Sunday, August 29, 2010

ArmadilloCon 2010 toastmaster speech: Google's secret deal with SFWA

In her Armadillocon toastmaster speech, Nancy Kress said Google is trying to strike a hush-hush deal to publish SFWA members. Not their books, but the members themselves. They'll use replicator invented by Bruce Sterling, that prints 3-dimensional shapes.

The first person Google wanted to "publish" was Ray Bradbury, if only he could be torn away from watching a certain video. (I think she's talking about the recent, viral "<Expletive> me, Ray Bradbury".) But then Google decided he's not a good candidate, because the materials required to replicate Ray Bradbury would be too stylish, rich and expensive.

Instead, Google decided to replicate the whole "Analog mafia". That didn't go well either, because the Analog mafia said they didn't want to be printed. Being hard science fiction writers, they fear that due to quantum effects, their replicas won't be accurate or fully functional.

Fan guest Elspeth Bloodgood interjected that Google should replicate Harlan Ellison, because he's not fully functional anyway.

In between getting "phone calls" from Google with further details on the deal, Nancy Kress introduced ArmadilloCon guests, bringing up each guest's funny or remarkable biographical details. For example, Kress said Rachel Caine is more dedicated to deadlines than anyone else she knows. Rachel once typed the whole weekend with a compound fracture in her arm, before a surgeon had a chance to set it, just to meet a deadline.

Nancy Kress holds up famous boxer shorts
Then Nancy Kress held up a pair of big, stripy boxer shorts with a lipstick print on it. She said it was one prominent editor's (name withheld) underwear, and it will be auctioned off for charity. She speculated that the lipstick print was Pat Cadigan's, and also reminisced about Armadillocons of yore when Pat Cadigan ran a charity auction with a bullwhip. She stood in the hallway, cracking her whip to get people to get into the auction room -- and it worked. They raised the amount of money they were aiming for.

Each guest may have introduced himself or herself -- if they did, I draw a blank on anything they may have said, except for Michael Bishop. Bishop said he was disconcerted that he was named steampunk literary guest of honor, because he hasn't written any steampunk. The con committee must have thought that his birhtday fell in the beginning of Queen Victoria's reign.

Pictures from Armadillocon 2010 and writers' workshop are in my photo gallery.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

ArmadilloCon 2010: writers' workshop, and sandwiches that cost their weight in gold

Writers' workshop went as usual, which is to say, not bad. I workshopped the same story as in the ApolloCon workshop. I didn't have time to finish a new one, because the deadlines for the two workshops were so close. I had only 3 days to fix my story before submitting it to the ArmadilloCon workshop. The comments I got on my story at ArmadilloCon were different than the ones I got at ApolloCon. So my fixes might have worked, at least the ones that concerned point of view and character motivation. But some of the comments, addressing deep, structural flaws of the story, remained.

ArmadilloCon is in a different hotel this time than before. As before, the only two options for writers' workshop lunch were (1) buy food catered by the hotel, or (2) bring your own. Hotel-provided lunch cost... wait for it... $34.34. That's for a sandwich, cookie, and coke. No, the sandwich was not made with caviar. Naturally, many people, including me, opted to bring their own lunches.

Our previous hotel allowed people who brought sack lunches to eat in the workshop room with the rest of the group. The new hotel does not allow it. People who brought their food were told to leave the hotel, and walk far, far away from the hotel grounds to consume the food.

But here's the dilemma. The whole point of group lunch was that students get to hang out with the teachers (professional writers and editors who critique students' work), and talk about writing. This wouldn't work if those students who brought food went outside, and those with catered lunches staid inside. So, in each critique group (there were nine of them, 5-6 students each), if even one person brought sack lunch, the whole group had to go outside. Ergo, after spending $34 you still had to go out into 100-degree Texas heat and eat stuff you could buy for $5 from a sandwich shop nearby.

Fortunately, there was another option, to go into somebody's hotel room to eat. The hotel allows you to eat your own food in hotel rooms, just not in public spaces. My group went into one of our students' hotel room (she was from Houston, thus she was staying in the hotel). At least we didn't have to roast alive while eating.

But other than that, the workshop was pretty good. A big thank you goes out to its organizer, Stina Leich. She made the best out of ridiculous circumstances the hotel put us in.

Pictures from Armadillocon 2010 and writers' workshop are in my photo gallery.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Paris, panhandling, and languages

This is another in my intermittent series of "what I did on my summer vacation" posts.

Everybody we ran into in Paris, at least most service personnel, spoke passable English. The one and only time we hit a language barrier was at a cafe, where the waitress didn't speak English except for "drink". The real barrier, though, lay in the completely illegible, hand-scrawled menu. We had to hunt around the cafe to find a printed copy.

It's been seven years since I studied French, and even then I didn't get past beginner's level (I did it not out of interest, but for a very specific reason that soon turned out to be invalid. So I wasn't too motivated.) Still, I was surprised how easy it was to understand signs in French. And while I could not make out heads or tails of spoken French, there were two instances when I understood what was said. One time Ray and I were walking down the street late at night, and we passed a young woman and man on the sidewalk. The woman was opening a cardboard box. She pulled out a pair of shiny, high-heeled shoes and exclaimed: "les chaussures!" We didn't understand if she was opening a present, or if she found a box of glamorous, brand-new shoes right there in the middle of the street.

Another time we went into a Japanese restaurant. A few seconds later restaurant manager or owner yelled at the hostess: "ferme la porte!" I felt bad about not closing the door myself, but I could swear it was already open when we came in, so I thought it was supposed to be like that.

For some reason, languages determine who panhandlers approach. They -- usually women dressed in gypsy-style clothes -- come up to you and ask: do you speak English? If you say yes, they'll unleash some kind of sob story about needing money. But if you say "no", they'll leave you alone. They will still leave you alone if it's clear you're lying -- e.g. if you add "not with the likes of you". Nor do they ask you if you speak French, German, Spanish, or any other language. It's like some kind of binary-valued ritual that either triggers a signal "proceed" or not.

Another trick panhandlers do to get your attention is more sophisticated. One time my mom, Ray and I were walking down the street; a gypsy passed us (and I'm using the term gypsy loosely -- she was a dark olive-skinned woman in loose, long, colorful clothes, but her nationality could have been anything), but a few steps later, she bent down, picked up something, and called to us. We turned around. I don't remember what exactly she said, or in what language -- probably not English, more like a language of gestures -- showing us a ring she had just "picked up" from the pavement. From a distance it looked like a golden ring. She asked if it was ours. We shook our heads and walked on. It was clearly a scam, but I was intrigued how it would unfold. I didn't go back to find out, of course. But for a while we speculated what she would have done if one us had claimed the ring. Since the purpose of any scam is to extract money from your "mark", how would you convince the mark to part with his/her money by giving him/her a free, albeit worthless, ring? Or was it just a test of the mark's gullibility and greed? Or was there a gang waiting somewhere in the wings, who would come and beat us up if she claimed we stole the ring from her? Though we weren't in a bad part of town (quite the opposite, on a well-traveled route from Notre Dame to Louvre), there was very little pedestrian traffic on it; in fact, there was not another person in sight. But if somebody wanted to mug a tourist, would they first need to distract them with a scam?

Ah, the mysterious ways of lowlifes.

The strangest instance of panhandling I saw were women in Muslim garb sitting in the middle of the sidewalk with their little cups of change. They didn't look like gypsies. Rather their long clothes were of one solid color, and their heads covered by hijabs. They knelt in prayerful poses on the sidewalk of Champs Elysees -- not along the wall, as customary for beggars, but right in the middle of crowds walking to their nightlife and shopping destinations. They were holding signs saying they were Bosnian refugees. Whether they really were is anybody's guess, but despite being completely still, they looked a bit too theatric to be genuine.

Finally, while we're on the topic of languages, here is a little bit of Frenglish. It was a menu in a cafe. Unlike the one I mentioned earler, this one at least had an English version of the menu. It looked as though it had been run through a Google translator. :-) Click on the image for a bigger version.

A Frenglish menu in a Paris cafe

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

A bug in Google Spreadsheets?

A couple of days ago I tweeted my exasperation with Google Spreadsheets. @ronaldho kindly replied to my tweet, asking for clarification. Here is what's happening.

At first Firefox, and then Chrome have been resizing my Google Spreadsheets fonts. Suppose the text in my spreadsheets was originally 10 points. That's a nice size font I can easily read. Then one day, all of a sudden, the browser shrinks the font. It still shows it as 10 pt, but realistically it now looks like 8 pt. That's a bit too small for me. I didn't do anything to cause this. The browser did it not in response to any of my action (intentional or not), but out of the blue. That's right, the browser window with the spreadsheet was just sitting there, untouched, and suddenly the text shrank.

So I select all the text in the spreadsheet and increase it to 12 points. For a while, all is well. Then, a few days later, the browser shrinks the text again! So now 12 points look like 8!

I increase to 14 points. The story continues. It got to where 18-point font started looking like 8.

I was hoping that this was just a Firefox misfeature, so I switched to Google Chrome. At first, the fonts in Google Chrome appeared their correct sizes. Then, after just 2 days of usage, 12-point font shrank a couple of sizes. So, unfortunately, Chrome does it too. This must be a bug in Google Spreadsheets, not in any browser.

(All the fonts in my other Google docs appear correctly, by the way. This bug affects just spreadsheets.)

If this keeps happening, I won't be able to work with Google Spreadsheets anymore. The font sizes don't go higher than 24. When 24-point font starts looking like 6 points, then what? I'll have to drop Google Spreadsheets. That's a shame, because I have lots of useful data there. I gather data for my own life-logging experiments, which I plan to use to test applications I'm writing. (Hence the data mining I was referring to in my tweet, @ronaldho. It has nothing to do with Google Spreadsheets themselves.)

If there is a way to stop Google Spreadsheets from doing this, I would appreciate the tips.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Paris public bathrooms: not for libertarians

One thing I'm sure every tourist appreciates in a big city are public bathrooms. Paris "can haz" them, and they are even free. Truthfully, the one and only time I really wanted to use one, there was an ungodly line -- so long it was more worthwhile to find a restaurant, buy something to eat, and use their restroom. But that was in a tourist-heavy part of Paris. In the neighborhood where we lived, public toilets stood free, available, and welcoming. That is, if this cryptic sign can be said to be welcoming:

A free, automated public bathroom on a Paris street A sign on a free public bathroom on a Paris street


As you see, English language instructions say "A recorded message can be activated by pushing the button [...]" Message, huh? What kind of messages would I want to entertain me in a bathroom? Quick news? Horoscopes? A crash course in conversational French? :-)

As one can guess from French and Spanish language directions, the mysterious "message" is just instructions on how to use the toilet. And you don't even have to activate them -- they turn themselves on, and there is no escaping them. I didn't go to one of those bathrooms, but Ray did, and throughout his visit the facility talked to him in a concerned female voice of a French nanny state. :-)

I'm saying this tongue-in-cheek of course, but libertarians might want to avoid these facilities. ;-) The bathroom knows better than you what you should do inside, and in what order. Everything is automated. The toilet flushes itself. The soap dispenser automatically deposits a pre-measured dollop of soap on your hands. Then the water faucet turns on, runs for a predetermined number of seconds, and shuts off. Then the hand dryer starts, also to shut off after a certain number of seconds. If you need more soap or water, too bad: you won't get it until the whole cycle is over. Then you can restart it. But there are no manual overrides to let you return to a previous step, to skip a step, or to use more or less soap or water than you are allotted.

It can be annoying if your bathroom "use case" is one the designers haven't thought of -- for example if you, like Ray, go into the bathroom to wipe dog poop off your shoe. Not only he had to wait through several soap-wash-dry cycles to clean off his shoes, but all the while the bathroom was talking to him in a stern voice -- apparently scolding him for not using the facility the right way. :-)

More pictures from my trip to Paris are in my photo gallery.