why I am not buying an iPhone

Update: Damn, this is a popular post. I am replying to comments below but I should note that I am not an iPhone expert. I have no special knowledge. I’m watching the news and the videos and reading the blogs like everyone else is. If you’re here looking for iPhone information consider the page on the iPhone on wikipedia which has collected a lot of what is currently known about it. Keep in mind also that there’s a whole lot that ISN’T known and won’t be known until the iPhone is released on friday and people actually take it apart and play with it.

Please note also that if you spam my blog with iPhone questions you’ve asked on every other blog that mentions the iPhone I will delete you. That’s really rude.

I’ve been asked a lot over the last week if I am going to be buying an iPhone, and twice if I’m going to be camping out to buy an iPhone. For some reason, I can’t imagine why, she said, innocently, I seem to have acquired the reputation for being kind of a cell phone freak.

I am not going to buy an iPhone, at least not this version. I am not an iPhone Hater, as those who lust for the iPhone are caling the doubters, but I personally feel little iPhone lust. My reasons:

  • The virtual keyboard. I’m a heavy smartphone keyboard user; I am a double-thumb typer and I rely on the feel of the keys to type fast and accurately. The word on street so far is that the iPhone’s virtual keyboard takes some getting used to but is not as bad as it looks, especially if you trust the error correction to work for you. I would like to see it for myself, and I would like real people to use it for a while and to express real world opinions (can the blackberry people use it? That’s what I want to know). I’m also suspicious that any virtual keyboard will ever be as comfortable to type on as a real keyboard with pressable keys. I have a hell of a time with real full size keyboards that do not have good tactile feedback — the joints in my hands hurt. Given how often I type and my experiences over the years with stress injuries in my hands this is something I pay attention to. I do not want a phone that will land me in physical therapy, no matter how cool it is.
  • The slow data connection. I was stunned when I heard in the original iPhone announcement that they were going with an EDGE cell connection. AT&T has a fast HSDPA 3G network in most major markets — I cannot comprehend why they didn’t use it. Apple seems to be blithely assuming that you can drop down to wifi at any time and then the connection will be speedy but as someone who has had a wifi phone for the last year I can assure future iPhone users that free and open wifi connections are not as ubiquitous as you might think, even in major urban areas. You will have to rely on EDGE, and EDGE is slow. I have EDGE with T-mobile and it is acceptable if you’re patient, but you have to be very patient. If you’re used to broadband or an EVDO connection it is going to drive you nuts.
  • I hate AT&T. OK, I hate all cell carriers. They are all evil. AT&T is perhaps more grossly incompetent and money-grubbing than sheer evil, but AT&T is still a big vote for iPhone: NO right there. It’s going to take an awful lot to get me to sign up with AT&T, especially with a two-year contract, although now that they’ve announced the iPhone plans and they are remarkably simple and not stupidly named (you have the “Elbows Landscape plan with My Hazelnuts”) I’m a bit less suspicious. To be fair, I would probably have precisely this same argument with any carrier at all, including T-Mobile where I am now.
  • $500+ for a phone no one has even seen. Speaking as someone who spent $500 on a phone last year that I hadn’t even seen this may seem like an odd complaint. I spent full retail on an unlocked, untethered phone, and I would do it again. I didn’t spend $500 on a phone that would also lock me into a $2000 long term contract with a carrier whose service I know isn’t all that great.
  • It is a first generation Apple device. I have had on-and-off experiences with first generation Apple devices; My first generation PowerPC mac was a complete mess; my first generation iPod was replaced once under warranty and broke again a few months later; my first generation 12″ powerbook was rock solid for its entire useful life and I loved it so much I bought another one. The iPhone is new enough in a variety of ways — and cell phones are integral enough to my life that I would really hurt if it broke — that I think I’ll sit out the first generation.
  • It’s just not that huge a revolution right now. It is an absolutely beautiful phone. The interface is gorgeous and there are obviously some really new ideas in interaction design there that are truly fascinating. Once the crowds in the stores die down I will be there in the Apple Store playing with it. I can definitely see buying one later on. But now? I have email and the web and Google Maps and text messaging on my phone. I have a camera and music. And I also have video and games and third-party applications. The interface isn’t as pretty on my Nokia. The screen is really small. The apps could be better designed and more useful. But its good for now.

I’ll wait.

In the meantime I do seem to have accidentally acquired a Nokia Internet Tablet. Its a wifi-based web browser and email device with a big high resolution screen that runs linux. I’m not exactly sure what came over me there.

long overdue book roundup

I haven’t done a book roundup in almost a year. I am embarrassed to note from this list that I didn’t read a lot in the last year. I did lose my Sudoku book midway through the year so that can’t explain it. I will note in my own defense that I am exceptionally well rested, my filing is up to date and there are no dust bunnies under my bed.

This is long so I put it after the jump. Books are roughly in the order I read them.

Continue reading

the happy camper (2)

In the previous installment of this elaborate justification, a VW bus had followed us home.

big blue camper van

This is not the prototypical 60’s hippie microbus. For example, it was made in this century, and has things like airbags and a decent engine. Volkswagen continued to make this vehicle — in different configurations, and renaming it to the Vanagon, and then the Eurovan — all the way up through 2003, and in fact they are still making them in Europe. (They call them “multivan” there. Please resist making nerdy Fifth Element joke). But they stopped importing them to the United States a few years back for of lack of interest. Eurovans don’t really fit well into the typical American car lineup: they don’t compete well with normal minivans because they’re big, boxy and they don’t handle all that well, and they don’t compete well with commercial vans because they’re too nice inside. It didn’t help that when they were new they were also way too expensive.

Given all the changes over the years there really isn’t much hippie left in the Eurovan anymore, although there are still plenty of them around in hippie towns like Santa Cruz, which is where we found this one (through craigslist. of course). Ours is a 2002 Eurovan, and is the “Weekender” model, which means it is set up for casual camping. Permit me to show you around (some of this is duplication of what I wrote on flickr already):

big blue van

Yes, it is very very blue. We have a thing for blue cars. Note the blue truck right behind it.

There are hippie stickers on the windows which will have to come off. I’ve been debating painting skulls on the back to counteract the hippie effect.

come on in

The van seats seven. Two in front, two rear-facing seats, and a big bench seat in the back. I suppose you could stack a few more people up on the floor if you had to. All the seats are way comfortable. The folded up rear passenger seat comes out easily. All the others will come out with a little more work. With the seats out it’ll fit a motorcycle with no problem.

big rear hatch

This is a huge gaping maw of a back hatch. The shelf will hold about ten bags of groceries, and there is tons of storage underneath. The shelf itself lifts right out; Eric is going to fabricate some bike racks so that we can put bicycles sideways in back here. He thinks he can fit two bikes in, minus the front wheels.

The rear seat folds forward should we feel suddenly compelled to buy 4×8 sheets of plywood. (you never know. the space station might need a patch).

And more cupholders

There are cupholders and accessory power plugs all over this van. One would not want to have to reach very far to get to your beer or plug in your computer, after all.

Or for parties

Speaking of beer, there is a little fridge under this seat. The fridge and all the accessory plugs are driven by a separate battery, so you don’t drain the car running your stuff. (tidbit: the manual for the refrigerator is in german, and they call it Die Kuhlbox. From now on all refrigerators shall be Die Kuhlboxes.)

There’s also a little table, and lights, a separate heating system for the back, and curtains. Basically: it’s a small studio apartment on wheels.

poptop

This is the best part of the Weekender model Eurovan: the poptop roof. There’s a real bed up here, a mattress and everything. You can also prop the roof of the van into the poptop when it’s up, which lets you stand upright inside the van.

The bench seat in the van itself also pulls forward and completely flat — you can sleep two up in the poptop and two down below. In fact come to think of it I once had a studio apartment that was smaller than this van.

How does it drive? Well, a sports car it ain’t. It is a big, boxy, heavy van. The engine is a 2.8 liter VR6 with 200HP. It is tuned for torque, which means it can get out of its own way but it won’t really beat much of anything in a quarter mile run. On our twisty bumpy road it grips just fine but it’s not all that happy. It rattles a lot. On town roads or on the freeway it smoothes out and has no issues; it feels like just a large, slow, car. Maneuvering it around in parking lots is somewhat challenging; ironically it is much easier to see the back thanks to enormous mirrors and the square back end than it is to see the front which is pretty much invisible below the windshield.

Now we just have to decide where to go. Somehow the trip ten miles into town for breakfast once a week now seems somewhat…limiting.

winter book roundup plus sodoku

Six months ago I walked into Borders on a saturday after breakfast, as I do on pretty much every saturday after breakfast, and was greeted with a huge table display. The display said

NEW PUZZLE CRAZE!!

And there on the table were about 50 books for this thing I had never heard of called Sudoku.

Well, I like puzzles. I like puzzles a lot. I’m not so great at crosswords (ironic for the english major, no?), and there are some 3D spatial things I’m bad at (I’m told this is a male/female thing). But mostly I think just about any kind of puzzle is pretty darn great.

I went to a party once and I had intended to be social, really, but then someone handed me one of those old blacksmith puzzles where you have to get the ring off of the hooks or the loops or whatever and I promptly became the least social person in the history of the entire known world. Just me and the blacksmith puzzle in the corner, responding to greetings with grunts or not at all and refusing to come out of hiding until I had solved the darn thing. Days later I emerged from the corner, hungry but triumphant. I don’t get invited to so many parties anymore.

Oh, and there’s Tetris. I have this problem with Tetris. We will conveniently skip over my really bad Tetris addiction in college and I will note that I got a PSP just recently (Sony is Evil, I know, I’m sorry) and they have this game called Lumines which is like Tetris only blocks instead of lines and they flash blinky lights and play loud repetitive dance music at you all the time. Like Tetris at a rave. Anyhow I’ve been playing that game a lot and having conversations like:

Eric: Laura?
Laura: not now.
Eric: Laura…..
Laura: not now.
Eric: Laura, your hair is on fire.

But I digress.

So I picked up one of the sudoku books in the store and I thumbed through it. I read the introduction. Sudoku, in case you haven’t been assaulted by bookstore displays in the last six months, is a simple logic puzzle involving grids of of numbers. The numbers are purely symbolic; there’s no math involved. They could use random symbols but the numbers are easy to remember. All you have to do is fill in the grid so that all the rows and columns and squares all contain numbers from 1 to 9.

The book I had in my hand, the Book of Sodoku, was only ten bucks, so I figured what the hell, I’ll give it a try.

This is my really long-winded explanation for why I have only read five books in the last six months. But I’m getting really great at Sudoku.

Olympos, by Dan Simmons. Last year I read Ilium, the prequel to this book, and loved it. As I posted back then, I’m not a huge traditional science fiction fan, but Ilium was complex and well-written and just really well put together. Unfortunately, it also ended in a huge cliffhanger, and OIympos was supposed to be the book that resolved everything.

Um. Well, its a big book, and it continues all the big and complex storylines that Ilium started. But its a big fat longwinded mess. It just spins madly out of control, there are too many plots, nothing much gets resolved, and I ended the book thinking “I have no idea what just happened here.” Bah. Plus there was this big time Heinleinian Stupidity Moment: there’s this beautiful female character central to the plot, and she’s been put in a sort of suspended animation for thousands of years, and the only way she can be awakened is if the virile male hero has sex with her sleeping body. My eyes rolled so hard they popped right out of my head.

Thud! by Terry Pratchett. Yes, if there’s anything that can drag me away from an incredibly addicting puzzle book, its a new Terry Pratchett book. This one involves a long-ago war between the dwarves and the trolls, and the seething resentments that have resulted since then. Now a dwarf has been killed apparently by a troll and the Watch has to deal with it before a new war springs up.

I was kind of surprised that this book came out so soon after Going Postal and kind of concerned about it; the last time Terry P. started writing books really fast the quality suffered. And alas although this book was fun I don’t rank it among his best. It just didn’t reach out and grab me…in fact it took me a week to read it which is positively unheard of. It is definitely no Going Postal, or Night Watch.

My Work is Not Yet Done, by Thomas Ligotti. I have gushed about Thomas Ligotti before. I love this guy. He doesn’t write horror, really, he more writes dread, or loathing. He’s just immensely talented at setting a really dark mood.

In this book there are three stories of “Corporate Horror.” In the first, the dread and loathing and darkness take place in a perfectly ordinary company. The first half of the story is terrific; like some sort of horrible lovecraftian “Office Space.” The main character is oppressed by his co-workers in various tiny awful ways. His boss and co-workers conspire against him, and drive him to madness.

And then there’s the second half of the book, which turns into kind of a supernatural Kill Bill. The main character is run over by a bus and becomes an avenging spirit, picking off in various nasty ways each of his former co-workers who betrayed him. I found this second part of the book kind of disappointing, less about the dread and loathing and more straight-up horror. Its good straight-up horror but I prefer the more moody and less bloody Ligotti.

The other two stories in the book are shorter. The first, “I have a Special Plan for This World,” is chock full of mood. Deliciously so. Unfortunately the plot is also kind of muddled and I’m not sure exactly what goes on here. The last story, the “Nightmare Network,” has a unique structure: its just a series of mostly flat descriptions of ads, videos, events. Its kind of a non-narrative and I admit the style does not grab me much at all. I could not get into this story and I couldn’t tell you what it was about.

Anansi Boys, By Neil Gaiman. I suppose if you made a list of Most Predictable Books Laura Must Have Read in The Last Half of 2005 this book would be on it. Well duh, of course I read it. It was a good, fun, quick read. Not as complex as American Gods. Not as creepy as Coraline (which, despite it being a kids book, creeped the living daylights out of me). It was fun, but kind of Average Fantasy I’ve Come To Expect From Neil. I’m still waiting for the Neil Gaiman fantasy magnum opus and beginning to think maybe Sandman was it. Hm.

Spook, by Mary Roach. Gushed about Mary Roach previously, too, when she wrote Stiff. Stiff is about human bodies and the things we do to them after people have left them. Spook is about the other side of the equation: its about souls and ghosts and spiritualism; about the search for life after death.

I’ve been trying to figure out why it is I don’t like Spook as much as I liked Stiff. Mary Roach’s writing style and humor are intact, the characterizations are terrific and brilliant long-winded off-topic footnotes are just as frequent. Perhaps because souls and ghosts and spiritualism are just less shocking than corpses the subject matter is just less interesting to read. But this book just wasn’t as as much fun as Stiff. I really wanted it to be, but it just wasn’t.

Five books in six months and none of them were even all that great. Boohoo. I need to find something to read now that will blow the top of my head right off with its greatness. I’m not sure what that book might be. If you had to make the list of Most Predictable Books Laura Must Read in the First Half of 2006 you might think Feast for Crows was on there given that I am a big fantasy reader…except um I haven’t actually read any of the other books in the series. So maybe I will board that ship for my spring books list.

Right after I finish 40 more Sudoku puzzles.

cross dressing, a book review

A few years back I went through a phase where I read everything that Amazon told me to. Recommendations, “Customers who bought X also bought Y,” I ate it up. The experiment wasn’t a rousing success; although I was never pointed at anything completely inappropriate, I never found any books or music that really truly stuck with me. OK, there’s one exception: Flogging Molly, a Pogues-like celtic punk band, was an Amazon discovery, and I am nuts for them. I can’t remember why it was Amazon told me to buy them, because its not like celtic punk is high on my must-listen list. I only own one Pogues CD and Amazon doesn’t know about it. Kind of suspicious, actually (nervous look).

Anyhow, It was during this recommendations experiment that Amazon told me to read Bill Fitzhugh. At the time there were only two Bill Fitzhugh novels to read, Pest Control and the Organ Grinders, and I read them both. They were a lot of fun, very silly, very sarcastic, light reading, a good way to pass the time on an airplane, say. Pest Control, about an exterminator mistaken for a hit man, is the funnier and faster-paced of the two. The Organ Grinders is much more dark and satiric, involving an evil biotech company that is genetically altering baboons for the lucrative illegal human transplant industry. It was still a fast-paced read, but a very angry book, and kind of preachy in its anger.

I was reminded about Bill Fitzhugh the other week, and snagged his next book at the library: Cross Dressing. This book is another dark satire, this time about religion and poverty and advertising. It concerns two twin brothers: Dan Steele, an evil corrupt advertising executive, and Michael Steele, a catholic priest just returned from Africa and now working at a halfway house. Dan gets himself in deep financial trouble, and then midway through the book Michael dies. Dan is forced to assume his identity, and chaos and hilarity ensues.

There are two big problems I have with this book: A. Its pretty predictable. Evil Dan assumes the identity of his priestly brother. You will be astonished to find out that Dan has a redemption by the end of the book and turns to the side of good. He also saves the halfway house from being repossessed by the bank (even more evil than advertising) and finds romance with a nun. OK she’s not really a nun, but that’s OK because he’s not really a priest.

B. Its a really dark book. I mean really dark. Its supposed to be dark satire, and there are plenty of parts in this book that are deliciously nasty and funny. But there are a lot of other parts that are just dark and sad and not funny. There’s a difficult balance to strike when you’re trying to engage the sympathy of your readers for as difficult a topic as poverty and sickness and death while still trying to be funny, and I’m afraid Fitzhugh doesn’t have that balance here. He’s very good at being angry about his subject, and describing it in a way that is touching and painful — but it doesn’t feel like it belongs in this book. Its a strange mix and it doesn’t quite work.

I wanted to like this book a lot more than I did. I see from Amazon that there are four more Bill Fitzhugh novels I’ve missed, so obviously the guy’s keeping busy. But I’m not sure I need to keep reading; I like my light reading to actually be light.

stiff, a book review

After I finished Going Postal I got to the book I had intended to read: Stiff, The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, by Mary Roach.

This is a book about dead people, or rather, the various things that human bodies are subjected to after we’re done with them. Its about autopsies, and putrefaction, and dissection, and execution, and cannibalism, and reanimation, and ballistics.

This is an utterly delightful book, and I am not being sarcastic. You would think that given the subject matter that this would be a dark book, tough to read, and very dry and clinical in its descriptions. These are human bodies, after all, and although we may decapitate them and shoot at them and run them into walls and boil them into goo and compost them etc etc they deserve respect. Death is a serious subject, she said, with a serious expression.

But no, Mary Roach’s book is a hoot. There are very few books that have made me laugh out loud this year — and this is one of them. Sure, it’s horrifying at times, with vivid descriptions that can be hard to take. But Roach’s writing style, the stories she tells, and the descriptions of the people she interviews in finding out about these stories are so fascinating and so brightly told that the balance between darkness and the light is just perfect. The more horrifying the subject, the funnier her writing gets. For a book about dead bodies, it is wonderfully alive.

For example, here’s a quote from when Roach goes to visit a funeral home to learn about embalming. She observes a body being “posed,” that is, arranged for an open casket funeral.

The last feature to be posed is the mouth, which will hang open if not held shut. Theo is narrating for Nicole, who is using a curved needle and heavy-duty string to suture the jaws together. “The goal is to reenter through the same hole and come in behind the teeth,” says Theo. “Now she’s coming out one of the nostrils, across the septum, and then she’s going to reenter the mouth. There are a variety of ways of closing the mouth,” he adds, and then he begins talking about something called a needle injector. I pose my own mouth to resemble the mouth of someone who is quietly horrified, and this works quite well to close Theo’s mouth. The suturing process proceeds in silence.

The book is also littered with random footnotes that lead to bizarre off-topic digressions. On the very next page from the suturing incident the Father of Embalming is mentioned, and there is a footnote that asks

Does everything have a father? Apparently so. A web search on “the father of” turned up fathers for vasectomy reversal, hillbilly jazz, lichenology, snowmobiling, modern librarianship, Japanese whiskey, hypnosis, Pakistan, natural hair care products, the lobotomy, women’s boxing, Modern Option Pricing Theory, the swamp buggy, Pennsylvania ornithology, Wisconsin bluegrass, tornado research, Fen-Phen, modern dairying, Canada’s permissive society, black power, and the yellow schoolbus.

At another point Roach apologizes for having stopped doing research about the weight of the soul because she was distracted by another article about the ancient history of medicine in the journal she was reading. But because of this distraction, she says, she can “hold forth at cocktail parties on the history of hemorrhoids, gonorrhea, circumcision, and the speculum.” And then there’s a footnote that starts “Since the odds of our meeting at a cocktail party are slim and the odds of my managing to swing the conversation around to speculums slimmer still, let me take this opportunity to share…” and then goes on for half a page on the history of speculums.

I love this woman.

But I will cease abusing the fair use part of copyright law at this point and tell you that you must read this book. I know, I have said this about every book I’ve reviewed here, but I mean it this time. (eventually I’ll review a book that isn’t that great.) It will probably spoil your dinner, but you’ll have a lot of fun going hungry. Go. Read it. Go.

Next up on my reading list: Quicksilver. Yes, I know, I am behind on my geek reading.

going postal, a book review

Next up on my reading list (and the enormous stack of books next to my bed) was Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, but then I made the mistake of actually going into a bookstore (Danger! Danger! Aoooga!). And right there on the tables up from was Terry Pratchett’s new book, Going Postal. Well. So much for that plan. So much for any plan whatsoever, in fact, for all of that day and most of the night. A new Terry Pratchett book waits for nothing.

I’ve been an enormous Terry Pratchett fan for years and years now, pretty much since the first Discworld book back in…1986? I still have it around here someplace (looking around horribly disorganized office). I’ve been buying the books ever since. Its been all downhill and lost weekends since then.

Going Postal is the 29th book in the Discworld series, and normally based on usual SF/fantasy series trend, you would think they would suck pretty hard by now. The author maybe had an interesting idea in the first two or three and then its the same book over and over again, right? Well here’s the funny thing about Discworld. The first ten or so in the series were really great: strange and funny and bizarre. Light, but a lot of fun. Then the middle ten were sort of weak. They were still funny but kind of repetitive. And then a weird thing happened. The last bunch of books got good again. Really, really good. The characters became deeper and more real, with real relationships and often difficult problems. The books started to take on social and political commentary. They got darker and more meaningful. They are still funny, with bad puns and outrageous characters, and still quick and easy reads…but the lightness is hiding a much more complex underpinning. Really Good Stuff.

Going Postal is one of the best examples of Terry Prachett’s recent good work, and if you haven’t read the Discworld books before its a good place to start because it doesn’t rely on previous knowledge of the (sometimes huge and involved) cast of characters. In it, an avowed and unabashed con man named Moist Von Lipwig is snatched at the last minute from the gallows and given a job resurrecting the Ankh-Morpork postal service. But who cares about the post office when the “clacks” — the Discworld’s rube goldberg semaphore/telegraph/internet system — works just fine and far faster than the mail (most of the time)? Lord Vetinari, the despotic ruler of Ankh-Morpork, wants to see the post office running again to rein in the monopolistic control of the Grand Trunk company, who may have acquired the clacks under susicious circumstances. Being postmaster is a big challenge, to say the least: the post office is stuffed to the ceiling in undelivered mail and there’s something about a demonic sorting machine in the basement… And it seems that someone would like to see the post office stay moribund, as a number of previous postmasters have recently died under very mysterious circumstances.

Probably the best part of this book, for me, is the description of the engineers working on the clacks towers, of the coding of the messages, and the various hacks and ingenious workarounds the clacks engineers do to keep the towers running and the messages passing through. Terry has utterly managed to capture true geekery spot on here, in a way that people writing about geekery almost never manage to do. Its deeply fun. Go read it.

Poscript: OK, while I was writing this Cory went off and posted a much shorter and better review of the book on boingboing. Darnit. I’m beginning to dislike them over there. They type faster than me and I’ll bet they don’t have to update their MT templates.

ilium, a book review

Book finished last week: Ilium, by Dan Simmons.

I’m not a big fan of traditional science fiction novels (Laura, turn in your geek card now). I read a bunch of the classics of the genre (Foundation, Dune, Martian Chronicles etc) when I was much younger but kind of grew out of it. There’s a bunch of reasons for that, but the main one is that sweeping interstellar epics with lots of physics or what-would-happen-in-2050-if-the-nazis-won-WWII scenarios just don’t excite me. I’ve read some other SF over the years (I do like the new modern techie SF, and near-future apocalyptic SF is always good), but most of the time my genre fiction interest lies on the other side of the aisle, in the horror and fantasy sections.

But my SF friends kept telling me about this book called Ilium and how good it was. A traditional sweeping interstellar SF epic…based on Homer’s Iliad. And Hugo-nominated, with a bullet. OK, I thought. I’ll try that.

This is a very complex book. It takes place in the far future (3000 sometime? I think its mentioned, but I can’t remember exactly), and there are three seemingly unrelated (but eventually interweaving) plots:

In the first and most dominant plot, Thomas Hockenberry is an Iliad scholar from the 20th century who has been resurrected by the gods — as in the Greek gods: Zeus, Athena, Aphrodite. In Hockenberry’s part of the story, the Trojan War is ongoing (in the past? in the current day? on earth? on mars? its not clear), and it is Hockenberry’s job as a “scholic” to observe the war and report on its progress and how closely it matches Homer’s original account.

On earth, most of the human population has been wiped out by a virus, and the remaining humans live in luxury, waited on and protected from harm by mysterious “servitor” and “voynix” robots and spending most of their time at parties. In the past some of the humans had also evolved into post-humans, who were responsible for the incredible technology that supports the humans now, including the ability to teleport (“fax”) from place to place and regenerate intact after accidental death. At some point, however, the post-humans all abandoned the earth and ascended to the orbital rings where they now, supposedly, oversee the goings on below kind of like, well, gods.

In the third plot a group of sentient robots from Jupiter’s moons, called moravecs, have been sent to Mars because something strange is going on: Mars has been terraformed and there is a very unusual amount of quantum activity. The powers that be on Jupiter are nervous and they send the moravecs to investigate. Our two moravac protagonists, Manhmut and Orfu, are fans of earth literature and spend a good portion of their third of the book discussing Shakespeare and Proust.

To give away more of the plot would give away the surprises. There’s a ton of stuff in this book and it moves along at a fast pace. Things I liked about this book:

  • Simmons does not spend a lot of time explaining his technology. Jargon is just used as it would be by the people using it, and you have to infer what he’s talking about. The plot just moves on around the stuff. I like that. It can be initially confusing (and actually continues to be confusing — the book ends without a lot of stuff explained), but its so less boring than stopping the action to explain what every futuristic cool toy is all about.
  • The three plots are really skillfully woven together. Initially I had no idea what the three plots had in common and I admit I preferred the Trojan War plot to the other two (Simmons really draws on Homer for his description of the war; it is just as bloody and detailed as Homer and very well written). But as the book progressed there were hints as to how the three plots were related, and they (mostly) come together toward the end. Its really well done from a craft standpoint. (this is kind of strange, I read other reviews of this book and bunches of other people said they HATED the three plots, that they couldn’t understand how they related, that the jumping around bothered them, that this was the worst part of the book. This mystifies me. I feel kind like I did when I talked to people who hated the Matrix because they didn’t pick up the one core idea: “wait, you mean reality isn’t real?” )

Things I didn’t like so much:

  • The first third of the book is just tremendous, setting up this incredible premise and telling all these stories that would have made interesting books all in their own. The first third of the book really sucked me in. But the second third kind of drags and there’s a lot of meandering about, both literally by the characters and textually. And then the last third turns into Aliens meets Lord of the Rings; suddenly its an action movie complete with big explosions and a stalking beastie in the dark who bears more than a passing resemblance to Gollum. Which is fine, and fun, but not exactly what I thought I had signed up for after 400 out of 600 pages. Plus: it doesn’t really end; Ilium is the first of two books and it ends in a cliffhanger. Argh!
  • Midway through the writing of the book, 9/11 happened. This is obvious because suddenly there are references to it. It feels intrusive and strange in a book that is otherwise outside time and current events.
  • Flat, vague, and inconsistently drawn female characters. I’ve grown used to this from SF authors, alas; it seems to be an almost universal failing. But here it seems particularly obvious given that the male characters are really rich, with strong histories and motivations and personalities that change over the course of the book. Its a big contrast. Actually to be fair: the men, even the ones that aren’t actually human, do seem to fall either into the Thoughtful Nerdly Bookish or Strong Heroic Manly Man classes, so its not like the author is exactly expert at male characters, either. But I’d give him an 8 for the men and a 3 for the women.

Overall, however: this is a terrific, complex book, and it is well worth reading. I can’t wait for the sequel so I can find out how it all turns out.

fortress

I just finished reading Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude. It was a good book, although not quite what I expected. I had been led to believe it was a book about comic books, something like the Marvel or silver age equivalent of Michael Chabon’s Kavalier and Clay (which if you haven’t read you should run out and BUY RIGHT NOW because its a great book). Lethem had written a really fabulous essay on Random House’s web site about comic books, about the emotional differences between Marvel and DC characters, and about how growing up with comics has influenced a whole bunch of writers of a Certain Age (my age, actually, which is probably why the essay, and novels about comics, resonate so much with me). The essay has incredibly deep paragraphs like this:

On the other hand, a prime run of the classic Kirby/Lee Fantastic Four, or the Byrne/Claremont X-Men, if not quite Proustian, is a genuine reading experience. The ensembles suffer, reflect, change. And suffer again. If Mad Magazine is a child’s primer in irony, Marvel is its equal in angst. (The first romantic loss for a lot of guys my age was Gwen Stacy’s death at the hands of the Hobgoblin in Spiderman #X [tk].) Marvel’s universe is loaded with tortured and ambiguous figures, like Black Bolt and The Vision and Warlock, who refuse to decant into pop art. Opaque at first, they deepen with exposure.

I mean, like, whoa. Between the comics essay and the fact that I had read Lethem’s first novel a long time ago (Gun with Occasional Music, a terrific surreal SF/Mystery) I figured Fortress would be right up my alley.

Well, its a good book. But its not really about comics. And its not a surreal SF/mystery. Jonathan Lethem apparently went literary in the intervening years between Gun and this book, which is a fine thing, if you like that kind of thing. This is a book about being a white kid and growing up in a very black neighborhood in Brooklyn, about race relations and drugs and violence and pop music — and being suddenly granted superhero powers. Its tremendously well written — it has a really strong sense of place and time, at least in the first half where he describes the block in which the narrator grows up. The second half is weaker, and the superhero plot device feels kind of out of place, a sort of magical realism stuck in the middle of an all too hyper-real reality.

Overall: If you like literary novels its worth a read. I’m glad I read it. But I’m still looking for the great comics novel (besides Kavalier & Clay).

more coffee grinders

When I posted about coffee grinders a couple weeks ago, Eric reminded me that I had neglected to mention the hand-crank coffee grinder. Actually I had discussed the hand-crank coffee grinder in an earlier draft of that post, but there was kind of a long-winded story attached to it, so I deleted it. But I can’t let a long-winded story go to waste, so here it is now instead.

As you may have gathered, I live in a kind of a rural area in the mountains outside of silicon valley. There are advantages to living here: nice view, quiet, lots of space to grow tomatoes, can walk around naked in your own back yard. Disadvantages: 20 minutes to a burrito, no broadband internet access, people sometimes run meth labs or dump bodies in your backyard. Its a tradeoff.

The biggest issue is that two or three times a year the power goes off for a while. You would think that the power would go off during the really horrific thunderstorms, or when we get eight inches of snow (yes, we get snow here.) But normally things are just fine during the storms. Usually the power will go off for no apparent reason on a lovely still day sometime in February when there isn’t a cloud in the sky. And it’ll stay off for a day or so.

We have a generator, but its kind of a pain to set up and even when its on you have a choice: you can have heat or you can run computers. And often by the time we get the generator set up the power comes back on again, so often we just say screw it and leave it off and wear a lot of sweaters.

The first year the power went off for more than a day we awakened in the morning with no power to realize that we had an entire freezer full of coffee beans…and an electric coffee grinder. How is one supposed to make coffee if there is no conceivable way to grind the beans? And the answer is: you don’t.

Well this was a horror that could not stand. And so later that morning uncaffienated and woozy I went into town in search of a non-electric coffee grinder.

This was just prior to the year 2000, and survivalist furor was in full bloom. I found I could get a non-electric wind-up DVD player, a solar powered DSL modem, a 50 year lithium battery weed whacker and a fuzzy-logic sushi rice cooker that ran on butane — but I could not find a non-electric coffee grinder. Until I went to Sur La Table, a high end cooking store that just opened up in Los Gatos that year. And there I found the hand crank coffee grinder.

crank.17369

 

I must point out again in my defense that I hadn’t had any coffee that day and I wasn’t thinking straight, and the coffee grinder was really pretty: brass and stained wood with dovetail joinery. It had a big crank on the top and a little drawer on the side to collect the coffee. It felt good in the hand. It was really pretty. And so without thinking much about it I went and plunked down $79.99 for the hand-crank coffee grinder.

On the second morning the power was still out but this time we were prepared: I had an $80 tool with dovetail joinery. I filled up the hopper with beans and set the grinder for the finest setting and then I turned the crank. And I turned. And I turned. And turned and turned and turned and turned. I opened the drawer. There was a very small bit of coffee grounds in there. A very very small bit. I re-adjusted the grinder for less fine and cranked some more. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

After 20 minutes or so I had managed to grind enough coffee for a very small cup of espresso. In this time I could have driven into town and gotten a very large cup of espresso. And minus the cost of gas driving into town would have saved me $76.49. Suffice it to say I realized I had made a really dumb mistake.

So of course the answer to the no power == no coffee problem, which should have been obvious, is to grind the coffee ahead of time for emergency use. Of course this is anathema to a coffee snob, but in a choice between stale coffee and no coffee when the power it out it is OK to have the stale coffee. It is like putting on extra sweaters and not having access to your email for a while. You can rough it if you have to.

I still have the hand-crank coffee grinder; it sits in a decorative position on top of the fireplace mantle. One of these days I will put it on Ebay. Eric noticed it just the other night as he as walking by. “Oh,” he said suddenly, pointing to a lovely engraved brass plate on the front. “The coffee grinder is made by Peugeot.”

“That explains why it cost $80,” I said ruefully.

“And also why it doesn’t work very well,” he said.