Friday, December 26, 2008

Patrice Sarath "Gordath Wood": FACT reading group discussion

13 people attended the discussion of "Gordath Wood". 5 people have read Patrice Sarath's short stories before. Everybody except 3 people started the book. 7 finished it. The rest were planning to finish it.

"Gordath Wood" starts with two young women, Lynn and Kate, venturing out (separately) into the woods in search of a runaway horse. Unbeknownst to themselves, they each cross into a parallel world resembling medieval Europe. Before they know it, the two heroines are dragged into a war between two feudal lords. As they try to find a way to come back to their world, or find their mission in the one they ended up in, it turns out that the portal between the worlds has become unstable, threatening destruction in both the parallel and their own world.

The two women are very involved with horses, and so big parts of the text revolve around horse riding and care. Several readers observed that the author taught them more about horses than they wanted to know; however, she did it in a non-boring way. The horse specifics are woven into the plot and don't overshadow the story.

Character-driven, not a concept-driven story

Everybody agreed this was a character-driven rather than concept-driven story. Several people liked its vivid, realistic characters. The villains weren't all bad, and good people weren't all good. Still, not everybody found the characters realistic, noting that the bad guys -- the general, the detective -- acted too stupid to be believable. "The villains were so illogical in their behavior that they seemed just devices to have tension in the book," said a reader. Examples: the general had Kate flogged after she brought him weapons and radios; the detective went after Joe, and later after Lynn, for no reason. Kate might have been the most likeable character of them all, but even she occasionally did reckless, impulsive things. Some group members explained it as Kate merely being a teenager: having raised teenagers themselves, they were familiar with those patterns of behavior.

Most people thought Kate was more interesting than the other female protagonist, Lynn. One reader commented that Lynn mainly existed for men to fall in love with her. Kate, on the other hand, was more active. "She had more interactions with people on widely diferent levels, from people who tended the horses, to women who did menial labor, to the doctor and the general. We saw a lot more of the culture through her," said a reader. Some readers could identify with Joe more than any other character; others said they could not identify with a drifter. A few readers could not identify with any character.

Despite a cover that suggested (at least to some people) Harlequin romance, this book notably lacked romance cliches. Even though some characters fall in love, those love stories do not end in a typical romance novel way. One person liked the author's "non-girly" approach to relationships, and declared this book suitable reading for men. Yet a reader, regardless of gender, who looks for something more than character development in a SF/F story may not find it here. A few people said they prefer a genre book to have at least some unusual conceptual element, but there were none in this book. So, enjoyable as it was, this type of story would never become their main reading fare.

For a first novel, it's...

Since "Gordath Wood" is Patrice Sarath's first novel, there were a lot of "for a first novel, it's..." judgments floating around. The style and characaterization in "Gordath Wood" was found to be better than that of many other debut novels this group has read over the recent years. Readers thought "Gordath Wood" balanced many points of view successfully, which is not easy for a beginner author. On the other hand, the multitude of viewpoints confused some people, especially since some characters changed sides in the war. It didn't help that the viewpoint often jumped back and forth between two characters within one chapter.

One reader thought the story suffered from serious logistical problems. He thought some characters' location, direction, and speed of movement did not compute. You'll have some people at point A, and after a certain time you'll find them at point B, where they could not have gotten so fast. It was also not clear whether the portal of travel between world was located between two rock formations, or if it spanned a larger area of the woods.

Beside some fuzzy travel-related math, the world portrayed in "Gordath Wood" was found inconsistent on a larger conceptual level. On one hand, nature looked the same on both sides of the portal, and people on both worlds spoke some dialect of English, which suggested the parallel world was an alternative Earth. But the stars in the sky were different, which would imply it's not the same planet. One reader said he would have been curious to see if Patrice Sarath had worked out the relationship of the two worlds in her head, or it if was just handwaving. Most people suspected the latter. To her credit, though, the author did not employ many arbitrary kinds of magic, avoiding the problems other writers introduce when they pull out magic objects out of the hat at a character's convenience. It was also good that the characters of "Gordath Wood" did not cross back and forth between worlds at will. They stayed on one side or the other for most of the story.

Personally what I liked the most was bringing the economics of our world into that of a medieval society. And I don't mean just the fact that the modern humans smuggled guns into the medieval world. I was most impressed with the twist that happens at the end and explains some characters' true motivations for the war. They were going to take advantage of the medieval country's untapped natural resourcwes. I know this has already been done by Charles Stross in "Merchant Princes" series, but Charles Stross' characters didn't capture me the way Patrice Sarath's did.

Inconsistencies notwithstanding, most people enjoyed the story and were looking forward to reading the sequel. One reader, though, was disappointed to find out there's a sequel: she thought all the plot ends were wrapped too perfectly in the first book.

After the meeting the group met with Patrice Sarath for dinner, where she answered some of our questions about this book and its characters, as well as her future plans. For example, she told us that Kate's character wasn't based on Patrice's teenage daughter. It was based on Patrice herself, or rather the kind of person she perceived herself to be in her adolescence.

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Friday, December 19, 2008

George Hrab concert in Austin

George Hrab was one of the line of atheist singers and songwriters (Roy Zimmerman, Paul Martin a.k.a Aspiring Atheist, Linda Chorney) that performed for the Center For Inquiry Austin in the recent months. He gave a concert at La Madeleine on November 22, 2008.

I was impressed by his songwriting more than that of others (except maybe Roy Zimmerman, who is quite witty too). Hrab's lyrics are fast -- both in the sense that his tongue goes a mile a minute, and also that they are so full of unexpected witticisms and intellectual references, you blink and you'll miss them. Speaking of Blink -- Malcom Gladwell's book by the same title -- the musician takes a jab at its premise in his song "Assumption". Here's a YouTube video of it.

He takes on all sorts of skepticism-related topics. One of his songs' topic was "grief rapists", psychics that will "communicate" -- for a fee, of course -- with your dead loved one, making money off people's grief and prolonging their suffering. As he says, if your dead loved one was really able to bend time and space and laws of nature to communicate with the living, do you really think the only thing he/she had to say would be along the lines of "you own a locket"?

Here is the video of his live performance of this song. It may or may not be called "Why would they only speak to you?" (That's a line in the chorus.)

Then there is a song "think for yourself" that admonishes the reader to use their mind and read the fine print. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Here is the video:

Many of his songs do not explicitly deal with nonbelief in god(s), but address some of the universal themes like relationships or grief. "Small comfort" is a song he wrote after his beloved dog died, during the time at which he had to really resist a comforting fantasy that his dog is living carefree somewhere in the doggy heaven. So he sang about comfort that can be found in an atheist's view of death: at least his dog would not have to miss him. If the dog passed away with a thought of waking up and going for a walk, that was it -- he did not get to find out otherwise.

A video of the grief song:

Then there was a memorable song "How do you do what you do", dedicated to all those people that are more successful than us at the things we strive to do. In the presence of people who are superior to you in the the area that really matters to you it's very hard not to fold and give up. This song, with its edgy, anxious melody, has stuck with me.

A video of "How do you do what you do"

Then again, he had some very outspokenly atheistic songs, like "God is not great" (a YouTube video) -- the same title as Christopher Hitchens' book. Hrab said he secretly hopes Hitchens will get to hear it and maybe like it. This would not be unprecedented, as Hrab's experience shows. He spent a lot of his between-song patter talking about his encounters with famous skeptics and atheists. At one convention he introduced himself to Mike Chapman, the great-great...-great-grandson of Charles Darwin. Chapman had him floored by recognizing his work: "George Hrab? You're funny." Hrab recounts shaking hands with Chapman as "I touched Charles Darwin's DNA!" He had more such encounters with the who-is-who of the freethought pantheon (so to speak :-)). The crowning moment came when James Randi, sitting in the front row of Hrab's concert, was singing along -- he knew the words of Hrab's songs! Hrab fake-swooned when he recounted this. Then again, one must wonder if such idol-worship doesn't run counter to the spirit of freethought? :-)

His most memorable song was "brainsbodyboth", about his dream girl who would have a killer body and brains to match. It's full of funny and politically incorrect double entendres, and each line gives you something to chuckle at (or occasionally cringe). The line that really gave me a pause was where he compares his dream woman's brain and body to a... wait for it... "domain name that's case-specific". I'm not completely sure what that meant. Perhaps there's some kind of a visual analogy created by uppercase and lowercase letters strung together? Hmmm.... :-)

Another source of amusement in his concert was audience's questions. At the beginning of the show he asked people to write down questions for him (about anything in the world) on pieces of paper, and he was going to answer them during the show. He promised to reward the author of the best question with a "Think for yourself" t-shirt. The slip of paper with the question he deemed the best held these words:

" "? This is a homeopatic question.

So we had funny people in the audience on par with the performer -- our own CFI'ers no less!

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Saturday, December 13, 2008

A Twitter paradox

I have a question for Twitterati. I see a lot of people on Twitter begging for new followers. They want to get their follower count up to a magic, round number, such as 2000 or 4000. I wonder what do they do when new people follow them after they reach that number? Will it break the magic and the race will start all over again, from 2001 to 3000? But there are also a few practical questions:

1. Do those people follow every follower back? (Aside from spammers, of course.) Because it's not fair to beg people to follow you if you have no intent to reciprocate.

2. If so, when do they have time to read updates of 2000 people? I can barely keep up with the 100+ people I follow.

3. Maybe their secret is that they don't read the updates of everyone they follow? While the Twitter web interface doesn't let you group your followees into those you read and those you don't, there may be Twitter clients that let you create groups, filtering out the wheat from the chaff. I don't know because I don't use any clients. If that's what those people really do -- read only the VIP updates while ignoring the unwashed masses -- then it's doubly unfair. The ignored followers don't even know their updates aren't being read.

So I'm curious to know how this works. Not follow back, secretly ignore the bulk of followers, or make an honest effort to read everyone's updates and not get anything else done? I hope Teh Interwebs can enlighten me.

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Interesting startups at the Austin Tech Happy Hour: part 2

Another startup I chatted with at the Austin Tech Happy Hour was SocialWare. It integrates with social networks, but for different purposes than Social Agency. They are making tools like Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn suitable for corporate communications. That includes communications between employees, and company's communications with its customers or vendors. The idea is that employees, customers and vendors will use those tools in the same way as they do socially -- e.g. by posting status updates -- to keep all interested parties updated on the issues they're working on. For that, the information that passes through those channels needs to be secure. So the SocialWare software intercepts those communications on the company's firewall and then does some kind of magic so that only the authorized parties would see the updates. The rest of Facebook or Twitter visitors, if they looked at a person's X feed, would only see "X sent a private message". Those updates are stored on the company's servers, not on the social networks' servers.

It sounds like a neat idea, although I'm unclear how exactly they enable the information to be seen by the authorized eyes only and prevent it from crossing company's boundaries. At one point Cameron Cooper, the guy who gave the demo, mentioned that a particular safety feature depends on people using a separate Facebook profile for work, so that it would be invisible to outside friends. But this kind of defeats the purpose of using the widespread social networking tools in the first place. The only reason I would use Facebook to communicate with my customers / vendors would be if I was already spending lots of times on Facebook as it is. That is to say, I would have to be already participatting in Facebook for "play". That way I would not need separate software for work communications. I could avoid installing another program on my computer and having another source of interruptions and another window to clutter my desktop. This of course implies that the employee is socializing on Facebook while at work. Many companies don't allow that. (The smarter ones realize it's a harmless distraction that actually increases morale. :-))

But if I'm not using Facebook for play, I might as well install use separate, dedicated instant messaging software, fortified with extra security features that corporate communications require. So I don't see much logic here.

That's not to say that SocialWare's premise is flimsy: it is possible that some of their social network integration makes use of your "play" profile while keeping the communications secure. As I said, there were probably many details I missed in what Cameron said. (The room was NOISY!)

I was impressed by both companies, but especially Social Agency. It seems they've got a little closer to answering the big question of how to monetize social networks. Of course, their product is just a different twist on marketing / advertising. But companies might like it better to have their brand integrated into people's feeds -- woven into the threads of their daily lives, if you will -- than to sell ads that are displayed on the web page's margins and ignored by visitors.

More pictures from Austin Tech Happy hours are in my photo gallery

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Sunday, December 07, 2008

Interesting startups at the Austin Tech Happy Hour: part 1

At the December Austin Tech Happy Hour I saw demos of two Austin startups. Both of their names start with Social. Both do integration with Facebook and other networks, in two very different ways.

Social Agency creates Facebook and MySpace applications for their customers. (Actually, I'm not completely sure if MySpace has applications the way Facebook does. But apparently it has something like that, since Lee Parker said they are doing a MySpace integration as well.) Their customers are companies who want their brands to be closer integrated into social networks. Social Agency used our local NPR radio station as an example for their demo. They have created a Texas Music Matters application for Facebook. So when a Facebook user adds this application to their profile and starts "doing things" with it (though I haven't investigated what kind of Facebook'y things you can do on Texas Music Matters), those things will show up in your Facebook feed. Maybe the TMM song of the day will be embedded in your feed every day, or something like that? I didn't ask the Social Agency guy for specific examples. The bar was LOUD. :-) In any case I thought it was a neat idea.

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Saturday, December 06, 2008

China Mieville "The Scar": book review

China Mieville's "The Scar" is set in the same universe as "Perdido Street Station", but is not a sequel. It follows a very strange journey of a woman named Bellis, as she flees New Crobuzon by boat in the post-Perdido-Street-Station fallout. Her goal is to emigrate to a faraway corner of Bas Lag, but her trip takes a wrong -- or rather, strange -- turn when the ship is hijacked by, and incorporated into, a floating conglomerate of ships called Armada. Armada is, loosely speaking, a pirate society. It belongs to no country and obeys no laws except their own. It is governed by several mysterious figures. Soon it becomes apparent that Armada targeted this particular ship for deeper reasons than just to enslave its passengers and take their stuff. The leaders of Armada seem to have their own goals they don't share with the common citizens. Since their fate is at the mercy of the rulers, the captives have a strong interest in finding out what's in store for Armada. Plotting and scheming ensues, punctuated by encounters with improbable sea creatures, and carriers of ancient, secret knowledge.

Plot tension not sustained

The premise of the novel is interesting, yet this book suffers from the same affliction as "Perdido Street Station", only to a much larger extent. The plot does not progress seamlessly. It lurches along in fits and starts. Individual characters' mysteries, along with hints that something Big is about to happen to Armada, may be enough to sustain the reader's interest, but not very consistently. This book did not keep me glued to it. The plot tension rises and lets up, but not in any meaningful rhythm. Just when you hope the plot is thickening, it suddenly plateaus and diffuses, and we're back to following Bellis's mundane daily activities. Yes, life in a floating anarchist state apparently can get very mundane, even indistinguishable from a middle class urban dweller's existence. This could be partly because Armada put Bellis to work as a librarian. We get to follow her along as she goes to her boring job, sulks, pines for New Crobuzon, and makes painful attempts to connect with people who are positively bad for her. Well, she meets a few good folks too, but somehow her interactions with them aren't nearly as interesting as with the bad guys. :-). They bring tension to the plot, rekindling our interest just as we were about to forget why we were reading this book.

The ending does indeed justify the expectation that something Big is bound to happen, but it does not directly follow from the events in the plot. I got a feeling that the key plot threads were tied up retroactively, rather than being thought out from the beginning. The ending is not really predictable, but neither is it convincing. It feels a bit arbitrary.

Interesting characters compensate for plot deficiencies

That said, "Scar" has a lot to recommend it. I found the characters more interesting than in "Perdido Street Station", perhaps because I could identify with the brooding, misanthropic, individualistic, suspicious Bellis. She despises Armada's attempts to integrate her. Even when she relents, she continues to secretly weave her own plans. But as much as she resists it, her perspective of both New Crobuzon and of Armada starts to change when she meets people who were oppressed in New Crobuzon and found freedom, paradoxically, as citizens of Armada. The ambiguity of her situation and the promise of freedom in captivity is one aspect of the story that makes it interesting to see how it plays out. In the process she makes some critical mistakes and suffers harshly for doing what she thought was right.

I have to say I was surprised to learn the point China Mieville tried to make with Bellis's fate. In one interview he said Bellis's punishment for doing what she thought was right goes to show that a person's fantasy of singlehandedly saving the world is futile, and change can only be brought about by organized mass resistance. If this was the moral of Bellis story, I don't think it came through very well. Bellis did not act out of exaggerated sense of her own importance. She honestly thought she had the right information and simply could not stand by and allow a disaster to happen. There was no way for her to know the information she was acting on was wrong.

Still, the message that only the masses can effect change came through loud and clear in the end for different reasons. It just wasn't the reason for Bellis' failure.

Several secondary characters also make this book worth reading. As is often the case in fantasy, the mysterious bad guys are more interesting than the goody-goodies. :-) There are hints at a budding romance between characters who would make a rather unlikely couple, and I was very interested to see how it was going to turn out.

Consistent worldbuilding

A good thing about "The Scar" is also that it is not overloaded with monsters. Sure, there is a healthy dose of them, and some of encounters with them are more or less gratuitous (the episode with blood-sucking anophelii seemed like a detour from the main story) but they are less chaotic and more integrated into the plot than in "Perdido Street Station". Since most of the book takes place in the sea, all the creatures encountered along the way are part of the ocean ecology. So the worldbuilding in this novel seems more orderly and therefore more convincing than "Perdido Street Station".

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