Mon, 8 Oct 2007

Microfiction: Aachen’s Corvid

— SjG @ 9:14 pm

(In order to better motivate myself to work on a novella that I started last year, I plan to occasionally post little excerpts, sketches, and ideas here. These may or may not wind up as part of the final work, if in fact, a final work ever is produced.)

Strutting along the antenna, twenty stories above the crashing sea, the crow was a moving painting, colored vividly by the light of the setting sun. Ruffled feathers, glittering eye, he was an agitated study in deep charcoal, cobalt blues, and oil-slick opalescence.

On many a day, this crow might be found here, admiring himself, studying his fine reflection in the glass of the control system dials. Or he might be frolicking in the stiff updraft of the winds rushing over the seawall, or croaking out territorial challenges, or flirting, soaring low over the rookeries, or talking history with the murder, recounting the histories of the surrounding places (histories that generally revolved around the memories of particularly fine scavenging). But not today.

The others were keeping distant. Earlier, they had fluttered away upon his approach. The crow paced, turned to peck at the itch of a mite. The morning, so recent, was a muddled confusion. Now images, fragmentary and alien, flashed into his thoughts. He contemplated briefly a sudden, unbroken dive down to the sea-rocks, shattering amidst the ruins of this waning day.

Words formed. Words that were unfamiliar, but their meaning was clear.

The crow didn’t dive. He didn’t look at his reflection in the machinery of the pumping station. He knew what he would see. He’d seen the glint of metal on the back of crows’ heads before.

He knew that he had been split apart from the murder forever.

Sat, 1 Sep 2007

How do they know?

— SjG @ 9:29 pm

So, it’s Saturday night, 10pm on a three-day Holiday Weekend. And another important server decides to have a fatal disk error.

How do they f*ing know?

It’s uncanny.

This is just another in a long series of similar failures. The power supply failed in my security-system a few years ago — hours before we were going to leave for a vacation. The previous time the security system crashed (due to unfortunate automatic software update) was — yup — the afternoon Elizabeth and I were leaving for a weekend cruise. And Elizabeth’s Mac had its hard drive fail the day I left for Bulgaria.

Of course, we all know why this is. There have been half a dozen other failures that happened during more mundane times, which evoked the standard rage/repair response. But that was par for the course, and soon forgotten.

So here I am. Saturday night … fixing machines. I should have been a ditch digger or something.

Sat, 19 Aug 2006

State of Fear

— SjG @ 8:07 pm

Michael Crichton, HarperCollins, 2004.

Crichton knows how to write a thriller, and even when it’s a pedantic screed, he still manags to make it fun. Imagine, if you will, a cabal of evil environmentalists, who go to outlandish lengths to try to kill lots of people in order to sway public opinion, thereby bringing in more revenues for their nefarious organizations (which need big money primarily to support their leaders’ lavish lifestyles). Don’t think too hard about the fact that these evil environmentalists’ biggest scheme is to trigger a tsunami in order to spread fear about climate change (huh!?).

Crichton definitely has his axe to grind, and even has a few valid points to make (I liked the idea about double-blind science funding, for example). But this just isn’t a book you can take seriously as anything but a preachy adventure. There are some fun aspects, though. I enjoyed the barely disguised Martin Sheen and Barry Glasner characters, for example, and Crichton’s sadistic glee in dispatching one of them. Crichton is obviously infuriated by hypocracy within the environmental movement and among its promoters. And sure, he has plenty of footnotes to support his “no such thing as global warming” hypothesis — drawing different conclusions than some of the studies’ authors. He explains that away by arguing that they have to make the politically-correct assumption in order to publish. But any chance of taking his science seriously is impacted by assertions like that there are more old-growth forests around today than 150 years ago (must have something to do with what the definition of “are” is).

Wed, 9 Aug 2006

Scary Experience

— SjG @ 6:38 pm

So, I was getting ready to purchase an altogether too scrumptious sandwich at the local Supermarket, when I was faced with waiting in the self-checkout line or the one where actual humans got paid to do a job and work the machine for you. Since the lines were long at the self-checkouts, and because I’m another post-industrial, contact-starved person, I went for the standard check-out line.

The woman in front of me was paying by check. I don’t remember her total, but it was something and seventeen cents. The checker stated the price, and half a dozen little screens lit up with the number. The woman wrote her check, and handed it to the checker.

“I’ll have to give you change,” the checker said, opening the register and fishing out some coins. “You wrote the check for (whatever) seventy, when your total was (whatever) seventeen.”

This is when the woman in front of me exploded. Boom. Puff of angry smoke. Seething rage from a place straight out of a Lovecraft yarn.

“You said seventy!” she said, her voice quivering with anger.

Perhaps at this time it would be appropriate to give some more details. The checker was a dark-haired, medium complected woman in her mid forties. She had a slight accent. If you were to ask me, I’d guess that she was a native Spanish speaker, although the name on her nametag would suggest Eastern Europe. If you had to pin me down, I would guess that she was of South American descent. The woman in front of me was perhaps ten years older, lighter complected, with graying hair. She flashed a lot of her teeth when she spoke. She was probably once very attractive. She spoke as close to accent-less English as I’m capable of discerning.

The checker handed the woman two quarters and three pennies. “I want to speak to a manager!” demanded the woman, accepting the change. The checker picked up her station phone, and said something quietly.

Over dashed the manager. “How can I help?” he asked.

“If you intend to do business here,” declaimed the woman, “it would be to your advantage to have employees who can speak English.”

“What is the problem?” the manager asked. “What’s wrong?”

“My total,” said the woman. “She clearly said seventy when she meant seventeen. It’s not the money. It’s the principle. If your employees cannot speak the language, they cannot communicate with your customers.”

“Were you overcharged?” asked the manager.

“I have made my point,” the woman said, and with an exaggerated flourish dumped the two quarters and two of the pennies into the Leukemia Foundation Donation bin. The other penny missed the slot, skidded off the checkstand, bounced to the floor, and rolled off into oblivion. The woman turned, and walked forcefully out of the store.

The manager was short, and dark complected, with thick, curly black hair. His accent was clearly that of a Spanish speaker, and his nametag bore a typically Mexican last name.

I looked at the checker and the manager, and shrugged my shoulders. He shook his head, and walked away.

“How are you?” the checker asked me, smiling, as she slid my sandwich over the scanner. “That will be three ninety-five.”

I understood her perfectly.

Fri, 16 Jun 2006

Collapse, How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

— SjG @ 6:32 pm

Jared Diamond, Viking Press, 2005

This book actually took me the better part of a year to read. In his studies of societal collapse, Diamond finds reasons for optimism; in his describing past collapses, it is difficult for me to find any.

Diamond is an engaging writer. With the exception of occasional passages where he throws out lists of numerical data, he paints very accessible pictures of civilizations both past and present.

As a researcher, Diamond loves to create enumerations (“these are the ten factors that determine success of an island society”), and, once he has them defined, he uses the model as fact. While I don’t doubt that he’s researched the factors, I’m not convinced that parameterization of highly complex, open systems is reasonable.

The most though-provoking parts of the book can be summed up by the question Diamond attributes to one of his students: “what did the Easter Islander think as he was cutting down the last tree?” Of course, by the point a single tree is left, it’s far too late to have any meaningful response. But where is the point where response is possible? When is it too late?

Diamond finds reasons to be optimistic. Unfortunately, I don’t feel that his research bears out that optimism. What do we have today that was lacked by the various failed civilizations he describes? It seems to me that we have two things: cheap, abundant energy, and widely distributed information. The former, however, is limited, and may fall into that “last tree” question above, while the information will whither without the energy to sustain its communication. Technology cannot save us without energy to drive it. And has human nature changed? Are significant numbers of people acting in a way that will lead to a sustainable population and way of life in this world? I don’t see it.