Posts for January 2005

2005-01-01: McAlphabetization

For some years now, I've had a pet peeve about the alphabetization of last names beginning with Mc or Mac (there's a Mc name in my family). You've got to watch out for those pet peeves; they'll get you every time. Apparently not only did I get the rule wrong, but the rule has been changed.

It had stuck in my mind that names beginning with Mc or Mac should be alphabetized as if they began with MAA (putting them at the beginning of the Ms). It turns out that the rule was actually that names beginning with Mc, Mac, or M' should be alphabetized as if they began with Mac (on the grounds that the other forms are alternate spellings for Mac). It also turns out that this rule is obsolete.

Alphabetization rules for names turn up primarily in citation style guides since they're used for ordering the bibliography. The ALA style (a more modern but now widely used citation style in the United States) has apparently recommended that Mc, Mac, and M' be alphabetized letter-by-letter for some time (so Mabury comes before MacDonald, which would come before McDaniels). Doing some web searches today, I discovered that the 15th edition of The Chicago Manual of Style now also recommends the same thing.

Chalk up another victory for computers, although alphabetization and capitalization of multipart names such as "de Lint" or "van der Graaf" should still follow the preference of the person named, so the computers still can't apply stock rules.

I suppose I could cling passionately to the old alphabetization rules, or try to find disagreement from British or Canadian sources, but it's good for me to give up a pet peeve. It's getting harder and harder to be an elitist about weird rules of English!

I think I'm also going to get a copy of The Chicago Manual of Style to read; it looks rather fascinating. (Some strange part of me loves formatting rules.)

2005-01-02: Dreamsnake

Review: Dreamsnake, by Vonda N. McIntyre

Publisher: Bantam
Copyright: 1978
ISBN: 0-553-29659-0
Pages: 312

Snake is an itinerant healer in a post-apocalyptic world punctuated by radioactive deserts, a world where the surviving technology is primarily biological and genetic. The tools of her trade are snakes, biochemical laboratories that double as syringes. A cobra and a rattlesnake serve as her workhorse factories, made to produce appropriate medicinal venom with carefully chosen chemicals, but most valuable is Grass, a dreamsnake, whose venom neither injures nor cures, but takes away the pain and fear of death in terminal patients.

Dreamsnake has an oddly disjointed structure, leaving me convinced at the conclusion that it was a fix-up novel of several short stories. Apparently it is not, being instead the expansion of the Nebula-winning novelette "Of Mist, and Sand, and Grass" (a better title). I'm now wondering how much of the odd structure was already present in the original novelette and how much was the result of the expansion.

About the only thing that carries over from the beginning to the end of the novel is Snake herself. The concluding villain, apart from a couple of isolated and incomprehensible incidents with little impact on events at the time, fails to even lurk forbodingly until the last hundred pages. The middle of the book is a charming story about beauty and perception, ending in a well-done emotional climax, but has no connection to anything that happened before it and no thematic connection to what follows. Revelations about the world are hinted at and built up, and then the story takes a right turn after only a smattering of details and they're never seen again. It's all very odd.

That's not to say it's bad. McIntyre constructs a fascinating world that lacks the darkness and depression of a lot of apocalyptic fiction and avoids unbelievable disappearances of human knowledge. The infrastructure is gone, but some sciences that could be rebuilt without infrastructure are still present. People have not mysteriously forgotten chemistry or biology, and the healers reasonable extrapolations of medical science that fit the technology levels of the ruins. A liberal sprinkling of subtle differences and hints about the world fall naturally out of the story and are more intriguing for not being relentlessly mined by the author. If you want loose ends wrapped up and glimpses explained, this technique will be unsatisfying, but I appreciated the sense of atmosphere it created.

Other highlights include a matter-of-fact, comfortable, and undramatic treatment of polyamory, a likeable ward for Snake to rescue, some nice bits about snake behavior, and a laudatory avoidance of easy answers (somewhat spoiled by the ending). I could have done without the instant love match, and I thought the ending was rather too convenient and would have needed more support and foreshadowing to be satisfying, but overall I enjoyed the book. I will warn that the narration and dialog clunks at times, mostly avoiding exposition but stumbling over some unfortunately flat bits of text. (Of course, reading a book immediately after a Le Guin novel is not the fairest thing to do to an author.)

Post-apocalyptic stories are far from my favorite sub-genre, but I ended up liking this book more than I expected. Recommended for some strong female characters and a nice sense of atmosphere, although don't expect too much of it.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2005-01-10: runauth 1.14

While testing the new proxy service, I found that runauth was not exiting with a non-zero status if it failed to obtain a Kerberos ticket. I tracked this down to test changing $? before we were able to use it. A fairly straightforward fix.

You can get the latest version from the runauth distribution page.

2005-01-11: Annoying spammers

I need to go update the templates of the comment posts to note this as well (or I need to finally find the time to switch over to WordPress and see if its anti-spam plugins can handle these things any better). Every MT journal out there apparently just gets hammered with spam, including mine, to the tune of often several hundred attempts a day. When one of them gets through, it's a fair bit of work to clean up after it, so I've gotten fairly aggressive about banning things that turn up in comment spam.

Unfortunately, MT sometimes only matches against portions of URLs and sometimes matches against the full body text using an algorithm that I don't understand, so some of my anti-spam blocks prevent legitimate comments. If this happens to you, please know that it's nothing personal; drop me a line and I'll fix it right away.

Hopefully this problem will largely go away with an upgrade to WordPress, where I can use anti-spam plugins that will instead, if they're not sure about a post, make people play the "guess the hazy letters in this image" game rather than just blocking things outright. (I expect that these are also available for MT now, but I can't upgrade the version of MT I'm using without paying for it due to the license change, and after thinking about it for a while, I've decided I'd rather use a fully free software package instead of Six Apart's pseudo-open commercial package.)

2005-01-13: faq2html 1.23

My project to convert our internal text documentation into web pages turned up a variety of little nits in the way that faq2html was handling some things. This release cleans up a bunch of them.

You can get the latest version from my web tools distribution page.

2005-01-14: New year haul

I've been having a hard time reading as much lately as I want, in part because I'm making my way, slowly, through Declare by Tim Powers and struggling some with it. But some book orders did come in, and I got some books from my parents that they didn't want, plus a gift. So here are the current additions:

Iain M. Banks -- The State of the Art (sff)
Elizabeth Berg -- Joy School (mainstream)
Diane Duane -- The Book of Night with Moon (sff)
Eknath Easwaran (trans.) -- Classics of Indian Spirituality (religion)
Neil Gaiman -- Neil Gaiman's Book of Days (graphic novel)
Neil Gaiman -- Sandman: Endless Nights (graphic novel)
Neil Gaiman -- Smoke and Mirrors (sff)
Neil Gaiman & Ed Kramer (ed.) -- Sandman: Book of Dreams (sff)
Dwight Goddard (ed.) -- A Buddhist Bible (religion)
Tom Godwin -- The Cold Equations & Other Stories (sff)
Colin Greenland -- Take Back Plenty (sff)
Laurell K. Hamilton -- Seduced by Moonlight (sff)
M. John Harrison -- The Course of the Heart (sff)
Raymond J. Healy & J. Francis McComas (ed.) -- Adventures in Time and Space (sff)
Ellen Kushner -- Thomas the Rhymer (sff)
Larissa Lai -- When Fox is a Thousand (sff)
Louis L'Amour -- The Haunted Mesa (sff)
Ken MacLeod -- The Star Fraction (sff)
James A. Michener -- The Novel (mainstream)
L.E. Modesitt, Jr. -- The Magic of Recluse (sff)
James Morrow -- Towing Jehovah (sff)
S. Radhakrishnan -- The Principal Upanisads (religion)
Don Miguel Ruiz -- Beyond Fear (religion)
Don Miguel Ruiz -- The Four Agreements Companion Book (religion)
Joanna Russ -- The Female Man (sff)
Dan Simmons -- Darwin's Blade (thriller)
Nicholas Sparks -- Nights in Rodanthe (mainstream)
Brian Stableford -- Inherit the Earth (sff)
Peter Straub (ed.) -- Conjunctions 39: The New Fabulists (sff)
James Tiptree, Jr. -- Her Smoke Rose Up Forever (sff)
Lynne Truss -- Eats, Shoots and Leaves (nf)
Anne Tyler -- A Slipping-Down Life (mainstream)
University of Chicago Press -- The Chicago Manual of Style (reference)
Jeff VanderMeer & Mark Roberts (ed.) -- The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases (sff, sorta)
Tad Williams -- To Green Angel Tower, Part II (sff)

Phew. Very mixed set of things, from filling in holes in my collection to religious reference books that I may not read for quite a while.

2005-01-20: loadmtpt 1.11

root.cell had somehow fallen out of our AFS mount point database, and so I discovered that the script has difficulty putting it back in at present. I went ahead and added a special case for root.cell similar to the special case for root.afs.

You can get the current version from my AFS mount point tracking tools distribution page.

2005-01-20: frak 1.31

Just a cosmetic fix in the diff out when creating local mount points to use for the comparison. Before, the ".readonly" part of the read-only path was not being removed correctly from the paths in the diff output.

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

2005-01-23: Declare

Review: Declare, by Tim Powers

Publisher: HarperTorch
Copyright: January 2001
ISBN: 0-380-79836-0
Pages: 591

This is the second World Fantasy Award winner that I've read that's a detailed alternate history. Declare is set more recently than The Dragon Waiting and Powers does a better job of explaining what's going on (helped by using a time in history I'm far more familiar with), but again I had a hard time getting into the story.

Declare is told in two times, weaving together in the story. In 1963, Andrew Hale is a lecturer and a retired deep-cover spy, trying to deal with the reason why he's being reactivated now so many years after the war. In 1941, Andrew Hale is double-agent, recruited by the Soviet Union but secretly loyal to Britain, infiltrating Nazi-occupied Paris. Mixed deeply into both stories is the real-life double-agent Kim Philby, whose life story Powers remains faithful to while providing different, supernatural explanations for some events.

I found the strongest parts of this book by far to be the elements of the supernatural. Powers introduces djinn into the world, involving them into the history of the Soviet Union and treating them as Cold War weapons, subject to at first a struggle between British and Soviet secret agents and then expanding into a three-corner fight also involving the French secret service. The djinn are strikingly described, given a sense of power, majesty, and magnitude that is memorable and believably alien. They do not think, behave, or live in the way that humans do, and this is used to great effect both to impress the reader and to open the way for subtle tricks and strategies in the ongoing secret war. I'm going to remember Powers's concept of trance beat patterns affecting the world for quite a while.

Unfortunately, this is only a small part of the book. Most of the book is a spy novel, owing a great deal apparently to John le Carré. I wanted to enjoy this part as well, but I found my attention constantly wandering. Repeatedly I had to go back and re-read a paragraph because I couldn't remember what happened or where the characters were, and with the intricacy of the plotting, one can lose track of the narrative threads rather easily. By the time exciting things were happening, I'd had a hard enough time following the plot that I'd largely lost interest.

Two factors contributed to this. One is that Powers provides a wealth of detail in his descriptions, for me stepping over the edge into providing too much. At the height of a climatic journey across Mount Ararat, for example, he spends several paragraphs explaining in intimate detail how one of the characters manages to climb across an obstacle. Yet, while the action is painstakingly described, the larger setting and purpose seem oddly vague; for example, not being familiar with the use of mountain climbing equipment, I had to re-read that passage several times to get a mental image of just what the obstacle was. This quickly becomes frustrating, since my mind would hurry past the uninteresting detail and then I'd find myself confused as to what had happened.

Compounding that problem, I never particularly cared what happened to the characters in Declare. Hale, the primary viewpoint character, seems to stumble through life unsure as to what he's doing or why he's doing it. Even at the end when he starts making decisions for himself, it's unclear why or whether those decisions have any more basis than anything else that's happened to him. Few of the other characters are on stage long enough to learn about, and Kim Philby himself is extremely unlikeable. Elena is the best character of the lot by far, with complex and interesting motivations, difficult personal decisions, and quite a bit of character growth over the course of the book. Unfortunately, she isn't in nearly enough of it, and only rarely gets a turn as a viewpoint character.

This is one of those books where I can see why it won an award but just didn't enjoy it much personally. There are some wonderful ideas and memorable images here, Powers wraps up a complex and intricate plot with satisfying thoroughness, and the characters are complex and nuanced. I just could have used less description and a bit more help from the narrator, and quite a bit more of Elena. There are ways of reminding the reader periodically what's going on, of keeping scenes in a larger context and helping the reader not get lost, that I think this book would have benefitted from.

As is, though, I can't generally recommend it. If you particularly like John le Carré, find Kim Philby's life fascinating, or have a high tolerance for lots of description over complex plots, you may want to give this one a try, as it's certainly well-written. Otherwise, I fear that you, like I, may find it somewhat frustrating.

Rating: 5 out of 10

2005-01-25: mvto 1.7

I had a chance to hammer on our script for smart AFS volume migration today and added several features that I've been wanting plus a few things that I need for the volume balancing project that I'm playing with now. mvto can now move unreplicated volumes between partitions on the same server, now checks to make sure it's not overfilling a destination partition when moving volumes, and can take a list of volumes and destinations in a file (before it could only take a list of volumes that should all be moved to the same place).

You can get the latest version from the mvto distribution page.

2005-01-25: lsmounts 1.8

I fixed a logic bug in the safe recursion mode (-r). It was getting a list of subdirectories of the directories given on the command line and then using those as the recursion roots, not checking them but just diving down inside them. That wasn't the intended behavior. I fixed it to use the directories given on the command line as the recursion roots, which is what I wanted.

You can get the latest version from the lsmounts distribution page.

2005-01-28: mvto 1.11

I'm doing lots and lots of AFS work lately. This is a variety of mostly minor bug fixes from the last release. The big one is that the -s flag was causing the check to see if a replicated volume had unreleased changes to be bypassed; this has now been corrected.

You can get the latest version from the mvto distribution page.

2005-01-29: reminder 1.2

This is a new program I just finished, my own version of the venerable Unix calendar program. It handles reminders, both one-time and repeating, and can list all the currently active reminders or mail them all (suitable for running from cron). It also keeps a reminder active until it's explicitly acknowledged, so I can use it as a reminder to do something and keep the reminder active until it's done.

I just finished writing this a week ago, so I've not ironed out all of the issues and used it long enough to see what else I really need to add to it. But I figured I'd go ahead and release it in case anyone finds it useful.

You can get a copy from the reminder distribution page.

2005-01-31: reminder 1.3

I added a User-Agent header to the e-mail that reminder mail sends out so that I could easily split reminders into their own group in Gnus. You can get the latest version from the reminder distribution page.

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