Voteware

“Buy you another?”

“Uh, I was jus’ drinking along. Alone. Um, sure.”

“Do I recognize you from work?”

“You work for Diebond?”

“Yeah. I’m a developer in the voting machine group.”

“Wow, me, too. What division?”

“Republican.”

“I’m with the Dems.”

Clink.

“It’s funny, how after we got all our kinks into the software…”

“We had to unkink them. Yeah. That check you guys made for Kerry was pretty clever.”

“Thanks. Took about a week to figure out how to swing the count, but not too far.”

“Then you had to compensate for our vote tweaks.”

“Drove Q/A nuts for a while.”

“Haw.”

Clink.

“And those poor independents.”

“Yah.”

“Imagine one of them voting for Nader or someone, only to have the machine correct their vote and–”

“Say, how’d you guys nudge Bush when folks were voting a split ticket?”

“Wellll, you can’t be too obvious about diddling with the Kerry quotient, so we do a little sniping and bump the independents slightly.”

How slightly?”

“Er, one or two percent. We figured they’d find it kind of fun.”

“But our adjuster module will see that kind of spike and–”

“And, when that hits the server in the Right Wing Wackos group, it’s gonna–”

“Uh oh. We’ve got to get back to work.”

“Damn right. Call a cab?”

“It could be Nader. Or a Green. Jesus.”

Good reads

Okay, some good books, then.

I’ve written him up before, but: Anything by Charles Stross. Don’t miss his short story collection Toast, his novels Singularity Sky, Iron Sunrise, and the two stories in The Atrocity Archives.

China Mieville. I didn’t finish King Rat, and there were bits of Perdido Street Station that were a slog, but The Scar is great, and so far Iron Council is fantastic. Mieville is wordy and moody, but he’s in touch with the underbelly of society like no other SF author I know, with the possible exception of Samuel Delany. Mieville writes about dirty streets and folks barely hanging on who are faced with hard choices, he writes about dirty politics and pointless wars; imagine Orwell channeling William Hope Hodgson.

Oh, you haven’t read Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland? Find a copy in a used bookstore (there is a recent re-issue of it, along with other works that are apparently very not worth the price). It scared the hell out of me the first time I read it.

I just re-read David Langford’s The Space Eater, which starts out cliche-like (yeah, yeah, we have “tanks of goo” that bring our soldiers back to life, so they can get used to being killed over and over again and thus conquer fear), and winds up pretty interesting, taking some humorous twists along the way. A lot of Langford’s work is being printed suddenly — some of it is online, and you should definitely check out his fanzine The Ansible Online (just google for it). His The Leaky Establishment is a fun read — see if you can have your library spring for a copy 🙂

Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon is an SF mystery that tries very hard to be a “Mickey Spillane with immortality and flying cars.” It’s okay as an SF piece, and the atmosphere is good, but as a mystery it’s not very mysterious. His most recent book, Broken Angels, is much better, with more believable characters and a plot that isn’t transparent.

Also highly recommended: Kage Baker’s “Company” novels, starting with The Garden of Iden, continuing with the hilarious Sky Coyote and funny/serious Mendoza in Hollywood, the side-splitting and riveting The Graveyard Game, and various short stories here and there. The whole shebang should be wrapped up in two more books (one of which is coming out in December). Worth the wait.

Jack McDevitt: Omega is the fitting end-piece of his five book series that includes The Engines of God, Infinity Beach, Deepsix and Chindi. I really liked Engines, but Beach and Deepsix were mild disappointments. His Ancient Shores is quite good, as is his first published book The Hercules Text. Chindi won a Hugo (though I didn’t think it was that good).

Digging into oldies a little: Michael Shea’s Nifft the Lean is great fantasy. He has other books set in the same world, such as A Quest for Symbalis, but they all start reading about the same after a while, and Nifft is enough to give you the flavor of his work without overdosing on it. Elizabeth Willey’s The Well Favoured Man is excellent fantasy a-la Zelazny’s Amber series (done better, in my opinion), continuing with A Sorceror and a Gentleman and The Price of Blood and Honor (the latter of which is a slog). Sarah Zettle’s Fool’s War is a great cyber-war SF piece, with good characterization, and her Reclaimation starts out (very) slow, but I couldn’t put it down for the last hundred pages or so. Also, please tell me that you’ve read C.J. Cherryh’s Faded Sun trilogy — if not, it’s recently been reprinted in one volume, don’t miss it.

I wish that Jerry Jay Carroll would write some more. I thoroughly enjoyed his three books Top Dog, Dog Eat Dog and Inhuman Beings (the first two books are related, the second one is yet another excellent treatment of modern Cthulhu-esque horror). Sadly, I think he has a day job.

Another author with a day job is John Cramer (a physicist at UWash), who wrote Twistor and Einstein’s Bridge. I’ve probably mentioned them before; they are definitely worth it.

Almost anything by Stephen Gould (e.g., Jumper or Wildside) is good, with the possible exception of Greenwar, which I didn’t finish.

James Stoddard’s The High House is a good fantasy about a house that is literally endless in extent, and the character’s quest to regain his mastership of it. (I couldn’t get past the first fifty pages of the sequel, The False House, so I can’t recommend it, but the first book stands on its own well enough).

Phew. End dump. 🙂

Dead bits

Documents should be more than dead bits. Writing documents is still a lot like shovelling snow, even with tools to help build indices and so forth.

Skribe is an interesting attempt to combine programming (in Scheme) with document formatting. It’s been done before, with TeX (“the TECO of typesetting languages”) and, arguably, PostScript (though you’d have to be out of your mind to author a large document in PostScript).

More thoughts on this later. I’ll leave you with one from the 80s. Doug Crockford, reflecting on the new(ish) WYSIWYG paradigm, objected to all the hidden state behind the scenes that was responsible for formatting stuff, and came up with the phrase “What you see is all there is.” In other words, make all state visible to the user. In many environments there are lots and lots and lots of controls, hidden behind buttons in nested, tabbed dialogs, and this “Secret 747 flight deck” model of user interface doesn’t scale very well. What if it was all in your face?

I don’t know how to do it, either… 🙂

“Snake Plissken? I thought you were dead!”

In a move surprising to me, Cray posted a loss in revenue. Ignorant me, I thought they were long gone…

If I recall correctly, Cray split from Cray Computer in the 80s (Chen’s move to IBM might have had something to do with it). They were purchased by SGI, then spun back out (“Wheee!”), and now it’s rumoured that Sun is interested in them (“Wheeee!”). I could be totally wrong about the various yo-yo moves.

Silver bullets are for werewolves

CNN has an article on an expert system (I’m tempted to put that in quotes) that supposedly helps you debug stuff.

Have pity on the poor bastards that today will have their management chastise them for their lack of debugging skills. “Why didn’t you just ask the computer where the bugs were?”

“Why didn’t Pac-Man…” oh jeez, I just can’t go on….

Sour Fiction

About twenty years ago, my dad visited me for a week or two, and he had the time to go through some of the books on my shelves. Now, I’m proud of some of those books, and rather ashamed of others, and what he picked to read was probably the worst title possible, one of the few books that I’ve been tempted to throw away or maybe burn, the simply overwhelmingly and hopelessly bad Elron’s Battlefield Earth.

I don’t think dad ever understood why I read science fiction, and this certainly didn’t help. “It wasn’t very good,” was all he said. While I don’t know that he simultaneously assasinated all the other SF on my shelves by simple association or proximity, I have no doubt that his lack of understanding was not helped by this gobbler.

There are a few other books that I’ve variously tossed out, or should have (I’ve kept Battlefield Earth around as a kind of cautionary tale — in the unlikely event that I ever attempt to pen any SF myself, and it reads like Elron’s gold-standard literary puke, I’ll know to quit). These books include The Playmasters (thirty pages in, wanted to vomit and I’m not kidding), the first volume of the Left Behind series, and some amazingly awful stuff about giant flying telepathic spiders, I swear to God.

You can take one of the best writers in the business, plonk a deadline in front of them and say, “A hundred twenty thousand words by December, or you don’t eat,” and watch the drivel flow. SF doesn’t have any particular handle on this kind of thing, but it does have an audience that is more tolerant than most. “Pandas that fly pirate spaceships and quote Trotsky, okay, I’ll accept that. Will there be a sequel?” You could say that it’s our own damned fault.

The tragedies are books that start out with great promise but for some reason run out of steam and don’t deliver. John Varley’s The Ophiucci Hotline is one of these, as is Neal Stephenson’s Zodiac. Both authors start with great characters, wonderfully imagined settings, invest lots of inventive writing and lively action, and then blow out an ending quicker than you can say “Christ, it’s due at the publisher Tuesday,” leaving you with a hollow, ripped-off feeling. It’s not the cover price, you understand — I’ve read enough crappy stuff, and enjoyed it — it’s the poor author’s investment which is the true tragedy.

Some authors (David Gerrold, most notably) like to go back to their older works and do significant re-work; I’d love it if Varley and Stephenson and unnamed others would return to their early books and apply some patches, given the skills that they have developed in subsequent years. While this feels like cheating, who’s to say that it’s not all right? I mean, the software industry rarely gets it right with the first version of something, so why should an artist?

There are the authors who desperately need help from Reader’s Digest; I would (for instance) read an abridged version of the Wheel of Time (which would probably be about as exciting as reading a play-by-play of a Little League baseball game, but shorter, for sure). Similar help could be had for Stephen Donaldson (my Lord Foul’s Bane survival reading tip: Read the first and last pages of each chapter, and if it doesn’t make any sense, don’t worry because reading the middle parts won’t make any difference).

I heard a rumor that Elron followers were buying copies of Battlefield Earth and shuttling them back to the publisher’s house to be sold over and over. I guess that’s one way to write a best-seller….

Another Layoff [redux]

[note: this is fiction. i have not been laid off… work is going great]

So, another layoff has passed you by, and you’re packing up in the middle of a sea of empty cubicals. This is where you and your co-workers worked together well into the night, seven days a week, doing amazing stuff with computers. You let off steam by playing Quake 3 together and went to lunch together and shared cold dinners brought in by Waiters on Wheels, and you all generally swore at Microsoft and knew that you could do better than the other schmucks just across the street. That is, until this morning, when most of you went into meeting room A, and some of you went into meeting room B, and you found out ten minutes later that the lucky ones were the “A” folks who got layed off and had to cart their stuff into the parking lot and couldn’t come back into the building, not even to say goodbye.

Not that too many of them wanted to — they were all sick of the place, too.

You few, unlucky “B” folks had to stay with the sinking ship and guide it into its grave. The funding didn’t come through, so you’re stuck haunting the wreckage of a company with about two weeks left on the fuse. Those shit-hot Gateway machines that were so whizzy six months ago are now just flaky pieces of beige junk that you have to box up for the movers to take away to some surplus house that’s paying five cents on the dollar. You’d like to kick one of those 21″ color monitors down the stairs, just to hear the sound. People leave unbelievable crap behind when they’re fired without notice. The monitor would bounce down the first couple of steps, then take flight and land about halfway down with a CRUNCH and a nice, solid WHOMP-JINGLE of shattered glass; it would dent the wall at the bottom and come to rest surrounded by bits of plastic. One guy left a drawer full of scientology literature. Yup, that explains everything. Of course, you’d just say the monitor thing was an accident. Jesus Christ, boxing the computers isn’t so bad, it’s all the fucking cables…

Oh, holy cow. You close that drawer in a hurry.

The company never had a technology. It had a pile of buggy code and megatons of hype; you had a market direction that wavered like a weathervane in Kansas, there were sales leads that turned into fairy gold (once you realized that the potential customers were depending on you to be a success and buy their stuff), there were some good write-ups in publications just as desperate to justify their existence as you were (they gave you two or three of the dreaded “Cool Product” awards). Despite all the positive spins and partnership deals and schmooze-reports from the field, there was no actual money. You had bugs to fix; bad, evil nasty bugs that you stayed up until 3am chasing down and whacking soundly upside the head, but ultimately it didn’t matter. You could have shipped the product without killing yourself on those bugs. Hell, you could have shipped blank CDROMs and made just as much market penetration. The hurtful thing is: Nobody cared. You poured your soul into a product that no one gave a shit about. Most of the reviewers never even opened the box.

Six million bucks in financing burned up in how many months? It seems unbelievable. It seems crazy that anyone would have plonked that much money down for your company’s product (you tried to explain it to Mom at Thanksgiving, and it sounded so lame that you were embarrassed and tried to backfill, you said “You’re right, no one would pay for that — it will be way more cool in the next release.” You sounded like one of the marketing droids for about five minutes. Dad just sat there, because he knew. Mom’s great pie tasted like ashes.)

It seems incredible that all the money, all the hours and meetings and the pieces of life that you missed, boil down about half of a shiny CDROM.

When you look into that CDROM, the person it reflects is distorted, warped and a bit fuzzy, kind of like the way you feel now, boxing up the stuff that they didn’t care enough to take with them.

You’ve reached the conclusion that being cool sucks. You’d rather make money.

As you box up about the tenth computer, the lights go out. “Hey!”

“Sorry!” The lights flicker back on. It’s the CTO. He used to be a friend of yours, which is why you’re still employed. Thanks for the job. He ambles over, kicking at junk left on the floor.

“Harry’s machine?” he asks.

“Yeah.” You cram the monitor cables, the mouse and the keyboard into the box, which bulges slightly. No one is going to use this machine again. It used to be top of the line, but now it’s worse than a kid’s machine. The surplus house is going to have to rip out its guts and melt it down for the gold in the connectors, that’s what it’s worth. Mousepad, speakers, and just enough room for —

“You want it?”

“What?”

“I shouldn’t tell you, but things are obviously fucked, and Phil Farmer said we’re going to have trouble getting the next payroll out. So, do you want some machines instead?”

“You’re kidding, right?”

“Uh…”

“What am I going to do with a bunch of old computers?”

You can tell what’s going through your friend’s mind: I can give the guy these stupid things and save some money, or I can tell him to just get out.

“Never mind. We can work out something.”

You wonder about maybe starting a writing career. There’s got to be something here for subject matter.

You came to the valley to work for a big name tech company in 1982, and six months later the layoffs started. The company you worked for then had 12,000 people, and when you finally jumped ship it was down to 150.

The next one: margins slumped soon after you joined. Hiring freezes and layoffs. After several respectable years you bailed before your number came up.

The next: three years. Then it wasn’t fun any more, and leaping again, you landed in another train wreck, but you were never actually layed-off. Finally you found this place. And it looks like you’re finally going to ride one all the way down. It might actually be fun. Like Slim Pickins, riding the H-bomb down to fiery doom. Yee ha. Yeah, it sounds hollow.

You’ve got this idea in the back of your head. It’s an idea for a revolutionary kind of … never mind what. But it would take three or four people maybe four months to get a prototype together. And you know how you’d sell it, and who you’d sell it to — it’s almost a no-brainer.

You just need a little time. And some hardware. And some friends. So you know what you’re going to say.

They’re not going to pay you anyway.

“Uh, on second thought, sure, I’ll take them.”

You pack the next half dozen machines a little more carefully. They just about fit in the pickup truck. You drive home in the glare of the headlights of losers and winners. Who can tell which is which? The Mercedes next to you? The guy in the beat-up pickup? Everyone looks anonymous on the freeway.

Traffic used to be lots worse. You know that’s a bad sign, all those layed-off ex-commuters are staying home, surfing the web for jobs that don’t exist, or playing MMORPGs that add small increments to bulging Visa balances. You did that for a while; sleep until noon, flush email, go to a coffee shop, buy some books, do some recreational programming, repeat until bored stiff. Some people can take doing nothing; you’re not one of them. The last real vacation you took was to Europe, and you brought along a textbook on software engineering. You get the sense that you missed something, but maybe it was worth it anyway.

Later that night, panic sets in and you spend four hours updating your resume. Where does resolve and vision flee to at three in the morning? You scribble some boxes and arrows on that green engineering paper you’ve been using for thirty years. At first they seem completely inadequate. Who else hasn’t done this better? A couple hours later you’re surrounded by books and papers and you realize that everyone else has been a chump and wimped out, the real problem to solve is…