Archive for February, 2011

I hate to urinate during somebody’s eulogy but …

Thursday, February 24th, 2011

Dwayne McDuffie died. He’s the author of many comic and series, including a run I enjoyed of the Fantastic Four. He will be missed. But I have to take issue with the article announcing his death:
His individual contributions as a writer and producer, which I’ll get to in a bit, remain impressive. But McDuffie was more than a writer, he was a voice — a passionate proponent for change in a genre (superhero comics) that reflexively resists it. And it’s that voice that will be most acutely missed.

McDuffie will be missed, and perhaps he was a passionate proponent for change … but what superhero genre, precisely, has the author of the NPR article been reading over the last forty years? Because it sure ain’t the one I’ve been reading. (NOTE: the author of the article claims to have started reading in the early 1970′s and to have skipped the 1990s, and I started reading in the later 1970′s and skipped part of the 1980′s which I’ve since mostly caught up on, so we are essentially contemporaneous).

Superhero comics were a force of stasis in the 1950s to the 1970′s largely because of the Comics Code Authority, which effectively censored comic book content; innovation existed but largely got squeezed out into underground comix whose heyday was the late 60′s to early 70′s.

But issues of social relevance – drug use, alcoholism, environmentalism – began to kick in in the 1970′s. Titles like Squadron Supreme, the Dark Knight and later Watchmen subverted the conventions of the genre in the mid 1980′s. By the 1990′s, the modern age of superhero comics and its antiheroes had begun – and the genre has continued to evolve, with newer iterations like widescreen comics changing how stories are told.

Examining other areas, for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered comics we’ve gone from demonizing and censoring them to talking about it and introducing characters in the 1990′s to putting them front and center in the 2000′s, including the modern Batwoman, a female superhero and lesbian of Jewish descent.

Even on the author of the article’s signature issue, race, we’ve gone from ridiculous and marginalized cariactures to prominent front and center characters to Ultimate Nick Fury, based on Samuel L. Jackson and later played by him after he considered the comic version a flattering portrayal as the ultimate nexus of coolness in the Ultimate Marvel Universe …

Need I go on? No.

There will always be people marketing towards the least common denominator, but that subset does not define or limit or even accurately describe the arc of the superset – a very typical mistake that people with axes to grind will make.

Clearly, comics has a lot of work to do, and I’d never suggest it doesn’t have further to go. Resistant to change, however, it has not been … not at least for the last forty years.

-the Centaur

My Favorite Borders, Closing …

Wednesday, February 16th, 2011

Two of my favorite bookstores are closing … along with many other Borders in the Bay Area:

(ABC News) A list of store closings planned by Borders as it tries to reorganize in Chapter 11 bankruptcy, state by state. Closings are due over the next few weeks. Some clearance sales are expected to start this weekend:

For the full list look here.

Or put another way, the closest 3 stores to my address are closing; check out these search results:

  • San Jose – Oakridge Mall: Closing
  • Los Gatos: Closing
  • San Jose – Santana Row: Closing

Which goes back to … fffffffffuuuuuuuuuuu!

Some of you may be thinking “ah, the e-reader and Amazon have killed the bookstore at last.” Uh, no, though that may still happen. The fate of Borders can be laid at the feet of giant discount stores like Walmart, Costco and Target, who can sell books up to five bucks cheaper than a typical bookstore. Contributing to this is the recession, of course, and American corporate culture, which tends to think of businesses as interchangeable moneymaking commodities and not living organisms that need to be helmed by people who understand the business.

Don’t get me wrong – the management of Borders puts together superb bookstores. They’ve been my favorite chain for years. But a fair number of analysts of Borders have suggested that a lot of its recent management hasn’t had the handson bookstore experience to make the right choices. It was owned by K-Mart for a while, for instance. Ugh. And I’m not critiquing K-Mart, but perhaps there wasn’t quite enough skill transfer there. (Full disclosure: I’m a former Borders shareholder).

I’ve seen many other bookstores go: the Science Fiction Mystery Bookshop and the legendary Oxford both of Atlanta. Many other bookstores have survived, and will no doubt continue to survive. But they’re going to have to change, and consolidate – the industry is changing.

I love my e-readers, particularly my Nook Color, and I love the selection and choice of Amazon and to a lesser extent Barnes and Noble online. (Full disclosure: I’m an Amazon shareholder). Some online publishers are particularly attractive, especially O’Reilly, which will typically sell you a DRM-free PDF of your book for an extra ten bucks. And I, personally, as an author sell ten times as many e-books as physical books.

But there’s something wonderful about going into a bookstore, browsing the shelves, and flipping through books. I could blame it on the idea that for the time being, at least, the technology does NOT exist to make flipping through books as fast on the web as it is in real life – to see why, check out the High Performance Web Sites site and look carefully at the latency that goes into rendering a single web page. You’re looking at second-level latency at best. Then go pick up a five hundred page book and flip through it rapidly. You’re looking at second-level latency at best. See the problem?

But if that wasn’t a problem, the physical layout of a bookstore, the related books sections, the browasbility has a real value – as do the omnipresent coffeehouses found in many bookstores. I could see bookstores evolving into showrooms, with much more varied content, single copies of most books, and people wandering through them with their Kindles and Nooks and Kobos and what have you, reading a book and then waving their e-reader at it to add it to their collection. The physical books will often be printed in the stores themselves with cheap on-demand presses.

But even in this blissful world, there will be a need for fewer bookstores-as-showrooms than the bookstores we have now. Places like Recycle Books (a kind of micro-Oxford Used Books in the making out here in the San Jose area) Bookbuyers (a solid competitor to Oxford Used Books), Kepler’s, Books Inc. will survive both as community centers and as online presences – they’re quickly making the move to selling e-books through Google Books. And cultural institutions like City Lights will also survive – it’s also a publisher. But how many of the big box bookstores that I love will survive?

Not certain. And their closing will have side effects: on authors and publishers, on communities, on books and reading in general. It isn’t the end of the world … but it’s the beginning of a tectonic shift.

-the Centaur
Pictured: the Borders at Oakridge Mall … its cafe unusually deserted for a Wednesday night.

Taking a Sabbath from Microsoft Word

Sunday, February 6th, 2011

The Notes on Blood Rock

I’m not a very literal Christian, but I do believe that a lot of Christianity is good. But I don’t think it’s good because God says so – I think it’s God said so because it’s good for you. One example is the Sabbath.

But what is a Sabbath? Going to church on Sunday, then sitting around reading psalms? No, a Sabbath is first and foremost a day of rest, and second a day of worship. And God doesn’t ask us to observe it because he’s needy for worship: he asks us to do it because we need time off. I’m not going to go into the Episcopal theology which suggests that Jesus doesn’t care what day you take your Sabbath as long as you do take one – I’ll let my fundamentalist and atheist friends thumbwrestle over that one. I’m just going to take it as a given that we need a day off.

So … what does the Sabbath have to do with Microsoft Word?

In my personal life, I’m like a submarine: I disappear into whatever project I’m working on (see the bursty timing of my blogposts as evidence for this). And even though I usually have something on the order of four to six major projects going at once, I’m really only good at focusing on one of them at a time. My current project: revising my second novel BLOOD ROCK, which I’ve been doing since something like September, responding to hundreds of comments from my editor.

I’m down to the wire now. The book is over 100 pages shorter and tighter after months of edits. I’ve gone from a HUGE list of TODO items that sprawled over two pages down to a short list of items I’d written on the back of a receipt. One of my last items is re-reviewing all the remaining Microsoft Word comments, which I’ve been doing over the last several days.

But as I did so, I found that somehow I’d either lost my memory or Word had neglected to show a whole bunch of comments to me. Months ago, I went through the entire document in detail resolving differences and addressing comments before starting my big tightening edit, and yet there are real, material important comments I would remember if I’d seen them that only showed up in the last few days.

Having observed Word’s behavior looking for possible bugs, I’m guessing either it was collapsing comments when there were lots of edits on a page, or, more likely, this is a scrolling bug that caused some comments to appear “over the top of the page” and thus effectively become invisible. Another alternative is that it might have to do with the “ribbon” … I recently switched from Word 2004 for Mac to Word 2011 and the interface for comments seems to have changed. A simple interface change; they happen. But that’s not the point.

My frustration is that even minor offhand comments from the editor can lead to big changes. If she asks me to delete something on page 204, I might just do it — but if I don’t agree, I generally think hard about whether I need it, whether it’s important to me, and if so how to integrate it so deeply into the novel that it’s inevitable — ideally to the point where she’d tell me to put it back in if I took it out, though I don’t know if I ever achieve that. :-)

So now I have a whole load of comments that I’m essentially getting fresh. Worse, they’re commenting on things in sections that I had previously reworked in response to the editor’s written comments, sections where I didn’t think there were major in-line comments. So I’ve spent a great deal of effort fixing things in response to the revision email, the suggested changes, and a long hallway conversation with the editor at Dragon*Con, but I’m now finding dozens of things, both little and great, that would have potentially changed what I would have done.

So … what does Microsoft Word have to do with the Sabbath? Well … I am taking today off. :-)

I have a great job at the Search Engine That Starts With a G, but it takes a lot of time – partly work, partly travel time, partly mental recuperation time. And I have a wife, and friends, and cats. By lugging my laptop to breakfast, lunch, dinner and coffee, I can eke out 3-4 hours a night 3-4 days a week, but that’s not enough, and generally need to work on my writings on the weekends. This gets especially intense when editing, because I can’t futz around doing research reading or shift gears to another story if I’m stumped; I’ve got to keep my brain focused on the EDITING process.

But my frustration reached its limit last night. I blew my stack and fired off a few frustrated emails to the editor, and decided to take today off. To use the Sabbath that God gave us. I don’t have a link to the great sermon that Father Ken of Saint Stephens in the Field gave on the topic, but I do have a link to my atheist friend Jim Davies, who takes Saturdays completely off so he is free the rest of the week to pursue the top priority items on his nobility list. The theology is different – but the idea is the same.

The point? The moment I decided to take the day off, I felt completely liberated. I’m going to do something fun like ride a bike or design a robot brain – or maybe visit a bookstore for something other than their wifi or coffee. Before writing this blog post, I spent the previous hour implementing “Hello World” in every language installed on my new Macbook Air as part of a project to crack my programming knuckles again (and oddly, the hardest language was Awk, which I actually use so much at the command line it’s like a reflex. Weird). I’ve been wanting to do this for weeks, but I’ve spent it revising. Now instead, I’ve had a little fun. My batteries are already recharged.

Maybe you’re one of those people who find it easy to take time off. Good for you. If you’re not, especially if you live in the Bay Area … take a break. Maybe not even take a break from work; take a break from whatever you won’t let yourself take a break from.