Monday, February 28, 2011

Sword Swallowers Awareness Day

Sword Swallowers Awareness Day was February 26 (in conjunction with National Swallow Disorders Month -- I had no idea, and it's nearly over!). I know I missed it, but I thought it was worth mentioning anyway. Take some time out of your day today and thank the sword-swallower in your life. Give them a hug, unless there is a sword currently in play...

This post's theme word is acicular, "needle-shaped." He swallowed three acicular swords of increasing size!

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Malcolm Gladwell

I earlier expressed my displeasure at Malcolm Gladwell's writing. I'm not the only one! Someone with a bit more free time built this Malcolm Gladwell book generator (hat tip: A.). Its criticisms seemed spot-on, and its offered cover designs are accurate, too. My favorite title was "Power: How Power Powerfully Powers Power."

This post's theme word is irrefragable, "that which cannot be disputed or argued." Gladwell's theories are so preposterous as to be irrefragable by rational means.

The Name of the Wind

This weekend brought with it much consumption of media, because apparently that's what we fall back on when we want to relax. Late last week I found myself in Bakka Phoenix Books, the sci-fi bookstore dangerously along my route home, and a kind bespectacled and beponytailed man highly recommended Patrick Rothfuss's The Name of the Wind, as its sequel has just come out.

So I read The Name of the Wind, a hearty 700 pages of dense print in my favorite fiction form-factor: paper brick. Useful for hours of entertainment, as well as quick-and-brutal unexpected streetfights.

It was good.

That's about it: I found nothing exceptional to comment upon. It is a fantasy novel, with the usual worldbuilding and pre-industrial-revolution culture, where magic and fairies are real. (Spelled faerie, of course.) It was good, if you like that sort of thing, and to make it stand out from other bricks of fantasy, it is a story told in the retrospective first-person, by a (former?) hero who is now fleeing his past -- or faded in strength? -- or laying in wait for some epic event he set in motion? I'm not sure; I've only read the first third of the story, since this is a trilogy. So we're still missing the bits where he gets from the University (a setting that is a mix of Ender's Game, for its psychological challenges, and the Earthsea novels, for its pervasive magic involving real academic study) to his present conditions.

It was interesting. I'd read the next book in the (predicted) trilogy.

In conclusion: I'm a bit disappointed that 700 pages only lasted me one weekend, during which I did some other stuff. But if you like fantasy bricks and good solid writing, I recommend Patrick Rothfuss' The Name of the Wind.

This post's theme word: autolatry, "self-worship." Like idolatry. The hero's first-person epic tale came off as rather autolatrous at times.

This post written like David Foster Wallace, though I don't know why. His style is very complicated. I usually write like whatever I've just read, especially if it's a brick -- and the book has a simple style, the tone of verbal storytelling. Maybe this means my own style is more sticky and resistant to intrusions than I thought.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Windup Girl

I just finished Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl, having read it in one big gulp this afternoon and evening. (Wikipedia lists its genre as "science-fiction biopunk," which I had not known existed.)

It was good. It had unpredictable plot points. It now inhabits a corner of my fiction-hoarding mind that was previously empty. It was novel while still a comfortable read, fun, but a bit of a surprise and mental workout to figure out what was happening.

The story is told through the limited third-person lens of an assortment of characters. These characters are drawn from many different cultures, so the book illustrates the cultural misunderstandings and misinterpretations from both sides. I found this curious to hold in my mind: many ways of viewing a conversation, all equally valid and consistent and interesting, but contradictory and incongruous. It seems to me to be a feat not only of writing but of cultural understanding far beyond my ken. It's great.

This was compounded, later in the book, with a nice plot twiddle and the fact that various characters promulgate and perpetuate misinformation campaigns. And these campaigns concern, of course, the other characters' actions and motives, so that any clear image of what happened is muddled in my mind with which character and interpretation grabs my allegiance.

Of course, the science fiction and biopunk were also enjoyable. (No matter the culture, the characters have to agree about science, right? Huzzah for genetic engineering and delicious descriptions of food.) All in all, a nice book, and over all too quickly.

This post's theme word is pip, "something or someone wonderful," or "the small seed of a fruit." Paolo Bacigalupi's most recent book featured many delightful pips, in both senses.
This post written like H. P. Lovecraft.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Patterned greens

Today was beautiful, unseasonably warm, with most of the snow melted away. I took the opportunity to dress in a silly manner.

This post's theme word is lentiginous, "covered with freckles." Compare with litiginous for hilarious misheard remarks. Don't give the lentiginous coffeshop girl a compliment, she's very litiginous.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Black and white

A woman, clad only in black and white, was redecorating the front window of this interior design store entirely with black-and-white wallpaper and fabric. I wonder if the yellow ladder felt out-of-place.

This post's theme word is vellicate, "to twitch or to cause to twitch," "to pluck, nip, irritate, etc." The ladder's appearance in an otherwise homogeneously-colored scene caused onlookers to violently vellicate.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Spook Country

The best way to summarize Spook Country is this: it was definitely written by William Gibson. It featured all the things I liked about his other books: a setting where digital things blend into real-world things (activities, objects, money, communications on the internet become real in a way that is believable and surprising). References to Japanese culture. A plot that is revealed in small, disconnected pieces, and must be assembled by the reader like a puzzle.

Several reviews appear to denigrate the book as having weak characters and a weak plot. I disagree, but even if you agree, I don't think it matters. The book is best when describing things in Gibson's voice, with objects and situations, not with dialog. His entire authorial fascination seems to be systems, not people.
She was fascinated by how things worked in the world, and why people did them. When she wrote about things, her sense of them changed, and with it, her sense of herself. (p. 227)
Even his sense of humor is best expressed in wry third-person. The characters' jokes are never as funny.
The Frankfurt School, as they'd called themselves, had wasted no time in plunging their intellectual ovipositors repeatedly into the unsuspecting body of old-school American academia. (p. 167)
What vivid images! How clever! Plus, using an academic-ish writing style to mock academia.

This post's theme word is camber, "a slightly convex or arched shape of a horizontal surface." The table is developing quite a camber; do not set your glass down.

Monday, February 7, 2011

More nice writing: Jerry Holkins

Jerry Holkins is a man who knows his way around a sentence, often by leaving gigantic sesquipedalian monoliths strewn hither and thither to mark his loquacious route. See for example this:
My mind is generally in geosynchronous orbit, watching the unseemly exertions of this body with my metaphorical nose wrinkled in disgust, engaged in cognition about cognition and issuing rudimentary commands over the high-latency link. I wish very much that this last sentence felt less true.
Doesn't your heart leap at such prose?

Well, mine does.

This post's theme phrase is ex cathedra, "spoken with authority" (adverb/adjective). I read Tycho's posts in an ex cathedra tone.

Bok choi and dumpling soup

Thanks to M. for describing how to make this bok choi and dumpling soup just right.See how delicious?

This post's theme word is machicolation, "a projecting parapet supported by corbels on a medieval castle, with openings through which stones or boiling water could be dropped on an enemy." Thou durst not waste dumpling soup in use at the machicolation.
This post written like Cory Doctorow.

Sunday, February 6, 2011


There is a community, connected and reinforced online, of video game players. Despite their division into factions (by gaming console, by game preference, by the quality of being distinguishable from an angry 12-year-old boy in forums), they share more similarities than they do differences. One notable similarity being: the obsession with video games. As a pastime. As entertainment. As a lifestyle choice.

Like any community, the community of video gamers occasionally discusses itself. (Witness Penny Arcade, a venue devoted exclusively to discussions of video games and of Penny Arcade.) Thus arises a genre: the video game which is, itself, a commentary on another video game. I just came across this list of meta-games and find them delightful; I had heard of Desert Bus, Tetris HD, the hilarious Cow Clicker, and others. I am delighted to find out about Progress Quest, a RPG which requires no participation to play -- your character stats simply increase the longer you run the game. Progress Wars is similar but even simpler. Achievement Unlocked is delightful.

And of course there are games which parody other meta-games. Huzzah.

This post's theme word is jocoserious, "half-jesting, half-serious." Jonathan Coulton's sorrowful nerd anthems are jocoserious. Just consider JoCo's jocoserious song "Still Alive," the theme of the popular video game Portal.
This post written like Cory Doctorow. (I wonder if that's because of the many links.)

The Tipping Point

I have read 71 pages of Malcolm Gladwell's "The Tipping Point," and I can read no further. The book is dangerously written. The prose is conversational, anecdotal, clearly written and convincing -- but only at first glance. The danger, of course, is that readers will consume shallowly, unthinkingly, mistaking the simple writing for simple truth. A closer inspection reveals that Gladwell's grand system of "How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference" is a set of Capitalized Words of Importance supported by anecdotes. Badly supported by anecdotes! Some of the anecdotes can be interpreted as the opposite of what Gladwell intends; it is only his particular interpretation that makes them support his theory.

A. pointed out that this book taught one thing: how to write a bestselling pop-soft-science book. Capitalize some words (Gladwell choses: maven, connector, salesman, etc. -- words that lose their Magical Significance when uncapitalized) and fill in 200-300 pages of thinly supportive stories from history, personal experience, and the summaries of summaries of popular science articles.

Seems relatively harmless, right? Just popular writing. But as I read, I feel his tone permeate my brain. I often find myself thinking in the diction and sentence structure of whatever I'm reading at the moment. And I simply do not want to think like this book. I'll go cleanse my mental palate with some David Foster Wallace now.

This post's theme word is dipsomania, "insatiable, periodic craving for alcohol." Reading the works of Malcolm Gladwell has been shown to cause dipsomania.
This post written like H. P. Lovecraft.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

What to do when it snows

I woke up this morning to lightning in a snowfall. It looked like some god had discharged a flashbulb a few miles away, briefly and brightly illuminating everything. (Is there a god of paparazzi?) The thickly falling snowflakes reflected the light in all directions. It was very cool.

I like to watch snow falling. It's magnificent. Watching a whole vector field morph through time.

And then, having trudged through the inconsistently-cleared sidewalks of packed, crumbly, slippery sheets of snow, having purchased a long-lusted-after book, I made my way home and soup. A delicious deep orange concoction (colored by carrots and orange lentils), lovingly homogenized into a smooth, flavorful mush using the immersion blender that Someone I Love Gave Me.

Snow, soup, a book. What more could I ask for?

Are you, dear reader, currently being warmed by food or writing? If not, I suggest a delightful combination of the two: the short story "Cooking From Central France: Roast Boned Rolled Stuffed Shoulder of Lamb (Farce Double)" by Harry Matthews. It is hilariously performed by Isaiah Sheffer here (~40 minutes long, worth every second); program information is here.

This post's theme word is astraphobia, "abnormal fear of lightning and thunder." Alice's astraphobia abated at the arrival of a blizzard.
This post written like Chuck Palahniuk. That's a first.