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2011/01/30

New Computer

My computer died last weekend. This is the second machine to crap out on me in the last year. The first was a laptop my mother gave me for Christmas about three years ago. It had been a pretty good machine, but the fan died, and, as we all know, replacing parts on a laptop is next to impossible, so I switched back to my old desktop. This was an seven year old PC which still worked well enough, though I had to cut back on my habit of running five bajillion applications at once. However every time I updated iTunes and Firefox, the machine got slower and slower as they ate up ever more RAM. I often had to keep the Task Manager open so I could kill them when they locked up the computer.

I should've bought a new machine much sooner than I did, but you know how it is -- why spend money when you have something that works, even marginally. I kept an eye on Dell.com and Woot for a good deal, but they only came up at bad times.

But last Friday the computer froze and didn't recover, even with repeated ctrl+alt+deleting, so I tried a hard reboot. Unfortunately this corrupted the master boot record and I couldn't find the XP CD to fix it, so I said, "Screw it," and bought a new computer.

Luckily Staples had a really nice machine on sale for $450 -- an HP with a 3.something gHz, quadcore 64 bit Athalon processor, 4 gigs of RAM and a terabyte hard-drive. Oh yeah, that's an improvement. Every one of those specs is at least double my laptop, and makes my old desktop look like a pocket calculator. This is the first computer I've had where Firefox and iTunes boot up instantly (well, within a couple seconds) -- hell, Gravity is up and running before the splash screen even comes up. However, it's really easy to see why these programs were killing my old computer -- iTunes 10 requires 250 megs of RAM just idling, which while a paltry amount on this system, is still crazy. If Foobar supported Audible, I'd ditch this piece of bloatware in a minute. Even Firefox tops out at only 200 megs, extensions, tabs, memory leak and all.

My only complaint is the amount of crapware that HP preloaded on the system. There were three toolbars when I ran IE, which is bad enough, but when I installed Firefox, those same toolbars appeared there. I don't even know how that's possible -- toolbars that add themselves to software installed after them? And then Firefox pops up a warning that these toolbars are known to cause stability issues and should be uninstalled. Thanks a lot HP. I understand that OEMs use bundled software to subsidize the cost of their computers, but is it too much to expect them to have some QC?

Sidenote: I went a couple days without a computer, during which I tried out the browser on my Kindle. I've used it a few times for looking stuff up on Wikipedia or Memory Alpha, but this was the first time I put it to any significant use. And'll be the last. Most webpages are 10% too wide to fit on the screen, navigating through a page is a PITA, and, oh yeah, it crashes like Launchpad McQuack. And when it crashes, there's a good chance it'll take the Kindle with it, forcing you to do a reset. Resetting the Kindle doesn't delete the books, however it does have to reindex the content afterwards, which eats up the battery.

2011/01/12

Giving New Meaning to Blue Screen of Death

Installing Linux on a Dead Badger by Lucy Snyder





If you've ever encountered one of those geeks who insists upon installing Linux on everything from his new iPhone to a BetaMax he found at a thrift store, this title should elicit a laugh. Unfortunately the actual book doesn't live up to the promise of the title.

The title "essay" explains how to do the actual installation with a combination of technology and eldritch magic. Conceptually, this is a great idea, but if you've ever read a how-to on installing Linux, you know how dreadfully boring they are, and even changing Ubuntu to VuDu doesn't make it more readable. The essay is followed by numerous news articles and press releases that riff on the idea, such as teenage hacker gangs using their undead badgers for trouble with a capital T -- everything from sneaking webcams into sorority houses, to foiling Homeland Security's attempt to obtain library records (there are several topical political digs like that which are already looking dated and will undoubtedly confuse the hell out of anyone who reads this book in twenty years). These stories do create an interesting world, where necromantic technology allows corporations to "in-source" jobs to linux-zombies, but there's no narrative, and although they may've been amusing when they first appeared in magazines, collected together like this the joke gets tiresome.

Luckily Snyder breaks form in the last third of the book with three narrative stories in this universe.

* The Great VuDu Linux Teen Zombie Massacre is essentially an attempt to give a plot to the titular essay. We follow a reporter who's travelled to Texas (which has been overrun by zombies) to interview a guy who installs Linux on dead badgers. Why does she have to go to Zombieland for this? We never find out. But if you ignore that (and let's face it, zombie stories have never been strong on plot-logic) this is a pretty good horror story.

* Wake Up Naked Monkey You're Going to Die is a story where stuff happens, I guess. There are some frat boys who've been kidnapped by some sort of supernatural beings, but I didn't care enough to actually remember what happens after that.

* In the Shadow of the Fryolator is about a cook at a diner who is approached by a Cthulhuoid creature who wants to marry her. Seems she's descended from some other Lovecraftian beastie and is destined to marry this monster and reign with him over subjugated mankind, bwa-ha-ha-ha. This is the strongest entry in the book, though not great by any means. It does highlight something that bugged me about many of the news items -- this book is clearly set in a mythos universe. There are references to Miskatonic U. and various eldritch abominations -- but all those abominations are given fake Lovecraftian names, including the Cthulhuoid creature, H'telred (get it?) from Y'harneth, a great city in the "briny depths of the Esoteric Trench. If you're going to do the Mythos, do the Mythos. Call the guy Cthulhu of R'lyeh.

This is an entirely mediocre collection, though Snyder does show some promise as a writer if she works on her narrative skills.

2011/01/07

Bonjour Tristesse




When it comes to the decadence of Western Civilization, most people think of the 1960s and '70s America -- Haight-Ashbury, Studio 54 and the rest of that Boomer tripe -- or more exotically of Swinging London. But for my money, nothing beats Post War France. A whole society trying to put the Vichy Era behind them while their empire crubles arounds them until the country lurches towards the precipice of civil war. Good times. It was the age of Camus, Sartre and Sagan; Bresson, Bazin and Goddard. And what came of American decadence -- Jim Morrision, Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey.

Bonjour Tristesse is a fantastic time capsule of that era. A simple tale of a teenage girl, Cecile, and her father Raymond, whose relationship is perhaps a little creepy. The father is a playboy, flitting from one relationship to the next as whim takes him, and Cecile is exactly what you'd expect from such an upbringing. But then one of these relationships catches Raymond and he decides to abandon his rakish ways for the stability of marriage before he grows to old for his lifestyle. Cecile is less than enthused by this turn of events, especially as Anne, Raymond's new love, holds their old ways in disdain and announces her intention to end Cecile's delinquent ways. Cecile takes none too kindly to this and hatches a scheme to wreck her father's relationship with little thought to the consequences.

Sagan adeptly takes a limited first person narrative and creates a multilayered narrative, showing us both Cecile's motivations for her actions at the time and her retrospective view of her deeds, all while leaving enough hints that we can construct an outside perspective on all that transpires. And she does this in a breezy style that lulls the reader into thinking the tale is utterly frivolous until things suddenly turn serious at the end.

Star Trek Colon Myriad Universes Colon Shattered Light




A fun collection of three novellas showing alt.history versions of the Star Trek universe.

1) The Embraces of Cold Architects (David R. George III) shows what would've happened if Best of Both Worlds had been a one part episode that ended with the Enterprise blowing up the Borg cube with Picard still on board. Or at least that's what it appears to be at first, though we soon learn that the real point of departure occurred months earlier and launched the Federation on a path almost as dark as a Borg victory. Once more Commander Riker has doomed us all.

2) The Tears of Eridanus (Steve Molmannand Michael Schuster) is the most radical departure. While the other stories in this volume show us alternate versions of the Federation, Tears imagines a galaxy in which Vulcans never embraced Surak's philosophy of logic and instead remained a dangerous child race, content to remain on Minshara nuking each other into the stone age. As a result the Andorians become the dominant civilization in the region, becoming the nucleus of the Interstellar Union. Nor does the Romulan Star Empire exist, the Romulans having remained on Vulcan to participate in the fun, which left extra room for the Klingons to expand in. But that is ending as the Klingons run out of breathing space and turn their gaze to the Union, which without the Romulan War to challenge it militarily, is much weaker than the Federation. Now Commander Sulu of the starship Kumari must contact the savage inhabitants of Vulcan, which lies on Klingons' most likely invasion corridor ...

3) Honor in the Night (Scott Pearson) is the best story of the bunch, but has the most seemingly inconsequential point of departure -- what if there'd been no tribbles on Space Station K7? At first glance, the only difference would seem to be in the number of lame puns Scotty gets to make, until you remember that it's the tribbles that twigged Kirk to the fact that the Klingons had poisoned the quadrotriticale. No tribbles, Kirk doesn't take the threat seriously and thousands of colonists die on Sherman's Planet, opening the way for the Klingons to grab that strategically important world. More importantly, it really pisses off Nilz Barris, who vows revenge against both the Klingons and Captain Kirk.

2011/01/06

Silent Screams



Excellent overview of horror movies through the silent era. Unsurprisingly, America gets most of the attention, though Haberman devotes two chapters to European cinema -- one (the longest in the book) to German film, and one to the rest of Europe, though really he only mentions three films (Haxan, The Lodger, and a mediocre French production of The Fall of the House of Usher). When Haberman turns to the United States, he gives a quick overview of the genre up to 1920, which pretty much consists of adaptations of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and then a rough summary of American horror in the 1920s. After this, the book focuses on Lon Chaney's career, devoting two chapters to his horror films, with the second focusing on his collaborations with Tod Browning. There follows an entire chapter on Willis O'Brien and the development of stop-motion animation for The Lost World. The book concludes with a discussion of the Old Dark House genre of horror comedies (The Bat, The Cat and the Canary, etc.), most of which were made by the European directors discussed in the early chapters.

This is an extremely dense book, with every paragraph of its short 250 pages packed with information, but Haberman keeps it readable for the most part -- some of his summaries of the films he's discussing, though absolutely necessary when dealing with the more obscure films (and let's face it, for most people, any silent film is obscure), can be a bit hard to follow, particularly the high melodramas where the stories are nothing but contrivance layered upon contrivance. My one complaint is the way in which Haberman passes judgement on Browning's London After Dark, a film that's been lost for decades. Although what's known of the plot sounds absurdly convoluted, and Browning did a talkie remake (Mark of the Vampire, with Bela Lugosi) that's highly mediocre, it's unfair to criticize the original sight-unseen.

The book is subtitled "Chronicles of Terror Volume 1," and Haberman's afterword ends with a perfect segue into the Universal horror films of the 1930s, however this volume was published in 2003 and there's no sign on the 'net of a followup, which I find highly disappointing (though, given that I'm the first person to even rate the book on Goodreads should't be surprising).