Posts for August 2004

2004-08-02: To Say Nothing of the Dog

Review: To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis

Publisher: Bantam
Copyright: January 1998
ISBN: 0-553-57538-4
Pages: 493

Another of Willis's time travel novels (quite possibly set in the same universe as Doomsday Book), To Say Nothing of the Dog sends its hero to Victorian England, initially just to get some rest and relaxation away from time-lag and a too-demanding supervisor, but eventually to fix some serious irregularities that have been accidentally introduced into history. In the process, he ends up taking a boating trip down the Thames with with a love-sick Oxford student who quotes Tennyson, an absent-minded professor of history who quotes Latin, and an oversized bulldog.

As one might guess from the title, and have confirmed by the dedication, this novel owes a great deal to Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), a novel about three friends rowing up the Thames for a holiday, written by Jerome K. Jerome in 1889. SF readers may have encountered it by way of Heinlein's Have Space Suit, Will Travel, which is where Willis encountered it. It's out of copyright, so you can find free copies around the web, and it's probably worth taking a look through it before reading Willis's book, since otherwise you'll miss quite a few of the references. Some of the structure and a fair bit of the beginning of the book are modelled after it. (The end of the book, on the other hand, borrows more from a Dorothy Sayers mystery novel.)

I like stories set in the Victorian period the best when they manage both a comedy of manners and a fair bit of witty banter, and this book doesn't really pull off either all that successfully. I think Willis is just too fundamentally nice to write banter; banter requires at least some degree of confrontation to be written well, and the characters here are typical of Willis characters, avoiding confrontation at nearly every turn while persistantly pursuing their own course and avoiding people who get in their way. As a result, the background didn't do very much for me, although it was occasionally mildly amusing.

The story, once it really gets started (which isn't until a few hundred pages into the book), ends up being rather engrossing. There are rather complicated interactions going on, a lot of threads being woven together, and Willis pulls it all together in the end with a nicely complicated resolution. This is, unfortunately, somewhat undermined for me by the fact that a key bit of the puzzle, the identity of the mysterious Mr. C, became blindingly obvious about 150 pages before the characters figured it out, and in a few other places the main characters seemed unusually dense. Still, I enjoyed watching the characters piece it all together and get everything patched up in the end.

The book is told in first person, and the narrator, Ned, is exactly like Connie Willis's other main characters. If you've read any of her other books, you can already name the basic character traits: well-meaning, fairly logical and scientific in basic outlook, prone to frequent digressions and ponderings, often not that attentive to what's going on around him, determinedly non-confrontational, exhaustingly hyperactive at times, and a bit of a deductive scatterbrain. I don't mind reading about that character every once in a while, but it is a bit disappointing that this same character seems to star in every one of Willis's novels. One knows what one is going to get, but sometimes a bit of variety would be nice.

I liked this book, but I don't think it's one of Willis's best. It didn't have much of an emotional punch for me, and most of what happens seems vaguely trivial. I expect that a lover of the time period, of Three Men in a Boat, or of Dorothy Sayers may like this a bit better, though.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2004-08-15: Huge book haul

Company with an equal passion for used book shopping, so of course today it was off to Know Knew Books for the first time in years. On one hand, I could be a more regular customer; on the other hand, I'm afraid of how many books I'd have if I did. We went in a bit after 2pm and it was 6pm before we knew it. We filled two good-sized cardboard boxes with used books.

Here's the haul for me, entirely SF this time:

Brian W. Aldiss -- Helliconia Spring
Isaac Asimov -- The Stars, Like Dust
Kage Baker -- In the Garden of Iden
John Barnes -- A Million Open Doors
Greg Bear -- Blood Music
Katherine Blake -- The Interior Life
David Brin -- The Postman
Lois McMaster Bujold -- Falling Free
Jeffrey A. Carver -- Neptune Crossing
C.J. Cherryh -- The Faded Sun: Kesrith
C.J. Cherryh -- Hellburner
C.J. Cherryh & Nancy Asire -- Wizard Spawn
Susan Cooper -- The Dark is Rising
Susan Cooper -- Greenwitch
Susan Cooper -- The Grey King
Susan Cooper -- Silver on the Tree
Julie E. Czerneda -- A Thousand Words for Stranger
Diane Duane -- To Visit the Queen
George Alec Effinger -- When Gravity Fails
Jeffrey Ford -- The Physiognomy
Amitav Ghosh -- The Calcutta Chromosome
William Gibson -- Count Zero
William Gibson -- Neuromancer
Robert Holdstock -- Mythago Wood
Ellen Kushner -- Swordspoint
Elizabeth A. Lynn -- Watchtower
Paul J. McAuley -- Four Hundred Billion Stars
R.A. MacAvoy -- Tea with the Black Dragon
Patricia A. McKillip -- The Forgotten Beasts of Eld
Robin McKinley -- The Hero and the Crown
Barry M. Malzberg -- Beyond Apollo
Lyda Morehouse -- Archangel Protocol
Larry Niven -- Protector
Larry Niven -- World of Ptavvs
Rachel Pollack -- Unquenchable Fire
Rudy Rucker -- Software
Rudy Rucker -- Wetware
Richard Paul Russo -- Ship of Fools
Lewis Shiner -- Glimpses
Tricia Sullivan -- Lethe
Bruce Sterling -- Islands in the Net
Caroline Stevermer -- A College of Magics
Mary Stewart -- The Crystal Cave
Sean Stewart -- Galveston
Wilson Tucker -- The Year of the Quiet Sun
Evangeline Walton -- Prince of Annwn
Kate Wilhelm -- Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang
George Zebrowski -- The Monadic Universe
Roger Zelazny -- The Courts of Chaos
Roger Zelazny -- The Guns of Avalon
Roger Zelazny -- The Hand of Oberon
Roger Zelazny -- Sign of the Unicorn

Phew. Books!

2004-08-19: PGP::Sign 0.19

I added Debian packaging rules and uploaded a new version of PGP::Sign, and then one of the excellent CPAN testers pointed out that the GnuPG support didn't work with non-C locales. I hadn't realized I'd not converted the GnuPG code to use --status-fd, so I did that and released this version.

You can get the latest version from either CPAN or the PGP::Sign distribution page.

2004-08-19: newsyslog 1.5

Not any code changes here. I just added all of the Debian packaging instructions so that I can build packages for it.

You can get the current version from the newsyslog distribution page.

2004-08-19: More... books

In my defense for the ridiculous amount of book purchasing going on, this order was placed before the last trip to the used book store. I was mostly going after some non-fiction books I wanted, but of course while I'm placing an order....

Peter L. Bernstein -- Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk (non-fiction)
Robert Borski -- Solar Labyrinth (non-fiction)
Steven Brust -- The Phoenix Guards (sf)
Octavia Butler -- Parable of the Sower (sf)
C.J. Cherryh & Leslie Fish -- A Dirge for Sabis (sf)
C.S. Friedman -- In Conquest Born (sf)
Malcolm Gladwell -- The Tipping Point (non-fiction)
Nancy Kress -- Probability Moon (sf)
Michael Lewis -- Moneyball (non-fiction)
Ian McDonald -- Desolation Road (sf)
Jennifer Roberson -- Sword-Sworn (sf)
Mary Doria Russell -- The Sparrow (sf)
Charles Stross -- Singularity Sky (sf)
Gene Wolfe -- The Urth of the New Sun (sf)
Gene Wolfe -- Litany of the Long Sun (sf)
Gene Wolfe -- Epiphany of the Long Sun (sf)
John C. Wright -- The Golden Age (sf)

Solar Labyrinth is an analysis of Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, which I am very much looking forward to reading as I'm sure I missed a ton.

2004-08-22: Attacking bookstores

It really isn't my fault. The bookstore is right next to the post office, and of course I can't have company down and not go to the bookstore. It just lept in front of me and sucked me in.

I had just bought tons of SF and needed some more mainstream fiction. That's it. Yeah. (Of course, I then failed to actually pick up my mail, as I'd left it for too long and it's now not fitting in my box. Which means I have go to back tomorrow during business hours to get it. *sigh* I hope they didn't send the package back that is also waiting for me.)

Anyway, here's the additional damage.

Charles N. Brown & Jonathan Strahan (ed.) -- The Locus Awards (sf)
C.J. Cherryh -- Alternate Realities (sf)
Arthur C. Clarke -- Rendezvous with Rama (sf)
Charles de Lint -- Angel of Darkness (sf)
Jasper Fforde -- The Eyre Affair (sf)
Mark Haddon -- The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (mainstream)
Dorothy L. Sayers -- Clouds of Witness (mystery)

Okay, only two mainstream books from the above, although Fforde's, while clearly SF, is marketed mainstream rather than SF and shelved accordingly. The Cherryh is a collection of Port Eternity, Wave Without a Shore, and Voyager in Night. It's really nice to see so much of Cherryh's work reprinted.

The Locus Awards looks to be a very nice collection, containing quite a few short stories that I've heard about and not had a chance to read. It includes "The Death of Doctor Island" by Gene Wolfe, "Jeffty is Five" by Harlan Ellison, "The Scale Hunter's Beautiful Daughter" by Lucius Shepard, "Bears Discover Fire" by Terry Bisson, and "Hell Is the Absence of God" by Ted Chiang.

2004-08-23: Babel-17

Review: Babel-17, by Samuel R. Delany

Publisher: Ace
Copyright: 1966
Pages: 173

After the first couple of pages of this book, I was worried that I was in for an annoying read. The prose starts out rather purple, something that isn't generally to my taste. Rather to my surprise, though, it settles down fairly quickly, as soon as the viewpoint character shifts, into a competent SF adventure and puzzle-solving story, admittedly with a bit of a dated premise.

To understand Babel-17, it's useful to be familiar with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, since it heavily influences the main science-fiction content of the book. (Be careful reading this page, though, as there's a spoiler for Babel-17 in the references at the bottom of the fairly long article.) Briefly summarizing the excellent Wikipedia article, the strong form of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states that human thought is constrained by language, and therefore people who speak one language may be able to think thoughts that others who speak a different language without words for those thoughts simply cannot think. (And, not as strongly, that some things will come much more easily and readily for people who speak one language than for people who speak a different language.)

In the above strong form, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has been fairly thoroughly refuted by Noam Chomsky and others, so Babel-17 does feel a bit odd if one is familiar with the theory. If one forgives that with suspension of disbelief, though, such a theory makes for an intriguing concept on which to base a story, and is handled well here.

This book has much to recommend it in other areas. I found Delany's stellarmen with their culture of body modification fascinating, as was the use of ghosts for some stations on a starship and the unconventional relationship pairings of the navigators. It's unfortunate that there isn't more room in the story to explore some of that culture more; I would have liked to read more about it.

Babel-17 is quite short, more of a novella than a novel. It tries hard at establishing a good background for the story, but one mostly gets a flavor for the world rather than a real understanding, and some of the background props are rather undeveloped. There just isn't room. I wasn't completely happy with the ending; the explanation of what had been going on was delivered partly as a chunk of exposition that was difficult swallowing. That being said, the rest of the ending does salvage that a bit and go back to tie up other loose ends in a more rewarding way.

While Babel-17 does show its age in places, there's a bit more of a pulp feel than I personally prefer, there's a touch too much exposition in the payoff, and the theory on which it's based has been discredited, it's still a good read. It's mercifully well-paced and doesn't waste a lot of time getting down to the business of telling the story, something that many recent novels have trouble with.

Rating: 7 out of 10 out of 10

2004-08-24: Web site rework

Any of you who have been to my web site recently have probably already noticed this, but I finally finished yesterday the last few things that I was planning on doing and am ready to make a real announcement.

All of my book reviews now exist primarily as regular web pages, complete with links to Powell's Books to buy the relevant books and with cover images where available. I'm still working on the infrastructure and scripts to make posting reviews as easy as it was before, but I do have turning a web page into a journal post automated at this point. Now I just need to automate the updating of the various index pages.

I've changed the look of all of my web pages, getting rid of the footer with my name and e-mail address and adding a navigation bar at the top and bottom of each page. I'd been thinking about doing the latter for quite a while (several years), but hadn't come up with a design that I liked. I finally got a good idea from Susan Stepney's web site. Now, I've gotten rid of the verbose and rather ugly-looking right-aligned navigation links and the only thing left of the footer is just the modification date.

I've also completely redone the links section of my page. Most of what was there was either very out of date or basically pointless. The new link pages should be somewhat more useful and better reflect my current interests.

There are still a lot of things that I want to do, including (as always) making more of the software that I've written available, further automating the handling of new book reviews, and figuring out what to do about various random technical notes. I'm still playing with the idea of putting the latter in a wiki, but I'm running into the problem that I hate editing things in a browser and also hate cutting and pasting into an editor window. To really make the wiki work, I need to write some code to let me more easily edit the pages. I could just use spin and maintain those pages like any other web page, too; that may be a better idea. I'm still dithering over that.

Oh, and now that I'm working on building Debian packages of various software, I want to come up with a good way of presenting information about the available packages. I haven't yet found any good software for generating web pages from Debian package description files, so I may write some of my own.

2004-08-24: Current doings

I imagine that people have been wondering a little what I've been up to lately (although likely haven't been looking here for information, since I've not been posting much newsy sort of information here lately), particularly since the book reviews have been a bit slim.

I'm currently power-watching the Olympics. This is the first Olympics where I've both had a TiVo and thought to really use it in a comprehensive fashion, and with the essentially 24/7 coverage this year, there's been a lot to record. I've already lost a few segments because my TiVo ran out of room, and I'm perpetually running a day behind on watching (which is about how much space my TiVo has). This has been a lot of fun, and I expect I'll do this with every Olympics from now on.

I also have company, a very good friend from Canada, here to spend several weeks. That's been just wonderful, and has already resulted in a couple of trips shopping for books (as mentioned in previous posts).

Work-wise, I've gotten essentially no work done on standardization or on INN lately because I've been completely focused on Debian. I finally learned how to write Debian packages, and I've been packaging everything that we need to put together a weblogin server for WebAuth, since we're upgrading the weblogin servers to Linux and Debian before the end of the summer.

So far, I've packaged a fair bit of our local Kerberos software, WebAuth, a variety of Perl modules, xfonts-jmk (in an attempt to adopt it), the Apache 2 FastCGI module (which Debian can't distribute due to the license), and some additional bits needed to put together a weblogin server. I'm extremely impressed with Debian's packaging system now that I've used it for, as well as the supporting tools like svn-buildpackage.

The plan is to become a Debian developer, something that I'm slowly working on by making sure I have some solid contributions to point to before I submit my application. I've been submitting quite a few improvements to debarchiver to make it better at maintaining my local apt repository, did some bug squashing for the sarge release, and am currently working with Sam Hartman on the various AFS- and Kerberos-related packages (starting with libpam-krb5). I've also been doing lots of reading; I still need to finish reading the developer's reference, and then it will probably be about time to file my application. (I wish I could find a sponsor for xfonts-jmk first, but so far no luck there.)

Oh, and amidst everything else that's been going on, I also acquired quite a bit of new furniture from Ikea (another seven-foot shelf, three shorter shelves, a set of office drawers with a hanging file, and two seven-foot CD shelf towers), so last weekend I put those together with help and got them put where I want them. Since then, I've been moving books around, taking books home from the office now that I have somewhere to put them, and rearranging things the way that I want them. Just now, I finished shelving all of the books I just acquired.

Expect to hear more from me, at least in the form of book reviews, once the Olympics is over (or a day later, since I'll still likely be a day behind).

2004-08-24: filter-syslog 1.17

I added support in the configuration file to include other configuration files or a full directory of configuration files, something I'd been planning on doing for some time. Since it looks like we're going to keep using filter-syslog for the time being (I'd like to move to logwatch, but it doesn't quite do the right things), I may as well make it easier to configure.

In preparation for Debian packaging, I also taught it to look for /etc/filter-syslog.conf by default, check both /etc and /etc/leland for configuration files, and search for sendmail in /usr/sbin.

You can get the latest version from the filter-syslog distribution page.

2004-08-28: The Olympics

The Olympics are now almost over. I've been scheduling TiVo recordings on a day-by-day basis since I have to do some manual recordings, and I've now scheduled the remaining recordings for the rest of the games. I really wish they would have scheduled their programs better so that there were program breaks always at the same time as something finished on another channel; when I switch from NBC over to MSNBC, I often have to use manual recordings on one or the other of the stations to catch the second half of a three hour block or the like.

This has been a very good Olympics, and a very enjoyable watching experience. The US commentary still tends to be jingoistic, occasionally blind to anything done by non-US athletes, overly sappy, and spectacularly repetative, but at least it did a much better job this year at actually showing sports. I have now watched substantial portions of the handball competition and much of the shooting for the first time, saw more fencing than I usually get to, and even got to watch some modern pentathlon. A definite improvement, although I wish they would fire all of the studio hosts except Mary Carello.

The worst-covered sport was probably a toss-up between swimming (idiotic carping on all the gold medals people were expected to win, spectacularly bad interviewing, and repeated complete ignoring of swimmers who were in the lead but weren't favorites) and diving (okay color commentary delivered in a horribly annoying voice combined with intense blinders for anything not related to the US divers and incredibly spotty coverage of the actual dives of the top competitors). As is typical, some of the more obscure (to Americans) sports had the best commentators. Basketball and tennis were well-covered, of course, since we know how to broadcast those, but Olympic basketball and tennis interest me basically not at all, so I skipped all of them. I skipped baseball even more aggressively; I think I only had to fast-forward through one game.

Next time I watch this, I hope I have a DirecTiVo or something that can record two channels at once and has a much larger disk. I lost quite a bit because I didn't have time to watch it in near real time; my TiVo only gives me about a day and a half of leeway before things start disappearing. (Yes, I could hack it. No, it's too much bother.)

I'm glad I have a job where I could do a lot of working from home, working odd hours, and making up for spending time watching by doing extra work on other days, since I like seeing as much of the Olympics as I possibly can. I'm usually that way -- I don't like seeing only part of something, unless I wasn't really interested in it in the first place. It always bothered me in past years that there was all this other sport going on that I wasn't getting to see. And NBC could *definitely* still be better in this area; they only showed portions of the gold medal fencing matches, they skipped two fencing sports entirely, they skipped a bunch of the diving competition, and they're still doing a bad job thoroughly covering some sports in favor of showing complete games of the team sports (which take a lot longer than showing us the full archery competition, but are easier to think about and probably get better ratings).

I've been completely avoiding all of my regular news web sites in order to avoid all spoilers for the Olympics (quite successfully, too), and I find that I'm completely not missing politics or the discussions that I'd been getting into about politics. Hm. This may be worth some pondering.

2004-08-28: DirecTiVo

Another reason for a DirecTiVo -- it doesn't have the stupid IR blaster thing, which simply doesn't work reliably.

I apparently lost the whole prime time Olympics show on Friday evening. The one night I didn't check to make sure that it changed channels correctly. Mutter. You would think that TiVo, knowing that this is a problem, would just try to change the channel twice in succession at the beginning of a recording. I suppose that's something else I could do if I bothered to hack it.

2004-08-29: Ikea

I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Ikea. I love their furniture, which is attractive, functional, and cheap, and which is the vast majority of my home furnishings and has enabled me to get an almost sufficient quantity of shelves. I also got both my plates and bowls and my silverware from Ikea, as well as some other useful things like the quart jars I drink water out of.

On the other hand, assembling the stuff can be an exercise in torture. And every once in a while, something is missing or not quite right. This time, I had to shave down the back of one shelf with the claw of my hammer and one of the CD towers was missing the front of the plinth. Every time I get a bunch of Ikea furniture, I decide that I'm going to think carefully before doing that again, because putting it together is such a pain. But then, by the time I want more new furniture, Ikea ends up looking like the most attractive solution again.

I just finished putting together the last of the last load, so I now have a new set of office drawers (two fair-sized regular drawers and a hanging file). That took a fair chunk of a day to put together along with a fair bit of cursing, strain on my sore left wrist, and a blister on a finger, as it came in six boxes and drawer assemblies are always way too complex. But it's finally done, and it does look quite nice.

I now have six completely empty shelves, four empty paperback shelves, and several still-empty CD tower shelves, which should give me more room to spread out and acquire more books. Not that I should be acquiring more books soon, without reading more....

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