14 September 2014

there just is no pleasing me when it comes to fiction

I'm in the middle of several books at the moment. I've always been a voracious reader, but as of late I've been savoring the time I spend reading that little bit more, perhaps because I can't spend as much time doing it as I could when I was younger.

Fortunately I have a wealth of opportunities to fit in some reading time every day, assuming I can count listening to an audiobook as reading*.

The majority of my reading these days happens on my beloved Nook Touch, which I consider to be just about perfect for an e-reader, for its size, comfortable and grippable case, easy-to-read and clear screen, generous battery life, and reasonably easy navigation. Having not expanded it with a MicroSD card, nor rooted it, I can't quite fill it to capacity, and it has some metadata limitations, but I nevertheless have over a hundred books at hand anytime I have the device handy.

I think of when I first started using it, reading Neal Stephenson's Reamde with one hand while giving my baby daughter a bottle with the other arm. While I'm fairly adept at reading, there's little chance I would have been able to hold that thousand-plus page, several pound behemoth, let alone read it one-handed. I'll always be fond of the book for finally breaking me free of my former stubbornness that missing the binding, cover, and paper pages would keep me from enjoying reading somehow. Happily, I was wrong and have read seemingly a couple hundred books since then.

While I may be fond of the book, I often cite a specific complaint when I talk about it. To oversimplify things considerably, and yet protect spoiler-averse readers who may yet want to enjoy it, I'll be vague. In part the book is about a virtual world, a massive multiplayer online game which, discussed in detail, brings up many interesting aspects one wouldn't initially think to be part of a game, touching on psychology, economics, and spun-off technology. Among the digressions in the book is a several page account of how in-game enemies in particular zones are actually generated in part using security cameras in airports, allowing unwitting users to actually help secure physical areas and help keep real people safe. The explanation goes on to infer that there would be other potential uses for this technology and its distributed, willing workforce, and then the narrative goes elsewhere.

Later, though, when the protagonists face a situation that would certainly be solvable by a similar mapping of the real world task to the gamers, nobody even seems to consider it a possibility. I don't know why this seems to bug me so much, but I find myself bringing it up much of the time I talk about the book. I nevertheless would not dissuade anyone from reading it. I certainly enjoyed it at the time, and overall liked it.

Two of the books I'm reading right now are Lock in by John Scalzi and Exo by Stephen Gould. Scalzi is an author I've enjoyed, and the Gould book is yet another sequel in a series I have liked since I read the first one, Jumper, a long time ago.

At the beginning of Lock in, while Scalzi is setting the stage for the story, he explains a number of things but one term in particular he doesn't. In context it works, since he's ostensibly reproducing an information dump that wouldn't need to explain what an "integrator" would be, since it's something everybody would already know in-universe while they might otherwise not be familiar with all the details of the rest of the disease plaguing the world at the time. A few chapters in, though, two characters are having a discussion, and the integrator concept comes up naturally in conversation, and without even a line of direct explanation, it becomes clear to the reader what that means (and it soon is quite relevant to the story).

I'm actually hearing this, not reading it, and while the narration continued I got distracted, smiling and thinking about how cleverly Scalzi had avoided the typical science fiction exposition dump that can otherwise derail a good story or at least be distracting (think, perhaps, of criticisms about Tom Clancy and his descriptions of louvers on helicopters or some such). Well written, that part, and I've been enjoying the rest of the book as well, fifteen chapters in out of some twenty or thirty.

Another thing I noticed, early in the text, was a seemingly irrelevant aside about a particular facility. Since the book just came out I'm going to be vague, but suffice to say I've read enough books to recognize "Chekhov's gun":

"If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there."
Anton Chekhov, from S. Shchukin, Memoirs. 1911

I have my suspicions about what might end up happening to this place that would otherwise barely merit a footnote. I can't help but notice it, I suppose, and it's only because I know that things are going to get worse in the book that I would even have suspicions that it could come into play. It's only a slight distraction, but again, one that catches my attention.

At the same time, (on the reader) I'm quite a bit further into Exo. It has been a while since I read the last proper Jumper-series book (the novelization and tie-ins of the less-than-great movie adaptation are best left out of this discussion), and while I may have forgotten the particulars of some events from past books, I recognize the characters well enough and am delighted by what they're up to these days. Sometimes I have even laughed out loud. With just forty virtual pages left, I'm not quite sure how things will end up, but I look forward to reading it in the next day or two.

Once again I think I know where particular things (well, people) are going, though, and it doesn't seem like the characters in the book have made the connections yet. I think what bugs me is when, whilst reading about genius-level characters, I can put the pieces together before they do. It doesn't make me feel smart; instead it makes me feel like the author is giving away too much.

So did it bug me when particular characters in Exo ended up where I "just knew" they would, seemingly well before they figured it out? I think it does a little bit, or I wouldn't be writing this. Is it something I'll complain about like the Reamde thing? Will I groan with the same sort of recognition when the same sort of thing happens in Lock in? Only time will tell.

* The idea for this post occurred to me while I was out walking in my neighborhood, listening to Amber Benson reading the aforementioned Lock in. I can't safely read and walk at the same time, even on a treadmill, and to be perfectly honest was getting too dark to read anyway.

13 September 2014

popping off to sleep

Over a year ago I started writing this post. I'm lazy, I suppose you could say, or I'm just not spending time the way I used to do so.

There was a time I'd sit up and type things like this when I wasn't sleeping (or couldn't). As I get older, though, I seem to want to get more sleep, and I've found a workable routine to get it (at least, for what I can control).

In short, I fall asleep to music*.

This is no ground-shaking revelation, I realize. Lots of people do it, and I really just felt like sharing how it works for me. In excruciating detail, so maybe if you need to fall asleep, read on.

When I get situated in bed, I put in one earbud, hit a button to get my mp3 player started, and usually I'll be asleep in twelve minutes or less.

I know it's twelve, because I almost never hear Lou Reed's "Perfect day", which kicks in just after Frente! finishes their rendition of "Let the sunshine in".

As an experiment I have embedded a video playlist of the tracks I use at the end of this post, but before that let me tell you a little more about them and how I settled on this (play)list. The idea is to provide me a consistent, repeatable thing to give my attention so that I am not otherwise distracted by stuff that isn't the same, night to night or room to room.

My requirements are somewhat specific. While in my youth I have at times fallen asleep at times to heavy metal (and once even Marilyn Manson's cover of "Sweet dreams", ironically – appropriately – enough), I find music that is too complicated (whether it be by samples or wild dynamic changes or other things) too distracting. Music that is too repetitive, on the other hand, isn't interesting enough and my mind can wander. So much for all of my Philip Glass and Brooklyn Bounce, I guess.

The sweet spot for music that is simple, but still interesting enough to keep me engaged as I nod off would seem to be pop songs, but not the mainstream, danceable autotuned garbage that no doubt fills the charts and radio stations I avoid**.

For a while I thought I'd found near perfection with the lighter songs of Paul Simon. In my opinion he is a great pop singer, possessing a simple, pure singing voice, with pleasant but fun songs to sing with it. For a while I used his Graceland to get to sleep, but as the weeks went on I found myself deleting one song after another, whether it was for the layered exotic instruments of "The boy in the bubble" or the distinctive percussion of "You can call me Al". I was particularly disappointed to let that one go, since I rather like that song, but hey, a guy's gotta sleep.

Last to go were the tracks he did with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, "Diamonds on the soles of her shoes" and "Homeless", which I had to remove since I really wanted to hear them, and apparently would stay awake to do so.

Now that I've not listened to it for long enough, I can level a few other complaints against the album. It's definitely a product of its time, with an often artificial sound from the synthesized instruments (and others that probably were the genuine article, but somehow post-produced into sounding so fake) that I just don't like that much. I think if I could find recordings of just him playing a guitar and singing by himself (or maybe with the African choir) that'd be just about perfect.

Older songs he recorded with Art Garfunkel didn't make my cut for how they were produced, I think. Or maybe they were too recognizable and catchy. Sadly it has been a long time since I made my selections that I've forgotten more specific reasons for what I don't use. The only other song I remember trying, and rejecting, was "The scar that never heals" by Jeremy Fisher, an artist I found on the old thesixtyone website (RIP). That song in particular sounds like something Simon might've put out if he were younger, and a bit edgier these days (I realize he's still making music, but falls into that indescribable trap all aging musicians seem to encounter, where their music gets slower and duller, somehow).

From thesixtyone (and for some reason, removed since) came something I'd otherwise not likely stumble across, "Fomba" by Modeste, one of a few musicians in the Malagasy genre. I looked up a translation of the lyrics once, but have long since forgotten what the song is about, but I think it's happy, since it's hard to get through the song without grinning a bit. I had it bookmarked on the site so I could cue it up when I wanted to brighten up my day, with just this singer and his guitar.

The beginning of my sleepytime playlist, though, is another song I probably wouldn't have encountered if not for the web, "Tomorrow" by Gianluca Bezzina from Malta. He was an entrant in the 2013 Eurovision song contest, an annual music contest the likes of which we just don't have here in the States, but is easy enough to find representative bits of it streaming here and there. "Tomorrow" may have gotten my attention for its insipid-sounding beginning rhyme (after the "oh oh"s) of "His name is Jeremy/Working in I.T..." but there's just something delightful about it that doesn't seem to overstay its welcome in just over three minutes for me, night after night.

I follow "Fomba" up with Frente's saccharine-sweet version of "Let the sunshine in", popularized first by Pebbles and Bam-Bam on The Flintstones and then covered among a bunch of cartoon themes and songs back when that was the cool, alternative thing to do in the mid 1990s. It's an old folk song and there may even be better versions of it for my purposes, but I've been fond of this one probably since the first time I heard it (having found the compilation in the discount bin at the used CD store).

Likewise I have long liked Lou Reed's "Perfect day", bringing back memories of watching Trainspotting in high school and playing the soundtrack CD over and over. I'm usually asleep by the time this comes on, though.

And I almost never hear Maxence Cyrin's piano take on The Pixies song "Where is my mind?", best known for finishing out the film Fight club, as well as its otherwise electronic soundtrack. Well, the Pixies version, that is. Maxence's was one I found on youtube among a few of his other impressive covers, and one that's probably the most innocuous-sounding. He does a version of Justice's "D.A.N.C.E." that is downright haunting.

Anyway, here's a playlist of the songs, in videos of varying quality that may or may not still exist when you read this.

And now, technical notes. I use a generic 256mb mp3 player I ordered from Hong Kong in the days before the iPod. It has an SD card slot, and I could easily put a lot more music on it, but its shuffle features aren't great, and it has no sleep timer. I have other devices that would work better to randomize a bunch of music, but the advantage of this one is its reasonable battery life, simplicity to get started in the dark (I just need to hit the same button three times to start it, and it shuts off a minute or two after finishing the last song), and easy to operate controls for volume adjustments.

I've manually tweaked the volume of each track to be fairly consistent, and tuned all of them way down such that I need to strain to hear them slightly. Without anything to back it up scientifically, I assume that needing to make the extra effort to hear the quiet music helps keep my brain on task for listening, and prevents me from getting bogged down thinking. I'm no insomniac, but I have a tendency to be unable to fall asleep if there's something on my mind. Overall, what I've been doing with the music has been working well for me.

Now if only I could get the kids to let me go to sleep, and stay asleep, consistently. That's not so easy to fix...

* I think my dad has been doing this for years, but what works for him and what works for me are a little different. I think he changes up what he hears much more often than I do, and sometimes mixes in some talking stuff. My playlist has been the same for apparently at least a year and a couple months, if what I put in the draft for this was accurate then...

** At least, I assume it is. To my knowledge I have yet to hear any songs by Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, Rebecca Black, or Miley Cyrus, and I really don't want to learn otherwise.

29 April 2013

at the top

There was a time when I could remember the name of the game, and even one when I could pinpoint the location, if not the tree in question. That time has passed.

As I walked outside today, I briefly considered tree climbing. Not that I would climb a tree today, since a recent rain had dampened things considerably and I am wearing work clothes I would like to keep clean; but instead my tree climbing in general. Have I spent enough time and effort on my gym's climbing walls that I could, again, climb a tree.

I didn't ponder that for long, instead thinking back to my teenage years, when, once, I played a game outside that involved running and chasing and hiding and was probably a thinly-veiled variant of freeze tag just interesting enough to catch the fancy of teenagers. The group was divided in two, some manner of roles were doled out (one player was a code-keeper, and 'capturing' him or her would gain eventual victory points, or something), and then we were left to run out into the plains and woods to elude each other and score points somehow.

Within minutes I was alone, and decided to hide out in a tree. I climbed higher and higher, probably about two or three stories up, and was within an arm's reach of the treetop*. There I sat, surveying the park around me, occasionally seeing other teens running around in pursuit or otherwise, and even had a pair of them (I assumed from the other team, but did not climb down to check) hiding on lower branches of my tree without them noticing me.

Eventually dusk began falling, and it was apparent the game was over. I descended, and returned to base camp to find whether we had won or lost. Since I had myself not been captured, it was easy to consider this to be a victory for me if not for the team.

I forget if "we" won. At the time, I certainly thought I was triumphant.

Thinking about it today, though, I wonder if maybe I hadn't won that day, after all. Not whether my team was victorious -- that I've long since forgotten. Instead, did I lose by not engaging with the other players? I was a decent sprinter at the time (at least, when aided by adrenaline), and probably would have evaded capture in a chase, and had been just as beneficial to my team's success as to my own enjoyment (and, I suppose, done a little bit of exercise for fitness, too).

Was the "victory" of climbing so high worth the cost of not playing with the others? I'm not sure it was, anymore. But the win or loss is all in the telling of the tale.

* I briefly searched for a more "botanical" name for the top of a tree, almost settling on "capitulum", before finding a certain satisfaction in the apparent fact that there is no better word for "top of a tree" than "treetop".

26 March 2013

memory fault

This morning I sang along to Rammstein's "Heirate mich" for the first time in quite some time. I remember listening to it on a borrowed CD of the Lost highway soundtrack back in high school. I remember seeking out other music by Rammstein throughout college, scouring the globe (imported bootlegs) and even seeing them in concert*. I remember listening to it a lot, about a decade ago.

That said, I probably haven't listened to that song in over a year or more - not since trying to finally watch Lost highway, which I have yet to manage to do, yet I had no difficulty with the lyrics. Or at least, my phonetic parroting of them, since despite all the time I play games against them online, the language of the German people is not one I have mastered. Nevertheless, verse after verse it all came back to me, and I must say my drive was more enjoyable for it.

Less enjoyable is doing my own taxes, but not so terrible that I'd rather pay somebody else to do it. I bring this up because I'm stymied by a particular schedule that I have filled out, twice, in the last couple years. The forms don't change much, so I can't say they shouldn't look familiar to me. Yet, and I can't recall if this was the case last year, I am a little lost without last year's iterations of them in front of me. Once I read over my PDFs (or printouts) I should be fine, but until then I'd rather do other things than try to bumble my way through Schedule C again.

I did once look up the German lyrics of "Heirate mich", and probably have them in some CD's liner notes, but I don't think I ever used them as a reference to try to sing the song. It could perhaps be said that phonetically learning a song's lyrics in another language, and following convoluted directions and calculations to fill in a bunch of numbers, in a form are two completely different things. They probably tap into different portions of the brain, but I would think there would be a memory component of both.

So why is it so much easier for me to recall a decade-old, and rarely-heard, song that I can only understand in translation, than to type in a bunch of numbers connected to real money (and potential hassle from government employees) every spring?

For that matter, why do I need to look up my kids' social security numbers every year? I've had little difficulty memorizing credit card numbers, library card numbers, and even the occasional phone number that I almost never use, yet these very important numbers (that I almost never use) elude my recollection.

I suppose this is a case for memorization by rote. My library card numbers come to mind so quickly because I use them every week. Presumably back when I was a bigger fan of Rammstein I listened to the song, over and over, until the words were just as emblazoned in my head as the digits I type weekly now.

It's just a shame that there's no way to shortcut the process to "learn" something like filling out tax forms, without needing to do them more frequently.

* In Europe, and probably elsewhere outside of Chicago, Rammstein is known for a lively, pyrotechnics-fueled stage show. This sort of thing does not go over well, apparently, in a city that burned to the ground.