Sunday, July 25, 2010

Johannes Cabal

This is quite a fun book. It's a sort of modern Faust, but told in the style of Pratchett & Gaiman. Necromancer wants his soul back from the Devil, so makes a deal to give him 100 souls, with the help of a diabolical carnival. It's an entertaining enough read if you like that sort of thing, written by Jonathan Howard, the guy who scripted the Broken Sword games. However, that wasn't why I wanted to blog about it.

I found this book by clicking on a Facebook ad, which is highly out of character for me. I think it may be the second one I've ever clicked on. I don't know how many ads Facebook must have served me in the last couple of years. It's got to be a few hundreds of thousands. Generally I don't notice them. You probably don't either. (Click-through rates on Facebook are unbelievably low. I've been doing them for about a year, and we'd feel good if we got over 0.5%.) Actually, what I clicked on was an ad for the sequel, Johannes Cabal the Detective, largely because it mentioned steampunk, detective stories, and the occult. That's pretty much designed to appeal to me. Telling FB a bit about myself can sometimes result in well targeted ads.

Like it or not, FB is going to be ad-supported, and given they only get paid when someone clicks on an ad, I'd rather they showed me ads for things I might be interested in. The advertiser wins, I win, and it's not always all about people trying to sell me crap I don't want. Privacy concerns notwithstanding, I'm all in favour of trying to make FB more relevant. The more enigmatic I am, the more likely it is I'll get served ads that mean nothing to me. There are products out there I would like if I knew about them, and I actually think FB is in a great position to hook up producers and potential customers. So, big thumbs up to both Facebook and Random House for getting their advertising right.

The other thing that surprised me is that they actually had it in Casselberry Library. My local library isn't exactly the biggest or most well-stocked library in the world. The one in Winter Park is big by local standards, and that's only modest compared to what we're used to in Britain. The Casselberry library is noticeably smaller, and so I really didn't expect to find an obscure piece of supernatural comedic fiction by a minor British author in there. However, not only did they have it on the shelves, but they also already have the sequel on order.

I've been very impressed by what I've found there. Two weeks ago I found the best Anglo-Indian recipe book I've ever encountered, Curries and Bugles, which covers the gloriously sumptuous food of the closing years of the Raj. For some reason, it's totally out of print, and copies go for up to $200. (However, Anna found me one for $10 and snapped it up instantly. Happy Matt!)

So, thumbs up Number Two in this blog goes to libraries. I love 'em.

Oh, and yes, I am looking forward to the next Johannes Cabal book. It's not likely to be a great literary, or the must-read novel of 2010. But it'll be fun.
Stealing the identity of a minor bureaucrat, Cabal takes passage on the Princess Hortense, a passenger aeroship that is leaving the country. The deception seems perfect, and Cabal looks forward to a quiet trip and a clean escape, until he comes face-to-face with Leonie Barrow, an enemy from the old days who could blow his cover. But when a fellow passenger appears to throw himself to his death, Cabal begins to investigate out of curiosity. His minor efforts result in an attempt on his own life - and then the gloves come off.

Cabal and Leonie - the only woman to ever match wits with him - reluctantly team up to discover the murderer. Before they are done, there will be more narrow escapes, involving sword fighting and newfangled flying machines. There will be massive destruction, not to mention resurrected dead ...

Steampunk meets the classic Sherlockian mystery in this rip-roaring adventure where anything could happen ... and does.

Friday, July 16, 2010

I don't need that

‎"We spend money we don't have on things we don't need to make impressions that won't last on people we don't care about." Vishal Gondal

One of my goals over the last couple of years has been to reduce my attachment to things, and put my energy and resources into experiences. I've also been learning to stop worrying about people I don't care about, and focus on the friends and family who are important to me.

I've been in America for about a year now. I arrived with two suitcases, and left everything else behind or got rid of it. At some point I'd like to reclaim my guitar and violin, my artwork, the boxes of mementoes, and the few books I kept, but in the main, I've found I haven't missed having them around. It seems to be working.

So just for the hell of it, I decided to look around the house and see what things I've bought in the last year (in decreasing order of cost).
  • A house. Yes, OK, so that was a pretty damn big purchase. But I sold my old one, so I still have just as many houses as I had before. And this one is actually smaller.
  • A hot tub. That was a big expense, and yes, it's a bloody good toy. But it's made one hell of a difference to my back and Anna's, so it's not just sybaritic indulgence.
  • Our wedding rings.
  • A bed. Because, we didn't have one when I arrived and I'm too old for sleeping on the floor.
  • A desktop and a laptop. For work. Mine died shortly after arrival.
  • Office equipment: chair, filing stuff, stationery, and so on. Also for work.
  • New glasses. Necessary. I can't use a computer without them.
  • Half a dozen shirts, two pairs of shorts, a pair of jeans, swimming stuff, some underwear and new sandals. I got fat and my sneakers wore out.
  • A painting by our friend Ben. Undeniably, purely for my own pleasure, because I loved it the minute I saw it.
  • A large TV. Used, and ridiculously cheap.
  • Half a dozen food magazines and assorted used recipe books.
  • A small box of inks & brushes.
  • A kettle and a slow cooker.
  • A necklace from the Pow-Wow we went to, for all of $10.
  • A $5 print of a Weird Tales cover, which now hangs above my desk.
  • A shakuhachi (bamboo flute) which I can't play, but would like to.
  • A guitar amp, which I swapped for a load of audio stuff we found in the storage of the old place and cost me nothing.
And that's it. No books, DVDs, games or CDs. No gadgets. No stupid "seemed like a good idea / joke at the time" ornaments. No T-shirts with a slogan that you wear once and then hide in the back of the cupboard. Very little of it is stuff I don't genuinely need, let alone intended to impress anyone else. Basically, barring the furniture and the office stuff, I can still nearly fit everything I own into those same two suitcases I arrived with.

I've thoroughly enjoyed spending what money I have on good food and drink, going out, seeing bits of Florida, and generally having a good time. I've found that to be infinitely more rewarding than accumulating piles of crap, and it makes me feel like I'm no longer carrying around a huge burden labelled POSSESSIONS.

More importantly, though, it's become clear that my life isn't about having things that make fleeting impressions on people who don't matter. Instead, I've been developing new friendships with people I care about, based on who I am, not on what I've bought. And that, when all's said and done, is the key to a happy life.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Potted woodlouse

Our ancestors were a lot less squeamish than we are about what they'd eat. This fine recipe, courtesy of my former CEO and all-around good bloke Jeff Zie, comes from a 17th century English cookbook. Apparently it tastes like shrimp paste.

Collect a quantity of the finest wood-lice to be found, and drop them into boiling water, which will kill them instantly, but not turn them red, as might be expected. At the same time put into a saucepan a quarter of a pound of fresh butter, a teaspoonful of flour, a small glass of water, a little milk, some pepper and salt, and place it on the stove. As soon as the sauce is thick, take it off and put in the wood-lice. This is an excellent sauce for fish.
Well, seeing as I'm allergic to shrimp, but love the taste of shrimp paste, I'm half-tempted to give it a go. This does, naturally, leave me with two questions.

How do our local Floridian woodlice compare to English woodlice? The initial thought is that the American pill bug is likely to be meatier than your English variety, though whether it will have the same taste is a whole different question.

American pill bug or roly poly, of the Armadillidiidae family

And secondly, what are the criteria for "the finest woodlice to be found"? According to Jeff, they'd be "the ones in top hats". Hmm.

This calls for experimentation. Who wants to join me on this culinary expedition?

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Re yr msg

With the advent of the net and mobile phones, we're communicating more and more, but in the process we're having to learn whole new ways to transmit information effectively. Reducing messages to 140-character tweets or texts, or even 420-character Facebook updates, means that we're inventing ways to compress information further and further. At the same time, we're getting used to skimming information streams faster and faster, and extracting the relevant info from it with less and less effort. In the process, information is inevitably lost, and the result is miscommunication, usually without hilarious results.

Basic compression works

I'm not actually talking about the way that we're compressing words. That's actually relatively easy to process. Hebrew elides vowels naturally, and that's quite comprehensible. German portmanteau words are easy to break down and pass into normal speech. We're nearly all comfortable with expressions like LOL, BRB or WTF these days, and we're quite happy with some shortened forms of words.

cu 4 drnks tonite?

is, I think you'll agree, perfectly legible as

See you for drinks tonight?

It's 18 characters instead of 27, which saves you 9 characters - about 33% shorter for no loss of information.

When punctuation gets omitted, that can be harder to parse, but still unlikely to result in major miscommunication. Yes, there are the obvious "Let's eat, grandpa," jokes, where the comma is obviously significant, but those are comparatively rare.


The real problem is when messages are so compressed that they are meaningless. Or when they have several meanings, which comes to the same thing. Here's a real example from texts.

Me: meeting @ yr house, mine, or cin?
Reply: y

"Y"? What the hell does that mean? Is he asking me why I want to know, or what the hell I'm talking about, or does it stand for y[ours]? So the exchange continues.

Me: ?
Reply: def

Well, I've been waiting for ten minutes for each reply, so after 20 minutes I'm still no wiser as to where we're meeting. So I phone my friend, ask the same question, and get the answer, "My place, see you at 7." Ah, so "y" meant "yes", and my friend only actually read the first four words before answering. In 15 seconds of actual conversation, we transmitted more useful information, more accurately, than we did via text. Of course, it would have worked fine if we'd actually sent the following texts, but we didn't. We were too busy "saving time" and sending compressed messages, and the end result was it took longer and was less efficient.

Me: are we meeting @ your house, mine, or the cinema? and what time?
Reply: mine at 7

Sorry, I thought you meant me!

The other problem with this kind of compressed communication is that it's often cryptic and untargeted. Let's take an example like this (fictionalised) status update:

Fred is getting fed up of ppl who make stupid & unreasonable requests they could perfectly well take care of themselves

That may be a perfectly reasonable expression of how Fred is feeling, but it's not good communication. Who's he talking about? What are these unreasonable requests? Does he mean me asking if I can borrow his DVD of Star Trek IV? Did I piss him off? Should I apologise and find someone else to get it from? Or is he, in fact, referring to the fact that his sister just called and asked him to drive 200 miles to help her move some trash from the back yard, even though last weekend he had to drive over to help her pick out a new TV? I honestly can't tell - especially if I know nothing about the sister or her trash.

What inevitably happens is the sort of comedy of errors beloved of playwrights and scriptwriters. I'll get huffy because I think Fred's being rude about me, our respective friends will weigh in on one side or the other or play peacemaker, and eventually, when tempers have flared, we'll find out he wasn't talking about me at all. End result: an evening of unnecessary tension and aggravation for all concerned.

Oh, was that a joke?

To make it worse, humour and irony are often lost completely. It can be hard enough to write humour in long form, as most writers can attest. In brief messages, these can be really hard to convey, and simply adding (jk) or ;) doesn't always have the desired effect. We pick up humour from body language and nuances of inflection, none of which comes through in prose. The emoticon is a great attempt to bring that back in, but it doesn't always work. Here's one I posted the other day:

I don't see why people are being so hard on the English football team: they're just as good as the US.

The responses ranged from LOLs to fury, from both English and American friends. Frankly, I couldn't give a toss about football, and I was just having a friendly dig at soccer fans of both nations, but that's not how it came across to some people.

I never got yr msg

Of course, the biggest assumption we all make is that when we've sent a message, that means the other person has actually received it. I've had days when I'm getting literally hundreds of emails, thousands of tweets, and God only knows what else coming through skype, FB and text. So yeah, I miss messages.

Or else I'm away, don't have Net access, and won't get your message until get back. Or maybe I'm in the air or driving, or my electric is out, or I'm recording VO and have everything switched off, or I'm asleep or sick. There are a hundred reasons why I might not have got your message yet, or may have skipped over it.

A huge amount of aggravation is caused by sitting there, angrily thinking "the bastard never got back to me" or "shit, I need this info right now, when's he going to respond". I've done it. So have you. For all you know, the other person is blithely unaware of this and is sitting on the beach with a pina colada.

All we have to do is keep talking

I'm not advocating that we all stick with proper English, and that modern communications all suck. Far from it. We're developing a powerful and effective new language and new way of communicating emotions and information to a wide audience.

However, as was drummed into me at school, in the cadets, at university, and in business, communication is not about telling people things. Communication is about making sure they understand correctly what you want them to know. Clarity, not brevity, is the essential component of successful communication.

Sometimes, it's better to pick up a phone and speak directly to someone, or go and see them and deal with the issue face to face. It's often quicker in the long run, and there's less risk of miscommunication. (Though, as I've found many times, emails before and after confirming what was said can be invaluable.)

Sometimes, it's better to spend the extra few seconds typing a message in full instead of abbreviating it to the point of ambiguity.

And sometimes, it's better to spend the time and explain what you actually mean, rather than try to squeeze too much into a few sentences. There's still a role for lengthy blog posts in a world dominated by short status updates.

Then again, maybe all I needed to say was:
socmed comms r often poor way 2 get yr meaning across? twitter/fb/txt FAIL :)