The auction benefits the Virginia Avenue Project in Los Angeles. It is "a free afterschool arts and academics program. 100% of participating children graduate from high school. 95% go on to college. 98% are the first person in their family to go."
11:41am: My Google-fu is weak
Cheap solar-powered calculators are a dime a dozen (well, actually about $15 for a dozen). Cheap digital countdown timers are also easy to find. But cheap solar-powered timers? As far as I can tell they do not exist, even though they seem like a really obvious product.
11:49pm: Coin-operated nostalgia
I forgot to mention DisneyQuest. This is a big building in Downtown Disney which is devoted to videogames and virtual reality things, such as an area where you can design a roller coaster and then ride on it in a simulator. The special passes we got included a bunch of "Fun Visits" (good for DisneyQuest, the water parks, and Pleasure Island), so we went there a few times. I can't necessarily recommend paying the separate entry fee for the place.
However, if you used to play arcade games and are old enough to remember good ones, it is worth noting they have a whole bunch of old machines: Space Invaders, Asteroids, Gorf, Galaxian, Galaga, Pac-Man, Centipede, Lunar Lander of all things (I think the last time I saw one was in 1982), Arkanoid, Qix, Zaxxon, both Tron games, etc. And Marble Madness, which is the best arcade game of all time. Unfortunately my Marble Madness skills have atrophied a lot since whenever I last played it (1985?), so I was only able to get to the third level once.
I read quite a few of his Myth books back in the day; I stopped eventually when I thought they got too involuted, but the earlier ones are likely still fun. (Think Xanth, but without Piers Anthony's assorted creepy obsessions.) I still re-read the Phil Foglio adaptation of the first book occasionally.
Back in the misty depths of time (i.e., 1987) one of the other Penn SF club officers and I went to a small convention with issues in New Jersey, where he was a guest (possibly the GoH). The club published a magazine (read by dozens) and we interviewed a number of authors for it - I know we did Gene Wolfe, and also Timothy Zahn, except the tape recorder was not operated properly so we had nothing to transcribe for his. We ended up interviewing Asprin, in the bar despite neither of us being 21. I believe it was the longest interview we did, with the fewest number of questions - as I recall it ran about two hours and we asked four questions. I should find that issue and scan the interview.
12:08am: More Match it for Pratchett
I have not put anything else up for auction as yet, but others are selling a copy of Terry Pratchett's rarest book (Once More* With Footnotes) and a number of items from the collection of George R. R. Martin and Parris McBride - the latter include a bound galley of Good Omens and some signed limited Martin items. The auctions can be found here.
12:36am: More book commentary: Snake Agent
I suppose I might as well keep up posting about what I've been reading, since I've been reading some new (to me) authors recently. In addition to the aforementioned Matt Hughes, I've been reading a lot of Robert Charles Wilson (I'll comment on his books later), and I read this one book by Liz Williams, Snake Agent. I had heard a few good things about it, and when I was ordering from Night Shade Press when they had their big sale, I figured, why not?
The book has a good premise. The main protagonist is Detective Inspector Chen Wei, who is a member of the police department in a future franchised Singapore (somewhere on the Chinese coast). He's the officer tasked with investigating crimes with a supernatural connection - the traditional Chinese Heaven and Hell (or at least, Williams' versions of them) are quite real in this world, and interact with the human world frequently.
Now, I love Barry Hughart - Bridge of Birds is one of my very favorite books - so this seemed like something I would enjoy. It would have of course been very unfair to read the book expecting something as good as Bridge of Birds, and criticize it if it wasn't, but I didn't have that expectation. I'd have been reasonably happy with something as good as Eight Skilled Gentlemen, the weakest of Hughart's books.
12:23am: An unsolicited followup to my last post
I read The Spiral Labyrinth and it was good, as I expected. So, I can recommend all of Hughes' Archonate books with a clear conscience. This is, also as expected, not the ideal book to start with, since a fair number of references are made to events from Majestrum and the Hapthorn stories in The Gist Hunter. Hughes does a fine job of explaining those references for new readers without annoying those who already know them, so it is certainly possible to read this first (I read Majestrum without having read the stories, which lead into it), but it's not what I'd recommend.
The extra story included in the deluxe edition is fun but not very relevant to the overarching Hapthorn plotline. Which is of course as it should be, since relatively few people will get to read it (unless and until it is reprinted elsewhere).
11:20pm: In which I sell out
I had been thinking, in a vague sort of way, that I might post about the fiction of Matthew Hughes, since I had been reading a fair amount of it. Would I have overcome my natural indolence to actually do so? Possibly, but it was not the way the smart money would have bet. However, when I saw that Hughes was giving away books to people who blogged about his work, I leapt into action. (Or more accurately, I waited three weeks and then leapt into action. It does not do to be too hasty.)
So now we have established that I can be bought. On the other hand, my rates are quite reasonable (even more reasonable when you consider I will probably get a book I already own).
If Hughes' work sounds appealing at all, I'd recommend reading either Black Brillion or Fools Errant to start. Fool Me Twice should be read after Fools Errant, and Majestrum should be read after Fool Me Twice (and the new Hapthorn book still later, of course). Fools Errant is the obvious place to start, but the book is not quite as polished as the later works, so Black Brillion (which is fairly independent) is also a good first choice. The Commons might be a good choice as well, although I can't yet say for sure.
The actual best thing to do if you are interested is to read the samples available on Hughes' site. He has posted the first chapters of all the novels mentioned except The Commons, plus "A Little Learning," which is a complete Guth Bandar story. If you don't like any of that, there's no point reading the books.
11:16pm: Anyone want old video game crap?
Those of you who attended our Lag Day parties (back in the misty depths of time when we hosted Lag Day parties) may recall that at one of them, a bunch of us went on an expedition to a local yard sale. Never let it be said I don't know how to throw a shindig. Anyway, I picked up some old video game systems for free there, and they have been languishing in my basement since then. Now, they can languish in your basement.
The first system is a Vectrex. It appears to be in good working order - the built-in game, Mine Storm (aka Asteroids) works, and so does one of the cartridges I have, Star Trek: The Motion Picture (the game appears similar to Star Raiders on the Atari 800). The system has been cleaned, but you would probably want to clean it a bit more before putting it on the coffee table. The Star Trek cartridge comes with the box, manual, and overlay, all of which smell a bit musty, but not enough to make them unusable (you only notice it very close up). There is another cartridge, Scramble, which came with the system and doesn't work.
I'd like to get $25 for this (they run $40-50 on eBay, plus shipping, although they are usually cleaner).
The second system is an Atari 2600. It comes with an Atari joystick missing the stick cover, a Kraft joystick, a paddle set, the AC adapter, and several cartridges (Atlantis, Tutankham, etc.). I don't know whether it works as the RF switch is broken and wouldn't work with a modern TV even if it weren't. You can supposedly get switches which will let this plug into coax. The console has been somewhat cleaned - as you recall, it's got ridges which collect dirt in between them and I didn't make much of an effort to clean that.
The Atari is free.
Either system can be picked up in Wilmington or Burlington (right next to the mall). Let me know if you're interested. If I don't get any takers in a few days the Vectrex will go to Craigslist and the Atari to Freecycle, or possibly the garbage.
7:03pm: Say the magic word and get yourself a new car
The magic word was "timing," as in "timing chain," which broke in my Saturn last Friday. This spelled death as the cost to repair all the damage was well over the actual value of the car, given that it was 14 years old and had over 165K miles. I wasn't too upset as if it hadn't been that, it would probably have been something else relatively soon, as it had needed more and more frequent repairs recently.
Fortunately the car had the good grace to die in a parking space, and less than 2 miles from the repair shop we use, so getting it towed was simple and free.
I wanted something small, not too expensive, and with traction control (which the Saturn had and was very nice in winter). There were a few options of which the best seemed to be the Matrix and the Scion xB. Kristine and Jacob lobbied heavily for the xB (it's Jacob's favorite car), and if we hadn't found a decent low-mileage Matrix I would have bought one. It seems to be a perfectly decent little car, but it doesn't have as much cargo space as a Matrix, the engine has noticeably less pickup than the Matrix's (no surprise, given the specs), and I really don't like the instrument display, which is not only in the center but set back from the rest of the dash - it's not a car for myopics, apparently. These comments all apply to the 2004-2006 xB - the 2007-2008 is larger, which is fine, but has much worse sight lines (due to the third windows being removed), which is not.
The 2007 Matrix (2008s are not available yet) theoretically can be purchased with the Vehicle Stability Control system, but apparently none of the dealers within 50 miles of here order them like that. So, we bought a 2006, which was the last year they made all-wheel drive models. We got one which is just about exactly a year old (so it has two years of warranty left), has 11,300 miles on it, and is extremely clean and unblemished. Sadly, it does not have the 115V outlet in the dash, but I can live without it.
10:29pm: Kemal Ataturk had an entire menagerie, all called Abdul
After we got one new cat we wanted another one so the first wouldn't get bored and start trading stocks on margin, or whatever it is cats do when they're alone and not sleeping. Tasha isn't much for playing with other cats.
So, we went a number of weeks ago to Nevins Farm, which is a large MSPCA shelter up in Methuen. They have a very nice setup for cats - large multi-level cages, and many of the younger cats were together in a big room with cat furniture, food, litter boxes, and toys.
We went into the colony room and a large orange tabby came and sat in Jacob's lap, then in mine. He seemed fairly certain we should take him, so we did. According to the shelter he was originally rescued from a hoarder. He had been adopted by another family but they brought him back, claiming he was fighting with their female cats. Given this the person we were speaking with was at first hesitant about letting us take him, but it turned out this other family had only had him for three days. Not to mention he had been in the colony room with mostly female cats and was just fine.
He's about a year old and will eventually be rather large. Right now he is just very long. When adopted he only weighed 9 pounds, but that's because he was extremely skinny - possibly due to the aforementioned hoarder, but I think mostly because he's still an adolescent (his development seems fine). We've been letting him eat as much as he wants.
As it happened, his name was Toby. Seeing this Kristine decided that Original Toby would be Mimzy after all, and New Toby would stay Toby. This appears to be final.
Toby took much less time to settle in than Mimzy did - possibly 30 minutes. When we let him out he explored the house and then settled in for a nap on our bed, and has pretty much gone on like that. Tasha was underwhelmed by him but appears to have gotten used to him. Mimzy and he have become good buddies, which is good since that was more or less the plan.
This has been a pretty awful month, frankly. If October isn't a distinct improvement I am going to take the whole year back for a refund.
Last Sunday my grandfather (my mother's father, the one I was close to) died. It would be foolish to say this was unexpected, given that he was 94 and had recently been suffering from gastric lymphoma and congestive heart failure. Still, he had been treated for both of these conditions and had shown significant improvement, so I had not been seriously expecting it - but at that age your body can just give out despite everything, particularly when it has been through that kind of rough treatment.
Of course it was sad, but he did have a good long life, and he seemed to enjoy it until it got close to the end. It was only fairly recently - maybe the last 2 years or so - that he stopped being able to get around well, and even more recently that he really started feeling bad most of the time. And his mind was as sharp as ever up until the end - when he was in the hospital for the congestive heart failure he was advising the nursing staff on how they might improve their medication regimens (his second career, which he kept up until well into his 80s, was as a consultant for nursing homes on their pharmaceutical procedures).
We went to New Jersey for the funeral, which was as good as could be expected. Everyone who should have come was able to, and it was good to see people despite everything.
He was one of my favorite writers for years - probably since 1984. He didn't write a lot of books (nine, I think), but they were all excellent, and all different from each other. My favorite is probably The Dragon Waiting, which you need to read right now if you haven't already. He won the World Fantasy Award for that book, and won another for one of his Christmas cards.
He was also a major presence on parts of the Internet I hung out in - various Usenet groups, the Pyramid magazine groups (which I stopped paying to read a while back because I was hardly reading anything but his posts - a foolish economy), and Making Light. He was often funny, sometimes thought-provoking, and always brilliant. He was a wonderful poet and would often drop amazing extempore verse into comment threads.
I didn't know him personally, but he occupied a big space in my mental landscape and I miss him a lot.
No one else I know is allowed to die anytime soon - does everyone understand that? Good.
11:51pm: Free furniture!
Anyone want an old TV stand? It can hold a fairly large TV, and has a shelf suitable for a VCR or DVD player, a glass-fronted cabinet also suitable for said players, or for storing media (which is what we used it for), and a cabinet with small shelves suitable only for storing media (the back half is lockable).
It's 34.5" wide, 21.5" deep, and 34" tall. The back is beveled to fit in a corner.
It's got a few scars, as can be seen, but it's just cosmetic damage - it's still intact.
It's free if you come pick it up. Delivery can be arranged for reasonable consideration.
Bakschisch could reasonably be described as Candyland for adults. Players bid simultaneously, with the high bidder moving to the next space shown on a card. Every 5th card the low player moves backwards instead. Each player can choose to steal the other players' bids once per round instead of bidding. It's a very light game, but good fun once in a while.
Chinatown is a negotiation game - players are building up business in New York's Chinatown and need to trade building plots and building tiles (and money). I like some negotiation games, but I generally prefer ones that either have a little more structure, or that make it less easy to calculate future value of holdings, or both. Here the trading is very loose and future value is simple to calculate aside from the random bonuses - and while they are a good idea in principle, they are far too large. I was not very excited by the game when it came out (in 1999), but I figured I'd try it again for the heck of it. It certainly works better with 3 than with more, but still not great.
Happy Dog was about the same as last time. I really need to edit and print the rules so I can play the 2-3 player game with 3 players, instead of the 3-5 player game (which I think really wants more than 3).
Merchant of Venus is a travelling merchant game - players move around, find alien civilizations, purchase their goods, and sell them to other aliens for a profit. There are a number of games of this type (some historically-themed, of course). It is a genre I very much want to like, but I feel the ideal merchant game has yet to be created. However, Merchant of Venus is a pretty good attempt - it's a reasonable length (90-120 minutes, as opposed to some others which take many hours), has a decent supply and demand system (one of the key elements of any such game), and is reasonably fun. It is more random than I would prefer, but I enjoy playing it occasionally.
I read Hogfather a week or two ago. I have nothing very much to say about it except that it was quite good, and that I am not surprised to find that a movie is being made from it, since while reading it I had the thought that it would lend itself to that treatment better than many of the other Discworld books. However, that being said, there does seem to be a lot of backstory that I'm not sure how I would get across if I were writing the screenplay. If you're not familiar with Death, Albert, and Susan (at least), I think the movie would prove to be confusing. Pratchett of course tries to write the books so you can jump in at any time, but I'm not sure how well that would work for a reader in this case, and if it does work, it's likely because of the various tiny bits of information Pratchett sprinkles around to allow people to catch up - this is harder to do in a movie.
Jingo wasn't as good, but still quite decent. Vimes is always a good character, and it was novel and interesting to see Vetinari at length, and in a more active role than usual. The one thing that annoyed me about the book was the bit about how there were no printing presses in Ankh-Morpork for various supposedly-good reasons. This will simply not do.
Now, in general, I do not expect humor to have a carefully consistent background, at least not at the level of more serious fiction, but the Discworld books are something of an exception. Much of the humor comes from having well-developed, continuing characters, places, and ideas, and if they change suddenly, it's not only disconcerting, but much of the humor is lost.
So, what's the matter with not having printing presses? Even if we ignore the throwaway line earlier in the same book about Constable Visit having a printing press (which the copyeditor really should have caught), there are all sorts of things in earlier books which contradict this. There are far too many references to people with large numbers of books, or people not fabulously wealthy having books, or books which would never exist if they had to be hand-copied, for there not to be printing presses (one example of the last category is Carrot's book of City Watch regulations or Ankh-Morpork laws, whichever it is). Actually, now I come to think of it, there are plenty of book references right in Jingo (Tacticus' book, the chivalry books Vimes reads, etc.).
Even if we dismiss all those books as having been printed elsewhere and imported (not too plausible, and it would anyway undermine most of the reasons given for not allowing printing presses), there was a major subplot in Maskerade which involved an Ankh-Morpork book publisher!
No, it will not do. I declare this bit of Jingo null and void.
Last night I finished reading The Masque of Mañana, the large Robert Sheckley collection from NEFSA Press. While occasionally marred by sloppy copyediting or typesetting, it's still an excellent book. It actually had three stories in it I had never read, all about the AAA Ace Planetary Decontamination Service; these stories are fluffy, but a lot of fun, so I was glad to have the complete set.
The stories are arranged chronologically by publication order, which is always interesting, since you can get a sense of the writer's development. For example, in Robert Silverberg's Phases of the Moon (also a good collection), the earliest stories are rather formulaic, with somewhat awkward writing, but the writing style improves fairly soon, and the ideas get more interesting soon afterwards. After that the stories maintain a high level of quality, although there is some change of tone over time (Silverberg's later stories tend to have an air of cool detachment, which can be offputting if you read a bunch in one sitting).
In Sheckley's case, the stories start out strong and continue that way right up until the last two. His output dropped considerably in later years, so there's a large gap between the antepenultimate story (published in 1976) and the last two (1986 and 1992). Somewhere in there his writing ability started to go, sadly, as the last two stories (one of which is one of the AAA Ace ones I hadn't read, unfortunately) are just not very good - the plots are trite, the writing is awkward, and there are big logical holes. I understand why the AAA Ace story was included - that way they'd all be in this one volume - but not why the last one, "Dukakis and the Aliens," was. While none of the stories in Uncanny Tales (Sheckley's last non-retrospective collection) were up to his earlier level, some were better than this.
In any case, it's a very strong collection overall, and if you haven't read Sheckley, it's the best place to start (and if you haven't read Sheckley, you should, and if you're skeptical, start with "Pilgrimage to Earth").
12:30am: Gaming: Freya's Folly, DeRail, Happy Dog
Finally getting around to last Monday's gaming (not that anyone was waiting to hear about it). Somewhat unusually, we played three new games (this has something to do with the fact that only three of us were there, which streamlined the decision process some).