Friday, March 30, 2012

A Ghost Story (Part 1)

After the affair of Jason Moriarty had come to a conclusion, I remained in New Babbage for some time. I seemed to be spending enough time in the city that I scouted for inexpensive lodgings such that I would always have a base of operations when I returned. I looked at a few rooms and interviewed with several landladies, but nothing leapt out to me.

During my search, however, I was in contact with a Mr. Obadiah French, a real estate agent. He asked what brought me to New Babbage. When he learned that I was an investigative journalist, a strange look passed his face. He said in a conspiratorial tone, "I have a small problem that you could perhaps help me with. It requires the utmost discretion."

"I am the soul of discretion," I replied, mentally crossing my fingers. A good story was a rare thing, and I wasn't about to promise my way out of one.

"I have a property in Clockhaven that is vacant at present." Clockhaven, the oldest inhabited part of the city, was a warren of wooden buildings and roads that ran at crazy angles. I assumed that what was coming next was a request to spy on a couple having marital problems, or catch a juvenile vandal who was making it difficult for Mr. French to sell this house. "I'm having some trouble selling the property..." Saw that one coming. "...because it is haunted by a resident ghost."

Okay, I didn't see that one coming.

"A ghost, Mr. French? Surely you don't believe -"

"Of course I don't believe in ghosts, Miss. I'm not some superstitious know-nothing from the Seventeen Century, and I'm not living in Winterfell. And I've never seen this creature. No, the problem is that more than one potential buyer has been frightened off by what seems to be a ghost. We both know this is nonsense, but something must be going on inside that house, and I want to know what it is. Once I know the cause of the problem, I can fix it and get on with the business of selling the house. Can you help me?"

Turning down money has always been hard for me; I'm weak that way. I nodded curtly and asked him to show me the house.

The house was clearly once a place of pride, but time had not been kind. Its once-white wooden siding looked slightly out of place from its neighbors. The house was set apart in other ways as well, with an iron fence ringing the property, ivy entwining the crosspieces. The gate was now ajar, one side drooping as one hinge failed. The lawn was weedy and unkempt. The house itself was in poor repair, though the structure was still solid. This was once the premier estate in the neighborhood. It was still a fine property that a young couple with a growing family might buy and renovate.

Mr. French led me through the gates, up the walkway, past a cracked and dry fountain, to the front door. I looked around and saw no neighbors, nor foot traffic through the street. Was he luring me here for some nefarious purpose? I shook the thought out of my head and patted my derringer absent-mindedly. He seemed to be genuinely concerned about the so-called ghost problem and, in any event, I had my safety covered.

"It's always the third floor rear suite where visitors say they see the ghost. Let me show you." He opened the door and bade me enter. I placed a gloved hand on his arm and said, "No, Mr. French, let me venture alone. You said the ghost never manifests itself to you. Perhaps whatever is behind this will think I am an interested buyer and will try to scare me away." He looked dubious but agreed to leave me there and return the next morning, allowing me the entire night in the house, if needed.

As the real estate agent left, I locked the door behind me and looked around. The interior of the house was consistent with the exterior: originally luxurious, now shabby. Off to one side of the grand foyer was a parlor, dominated by a large fireplace flanked by classical-style pillars. The wallpaper, of Chinese lanterns, was once vibrant but was now faded and peeling in places. The intricate moldings appeared to be in good shape, if in need of a new coat of paint. On the other side of the foyer was the library, with similar faded promise. Neither room seemed to have a ghost of any kind.

I walked up the main stairs and looked at the second floor bedrooms, a master suit and smaller bedroom. Again, no spirits. One more set of stairs to the top floor of the family's part of the house. Three more bedrooms, one of which had an unusual set of locks on the door. Walking into the master suite, I smelled mold and old-house decay, but caught no aroma of ghost. Then again, I was not entirely sure what I should see, smell, or hear. One of the smaller bedrooms was equally ghost-free. The other room was still locked. I considered attempting to pick the locks, but thought Mr. French would not be pleased if he had been the one to put the locks on the door, though what valuables could be behind the door I couldn’t imagine. I shrugged mentally and walked down the back stairs. I investigated the servants' quarters and the kitchen as well, with the same lack of success. I was less thrilled with the idea of going through the cellar, especially now that dark was falling, but a job was a job and I did not want to leave any area of the house unexplored.

I lit a candle and carried it carefully down the cellar stairs. The gloom was dense, so I could not see far in front of me, and I moved carefully. Despite my foreboding, the cellar was unexpectedly clean and it was free of obstacles. Nothing caught my eye as I surveyed the entire floor. I returned to the main part of the house.

At this point, there was nothing for me to do but wait for darkness to fall and see if the ghost would appear at that time. I made my encampment in the library, assembling some cheese and bread, along with some dried fruit, into a semblance of dinner. I poured a small glass of brandy to keep me warm. Making myself comfortable, I pulled out a volume of Mr. Charles Dickens and waited.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Don't Let the Facts Get in the Way of a Good Story

It's unfortunate the way that pundits, politicians, and the press all like to generalize what are essentially local stories, taking sketchy preliminary information as gospel, and jumping to conclusions that they view as exemplars of broader truths. This happens again and again, from the Duke lacrosse matter to Tawana Brawley, Terry Schiavo, and now Treyvon Martin.

Often, what appears to be one particular narrative starts to unravel as new facts emerge. Tawana Brawley was raped by a gang of white men - except that she made it up. The Duke lacrosse team raped a young black woman - except that, as the facts emerged, the victim turned out not to have been victimized. Terry Schiavo's husband was happy to pull the plug on his comatose wife to get an insurance payoff and to live with his new girlfriend - except that the facts were a little more complicated than that. And these examples, as false or loose with the facts as they all were, were intended to be little morality tales for a larger agenda.

Now we have another essentially local story - neighborhood watch guy shoots and kills young man - that is national news, used to support any desired narrative, from "white people get away with murder" to "we need more gun control laws" to "young black men shouldn't wear hoodies." And yet the facts and allegations change from day to day. People try to shape and take control of the narrative even as key facts are in dispute. In a nation that places high regard on due process and the rights of the accused, we're happy to condemn the shooter as a trigger-happy vigilante or the victim as a vicious hoodlum without regard to what really happened. People like race-baiting hucksters Al Sharpton - how, in God's name, after the Brawley hoax, is he taken seriously by anyone? and hiring him should be beneath even MSNBC's standards - and Spike Lee - who apparently tweeted an incorrect address for the shooter, thereby endangering the woman who lives at that address fan the flames of feelings of racial injustice. It's a potentially explosive issue, but these pundits don't care about finding the truth, only about maximizing their fifteen minutes of fame by exploiting a tragedy.

Shame on them.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Travelogue: Ahavah

Continuing north from South End, through the clock tower archway, one reaches Ahavah, home to Duke Walter Schnogginstein and Duchess Yenta Bernheim.

The shopping area has a small collection of shops from around the Steamlands, including an outpost of Miss Darlingmonster Ember's airship showroom.

Ahavah 3 12 12 001

The synagogue, with its stained-glass windows, is particularly striking at night.

Ahavah 3 12 12 002

The memorial sculpture provides a spot for contemplation.

Ahavah 3 12 12 003

The center of activity is the ballroom (right) and museum (left).

Ahavah 3 12 12 004

The area has lovely landscaped walkways that reflect a great deal of thought and care, so look around.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Wild Animals

One thing I can say for the folks behind the Mouse - they keep coming up with entertaining ways for customers to be separated from their money.

When I found myself in Orlando for a few days, well...

Magic Kingdom train station

…it would have been rude not to visit the Mouse, right?

Magic Kingdom train station 1

Top two pictures: the entrance to the Magic Kingdom.

Disney Boardwalk 2

The Boardwalk resort area

Wide World of Sports globe

ESPN Wide World of Sports complex. The Atlanta Braves' pitchers and catchers had reported a day or so earlier, and could be glimpsed through a gap in a fence.

The main event, though, was the Wild Africa Trek in the Animal Kingdom. It was a mercifully cool morning for the trek - I couldn't imagine doing this in the heat of summer. After signing a waiver, we met our guides, Aaron and Kate. They helped our little group of twelve into vests that were strapped around the waist and around the legs. We were also outfitted with headsets that allowed Aaron and Kate to communicate with the group.

MHF at Disney Africa trek 2 21 12

Equipment check

We moved through the (Disney-made) woods until we reached an outcropping that overlooked a hippo-filled river. Each vest had a carabiner clip on it, and the clip was used to tether us to a steel structure so we wouldn't fall into the hippo's territory.


There was a similar tethering process for the walk across two faux-rickety bridges (the missing planks made crossing an adventure for the tiny 8-year-old girl among us) and the crocodile overlook.

Bridge crossing

The trek ended up at a waiting vehicle. We shed the vests and climbed in, whereupon we were driven across the faux-savanna. We shared the route with the standard Disney "ride" through the savanna, though our truck pulled off the route several times for an extended look at some of the animals. This handsome guy, for example,...


…a Watusi steer, decided to stop at the edge of the road and moo. He was apparently calling for his lady friends to join him. We had a decent view of the white rhinos as well:


We stopped at a pavilion for a "snack" - really a good-sized meal, contained in clever metal containers that latched closed. (The purple orchid on top was edible, though I managed only one petal.)


The lazy male lion was unwilling to pose for us. Later, however, inside the Asia section of the park, we spied this big cat:


The trek was on the pricy side, but well done. Come to think of it, that describes most of Disney.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Aether Salon - Virtuosity!

On March 18, the Aether Salon gathered to listen to Mr. Steadman Kondor discuss his evolution as a creator in Second Life. Though starting as a publisher (a profession he continues to this day), Mr. Kondor moved into the area of the visual arts. He discussed some of his projects, including several that he has exhibited in that realm of tears sometimes known as Real Life, and explained some of the tools he uses, including something called the Shop of Photos (or a name near enough to that - my notes are a bit messy at this point).

Apologies for the odd appearance of some of the daguerrotypes below. I wish I could blame the camera for being out of focus, but I fear the new viewer I was using was having difficulties rezzing textures. As the saying goes, it's not you, it's me.

Aether Salon  Virtuosity 001

Mr. Kondor

Aether Salon  Virtuosity 002

A display of a selection of Mr. Kondor's works

Aether Salon  Virtuosity 003

Miss Darlingmonster Ember and Miss Solace Fairlady

Aether Salon  Virtuosity 004

Miss Sidonie Ancelin, Master Jimmy Branagh, and Miss Bookworm Hienrichs; way in the background stands Mr. Liam Bean

Aether Salon  Virtuosity 005


Aether Salon  Virtuosity 007

Miss Stereo Nacht and Mr. MacKnight Culdesac, nearby an elaborate tea service

Aether Salon  Virtuosity 008

Our host, Baron Klaus Wulfenbach, sternly watching the crowd to stop any antics in their tracks

Aether Salon  Virtuosity 009

Mr. Vernden Jervil

Aether Salon  Virtuosity 010

Clockwinder Tenk.

A transcript of Mr. Kondor's talk will soon be (or likely already is) available at the Aether Salon's aetheric presence.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

My Own Bubble Test

Libertarian social commenter and author Charles Murray, in his latest book, Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010, has what he calls the "Bubble Test." (A shorter version of the test that will tally the score for you is available here.) One premise of the book is that upper class and upper-middle class Americans have become increasingly disconnected from the lives of lower- to lower-middle class Americans. As Conor Friedersdorf writes in The Atlantic:

…[The conceit [of Murray's book] is that America's ruling class, including journalists like me and cosmopolitan readers like you, exist in a cultural bubble. We distance ourselves from ordinary Americans, especially the white working class. "Many of the members of the new upper class are balkanized," Murray writes. "Furthermore, their ignorance about other Americans is more problematic than the ignorance of other Americans about them."

Now, without discussing Murray's overall thesis, I have to object to his test. I did very poorly indeed - I am well "inside the bubble," in the parlance of the test - because I don't stock my fridge with cans of domestic beer, own a pickup truck, have cigarette-smoking friends, and so on. I don't think being inside the bubble makes one unable to empathize with others, however; if it did, then Ted Kennedy would have been an ineffective Senator during his years in Congress.

Here's a different (and quicker) bubble test: suppose you had a $20 bill in your purse, bag, wallet, or pocket and it slipped out. Boom, gone. How much pain would this cause you? None? Mild annoyance? Heartburn? No dinner out this week? Missing a rent payment? Repeat the question with a $100 bill. I'll hazard a guess that people who can lose a hundred dollars without being frantic about it have a different perspective on life than those for whom losing the twenty is a catastrophe.

Back in graduate school, when no one had any money, a friend of mine would use the campus ATM to get out $20 at a time, then complain about the ATM fee that he was assessed. I tried pointing out that this was a fairly low-crime campus and he was built like an ox, so he could probably carry, say, $100 with him and have 1/5 the ATM fee, or even plan ahead and avoid the fee entirely. I never understood why he didn't find that to be a compelling point.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Believing the Big Lie

The Big Lie is a falsehood so audacious that readers react by thinking, "Wow, that's so unbelievable that it must be true - no one would make up something like that." The Hysterical Left has decided on just that strategy with respect to proposed legislation in Arizona. I first saw a retweet of a tweet from ZDNet's Ed Bott. He tweeted:

WTF, Arizona? Seriously, WTF? AZ legislature passes bill allowing any employer to fire employees who use birth control.

The tweet included a link to the ACLU web site. That got my attention. The claim sounded dubious, but okay, politicians do a lot of stupid things, so I bit. I followed the link to the ACLU post:

Use Birth Control? You're Fired!

...Now, a bill that would give your boss the green light to fire you for using birth control. You think I am kidding? I wish. For a decade now, Arizona insurance companies have been required to provide coverage for contraception just like other prescriptions. But, because they saw an opening to score some political points, some politicians there are suddenly moving to take that coverage away from women and their families.

And we aren’t talking here just about exemptions for religiously affiliated employers like Catholic hospitals and universities. We are talking about authorizing secular, for-profit employers to deny a woman coverage for birth control if the employer doesn’t believe that she and her partner should be allowed to have sex without getting pregnant. Yup, that’s right. If the owner of the Taco Bell where you work opposes birth control, Arizona legislators want to give him a legal right to deny you insurance coverage for your pills.

Sadly, that isn’t even the half of it. You may want to sit down for this one. Arizona legislators know that whether or not her insurance covers it, a woman may get the prescription she needs to prevent an unintended pregnancy. They want to give her boss the right to control that too. The bill they are pushing would not only allow employers to take the insurance coverage away, but it would also make it easier for an employer who finds out that his employee uses birth control to fire her. You heard me right . . . to fire her.

Note that the ACLU doesn't include a hyperlink to the bill itself. Hmm, odd, no? But hey, Google's your friend, so a few moments brings me to the Puffington Host, which not only provides the link but has an assessment of the bill that is at least a tiny more honest:

Under current law, health plans in Arizona that cover other prescription medications must also cover contraception. House Bill 2625, which the state House of Representatives passed earlier this month and the Senate Judiciary Committee endorsed on Monday, repeals that law and allows any employer to refuse to cover contraception that will be used "for contraceptive, abortifacient, abortion or sterilization purposes." If a woman wants the cost of her contraception covered, she has to "submit a claim" to her employer providing evidence of a medical condition, such as endometriosis or polycystic ovarian syndrome, that can be treated with birth control.

Moreover, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, the law would give Arizona employers the green light to fire a woman upon finding out that she took birth control for the purpose of preventing pregnancy.

Reading the relevant parts of the bill itself, one finds that

  • The employer or the plan issuer needs to register a religious or moral objection to covering contraceptives
  • A covered employee may still have the plan reimburse her for a prescribed contraceptive if the purpose is medical.

Nowhere does it say that the employer can fire an employee for using birth control. On the other hand, I can easily imagine that an employer can fire an employee for making a false claim. The ACLU (and the Puffingtons, Ed Bott, and anyone else who took this seriously) should be ashamed for pushing the Big Lie.

I will say that I disapprove of the legislation, but only because it doesn't go far enough. States all have laws similar to this one, that mandate that insurance policies cover certain things. Some states are worse than others, but all take a paternalistic view toward those who buy insurance. Employers (for example) can read policy coverages and exclusions, and can pick a policy that balances cost and coverage for their employees. (Often employers offer an array of plans, allowing employees to pick a plan that best suits their coverage and budget needs.) One reason insurance is so expensive is that these mandates are treated as though they are free when, in reality, the insurer passes on the cost of every one of them. I would like to buy a plan that is lower cost and covers only catastrophic events - things I could not afford to pay for by myself, but occur with relatively low frequency. Others might like the peace of mind that comes with a more expensive plan that covers the employee more fully, so that there are fewer unexpected medical bills. Instead, every state insists, to a greater or lesser degree, that everyone buy the second plan.

More generally, I'm appalled at the view that grown women need to have Uncle Sam spring for contraceptives. The left's latest cause célèbre, Sarah Fluke, is 30 years old an in a prestigious law school, but thinks she is owed payment for her sex life. How childish. She lied about the cost of contraception - claiming that it was "over $3000" over the course of a law program - when a little research showed she could buy a monthly prescription for oral contraceptives for about $10, no insurance company involved. Yet somehow Georgetown's lack of coverage for her is evidence of a "war on women." Grow up already, Sarah. I'll stay out of your "reproductive choices" (as the current phrase goes) if you don't ask me to pay for those choices.

Addendum: Bryce Covert at The Nation, opines that employers should embrace contraceptive use by their employees, as delaying (or eliminating) child-rearing encourages workers to invest in job skills (citing a study co-authored by one of my econ professors many years ago, Claudia Goldin). The article is refreshingly free of the hysteria of the ACLU piece, even as it disapproves of the legislation. But it's a funny sort of world in which sexual desire, and hence the need for contraception, is an immutable part of human nature, but maternal (or paternal) desire is something that can and should be controlled. Miss Covert may find that employers who embrace child-rearing by their employees are able to attract a wider range of job candidates and/or have a happier and more productive work environment.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Travelogue: SouthEnd

I made it back in-world for about a half hour the other day (yay me!) and continued my journey around Caledon. Next stop: SouthEnd.

The area is a mix of shops and residences, but is anchored by the seaside amusements, most notably the Ferris wheel. (Mr. Roy Smashcan's Tudor-style abode can be seen in the background, at right.)

SouthEnd 3 5 12 001

To accompany the Ferris wheel there is, naturally, a carousel. In the background is Mr. Alastair Whybrow's ever-expanding Sparkle of Sound jewelry emporium and, at right, his sailing ship.

SouthEnd 3 5 12 002

At the very north end of SouthEnd is this magnificent clock tower, with its arch that permits the Caledon rail line to pass through. The tower is the entrance to Ahavah.

SouthEnd 3 5 12 003

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Civility, or What Passes for It, On 18th Street

As I was making my way from the office to the Metro yesterday, I heard a car horn honk several times, catching my attention.

A lady in a white Mercedes was attempting to exit a parking space. She had been penned in, either by the car in front or the SUV behind, because there was no way she could have maneuvered her car into that space. She had about three inches of clearance, so she backed until her car bumped the SUV behind, pulled forward, repeated.

The horn was coming from the driver of the SUV who was, quite unbelievably, still in his car, doing nothing but beeping. He could have moved back a foot or two (he was the last car in line), let her out, and parked. (He would have even been parking legally for the next ten minutes, when rush hour restrictions went into effect.) He rolled down his window and yelled, "You're hitting my car!" She yelled back that she couldn't get out. He yelled that it wasn't his problem, as he was in a space, whereas she was not.

Whether or not the SUV driver was correct seemed beside the point. His car was getting bumped and he had it in his power to move, but he chose to yell instead. The lady would have been better served to try to ask the guy to move, rather than try to maneuver her car out of such a tight space, but she chose to bump his car repeatedly instead.

I'll try to keep this incident in mind the next time I have a problem on the Metro.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Getting There

Warning: boring medical update follows.

I'm still working through my shoulder and neck problems. I think I'm 80-90% back to normal, whatever that is, but progress is slow.

I made it through two trips - the aforementioned Orlando jaunt and an unexpected trip to Connecticut because of a death in the family - without aggravating the problem, for which I was grateful. I had a bad night in Orlando thanks, I believe, to several days of tense driving over long distances. The even longer drive in Connecticut wasn't as much of a problem, fortunately.

The commute to and from work is one of the tough spots of the day. The combination of 20 minutes of rush-hour driving followed by 40 minutes of Metro train often leaves the muscles tense by the time I get in. Still, even that has been getting easier.

I've largely kept away from Second Life during this time, with the occasional in-world foray to the monthly Civil War discussion or to check deliveries of notecards and such and, of course, to render unto Desmond the things that are Desmond's, to paraphrase a well-known book. Perhaps soon I'll try a longer in-world visit, but that day hasn't yet come.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Wayback Machine

I like Williamsburg in winter. The smell of manure in mid-summer may be more authentic, but I enjoy the doors decorated with fruit wreaths, the crisp winter air, and the smell of wood fires providing some warmth to the re-enactors in their shops.

This was the day before Grand Illumination before Christmas, so the place was, unfortunately, mobbed. The lovely weather brought out the locals, including William and Mary students, so the streets were often packed.

The museum had an exhibit on early American maps which provided a fascinating look at the way mapmakers helped shape political opinion by their choice of boundaries, labels, and symbols on the maps. There was a little anti-colonial preaching, but this was kept to a tolerable level.

The Lodge is a convenient place to stay, as it is close to the Williamsburg Inn and only a block from the historical area. However, it has one drawback: the thinnest walls I have ever encountered. I could hear the woman next door speaking in a conversational tone as though she were in the same room with me. Several of the wooden boards on the floor in my room squeaked badly. I can only imagine what the people directly below thought...

(All pictures taken with an iPhone. I experimented with going without a dedicated camera for the trip.)

Williamsburg  Governor mansion 2

The Governor's Mansion

Williamsburg Christmas tree

Christmas tree in the museum.

Williamsburg model train

Miniature train and village display in the Lodge

Williamsburg street

Hmm…spiked hot chocolate?

Williamsburg  house door

Door with fruit wreath

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Review: The Dream of Perpetual Motion, by Dexter Palmer

What is the perfect moment? Could it be the instant before a momentous decision is made, with all outcomes still possible, before being resolved into something undoubtedly less ideal than imagined? This is one of the concerns of Dexter Palmer's debut novel, The Dream of Perpetual Motion.

Prospero Taligent is a wildly successful inventor, who lives with his adopted daughter Miranda and his son Caliban in the 150-story Taligent Tower. Harold Winslow lives with his father and sister in much more modest surroundings. His father crafts dolls for Taligent's business.

One day, while at the amusement park with his sister, 10-year-old Harold has a mysterious encounter with two young men who turn out to be employees of Prospero and who invite him to 10-year-old Miranda's birthday party. Whisked to the party by a flying mechanical man, Harold - one of 50 boys and 50 girls - is shown some of Prospero's wonders, and is chosen to sit next to Miranda at dinner, where the two have an awkward conversation. Prospero tells the children the story of the Virgin Queen: beloved by all the men in the kingdom because she is unattainable; should any one touch her, she would become ordinary and no longer the object of universal, if unrequited, love.

Later, Prospero takes Harold out of his public school to be educated with Miranda in the Tower. Their brief period of happiness ends when Prospero sees Harold kiss Miranda. Even in the awkward way one child kisses another, Prospero sees Harold bringing Miranda into the adult world too soon, and banishes the boy from the Tower.

The story works its way forward in decade-long intervals. Ten years later, Harold is in college trying to decide what he wants to do in a world that has now been transformed by Prospero's tin men. Miranda has rebelled and left the Tower. Harold rescues Miranda - or does he? Another ten years pass and Harold works as a greeting card writer as society collapses around him and he receives a message from Miranda asking for his help again.

The novel is framed by Harold's time in the zeppelin Chrysalis, where he has been imprisoned for the past year, after killing Prospero. Harold has used his time aboard the airship to write the story of his life, and how it has intersected with Miranda's, and how he came to his current situation.

The book is the rare novel that manages to be both entertaining and ambitious. Palmer is a skilled writer, capable of eloquent, moving passages as well as hilariously funny ones. (Harold's one sex scene with Miranda is a succession of awkward moments.) Despite the nods to Steampunk - the mechanical men, the zeppelin, the obsessed inventor - this is by no means a Steampunk novel. It's certainly a science fiction novel, a dystopia set in a somewhat altered version of the 20th century, and it's a novel about a quest, but most of all it's a novel of ideas. Words and dreams have power; sounds can cancel one another out. Technology aims to improve life, but none of Prospero's inventions really improve lives. In addition, it's a novel about the future of storytelling. At one point, Prospero says to Harry: "Storytelling - that's not the future. The future, I'm afraid, is flashes and impulses. It's made mod moments and fragments, and stories won't survive."

(Of course, Harold himself is something of an unreliable narrator. As the young Harold struggles to write down what happened at Miranda's tenth birthday party, his father gives him some advice: "Son, write down what you think happened, or what you believe happened, or something like what might have happened. All of these are better in the end than writing down nothing at all; all are true, in their own way." Ultimately, how much of Harold's story is true?)

One obvious literary device is the comparison with Shakespeare's The Tempest. Prospero takes his name and that of his daughter Miranda from the magician and his daughter in the play. We infer that Prospero is an adopted name: "I have no past…Always an old magician in exile," he says. Unlike Shakespeare's hero, who ultimately renounces his magic as he rejoins the world, our Prospero never loses faith in his ability to transform the world through his technological prowess.

No part of the book is wasted. Harold's sister Astrid plays an important role in the story. Astrid becomes a serious artist - even though her fellow artist friend insists on wrapping Astrid's art in unintentionally humorous feminist jargon - and, in contrast with Harold, who abandoned his art for the career of a greeting card writer, demonstrates the commitment of an artist to her art.

The one thing I thought odd about the pacing of the book was that, in the last section, the action came to a halt on three separate occasions as Harold listens to other people tell lengthy stories. While each provides necessary information, the timing seemed odd.

On the other hand, I found the ending wholly appropriate - really, the only ending that was possible.

For a lengthier discussion of the book, see The Incomparable! podcast, episode 27.

The Dream of Perpetual Motion had been sitting on my pile of books to read for over a year, and I regret leaving it there that long. I won't make the mistake with Palmer's next book.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Trying to Escape the Maw of Google

I'm far from a Google basher: I have a number of Gmail accounts and this Blogger account, I use YouTube and Reader and Google Docs, among other products. Their products are (nominally) free and generally pretty good.

However, to paraphrase several pundits, in any relationship with a company, you're either a customer or the product, and it's pretty easy to tell which one you are: look at where the money flows. For Google, the user pays nothing and the advertiser pays Google - and pays more the better targeted are Google's ads. To Google, I'm the product.

This isn't an inherently bad thing. Steven Levy, in his 2011 book about Google In the Plex, described how the firm harnessed its search engine into a way of selling ads in a way that was more valuable to advertisers than ever before. Google managed to monetize its business in a way that predecessor Internet firms had tried and failed. I was happy to trade off some information - about my searches, or words contained in email - in order to use Google's products.

There comes a point, however, when one starts to wonder when enough is enough. Google has recently changed its privacy policy to make explicit that it will use information gathered across all of a user's Google accounts to better target ads. I don't find that unreasonable, and Google is being upfront about it, but the policy change starkly illustrates how we are tied into Google's ecosystem.

Of course, other companies try to keep users within their ecosystems, too. The difference is that Apple sells hardware, and provides ancillary services (e.g., iCloud) to spur additional hardware purchases. Microsoft sells operating systems and business productivity software, and provides ancillary services (e.g., a virus checker) to enhance the core products that the firm sells to users. To Apple and Microsoft, users are the customers.

Recently, MG Siegler (via Ben Brooks) noted that Google is attempting to have new Gmail users provide credit card information at the time of signup in order to gain support for Google Wallet. Again, there's nothing inherently wrong with this, but one has to ask how much personal information one wants to give any one company, particularly when that company treats you as the product, not the customer.

Worse was the recent revelation that Google overrode the default privacy setting in Safari in order to put tracking cookies on users' equipment. While tracking cookies are not a problem per se, overriding browser settings without informing the user is sleazy.

I've stopped using Google Calendar, and do very little with Google+ (not for lack of trying, though; it just never seemed all that useful). I can't do without Reader, and too many important emails come through Gmail to get rid of it, but I will be making an effort to reduce my dependence on the Google empire.