Wednesday, January 31, 2007

XML and doilies

I found this blog post on the web that resonated very well with my own thoughts about writing science fiction. Since it was in a password-protected blog, I shall not identify the poster (not that he / she has anything to be embarrassed about).

"Plot always seems to get in the way of nifty ideas. I've realized this recently while looking at Americomics and fanficking; there are so many neat ideas that can happen in scifi/fantasy/superhero universes, but to have a story those ideas must be tempered (and burdened) by an actual plot, having someone do something with or because of the idea.

Personally, this is why I prefer my profession as a programmer/web developer, and my hobby as a writer of bad fanfic. As a programmer I get paid to make nifty ideas, but I'm not drudged down with actually having to do anything with them. That's what users are for. :)"

It sums up so well what I've been experiencing as I toil away at my own writing. Plot indeed gets in the way of nifty ideas. And programming lets you express your ideas without burdening them with a plot. But, unlike the author of the comment, I haven't given up a search for a perfect balance of plot and ideas. Or I should say, a search for a plot that would work with the ideas, not against them. It's very hard, but it's also one of the most interesting things I've done in a long time.

(And I don't write fanfic, BTW.)

It could be that my daily mindset, imposed on me by my work as a programmer, works against these efforts. To me, thinking about programming is not verbal, it is spatial / visual. Ideas come to me as visual structures, not as words.

The images they may take are sometimes amusing. One sleepless night, when I ruminated on some programming problems I'm currently working on (because it was more entertaining and less futile than trying to force myself to sleep), this visual popped into my head. XML files were hanging from a clothesline by their angle brackets. They looked like doilies. Or maybe paper snowflakes. They had jagged / scalloped edges, where the jaggedness was realized on several different scales. The angle brackets made up the lowest-level jaggedness, and the identations of nested XML tags provided several scales of higher-level "scallops". Doilies (or paper snowflakes) are like that, too. I was probably 9-10 years old by the time I made my last doily. In the time and place I grew up, girls were required to take classes in "feminine" crafts, such as sewing, knitting and crocheting. And doilies are the easiest thing to crochet, so they were the staple of the craft classes. Even my 10-year-old self realized how lame this particular element of home decor is, but not before its imagery invaded my figurative thinking. Such are the vagaries of a girly mind. :-)

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Cute analogies

A few posts ago I was musing about the best ways to introduce scientific ideas in science fiction, to explain them in terms vivid enough to intrigue a reader, instead of slowing down the action. In Sunday's New York Times magazine I found an inspiring example of how it can be done. (I put the particularly memorable sentence in bold.)

Where Protons Will Play

To be sure, the article I'm referring to is a science fact article, not fiction, but I think there's something to be learned from this little perl of explanation. I'm not being sarcastic -- this excerpt seems silly and clever at the same time:

[F]locks of protons will be made to zip around the tunnel in opposite directions at nearly the speed of light. Then they will be forced to crash into each other, with (it is hoped) spectacular results for physics.

Physicists, you see, learn about the subatomic world by smashing things together and then looking at the debris. Imagine a midair collision between two watermelons; it would make quite a mess, but nothing very interesting would result. Suppose, though, you get two protons to collide head-on. If they are moving fast enough, the energy of their collision, converted into mass à la Einstein's E=mc2, will produce a shower of new particles. (It would be as if colliding watermelons splattered into a shower of pineapples, blueberries, mangoes and more exotic fruits.)

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

A suggestion for IKEA: how to get customers buy more while helping them less

At IKEA (where I went last weekend to look for dining tables and other furniture for the new house) I got an impression that it prides itself on having streamlined the shopping process to a fault, on getting the customer to glide smoothly through their shopping apparatus without disturbing a single cog (read: employee) in the machine.

Communist-style customer service with a positive spin!

All throughout the store you can find tips on how you, the customer, can save work for the store's employees, thus keeping IKEA's costs down. IKEA is the first store I've seen that actively, openly discourages you from using its workers for what they are for: to help. "Why should I clear my table?" asks a sign in the cafeteria. Answer: because it reduces the amount of work for the employees, and with fewer employees, we can keep our prices low. Why should I try to figure out where to find things on my own, instead of asking for help? asks another sign (in a much more polite/cheerful language, though). Answer: the less help you need, the fewer employees we need, and that helps us to... all together now: Keep Our Prices Low! :-)

In other words, IKEA customer service concept eerily reminds me of the Communist-style service, where the customer was treated as invisible at best, or worse, as an intruder. However, I have to admire IKEA for putting such a positive spin on it: you, the customer, are not unwanted or invisible, you are smart, capable and self-sufficient for doing things yourself, figuring out things on your own! We are not ignoring you -- we are empowering you! :-)

And the store is indeed well organized to help you be self-sufficient, from take-home maps with shopping lists on the back, to the flat car-friendly packaging. And despite all the discouragement, the store employees are friendly and helpful when you dare to approach them. So I'm not griping. But there is one more thing they could do to be more consistent with their spirit of efficiency and customer empowerment.


Technology that has a potential to send people on a shopping spree

Currently IKEA provides blank shopping lists on the back of take-home maps, so that you could scribble down model names and prices of things you want. That's better than nothing, but it would be much better if they invested in a bunch of scanning wands, which the customer could wave over the barcodes of items they are interested in, and automatically add them to their shopping list or wish list. The shopping/wish list could be instantly posted on IKEA's website (protected by a username and password, of course). The customer could keep it private, or make it public, or available to friends, and such. The list could even be made accessible to the customer's friends from LiveJournal, MySpace or any social networking site, with their login credentials obtained from that site (eliminating a need for friends to create a separate account); or it could be integrated into one's Amazon wish list. Or some combination thereof. Of course, the customer would also have an option to keep the list private and use it for their own reference instead of as a gift registry.

And if they wanted to go really fancy, scanning wands could be equipped by digital cameras (a cheapo kind, as in cell phones, would suffice) so that the customer could take his/her own pictures of the furniture, which would be instantly added to the item's description in the wish list. Even though IKEA website already provides images of things, in my eyes they are not represenatative of how the items look in reality. I, as a customer, may want to take pictures of things from different angles, to capture the aspects that are important to me.

A wand-generated online shopping list would be much better than scribbling your list on a scrap of paper, because scraps of paper get lost, pencil marks fade and smear and what-have-you. Also, an online shopping/wish list can easily be shared between, and added to by, other family members.

And think of the "going wild" aspect of it! To point and click at things is just... cool! It's a game! It makes you want to point and click more! And the more items you have on your list, the more you may end up buying!

As far as I understand, some stores already use scanning wands to enable customers create gift registries. I saw customers wielding wands in Babies'R'Us. So it's not a new idea. But it would be nice to extend it to creation of shopping lists. Anything that makes it easier for customer to keep track of what he/she wants, makes it easier for them to buy. I wonder if investing in such things would actually result in bigger sales for the store.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

A review of "Cross Plains Universe"

I recently finished a short story anthology titled "Cross Plains Universe: Texans celebrate Robert E. Howard". It was the official book of the World Fantasy Convention 2006. I'm not sure what "an official book of a convention" means, but in practical terms it meant that every convention member got a free copy of it.

I haven't read anything by Robert E. Howard and don't really plan to, since barbarians are not really my thing; so I can't say that a tribute to Howard is of great interest to me. The main reason I read this anthology was for its social value. The FACT reading group was going to discuss it at one of their meetings. I thought this book might be worth reading as a facilitator for socializing with the FACT people. :-) Another reason I read it was because I kind of/sort of know many of those authors -- not very well, but I've run into many of them at various SF-related events in Austin, and talked with them on some occasions. So it was interesting to see what they werex like as writers.

There were two kinds of stories in the "Cross Plains Universe" anthology. One, stories about Robert E. Howard. Maybe I would have appreciated them more if I had known a fact or two from Howard's biography. The only one of those stories that amused me was "A Whim of Circumstance" by Mark Finn, because it's funny even if you (like me) know nothing about Howard and are not interested in his writing: this story stands on its own.

Rick Klaw's "A Penny A Word" also has a nice crypto-historical twist.

The second kind of stories in this book did not have Robert E. Howard as a character, so I can only guess the reason they were included was because they were written in Robert E. Howard's spirit or style. But I can't be sure because I haven't read anything by him.

From the tribute stories I inferred certain things about Howard's writing. Such as...

If my guess is correct, I got an impression that Robert E. Howard's stories

(1) were adventure fantasy (which I already knew);

(2) were often set in exotic countries;

(3) featured scheming seductresses who get men to do their will and then betray them;

(4) featured a quest for diamonds or some interesting artifacts hidden in chambers, and

(5) the chambers were guarded by supernatural beings.

Of several tales in "Cross Plains Universe" that featured these plot elements, I found Chris Roberson's "The Jewel of Leystall" to be more interesting than others, because the diamond turned out to be not what it seemed. There was even a slight science-fictional aspect to the story. Also, the centipedes were cool.

Oh, and (6): to a lesser extent Howard must have written about large apes as well, because two of the tributes featured such animals. That's a far lesser number than the number of stories about seductresses and diamonds, but still, there was a minor trend there.

Overall, this collection was a pleasant read -- none of the stories, except one or two, were actually boring -- but the reason why this book won't stick in my mind is because most of those tales seemed rather pointless to me.


Most stories seem unfinished, as if they were excerpts from a larger adventure

They were snippets of adventures that may make sense if they were chapters in a novel, and you could imagine that a resolution awaits a few chapters later. But the stories themselves were often without a resolution. Howard Waldrop's story about two guys who go to Mexico and see weird things there, or Jessica Reisman's story about two girls who get transported into a fantasy world, are examples of such. Too bad, because they are written quite amusingly -- they have cool "furniture" (to borrow a phrase from Walter Jon Williams) :-) It's just that you expect something important, life-changing to happen to the characters, or at least something that would justify the whole adventure... or barring that, an unpredictable plot twist... and nothing happens. The very first story in the book, about a Roman warrior who encounters ghosts in the forest, is another example of a pointless adventure. And it does not even have cool furniture.

Of all the adventure stories, the one I liked the most was Lawrence Person's "The Toughest Jew in the West", because it does have a meaningful and somewhat unexpected ending.

Can this book inspire one to read Robert E. Howard? Hardly.

Was this book supposed to inspire me to read Robert E. Howard? If so, it failed. Then again, the idea of judging the quality of Robert E. Howard's work from the tribute stories reminds me of a joke that used to be popular in $my_home_country. This joke is usually told about a certain ethnic group, and it's not fair to it (as if any joke is), so I need to scrub it of all the references to that ethnicity. So let's say the characters were named simply Bob, Joe and Jim.

Bob tells Joe that Luciano Pavarotti is in town on a tour, and will sing in a local opera production for one night. He grumbles over the fact that he can't afford the outrageously expensive tickets. Joe says: "You're not missing much: Pavarotti can't sing worth crap. I know -- Jim sang one of his arias for me over the phone".

Now that I think about it, what I find fascinating about this joke is not so much its punchline, as its premise: a bunch of ordinary, straight guys fretting about not being able to go to opera! This joke would not make any sense in the US. Did I grow up in a strange place and time, or what? :-)