Book review: The Fold

The FoldThe Fold by Peter Clines
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’d probably average the rating of The Fold to 3.5 stars if I could. Overall it tracks closer to 4, but parts of it bring it down a bit.

This is another “opening a portal to other dimensions maybe isn’t a good idea” story and I’m a sucker for them. The Fold is a quick, snarky romp filled with grouchy scientists, weird cockroaches and quantum donuts.

Anyone looking for a lot of hard science to chew on may be disappointed. The science, such as it is, is deliberately vague, even goofy. The main character is a high school teacher, not a scientist, albeit one with a genius-level IQ and eidetic memory (like photographic memory, but covering all senses, not just sight). Mike Erikson catalogues everything he experiences through metaphorical red and black ants that carry information back and forth, allowing him to essentially treat his mind as a computer with near limitless storage. This comes in incredibly handy as the story unfolds (no pun intended), though Erikson points out the downside to one of the scientists, namely that every horrible thing he witnesses also stays with him as vividly as if just happened.

Erikson is hired by a government friend to check out a secretive government-funded project working on a way to fold space and allow for instant travel over vast distances. Located outside San Diego, the small team of DARPA scientists working on what they call The Albuquerque Door treat Erikson as an interloper, though he assures them he is an impartial observer who would like to see them succeed. They assure him that The Door is very safe.

But things go wrong. Then they go very horribly wrong. Part of the fun in the second half of the novel comes from watching the team grapple with events spiraling out of their control and seeing how they react and adjust (or at least valiantly try to). Without getting into blatant spoilers, the story eventually heads off in a direction that feels more like fantasy, with the science feeling more like magic. It’s a little weird.

The banter between the characters is snappy and the pace never flags. There are no real subplots or distractions from the main event, so it’s an easy read to plow through.

Oddly, perhaps more than any book I’ve read in years, I kept imagining specific actors as the characters. The head of the project, a man named Arthur, brought to mind Morgan Freeman so vividly that I would confidently place a bet on Freeman playing the role in a movie adaptation. Or at least the casting director trying to nab him for the part.

Likewise, the engineer Sasha I saw as Sarah Douglas circa Superman II (1981). I’m not even sure why. The weirdest was probably the inevitable (and, IMO, unnecessary) romantic interest of Jamie, who made me think of Pam from the TV series Archer. Yes, she reminded me of a cartoon character.

The Fold is far from perfect, but the whole thing rolls along so smoothly it’s hard to get upset by what amounts to quibbles. As with most alternate dimension stories, it’s never too wise to spend a lot of time examining the plot, lest you find holes you could squeeze a mirror Earth through.

If you like these kinds of stories and you’re not fussed with the science being a bit flimsy, you’ll find The Fold well worth the ride.

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NaNoWriMo 2017 brainstorm session #1

In which I try my old technique of coming up with the title first and the story second. Since this is brainstorming and I rarely control my impulse to be silly this is not terribly likely to yield useful results, but stranger and more horrible things have happened.

  • Cosmic Tingles (this was actually suggested as the new title for my novel Road Closed, suggested by a co-worker; I just really want to use it somewhere)
  • Hatful of Hats
  • The Biomechanical Keyboard
  • Lost in Thought Experiment
  • 50,000 Words in 50,000 Days
  • The Girl Who Could Write Better Novel Titles Than Me
  • The Swiffer Sniffer
  • Belly Rub
  • Haunted Hot Dog Stand
  • A Crick in Time
  • Umbrella Universe
  • Write, Monkey
  • Try Turning It On and Off
  • I Should Be in Bed

The man who didn’t like stairs

The entrance of the New Westminster SkyTrain station this past Sunday as I went to my writing group:

The guy who wrote this (and come on, you know it was a guy) is probably great fun to work with. Or exist with.

Also, that lopsided “u” (if that’s even what it is) disturbs me in ways I can’t really explain, though the switch from upper case on the left to lower case on the right is not so much disturbing as it is odd. Also also, does this guy carry around felt markers just so he can scribe his colorful opinions in public whenever a thought strikes him? I’m willing to say yes, he does.

Also x3: I wish I had something witty to offer regarding the guy wiping his nose under the LIQUOR STORE sign, but alas, nothing comes to mind.

The Rains, Fall 2017 edition

Today was the first day of heavy rain in quite awhile. I’d almost forgotten how much I dislike this weather. The gusting wind did remind me how I prefer, even on horrible days like these, to go sans umbrella, because getting a bit wet (okay, very wet) is still better than desperately clutching to an umbrella, hoping it doesn’t get torn out of your hands by the elements or worse, it doesn’t get torn out of your hands and instead you get whisked away with it, Mary Poppins-style.

To commemorate today, here’s a shot I took after arriving home from work that shows the front entrance of our condo building turning into a lake.

To quote Supertramp, it’s raining again.

It’s still better than snow. Sort of.

Pink surrounded, tragically

A few days ago, possibly prompted by an old song I’d heard somewhere, I thought about Gordon Downie, lead singer of The Tragically Hip, and how he was still around, more than a year after the band had completed their farewell tour due to Downie’s aggressive, untreatable brain cancer. I admired his resilience against what sounded like imminent death.

Today that death finally arrived and the way he spent this past year left me feeling not sad, but strangely happy at how he made his time–cut terribly short–truly count. He lived his life well, right up to the end.

I only ever bought one Tragically Hip album, Fully Completely (which is a great collection of songs) but there is no denying their impact on the Canadian cultural landscape. Just look at today’s iTunes Top 10 albums:

Death, as always, is a great way to boost sales.

Farewell, Gordon. May your light burn bright wherever you are.

NaNoWriMo 2017 starts in two weeks and my plan is lacking a plan

National Novel Writing Month starts in two weeks and my current plan is non-existent. I’m still not entirely sure I’m going to participate.

This is probably not how best-selling novels are born.

Maybe I wouldn’t know how to handle the fame of being a best-selling author and it’s all for the best, anyway.

Or maybe I just need to come up with a title with the word “girl” in it. Current novels break down like this:

  • Self-published paranormal romances on amazon: 22%
  • The usual big names whose ebooks are always curiously priced higher than the paper versions: 31%
  • Books with “girl” in the title: 36%
  • Everything else: 11%

Most of the good novel titles featuring “girl” have already been used, since there are millions of these books out there, enough to form a new continent if stitched together and waterproofed.

But here’s a few from my five-second brainstorming session:

  • The Girl Who Wrote Novels About Girls
  • The Girl With the Word Girl on the Book Cover
  • The Girl Who Dated a Squirrel
  • The Girl Girl Girl Girl Girl

The important thing is I’m still trying to come up with something, even if inspiration has not only left me, it’s departed to another dimension.

Maybe I could write a novel about other dimensions. No, wait, I tried that last year and failed. :(

Maybe I’ll come up with more cockamamie ideas tomorrow as The Rains sweep through the area and the only choices are brainstorming or to stare out the window and despair. Yes, that’s it. Tomorrow will be a grand day of brainstorms! And real storms.

Are fidget spinners the dumbest fad of the last five years?

I say yes.

I mean, it’s a device that just spins and does nothing useful, like the U.S. president.

Although fidget spinners don’t have nuclear weapons at their disposal, so there is that.

Runner-up: Drones drones drones, as seen on Drone Daily Planet, where every other segment is about drones doing [thing] and isn’t it amazing and hey, here’s another drone story but these drones are doing [slightly different thing]. Also: drones. Hooray!

Oh Siri, Volume 2

Me, dictating into the Message app:

Finished run, heading home.

Siri, interpreting:

Finished her own, heading home.

Somehow “run” becomes “her own.” Note the number of syllables isn’t even the same. Note that I’ve dictated this phrase before. Is it possible for AI to get dumber? I’m beginning to think so.

Oh Siri.

Run 544: Bob, there’s a cat or maybe a lynx

Run 544
Average pace: 5:16/km
Location: Burnaby Lake (CCW)
Start: 10:28 am
Distance: 10.02 km
Time: 52:57
Weather: Cloudy
Temp: 9ºC
Humidity: 72%
Wind: light
BPM: 169
Weight: 155.5 pounds
Total distance to date: 4232 km
Devices: Apple Watch, iPhone

It was actually a bit chilly on today’s run, with the temperature never climbing into the double digits. I do not regret wearing the long-sleeved shirt.

With clouds, cool temperatures, and a small but real threat of showers, I expected the trail to be fairly quiet, but it was actually almost as busy as a stat holiday, with several incidents of traffic clogging up.

The walk to the lake was a bit slower than normal, maybe because I was still trying to get warm. I noticed a commentary of sorts on one of the new STAY OUT signs along the Brunette River trail:

Fine, I’ll just publicly consume alcohol right here.

I chose to run counter-clockwise upon arrival to the lake and was uncertain how it would go with a four-day layoff (I missed a run on one of my usual days due to illness). The first km didn’t feel sluggish, exactly, though my pace was not exactly like greased lightning at 5:23/km. I really think it was cold enough that it took me awhile to warm up and find a rhythm. My pace would prove to seesaw throughout the 10K, with the fastest stretches coming at the third, fifth and tenth km marks. In the end I finished with an average pace of 5:16/km, my best 10K of the year, so I’m pleased with that.

The extra time off seemed to help with the stiffness in the left leg. It did feel a little stiff, but only a little, and it took much longer to get there. The walk after was faster and I had no issues.

The trail, as I mentioned, was busy. There were some runners, but mostly it was people bundled up in parkas determined to enjoy the outdoors. I salute them for that, as long as they don’t get in the way, which for the most part they didn’t. The clogging incidents mentioned above were mainly just people converging from different directions at the same time.

By the sports fields there appeared to be some kind of informal run competition of sorts happening. I say this because I saw no special markers, banners, flags or anything else. I also saw, upon just rounding the corner where I head onto the part of the trail bordering the fields, about a dozen runners heading straight toward me at high speed. A wall of runners. I scooted over to the right to avoid being stampeded and they flew by in a blur. About halfway along the stretch here–so a minute or so later–another similar group came barreling at me, including a young guy cheekily running topless and pretending to not feel the cold. He was not pretending that his upper body was perfectly chiseled, however. Oh to be young and, well, perfectly chiseled. I got about 50% of that when I was his age.

There was one other thing I came across on my run, but it wasn’t a pedestrian or a runner or even an accursed cyclist (none were in view today). I was maybe 20 or 30 meters along the Piper Mill Trail when I rounded a corner and saw on the trail ahead of me a dark orange cat. Not someone’s pet, though, as it was about three times too big. It was a bobcat, making this the second time I’ve come across one at the lake. As soon as it spotted me it darted off into the bush, so I never felt threatened by it. It just looked like a really big housecat without much of a tail, kind of like this:

I sent off an email to the Metro Vancouver Parks people, just in case. I’d hate to have a bobcat eat someone’s baby.

This was the first run at the lake where I’ve used the AirPods and playback was fine until just near the 6K mark when it abruptly stopped. I checked the music app on the watch and it looked like it had paused for some reason. I tapped Play and the music resumed and continued without incident through the rest of the run.

I’m going to blame Siri, just because.

While the double-tap on the left earbud at the start of the run properly paused play, I was never able to get the double-tap on the right earbud to skip to the next song, though it’s worked before. I tried once using Siri instead (“Hey Siri, next song”) and still nothing happened.

I definitely blame Siri on that one.

It’s possible that I may not have held the watch up high enough to turn the face on (which Siri requires before it will listen). I can use the actual music app controls to skip ahead–this requires bringing the watch up, swiping left to get to the music controls, then tapping the Forward button. None of this is difficult, but it takes a few seconds to do and you have to look at the watch when you do it. Taking my eyes off the trail while running is something I’m really hesitant to do, as I’ve got direct experience in what can happen in the span of one or two seconds (it involves falling and bleeding and picking gravel out of your skin). In the end I just listened to everything that came up and thanked myself for not having completely awful taste in music.

I may reverse the control scheme on the AirPods and see if that works better.

Overall, though, this was an unexpectedly brisk run on a rather brisk day.

Oh Siri, Volume 1 or Hell jars, howard yoyo 2017

Mocking Apple technology making mincemeat of spoken–or written–phrases is a tradition going back almost 25 years. This is from August 1993:

See this and other Newton strips on the official Doonesbury site

Today there are entire sites dedicated to how iMessage mangles text through auto-correct. Sure, some of the examples are probably manipulated for maximum comic effect (though it’s really not necessary, as the worst of autocorrect hardly needs a helping hand to look bad), but the fact that there are entire sections of the internet devoted to this stuff speaks to how ubiquitous it is. (Also the best examples are the ones where people keep futilely typing the same autocorrected word over and over. You can almost feel the despair coming though their attempted messages.)

And then there’s Siri. Siri is great when it works properly, which for me is most of the time. But when Siri decides not to work, it gets really stubborn in insisting that you are speaking different words.

Here are two to start, the first I’ve mentioned before.

Pyramid: I try to tell Siri to play the album Pyramid. It tries to play the imaginary album Pure Mind. I was never able to get Siri to play Pyramid. I had to physically interact with my phone to listen to it. How 2007.

Winner: Siri

Pasta: I try to send the message “The pasta will be ready in two minutes.” Siri says, “The pastor will be ready in two minutes.” I keep trying different pronunciations/inflections/accents for “pasta” and get these results:

pasta = pastor
pasta = pastor
pasta = pastor
pasta = pastor
pasta = pasta

I don’t know what finally made it work and I have no confidence it will ever work again. I’m just glad I wasn’t sending the message to a pastor.

Winner: Me

I don’t have a sassy wrap-up for this (it’s my first entry, cut me some slack) but I will note that I just spent half an hour at that stupid autocorrect site, laughing more than I’d like to admit.

Book review: Story Genius

Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere)Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel by Lisa Cron
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The “brain science” part in the title might make you think this is a dry, analytical approach to story construction, but Lisa Cron peppers this book with plenty of humor, often painting herself as the target, as she details a very specific approach to outlining and planning the story that will drive a novel. The brain science is basically recognition that humans are hardwired to enjoy a good story, due to how important stories were to the survival of early humans. Cron explains this better than my glib rundown would suggest, but don’t mistake this for a book about brain science. It’s not, it’s about writing a novel.

She comes down hard on so-called “pantsing” where a writer just grabs an idea and then wings it, hoping that over the course of 300 or so pages it all somehow works out (hint: most of the time it won’t and the writer will abandon the story. I can vouch for this by my amazing tower of unfinished stories, now in the running as one of the wonders of the modern world). Instead, she favors an approach where you, as the writer, are always asking questions about your story and its protagonist, the most persistent question being,”Why?”, followed closely by “And so?” The latter is asked at the end of a scene, to prompt the writer to explain how the end of the scene leads into the next. The questions prod the writer into thinking through the character’s actions and motivations before committing to the actual writing. No winging it allowed!

Cron is also an advocate of what she calls Scene Cards where each scene of the novel is explicitly detailed on a card (she recommends virtual over physical), with items like the Alpha Point, the plot (cause and effect), the consequences and so on. She rightly observes that writing software like Scrivener is pretty much tailor-made for the level of organization and planning she advocates.

You might think all of this planning would result in a story that is so predictable as to be rote and not especially fun to write, but Cron notes that there is always plenty of room for developments to grow organically and take off in one of several directions–as long as those directions continue to work in service to the protagonist and her motivations/beliefs.

I’m not sure I could commit to the level of planning Cron suggests, but I can’t deny that a writer who does is bound to come up with a story that is solid and able to pull a reader through to the end. In a way the approach reminds me of bestsellers that are derided for the quality of the writing (Shades of Grey, Dan Brown novels) but are successful due to other strengths, such as the storytelling (I’ll admit to never having read a Dan Brown novel, so I’m assuming there’s something other than the prose that compels people to read his books). Even if you don’t write deathless prose, following Cron’s method may still produce something people will enjoy reading.

Story Genius is made more entertaining as Cron enlists one of her friends and fellow author/writing coach, Jennie Nash, to follow Cron’s technique in developing a new novel. The reader gets to watch the development of this novel’s protagonist (a woman who refuses to get close to others for fear of getting hurt and ends up kidnapping a dog and, well, it gets complicated) and how all the parts of the story–background, supporting characters, motivations and so on, come together to create a compelling whole. I was a bit disappointed that the end result of Nash’s work was not made more clear.

All told, this is a meticulous approach to novel-writing and one that will likely bear fruit for the writer who is willing to commit to the techniques described. Heck, even only following some of the techniques, like always asking why, or compiling Scene Cards in the way Cron describes, will likely result in a stronger story. Recommended especially for people who love plotting.

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I don’t like the new MacBook keyboard

I’ve had a MacBook Pro, officially known as the MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2016, Two Thunderbolt 3 ports) model when checking About This Mac from the Apple menu, for the better part of the year, and in that time I’ve grown used to the extremely low travel keyboard it uses, but I’ve finally realized I don’t like it.

Others have mentioned it’s not fun to type on and that may seem somewhat glib, but it’s true, at least as far as my own experience goes. My greatest fear–that the low travel and extreme firmness of the keys would lead to sore fingers during long typing sessions–was unfounded. I’ve typed thousands of words over hours on the thing and my fingers have emerged intact.

But it’s still not fun. I always feel like I’m on the verge of making mistakes by hitting the wrong keys, it’s annoyingly clicky without any of the benefits of a mechanical keyboard and every time I go back to any other keyboard I regularly use, like the Logitech K780 or even the previous wired Mac keyboard with numeric keypad, I’m reminded of how much more pleasurable the typing experience can be. The new MacBook keyboard feels like something that’s meant to be used only sparingly. Maybe that’s why the touchpad is so gigantic on the newer models.

The 2016 MacBook Pro is kind of an odd thing. Parts of it are great, like the display and touchpad, while others, like the keyboard, are unsatisfying compromises.

It’s actually got me thinking about getting a Windows laptop again because there is no escaping this keyboard now. Apple is on the verge of killing off their last models that used the old-style keyboard (the models date back to 2015).

HP has a new edition of their Spectre X360 coming out later this month. I’ll give it a test drive if it’s carried locally. If the touchpad is tolerable and the keyboard is better, they may just have a sale.

Anyone want a slightly-used MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2016, Two Thunderbolt 3 ports)?