Nominating the Hugos

I was surprised when I learned that having joined the
Anticipation SF Convention last year, I not only got the right
to vote on the Hugo Awards last year, but I get to vote for the
nominees this year.

For how organized the voting procedure was (they sent you a
packet of most of the nominees as ebooks), the nomination
process is surprisingly free-form.

I wasn’t able to find a list of eligible works anywhere. Some
of the blogs I read had lists of what their authors had that was
eligible, and a couple of them offered to send voters free
copies. I don’t make any pretense of following the shorter
forms. And although I would like to be aware of good new
science fiction and fantasy novels, I’m not at all sure that
always happens.

So I did my best. I nominated four novels:

  • The Price of Spring, Daniel Abraham
  • Makers, Cory Doctorow
  • Unseen Academicals, Terry Pratchett
  • The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood

I was cheating a bit on Makers, since I haven’t
finished reading it yet, but it’s clearly a good novel.

I also nominated The God Engines by John Scalzi, in the Best
Novella category.
I probably wouldn’t have read it if he hadn’t sent any
nominator who asked a free copy, but it is well-written,
although I hope there are other good novellas to read before I
have to vote.

I nominated District 9 and Star Trek
in the Dramatic Presentation, Long Form category, and tor.com in the Best Related Work
category. There should probably be some specific online
categories, but there aren’t yet.

District 9

I watched this
movie
last night because I’m going to be nominating Hugo awards
and this seemed like a likely candidate for a nomination.

It’s a surprisingly good science fiction movie. I found it
very unpleasant to watch because of all the violence, so I only
gave it two stars at netflix, but really, Hollywood doesn’t
“get” science fiction that well at all often. It’s about first
contact with aliens, who get treated like a “lesser breed” by
the South African government. There’s lots of blowing things
up, and a creepy makup job as the main character gradually turns
into an alien.

You get to nominate 5 movies, and I’m sure this should be one
of them. Whether I’ll vote for it when the time to vote comes
is another question. I would really like there to be a movie
that’s as good that I actually enjoyed watching. The only other
candidate I’ve seen so far is Star
Trek
, and it’s certainly not as good Science Fiction,
although I really enjoyed watching it.

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The Lacuna

The central character in this
book
is the son of a US bureaucrat and a Mexican woman. He
lives in both countries growing up, and in Mexico city ends up
working for Diego Rivera; his wife, Frida Kahlo; and their
houseguest, Leon Trotsky. Later he becomes a best-selling
novelist and is hounded by the House Committee on Un-American
Activities.

For some reason, the reviews I read of it are lukewarm, but
since I’m both a Barbara Kingsolver fan and interested in those
characters, I read it anyway. I think the reviews are what
always happens when someone is famous — it’s easier to say the
book is a falling-off from earlier work than to really describe
how good it is, so they say it’s a falling-off.

I wouldn’t recommend it as the place to start if you haven’t
read Barbara Kingsolver before. That would be
Prodigal
Summer
if you like novels,
or Animal,
Vegetable, Miracle
if you prefer nonfiction and are interested in eating local,
non-industrial foods. Both of these books are set in the
Appalachian south where Kingsolver grew up.

But I thought it was certainly up to the standard of The
Poisonwood Bible
, also about a disfunctional family
in an unfamiliar setting.

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Reading PDF files on a portable device

This is a holy grail for people who want to carry their libraries in their pockets and read without glasses or special lighting. The problem is that a lot of the people who distribute ebooks seem to think that using a page-description language like PDF is a suitable distribution method. But actually reading something formatted for an 8″x6″ page on a 2″x3.5″ screen is difficult.

I have it figured out. I’m not sure if this is something that’s changed recently in the software, or if it was always like this and I was too stupid to figure it out.

I’ve asked on several mailing lists, and they seem to have been too stupid to figure it out, too. The best suggestion was from Peter
Flynn
who posted a LaTeX file that resizes the PDF’s pages to be the size of your device, and trims the margins. But on my Nokia N810, I need reading glasses to read the resulting page. You can make a case that I should get better reading glasses, but I don’t think I’d enjoy even good ones.

My new method is as follows:

  • Run:
    pdftohtml -stdout pdf-filename > html-filename
  • open the html-filename in emacs.
  • There are two major problems you want to fix here:
    • Every line in the original ends with a break. The original line-length of the paper book is unlikely to be useful on your portable device, so what you need, and what I’ve always before failed to fine, is a way to distinguish the breaks that are actually new paragraphs from the ones that are just line breaks. For the PDF files I’ve looked at since yesterday, the ones that are just linebreaks end in &nbsp;<br>, and the ones that are new paragraphs end in <br>. So what I’m doing these days is replacing the &nbsp;<br> with just a space. I may decide at some point to replace the <br>‘s with <p>‘s, but so far what I’m doing now looks pretty good.
    • There is junk like page numbers between the pages. This varies by book, but for the book I’m reading at the moment, there was a file url at the bottom of every page and an anchor tag of a line like “dummy 2” at the top of every page. It would be real programming to write something that would continue a paragraph across a page break like this, so I’m putting up with new pages translating to new paragraphs even when they obviously shouldn’t. But I’m using emacs to remove anything that writes some distracting non-text. In this case, that’s removing the file url and the “dummy 2” text. Be careful about the file url — it might not be on a line by itself.

If you’re using FBReader on a device with a sizeable memory card, you’re done. Just put this html file on your device.

Otherwise, do whatever you normally do to sizeable html files (zipping is probably a good idea) and put that on your device.

The Spare Room

This
book
is about aspects of taking care of a dying person
that I mostly didn’t do with Bonnie.

The main character (Helen) lives near Melbourne, and has a
close friend (Nicola)
with cancer
who lives in Sidney but has found a “clinic” in Melbourne that she
believes will cure her cancer. So she moves in with Helen for the
three weeks the treatment will take.

During those three weeks, Helen has to do a lot of physical
nursing, deal with Nicola’s denying that she is dying, and deal
with Nicola’s refusal to realize that this clinic treatment
she’s getting isn’t going to do any good and she has to go to
real doctors for real treatments.

The writing is good, and the discussion of the issues of how to
deal with a dying person is perceptive. But in the most amazing
paragraph, Helen describes how Nicola organizes her own home care after
Helen finally convinces her that she can’t do it all:

I didn’t know yet how many times I would fly to Sydney to
play my small part in the remains of her care, or how often,
when I buzzed at Iris’s apartment, the door would be opened by
Harriet from Yass, her round, weather-beaten face sweating and
wild with fatigue, or by Marion the Buddhist, white, composed,
and stoic after a five-day stint without relief. I had not
prepared myself to sleep on the floor beside Clare from Byron,
when Iris, half out of her mind, pulled on a backpack and
fled north, on foot, along the coast of New South Wales.

I coule not imagine the urge to start drinking that would
seize me every time I entered the high, airy rooms of the
apartment and found Nicola enthroned on the sofa where, propped
against its hard padded arm, she woke and slept and laughed and
coughed, commanding the stewing of Chinese herbs, planning brown
rice fasts and drastic alkaline diets, turning her face up each
morning to the sun that streamed in through the uncovered
windows. Nor could I foresee that one day, with her swollen
legs resting on a stack of cushions, she would announce
brightly, “I’ve suddenly realized why I feel so terrible — I
must be anemic.” Or how dull my life at home would seem between
my visits to Sydney, how I would write to her on a postcard: “I
miss you. I’m bored. I’d rather be scrubbing shit off Iris’s
bathroom tiles.” For this too would be required of me: like
otherw who served her, whom I came to love in the intimacy of
our labor. I would have to help carry her to the lavatory,
where I learned to wash her arse as gently as I had washed my
sister’s and my mother’s, and as someday someone will have to
wash mine.

I might have guessed that she would resist the hospice until
the contents of her lungs began to bubble up into her nose and
throat, until everyone around her was deranged with exhaustion,
fury, nad despair. She relented only when Marion said to her,
“Don’t regret the things you haven’t done. That’s the past.
Let it go. Rejoice: you’re our teacher now.”

None of Bonnie’s illness worked out much like that — Bonnie
went into the hospital as soon as it was clear that she couldn’t
take care of herself, and by the time she might have been
denying what was happening, she’d had the stroke that left her
unable to talk. But I do recognize both the urge to drink and
the love and closeness with the other people caring for
Nicola.

This is a short book. At the beginning I wondered if the
one-column review
in the New York Times had told me everything I was
interested in knowing about this book. But it really does get
even more interesting at the end.

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“Buying” a cell phone


[Ada and Richard]

It’s time for me to acquire a new cell phone. Actually, I
should have gotten one 2 years ago when the current one acquired
its intermittent problem. It stops hearing what I say. I can
make phone calls, and people can call me, but they all hang up
on me because they can’t hear me saying anything to them. I did
some ill-considered fiddling with passwords, so now the only fix
for this problem is to take the battery out for a few minutes.
This only happens every few months, so I haven’t done anything
about it, but now that I’m eligible for a new subsidized phone,
I figure I should get one.

The two features I’d like are a better camera and an ability to
read books. The better camera looks doable for a few tens of
dollars. This is frivolous, since I already have a better
camera, but it doesn’t fit easily even into my jacket pocket, so
I often don’t have it when I want it.

Reading books costs several hundred dollars, though. If you buy
from the T-Mobile store, any of
the phones smart enough to run reading software require a data
plan, which costs $25/month. So for the two year life of the
contract, that’s $600, plus whatever the phone costs.

I really don’t see that I want internet in my phone $600
worth. I need a phone that’s capable of internet, as a backup in
case the cable goes down, but that’s a few days a year at most.
Since I got Comcast instead of Verizon, I’ve had only a few hours
of down time, which happened at night so I didn’t need to use the
cell phone. When I’m at home, I have an upstairs desktop and a
downstairs laptop, and most of the places where I go and have time
to browse the internet have WIFI (so I can use the internet tablet). I know the people who have
iPhones do use their internet access, and maybe I’d wonder how I
lived without it if I got it, but right now I don’t feel like
spending the money.

Of course, you can buy an unlocked phone from Amazon or Newegg,
and probably you don’t need to get the data plan if you do that.
But the unlocked phones are all $300 more than a subsidized
version that comes with the data plan.

And again, this would be frivolous, because I already have my
Nokia N810 Internet Tablet for reading books. And it does fit
easily into a jacket pocket, so it’s only bad organization when
I don’t have it.

I investigated whether I could use the camera on the Internet
tablet for better pictures than the cell phone gets me, and it
turns out that I can’t, although it’s possible someone
could use it for something. It’s a fixed focus, intended for
doing video calls, so taking anything but yourself is difficult,
and the software seems to be pretty flaky. I managed to get an
out-of-focus shot of something unrecognizable, but never managed
to get the dog (my usual test subject), even though he’s taking
his morning nap and not difficult to shoot with a normal camera
at all.

So I’ll probably just upgrade to something similar to what I
have, maybe spending the $40 to get a better camera. In two
years, maybe the cost analysis will be different. Or maybe the
unlocked phones will get cheaper in less than two years.

There’s a character in Dickens’ Bleak
House
who is described thus:

He immediately began to
spend all the money he had in buying the oddest little ornaments and
luxuries for this lodging; and so often as Ada and I dissuaded him
from making any purchase that he had in contemplation which was
particularly unnecessary and expensive, he took credit for what it
would have cost and made out that to spend anything less on something
else was to save the difference.

One of my friends who bought an iPhone justified the expense
because his cell phone plan was $30 less per month than someone else’s he
knows (although it’s $30 more than mine). I do a certain amount
of that kind of thing, too, but I’m resisting the temptation in
this case.

How the Burns party went

I’m just now getting to hear the recordings from the concert on
January 30, so I’ll write about that later. Yesterday’s Burns
birthday party was quite pleasant.

My sister, the hostess, read an article from the Manchester
Guardian pointing out that the custom started within a few years
of Burns’ death, when there were still people around who had known
Burns. She discussed the history of the 19th century parties
where the guests provided the entertainment. At the Burns
parties, everybody contributed, whether professional or not.
Later, at the parties where Chopin played and George Sand read her
works in progress, it was the professionals who performed, but
they were doing it in their own social context. Later still, the
professionals were asked to perform for other people, and either
were paid, or felt they should have been.

There was an animated discussion of the “Question” — Resolved:
that candidates for public office *should* want to stand in the
cold outside Fenway Park and shake hands. Everyone agreed that
Coakley had not been a good candidate, but none of the
political activists in the room wanted to discuss my point
that there had been no Get Out the Vote.

People enjoyed my selections from Judith. A friend who has
usually played recordings of folksongs he likes this year sang an
Irish lullaby from the Clancy Brothers’ repertoire, and turned out
to have quite a pleasant voice. Someone read a newly discovered
poem by Burns, and someone else sang his setting of a lullaby by
Yeats. I got a chance to play my Mexican Polka with piano
accompaniment. My sister read the whole of the Wordsworth poem on
the death of Lord Nelson that President Obama had quoted the last
three lines of in his eulogy of Edward Kennedy.

The food and drink were all good. Monte began the procedings
by making off with the whole wedge of the most expensive cheese.
After that it was mostly humans enjoying the food they’d cooked
for each other, including “neaps and tatties”; a casserole with
barley, shrimp, and chicken; and lemon squares.