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August 29, 2014

London: The Biography

Oranges and lemons,
Say the bells of St. Clement's.

You owe me five farthings,
Say the bells of St. Martin's.

When will you pay me?
Say the bells of Old Bailey.

When I grow rich,
Say the bells of Shoreditch.

When will that be?
Say the bells of Stepney.

I do not know,
Says the great bell of Bow.

Here comes a candle to light you to bed,
And here comes a chopper to chop off your head.

I bought Peter Ackroyd's wonderful book London: The Biography 13 years ago. For some reason I've never been able to finish it, even though the book seemed written with me in mind. But I've been out of the Commission for four years now and the remnants of a once reasonably middle brow mind are beginning to stir. This year, this year I'll nail the little bastard.

August 28, 2014

Newton and the Ghosts of Cats Past

August 27, 2014


I'll be in north Jersey on Monday and won't be posting but this Monday I'll have been retired for four years. Monday is Labor Day ironically enough.

August 25, 2014


I was talking to Rolf today and it really struck me that I'm no longer interested in the latest and greatest in video on my computer. I've been running at 1920x1200 for well over tree years now and while I'm aware that I could get a much better card and monitor for under $500, I've no desire. I suppose I've reached the Myst threshold.

Myst was an adventure game that came out in 1993. I remember telling Rolf that if first person shooters could look as good as Myst I'd be happy. It's 22 years later and they do and I am.

In fact, I don't intend to upgrade anything until either something breaks or there's a game I want to run and can't. I'm not totally without feeling though, I want an Oculus Rift.

August 25, 2014

H. P. Lovecraft and the World Fantasy Award

Lovecraft's face graces the World fantasy Award and a lot of people are unhappy with that. Some want him off because he was a bigot of royal proportions. Others think that he should go because while he was an important witer he was also a very bad writer:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

Theosophists have guessed at the awesome grandeur of the cosmic cycle wherein our world and human race form transient incidents. They have hinted at strange survivals in terms which would freeze the blood if not masked by a bland optimism. But it is not from them that there came the single glimpse of forbidden eons which chills me when I think of it and maddens me when I dream of it. That glimpse, like all dread glimpses of truth, flashed out from an accidental piecing together of separated things - in this case an old newspaper item and the notes of a dead professor. I hope that no one else will accomplish this piecing out; certainly, if I live, I shall never knowingly supply a link in so hideous a chain. I think that the professor, too intented to keep silent regarding the part he knew, and that he would have destroyed his notes had not sudden death seized him.

My knowledge of the thing began in the winter of 1926-27 with the death of my great-uncle, George Gammell Angell, Professor Emeritus of Semitic Languages in Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island. Professor Angell was widely known as an authority on ancient inscriptions, and had frequently been resorted to by the heads of prominent museums; so that his passing at the age of ninety-two may be recalled by many. Locally, interest was intensified by the obscurity of the cause of death. The professor had been stricken whilst returning from the Newport boat; falling suddenly; as witnesses said, after having been jostled by a nautical-looking negro who had come from one of the queer dark courts on the precipitous hillside which formed a short cut from the waterfront to the deceased's home in Williams Street. Physicians were unable to find any visible disorder, but concluded after perplexed debate that some obscure lesion of the heart, induced by the brisk ascent of so steep a hill by so elderly a man, was responsible for the end. At the time I saw no reason to dissent from this dictum, but latterly I am inclined to wonder - and more than wonder.

Yeah, he was pretty bad, now that I think of it.

August 25, 2014

I'm a cop. If you don't want to get hurt, don't challenge me.

That's the title of an article in the Washington Post by former LAPD officer Sunil Dutta. It's his advice on how to deal with the police:

Even though it might sound harsh and impolitic, here is the bottom line: if you don't want to get shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I tell you. Don't argue with me, don't call me names, don't tell me that I can't stop you, don't say I'm a racist pig, don't threaten that you'll sue me and take away my badge. Don't scream at me that you pay my salary, and don't even think of aggressively walking towards me. Most field stops are complete in minutes. How difficult is it to cooperate for that long?

Aren't we the precious little hothouse orchid?

Now yeah, cops put their lives in danger, they get shot at and all that stuff. I concede that from the get go. But you know what? Getting yelled at and putting up with shit from the public is part of a cop's job too. And once you're sure that the angry person you pulled over for speeding is no threat then yup, they can threaten to sue you, threaten to have your badge and they have the right to say those thing without getting tased, pepper-sprayed or struck with a baton. In real life, of course you never know if you'll run into an officer Dutta who will pepper spray you if you call him a racist pig so it's probably a good idea to keep sentiments like that to yourself. But it's despicable that Dutta feels that by virtue of his position he's entitled to a level of deference from the public that other civil servants aren't.

I say this because in 29 years on the casino floor all those things that Dutta feels give him the right to kick the shit out of you happened to me. I've been yelled at, accused of racism, the whole nine yards. Not having a gun, a taser or even a baton I simply took it. In fact, one of the reasons the inspection staff lasted as long as it did was because an asshole patron at a blackjack table could be fobbed off on us.

Though some former inspectors feel otherwise, sucking up disrespect from the public was part of our job.

And it was part of officer Dutta's job although he seems to disagree.

I've been stopped by the police before and probably will be again. Each time it was a fairly low key encounter on both sides. In my book the cop writing thew ticket is entitled to common courtesy. But if you can't handle people calling you an asshole without resorting to violence, maybe police work isn't for you.

August 20, 2014

Accidental Venn Diagram

August 19, 2014

I'm Posting This for Jack

August 16, 2014

I Bought Newton a $269 Box for His Birthday

It came with a free receiver.

August 14, 2014

Twist Tie

I was throwing stuff out from a kitchen cabinet when I found an old twist tie. I closed it so that it looked like a snake, threw it on the kitchen floor and Newton spent ten happy minutes batting it around.

Our dogs and cats don't really ask too much of us and it doesn't make too much to make them happy. Hell, just now Newton brought his catnip mouse into the office, dropped it on the chair and now he'll be enjoying himself for five minutes and then try to get me to throw it out into the living room and he'll be off again.

All of which is to say that Newton is the first Kitten I've ever lived with and it's been remarkable. I nearly said owned but then Tolkien's line about cats came to mind. He was writing about Sauron and how the Dark Lord used to refer to Shelob as his cat. "His cat he calls her, but she owns him not." Tolkien didn't care for cats but he got the ownership model right.

August 14, 2014

Meanwhile in Ferguson

August 13, 2014

Humans Need Not Apply

August 13, 2014

Return of alChandler and the Gang

After a three week vacation I went back to Divinity: Original Sin. With any complex game there's a type of skill degradation that occurs when you haven't played, even if the layoff is only a few weeks. In the screenshot above I had just won a battle and leveled up. I was smart, keeping my magic user in the back, sending my warriors to deal with their magic users and generally behaving like I had absorbed a scooch of strategy after 31 years of playing these things. But that was my second go at the battle. My first pass after was to play the thing like it was Diablo 3, moving everybody to take on the big guys:

It didn't end well for me.

And that just about finishes the first area. The bosses are dead, I'm level 10 and it's time to move on. Just one more trip to Cyseal and I'm out of there.

August 12, 2014

Tomb Raider

Last year I played Tomb Raider the Laura Croft reboot. I wanted to try something new and since it was on sale for $20 I took a shot. It turned out that I loved it. So did a lot of other people, it sold 6 million copies.

Tomorrow something called Gamescom starts. At a press conference it was announced that the sequel to Tomb Raider, Rise of the Tomb Raider will come out as an Xbox exclusive Christmas 2015. And it looks like it's going to be a real exclusive, not one of those exclusive for six months then released for PC and PS4.

That means that the majority of the folks who played Tomb Raider in 2013 won't be playing Rise of the Tomb Raider in 2015. And that's a shame because a lot of them would have bought the game.

Look, it's no secret that the numbers for the Xbox One have been disappointing. I've no doubt that Microsoft offered Square Enix a lot of money for the exclusive. I'm sure Microsoft is hoping that the exclusive spurs Xbox sales. But that's not what's going to happen.

I'm not knocking console gaming, I'm really not. But consoles are closed systems, PC gamers have far more options then console gamers do. And while a PC gamer who was waitng a bit before buying an Xbox One might get off the fence and get one if they were a fan of the franchise, I can't imagine that someone with no intentions of buying an Xbox would plonk down $500 for Laura Croft.

But hell, short term the Money will be great for the devloper and the publisher. It won't do the Tomb Raider franchise any good but not everybody can be winners, right?

August 12, 2014

It's My Own Fault

I've been known to watch some bad television and Dominion is as bad as they come. The short version is that God left heaven, the archangel Gabriel figures God would come back if humans were killed and Michael is helping the human survivors of the angel slaughter who live in Vega, formerly las Vegas.

There's more but I like to keep it simple.

See the picture? An angel has just landed and guards are about to shoot him. It won't do any good because the angel is shielding his chest with his wings. Bullets bounce off the wings but that doesn't matter, the guards are going to shoot at his chest until the run out of ammo, then the angel will pull out his sword and kill them. You might notice that the angel's ankles and feet aren't protected. Doesn't matter the guards are still going to shoot at his wings. Also, it never occurs to the military leaders to, maybe, arm the guards with something that could punch through the wings. Maybe a grenade launcher would do the trick. Or perhaps, instead of stationing all your guards in front of the doors, maybe have a few plain clothes guys scattered about. Since the wings are now covering his chest I bet a plain clothes guy with a gun could back shoot him. That would hurt him.

That's Dominion. And I've watched every damn episode. There's no hope for me.

August 10, 2014

Amazon vs Hachette

Note: I wrote this for a mailing list and decided to post it here because then I'm covered for content for a day or two. One thing, Amazon is still not accepting pre-orders for Hachette authors.

A few years ago publishers realized that ebooks were growing in popularity. They also realized belatedly that Amazon had the biggest market share of ebook sales and that Amazon was pushing for a $9.99 price point for new ebooks. By new I mean ebooks that were coming out at the same time the hardback edition was being released. For example a John Grisham Novel that's being released at, say, $27.95 would sell for $9.99 in Amazon's Kindle store.

Publishers tend to adopt to changing times at a rate that the House of Lords would find appallingly slow, but they reacted to the $9.99 ebook price point. They got together and agreed among themselves that they wouldn't price their ebooks on Amazon for less then they sold in Apple's ebook store.

Just for the record, that's illegal. Individually publishers can do that. But they can't just get together and agree to do that all together over beer and burgers. They were sued, they lost and I got a nice credit from Amazon as part of the settlement. I buy a lot of ebooks.

That was then, in 2014 Amazon has begun messing with Hachette Book Group. For instance Stephen King's new novel, "Revival" is coming out in November. If you already know that then you can go to Amazon and pre-order it in hardback or in Kindle format. But Amazon is going out of its way not to promote the book. That's because the ebook edition is selling for $12.74, not $9.99. But at least you can pre-order "Revival". Amazon had been delaying shipping for other authors and not accepting pre-orders in Kindle format for them. As the dispute made its way to the business sections of major papers and news sites Amazon began to pull back on that shit.

Authors, some of them anyway, are pretty pissed at Amazon. Over 900 of them have formed a group called Authors United. For the record, Stephen King is one of them. They don't like the $9.99 price point and they don't like Amazon's bullying of Hachette. But to put it in perspective, Amazon bullying Hachette is a lot like the Klingon Empire bullying the Cardassian Union back in Deep Space 9, a big thug kicking the crap out of a smaller thug.

Amazon for its part has a web page called Readers United. Amazon would like me to email Hachette CEO Michael Pietsch and tell him that I want the $9.99 price point.

So, a few points, Amazon doesn't give a shit about me, Hachette doesn't give a shit about me and even Stephen King doesn't give a shit about me (sniff). Let's take that as a given.

Next, it's true that an ebook doesn't require paper and shipping. But it does require editing and publicity the same as any other book. Those are fixed costs. If Stephen King goes on tour to promote his new book he doesn't book the hotel himself, his publisher does that for him.

Amazon compares the ebook edition to paperback editions and points out that when the paperback format was created, publishers resisted because of the cheaper price point. Today they make a lot of money from paperbacks. What Amazon is leaving out is that the paperback edition of a book is generally released a year after the hardback edition. The ebook edition is released simultaneously with the hardback edition. The other day I bought "The Magician's Land" in Kindle format for $11.99. Amazon was discounting the hardback for $17.49 and the publisher's undiscounted price was $27.95. So there you go.

If you're still with me, here's what's happening. Amazon lost $300 million last quarter. This quarter they've warned that they could lose $800 million. Wall Street is beginning to look twice at a 20 year old company running those kinds of losses.

Amazon is running those kinds of losses because they've been building warehouses and other things. But investors don't care and they're getting antsy. Amazon doesn't want to generate more revenue by squeezing their customers and they don't have any leverage over most of their suppliers. But since they have the largest share in the ebook market they do have leverage over publishers. Amazon is figuring they can sell a lot more ebooks at $9.99 then they can at $11.99. In short, they need more money coming in to make Wall Street happy.

One last point, this dust up as been compared to the way Walmart fucks with its suppliers. But that's not quite true. If Walmart wants supplier X to price its stuff at price point Y and the distributor can't deliver, Walmart will just stop selling the company's stuff. What Walmart doesn't do is throw up web pages asking me to write letters to supplier X. While Amazon has leverage over publishers they don't have Walmart leverage. Hell, these days Walmart doesn't even have Walmart leverage.

And that's my tale. I'm not a disinterested party, I have 400 books on my Kindle and about 350 of them came from Amazon. But I don't love Amazon, I don't love Hachette and I don't even love Stephen King. It's just business.

August 9, 2014

The Microwave Space Drive

You might remember that a scientist at NASA was playing around with the idea of a warp drive. It got everybody excited for a bit until scientists pointed out that the drive was hypothetical and in order to work needed tech that hadn't been invented yet, tech that nobody knows how to invent.

Wired UK published a story about a microwave drive called an EmDrive. It works by throwing microwaves around in an empty chamber. That shouldn't do anything but the drive's creator, Roger Shawyer, says it provides thrust without the need for propellant.

As it stands now NASA has tested Shawyer's concept and it seems to work. For that matter a Chinese team also came up with positive results. It may still turn out to be bullshit but so far the concept seems to be reproducible. Nobody really knows why the thing produces thrust. One theory is that the microwaves are pushing off against virtual particles that pop in and out of existence. It's all very quantumy.

If it holds up it's important. Propellant takes a lot of space. But in the EmDrive's case, once you've launched your vehicle, some solar panels to covert the sun's rays to electricity to power the drive is all that you need. It's also a lot faster then anything we have now. A conservative estimate from NASA says that a Mars mission could be there and back again in eight months, and that's including a stay on Mars.

So, according to NASA, the concept will then be tested at the Glenn Research Center and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. If they reproduce the results it will be food, feasting and fun in space.

Oh, one more thing, while Wired UK thinks the drive is real. Shawyer being a Brit and all, Wired over here thinks the drive is bullshit.

August 9, 2014

The Magicians: Part 2

Over the last three days I read all three books in Lev Grossman's Magicians trilogy. A few thoughts about the books.

Quentin Coldwater is a lonely 17 year old who's to try out to for Brakebills Academy, a high end school for people who can do magic. Coldwater is delighted, this is the thing that will give meaning to his miserable life.

Except it doesn't, the school is less like Hogwarts and more like MIT. And it's not a guarantee of success. Most people who graduate do magical research or get set up in well paying jobs that don't require any real work. Magic is just a thing, a talent, like an aptitude for music or math.

Then Coldwater discovers that Fillory is real. He read the Fillory books when he was a child. They were written by Christopher Plover. The books are the adventures of the Chatwin kids who entered the magic land of Fillory. Think Narnia and you've got Fillory. It's full of centaurs, talking trees and is governed by the two wise rams, Ember and Umber. The Chatwin kids were real, they lived next door to Plover but their lives sucked. They were all neurotic but at least they had their share of the royalties from the Fillory novels.

But when Coldwater gets to Fillory he discovers that people are people, Fillory is no better or worse then our word, albeit a lot prettier, and the surviving ram, Ember, is a pompous, self righteous dick. The Chatwin kids really did cross over into Fillory and it fucked them up for life.

In a way the series is sort of the fantasy version of Midnight in Paris.

I don't normally blow through 1,200 pages in three days but the television is down until next week so I'm a reading fool. Still, if you're a fan of either Potter or Narnia, the Magicians trilogy is worth checking out.

August 8, 2014

The Magicians

I first read The Magicians in 2010. I read a lot of books in 2010 that I remember nothing about, The Magicians is one of them.

The book gets compared to the Harry Potter series and that's a fair cop, but I suspect its DNA predominantly comes from Narnia. The bare plot is that Quentin Coldwater is a lucky kid but he's miserable. Not dickish miserable like Holden Caulfield, just not fitting in miserable. He'd really like to be living in Fillory, the setting for kid's books written in the 1930s. Then he gets to go there.

Narnia written for adults.

And I should have devoured it and read the two sequels. But a lot was happening in 2010. Now it's 2014 and my biggest worry is to keep the cat from breaking stuff. So I'm going to read it again.

By the way the Narnia for adults thing wasn't a shot. A lot of people come to Narnia or Hogwarts as adults. Neither one is my thing but a really good children's books works on more then one level. In my case Potter is too British prep for my taste and Narnia is too Christian. I don't go into a rage about Narnia like Philip Pullman but Lewis lays it on very thick.

Actually, I was trying to think of a book written for children that I came to as an adult and like. Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series. But that's another post.

August 6, 2014

The $9.99 Ebook Price Point

It's no secret that Amazon has been fighting with Hachette over ebook pricing. Amazon would like to see $9.99 as a standard price point and Hachette would like to set their own damn price. So, three things, first of all there's an article in the LA Times on ebook pricing. Then Charlie Stross wrote a series of posts on publishing. And, I suppose the last word goes to, as it usually does, Harlan Ellison.

August 5, 2014

Donald Duck

Newton likes Donald Duck. Which doesn't, I suppose, explain why I'm watching him.

August 4, 2014

Charles Williams

Charles Williams was one of the Inklings. J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and a bunch of other Oxford literary types met Thursday evenings at Lewis' room in Magdalen College. They also went the the Eagle and Child pub on Tuesdays. Both days they'd read to each other from their works in progress. Middle aged men having jolly literary fun.

Tolkien was the breakout star thanks to the Ballantine paperback editions of the 60s. Thanks to Peter Jackson folk who never read the books still know about Frodo, Sauron and Gandalf. The others aren't so lucky. They started to make Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia into movies but there's currently a moratorium on any new movies. Still Lewis is more of a household word then poor old Charles Williams.

Williams fantasies weren't set in Narnia or Middle-earth, they were set on housing estates a few miles outside of London where powers both divine and infernal contend for the character's souls. In Descent into Hell we encounter several people living in the Battle Hill Estates outside of London. They are Pauline Anstruther, who lives in fear of her own doppelgänger, the poet Peter Stanhope, who has written a play that the local dramatic society is planning to put on and Lawrence Wentworth, a 50 year old historian who'd dearly like to fuck the young Adela Hunt. When that ain't happening, a succubus in Ms. Hunt's form is provided and that's good enough for Wentworth.

Williams, Lewis and Tolkien play fair by their own lights. Sin, even the gravest sin, can be forgiven provded the sinner wants forgiveness. Poor Boromir fell under the influence of the Ring and redeemed himself in the eyes of his comrades by dying in an attempt to save Merry and Pippin. But in the eyes of God he was forgiven the moment he fell weeping over his betrayal.

All of which is to say that there is sin here and absolute good and evil. Evil and be forgiven but it can never be rationalized away. I'm not sure I hold with such notions and on top of that Williams is not easy reading. But his stuff is good if you care to take the time and you can get a collection of his novels on Kindle for 99 cents. You can't go wrong for 99 cents and chances are you don't have my atheist baggage to work through.

August 3, 2014

A Little Bit of Politics

Republicans were expected to do well this November, holding onto the House and maybe taking control of the Senate. Now, things aren't looking quite so good and immigration reform is to blame.

Everyone seems to agree that unaccompanied children being smuggled into our country is a bad thing. And hopes were that Congress would finally be prodded into reforming immigration laws and securing our borders. Now the Senate wants to pass a $2.7 billion bill but they need 60 votes to cut off debate and Senate Republicans are stalling. In the House, Boehner pushed a more modest $659 million bill. In order to get that passed he needed every House Republican vote. At this point Senator Ted Cruz entered the picture.

Cruz met with some of the most conservative House Republicans and persuaded them to break ranks with their leadership and hold out for a bill that was more to their liking. So, on the eve of a five week recess, Boehner couldn't get his bill passed. He's keeping the House in session until something, anything gets passed. It's 6:15 PM and the House is still in session.

For years the Democrats have been trying to portray Congressional Republicans as obstructionist and until now it hasn't been working. But the spectacle of undocumented children being held at the border has attracted a lot of attention. And if Congress leaves for a vacation to without voting on something it just might help the Democrats keep the Senate and maybe pick up a seat or two in the House.

As to why ultra-conservative Republicans would risk alienating voters so close to the midterm elections, it's simple, they care more about their own ideology then they do about the Republican party. If the party loses a seat or two in November they perceive it as worth it if it advances their long term goals.

And the Congress may shit out a bill by tomorrow and the Democrats could still get their asses kicked in November. But for now I'm enjoying the disarray on the Republican side.

July 31, 2014

Books I Loved as a Child

LiarTownUSA is a national treasure.

July 30, 2014

Beren, Lúthien and Peter Jackson

Beren was a human and an elf friend. Lúthien was the daughter of Thingol the Elven king and Melian the Maia. Before Thingol, Beren asked for Lúthien's hand. As the price for his daughter, Thingol demanded a Silmaril from Morgoth's crown. Beren left to go to Morgoth's fortress, Angband. But to Thingol's horror, Lúthien left the next day and join Beren in his quest.

Whenever people talk about what Tolkien movie Jackson should do next, Of Beren and Lúthien from The Silmarillion is what seem to come up the most. But Jackson and his studio don't have the rights to The Silmarillion and if Tolkien' son, Christopher Tolkien, has his way they never will. I'm afraid Christopher has a rather dim view of Jackson's work. Still, things change and while I wish Christopher Tolkien many more healthy years, and while I will mourn his passing, one day somebody else will be in charge of Tolkien's legacy. And, it the spirit of being grateful for what we have, the new trailer for The Battle of the Five Armies.

July 28, 2014