Saturday, October 18, 2014

This Year's Halloween Costume

The time has come once again for me to pick my hypothetical Halloween costume. With wars and ebola stepping up the real life scary, I want something that will really upset people, maybe even provoke incoherent outbursts and irrational rage. The choice is clear: I will be a political campaign ad.

Bookworming: House of Leaves

House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski, **
How to start describing a book with a dedication which reads "This is not for you."? At it's heart lies the tidy horror story told in a documentary made by a photojournalist of what happened when he and his family moved into a house that was somehow bigger on the inside than the outside. Because of the edited nature of a documentary, and because the documentary is of the creator's family, much of the motivations of those involved are unclear. It's therefore a good thing that we the readers are presented this narration in the context of an academic examination of the film, covering copious theories, diversions, and many, many annotated footnotes. Except that this academic treatise is presented to us by a man on the fringes of society who found said documents and adds his own commentary in yet more annotations and his own pages-long narrative diversions. He quickly lets us know that the author of the extended essay appears to be making up many of his references, and in fact there is no evidence the documentary exists. And yet, the man's notes give more and more evidence of mental decline and obsession with the document he found. And if that weren't enough the book's "editors" chime in with the dark context of the compiler's history, leading to further questions about what might be real and what not.

The word "house" always appears blue.

And so goes House of Leaves: metaphor within metaphor, unreliable narrator within unreliable narrator. Narrative chaining to analysis chaining to footnote, footnote of the footnote, and reference to the copious, seemingly unrelated appendices. This is less a novel than a work of art trying to deconstruct a wide variety of writing styles from within. The central horror story is a genuinely great one which taps directly into a subversion of home being a safe place. The entire book seems meant to have a similar effect on book lovers. It is more than just a non-linear style fostered by the jumps from main content to footnotes to end notes and back, the portions that represent the visual documentary also take on the aspects of that tale, changing orientation on the page, even flowing "through" the pages at one point.

So what did I actually think of it? Well, it certainly wan't an easy read. I can appreciate the artistry of it to some extent, but I also suspect that I lack the literary training or exposure to really appreciate some of the levels of irony (or is it nihilism?) going on within the pages. In the end, I can say, yes there is a good story in here, maybe even more than one, but digging it out is work. Judging by the comments on Goodreads, it is work you will either find rewarding or utterly pretentious. The one thing I can confidently say: this was the oddest book I have ever read.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Ten Ways the World Ends

A quick link tonight to io9's taxonomy of fictional apocalypses. It provides an excellent primer into the ways fears feed into setting choices in apocalyptic stories.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Quote of the Moment

Hopelessness is the limit and beginning of a new kind of hope. You have to keep going – not to achieve dreams of beautiful mountaintop forests, but because life is more powerful than death. Hopelessness makes possible a new hope, a faith in the basic tissue of life that is stronger than any disaster. This is how humanity survives. This is the strength that keeps us going.”
–Naseer Hassan, as quoted by Roy Scranton in “Rolling Stone” “Back to Baghdad: Life in the City of Doom”.

Monday, September 22, 2014

On Productivity

Another one of those posts came across Hacker News today. You know the ones, they promise dramatic improvement in your skills and/or your life if only you do some thing every day. Want to see the world differently and be a better artist? Draw every day. Want to be a better writer and and have more insight into yourself? Write every day. Want to be more productive and get things done? Follow (your choice of Pomodoro, GTD, the Seinfeld method, etc.) every day. Granted, all of these things are probably true. If you really want to improve, a disciplined, consistent pursuit of self-education via practice will certainly help you. However, I can't help but feel there is a downside to such advice.

Sure, I want to be more productive, to use my time better. I've never met anyone who doesn't. We all have finite lives, and most of us weren't born with the monetary means to do what we want all the time. But what happens if you really are too tired? What happens if doing X every day simply doesn't fit into your (or your children's) schedule? The desire to be more productive can change into guilt or depression over not checking that box every day.

As I approach what I hope will be the midpoint of my career, I find less and less time for my hobbies because I have a house to take care of, food to buy and prepare, clothes to launder, and work responsibilities that consume more of my time and energy than ever before. And I don't even have children. This, and repeated exposure to suggestions offered on the internet have lead me to seek my own answer to the question of becoming more productive. And since people seem to like to write these things down, I will share my secret with you today.

I believe happy, healthy, well rested people are the most productive. Shocking, right? So you want to be better at X? OK then, find a way to pursue it that does not impact your health or your happiness and does not drain away your energy. It works the other way too. If doing something has a positive effect on your energy, health, or happiness, then by all means find a way to keep doing it.

I want to be a better writer, so I started a blog. The archives clearly demonstrate that I don't write every day, and yet, I'm a better writer than when I began. Am I as better as I could have been if I wrote something every day? Nope, but that's all right. I don't get paid for this. There is no motivation here other than internal motivation, and thus, I can write whenever I wish and not write when I don't. This freedom from pressure makes me happier.

I want to be a better artist, but I've picked up my pencils maybe twice in the last three years, what does that mean? Well, it turns out that for me, drawing uses the same brain muscles as programming. Attempting to do it consistently makes me less capable at work because I'm mentally tired. So I don't draw much right now. That's OK, there will come a time when I am less mentally taxed at the office, and the drawing mood will strike again.

I want to be a better guitar player, but I do a lot of typing and have a tendency toward joint inflammation. Thus, I don't often play the guitar these days to protect the health of my fingers and wrists. And that's good, because being in pain hits all three of the negative criteria.

It may sound like I have essentially given up my hobbies, but that's not the case. I have given them up for now because I can not do them without impacting other more important parts of my life. As soon as I can alter my circumstances to enable me to start doing those things again, I certainly will. All of life is a series of choices. What do you prioritize? The choice is entirely up to you. For better or worse, the needs of my job currently dictate what happens during my free time, because I have chosen to allow it to do so. You too can choose what you wish to pursue, based on the priorities of your life. There is no need to pressure yourself over things that are ultimately secondary.

My method will not make you a super-multitasking productivity machine. It will not grant you all of the skills you want at an expert level. Heck, my method may not work for you at all. But that's OK too. If you find it doesn't make you happier, healthier, or more well rested, I wouldn't recommend it for you anyway.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Scrum, and the Not Goodness Thereof

I do not have a huge amount of experience with the programming project management system known as Scrum, but what I have was not pleasant. Nor do I know any programmers that have found it pleasant, but again, minimal sample size there. It turns out I am not the only one who finds the process silly, and one of those other people wrote a post that perfectly captures what I have experienced:
"In [Giles Bowkett's] words, in it's best case scenario, Scrum's a dog-and-pony show. But that best case scenario is rare. In the much more common case, Scrum covers up the inability to recruit (or even recognize) engineering talent, which is currently one of the most valuable things in the world, with a process for managing engineers as if they were cogs in a machine, all of equal value."
I'm sure there are places out there using Scrum successfully, but I have never seen them. It seems to be a methodology using the trappings of Agile to hide that it actually comes from the fake world of scientific management. In that world, to achieve improvement, you must have The Metrics. The Metrics govern all processes. It doesn't matter if something is actually understood, it only matters that it is being Measured, and that the Measurement be Tracked.

Hmm. This turned into a bit of a rant post, so I need to look at what I can offer as a solution. In my (again, limited) experience, you get the best results when you trust your people. Of course you can't do it blindly. There must be accountability if something or someone fails to deliver, and management must be aware of and take into account individuals' interactions with other and their own desired goals. It certainly isn't the easiest path, but boy can it go gangbusters when it works. And if your team isn't capable of functioning smoothly together without a convoluted multi-process formal framework, then there are other fundamental issues that need to be solved. Is it too big? Is there a poison person? Are they being mismanaged? Is the end goal of the project unclear or shifting?

More and better minds than me, like Mr. Bowkett and Mr. Eckle above, have pondered the workings of a successful teams and successful businesses. Many trees have been felled and electrons spent in sending forth their conclusions. Yet it remains a hard problem to tackle, and like all people (and software) problems, the solutions will be at least somewhat unique every time.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

True Detective and Philosophy

Post-apocalypse stories, at least those that use the theme as more than set dressing, fall along an axis. At one end lies the ultimately positive story of life continuing after a Bad Thing happened. At the other lies the last struggling survivors and they rail, ultimately futilely, against inevitable death. In other words, optimism vs. pessimism. In different other words, existentialism vs. nihilism. I suspect that where the popular culture of the times fall into those spectra can say something about people's outlook on the world.*

HBO's recent series True Detective is not, strictly speaking, post-apocalyptic. Rather, it is heavily Southern Gothic, with the themes of mystery, decay, and dissolution twining through the cinematography and writing like wysteria covering an old tree. It does contain elements of the apocalyptic though, especially in the "revelation" sense of the word, as the main characters see the nature of their world revealed to them. And since it also draws from the classic weird story "The King in Yellow", you would not be wrong if you guessed that the revelation is not an entirely pleasant one. Rust, one of those main characters, is a self-described pessimist, in the philosophical sense rather than the colloquial one, and so it is very clear where he falls in the spectra at the start of the show. Where his arc takes him, I will not reveal here.

If you are looking for some horror viewing this autumn, you can't do much better than True Detective. And for more, and better, discussion about the philosophy behind horror and some nuggets on why nihilism can exist in pop culture, I refer you to this week's Radio Lab podcast, entitled "In the Dust of This Planet", which got me started thinking along these lines.

* Now that I have written that, I suddenly realize that which pair of philosophical struggles you more identify with might also tell you something significant about your religious beliefs, or lack thereof. But that is another topic, for someone much more educated along those lines than myself.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Bookworming: Footprints in the Sand

Footprints in the Sand, Mary Jane Clark, ***
I don't have much to say about this one. It's a pretty straightforward contemporary "cozy" style mystery. Takes about a hundred pages to really get rolling, but afterward moves at a quick pace. Mystery fans will be at home here.