Sunday, November 23, 2014

Excellent Quotes: Ready Player One

After hearing for quite some time from people whose taste I trusted that Ernest Cline's debut novel, Ready Player One, was a must-read I recently decided to snag an eCopy for my iPad and snuggle up with the bits and bytes.

Turns out it is a dork-fest that obsesses about what essentially amounts to my childhood. And it is a page-turner, too. Score!

Set in a dystopic future (as which current science fiction novel is not), the book follows the adventures of the alliterative Wade Watts--who goes by the handle Parzival (yay, English Literature!)--as he solves three challenges put forward by the world's greatest game designer in an attempt to win a fortune, get the girl, and change the universe.

By gad, it really is a dork-fest. A wonderful, unabashed, comprehensive, lovingly articulated dork-fest. Cline name-checks everything from "It's a Dead Man's Party" to the Dungeons and Dragons rule book, John Hughes movies to Blade Runner, the TRS-80 personal computer to Second Life, nerd bonding over video games to first crushes. RP1 functions as a storyline, as a kind of social history, and as a non-alphabetized concordance to the '80s. Fun.

Do I have any niggling complaints? Sure. It is game-obsessed. It is an obvious novice effort stylistically. But, come on, man, that stuff is nitpicking. The ride is worth it; even for those of us who never legitimately finished Zork on our own.

Speaking of Zork--the first famous text-based role-player game--here is Wade starting down the path to solve one of the clues:

"I took a look around. My surroundings were eerily familiar.

"The opening text description in the game Zork read as follows:

WEST OF HOUSE
You are standing in an open field west of a
white house, with a boarded front door. There
is a small mailbox here.
>

"My avatar now stood in that open field, just west of the white house. The front door of the old Victorian mansion was boarded up, and there was a mailbox just a few yards away from me, at the end of the walkway leading to the house. The house was surrounded by a dense forest, and beyond it I saw a range of jagged mountain peaks. Glancing off to my left, I spotted a path leading to the north, right where I knew it should be."

-- Ready Player One. Cline, Ernest. New York (NY): Random House, 2011. Pp. 394-95 (eBook version).

If, like me, you once reserved the introductory sections of your cassette mix tapes for computer programs that you loaded into the microcomputer by pressing "Play," this book is a glorious romp through your youth. It has practically everything but my track and field kit and the Barrel of Hee. Even if you aren't pushing 50, it is still great fun.

So, if you haven't yet, drop the quarter and get started. Cline is ready, Player One.

PS -  The book prominently features easter eggs, and even functioned as one, with the author offering a DeLorean to the winner of his contest-within-a-contest. Oh, and if you didn't dance to it then, you can dance to "It's a Dead Man's Party" by Oingo Boingo today; now playing on iTunes.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Jet Lag

I recently went on a marathon of business and personal travel. I visited in succession the following cities: New York, Chicago, Wilmington, Bern, Zurich, Prague, Louisville, and Miami. I was on the road for 20 straight days. It seemed like a good idea when I booked the trip.

Now, I saw a bunch of great places and people while I was gone. I ran with the supermodels along Swiss rivers; I drank White Russians overlooking the charming Charles Bridge, on which construction began in 1357; I lounged on the beach in 80 degree weather in late October; I saw my brothers; I attended the wedding of one of my oldest, closest friends; I practiced flirting again, an important step but not necessarily to any satisfying end; I grew a full beard.

All in all exciting and interesting. But I had not planned for the brutalizing, merciless, hideous effects of jet lag.

Let's look at my trip again in terms of time difference from the place where my furniture currently resides: "I visited in succession the following time zones: 3 hours, 2 hours, 3 hours, 9 hours, 9 hours, 9 hours, 2 hours, 3 hours. I changed time zones 7 times in 20 days." Honestly, at some point I was not sure which end was up.

When I got back to home base, my body decided to punish me for two weeks running by operating on an average 3 hour time difference. This means I woke up at 4:30 AM willy-nilly. I was pooped at 5 PM at work. I began to fall asleep on the couch in the middle of "Arrow," I started to cry at Maxwell House commercials, I grew desperate for it to end.

The best description I've read of the torture of jet lag comes from a book by the brilliant William Gibson, which I already featured in this older post. Cayce, the protagonist of Gibson's book, arrives in the U.K. from New York:

"She knows, now, absolutely, hearing the white noise that is London, that Damien's theory of jet lag is correct: that her mortal soul is leagues behind her, being reeled in on some ghostly umbilical down the vanished wake of the plane that brought her here, hundreds of thousands of feet above the Atlantic. Souls can't move that quickly, and are left behind, and must be awaited, upon arrival, like lost luggage."

PS - It has been a month now and my soul and I are again reunited. Thank goodness. Oh, and you'll want to get united with "Mistress" by Valkyries; now playing on iTunes.

Monday, January 20, 2014

All Aboot My Trip to Canada

I recently visited our kinder, gentler selves in Canada for work and pleasure and noted a few things: (a) they talk funny, (b) Americans--and we also feel totally comfortable hogging the continental appellation--feel totally comfortable pointing that out to them, (c) they never get mad at it, which must be a particular flavor of unamusing, constant, and blatant violation of the guest/host relationship, (d) like Californians, Canadians tend to end a preponderance of their sentences in the interrogative tone, which is a tough speech tic not to imitate when it permeates your world, and (d) sometimes you can misinterpret them unexpectedly.

To wit: I was in Edmonton and trying to get from my hotel to a nearby museum. I asked the Concierge for directions. Here, roughly, was our exchange:

  Me: Hey. (Flagrantly giving myself away as a Yank.)
  Concierge: Good evening? May I help you?
  Me: Yes. I am trying to get to the Art Gallery of Alberta.
  C: Oh, sure. That's close, eh?
  Me: Great.
  C: Gettin' there's a very simple prough-cess?
  Me: Nice; what do I do.
  C: Go straight oout the door and take 100 Street?
  Me: Okay.
  C: Take 100th Street up a few blocks to 102, eh?
  Me: Okay? (Giving into the cadence)
  C: Turn right, go down two blocks? You'll see it just there?
  Me: Thanks?
  C: Glad to help? Have a great time. (Meaning it.)

So, I went out the door (on principle, I refused to cave in and go oout the door). I walked up 100th Street and took a right on 102nd Avenue. I walked down two blocks and did not see anything resembling a museum. Confused, I retraced my steps to 100 Street. I finally decided to go one block further on 100 and I came to 102-A Avenue, which, as promised, led two blocks down to the museum and its yummy restaurant, Zinc, which was my destination.

Can you believe it? He said, "102-A" and not "102, eh?" And, thinking it over, I am convinced that there was no way to have anticipated it.

PS - Crazy story, eh? Oh, and of all the great Canadian musical contributions, nothing tops Celine Dion. Just kidding! Of course I would never cruelly hurt you by steering you toward Celine like that. One legitimate contender, however, is Cowboy Junkies, who put out a gorgeous cover of the Velvet Underground classic, "Sweet Jane" penned by recently deceased Lou Reed; now playing on iTunes.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Do It: Read "Kill the Password"

A while back, my main email account was hacked. After some deliberation, I had given my new email address to a friend whose Internet hygiene is questionable and, sure enough, within 24 hours I was receiving notes from friends that I was spamming them.

My first reaction was panic. What if the hackers locked me out of my own account? What if they stole my credit card numbers? What if they posted my miserable self-recorded guitar playing on the Web?! My next reaction was to act immediately to change my password and read up on security. Then, sheepishly, I began to change my password everywhere I had an account. Why? Because I was using the same password every. place. I. went.

I know. Bad form. But I am more secure today. Thanks in large part to a recent article in Wired magazine, which, while painting a doomsday scenario for the future of online safety, does offer some very helpful security tips.

To wit, few of the author's "Dos": 

"Enable two-factor authentication when offered. When you log in from a strange location, a system like this will send you a text message with a code to confirm. Yes, that can be cracked, but it’s better than nothing. 

Give bogus answers to security questions. Think of them as a secondary password. Just keep your answers memorable. My first car? Why, it was a “Camper Van Beethoven Freaking Rules.” 

Scrub your online presence. One of the easiest ways to hack into an account is through your email and billing address information. Sites like Spokeo and WhitePages.com offer opt-out mechanisms to get your information removed from their databases. 

Use a unique, secure email address for password recoveries. If a hacker knows where your password reset goes, that’s a line of attack. So create a special account you never use for communications. And make sure to choose a username that isn’t tied to your name—like m****n@wired.com—so it can’t be easily guessed."

So, do it: read "Kill the Password." It's great.

PS - The last of the "do's" has been the real eye-opener for me. Oh, and it is completely safe to bend an ear to "Devastation" by The Besnard Lakes; now playing on iTunes.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Excellent Quotes: The Hardy Boys

Friend, are you like me? Do you like action, mystery, and cliff-hanging suspense? Then you, too, will want to read The Hardy Boys Mystery Stories, Registered Trademark. Yes, youngster, you'll enjoy the thrilling adventures of America's favorite detective duo, Frank and Joe Hardy. Their keen insight, cheeky but never inappropriate disregard for adult supervision, and touching camaraderie with their swell friends help bring the criminal element to justice and will thrill you, making you eager to read more of their serial exploits, all in hard cover.

Indeed, if you can ignore the dated, casual ethnic stereotyping, leveled vocabulary, and the fact that there was no actual author named Franklin W. Dixon, you can--as I do--feel nostalgic about this classic casebook series. You can even re-read one as an adult, which I recently did.

The entrepreneurial offspring of Bayport's well-known detective Fenton Hardy, the Hardy Boys--always introduced as brown-haired and level-headed Frank and younger, blonde, impetuous Joe--were a staple growing up in my house. Their best pal Chet Morton always had a sweet tooth, a new hobby that proved remarkably helpful to the case at hand, and a vivacious sister, who provided a love interest for Joe. Their "favorite dates" Callie Shaw, a giggly blonde who sees Frank, and the aforementioned Iola Morton, a brunette who goes with Joe, added romantic interest, forming cleverly mismatched hair color couples.

The books were full of this sort of thing:

     "While Frank and Joe stared in utter amazement, the huge clock and the wall section behind it began sliding to one side.

     "'Why,' Frank gave an inward gasp, 'it's a door, hidden by the clock attached to it!'"

     -- While the Clock Ticked. Dixon, Franklin W. New York (NY): Grosset & Dunlap, 1962. Pp. 134-35.

I never confused it with literature, but I must admit to reading a ton of them as a kid and to collecting a few of the 66 titles for myself. Go back and read a story; it's fun, but you'll probably need only the one. And recommend matching wits with the Hardy Boys to an age-appropriate kid in your life.

PS - No need to buy all of them. You can just fire up the old jalopy and check them out from the Bayport Public Library. Oh, and "Sunrise" by Yeasayer is a thrilling adventure in an of itself; now playing on iTunes.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Caneel Bay

I recently went to the US Virgin Islands for a brief vacation. I was a Virgin Islands virgin, so I wanted my first trip to be special (and I wanted them to respect me afterward). I chose to go to Caneel Bay on St John. I chose right.

In a fit of noblesse oblige, Laurance Rockefeller--who was enraptured by the island--bought up much of St. John through an environmental protection intermediary, gave it to the US government to create the Virgin Islands National Park, and built a low-profile but sprawling hotel for the 1% on several of its many charming bays. As a result, your Caribbean vacation can consist of lolling around in a paradise well-stocked with sunshine, gorgeous water, charming flora and fauna, and hikes in the park rather than gambling, smoking, and sitting cheek to jowl with casual drunks in the swim-up bar at a chain high-rise hotel adjacent to a nominal "beach." Thank you, Laurence.

The Rockefellers are like that. Yes, they have sometimes been problematic misogynist monopolist prudes who crushed their competitors with Social Darwinist furor. But they protect land with vision and missionary zeal. And I like my overlords like that ... and I love that for $31/hour today someone like me can bask in the Caribbean's glory before global warming makes translucent seas and coral reefs a relic of the Holocene.

It is truly delightful.

PS - Go there immediately...or, uh, once the hurricane season ends (Caneel closes for September and October). You can thank me, and Laurance, later. Oh, and "Pelican" by The Maccabees is also delightful; now playing on iTunes.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Excellent Quotes: Game of Thrones

When he is not obsessing over medieval culinary delicacies and the finer points of battle dress, media sensation George RR Martin is busy crushing it story-telling-wise.

Hearing about the popularity of his Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series, I got a copy of the first book for my girlfriend. She promptly inhaled the five-part-to-date series and is impatiently awaiting the next installment. I decided to give it a shot since she liked it so much and have been amazed at the way Martin invents and fully inhabits his fictional land of Westeros, home to seven squabbling kingdoms. Nearly every one of the inter-bred ruling family members and their minions is interesting (chapters are serially told from the perspective of one character at a time), there is enough hot and cold running backstory to pay homage to Frank Herbert, and the author has conjured up a killer app for his series: The Wall.

The Wall is made of solid ice 700 feet high, 100 leagues long--that's 300 miles to those of us not living in the British Isles--and so thick that it houses tunnels and prisons and The Seven know what else inside it. The Wall is all that stands between the "civilized" residents of the South and a northern territory known as Beyond the Wall or, more chillingly, as "The Land of Always Winter."

Somewhat disappointingly, The Wall is not really an allegory about the small-mindedness of Rep. Duncan Hunter or the bizarreness of modern US/Mexico relations. It more than makes up for it, however, by being awesomely about keeping The Others out of the South. The Others are a terrifying race of gaunt ice beings whose eyes shine blue and who silently slaughter you and your pals as they remorselessly converge on you regardless of your defenses. Oh, and, after they kill you, your undead corpse--complete with colorless skin offset by black, blood-engorged hands--rises to kill anyone you knew before. Brr.

Take a gander; here, Sam, one of The Wall's guardians, summarizes what the history books in Westeros say about the shivvery beings beyond The Wall:

 "The Others come when it is cold, most of the tales agree. Or else it gets cold when they come. Sometimes they appear during snowstorms and melt away when the skies clear. They hide from the light of the sun and emerge by night ... or else night falls when they emerge. Some stories speak of them riding the corpses of dead animals. Bears, direwolves, mammoths, horses, it makes no matter, so long as the beast is dead. The one that killed Small Paul was riding a dead horse, so that part's plainly true. Some accounts speak of giant ice spiders too. I don't know what those are. Men who fall in battle against the Others must be burned, or else the dead will rise again as their thralls."

-- A Dance with Dragons. Martin, George R.R. New York (NY): Bantam Books, 2011. Pp. 179-180 (of 1705 in the e-version).

Martin seamlessly weaves together something the reader has seen--Small Paul's nightmarish death at the hands of a corpse-riding ice horror--with a totally believable "history" from the past of his fabricated world. Combined with an unerring ear for an authentic-sounding kind of Middle Ages lingo--"it makes no matter" and "plainly true"--the plot sucks you into a fully-conceived universe that you are happy to inhabit for thousands of pages.

PS -- I must admit that I skipped the fourth book, which has nearly universally been reviewed as a slog whose only real purpose it to set up book five. I am quite a slow reader so I WikiCheated instead and read the plot online, skipping from book three to the present. Oh, but "Northern White Clouds" by Supermule is no slog; now playing on iTunes.