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 in the Best Related Work
category. There should probably be some specific online
categories, but there aren’t yet.

District 9

I watched this
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
, and it’s certainly not as good Science Fiction,
although I really enjoyed watching it.

The Lacuna

The central character in this
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

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
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.

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
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

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

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.

“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
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.

More Judith

I had to spend most of the morning producing the handout for
, so I’ll give you the rest of it today.

I’m reading parts of two sections — the one I gave you
yesterday about Holofernes cutting off the water supply to
Bethulia, and the one about the death of Holofernes.

Here’s the version in the Apocrypha:

And Holofernes was made merry on her occasion, and drank exceeding
much wine, so much as he had never drunk in his life.

And when it was grown late, his servants made haste to their lodgings,
and Vagao shut the chamber doors, and went his way.

And they were all overcharged with wine.
And Judith was alone in the chamber.
But Holofernes lay on his bed, fast asleep, being exceedingly drunk.

And Judith spoke to her maid to stand without before the chamber, and to watch:

And Judith stood before the bed praying with tears, and the motion of her lips in silence,

Saying: Strengthen me, O Lord God of Israel, and in this hour look on the works of my hands, that as thou hast promised, thou mayst raise up Jerusalem thy city: and that I may bring to pass that which I have purposed, having a belief that it might be done by thee.

And when she had said this, she went to the pillar that was at his bed’s head, and loosed his sword that hung tied upon it.

And when she had drawn it out, she took him by the hair of his head, and said: Strengthen me, O Lord God, at this hour.

And she struck twice upon his neck, and out off his head, and took off his canopy from the pillars, and rolled away his headless body.

And after a while she went out, and delivered the head of Holofernes to her maid, and bade her put it into her wallet.

The version from the program notes for last June’s concert is
interrupted by two soliloquies, so I’ll give it to you straight,

Holofernes was barely able to stand
on his feet, and sleep did overtake him.
Bagoas closed the tent and ordered the others to leave.

Holofernes’s strength melts away,
the filthy deeds of lust dilute it,
The bed was in the middle of the chamber,
soft, clean, white.
Entering, Holofernes collapsed upon it,
he began to snore louder than a sea lion,

Judith moved aside the curtains of the bed
while her heart beat fiercely,
She joined hand to hand,
fell to her knees, poured forth tears;
and prayed to herself:
O God,
remove from me all fear, guide my arm
that it accomplish what my mind has plotted!

Now, now I pray, free Your city Jerusalem,
smite the arrogant who elevate themselves,
give peace to the virtuous who humble themselves,
Give me Your power, and deign to assist me.

This she said, then silently she took the sword from the pillar of
the bed,
and drew it; with one hand she seized Holofernes’s hair,
with the other she smote him.
He groaned, shuddered, lying on his back, then
he expired; he had no strength; from his throat dribbled blood:
thus the hero perished, thus he closed his eyes.

He lay there like a log,
God did help Judith
that her work was not in vain,
she struck him again and took off his head.

I believe these soliloquies are not from the original epic, but
are what were called “Agonies” in Croation poetry. The first one
is inserted between Judith’s prayer and her actually taking the sword in
her hands:

[At that moment, the mind of Judith got up and spoke to her soul]

Why are you so sad, my soul, and why are you confusing me…

The soul answered: oh, how greatly you confused my heart…
I have been given to the body to live with it, and the body
cheated me…

The mind: My soul, your excuse isn’t good,
Because your body is made of earth, and you are made of wisdom…

Therefore I am so surprised that your heart is so petrified…
Overcome your body…

Then the soul said: Woe to me, I hoped to receive from you a
consolation, and instead I received even bigger sadness… You
know that I have been living on this world for many years… I
cannot overcome my body. It is older, cannot move, and cannot do
any good…

O, my soul, how bitter are your words, don’t lose hope if you are
losing your mind, I pray you… weep and fall upon your knees…

And then there’s one for Holofernes right after he dies:

[Then, Holofernes’s soul stood up and spoke ot his body angrily:]

Where are your lands and vineyards?

Where the pearls and Stones?

Where are your golden rings?

Where all the money that was your god?

Where are the delicious spices, that you prepared and forgot about
the poor?
There is no more fowl or wine on your table, now you are the drink
of disgusting worms,
that will crumble your body into dust.

It will be God’s decision,

do you want to cry in this chaber, where you lie with your nose

Your beautiful eyes now stay closed,
your tongue is now silent, speechless.

[Then the evil Holofernes’s body, parting from the world, started
lamenting in a death rattle:]

Alas, where is my pride,
alas, where is my life?
Alas, where are my friends?

Alas, where are all my riches?

Oh, my dear companions, look at my body which lived with you
not fearing death,

My arms are still here,
but they don’t help my soul.
My eyes are closed
and all my arms killed.

Why has God created me?

Cursed be the day when I was born;
cursed the place when I was fed!
Be lost the paths that I crossed!

The Book of Judith

I’m going to a Robert Burns Birthday Party tomorrow, where
people read poetry that’s impressed them. We’ll also song some
Burns songs and read some of the standard Burns, but people
mostly pick poems that mean something to them no matter who the
poet is or
when they were written.

I thought over what poetry I’ve run into this year, and what
impressed me most was the Croatian
poems based on the Book of Judith
that I heard at last
year’s Boston Early Music

I’m going to just read a couple of short passages from a Bible
translation, and some slightly longer passages from the
translation in the BEMF booklet. But I’ve been looking at some
of the information on the internet about the original, and why
it’s in Apocrypha.

Here’s an article
about how it’s been perceived in several religious traditions,
and here’s the Wikipedia
, which includes a list of literary, musical, and
artistic works based on the story, including the Croation Juditha,
which was part of the basis for the concert last June.

My brief summary is that the Rabbis who decided on the Hebrew
Canon decided not to include it because it was clearly not a
contemporary account. It seems to have been written during the
time of the Maccabees, and set during the reign of
Nebbuchadnezzar. So it’s a historical novel.

One of the aspects of it that struck me last June was the
description of the Assyrian atrocities against the civilian
population, like this one from chapter 7:

Now Holofernes, in going round about, found that the fountains which supplied them with water, ran through an aqueduct without the city on the south side: and he commanded their aqueduct to he cut off.

Nevertheless there were springs not far from the walls, out of which they were seen secretly to draw water, to refresh themselves a little rather than to drink their fill.

But the children of Ammon and Moab came to Holofernes, saying: The children of Israel trust not in their spears, nor in their arrows, but the mountains are their defense, and the steep hires and precipices guard them.

Wherefore that thou mayst overcome them without joining battle, set guards at the springs that they may not draw water out of them, and thou shalt destroy them without sword, or at least being wearied out they will yield up their city, which they suppose, because it is situate in the mountains, to be impregnable.

And these words pleased Holofernes, and his officers, and he placed all round about a hundred men at every spring.

And when they had kept this watch for full twenty days, the cisterns, and the reserve of waters failed among all the inhabitants of Bethulia, so that there was not within the city, enough to satisfy them, no not for one day, for water was daily given out to the people by measure.

The Croatian version of this is shorter and more vivid:

Holofernes approached Bethulia and diverted the water that
flowed into the city.

The water finished, there was thirst in the town,
Nothing to moisten their mouths,
their tongues began to dry out,
their lips to crack, and people waxed pale.

Bright Star

is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen about a poet.
The people who make movies in general do better with composers
— you’re going to need background music anyway. You can
actually have background poetry in some cases, as the reading of
Ode to a Nightingale over the closing credits of this movie
demonstrates, but it’s less common. But often they just take some
event in the poet’s life that could be part of the plot of a movie
and write that movie without using anything at all about the poetry.

What makes this a good movie about a poet is that there’s
ordinary dialog (well-written, but not transcendent), which is
then echoed in a recitation of one of the poems (which is
transcendent). Keats is making love to Fanny, and says
something like “I need a better word for you than bright, or
soft.” And several scenes later, he’s reading her:

BRIGHT star! would I were steadfast as thou art—
   Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night,
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
   Like Nature’s patient sleepless Eremite,

The moving waters at their priestlike task
   Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,

Or gazing on the new soft fallen mask
   Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—
No—yet still steadfast, still unchangeable,
   Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
   Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death.

I was also really impressed with the costumes. It’s the Jane
Austen era, set between 1818 and 1821, so you have lots of
supposedly authentic BBC examples to compare them with. But
these costumes were made by someone who really likes looking at
fabric draped over the human body. Apparently the costume
designer used actual antique fabrics or copies.

Costume design was the only Academy Award this film was
nominated for. I’m not sure all the people nominated for Best
Actor and Best Actress were actually better than the two leads
in this film. And I haven’t yet seen the other films nominated
for Best Costume Design, but I liked this one well enough that
I’ll be rooting for it anyway.