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The Lingering Yuckness

I’ve had this low-grade illness or something for a few weeks now. When it started I had a sore throat and clearly had some sort of illness because I would get wiped out by mid-afternoon and have to go crash. It lasted for about three days and then went away.

Except that it left me with this peculiar post-nasal-drip type of symptom: I constantly feel like I have a little bit of phlegm in the back of my throat, and like I have to swallow a lot. I’m not congested, though. Sometimes it’s better, sometimes it’s worse, but it hasn’t been going away. Drinking tea helps, but only temporarily.

It would just be a little frustration except that I think it’s been causing me to snore a lot when I’m asleep, and needless to say this doesn’t work so well for Debbi.

So I’m at something of a loss. I’ve been rather stressed out lately, and I wonder if I just haven’t been resting enough to knock the last of some bug out of my system. Or if I got through one thing and am now coming down with something else. Or if I need to just go see a doctor.

Blick.

Garden Progress

Here’s what my garden looked like a month ago:

Garden_Apr30.jpg
(click for larger image)

And here’s what it looks like now:

Garden_May30.jpg

The snapdragons have finished their first blooms and a couple are getting ready for their second go-round. The marigolds are in full bloom. The three tomato plants are doing great (and two are fruiting already), and the cucumber plant (middle cage) is starting to take off. Only the pepper plant (far left cage) is taking its sweet time.

All the herbs in the pots are doing well, too. The rosemary and thyme are held over from last year, but we picked up some new Italian parsley and sweet basil.

Here’s what my yard around the patio looked like a month ago, too:

Yard.jpg

The stream, incidentally, starts in the little pool on the right, runs behind the red cowbells, and falls into the pond whose edge is on the left. The plants surrounding the head pool on the right got clobbered by our cold winter weather, but they’ve completely recovered by now – rather to my surprise, because they didn’t look good.

I need to clean up the patio, and then we can start having weekend breakfast out there, and I might start doing some writing outside in the evening when it gets a little warmer.

This Week’s Haul

  • Countdown #49 of 52 (backwards), by Paul Dini, Tony Bedard, Carlos Magno & Jay Leisten (DC)
  • Wonder Woman #9, by Jodi Picoult, Terry Dodson & Rachel Dodson (DC)
  • newuniversal #6, by Warren Ellis & Salvador Larroca (Marvel)
  • Satan’s Sodomy Baby, by Eric Powell (Dark Horse)

Eric Powell writes and draws the comic book series The Goon, which is played partly for horror and partly for off-color laughs. The Goon is the leader/enforcer of a local mob, dispatching evil while running rotection rackets. Sort of like Hellboy through the crack’d mirror. No doubt about it: Powell is a terrific artist, with a top-notch sense of layout, form, motion, and execution. His writing, though, is very iffy: Sometimes he captures some real pathos, and other times he’s quite funny, usually when he’s being just plain silly. But his scripts are often pointlessly crude and/or gross, and the long-term stories seem not to be going anywhere, and I find a steady diet of the lightweight silliness gets tiring after a while.

So now we come to Satan’s Sodomy Baby, which is really just an especially gross issue of The Goon, with extreme violence, nudity, and a devil-child with a really big shlong. All of which, as you might guess, is… neither very funny nor very dramatic. And certainly not very clever. Why bother? (I wish I hadn’t bothered picking it up.)

Brian Hibbs is a little kinder to it than I am, but he’s not too fond of it, either.

A small week, otherwise. I am still enjoying newuniversal, perhaps more than I ought to, but every so often Ellis grooves a book right in my strike zone. I wish he’d get the last issue of Planetary out, though!

Alastair Reynolds: The Prefect

  • The Prefect

    • by Alastair Reynolds
    • HC, © 2007, 412 pp, Gollancz (U.K.), ISBN 0-575-07716-6

I realized while reading this book something that sets Reynolds apart from his high-tech brethren in the SF field: Reynolds’ stories are essentially grim suspense/horror tales, and their basic pattern is one of setting up a milieu and hinting at a variety of outre people, places, events, or other horrors which populate it, and then setting the story in motion. Consequently, the reader spends much of his time waiting for another shoe to drop, and in true Charles Addams fashion, Reynolds’ stories are full of more shoes than you expect. And since he tends to “play fair” with the reader, not pulling out some unlikely surprise at the last minute for sheer shock value, you know that the characters have a chance of getting through the novel, but they’re probably going to have to walk through hell to get there.

The Prefect is a prequel to the Revelation Space cycle of stories, occurring decades (maybe a couple of centuries) before the events which turned the planet of Yellowstone into the peculiar hell it was in those novels. Here, the Glitter Band is a ring of ten thousand space habitats orbiting Yellowstone, and Panoply is its law-enforcement branch, primarily tasked with guarding it from external threats to its existence (due to its uneasy symbiosis with the starfaring Ultras), and internal threats to its stability (people trying to subvert its democratic electoral system).

Tom Dreyfus is Panoply’s top Field Prefect, an exacting but fair and honest man who works some of the toughest jobs in the system. Eleven years ago, an AI named the Clockmaker threatened the survival of the Glitter Band. It was defeated, but Dreyfus’ wife died in the encounter, and he’s now fully committed to his job. His two partners have similar obstacles: Thalia Ng is the daughter of a man who was convicted of treason, while Sparver is a genetically-engineered pig, and thus the subject of much discrimination.

The book opens with Dreyfus’ team locking down a station which had illegally exploited a hole in the polling software, which Thalia is assigned to fix. While she is working on the fix, space station Ruskin-Sartorius is destroyed, and Dreyfus’ investigation suggests that an Ultra ship is to blame. The Ultras provide little insight into what happened, and Dreyfus’ only witnesses are three simulations of three members of the family from the station. With a little legwork, they track down communications with Ruskin-Sartorius to a remote asteroid and Dreyfus and Sparver go to check it out while Thalia goes to test her software fix on a few of the older stations.

All of this is the initial dance leading up to a powerful entity making a bid to take over the Glitter Band, and this is where Reynolds really exercises his suspense skills: Thalia gives us a short tour of the diversity of the stations in the Glitter Band while Dreyfus and Sparver engage in some forensic investigation. There’s no question that something big is around the corner, but the story still keeps moving forward even as the tension builds. The story is a series of puzzles for Dreyfus and the other characters, as they need to figure out the goals and motivations of their adversary, as well as how to stop it as it makes its move on the stations in the Glitter Band.

The characters in The Prefect aren’t the strongest in Reynolds’ arsenal, and they definitely take a back seat to the plot. While Dreyfus and Thalia each have some painful history behind them, it’s only an influence on their behavior, not a strong underlying motivation. Dreyfus, as the title character, embodies the best of Panoply, its efficiency and compassion, and is forced to weather the storm of his less-incorruptible peers and superiors, but he never feels truly flawed, and so he fills the role of a fairly traditional detective. Still, the main characters are all entirely likeable and that helps make the book enjoyable.

For those who have read Reynolds’ earlier books, there’s irony in that we know that Dreyfus’ efforts to save the Glitter Band will eventually be undone by the Melding Plague, but we still root for him to save this jewel of human civilization. The story comes to a surprisingly rapid – yet satisfying – conclusion, and I wouldn’t mind reading more about the era of the Glitter Band, but ultimately I think I enjoy the more downbeat era after the Melding Plague more. Perhaps there’s a story which can bridge the two periods.

The Prefect falls somewhere in the middle of quality among Reynolds’ books, being a solid detective story with a variety of interesting ideas backing it, but it doesn’t excel in either concepts or characters like Chasm City or Pushing Ice do. But if you’re just looking for an exciting high-tech tale, then look no further.

More about The Prefect:

Web Trickery

So I took a few minutes to learn how to use Dreamhost‘s built-in stats package to see who’s hitting my Web site where. (I’ve also been using StatCounter for this, but naturally my hosting service can provide a much more complete picture.)

Having done that, I noticed that several of my images are being hotlinked from other sites. While I’m not really anywhere close to using my bandwidth allocation (not within an order of magnitude – maybe two), hotlinking is just obnoxious on principle. So I took a few more minutes to learn how to block hotlinks.

Useful Web trickery, all learned in just a few minutes. (Dreamhost has a really useful Wiki for learning these things.)

I wonder what else I ought to learn in this space?

(I should probably see about blocking hotlinks to my old site, too.)

WMDs

That’s “WMDs” as in “Worst Magic Decks”. This is another geeky MTG post, so if you’re not interested in such things, move along. 🙂

Over the weekend Subrata and I went over to the house of our friends Ziggy and Laurie to participate in a little informal Worst Magic Deck tournament. The idea is to construct a 75-card Magic deck which is worse than all of the others at the tournament. The deck construction rules required a 75-card deck with exactly 30 lands, at least 20 creatures, a total power of all non-defender creatures of at least 40, and at least 10 direct-damage cards, as well as requirements about being able to play all the cards in the deck using basic lands, as well as a few other constraints. This still left a lot of wiggle room, however.

While putting together my deck, I ended up setting certain ground rules for myself: No creatures with evasion (flying, protection, shadow); no creatures with repeatable effects (especially direct-damage effects, but also tap/untap effects); creatures should be expensive, but since I expected games would go on a long time this shouldn’t be a primary requirement; be careful with effects which affect all players, since they might produce a win in certain circumstances, even if they’re generally not useful; and fill out the deck with completely useless cards. (Cards which involved snow-covered lands from Ice Age were particularly amusing.)

Despite applying some similar principles, Subrata and I ended up with rather different decks: His creature power was tied up in a few large-but-restricted creatures (Force of Savagery, Leviathan, Goblin Mutant, Orgg, etc.), filling out the balance of his creatures with walls. I also had a Force of Savagery, but I filled out my remaining creatures with weenies (1/1s, 2/1s, 3/1s) and a Norin the Wary. The more I think about it, the more I feel the two approaches are almost equal: My deck is more likely to get out useful attackers, but Subrata’s deck’s walls are also easy to get out, and are good blockers. I think over the long haul my deck is likely to be slightly worse, but only slightly.

Subrata and I both misunderstood that you only need 30 lands, not 30 basic lands; you only need as many basic lands as are needed to cast all your spells. So we could have downgraded our decks a bit that way.

The structure of the tournament is that each of us played with or against our own decks, only the other peoples’ decks. We would get a point whenever we personally won a game, or whenever our deck lost a game.

My first game lasted about an hour, as I played Ziggy’s deck against Subrata’s, and managed to take out both of the big threats in Subrata’s deck early, and then bided my time until I drew cards I could win with. Laurie, my opponent, eventually ran out of cards, although by that point I had two other tricks in the works that would have finished her off. (Subrata and I also both rigged our decks so they’d be more likely to run out of cards first, which is a losing condition in Magic. He was more aggressive about it then I was, but on the other hand you could choose not to use the spells in his deck which ripped through your library, whereas I took the subtle approach of using creatures with cantrips. I suspect my approach would be slightly more effective in the long run, but the difference is probably too small to be worth arguing about.

The best game I played was against Subrata, playing Laurie’s deck against Ziggy’s. Subrata’s initial draw included an Ankh of Misha, a Winter Orb, and a Sheltered Valley, with a Torture Chamber not far behind. Subrata said it felt like playing a standard control deck. (I had rejected both the Ankh and the Orb from my own deck for exactly this sort of reason.) This shut me down for a while, but eventually I was able to force Subrata to use the Chamber a few times to kill some of my creatures, and then I played a 4/4 flyer (with a significant but not insurmountable drawback) which managed to do just enough damage to finish him off – with me at 3 life. Subrata observed that his initial draw gave him too many options, and he played them all, and they interfered with each other just enough to let me squeak past for the win. But man, it was close!

I think both Subrata and I had weaker decks than either Laurie or Ziggy, although they were all pretty bad. When our decks faced off, my deck beat Subrata’s by one turn, because Laurie drew the right card at the right time to finish off Ziggy. That notwithstanding, I ended up winning the match, since I won 2 games and my deck lost 2 games. People also found my deck especially amusing, as I abused the format to render several cards (such as Extirpate, an otherwise really nifty card) entirely useless.

I thought the WMDs were an interesting novelty, but as I’d predicted, they made for a lot of long games without a lot of variation. I think if I were to run my own such tournament, I’d go with the standard 60 cards rather than 75, just to speed things up a little. I don’t know that I’ll feel the need to play this format again anytime soon, but it was an interesting mental exercise the one time. (And we had a good afternoon hanging out with friends and seeing their cool house.)

Heroes: Season One

Heroes wrapped up its first season tonight. I still have basically the same criticisms that I had early in its run: It’s very slow, the writing is very inconsistent, and the characters are erratic.

I feel somewhat unhappy with the resolution of the “blowing up New York” storyline. It was never convincing to me that the culprit would be either Sylar (since he obviously had to be stopped somehow) or Peter (why would he lose control of his powers in the first place? And why would he stick around in New York rather than flying away?). But I think the writers backed themselves into a corner there.

The series’ protagonist has always been Hiro, I think, and his arc comes to a satisfying conclusion. His main challenger, Mohinder, spent just about the whole season with almost nothing to do, which is too bad since Sendhil Ramamurthy is one of the stronger actors on the show. But overall the season ended up being rather muddled from a storytelling standpoint, more soap opera than adventure.

So Heroes rates as “okay” television, which – to be honest – puts it ahead of most television. (At least it’s not Yet Another Police Procedural. Heck, even House is basically Yet Another Police Proecedural, in that it’s got exactly the same structure, just with medicine instead of law.) It doesn’t look like NBC will take long to stretch it too thin, as Heroes: Origins is already slated for the fall. Sheesh.

Anyway, now I can spend the summer catching up on Veronica Mars and/or Battlestar Galactica. Although what I really want is to just bludgeon my way through the whole series of Justice League Unlimited. Unfortunately, most of it isn’t available on DVD yet.

Andrew Sean Greer: The Confessions of Max Tivoli

I knew by page three that I wasn’t going to like this book.

The tip-off was that the prose was just too purple for my tastes: It was difficult to slog through the raw verbiage, and there were too many digressions and embellishments. The story seemed too enamored of its narrative voice, and not enamored enough with, well, its story.

The story is a simple conceit: Max Tivoli was born in 1870 in San Francisco, but as an infant his body was 72 years old. Although born the size of an infant, he grew quickly, and as a teenager looked like a man of about 60, his body aging backwards as his mind aged forward. At age 6 he meets his lifelong friend, Hughie, and at age 17 he meets the love of his life, Alice. But while Hughie accepts Max for who he is, Alice cannot: He doesn’t tell her. Instead he hides his condition from almost everyone (save for Hughie and a select few who figure it out themselves), and attempts to woo Alice at three different points in their lives.

The story is narrated by Max when he’s 60 years old, in 1930, and appears to be a 12-year-old boy. He’s living with another boy, Sammy, and Sammy’s mother, and reminisces in detail. But, really, not enough detail: The book is really only about Max and his obsession with Alice, even though their only common feature is that they were both born to relatively high-class families which were brought low. But Max seems to have no interests, no hobbies, not really any ambitions beyond being with Alice.

The book’s conceit, Max aging backwards, seems almost superfluous: Other than the period in 1930, his earlier exploits could have been the adventures of any normal man dealing badly with unrequited love. For all his eloquence of tongue, Max is not introspective, he provides little true insight into such an unusual life as his condition must create. He’s a shallow thinker, of the worst sort, really: He spends great amounts of time and energy describing tedium.

And as for that purple prose: It seems especially inappropriate for its narrator, who’s not very well educated. It makes him seem like a poseur. And ultimately Max is just not a likeable figure, and he spends so much time in self-pity that it’s difficult to actually pity him. Alice is no better, although she’s slightly better rounded; but she’s no less self-absorbed and disagreeable.

Author Greer does have a couple of clever turns of plot, mainly when Max learns some hard truths about each Hughie and Alice near the end. But rather than tragic, it all just feels rather tiresome. It seems like Max Tivoli gets wrong everything The Time Traveler’s Wife gets right: It’s not romantic, its characters are hard to root for, Max’s condition isn’t especially interesting, and the tragedy of the story left me simply shrugging. I went back and re-read passages of Time Traveler several times after finishing it; I had no such compulsion for Max Tivoli.

Maybe Greer was going for something that simply eludes me. But there just wasn’t much here for me to enjoy, and consequently, not much for me to learn from. It was eloquent wordsmithing in the service of a slight story. A pity.

What’s Open?

Some useful links (well for those of us in the area):

What’s Open in Cupertino Right Now?

Also, What’s Open in Downtown Mountain View Right Now?

This Week’s Haul

  • Aquaman: Sword of Atlantis #52, by Tad Williams & Shawn McManus (DC)
  • Countdown #50 of 51 (backwards), by Paul Dini, Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gray, J. Calafiore & Mark McKenna (DC)
  • Ex Machina #28, by Brian K. Vaughan, Tony Harris & Jim Clark (DC/Wildstorm)
  • Fables #61, by Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham & Steve Leialoha (DC/Vertigo)
  • Justice League of America #9, by Brad Meltzer & Ed Benes (DC)
  • World War Hulk: Prologue #1, by Peter David, Al Rio, Lee Weeks, Sean Phillips, and others (Marvel)
  • Artesia Afire HC vol 3, by Mark Smylie (ASP)
  • Mouse Guard: Fall 1152 HC vol 1, by David Petersen (ASP)
  • B.P.R.D.: Garden of Souls #3 of 5, by Mike Mignola, John Arcudi & Guy Davis (Dark Horse)
  • Hero by Night #3 of 4, by D.J. Coffman & Jason Embury (Platinum)

Shawn McManus does his own inking in this month’s Aquaman, and the art is looking better. Still not quite the McManus style I know and love, but still. I think my biggest gripe about the book at this point is that Aquaman is getting lost in his own book amongst the large cast, and he’s being treated as a kid besides. Considering this Aquaman has been around for over a year now, and Kurt Busiek wrote him as a pretty strong character, I would like Williams to bring him to the fore and show that he can really carry the book.

Speaking of artists, I probably shouldn’t be as hard on guys like Ed Benes as I am, artists who seem to be strongly influenced by the Jim Lee/Rob Liefeld arm of the Image Comics style. While many details of his style are not to my taste, the guy does have some talent: In JLA #9, he not only draws a detailed panorama of gorillas riding giant lizards (and how can you not love a comic featuring such a scene?), but he can show some emotional range, as he does in a scene between Red Arrow and Power Girl.

The World War Hulk prologue is not really necessary, so I recommend you save your money for the real thing. Its main virtue is some nice artwork.

Mark Smylie’s Archaia Studios Press has become a nice little cottage industry over the last few years, and it releases two hardcover collections this week. ASP’s hardcovers are of very high quality (even the cover boards have illustrations, not just the dustjacket!), and they’re affordably priced at $24.95 – which for a comic book hardcover ain’t bad. I suspect ASP is targeting selling these in mainstream bookstores, and I have heard that bookstores refuse to stock fiction hardcovers priced about $25 (although I can’t find a link to support this). Consequently, I wonder whether ASP is making money on these hardcovers, or simply paving the way for the paperbacks?

Anyway. I got on-board with Artesia after its first volume had finished, and I was impressed with the sophisticated subject matter (which, I should stress, is not for children), and especially Smylie’s well-choreographed layouts and lovingly-drawn panels. Two more volumes have taken the shine off the series for me, as the cast of characters is huge and Smylie doesn’t make their faces sufficiently different for me to be able to keep track of them all. The story is also moving along at a fairly slow pace, and it’s not clear where it’s all going. Moreover, most of the characters – including the title character – are not really very likeable. These points make it difficult for me to stay engaged and to appreciate the series’ good points. Perhaps I need to go back and re-read all three volumes in a chunk and see if I’m missing something, or if the series really is just missing me. (A summary of Artesia here.)

On the flip side, Mouse Guard was a fun little series about the world of mice and their little medieval society. The art is simple yet effective, and it’s just good escapism. I hear a sequel series will start up soon.

Hero by Night #3 makes me wonder whether we should declare a moratorium on origin stories in superhero comics: Its first two issues concerned how its protagonist found the ring which gives him super powers, but the story only really gets moving in #3 when he starts using them and confronting the pros and cons of doing so. Maybe more comics just need to start in medias res and not from the very beginning. Let’s get straight to the excitement!