Forty Signs of Rain (plus a rant)

I’m half-way through Forty Signs of Rain by Kim Stanley Robinson, and so far it is global warming, NSF grant reviews, exiled Tibetan monks, a stay at home dad, and rides on the DC Metro. A pretty dull mix, especially the NSF parts, but it is really pretty interesting. Such an odd mix that I keep thinking, “did someone dare him to write an interesting novel with these ingredients?”

That said, the NSF proposal review meeting has far more drama than any of the battle planning meetings or political scheming meetings in David Weber’s “Honor Harrington” books. I finally forced myself to give up on those when I was going back to replot scenes to make them minimally exciting. The space battles are great, but the rest of the books are tedious interior monologue and committee meetings. The characters can’t even walk and advance the plot at the same time. I figured that he’d get better at writing as the books went on, but after six books, it was clear that he was amply rewarded for being mediocre. It is really embarrassing that these are “bestsellers”.

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One Sign of a Boy-Led Troop

Last night we brought the newsletter home from the troop meeting. My son sat down to read it and skipped right past the Scoutmaster Minute (my column) to read the SPL’s column. That’s exactly right, the SPL leads the troop. In fact, my column was about adults supporting the PLC’s decision to have more day outings.

The SPL column also gave a quick overview of troop leadership. I like this part:

I, the Senior Patrol Leader (SPL), actually run the troop, not the adults; they just make sure we don’t make any bad decisions.

That is on the money, except that I’m OK with a certain level of bad decisions. That’s how you learn. I only step in to head off terrible decisions and I haven’t seen any of those yet.

Microserfs

While cleaning out the “closed stacks” in the garage (boxes of books), I found my unread copy of Microserfs by Douglas Coupland and put it back on the in-house “to read” pile. Three weeks later, I’ve read it.

Short version: I haven’t learned anything from this book. I used “learn” in a pretty broad sense that includes any new experience, not just facts.

Long version

This book is about the West Coast coding culture, something that I was part of a decade before it was published (1995) and continue to be a decade after that date. Any journalistic content is not new information for me, so the book’s value to me is all in that creative remainder. Perchance I resemble an upper-class Regency woman reading Jane Austen. All that period fru fru is the reality I swim in (sigh, reduced to using Google to spell-check “fru fru”, so sad to vote on spelling).

I like journalistic work and really enjoyed both The Soul of a New Machine and Blue Sky Dream, so I’m ready to learn more about things that I already know.

Surprisingly, considering the title, that culture is only Microsoft for the first bit, after which a Deus ex Silicon Valley causes the crew to decamp to a startup and house in Palo Alto a few blocks off of my former commute to HP.

I fully understand that fiction is made up (objectively false, subjectively true), but when a realistic setting is a key part of the work, getting it wrong just isn’t an option. Coupland includes carefully crafted typos in the e-mails, so I know he was paying attention. I can just imagine the mail back and forth with the copy editors trying to get those typos published properly. Yet he didn’t do his homework on the simple things.

  • Why isn’t the startup in a garage? Was that already too cliché? Google did it after this was published.
  • Bug testers (his term, we call them “QA”) don’t immediately switch to being major hackers at a startup. Testing and coding are different skills and most people just like doing one better than the other. Even if you want to switch, you need to build your skills and your cred.
  • Can Daniel please stop using “random” as if it means “unexpected” instead of “unpredictable”?
  • It isn’t the “open-hills fire”, it is the “Oakland Hills fire”. Jeez.
  • “Cal-Tec”? That sounds like a gasoline additive. It’s “Caltech”.

I’ll give him a bit of slack for those East Coast editors who can’t be bothered to care about computers or any place West of the Mississippi, but his name is on the book so it is a teeny-weeny bit of slack. [Re “East Coast editors”, ask me about a couple of howlers in Infinite Jest.]

I remember a comment from the introduction to Best Short Stories of the Year Whenever that quoted some famous short story writer saying that she stops reading if she finds a factual error. She felt that the writer has a responsibility to the reader to avoid those jarring moments, and if they couldn’t be bothered to do that, she couldn’t be bothered to continue reading.

Then there is the plot, which is mostly imposed, unmotivated events that increase in frequency toward the end of the book until we end with with a big fairy tale group hug. It reminded me of that baby programmer mistake where you stick to the initial spec even though you’ve run out of time and you start gluing on poorly-integrated barely-working features as the deadline approaches. That is the time to find the essence of your product and leave out anything that is peripheral. It is when the iron goes through the fire. It is Occam’s Chainsaw.

Oh yeah, another problem. Not much sense of impending deadline — the plot skips straight from beta to already having a distribution deal. Huh? The first half of the book keeps making a Big Deal of the Microsoft “Ship It” award, then he doesn’t bother to follow his characters as they ship their 1.0? That goes beyond ignorant to stupid. Every engineer in the valley can tell you exactly what they have shipped. Shipping is the essential act in engineering. It makes your work real.

In some sense, the novel is just an expanded version of a fine short story, published in Wired and used as the first chapter of this book. A common move and a very risky one. Short stories and novels are very different beasts, in my experience. When it doesn’t work, it is glaringly obvious. Two different examples: Flowers for Algernon is devastating read in thirty minutes but numbing when expanded to novel length, and you can stop reading Starship Troopers after that stunning first chapter with the powered combat suits since the rest alternates between “my life in the military” and libertarian ranting.

The original short story really is pretty good. Obviously, it was good enough to get a book deal, but it remains good reading. You can feel the rain and the green in Redmond and the tension between being a cog in the Microsoft machine and doing something you care about. Just stop reading before it switches to Silicon Valley.

I guess I have learned one thing from Microserfs. I’m not going to read any more Douglas Coupland.

E-Mail Volume

After my two week vacation, I had 2000 unread e-mails. Sounds like a lot, but twenty years ago after a three week honeymoon, I had 3000 unread e-mails. I guess I’ve been dealing with a lot of e-mail for a long time.

What was hard to get through was the 600 unread items in newsfeeds. It took a week of spare time reading to get those under control.

One Hundred Years

This morning was the centenary of Scouting celebrated by Scouts gathered at 8 AM local time around the world. The time and date chosen for the birth of Scouting wasn’t when some paper was signed, it was the first morning at the first camping trip. Baden-Powell wanted to do something less military for boys than the boy’s brigades and cadet corps springing up around England — he thought drill wasn’t particularly useful even in the army — so he ran an experiment at Brownsea Island. Two patrols of boys and a few adults off in the woods for a week. Give it a go. Well, it worked.

We started by blowing a kudu horn, as B-P did to start the day at Brownsea. Scouting is an odd mix of the fun parts of the military (comrades, running around in the woods, shooting) and British colonial accretions (the kudu horn, broad-brimmed hats, shorts and knee socks). Scouting in the US adds another layer of confused traditions like emergency service as a sort of a junior volunteer fire department and selling war bonds mixed with Earnest Thompson Seaton’s skills-not-ranks system based on his Native American studies. It is a glorious melting pot of tradition with a special relationship with England and I can see why it doesn’t immediately appeal to non-Anglo Americans. In the rest of the world, Scouting is a very big tent, with many local traditions and religions. But that is a different article.

We had six Scouts and a few adults here in Palo Alto and five of our Scouts are at the World Jamboree along with one of our leaders. Nearly a third of the troop was out for the centenary, either here or in the UK. It was a great moment of community with Scouts and Guides around the world. We welcomed the Palo Alto morning with an African horn and recited our promise of duty to God, country, others, and ourselves. And the Scouts got to try blowing the kudu horn after the ceremony. The one who plays the trumpet was way better than our designated adult.