Book review: Astounding!

Astounding!

Astounding! by Kim Fielding

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Another short, breezy read. The elevator pitch might be “Road trip with my secret alien lover.”

Astounding! tells the story of Carter Evans, the editor of a high quality but money-losing speculative fiction magazine called Astounding! As he prepares the final issue, he drowns his sorrow in booze and meaningless sex with strangers. As opposed to meaningful sex with strangers, I suppose. While more than a little drunk, he writes a personal rejection letter to John Harper, a guy who sends terrible stories to the magazine every month, pleading that they be published. Carter doesn’t intend to send the letter, as it’s quite nasty, but being drunk and all that, off it goes.

He impulsively decides to apologize in person by driving from Seattle to Portland, where he finds John living in a small duplex. John looks like Tab Hunter, and all his furniture and belongings have a similarly vintage style. After the apology is accepted, John invites Carter to spend the night–on the couch–because the drive back to Seattle is long and it’s late. Carter agrees because he finds John super-hot. When they accidentally bump into each other in the narrow hallway as each prepares for bed the inevitable happens, then happens a few more times after that.

The story kicks into high gear when Carter’s friend, Freddie, an author of a Game of Thrones-style bestselling series, convinces Carter to join him and his partner on a RV trip to Yosemite. Carter impulsively gets them to stop in Portland, where they pick up John.

John is very polite and shy and charms everyone and is an alien in disguise. He wanted his stories published to serve as a beacon to his people-electrical beings without bodies–that he was ready to return home after a kind of fact-finding mission.

John and Carter (get it?) fall head over tentacles in love (kidding, there are no tentacles, though they get a mention), and this is complicated by John’s inevitable return home when that last issue of Astounding! hits the newsstands and his alien cohorts arrive to fetch him.

From here there are shenanigans, most of them occurring on the trip in the RV. The heart of the story feels almost like the travelogue of a good friend, recounting activities and meals, doing touristy things, braving the great outdoors where cellphones lose reception, all minus the boring slides (or posts to social media) you are forced to endure.

The arc of the story is predictable, but it’s presented so pleasantly and with such warmth that it feels like snuggling up with whatever favorite thing it is that comforts you. Most of the conflict is of the “breaking hearts” variety, Carter grows as a person, John grows as an alien-inside-a-fake-person and it’s all just kind of sweet.

I did find the ending a bit odd. Without going into spoilers, Carter recalls how he and Freddie define a “pancake part” in a story. It’s a scene that comes after the climax and denouement, being both unnecessary and making the story too long. And the final scene of Astounding! feels exactly like that. Still, it doesn’t detract much from what precedes it.

As expected in a story like this, the science is not exactly rigorous, bending to the needs of the plot, but there is a simple joy in watching a couple fall in love and remain smitten, affected only by external forces that seek to separate them. This is essentially light, romantic fluff with a science fiction twist, so if you’re up for that (with the requisite sex scenes, presented in semi-explicit detail), Astounding! may charm.

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Important preferences

Here they are. All very important.

  • Salt over pepper
  • Chocolate over vanilla
  • Strawberry over vanilla
  • Vanilla over maple
  • Pie over cake
  • Cake over bad pie
  • Bigfoot over Loch Ness Monster
  • Blue over red
  • Red over yellow
  • Green over red
  • Pizza over anything else
  • Fudge over not-fudge
  • UFOs over cryptids
  • Playing over working
  • Working over starving
  • Good shoes over cheap shoes
  • Underwear that’s fun to wear over other underwear. That can be read two different ways, figure it out.
  • Hot tub over steam room
  • Kiddie pool over diving board
  • Running over elliptical
  • Sun over moon
  • Stories over poems
  • Pencils over pens
  • Life over death

Some days are diamonds, some days are dogs

The title is a slightly mangled quote from a John Denver song released in 1981. The actual lyric is:

Some days are diamonds, some days are stones
Sometimes the hard times won't leave me alone

I have no explanation for my brain’s interpretation of the lyrics, apart from possible confusion with David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs. This would be weird, but in keeping with the way my mind sometimes works.

The reason I bring this up is I have been in a bit of a funk all day, literally from when I woke up in the morning, fresh from a couple of unpleasant dreams. They weren’t nightmares (these are extremely rare for me as an adult), nor bad dreams per se, just…unpleasant. One I recall was being with co-workers in some sort of room and a woman from outside our work said something to me that the others could hear that was effectively, “I’m going to deal with you later, you troublemaker.”

I’m not a troublemaker, I swear! The dream never continued on to where the woman dispensed justice/clever put-downs and/or hit me in the face with a cream pie. Or it did and I’ve subsequently blocked it.

But it started me off feeling kind of lousy and I could not shake the feeling for the rest of the day. I can’t shake it now and it’s 9:46 p.m. as I type this. There are other things in the background that are weighing on me (which I’m not going to discuss here, because this is a blog, not a diary, so no dirty* secrets for you!) and they are no doubt contributing to the current funk. Maybe a good night’s sleep will help. Maybe I will draw a cat. Or dream about drawing a cat.

It’s not all bad, though. I feel I am making continued, if slow, progress on a number of fronts, so I say: Excelsior!

* secrets, as such, are not actually dirty

Road Closed revival

Yes, after months in hibernation, I am finally reviving work on Road Closed, because it is time to get writing or quit trying. These blog posts, while satisfying, will not be cherished by millions.

Neither will Road Closed, but if I self-publish I can probably force more people to read it than look at my blog (current views for today by way of example: 3).

The first thing I am doing is using the plot outline template from Libbie Hawker’s Take Off Your Pants (my favourite way to write), to see how the overall plot holds together. I know there are things that I never quite fleshed out and questions to be answered. Once I have the outline sussed out, it’s back to writing and after finishing the first draft I’ll go back and toss scenes that no longer fit and make other adjustments. In fact, I had already started this before my last not-meant-to-be-a-sabbatical.

But hey, instead of writing my plans out in a big, cumbersome paragraph, let me write out out in list form. Maybe I’ll do the entire book as a list!

Plans for Road Closed in 2019:

  • Use plot outline template to complete plot, uh, outline
  • Look for any holes in the plot, fill as necessary
  • The above may include both adding new scenes and purging ones that no longer fit
  • When the first draft is complete, get very drunk, in keeping with the theme of the novel. Actually, don’t do this.
  • Finish the first draft
  • Read the first draft, take notes
  • Write the second draft
  • When the second draft is complete, realize I am so sick of the story that I have lost all objectivity and find a first reader, possibly several first readers
  • Get the first reader(s) to read the novel and offer detailed feedback. More than just “I loved it!” Or “I’m never speaking to you again!”
  • Determine if this feedback is sufficient to do a third and final draft
  • If not, shop around for a professional or semi-professional editor to go over it
  • Write the third draft
  • Research and refresh myself on the art and arcane magic of self-publishing
  • Self-publish the novel
  • Hope that more than three people buy the book, making it more successful than my blog, while also covering 0.001% of the expenses involved in self-publishing in a crowded, unforgiving market

It will be a grand adventure. Maybe I’ll write a book about it someday.

The free treadmill run

It’s Family Day and with Jeff away, I decided to hit the treadmill at the Canada Games Pool. I need to work on my sexy summer figure, you see.

I was going to walk, so I consulted Google Maps for the most efficient route, which turned out to be an estimated 23 minutes.

I created a different route that would take me past a spooky cemetery and require fewer twists and turns along the way. Google Maps told me it would take me 30 minutes.

I got there in 23 minutes.

To my surprise and delight, there was free admission, probably because of the holiday. It did indeed appear that numerous families were in attendance. They even had the big slide open. I did not ride the big slide.

Instead, I followed my previous treadmill run, hitting certain milestones (distance or time), at which I would check my heart rate, and if it was peaking, I’d fall back to a brisk walk until it had settled to just a little above my normal brisk walk pace, then I’d resume running. This means that in the time I normally do a 5K I noyl cover about 4K, but it’s easier on the body (and heart). Given how out of shape I am, this feels like the prudent thing to do until I start to see improvements in stamina and BPM.

I never felt bad and experienced no discomfort during the run, save for a slight bit of soreness in my left foot. I wore my cross trainers, which have little support, and used the regular insoles, rather than the orthotics. It was a nice reminder of how much the orthotics actually help to reduce pain and discomfort.

Here are the stats:

Distance: 4.10 km
Time: 39:05
Average pace: 7:06/km
BPM: 159
Calories: 330

The average pace was virtually identical to the last treadmill run, but the BPM was up a little to 159 vs. 153. This is a bummer, as I was hoping it would at least not be higher. It was peaking around 169 during the running parts, which is at least below the 170 mark.

I’m going to try to get out again within the next three days so I can see how the next run compares. If it’s even worse, I will be a sad, slow panda.

Book review: Elevation

Elevation

Elevation by Stephen King

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

NOTE: This won Goodreads Best Book 2018 Award for Horror, which is flat-out absurd. This is not a horror story in any way.

This is a strange thing: a Stephen King novel (it says so right on the cover) that is legitimately short. This hearkens back to, well, literally forty years ago, when he wrote novels that told their stories in less than a thousand pages. (I’m being mean, of course. Some of his recent novels would not break a bookshelf in two, just most of them).

In telling a lean tale, King jettisons side plots, extraneous characters, back story and everything else to show how a seemingly unassuming man in Castle Rock helps smooth the way for a lesbian couple to be accepted–more or less-by the community, before facing up to his very unusual condition.

Without going into spoilers–I think the story works better if you don’t know more than I’ve just described–I found Elevation to be sweet, even lovely. It seems to have been written as an antidote to the rather depressing state of the world we currently live in, filled with compassion and decency, even if the face of naked prejudice, threats of violence and reckoning with one’s mortality.

It’s also rather funny, in all the right places.

The characters are not particularly complex and given the brevity of the story, things may feel like they get resolved a little too quickly. This isn’t anything deep or profound, but you’d need to have your cynicism shined and buffed to not be at least a little moved by this.

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The grand flaw of true wireless earbuds

Last week, after about three days of non-use, I went to put on my AirPods and found that, despite being on the charger, they were only at 77% charge. I’ve had an intermittent issue with the left AirPod where it doesn’t make a solid connection in the charging case and drains instead of charging. This is a tad inconvenient.

Usually I can resolve this by removing the AirPod, checking/blowing on the bud and inside the case, then re-inserting it, at which point the power light turns orange, indicating charging. Five minutes’ worth will give me about an hour of playtime. Not bad.

But this did not happen. I put on the AirPods and confirmed the left one would not play at all, as expected. I fiddled with them for a bit, then went into the Bluetooth settings on my iPhone and chose Disconnect Device. It disconnected.

It would not reconnect.

Lacking any other options, I then chose Forget This Device. It forgot it.

And that was the last time my AirPods interacted with the phone at all. I get a blinking green power like that pulses three times when I pop the case open, then nothing. They are effectively dead.

But this is not the grand flaw I speak of, it’s a roundabout introduction to the actual flaw.

I looked up when I purchased the AirPods: October 2017. They were out of warranty. I looked up repair costs on Apple’s site:

It’s possible the left bud is fine and it’s a flaw in the case itself that is to blame, in which case I’d be looking at a $69 repair cost. This is high, but not completely outrageous–AirPods cost $219 Canadian. But it would still leave me with 16-month old batteries. If I got those replaced I’d be looking at a total bill of $207. Pretty much the cost of a new set.

And here’s where the grand flaw of true wireless earbuds comes in. The beauty of AirPods and similar earbuds is that there are no wires to tangle with. Having to switch back to wired buds in the last week reminded me what an annoyance that is. The extra cost of the AirPods was worth the convenience.

That convenience comes at a price, though. Because there are no wires, the battery must be contained entirely within the ear buds themselves–and they are tiny. And like all rechargeable batteries, they will degrade over time. When the batteries are this small, the degradation can have a major impact on battery life. Rated at a maximum of five hours, people who bought AirPods in 2016 when they debuted are now reporting that they are getting anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes on a full charge now.

This is normal behavior, though you will not find anything official about this in Apple’s site. That means that when the batteries deteriorate to the point that they are no longer usable, you have two choices: pay $219 for a new set, or pay $138. Neither of these is very appealing. If you go the latter route of battery replacement and imagine they need to be replaced every two years (ie. out of warranty), you are looking at a yearly cost (not counting the original $219 investment) of $69. Is paying $69 every year to keep using your AirPods reasonable? They’re not sold as a subscription service, so I’d say no.

But if you asked someone, would you pay $5.75 per month to always get your AirPods batteries refreshed so they never die, I’d bet a surprising number would say yes. That works out to $69 per year, of course.

So I am now left wondering what to do. The repair will be expensive and will only extend the life a few years. Replacement will cost another $219. Waiting for a new model will require going without–and Apple’s trend over the last four years is to jack up the prices on any new version of anything.

For now, I’m just going to ponder, both on what to do, and about how we seem to have entered the era of ongoing costs for something (headphones, earbuds) that never had any real ongoing costs before, without even realizing it.

Bad Design: SkyTrain stairs and elevators

There are various issues with the location and design of stairs and escalators across the entire SkyTrain system and I have posted about issues specific to the Canada Line, but for this I am going to focus on the station closest to where I live, as it is a good example of bad design.

First, let me note that the Millennium Line, opened in 2000, is overall an improvement to the Expo Line and its stations. The Millennium Line stations are spacious, completely covered for inclement weather (important for an area that gets a lot of rain), glass-enclosed elevators for better security, and each station has its own unique look, getting away from the cooke-cutter design of the Expo Line.

One area in which they went cheap was escalators. A lot of stations follow the one staircase/one escalator rule, where there is an up escalator to get people up to the platform, and a staircase to get them down. As cost-cutting measures go, it’s not the worst, but they are moving away from it now, because crowded stations and stairs are inefficient for getting people in and out quickly (see Lougheed Town Centre station, which added a down escalator at the north end, around the same time its third platform opened for the Evergreen extension).

At Sapperton station, both sides feature the one staircase/one escalator design. The problem here is that designers did not anticipate how people act. A lot of people will—quite logically, you could argue—take the path of least resistance. In this case, when someone exist a train, they will veer toward the closest route that will get them off the platform and out. At Sapperton this is the staircase, as it is closer to the platform than the up escalator. The up escalator requires the person to cross over the platform.

Now, you could argue toe the logic of this design is that having the staircase closer to the platform is more important, because it makes it easier for people to board a train. And that’s true. However, by putting the staircase closer, you inevitably increase the number of people using it and ignoring the escalator, which is farther away.

The end result is you get people both going up and down the stairs. This impedes people trying to get to the train, the very thing the designers were presumably trying to avoid. It also creates cross-traffic on the platform itself, as people exiting a train and using the up escalator must cross in front of the stairs.

During busy times, it’s a bit of a mess.

Now, if the stairs and elevator were reversed, you’d encourage people to take the escalator to leave the platform, plus you’d keep them from getting directly in the path of people coming down to board. People coming down would have to move slightly farther to get to the staircase at the top, but this would almost always be more efficient than putting them into the direct path of people leaving the platform.

Unfortunately, this design will never get fixed in existing stations and really, it’s too expensive to be worth the improvement in traffic flow, as nice as it would be. More happily, as mentioned earlier, it appears Translink is largely scrapping the use of stairs. An example is the remodelled Metrotown station, which previously had a single staircase and escalator at its east end. It was a huge bottleneck. The remodel opened up the west end of the platform and now there are four escalators (two up, two down) at both ends, vastly improving the efficiency in getting people in and out of this often crowded station.

So this is a case of bad design, but bad design recognized. Thumbs up, I say.

2019 Bestseller instant success template

Easy steps:

  1. Write a book about something. Whatever, it doesn’t matter.
  2. Include f*ck in the title, in the manner of “not caring/don’t care”, not in the manner of the carnal act
  3. Include girl in the title, in the manner of a female human
  4. OK, just use this title: The Girl Who Didn’t Give a F*ck
  5. Market it as both a thriller and self-help
  6. Rake in $$$

Tune in next year for the next word/phrase to add to sell even more copies.

Random thoughts, February 2019 edition

  • After three days of non-use, my AirPods have died a mysterious death and will not charge, pair or play. This has forced me to go back to wired earbuds and it makes me realize how nice it was to not have to untangle the spaghetti of wires every time I listened to music. I will probably look for an alternative for now, rather than paying what would likely be a ludicrous repair bill from Apple.
  • We had a more traditional Vancouver snow this week. It started out like recent years, with it staying cold and several days of snow piling up. Then it warmed up past freezing and started raining. Fortunately there was a gap between the snow and rain, so we have not seen a slushpocalypse. Also, the rain stopped and the snow is just melting on its own. Yay.
  • The Lego Movie 2 was all right, but not as good as the original. Several of the new songs are catchy, but “Everything is Awesome” is still the one that got stuck in my head after.
  • Nic did not want to watch Close Encounters of the Third Kind, despite never having seen it. He is now DEAD to me. Or mostly dead.
  • It seems like people have mostly and finally stopped quoting from Monty Python now. I’ve watched some of the original episodes on Netflix recently (Nic will watch those) and it’s very stream of conscious, clever, funny, but also uneven, with some sketches not really going anywhere.
  • Speaking of watching things on Netflix with Nic, the Star Trek animated series is not bad at all, but the animation is terrible. Too bad there isn’t money in redoing the episodes with modern (good) animation, while keeping the original voice work and music.
  • Let’s keep talking about Netflix. Jaws just turned up and I must watch it again. Nic also won’t watch this because he doesn’t like movies about sharks eating people or something. I loved sharks as a kid (after seeing Jaws). I would draw sharks all the time. And dinosaurs. And roller coasters. But never all three at once (which I would totally do now).
  • I broke my rule of not snacking in the evening tonight and feel bad. And full.
  • I have been weirdly and correctly predicting little things lately, like I’m a low wattage psychic.
  • I have actually started working on Road Closed again. One might say Road Opened, ho ho.
  • Somehow my iTunes folder has bloated to around 50 GB. That is a lot of “onion on the belt” (old guy) pop music.
  • As always, I like lists