Tuesday, January 08, 2013

The Month That Was - December 2012

The Month That Was - December 2012: And so we pitch the old calendar in the trash again. I'm not sure what to think about 2012. It offers me no warm feelings to recall, yet I know it was filled with many, many good times. I got to spend time with beloved friends. I got traveling done. Made fitful progress on the house. I'm still healthy, wealthy, and wise. Well, I'm one of those three anyway.

Yet I'm filled with the sense that I didn't accomplish anything. And that is true for the most part. My latest writing project stalled for a big part of the year. It's back on track and close to hitting Kindle (this year for sure). I get that done, I'll feel better that my writing efforts have not dropped dead completely. I also have the germ of an idea for a mystery novel that I can't seem to get together in my head. I need to get back to doing what I used to do: grab a rollerball pen and yellow legal pad and start writing crap that I can re-write into non-crap.

Real estate has also vexed me. Although I remain quite happy with my house, every time I turn around I see projects and maintenance. Nothing out of the ordinary, but I had the naive idea in my head that after two years, it would be "done". I need to re-jigger my expectations to five years. Meanwhile I tried renting out my old condo only to discover that I am not a very good landlord. That is to say, I am not a skilled landlord, not that I was bad to my tenant. In any event, the tenant has moved on and the condo is going on the market.

And as far as travel -- I got out and about and did some cool things, but I didn't do any NEW things. That's a key distinction.

These are things the internet kiddies call "First World Problems". In my day we just said, "I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden." Look, there is your intellectual outlook, then your emotional one. Intellectually I know there are few people in the world luckier than I am. Whatever hardship or disappointments I may have faced in life, I was born with the tools to deal with them. I also have demonstrated the capacity to capitalize on enough of my opportunities and make consistently sound enough decisions to not self-destruct (so far) - those virtues I like to think of as earned, but who knows? They may be luck also.

But the emotional side doesn't bother to weigh pluses and minuses. I am convinced that in other than extreme circumstances, your state of contentedness and happiness is a fact of birth not a reaction to the realities around you. It is simply a personality trait: God, or DNA, given. In my case, I am never able to accept and appreciate the state of the moment. I can't help but be dominated by the tasks awaiting my attention. Accomplishments are in the past as soon as they are accomplished. There is always more that needs to be done.
Nuke Laloosh: Can't you let me enjoy the moment?
Crash Davis: The moment's over.
So I guess 2012 was a year like any other year -- many good moments, but the moments are over and there are miles to go before I sleep. Happy New Year.

[Books] The Chief Inspector Chen Mysteries
[Music] Dwarves, Uncrushed
[Rant, Tech] OMG Where Are The Pics

[Books] Chief Inspector Chen Mysteries

Chief Inspector Chen Mysteries, by Qiu Xialong: These are an ongoing series (six so far) of police procedurals set in modern Shanghai. Written by Qui Xiaolong, a Shanghai-born, Beijing educated expat, currently living and teaching in St. Louis. They are quite popular, and have been well-received critically. Now, mysteries rarely get outright bad reviews. If you are attracted to the formula, the book will not negatively impress you unless it is really abysmal. But what makes a mystery truly stand out has nothing to do with it being a mystery. The police procedural aspect of it rote. It's the hook that tells the reader: this book will likely hold your interest and you won't regret having dropped some scratch on this. Something more than the mystery aspect that has to be there to keep you coming back, and having read all six now (partial exception, I did not finish the fourth, A Case of Two Cities, because I left it on the plane on my way back from Cali) and considering myself a fairly discerning reader, it's worth examining what I liked and what I didn't like that made me keep coming back.
  • The writing itself offered little pleasure. I gather Qui writes in English, not in his native language for translation. Qui is a poet by profession, so I don't doubt that he knows his way around words and images, but with English as his second language everything reads like a dutiful translation. Call the prose workmanlike, but with a certain unpolished awkwardness -- it gets the job done, but he just doesn't have the flow that sounds natural to a native English-speaker's ear . A mild negative, but nothing that would drive me away, obviously.
  • Characters are utterly crucial because a mystery series is to a standalone novel like a TV show is to a movie. A TV series succeeds because the characters are folks you want to hang out with, or at least folks who are compelling and interesting enough for you to want to keep track what they are doing. This is number one among the things that can keep you coming back. Chief Inspector Chen is a wonderful protagonist. The proverbial man working for change within the system; he is very ethical, yet accepts that the world as it is requires compromise. Even his career in the police force is a compromise of his preferred avocation of poetry and literature. An ongoing theme throughout the novels is how Chen's self-identity moves gradually from one side of compromise to the other. By the end of The Mao Case he has moved completely from being a poet who is a cop out of practicality to being a cop who takes writing jobs as side work. With each investigation he makes more and more cop-useful connections and works more for to limit harm goals than idealist fidelity law enforcement. Like most of us, Chen believes his actions are based in reason and principle when in fact they may just be rationalized acts of selfishness or convenience. Chen's immediate circle of support consists of his partner Yu -- less sophisticated than Chen but professionally solid, courageous, and well-meaning -- Yu's wife Peiqin -- although she has no official standing, she is a sharper study and more well rounded than Yu and gets deeply involved in the investigations -- Yu's father Old Hunter -- a retired cop with plenty of old friends and favors to draw on. Beyond them, Chen has connections in both the business world and in the Party, where his primary connection is his erstwhile, impractical, intermittent girlfriend who is a high Party cadre and is called on to pull strings on more than one occasion. Although Chen attempts to do right by all the people who support him, there is the definite hint that he won't hesitate to use them as needed to his own ends. The upshot here is that all these characters are interesting and/or likeable is some fashion. They are folks you make you want to keep up on, to see what they are up to. That, as I said, is the key to keep you coming back.
  • Lastly, there is China itself. In one sense at least the conflicts of Chinese society form the basis for much of the conflicts in the novels. The antagonists and passing characters generally have one of two backstories: 1) either they or close relatives suffered greatly under Mao (Cultural Revolution, Great Leap Forward, etc.) or, 2) they are fighting a battle (either winning or losing) with the oxymoronic dichotomy of contemporary China where unbridled crony capitalism flourishes in the name of the pure egalitarianism of the Communist Party. The interactions that stem from either of these two sources are generally the events that trigger the murders that are being investigated and are often the source of the "guided" resolutions that Chen must satisfy while pushing for proper justice, in his own semi-anti-heroic way. This lends an exotic, non-Western/progressive flavor to the books that is refreshing. (I should emphasise that my description is entirely based in Qui's presentation of China and he himself is of character type 1, having a father who was horribly mistreated under Mao. I have no first hand understanding of the situation.)
So that's why I read them. Should you? They do nail the police procedural genre perfectly, so if you've just finished reading all the "Girl Who Did Something Defiantly Self-Destructive" books or have a taste for novels of that stripe, then yes. It's a safe bet you'll enjoy them immensely and plow through them all like I did.

Tangent: This piece in the WSJ is a fascinating look at how language is used to criticize China within the bounds of permissible speech.

[Music] Dwarves, Uncrushed

Dwarves, Uncrushed: On a whim, I re-listened to a record (I call it a record because the first time I heard it was on a actual record player) that I maintain is one of the underappreciated works of art in the last half-century: Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers, a comedy album by The Firesign Theatre. I can also safely state that you'll probably not feel the same way.

We live in the time of the comedy of personal discomfort. Prior to that was a tsunami of irony. Prior to that was sketch comedy. Prior to that was parody. There has always been cross-pollination among those. There is still parody today and there was discomfort half a century ago, but I think that is roughly the order that the primary comedy fashion has passed through in my lifetime, each with variations that are based on either manners or raunch. Don't Crush That Dwarf... arose in 1970 at the cusp of the parody/sketch transformation, so it is a form of comedy that no one is all that familiar with anymore. There are cultural references from long ago (Vietnam, the Rosenbergs, old time radio) that no one will get. And it's a comedy record. Like a stand-up routine or an improv troupe, sound only. Kind of like a book-on-tape or a podcast. So what I'm saying is that it's weird content and a weird format. To you. To us oldsters it's fairly common.

Firesign Theatre produced a number of sketch/parody albums back then, generally good material -- they're a talented bunch, but Dwarf... was one of those rare moments in entertainment where everything comes together and the whole of the product transcends the genre.

Ostensibly an "ages of man" narrative following one character through various stages of his life mapped onto an evening of him flipping channels on the TV. That whole idea is soon swamped in a relentless firehose blast of over-the-top caricature and seamless malapropisms peppered into a cross-talking melange of linked dialogue, often tying foreground and background threads into a nice little poetic bow, eventually spiraling into a causality defying vortex of aural madness.

And no, I was not tripping at the time.

But again, I have to emphasize that you probably won't see it like that. It will be too strange to you if you are young. And if you are old (like me) you will have long passed the age where that sort of oddball beauty appeals. Luckily it won't cost you too much to find out. Amazon has the album available for download at $9.99, but note: There are only two tracks (corresponding to each side of the record), and they are available for 99 cents each. That's right, you can buy the whole album for $9.99 or you can download the two tracks individually for $1.98. Obviously a glitch in the Amazon matrix, but it's certainly worth exploiting.

If you're going to try this despite my warnings: Listen to it. The listen again. Then listen again, this time to everything going on in the background. Then listen a fourth time to take in the full effect. With your mind blown, you can thank me later.

[Rant, Tech] OMG Where Are The Pics?

OMG Where Are The Pics?: So some kid named Josh Miller decided to ask his little sister about how she and her friends use social networking in an effort to get a better handle on current trends, based on the (correct) assumption that adolescent girls pretty much rule the market. Josh is 21. His sister is 15. Obviously this is anecdotal -- in fact it is a single anecdote, but it's fascinating nonetheless.

Email and Instant Messaging are dead. Facebook appears to be seen as something of a necessary evil. Twitter has no value. The big winners are Instagram and something called SnapChat. SnapChat lets you send quick photos to all you friends/followers -- kind of like Instagram except it's push delivery to a specific group of friends and it's ephemeral, at least theoretically; the photos disappear after ten seconds. (SnapChat was described as what you use when you really don't have anything to say. Because god forbid you don't say anything.)

What they really want is something like Apple's FaceTime (video calls/chat) but cheaper or free.

Josh, the 21 year old, is one of those college dropout web entrepreneurs who changes games and shifts paradigms and gets all TED-speaky, so he uses this to try to spot market shifts and product opportunities and so forth. I took something different from it.

The written word is pretty much dead.

The joke used to be about not reading books without pictures. Now all they want is the pictures. Limit the words to some LOLspeak captions. They don't even want to talk for free, which they can do with Skype, unless they get a visual too. You can see this in another snarky post from the same site about spelling mistakes. These mistakes aren't typos or auto-correct errors. They are the result of people trying to use words they have never before seen in writing.

My knee-jerk response, as someone who is way older than Josh and his little sister combined, is that this can't be good. But that's not the right response. The fact is the communication develops and adapts organically and there is no sense in claiming that it's bad that a girl who has no memory of the 20th century can't communicate the way you were supposed to in 1965.

I still take a certain kind of perverse pride in that in the 15-ish years of this site's existence (the same age as Josh's sister -- she has never known a world where I didn't have a website) I have never posted a picture. I still get angry when I click on a web page and have to wait while it loads up megabytes of graphics and videos from 10 different subsidiary websites so I can read the 5k of textual information I need. When web journalists I like decide to switch to podcasting, I immediately condemn them for their laziness.

This is, of course, not 15 year old's problem. It's a 52 year old's problem. I will, for the remainder of my life, be ever more an outlier with each passing day. I need to accept that. It is not my world.

Tangent 1: One of the original web personalities, Guy Kawasaki, still cares enough about the written word to provide a great list of grammar gotchas. I link this solely for my own reference. Feel free to skip it as it has no relevance to Instagram.

Tangent 2: David Brooks (another oldster) still managed to find enough actual long-form writing on the web to give out his Sidney Awards. Part 1. Part 2.