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Modern Prog on iTunes

Huh. The iTunes Music Store has some introductory playlists for modern progressive rock that you can buy and download.

It’s a little strange that the lists contain no Spock’s Beard (which the iTMS does have) or Flower Kings (which it doesn’t). It seems like it focuses mainly on progressive metal. They may just be at the mercy of what’s available on the store, but it might also be the result of biases of whoever composed the list. Although to be fair there are a number of band listed with whom I’m unfamiliar, so maybe I shouldn’t talk.

Make Mine Snoopy!

Peanuts characters drawn as superheroes. Good, silly fun.

Jack McDevitt: Seeker

I’m a big fan of McDevitt’s second novel, A Talent For War (which was recently reissued), but I was disappointed in its first sequel, Polaris, and I’m equally disappointed in Seeker.

I think the fundamental problem is that the adventures of antiquarian Alex Benedict and his aide Chase Kolpath have quickly become fomulaic: Discover that at some point in the past something went mysteriously missing, slowly draw back the slender thread of evidence which has survived the years (or millennia) to the present day, and then unravel the mystery, usually with some present-day danger thrown in. In Seeker, the quarry is the nine-thousand-year-old colony ship Seeker, which was apparently stumbled on by some government surveyors, who died before they told anyone their secret. The Seeker was one of the first big colony ships from Earth, which left in the 27th century, and its value could be incalculable. Meanwhile, Alex and Chase have to contend with the surly owner of the relic which put them on the trail, as well as a secret foe who seems to want to kill them for mysterious reasons.

All three Benedict books have basically the same formula, so why does Talent work so well for me when the other two don’t? First of all, it’s narrated by Alex, who is a much more engaging character than Chase, who narrates the other two. Indeed, Alex seems like something of a heel when Chase talks about him, while he’s more sympathetic – and fallable for more likeable reasons – in his own voice. Second, the moral ambiguities that Alex uncovers in Talent‘s historical figure are more powerful and better drawn than we see in the later books. Lastly, Talent is a novel which changes the status quo of its hero and his world – a tough trick to plausibly pull off in three consecutive novels.

McDevitt’s strength is to present his settings with the proper sense of scale, the vast timeframes, the stature of the historic figures, the loneliness of abandoned or lost ships, stations and planets, the feeling of opportunities passed. He doesn’t get it all perfect (human civilization feels too contemporary to feel like it’s nine thousand years in the future, for instance), but it works well enough. He’s also good at writing a page-turner, with enough suspense and anticipation to make Seeker enjoyable.

But it feels like something’s missing, an essential weight to the story, or depth to the characterization. So, like Polaris, Seeker is merely light reading. A good change of pace from some of the heavy stuff I tend to read, but whether I’ll continue following Alex and Chase in the future, I don’t know.

R.I.P. Jerry Bails

More bad news: Jerry Bails passed away last week. (How I didn’t hear about this until today, I don’t know.)

Dr. Jerry Bails was perhaps the single individual most responsible for there being a comic book fandom. In the early 1960s, he seemed to be the glue which held together the nascent fandom, in the days when DC was still re-launching many of its golden age characters, and Marvel was so much the new kid on the block that it seemed to be viewed with an innate skepticism by long-time fans. He founded the first comic book fanzine, Alter Ego in 1961, and founded the first comics APA, CAPA-Alpha, in 1964. (I was a member of K-a – as it’s abbreviated – for a year or two in the early 1990s.)

The debt both fans and pros of comic books owe to Bails is probably incalculable, due (if nothing else) to the sheer number of comics fans who became comics pros in the 60s and 70s due to being active in fandom, fanzines, and APAs. While fandom might have formed later without Bails’ efforts, the fact is that he did what he did when he did it, and he gets to claim the credit for those things.

Damn.

Related links:

Analysis of Poor UI Design

Joel Spolsky analyzes the “Off” button and menu in Windows Vista. He claims that the UI is cumbersome (and I agree with him), and considers how it could have been better designed.

Using Spolsky’s article as a springboard, former Microsoft developer Moishe Lettvin provides insight into how Microsoft’s departmental organization contributes to this sort of poor design.

Spolsky briefly follows up.

All of this via Ceej.

Wikipedia Brown

A childhood classic meets Web 2.0 in Wikipedia Brown and The Case of the Captured Koala.

R.I.P. Dave Cockrum

Sad news: Comic book artist Dave Cockrum has passed away at age 63.

Cockrum was one of the key artists of the “modern age” of comics. First he helped modernize the look of the Legion of Super-Heroes in the early 70s, just before their second peak of popularity when Mike Grell arrived. Many of the Legion’s costumes of the era were designed by Cockrum, and then simplified by later artists since Cockrum tended to festoon his characters’ outfits with myriad dongles and patterns. More significantly, Cockrum co-created the “new” X-Men with writer Len Wein, and illustrated their early adventures for writer Chris Claremont. Again, the X-Men became even more popular when Cockrum left the title to be replaced by John Byrne, but he was instrumental in crafting the look and feel of the series.

Cockrum drew his characters with more, uh, robust physiques than most of the artists who preceded him – although his style bears some similarity to late-60s Jack Kirby – and a dynamism which surely influenced later artists such as George Perez. I always loved his costume designs, and the energy of his layouts and figures. I’m especially fond of his Legion work.

He’d been struggling with diabetes in recent years, and has been one of the old guard of artists who hasn’t gotten much work in the industry lately, which is too bad since I think he still had a lot to contribute, and he was a much better artist than a lot of the Image-influenced artists around today.

Sad news to wrap up the weekend.

Related links:

Alastair Reynolds: Galactic North

Alastair Reynolds’ other collection published this fall, Zima Blue and Other Stories, is a good collection, but Galactic North is the shit, man!

It collects Reynolds’ short stories set in the universe of his cycle of novels starting with Revelation Space. It’s almost a primer of how his future history developed, featuring several pivotal events mentioned in the novels, as well as a few characters who either appear or are alluded to there. The collection actually almost works as its own standalone story cycle, which is pretty neat since it wasn’t written that way.

Reynolds’ basic strengths are his ability to create and describe places that feel truly alien, or at least deeply disturbing, and his flair for suspense and horror. For instance, “Nightingale” features the hunt for a war criminal onto a dormant automated hospital ship, which is about as frightening an environment as one can imagine: What exactly do you think a hospital ship needs to be like in order to care for the injured during a war? And on top of that it’s dark and potentially airless, and was run by an artificial intelligence whose mental state is anyone’s guess. You keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, knowing that eventually it will. And then when it does, Reynolds twists the knife in an unexpected and hideous way. While essentially a haunted house story, it’s gripping stuff.

Reynolds also explores the nature of humans who have been modified into something unusual. The first story in the sequence, “The Great Wall of Mars”, concerns the Conjoiners – humans who have formed a technological group mind – and the opposition they face from the rest of humanity, who are afraid the Conjoiners will absorb everyone else into their fold. In contrast to the common thinking about posthuman experience – which is often portrayed as unknowable or at least weirdly alien and antithetical to the human experience – Reynolds explores the thoughts and motivations of these nascent posthumans, drawing them as all-too-human, a sort of enlightened cult. The story’s protagonist, Nevil Clavain, arrives among the Conjoiners as a negotiator and learns that they are playing a deeper game than anyone had suspected.

Similarly, “Weather” takes place in a damaged lighthugging starship, and provides some insight into the mysterious Conjoiner Engines of the novels, and another oblique glimpse into the lives of the Conjoiners themselves. It’s basically a short character drama, but it illuminates the backdrop considerably.

There are two other stories which provide a glimpse of the early days of Reynolds’ future history: “Glacial” is a mystery about a dead – and unexpected – human colony, and lets us visit with some friends from “Great Wall” again. “A Spy in Europa” is a rather brutal spoy story which descends into horror. It’s not as polished as “Nightingale”, but it sheds some light on another faction in the setting, the Demarchists, who walk a fine line between heaven and hell, but of course are as fallible as all the rest of us.

“Grafenwalder’s Bestiary” concerns the legacy of those early Demarchist days, and the dangers of obsession, as its titular figure is obsessed with collecting creatures from around the galaxy and showing them off to his peers, and is interested in acquiring one special creature in particular. It contains echoes of Reynolds’ novel Chasm City (my favorite of his novels), but has its own unique sense of foreboding and terror. It’s a “be careful what you wish for” sort of story.

The volume wraps up with the title story, which follows its characters on a chase far into the future, while humanity is otherwise threatened by an implacable foe. I can see what Reynolds was aiming for here, with characters living for millennia through time dilation, focused (more or less) on their specific goals, but I had trouble connecting with the characters or believing in their motivations over such a long time frame. I found the nature of the foe to be a little hard to swallow, too. The story is okay, its grand scope making it an interesting curiosity, but it feels more like a writing exercise for dealing with lengthy timeframes, which comes into play in the novels. Still, I liked it more than the other story in the collection, “Dilation Sleep”, which is a pretty straightforward “things are not what they seem” yarn. To be fair, Reynolds’ afterward suggests that it was written earlier than the other stories in the book.

But very few short story collections hit home runs every time, and Galactic North does much better than most in that regard. There are stories here to delight, provoke, horrify, and wonder at. It’s outstanding, and it reminds me (once again) that Reynolds really is one of the very best writers of science fiction working today.

Den of Inequity

While Debbi and her friends went off to a crafts faire today, I decided to go try my hand at poker again.

Oh boy, it did not go well.

Unlike other recent sessions, I was picking up plenty of good starting hands. I got dealt A-K four times, for instance. This is a big hand which you’ll get dealt about once every 80 hands, and since I played for about 2 hours – around 70-80 hands – I was way ahead of that curve. As I understand it, the way you make money with A-K is by flopping top-pair-top-kicker, which will happen about 1 time in 3. Even if you miss, if you raised before the flop then you will usually be getting odds to call a bet to see the turn, when you might still pair one of your cards. Since I almost always raise with A-K before the flop, winning a big hand 1 time in 3 should more than compensate for losing the other two times.

Guess how many times I paired a card by the turn? If you guessed “zero”, then you’re right. That’s bad luck.

I also got dealt some pocket pairs, and although I never managed to flop a set (3 of a kind, which should happen about 1 time in 8 ), I did win a big pot with Jacks, and a small one with Sevens.

What killed me were the A-K hands, and then having a good hand which lost to an even better hand several times. The latter are the ones where you really take a beating, two pair losing to a set, or a big pair losing to a full house. Painful. Overall I ended up losing my whole buy-in for the session, which was certainly discouraging.

But I felt that I played well, which was encouraging. I didn’t chase bad draws, and I didn’t do things like play middle pair with no redraws against someone who clearly had top pair. So I wasn’t playing hands and losing and thinking, “Geez, why did I do that?”

And I even had some fun moments: One hand I played A-Q, and flopped a full house! Action was slow on the flop, so I just called the one bet, and I started betting on the turn, and I think I got as much action as I could reasonably have hoped.

Another time I checked my big blind with A-3, and the flop was A-A-2. The turn and river were an 8 and a J, and one other player was betting. I suspected he had the other Ace, but I thought he might be bluffing after checking around on the flop. It turned out he had A-5, and neither of our kickers played, so we split the pot.

My last hand of the day, I played J-9s, and flopped an open-ended straight draw. I suspected at least one other person in the hand had a big pocket pair, but lots of people saw the flop despite a raise. I got pot odds to call to the river, but I missed my straight, darnit. I even went all-in on my last bet! The other two players at the showdown had Kings and Aces, and the rockets took the pot. Just bad luck.

So I decided that was enough for me. There ain’t no justice!

Incidentally, I went to Garden City Casino, where I haven’t been in a while. They always seem a little cramped compared to some other casinos – they pack a lot of games into their floor space – but I like them well enough. I hadn’t been in quite a while, but I’ll have to go again.

Turkey Digestion Day

We made our annual trip over to the house of our friends Bill and Elaine yesterday for their terrific-as-always Thanksgiving dinner. Debbi brought her usual pizza-bread appetizer, which disappeared even faster than usual! After a brief (but fortunately not problematic) mishap in determining whether the turkey was cooked, we ate a huge meal, and then a huge dessert consisting of pies and ice cream, after which I just about fell asleep, but instead played with their persian cats for a while and wished I wasn’t completely stuffed so I could go have some more pie.

Oof.

We justified the feast by going for a 2-hour walk yesterday through the Palo Alto Baylands around Byxbee Park, and I went for an hour bike ride this morning when I got up, which took some intestinal fortutide since it was forty-freaking-two degrees out at 9 am this morning. Gah. Winter is here.

Today we spend a good chunk of the day cleaning house: I cleaned old cobwebs from the ceiling corners, swept and mopped the tile floors and the study. Debbi vacuumed and did laundry and cooked a turkey breast so she could have leftovers. We each cleaned our own bathroom. All very productive! The cats were kind of weirded out by all the activity, though.

Hard to believe it’s Friday already, that my week off is about over. But we still have the weekend ahead of us!