23 Dec 2011

Good writing, bad writing

As I mentioned earlier, the current audiobook that I'm working on is Left behind. As usual with my audiobooks, I listen in installments that correspond to whenever I'm driving someplace in my car (for more than a fifteen-minute ride), so I've progressed a bit this week, although I'm still only about halfway through. My early impression is mixed; the first few hours' worth was not particularly preachy (as I had feared), and in fact was setting up quite a few of the characters---all of whom are, by definition, not "true" Christians, not saved, etc---to be very sympathetic, positive characters. Unfortunately, the writing is not very strong. There are a lot of extremely ham-handed attempts at plot movement that amount to nothing but cheap plot devices, hard to believe even within the context of the premise of the book. But, I'm ok with hack fiction; sometimes it's entertaining anyway or otherwise of value.

Then it started veering off in the direction I had been originally expecting. One of the two main threads of the story has begun focusing entirely on one man who is in the process of Accepting Jesus Christ As His Personal Saviour, and his daughter who (so far) isn't---because, clearly, the author decided he needed a foil so he could explain things and persuade the reader. The problem is, he's really bad at it. The "logical" arguments for why she should convert don't even make sense within the context! The author is just not very good at putting himself in the shoes of a skeptic, I guess. (The skeptics that he does invent are impossibly stupid: fully a week after the Rapture, and nobody in the whole world other than the near-Christians seems to have noticed that it is only the devout fundamentalist Christians who were taken away.) And the other main character, in what I assume is about to become the Antichrist plot, is somewhat interesting but a strange mix of clever and stupid, presumably in a bid to make the reader feel smarter than someone who's supposedly clever. That plot has some promise as a suspense-thriller, but characters keep doing things that aren't motivated and/or don't fit their previous actions, so it's hard to really get into (and just as you do, it switches over to the other plot with its plodding pontificating).

The writing style and (lack of) skill reminds me of Dan Brown, whom I've complained about before, except with value-added proselytism.

What takes it from awful to excruciating is what I have to compare it to. Yesterday I was going into the city to meet some high school friends, and I was going to be taking the El partway, so I grabbed a book book to read; I borrowed Kathy's copy of A game of thrones, which I've been meaning to read for a while. This is quality high fantasy, with compelling characters and a gripping plot. When a minor character almost dies in this book (twice so far!), you're on the edge of your seat and unable to put the book down, hoping the character will manage to pull through. As opposed to in the other one, where a character gets blown up and your reaction is, "yeah, saw that coming. Shucks."

Earlier today I actually caught myself putting off driving to the mall for some shopping, because it was going to mean listening to more of the Left behind. It's bad enough on its own, but having to alternate with actual good writing makes it nearly unbearable. I may have to just give it up as a bad job and move on to one of my other audiobooks instead. :P

"The terror of printing the most basic of the earthy Germanic words for human excrement clearly continues unquelled. Except here, of course, because on Language Log we are linguists, and we don't give a shit. We don't believe simple Anglo-Saxon monosyllables will either sear your eyeballs or warp the moral fiber of the young." --Geoff Pullum

Posted by blahedo at 10:57pm | Comments (1)

21 Dec 2011

Therefore, install Linux

Early this past term I partitioned my MacBook hard drive so I could install Linux on (part of) it---at least in part because I was telling my students to do this, and I needed to make sure I knew what I was talking about. But also, the Mac system I'm running is aging and I really did not want to be giving more money to Apple.

At the time I installed Kubuntu (the KDE variant of Ubuntu). It was okay, but KDE has always felt sort of heavy to me. On my work desktop I'd installed straight-up Ubuntu, with Gnome, but that has been a bit of a fiasco the last year or so; I used to like Gnome okay, although almost as heavy as KDE, but Gnome 3 and Ubuntu's layer atop it (called Unity) are hard to use, harder to configure, and seem geared towards mobile tablets and pads as much as desktop and laptops. I actually went so far as to install fvwm on that machine, which was an improvement over Gnome/Unity (really!), and definitely very nostalgic, but it was not well integrated and ultimately was a decade or so out of date.

So one of my winter break projects was going to be to reinstall my laptop's Linux partition with other Linuxes to find one I was happier with. Having done some previous research, a likely desktop environment seemed to be Xfce (which may have been founded by former fvwm users, but in any case seemed to be the refuge of choice for several high-profile OSS folks who were fleeing Gnome/Unity). I was actually leaning towards Linux Mint Xfce edition, but was momentarily stymied by the distro ISO being DVD-targeted (my laptop only has a CD burner), so I went with Xubuntu instead, and so far I'm pretty happy with it.

Coming from decades of Mac use, and more recently two or three different Linux installations, I actually kind of feel like installing Xubuntu was like being led to the promised land. It really is the modern update of the power user's Unix/Linux environment that I came to love during college and grad school; I have access to all the crazy configuration options that Gnome and KDE have slowly been eroding or hiding away, but with a nice, fresh front end that doesn't make me feel like it's 1999. It has some of the very nice Mac-isms that I've long admired, like a dock (well, it's a "panel", and I had to do some configuration to make it match my Mac dock, but that's ok :), but it also has fixes for some of the things that Apple has broken (like good virtual desktops, which Spaces never managed to be). And I didn't even have to go diving into the text config files to turn on focus-follows-mouse---and I could turn on FFM without also activating autoraise.

There were just a few configuration issues that I had to go hunting for, which I'll document here for my own future reference as well as for anyone else installing Xubuntu (or, probably, any other Xfce-based Linux distro) on a Macbook. (For reference: currently it's Xubuntu 11.10, on a Macbook 4,1.):

  • If you don't want tap-to-click, there seems to be no place in the GUI configuration to turn it off. You need to run this command:
    synclient MaxTapTime=0
  • If you do want to be able to use the two-finger swipe motion to do horizontal as well as vertical scrolling, as you can on a Mac, you need to run this command:
    synclient HorizTwoFingerScroll=1
    (Vertical is on by default, but not horizontal.)
  • The default trackpad configuration in Xubuntu (Kubuntu too, as I recall) is way less sensitive than on the Mac side, with the effect that you have to use the pads of your fingers instead of the tip in order to use it. If that bothers you as much as it bothered me, you probably want to run this command:
    synclient FingerLow=9 FingerHigh=13
  • Finally, the MacBook's headphone jack is a dual analog/optical port, and when it's in optical mode it shines a red LED; and for some reason, this is turned on by default in Xubuntu (and apparently the other Ubuntus), with the effect that you have a red light shining out the side of your laptop. To turn this off,
    amixer set IEC958 off
  • Since each of these need to be run each time you start up, you probably want to automate this. Put all of them in a file that starts with the line
    and which is set to be executable (using chmod); then in the setting manager, go to Session and Startup > Application Autostart and add the file you just created, which will then be run every time you log in.

Happy Linuxing!

"The living people who call themselves Jedi may know with great certitude that Luke Skywalker never existed, but that doesn't keep them from being passionately devoted to what they believe are his ways, investing as much into their fandom as some folks invest in Christ. That they choose this as their religion has NOTHING TO DO with the literal reality of the story. Same goes with my belief in Christ." --Jonathan Prykop

Posted by blahedo at 9:44pm | Comments (0)

19 Dec 2011

Perfect poison

On the road trip home, I listened to the book The perfect poison by Amanda Quick. It was the most singularly curious assortment of genres that I can recall ever reading: while I picked it up at the library thinking it was a mystery/thriller (based on a quick skim of the blurb on the back), it could also rightly be described as low fantasy, or period fiction, or even as a romance novel. Set in the late Victorian period, its main characters are upperclass English with paranormal abilities and its plot revolves around a thinly-disguised rehash of a philosopher's stone; so its low-fantasy cred is fairly well-established. Murders and attempted murders also figure in strongly, with a few narrow escapes, so definitely solid as a suspense novel (which is what I like to listen to for the long road trips). But while there can certainly be sex scenes in novels outside the romance genre, these were somewhat more graphic than I'm accustomed to! On the other hand, I literally burst out laughing at some of the ridiculous descriptions and setups the author used for those scenes---are all romance novels so silly?

Anyway, it wasn't half bad, even with the silliness. I'd certainly be willing to at least try this author's other work.

(After that book ended I got a start on Left behind, which was a bit of an impulse pick because I figured I should read it if I'm going to be critical of the series. So far it's somewhat different than I expected, although I believe I already see a bait-and-switch being set up, so we'll see.)

"Major USA-Asia wars since WWII: one loss, one tie, two in OT. Too bad. I like our troops, but I especially like them alive and defending the USA instead of dead or being made to stir up hornets' nests a world away." --Matt Zanon

Posted by blahedo at 3:46pm | Comments (0)

18 Dec 2011

Mmm, leftovers.

Cleaning out the fridge before a trip is always fun; it means having apple crisp for dinner. Yum. :)

"It's probably safe to say that if a principal was accused of overlooking a child molester in his classrooms or recycling him to other schools, nobody would compare his suffering to Christ's." --Katha Pollitt

Posted by blahedo at 3:52pm | Comments (0)

17 Dec 2011

Eurovision 2011

The previous post I'd been meaning to write for a long time (proof: I was talking about it back in May on Eric Zorn's blog!), but what finally pushed me into it was that it became easy to get at old Facebook posts. (Also, I had free time.) This post is thus a development of running commentary I made on Facebook last May during the live broadcast of the 2011 Eurovision Song Contest.

First, a quick spin through the entries that washed out in the semifinals showed only a couple worth mention:

  • Norway with "Haba haba" (mit/ohne Postkarte) was catchy, and points for making the key line be in, of all things, Swahili!
  • Armenia with "Boom boom" (mit/ohne Postkarte) had a great driving beat in the main parts, and a sultry little rhumba thing going on in the intro and bridge. Cute thing they did with the boxing ring, too. No love from the voters, though.

Then the main event began. My first impression: the stage looks like a humongous uterus from overhead. Then the announcers started singing, admonished everyone that this was a "serious" TV show (ha!), and proceeded with more spectacle. Too much fun. Finally, we got to the main event; the postcards were nifty, with that foreshortened video technique that makes everything look like a model train layout, showing a person living in Germany who is from the country about to perform, ending with a view of the theme ("Feel your heart beat") translated into the home language(s) of that country, either spoken or written. Très mignon.

  1. Finland "Da da dam" (mit/ohne Postkarte) was a cute song but with weak vocals. I liked it generally, but it already seemed unlikely to win.
  2. Bosnia and Herzegovina "Love in rewind" (mit/ohne Postkarte) was hugely fun to watch; they looked like great amateurs. The song itself was decent, though I thought it a little less upbeat than it could be. I figured they'd place in the middle someplace: well enough, but unlikely to win.
  3. Finland "New tomorrow" (mit/ohne Postkarte) surprised me by being a second song (already!) with a "heal the world" theme, after Finland. This one was pleasant to listen to and well executed---a keeper for sure. Possibly a contender if this was otherwise a weak year; likely in any case to get lots of points.
  4. Lithuania "C'est ma vie" (mit/ohne Postkarte) started out weak, but warmed up as it went, the first of several power ballads of the evening. I loved the use of sign language—I still wonder which one it was—as well as the use of French for flavour (most of the song's in English). Given that Lithuania can count on a certain amount of support from the Baltic bloc, it seemed like it had a moderate chance.
  5. Hungary "What about my dreams" (mit/ohne Postkarte) was a great disco-pop song performed by a woman wearing a completely ridiculous dress. I thought it would do well, but we still hadn't seen a real showstopper.
  6. Ireland "Lipstick" (mit/ohne Postkarte) was, OMG, ridiculously bizarre and awesome. It has just enough schlock to catch your attention, but also with a catchy, driving beat that will make it stick in your head. This one seemed like a serious contender.
  7. Sweden "Popular" (mit/ohne Postkarte) came next, and following on Ireland, I thought, "yes, those first five were just warmup". This is Euro-tronica at its best, with better dancing and a cuter lead singer. Sweden ftw!
  8. Estonia "Rockefeller Street" (mit/ohne Postkarte) gets points for effort, and there's nothing really wrong with it, but seemed a little too meh to go anywhere. The pink dress is intense, though.
  9. Greece "Watch my dance" (mit/ohne Postkarte) really shouldn't have made it past the semifinals. This is a terrible song, where the rap verses don't go with the echoey big vocals, and neither goes with the driving-beat backing tracks, and... a balalaika in the music? Nice gymnastics in the dance, though.
  10. Russia "Get you" (mit/ohne Postkarte) had the presentation of a boy band but with a more clubby sound that got better as it went. Cute gimmick with the light-up jackets, but it didn't seem like a serious contender.
  11. France "Sognu" (mit/ohne Postkarte) was astonishing: opera! And in Corse! And the guy with this incredible voice is only 21. What. a. voice. My jaw hit the floor on this one; the performance really goes to 11. So out of the mainstream that it was impossible to guess its ranking; it could do terribly or awesomely. But, wow.
  12. Italy "Madness of love" (mit/ohne Postkarte) was the first Italian entry in decades, and it was like they'd been saving up; this was great: a fast foxtrot that owes a lot to the old standards but manages not to sound out of date. It wouldn't sound out of place in a Michael Bublé show—nice work, deserving of a very high rank.
  13. Switzerland "In love for a while" (mit/ohne Postkarte) was another foxtrot, this time with an affect suffused with cuteness, in the lyrics, in the background video, in the floating soap bubbles, in the ukulele and xylophone. I love this song, although probably just a mid-range scorer.
  14. UK "I can" (mit/ohne Postkarte) meh. This was as meh as they get. Meh meh meh.
  15. Moldova "So lucky" (mit/ohne Postkarte) was schlock at its best. You see hats like that and you know it's going to be good (for some definition of good). The unicycle adds to the effect. As for the song itself, it had its moments in the middle, and they're clearly having fun up there. Not exactly winning material, though.
  16. Germany "Taken by a stranger" (mit/ohne Postkarte) was the followup to a winning song from last year, and not really up to the task (although I didn't like Lena's 2010 offering that much either, so.) She does exuberant better than she does come-hither, I think. Compelling bass beat, interesting silver dancers, but not likely a second win for her.
  17. Romania "Change" (mit/ohne Postkarte) draws you in with its catchy swing beat, and you just can't help grinning and dancing to this one. The singer has the cutest smile, and keeps grinning for the camera; hard to judge its chances, but it's one of my favourites from the show. Definitely one to grab for the ballroom collection, in any case. :) (And: another change-the-world song.)
  18. Austria "The secret is love" (mit/ohne Postkarte) was only the second power ballad, and not technically bad, but sort of forgettable.
  19. Azerbaijan "Running scared" (mit/ohne Postkarte) sounded lovely enough, but the random wandering about the stage was a little odd and distracting. I thought, at the time, that it was headed for a good honorable mention.
  20. Slovenia "No one" (mit/ohne Postkarte) was nice, but forgettable.
  21. Iceland "Coming home" (mit/ohne Postkarte) had me hooked from the first bar. It's a a slow but serviceable quickstep, and perfectly enchanting. The lyrics are charming enough on their own, but especially poignant when you know that the composer himself actually died before he could perform it, and these are a bunch of his friends that got permission from his widow to take the song to the ESC anyway. It hits me right in the sappy, and I love it.
  22. Spain "Que me quiten lo bailao" (mit/ohne Postkarte) is really bringing the upbeat latin. A fun little samba to put a smile on your face. Not my #1 but it's up there.
  23. Ukraine "Angel" (mit/ohne Postkarte) HAS THE COOL SAND ARTIST. The song's nice and all, but the super-mega-points are for bringing the sand art. Nobody's paying attention to the song, they're all watching the sand.
  24. Serbia "Čaroban" (mit/ohne Postkarte) channels the late 1960s perfectly. Fun! It certainly stands out from the other 2011 songs that way; and very well-executed. Didn't seem like a winner, but it was good enough that it was a possibility.
  25. Georgia "One more day" (mit/ohne Postkarte) closes out the evening with a surprising hard rock piece. Not my cup of tea, but they did such a good job that it seemed like it could be a sleeper hit (and in any case a nice closing piece).

Overall, my personal assessment was that the top performances were Sweden, France, Romania, and Iceland, with honorable mention to Italy, Spain, and Switzerland, with the overall #1 to Romania—not that these were the ones that I expected to win (I put Sweden and Ireland as likely candidates there).

In the event, my top choices had a rather, er, mixed performance:

Switzerland25 (last!)

Of those, I was pleasantly surprised by how well Italy did, but the rest weren't too shocking. I was not expecting Azerbaijan to do so well, though, and their support was across the board, so it wasn't down to bloc voting or anything. Well, we'll see what next year brings!

"Praying does seem wiser than hoping at this point." --Rachel Maddow

Posted by blahedo at 6:51pm | Comments (0)

Eurovision primer for the American noob

So you're an American, and every once in a while you hear about this song contest called "Eurovision" that those crazy Europeans do, usually with a clip of some outrageously schlocky and amusical act that makes you cringe and have serious doubts about any claim to taste that the Europeans might once have had. (You might also know it as the answer to a trivia question about ABBA, who won in 1974 with "Waterloo", subsequently breaking out into the wider European and world markets.)

I'm not entirely sure why the Eurovision song contest almost universally holds that reputation, although I think they went through a bad period a while back that they're still recovering from. But while there's a certain amount of schlock, the majority is a serious effort, and while there is a strong leaning towards pop songs, there's always a pretty broad range of genres represented. For instance, consider Rändajad, the 2009 entry from Estonia:

This is not "pop" by any reasonable definition, and it most certainly isn't schlock. What it is, is gorgeous. As it happened, that one didn't win its year (it took 6th); the winners are often pretty good, but in any given year some of the best songs are further down-list. The power ballad "My heart is yours", from Norway in 2010, is a good example:

For my money one of the best songs from that year, but it only placed 20th (out of 25 finalists). Speaking of genres, though, one of the most personally appealing aspects of the ESC is that year after year it has an incredibly high ratio of great ballroom-dance-able songs. The song "I wanna", the Latvian entry from 2002, is a great (if slightly fast) cha-cha:

Marvellous bit of trick costume work, too, and I'd wager that most or all of those dancers had some significant ballroom training. That one actually did take 1st place in its year, with medium- to high-point votes from nearly every other country. The full table is on the Wikipedia page for that year; essentially, each country gets to vote for ten other countries, with the top two receiving 12 and 10 points, and the rest receiving 8 down to 1 point. (The scores are read at the end of the competition in French and English, so the exclamation "douze points"—12 points—has become a catchphrase for the whole contest.) And if you like the text-message voting systems now used on everything from American Idol to Dancing with the Stars, you can thank Eurovision, which pioneered this voting mechanism for the ESC back in the 1990s.

I originally got hooked on the Eurovision Song Contest in 2009, when Alexander Rybak's win was all over the BBC news page due to massively breaking the record number of points. So I watched it on Youtube (of course), and I quickly discovered three things:

  • The related links at the end of a Youtube video of an ESC song often include many other songs from that year and other songs from that country;
  • If not, you can always do a search for "ESC <year> <country>" and find at least three copies; and
  • There are, perforce, thousands of these by now and if you don't set yourself a limit you could be at this for a very long time.
You can literally pick a random year and a random country and start anywhere.

I ventured into some of the earlier years, too. The ballroomy songs were even more common then, as in Sweden's entry from 1959, a tango called "Augustin":

I find this performance perfectly captivating. Brita Borg's voice is gorgeous, and the storytelling is strong—although if you don't speak Swedish (as I don't), you might find it helpful to check out the indispensable Diggiloo Thrush, a comprehensive listing of all ESC entries ever, along with their placings, lyrics, and translations into English (and in some cases other languages as well). The balladic storytelling songs continue to show up in later ESCs; the 1969 entry from Netherlands, "De troubadour", is a haunting one:

Again, translation at Diggiloo. As a general rule, the more recent the ESC, the more songs are in English; there was a rule in place for a while that countries had to perform in (one of) their national languages, which is fun for language geeks like me, but was sort of unpopular; since "everyone" speaks English, the English-speaking countries were seen to have an unfair advantage (and maybe they did; UK and Ireland did win fairly often in those years). But even after the rule was dropped, there are still plenty of great non-English entries, such as "Dis oui" ("Say yes"), the 1998 entry from Belgium and in my opinion among the best ESC songs ever:

Here we also see one of the features of ESC that has been standard since the 70s: the "postcard" before every song that (logistically speaking) gives them a chance to reset the stage, and usually includes photos and videos of the host country (in this case the UK). It also gives each local broadcaster a chance to announce in the home language, since the main ESC broadcast is primarily in English or French; depending on where the Youtube uploader is from, you'll get voiceovers in any number of different languages over the postcard. The above video is apparently off BBC---that's Terry Wogan you're hearing there.

Part of the reason Eurovision is largely unknown in the US is, of course, that it doesn't get broadcast here. The internet is a great resource for European expats as well as for us Americans that got hooked remotely: between Youtube and the various info sites (especially Diggiloo and Wikipedia), we can access the whole 50-year-plus trove of great songs. Furthermore, Eurovision has long been at the cutting edge of broadcasting technology (and often uses the ESC to test/showcase new stuff); for several years now the whole live broadcast has been streamed at eurovision.tv for anyone abroad who cares to watch. Next year's is broadcast from Azerbaijan on 26 May; tune in with me!

"The only weapons we have are simplicity and convention." --Jonathan Edwards

Posted by blahedo at 4:43pm | Comments (0)

13 Dec 2011

Buy my house!

As was basically inevitable (given that I've moved 800 miles away), I've finally put my house in Galesburg up for sale. It is an awesome house, and so I have put together a webpage aptly entitled

Buy my awesome house!

Should you find yourself in need of an awesome house in the Galesburg, Illinois area, or if you know someone else who is, you should click and/or forward that link.

I'm so glad that I'll never fit in;
that will never be me.
Outcast girls with ambition:
that's what I want to see! --Pink, "Stupid girls"

Posted by blahedo at 5:34pm | Comments (1)