually help you. Sometimes it's playing with a toy, or sharing a cool site or vid. It's about pleasure, sharing, joy and love .

We are exploiting the "belonging" slot in a person's mind. If we have to work, it is better than using goads! However it is exploitation at the end of the day, or manipulation at least. The question is perhaps, if the victims like it, is it wrong?

The test of a team is the reaction when the stress levels rise. When a team is stressed or has started to turn on itself (failures, layoffs etc.) there's often a mass-exit of the good people. The remaining people usually consist of the incompetent but politically savvy (can't find other jobs), and the competent but naive (don't know they should find other jobs), along with the usual group of turned-off and can't-be-arsed types who coast along regardless. The team binders' reaction is important. They can sometimes bring a team through a short crisis, even though the logical reaction would be for everyone to flee.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

User Interface enormity...guess who?

So, there I am at the office, with a mailbox in a work email account (on MS Exchange, feh) and an old friend sends me a cheery greeting. When I get home, I decide to reply to it and, instead of logging in to the VPN, Remote Desktop and all that jazz (which takes a couple of minutes to fire up and requires entry of the same password twice), I open up the POS grandly called "Microsoft Outlook Web Access". First mistake. Normally I only do this to look at incoming stuff and send quick replies, this time, I decided to compose a slightly longer reply.

'Swelp me guv'nor, I only took 5 minutes to reply, about 5 short's the family... yak...yak...

I clicked the Send button. Second mistake.

What came back was the Web Access login screen. I floundered around a while, trying the back button, logged in again, (note it says "you replied to this mail..." on the original email from my friend). But my message was gone. Not in the Sent items, nor in the Drafts. Augh!

I was, and am outraged. Perhaps I've been working too hard or more likely my standards have been raised by using professional strength web applications. Losing the user's data in this way is unforgivable. I don't care if my session timed out, or if my administrator had put too short a timer on the app. I don't care if the note was just a personal "Hello there!" to a friend. They lost my effing data!

I will never use it again...Microsoft Outlook Web Access...and I will try to forward all my work email to a proper web app. Gmail or whatever...for example, if I click away from a Google compose mail form, I get a nice courteous dialog, saying:

"Are you sure you want to navigate away from this page? Your message has not been sent."

Now that's a real gent! Helpful, kind and giving me the opportunity to at least save my data.

Solstice celebrations

The rural Ontario folk around me are preparing their environment for the winter holiday. Indeed the whole of North America, perhaps half the world, is nuts. Pretty lights, buying crap made in China to give to their loved ones, which will end in a landfill within the year. It's infuriating that the world's resources end up being wasted like this. My thinking would be to buy something long-lasting, if you must, or give money to a charity* on behalf of someone else.

When can we get back to the true meaning of the solstice celebrations? The dark is going to lessen bit by bit over the next few months. The season is going to get worse but there is hope for a return of Spring. Celebrate the fact that we're alive, have good friends and that we can love our fellow man (at least until his wife gets home)**

Happy secular humanist winter solstice. And something from a favorite blogger. 'Nuff said.

* How about this one.
** Stolen joke alert! First heard by me in an old Doors' song: The Soft Parade.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Silly Songs

Parodies of song lyrics are a weakness of mine...pathetic really.

My Generation 

 A tribute to the late '60's hit of the same name by The Who.

People want to put us d-down (Talkin' 'bout my generation)
Just because we can't get around (Talkin' 'bout my generation)
Things they say are awful c-c-cold (Talkin' 'bout my generation)
Like I didn't die before I got old (Talkin' 'bout my generation)

That was my generation. That was my generation, baby

It's how we all f-f-fade away (Talkin' 'bout my generation)
'Cos we can't hear what you all s-s-say (Talkin' 'bout my generation)
I'm not trying to cause a big s-s-sensation (Talkin' 'bout my generation)
I'm just talkin' 'bout my g-g-g-generation (Talkin' 'bout my generation)

That was my generation. That was my generation, baby

Old stupid and fat
To the tune of Nina Simone's late '60's hit "Young, gifted and black":
(I considered using the line "Old, stupid and white" but 'fat' scans even better than the original).

To be old, stupid and fat,
Oh what a sad and lonely dream.
To be old, stupid and fat!
I think you know what I mean.

In the wide world we all share,
There are billions of us out here,
Who are old, stupid and fat!
And that's a fact!

Old, stupid and fat,
We must begin to tell our young.
There's a world waiting for you,
This is a quest that's just begun.

When you feel really low,
There's a snack food calling you know.
When you get old, stupid and fat,
There's no way back!

Old, stupid and fat,
How I longed to know the truth.
There are times when I look back,
And I am haunted by my youth

Oh but my joy is of today,
We can all be proud to say:
To be old, stupid and fat,
Is where it's at!

Help me shovel through the shiteKris Kristofferson had a big one with "Help me make it through the night", but really he just wanted to get in yer pants...

Take the cat fur from your hair, sweep it up and out the door.
It's another lovely sight, like the puke stains on the floor.

Come lay down by my side, while they prowl through the night.
They're just taking our tomorrows; help me shovel through the shite.

Rolling down to old Meow-ee
Our cats:
  • Do not have telephones
  • Do not like plain crisps
  • Love cat food
They sing:
(to the tune of Rolling down to old Maui)

It's a damned hard life full of toil and strife,
We pussycats must endure.
And we don't give a damn when we're eating our spam,
What it costs you at the store.

For we're always going out that door,
And we're always coming in.
And we always say, when we're on our way:
Let me out, right now, meow-ee!

Let me out, right now, meow-ee, me boys!
Let me out, right now, meow-ee!
And we always say, when we're on our way:
Let us out, right now, meow-ee!

Friday, December 7, 2007

Self-customizing computer interfaces

Developers do a lot of arcane stuff on a computer. Building, deploying, content mapping, code repository check-ins, viewing/approving code fixes, bug tracking...and so on. All of this requires a set of tools, sometimes chosen by an employer, sometimes a collection whacked together as an ad-hoc suite in order to get the code done.

The use of these tools is often blindingly don't need to look at that menu or dialog box to know that you should click here...or know the path to the particular group of files by don't read an entire file path, you grok it. Recognize it by sight. This is another kind of automaticity and is, probably, the same kind of thing that any craftsman does, whether it be building a house or machining a piece of metal.

Having learned to use a set of tools, with a habitual technique for performing various tasks, it is very irritating when the computer, or part of the software on it, decides in its wisdom, to reconfigure a menu, change a dialog box, change a familiar icon, or move all the shortcuts on the desktop.

Windows is dreadful for this. Unix didn't do anything remotely like this. It's clearly some kind of prank pulled on the unsuspecting public, in order to "help" someone who is a dope*. It is really bizarre, perhaps there are usability studies that say that this does help the hapless, I doubt it. Most people learn to use a windowing interface in a rather geographic way...the icon for a tool is a nice bright thing in the middle of the second column on the left hand side of the desktop for example. So when the computer is updated with some "security"** fixes, and the icon changes colour to a kind of wishy-washy wimpy thing and gets moved...well...steam emits from orifices, I'd say.

It's one thing to set up ones own machine and stop these things from happening, but when you go and use another machine, or have remote access to dozens of desktops, finding a way of achieving your objectives becomes a more interesting challenge.

This is like the negative billing of the software world; programs usually do this - without asking- and you have to find a way to turn it off. Eventually you give up, live with it and try to "f%ckin' stay awake" (to quote Billy Connolly).

However, when I suddenly got the error pop up above, and I found that Windows has rearranged the Right-mouse click menu on my machine so that the previous "Open with MyEclipse" is now just number 4 on the list (and double-click doesn't work the same as it did yesterday), I thought...why? Why do we do this? What possible reason could there be for the machine customizing my interface in any way? I've been doing it this way for months and it didn't interfere before. Did I do something stupid***? The arrogance of the people who decided to do this renders me, well, not speechless, more's the pity, but I'm left feeling that this is horribly wrong.

There's got to be a better about a nice conversation?

"BTW, Sue, I've noticed that you use this thingy more than you use these thingies in this menu. Or you're installing something to do with this thing. Can I make it easier for you by putting this on the top of the menu, or by reminding you of the keyboard shortcut you so obviously need to remember?"

"No, get lost."

"OK! CU later."

* - only a dope wouldn't be disturbed by this behaviour.
** - unlikely, but now everything's about security apparently. The new 's' word.
*** - well, that goes without saying.


St Lawrence Rowing

Test content from SLRC