Life

Encyclopaedia

Encyclopaedia Britannica is ceasing publication of its print edition after a 244 year run.  Britannica’s been around longer than the Declaration of Independence, and longer than the Declaration of the Rights of Man.  And now, in its original format, it won’t be.

I’m not going to bemoan that change.  It’s a natural progression.  You don’t last 244 years without making accommodation for a changing world.  Britannica began publication in 1768 in the country from which it takes its name, but now it’s an American concern–more than that, it’s a Chicago concern.  Where was Chicago in 1768?  The encyclopaedia itself is older than the city it calls home.

I hope Britannica lasts another 244 years, if it can maintain the same mission it’s had for the last two and a half centuries, of making available to us a compilation and condensation of human knowledge, accessibly presented.  And if it does, then within a generation, no one will care that it used to be on paper, and now it’s not–anymore than Canadians walk into the Bay or Zellers and think to themselves, “Hmm, and to think, back in the seventeenth century, this is the company that was chartered by the King to administer English colonisation of northern Ontario and Quebec!”

I myself made the digital switch with Britannica about ten years ago, when Lisa bought me the complete Encyclopaedia in CD.  It was one of the best gifts I’ve ever received–but it was one of the best gifts because of the love I’ve always had for the print edition.

When I was growing up in Connecticut, we had a wonderful public library–I never realised how wonderful until we moved to Florida and the ones that replaced it proved to be … lacking.  And one of the best things about this library was its complete set of both the Britannica micropaedia and the macropaedia.

Man, that macropaedia.  So much of who I am, so much of the knowledge I love, I first found in that encyclopaedia.  I vividly remember the Graeco-Roman civilisation article being over a hundred pages long.  How many words are on a printed page of Britannica?  A thousand?  Two thousand?  Three thousand?  That article must have been as long as any novel I’d read at the time I worked my way through it.

So I don’t mourn the death of the printed edition, and I don’t complain that we’re now moving into a world where Britannica can deliver all the knowledge it’s always delivered, but paperlessly.  But I do take this opportunity to express my gratitude that I had the paper edition in my childhood, and for all the paper edition gave me.

I

Words yesterday: 2459
Words so far: 98,636

Time spent writing: 12.30-3pm
Reason for stopping: End of naptime
Darling: He couldn’t stop himself from crying out at every blow, but he was so spent now that each cry came only as a pathetic, mewling whimper.
Tyop: They went a hundred and eight degrees around the building.g
New words today: oily, paddock, jackboot
Words that boggled Word: heavybrowed, afterwards

The .epub criterion

Six months have now passed since I was able to justify purchasing a Nook with the upcoming publication of my first novel.  Or maybe it’s been longer than that–time flies, after all.  Because the truth is, I love my Nook.

I read an essay sometime back by a guy who was moving across the country, and who, now that he’s switched over to an ereader, was torn between the inconvenience of shipping all his physical books with him or simply donating them.  I can’t remember where I read it, or, obviously, I’d link to it.  My first instinct is Galleycat, except that it’s far too introspective a premise for them.  Maybe Galleycat linked to it.

And but so.  The main takeaway I got from this essay was that, as he asked his book-loving friends for their advice, he found they fell into two general categories.  There were book people, whose main interest was in the physical book, rather than its contents.  These people were horrified at the idea of ridding oneself of the physical artefacts; the argument the author quoted them as making was, “But … but … but … they’re books.

The second group were the readers, for whom the content was the thing that made books special; once that content was safely transferred onto an ereader, they were rather blasé about the fate of the hardcopy item.

I expect most people who know me would tend to assume I’d fall into the first group, whatever membership I’d also have in the second.  I’m very proud of the books I own.  I’ve got about a thousand books displayed in the room I’m sitting in as I write this (the living room), filling seven bookcases, and I probably have as many again packed up in our storage shed.

And yet, I’ve found that’s not the case.  I don’t know how I’ll deal with the need to transport physical books when we move, but most of the books I own aren’t available as ebooks and aren’t likely to so come available anytime soon.  But as far as the books I read?  I’ve pretty much completely transitioned to ebooks.

All the usual reasons.  I love the lightness and compactness of the Nook–it’s far easier to read in bed.  I love that when I braved earthquakes and tornadoes for an unscheduled trip to England, all I had to do for reading material was slip what’s essentially a second cell phone into my laptop bag.

If I buy a new book, it’s an ebook.  If it’s the next instalment in a series I began while still on physical books, I’ll usually buy the physical book as well–but it’s the e-dition that I’ll read.  And the physical books that I already own, that I finally get around to reading?  I buy the e-ditions and read those instead.

It has got to the point that if a book isn’t available in e-dition, I don’t buy it.  When I’m writing a thriller, I keep myself in the mood by reading thrillers, particularly ones written or set in the time period I’m writing about.  Before the Nook, I’d been rotating between the works of Eric Ambler, John le Carré, Alan Furst and Ian Fleming, though I’d run out of Ambler books that were still in print.  But when I switched to the Nook, I had to drop Fleming, because those aren’t yet available as ebooks.

(Neither was le Carré, though that changed over Christmas, presumably because of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.)

But I did find far more Ambler books once I’d made the switch, because a whole bunch of his books have been republished electronically that aren’t easily available in print.  I also tried to add Patricia Highsmith to my rotation, because of a dear friend who’s been pestering me for some time to read her books, but I’ve unfortunately been unable to–she has only two books in e-ditions right now (neither of which, unfortunately, are Strangers on a Train or The Talented Mr. Ripley.)

The only exceptions I’ve so far made to the no ebook, no purchase rule have been the ones I didn’t really have a choice with–research for the current book.  There were three books I find for most of my research, and none of them were available electronically.  I ordered the print editions, and I slogged through them, probably over a million words in all.  But I was damn glad when I got to go back to the Nook.

Which is what, for me, has been the great irony of this thing, though it’s probably of little interest to everyone else–that it is nonfiction, in particular, that I value reading on the Nook.  When I first considered buying an ereader, I’d thought it would become my preferred method of reading fiction, but that I’d always prefer print nonfiction.  Yet now I so much wish that I had my three research books in electronic format (particularly the six-hundred-page After the Reich by Giles McDonogh, which is packed dense with useful information), because it would make it so much easier to search out the specific passages I want to reread.

I

Words yesterday: 2573
Words total: 62,410

Time spent writing: 1pm-3pm, 10pm-11.30
Reason for stopping: end of naptime; bedtime
Darling: She swore at him, violently, in Russian–he felt certain that she had directed him to perform an act on himself either sexual or profoundly unhygienic.
Tyop: in Soviet custardy
Words that boggled Word: flatcap, unslung, other’s
New words today: horseback, carbine, vapor

It’s so quiet in here

I’m alone at home this weekend.  L took the kids last night and headed out to take them to a weekend in Myrtle Beach with some of the many dozens of Carolinians related to her.

So when I make beefy rice for lunch and dinner today, I’ll be mixing in both corn and peas, because there won’t be anyone around here with a weird hangup about how corn and peas should never be mixed (and I don’t mean either of the kids).

And I can be naked whenever I want for the next three days, which is never, because while it’s unseasonably warm for the first week of February, “unseasonably warm” is about fifty Fahrenheit, which is still too cold for short sleeves, let alone boxer shorts.  But it is warm enough to go and sit out on the balcony while I work, and I’ll get to do that undisturbed all day long.

And I can move all the chairs away from the dining room table, roll my Thomas-Jefferson-invented swivel chair up to it and take over the whole table as my desk.  Man, it’s glorious.

And most of all, of course, it means I get to spend three days pretending I’m a fulltime writer without any other responsibilities.  It’s come just at the right time, too, just when the new manuscript is picking up steam.

I’ll be over in the corner, typing.

I

The book whose current working title is The Zero Hour
Words yesterday: 1265
Words total: 11,155

Time spent writing: 1pm-3pm, 11.30-12.30
Reason for stopping: Girl’s nap ended; tired
Darling: He thought he saw a curl of contempt briefly twist her lips, but he might have imagined it.
Tyop: hotels, departments stores and corporate officers
Words that boggled Word: doughboys, Russkies, Führer
New words today: hatband, roundel, septic

Hmm. Forget I said that.

Last night a friend of Lisa’s came over for the evening, which led, in the course of events, to a conversation about how it’s a fairly unusual thing nowadays for me to get to interact with another adult besides my wife.  “It’s almost like I never have any grownup contact whatsoever,” I quipped, eliciting giggles from the ladies.  “It’s almost like I only became an author so I could pretend the grownups I write about are my friends.”

And then I stopped, because suddenly, that felt a bit too honest.

“You know,” Lisa said, “if your characters are meant to be friends … you write a disturbing number of books about Nazis.”

I

The book whose current working title is The Zero Hour
Words yesterday: 2656
Words total: 5945

Time spent writing: 11a.m.-2p.m.; 4.30-5.30
Reason for stopping: family woke up/family got home
Darling: He tried to stammer out a defense–he’d been caught redhanded at something he didn’t know was a crime.
Tyop: She took one of his hands in both of his
Words that boggled Word: redhanded, fräulein, de facto, Zippo
New words today beginning with C: coroner, crevice, commissar

Cinema Sunday

This morning I went to see the new Steven Soderbergh movie, Haywire.  The plan was actually that I’d be seeing Contraband–according to Lisa’s plan, I’d see the 10.30 showing of Contraband, and she and the kids would see the Alvin and the Chipmunks movie at 10.50.  Contraband is twenty minutes longer than Alvin and the Chipmunks, so it would work out perfectly.

Well, except that when we got to the ticket machine, we discovered Contraband didn’t start till 11.40.  And that the Chipmunks started at 10.15.  (It was 10.13 when we discovered this.)  So I decided to see the 10.40 Haywire instead, while Lisa and the kids headed into Alvin and the Chipmunks.  As it turned out, they didn’t miss anything, because instead of the Chipmunks, the cinema put The Iron Lady onscreen instead.  (They fixed that, of course, and then gave everyone in the auditorium a free future admission.)  This was in contrast to the theatre where I was sitting waiting for Haywire, where rather than start the wrong movie, they didn’t start any movie at all–after that series of commercials-dressed-up-as-entertainment that cinemas show nowadays, we got five minutes of a screensaver on the screen, then ten minutes of sitting in the dark.  Presumably because whoever was in charge of getting the movie started was at the other end of the cinema, desperately trying to stop an auditorium full of six-year-olds having to watch Margaret Thatcher order the sinking of the General Belgrano.

It was a weird trip to the movies, is what I’m saying.  Weird enough that the discovery that there’s actually a church that’s located in one of our cinema’s auditoria on Sundays becomes just a sidenote.

(The review that’s about to follow is, I think, basically spoiler free.)

But so how, Haywire.  Good movie.  Utterly disposable, with a ridiculous plot–not a film I’ll ever see again.  But an enjoyable, watchable, well-done thriller.  But what made the biggest impression on me by far was the directorial style.

Style seems an odd word to use here, because what that style amounts to is a heightening of the realism of certain aspects of the film (certain aspects only–other parts of the film remain as preposterous as they generally are in this sort of thriller); but style is exactly what it was.

The fight scenes.  There are four or five hand-to-hand combat scenes in the film, distinctively choreographed–since Haywire has been put out as a vehicle for its star, female retired mixed martial artist Gina Carano, this isn’t much of a surprise.  The fights aren’t filmed in any sort of spectacular way; they’re presented matter-of-factly.  But impacts are emphasised in a way that highlights how painful they must be.

I don’t mean that they’re gory; as far as I recall, there isn’t a single drop of blood spilled during them, though they’d certainly produced blood in real life.  But whenever someone gets their face slammed into a mirror, or a wall, or the zinc counter in a diner, there’s a quick closeup of it that can’t help but you make wince.

The movie’s one car chase is probably the most realistic car chase I’ve ever seen–by which I mean, it’s the slowest car chase I’ve ever seen.  It starts off making you think it’s going to be a traditional high-speed chase: our heroine Carano is driving briskly down a long, straight US Highway in the middle of nowhere, surrounded on either side by a forest of bare, snow-covered trees, when she comes upon a police roadblock.  She slams on the brake and turns the wheel, and we get the traditional shot of the car spinning a hundred eight degrees as it stops, so that now she can slam on the accelerator and speed away.  Of course, the cops pursue her.

But a moment later, Carano turns off the highway onto a dirt path, and all pretence of a conventional, spectacle-laden car chase is abandoned.  She doesn’t slam on the break as she turns, so that the car slides along the road into its turn.  Instead, she does exactly what all of us do when we play Grand Theft Auto or the like (which is, I think, about as close as any of us ever get to being in an actual high-speed chase)–she slows down when she’s making the critical turn into a narrow space, to ensure that she takes it smoothly.

And once she’s made the turn, the chase is now taking place on a snowy dirt road, only the width of a single vehicle, that twists its way through the trees–so the cars involved move damn slowly.

And last, there are two scenes in which the tension is drawn out far longer than we’d ordinarily expect.  In the first, Carano emerges from a building, spots a man across the street who may or may not be tailing her, then turns and walks down the busy city street.  The man starts walking parallel to her, and she and we know that he is following her.

What would normally happen, of course, is that she’d therefore take some action to lose him–dash down a side street or get into a car–and a chase would ensue.  But not here–because there’s nowhere for us to go.  We stick with Carano as she walks, deliberately unhurried, the entire length of the city block, before finally turning the first time she comes to a corner.  Which is, of course, exactly how it would happen in real life, and it takes probably a full minute to play out onscreen.

There’s another moment like this, late in the movie.  A bad guy is lounging on his patio, with a much younger, bikini-clad companion canoodling with him on a cabana.  There’s a knock at the door, and the bikini bunny gets up and walks inside to go answer it.  She doesn’t come back.

Of course, we know what’s going on, and what danger the knock at the door and the woman’s failure to return signals for the bad guy.  But Soderbergh draws it out beautifully–and all through a single shot.  It has the bad guy’s face in the foreground on the right half of the screen, while on the left half of the screen we can see over his shoulder.  First we see the bikini buttocks departing, across the patio, then through the door into the kitchen, then disappearing through the kitchen doorway toward the front of the house.  And then we’re left with just the empty kitchen, while the bad guy contentedly lights a cigar, then has something occur to him and shouts an instruction to the woman in the house, then frown slightly and look over his shoulder as he realises it’s taking longer than he thought, then go back to puffing on his cigar, then finally realise that it’s taking way too long and get up to go investigate.  Again, it takes as long as it would take in real life.

I don’t want to give the impression that Haywire is some sort of cinema verité found-footage docudrama–the spy thriller genre’s answer to The Conversation.  It’s very much in the same boat with other identically-plotted movies like Hannah, The Bourne Identity and the first Mission Impossible film.  But even while playing in that fantasy world, it tips its hat toward reality, and I really liked that.

I

MarsCon



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This weekend we headed down to Williamsburg for MarsCon.  I can’t do a pictorial overview like I did for DragonCon, because there’s much less spectacle and therefore fewer pictures.  But everyone had a great time.  Lisa, I think, liked it especially because it’s such a smaller scale than DragonCon–there were about twelve hundred guests–and therefore she didn’t have to deal with crowds, of which she’s no fan.

Lisa and a lifesized Cassandra
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We went to a few things we wouldn’t have gone to at DragonCon, like the bellydancing show and the charity auction (both at Boy’s instigation), and really enjoyed ourselves.  Girl especially enjoyed herself at the auction–she figured out the game and started raising her hand every time a new bid was called for.  And the kids’ programming we went to–a kids’ science activity session and a how-to-draw Star Wars characters session–were small enough that the kids actually got to interact with the presenters.

Three Doctor Who cosplayers
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I was gratified at the profile Doctor Who had around the con.  The most common costumes were zombies, because that was this year’s theme, and steampunk, because that’s the trendy fashion nowadays.  But once we get into the specific franchise costumes, there were about four or five Star Wars costumes, four or five Star Trek costumes, and at least two dozen Doctor Who costumes.  Who was also the only TV/movie franchise to get its own dedicated panel, albeit one that was rather dampened by the one attendee who shouted down anyone who mentioned the programme’s current production era without expressing hatred for Moffatt’s approach to Doctor Who.

A Dalek cosplayer
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So we’ll be heading back again next year–and hopefully we’ll have the sense to book a hotel room when we pre-register for the con, in which case the hotel won’t be sold out by the time we go looking for a room.  As it was we stayed two miles up the road from the Holiday Inn where MarsCon was held, and yet somehow there two more Holiday Inns between us and them.  Seriously, three Holiday Inns in a two-mile stretch on one road.

The bellydance show
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I

Fashionista

Elmo pyjamasAs Lisa tells the story, she was wandering through the men’s department at Target, wondering what the kids could get me for Christmas, when Girl suddenly started shouting, “Elmo!  Dad, Elmo!  Elmo, Dad!”

She’d spotted a set of Elmo pyjamas (she’s obsessed with Elmo despite never having seen an episode of Sesame Street) and had been able to tell that they were sized for me, and not for, say, Lisa.  So that became my Christmas present from Girl.

I often wear sweatpants at home, so I figured the pants could just be another pair of sweatpants to add to my rotation.  The shirt is essentially just a t-shirt, so I decided it would be the Elmo t-shirt that I, as a funky, ironic guy and a cool dad, happen to own and occasionally wear.

Boxing Day night, after Boy and I had got home from seeing Tintin, I went into the bedroom and changed into the Elmo pants, then headed out into the living room to see if Girl noticed.  She did–her face split into a huge grin.  And then it started.

“Elmo!  Dad, Elmo shirt!  Elmo t-shirt, peas!  Elmo shirt!”

“Do I … have to wear the shirt as well?”  I was kind of surprised she even remembered that there was a shirt to go with them.

“Yes peas!  Elmo t-shirt, Dad!”

So I went into the bedroom and got the t-shirt and put it on over the t-shirt I was already wearing.  Half an hour or so later, I happened to be in the bedroom again, and I took the Elmo shirt off.  I headed back out to the living room and sat down at my computer.  Girl gave no reaction, and I figured she hadn’t noticed.

A few moments later, though, she was at my side, and I assumed she wanted to sit in my lap.  Without really looking away from the computer screen, I reached out to pick her up.  But instead, she pressed a bundle of fabric into my hands.

The Elmo shirt.  Which she’d gone into the master bedroom to retrieve.

“Here go!  You’re problem!”  (That’s her mishmash of you’re welcome and no problem.)

So I wore the shirt until she went to bed that night, because really, that was clearly the most painless option for everyone.

So glad I have a member of today’s youth monitoring my look.  Now I’m dreading when she’s thirteen and decides to give her mother and me makeovers.

I

And the space shuttle? That was mine.

Twitter screencap

I first heard the word internet on an episode of seaQuest DSV.

I remember this because I had actually recently made up the word internet for a science fiction story I was writing. To name an international network, I’d combined international and network. How original am I.

(Actually, I have a feeling I’d combined interplanetary and network or interstellar and network.)

And my reaction to the word’s use on seaQuest was to think, Damn. Now I can’t use that word, because now it’s a seaQuest word. Everyone’s going to think I stole it from seaQuest.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

I

If you don’t see a YouTube video above this text, check out the original post to see it.

The todder and the wasp

Over the past few days, Girl has learnt most of her body parts, so this morning, when I had her stood up on her changing table, I was reviewing them with her. “Where’s your nose? Where’s your head? Where are your feet? Where’s your tummy?”

She got them all right, including one or two I didn’t know she’d know, so I said, “High five!” and she gave me a high five with her hand at shoulder height.

Then, out of the blue, she held her hand up for a successive high five, stretching her arm as high above her head as she could reach.  “Up high!”

A few minutes later, as I was busily typing this adorable story to Diane over the Instant Messenger, Girl got up from where she was sitting playing with an annoying talking toy on the floor, ran over to me, and handed me a giant piece of carpet fuzz or something.

Absentmindedly, I took it from her and deposited it on the table next to me.

And at that point, noticed it was a wasp.

Like, an alive wasp.

I’m not going to lie.  There may have been a bit of screaming like a girl, and a bit of running across the living room flapping my hands in terror.  When I got back, the wasp was trying to climb inside my laptop by way of the USB port.  So I killed it dead.

I’m going with the theory that it came in when I told Boy off for standing with the front door open on the way out to school this morning.  Because the only alternatives I can think of are that we’ve had a wasp in our home all night, or that wasps have free access to our home.

So, when he held the door open this morning.

I

18:1

My last day in England, I spent a while walking up and down Borehamwood high street while I waited for my uncle to get a haircut.

(Borehamwood, for anyone interested, is the small town north of London that’s home to the various Elstree film studios, where the Hammer Horror films, the first Star Wars trilogy, the original Indiana Jones trilogy and The Muppet Show were all filmed.)

There was, as is much more common in Britain than here in America, a small betting shop on the high street.  It was Monday, so there weren’t any Premier League matches that day, but there was a Spanish league match, between Barcelona and some club from the bottom half of the Spanish table (we’ll say it was Getafe).

Barcelona v Getafe, the sign in the betting shop’s window said, and then suggested a bet I should make: Messi scores first & Barcelona win 2-1; a £10 bet returns £180.

I’m not a gambler; outside of Las Vegas, the only time I can recall placing a monetary wager with a professional was when I went to Royal Ascot for the day with my grandparents in the summer of 1995.  But I returned past this shop several times in the half hour or so I was there, thinking about placing a bet.  It seemed a perfectly achievable thing to have happen, Lionel Messi scoring the opening goal and Barcelona going on to win 2-1, and £180 is quite a return on a ten-pound investment.

(Indeed, if you can get 18:1 odds on that happening for every single match Barcelona play, I’d say you’d be well-advised to take them.  You only have to win that bet four times a season to end up coming out ahead.)

In the event, I did right by not placing the bet; Barcelona ended up winning the match 5-0.  (And Lionel Messi didn’t score the first goal, though he did score the second and fourth.)  But it wasn’t until a little while later that it occurred to me that it was only the wording on the sign itself that had tempted me in the first place.

If it had read, Messi scores first & Barcelona win 2-1; 18:1 odds, I wouldn’t have considered it even for a second.  But it caught my interest because it explicitly said £10 returns £180, which, of course, means exactly the same thing.

A Traitor's Loyalty Cover

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