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2013: A Year in Reading

January 4, 2014

Every year, I post a list of all the books I’ve read the previous year. Although these posts receive little fanfare or repeat traffic, I enjoy doing them for myself. Those interested can also read 2012, 2011, 2010 and 2009.

This year, I’m just listing the books in the order that they were read, as far as that was actually recorded. I’ve also been adding these books to my Goodreads account, which lists out as many books as I can remember reading throughout my life. True bibliophiles will scoff at the meagre 1400 records, but I split my time between books and comics.

One of the great things about Goodreads is the ability to sort books into virtual shelves. This allows me to list books that are of professional interest on my LinkedIn account. You can take a look at my Computers and Business, Design, Fiction, Photography, Poetry, and Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror shelves.

Without further ado, here’s the books I read in 2013, starting with the first book of 2013 and ending with the last. I’ve noted series or imprint information in brackets after the title (for me, ‘imprint’ means things like Penguin Classics and ‘series’ means things like The Lord of the Rings trilogy).

2013: the books

George Lois. Damn Good Advice.
Yeah. Not so much. While this probably rings true for advertising and graphic design, it’s not the best advice for other professions. About half the book is reasonable, the rest a lot of self-aggrandizement. If you’re in a creative industry, you’ll love it.

Alain Badiou. Philosophy for Militants.
It dragged in places, but is well worth the price of admission. Canadian readers will find a brief interview where Badiou discusses the student protests in Quebec. While I don’t completely agree with his politics, I find he has a lot to say, and is willing to communicate in a way easily understood by non-specialists.

Robert E. Howard. The Incredible Adventures of Dennis Dorgan.
This is marketed as fantasy, but it’s really a series of comedic adventures of a drunken sailor who boxes his way across the Orient. Dorgan may not be bright, but he can hit.

J. F. Rivkin. Witch of Rhostshyl. (Silverglass)
This is where the series began to wander. While the story was there, it dragged. The characters remain compelling and fresh, and if you liked the first two books, you’ll love the continuation.

J. F. Rivkin. Mistress of Ambiguities. (Silverglass)
Not a convincing end to the series. I suspect there were more adventures in store for Nyctasia and Corson, cut short by sales numbers. Reading the whole series will be rewarding for completists, but the first two are gems on their own.

Robert E. Howard. Black Canaan.
A small collection of lesser-known stories. The quality is a bit uneven, but there’s a brief introduction by Gahan Wilson and a few gems.

Gardner F. Fox. Escape Across the Cosmos.
This was, admittedly, a bit absurd, even for low-brow science-fiction, but no less entertaining for that.

Patricia Briggs. Fair Game. (Alpha and Omega)
A decent read, but felt artificially long. A lot of the police procedure could have been shortened in favor of expanding the sub-plots. In general, Briggs pays attention to her supporting cast, and that makes her books worth the price of admission.

Leigh Brackett. Alpha Centauri or Die!
A good book. Brackett ended up in Hollywood, and her novels, full of crisp dialogue and suspense, with no wasted scenes, is why. The book is short, but a page-turner.

Noam Chomsky and David Barsamian (interviewer). Power Systems.
Chomsky has his head in the right place, even though I don’t agree with all of his conclusions. This book isn’t as strident as others he’s published, and like most of his political books, is very accessible. This includes conversations regarding his linguistic work and personal life, which are no less fascinating.

Teruhisa Kitahara and Yukio Shimizu (photographer). Robots Spaceships and Other Tin Toys.
A book from the art publisher Taschen, photographing the collection of a tin toy fanatic. Beautiful pictures of hundreds of vintage toys, including many knock-offs. There is the occasional toy that has the uglier aspects of that time period (racism, etc), but on the whole it’s a wonderful trip down memory lane.

Henry Kuttner. The Well of the Worlds.
Not quite what I was expecting, but not the worst read in the world. A lot of concepts that didn’t seem to be fully fleshed out. While it was a tremendous flight of imagination, it left you with the feeling the author hadn’t quite understood the mechanics of his world. A truly spectacularly kitschy retro cover by Alex Schomburg helps make the book.

Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister. Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams.
I can’t actually say I agree with everything advocated here. Of course, it was written during the 80’s, when the software industry landscape was very different. As such, it doesn’t cover issues that arise in inter-disciplinary teams (engineers, graphic designers, and architects of various stripes all working together), and other things that happen in the current industry. They are spot on when it comes to The Furniture Police, bad management practices, artificial deadlines, and other stupid artifacts of corporate culture.

Fritz Leiber. Swords and Deviltry. (Lankhmar)
This is the first of Fafhrd and Gray Mouser books, which eventually ran to 7 titles. I actually read the first two books in my twenties, but set them down. I’m attempting to finish the whole series this time around, but we’ll see how far we get. This, and Vance’s Dying Earth series were heavy influences on Gary Gygax, and hold a special place in the books that have influenced the role-playing game genre.

E. E. “Doc” Smith. Triplanetary. (Lensman)
The original pulp-era space opera that inspired them all. Full of the conceits, jargon, and cultural mores of the time period, this isn’t easy reading now. But Smith’s pacing is fast, and his imagination runs rampant. You may not get through all 7 books, but you can read this one as-is.

Jane Mount. My Ideal Bookshelf.
This started out as an Etsy project, where Mount would, for a fee, paint your “ideal bookshelf” if you sent her pictures of the books you wanted. For the book project, a large group of famous writers, architects, chefs, designers and actors were asked to provide their bookshelves and a brief essay by them follows each painting. The collection features an eclectic mix: Ishmael Reed, Michael Chabon, Malcolm Gladwell, and on and on.

Simon Armitage (editor). Short and Sweet: 101 Very Short Poems.
The title says it all. The titles are arranged in a ‘count-down’ from longest to shortest. While a bit of a mixed bag, the selection was interesting and hit the mark more often than they missed.

Rachel Andrews and Kevin Yank. Everything You Know About CSS Is Wrong.
A book that was slightly ahead of the technology it describes, it’s now a reasonably good primer on effective mobile and experimental desktop layout techniques. As older IE usage goes down, it will become even more relevant, and it’s brevity will make it a good resource.

Robert Musil. Flypaper. (Penguin Mini Modern Classics)
Musil is one of the great modern French masters, but finding short material from him is a challenge. This was very brief, collecting some of his more notable short stories. I’m not sure I like Musil, but I would recommend reading at least some of his work.

John Jakes. Brak the Barbarian.
A fairly pedestrian entry into the world of sword and sorcery. Nothing to write home about.

Wade Rowland. Saving the CBC.
A polemic on public broadcasting. While I can’t say I agree with all of his ideas, he makes many good points, and his suggestions on “saving” the CBC are at least rational and well thought-out. If you’re interested in the immediate future of the CBC, this is the book to read.

Robert E. Howard. Three-Bladed Doom. (El Borak)
A short novella in the “Indiana Jones” style of pulp adventure. I can’t speak to the accuracy of Howard’s view of the Middle East, but his straight-ahead, guns blazing style still grips you.

John Berger. Cataract.
Berger had surgery in both eyes to remove cataracts, and in this small illustrated essay he talks about the differences in perception before and after, and what that’s done to his world-view. A small gem, but maybe worth waiting for it to be collected into a larger volume.

Robert E. Howard. The Lost Valley of Iskander. (El Borak)
This is adventure fiction in the pulp tradition with a dash of Oriental flavor. Many of the depictions of middle-eastern culture are hopelessly wrong, but the adventure moves ahead at a frenzy pace.

Richard Kadrey. Sandman Slim. (Sandman Slim)
This book is such a genre bender that I’ve found it scattered in fiction, horror, and fantasy. No chapter breaks, no lag in action…nothing but action, mayhem, non-stop bad habits, and staccato dialogue so blue Slim’s swear jar is full before you get 10 pages in. Don’t miss this ride.

Richard Kadrey. Kill the Dead. (Sandman Slim)
As brutal as the first, and the stakes go up.

Richard Kadrey. Aloha From Hell. (Sandman Slim)
This is where the series starts to shift sideways. All the loose ends are tied up, and Eric Stark is left to chart something new. I suspect the next few books are going to be different, even though the trademark sarcasm is still there.

David Foster Wallace. The Last Interview and Other Conversations. (The Last Interview)
Not very satisfying, as Wallace was not a great interview subject. He didn’t seem to have much to say, and was very evasive. There isn’t much here to answer any questions you may have regarding his death and late career.

Richard Kadrey. Devil Said Bang. (Sandman Slim)

Neil Gaiman. Make Good Art.
It left me cold. Gaiman’s output has been sporadic and lop-sided over the last decade, and what should have been great was only so-so. The graphic design, while interesting, should have been followed by the complete text legibly typeset. Watch the video, and save your money for a good Gaiman book, like American Gods or Good Omens.

Rodolphe Durand and Jean-Philippe Vergne. The Pirate Organization.
There are really good points here, but the authors danced a line between supporting capitalism and hating it. Their main point, that organizations that operate in areas where law is grey or non-existant get to define the law through their operations more swiftly than the state can respond, is sound. Where the book fell down was the over-use of technical jargon and it’s brevity. Wait for the paperback.

Craig Ward. Popular Lies About Graphic Design.
A very good book on design, by an author that has strong opinions but a very quiet, simple style. He discusses many of the sacred cows of graphic design and presents a balanced view. This is all theory, with little technical discussion, and is all the better for it. Highly recommended.

Jacob Hoye (editor). Boards: The Art and Design of the Skateboard.
Lots of pictures, but not a lot of substance. An overview of historical and current board makers, types of boards, and major artists would have filled out the book in a more meaningful way for the unitiated. While the designs were awesome, the lack of context killed the book.

John Kuprenas and Matthew Frederick. 101 Things I Learned in Engineering School.
This was the first of the series that came close to capturing the same feel as Frederick’s original book regarding architecture. A great book for anyone in engineering, whether it’s physical or digital. While computer engineer’s won’t get as much as building engineers, it’s still full of relevant information regarding project management and problem solving. Highly recommended.

Daido Moriyama. Tales of Tono.
A very striking set of black-and-white images. I’m not sure if he succeeds or not, but the book is small, beautiful, and you’ll find yourself coming back to it over and over again.

Dennis Lee. The Gods.
I had some trouble with the all-over-the-place formatting. It felt like a literary conceit. While I love Lee’s essays on poetry, I felt he went a bit too far into a no-man’s land here.

Robert E. Howard. The Sowers of the Thunder.
This is historical fiction set during the Crusades. Not Howard at his best.

Robert E. Howard. The Gods of Bal-Sagoth.
Some truly good horror stories, along with a few unfinished pieces. The collection isn’t well-rounded as a result. The Baen Howard library has more focussed collections of his horror and fantasy tales.

Gore Vidal and Jon Wiener (interviewer). I Told You So: Gore Vidal Talks Politics.
It seemed like a lot of rambling without any coherence to me, but I’m also the first to admit that I’m not familiar with much of the subject matter (early 20th century American politics). There were good moments, but not quite enough for me.

Nina Katchadourian. Sorted Books.
I really wanted to like this, but I walked in with expectations set by the “Unpacking My Library” series, also by Chronicle. Sadly, this was a very poor read, and didn’t resonate as art to me.

John Buchan. The Thirty-nine Steps. (Wordsworth Classics)
This is largely regarded as the first ‘thriller’, and it’s fast pace and continuous chases make a good page-turner. Modern thrillers and ‘man-on-the-run’ movies and novels have much more action, but this is set in 1914, when things moved much more slowly. There are a few bits where the colloquialisms will get in the way, but don’t let that stop you.

Fritz Leiber. Swords Against Death. (Lankhmar)
The continuing adventures. First contact with Sheelba and Ningauble. Much fun was had by all.

Jonathan Lethem. The Disappointment Artist.
I think his diatribes against his ‘former’ nerd ways are his way of protesting too much. This is a deeply personal book, going through some of his most painful memories. It may not be the best introduction to his work, but if you enjoy the casual, conspiratorial essay mode, this one’s for you.

Robert E. Howard. Black Vulmea’s Vengeance.
Pirates of the Caribbean, over a half-century before the ride or the movies. Howard’s characteristic shoot first and keep shooting attitude reigns supreme, and the stories move quickly. Of note to Conan fans is that one of the stories was originally a Conan tale that was rejected and re-written.

Eric Schneider. Toy Instruments: Design Nostalgia Music.
A book of wonderful toys. It’s almost guaranteed that you’ll recognize or actually have owned at least one toy in this collection, if not more.

Fritz Leiber. Swords in the Mist. (Lankhmar)
This wasn’t very satisfying…the latter half of the book is one large novella that didn’t have much to offer. It felt as if the book was a series of connecting threads to the rest of the series.

Emmanuel Levinas, Philippe Nemo (interviewer) and Richard A. Cohen (translator). Ethics and Infinity.
This was a tough slog, and I have to admit to not understanding a fair portion of it. It’s a very technical interview, not necessarily meant for a layman or one not already familiar with his thought. That being said, the parts I did get were very inspirational and different. He’s worth a look into, but again, not for the faint of heart.

John Scalzi. Old Man’s War. (Old Man’s War)
Respectably written, with lots of action, tech, and some good story hooks; but it wasn’t really anything more than that. Scalzi keeps the book light and the pace fast. It will keep you hooked, but there aren’t any deep ideas or thoughts here.

John Scalzi. The Ghost Brigades. (Old Man’s War)
The second in the Old Man’s War books, this time focusing on a different set of characters. This book has lots of action, but it drags, mostly because this is the set-up for the next book. Removing John Perry from the middle of the series is a jarring note, and it’s hard to understand why any of this matters till the end of the book. The payoff, of course, is that you go into the next book prepared for an epic finish.

John Scalzi. The Last Colony. (Old Man’s War)
An ending that went by too fast. The series does end on a good note, but there’s the feeling that this should have been 2 novels, instead of the one. A bunch of plot threads are left hanging on the floor, and the action doesn’t really ramp up till the end. The whole series is respectable sci-fi, but it doesn’t quite reach any high notes (not for lack of tyring). I’d recommend the series, but I wouldn’t put it at the top of my list.

Gardner F. Fox. Conehead.
A fairly bad book. The plot, native settlers resisting colonial incursion, is popular in sci-fi and has been done much better by other authors. Fox’s explosive output (he supposedly wrote more than 300 novels prior to his death) probably contributes to the blandness of this book…it feels like a first draft.

Jonathan Crary. 24/7.
Clearer than most academic texts tend to be, but not clear enough to be targeted at non-experts. His argument starts at the commidification of sleep and the intrusion of work into every aspect of our lives, but he loses the argument half-way through the book and never really comes back. Crary could have used a strong editor to prune the book of unnecessary references and keep it on track. The book is worth reading, but it suffers.

Jim Butcher. Cold Days. (The Dresden Files)
It just felt wrong. It feels like Butcher is starting the final act of the series, and most of the set-up here is for the final showdown. I’ll read the series to the end, but this one has Dresden off-balance, fighting friend and enemy alike, and it’s very dark.

Terry Eagleton. Across the Pond.
I don’t know what to make of this one, largely because I can’t bring myself to agree with most of it. The humor, a trademark of Eagleton’s later books, is very forced and at times offensive. His use of Henry James and Alexis de Tocqueville as guideposts to modern America is also a little forced. This is for completists only.

Drew Karpyshyn. Mass Effect: Revelation. (Mass Effect)
Only for lovers of the game. Karpyshyn was the lead writer on Mass Effect 1 and 2, and this book is chock-a-block with all the information you’ve probably already read in the extensive worldpedia included with each game. This book is the prequel to the first game, outlining how Sovereign was discovered. Again, only for people who are truly in love with the game.

Will Eisner. Star Jaws.
A fairly horrible paperback of site gags combining Star Wars and Jaws. Released just after their theatrical debuts, it’s a cash grab only. But, it’s weird seeing something from Eisner in the 70’s.

Gardner F. Fox. The Hunter Out of Time.
Pedestrian golden-age sci-fi, with a time traveling twist.

Daniel Cohen. Strange and Amazing Facts About Star Trek.
Before we had the internet or blogs, people were paid to write short books about popular subjects, and we bought them in droves at supermarkets and drug stores across North America. Nothing to write home about, but it was a fun, quick read.

Stephen Emmott. Ten Billion.
Extremely brief, as the typography pads the book out considerably, but every page is worth reading. A book on the consequences of the population explosion, this should be required reading. If you think food and gas is expensive now, you won’t believe what’s in store for us.

David Trahair. Cash Cows, Pigs and Jackpots.
Trahair is a great writer on personal finances, and I love his balanced ‘no silver bullet’ approach. While this is not the greatest news to hear, it’s better advice than most get. Covering mortgages, retirement, and basic personal finance issues, I highly recommend this.

Ben Thompson. Badass.
Quite possibly the most awesome history book you’ll ever read. An incredibly liberal set of mini-bios for some of history’s most notorious generals, warriors and, well, badasses. You’ll laugh your ass off and learn something at the same time.

Robert E. Howard. The Black Stranger and Other American Tales.
A slightly unbalanced selection of horror stories, mostly set in modern times. There are many classics, but a few rarely-reprinted pieces as well. The quality is uneven.

Antoine de St.-Exupéry. Night Flight.
A good read. He was both a civil and military aviator, and his attention to detail and strong sense of atmosphere shine through here.

Alfred Bester. The Demolished Man.
A tight police procedural with a twist ending and a sci-fi setting. Bester wrote only a few novels during his life, and bizarrely, left everything to his bartender. The Demolished Man has those gritty notes, with a retro feel. Highly recommended.

Sean Howe. Marvel Comics: The Untold Story.
Very well written, covering Marvel from the very start to about 2011. Even at 400+ pages, Howe has to breeze through a lot of history, but he covers the high points well, and gives an unflinching look at how much of the creative process in a work-for-hire environment can be bankrupt. If you love comics, you’ll love this book.

David M. Ewalt. Of Dice and Men.
A very breezy introduction to Dungeons and Dragons by an unapologetic fanboy who, unfortunately, injects a little too much of himself into the book. That aside, it’s a fairly balanced history of the company, right up to the first press releases of the game’s fifth edition. A quick read…wait for the paperback.

Robert E. Howard. The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard.
Ballantine started a new ‘collected works’ of Howard in over-sized volumes, each one covering a specific area of his work. This has many of Howard’s best horror-themed stories that are set close to modern times, along with his (frankly, not that great) poetry. If you’re looking to dive in, the Ballantine re-issues will keep you reading for awhile.

Alan Light. The Holy or the Broken.
This book covers the recent rise to fame of Leonard Cohen’s song Hallelujah, and from a purely journalistic standpoint, it excels. But I’m a fan of Cohen, going back more than 20 of my years on earth, and I was hoping for less journalism, more discussion of the song and the man. Light never seems to stop taking notes long enough to actually give a real opinion, rushing through a lot of early history, and spending the latter half of the book going over performance after performance, after performance. A good introduction, but light fare.

Daniel Goldberg and Linus Larsson. Minecraft.
A very breezy introduction to the phenomenon that is Minecraft, charting both the development of the game, but the rise Mojang, the European game industry, and the life of Markus Persson, Minecraft’s creator. It felt too long, and covered too many things I didn’t have much interest in. I’m sure die-hard fans of the game will love it, but it left me a little cold.

Nancy A. Collins. Magic and Loss. (Golgotham)
I was waiting for this one with bated breath. I love Collins’ horror writing, and this series got off to a great start. This third book sounds like the end of the series, though I can’t find an official announcement regarding the series stopping or continuing. Even though the end of the book felt a little rushed, do yourself a favor and pick up the whole series. If you like Jim Butcher or Patricia Briggs, you’ll love Golgotham.

Robert Bloch. Mysteries of the Worm.
These are stories set in the Cthulhu mythos, and while a few of the later stories stand out, most were written by a very young Bloch. This is probably not the best introduction to his work, but if you’re a Cthulhu fan, you’ll love it all the way through.

Stéphane Hessel. Time for Outrage.
A short political speech that didn’t really do anything for me. I’m not really sure what my expectations were going in, but it just didn’t feel right.

Michael Fairless. The Roadmender.
This short book was The Alchemist of it’s day. A book chronicling a few days in the life of a roadmender in rural England, it’s filled with simple wisdom and fairly strong on Christian mysticism. While the religious aspects of the book make it a tougher swallow today, the author’s main points on living a simple, frugal life of charity and contemplation still ring true. Written under a pseudonym of Margaret Fairless Barber, afflicted with illness and confined to a room for the great bulk of her life.

Hannah Arendt. Hannah Arendt: The Last Interview & Other Conversations. (The Last Interview)
The set of interviews collected here is a little lop-sided, and probably not showing Arendt at her best. While the book’s narrow focus on her German upbringing, response to Nazism and the Holocaust, and the founding of Israel show how her thinking evolved near the end of her life, there is much less general philosophy or politics.

Stephanie Milton. Minecraft Beginner’s Handbook.
A quick read with not much information. Bought mainly for kitsch value. There are better books out there on the game, but this one has a bit of charm to it the others lack.

Subjects

Subject 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 Total
Fantasy 6 17 9 33 14 79
Science Fiction 9 0 15 25 12 61
Photography 13 29 6 4 1 53
Poetry 14 10 7 6 2 39
Politics 17 2 6 5 5 35
Philosophy 11 9 4 4 2 30
Fiction 4 10 3 0 7 24
Essays 1 6 7 1 4 19
Book Arts 7 2 5 2 2 18
Business 5 3 4 2 3 17
Literary Criticism 8 1 4 1 0 14
Interview 7 2 3 1 2 15
Computers 1 3 4 3 2 13
Religion 4 3 1 0 1 9
Biography 3 2 2 0 0 7
Art 3 0 2 2 1 8
Comics 0 0 4 0 2 6
Design 0 1 1 0 4 6
Horror 0 0 0 0 5 5
Sociology 0 4 1 0 0 5
Cooking 3 1 0 0 0 4
Quotations 1 1 2 0 0 4
Travel 3 0 0 1 0 4
Memoir 3 0 0 1 0 4
Psychology 2 1 0 0 0 3
Architecture 0 0 1 2 0 3
Games 0 0 0 0 3 3
Science 1 0 0 1 1 3
Film 1 1 0 0 0 2
Sports 0 1 1 0 0 2
History 1 0 0 0 1 2
Music 1 0 0 0 1 2
Childrens 1 0 0 0 0 1
Drama 0 1 0 0 0 1
Humor 0 1 0 0 0 1
Mystery 0 0 1 0 0 1
Military 0 0 0 1 0 1
Writing 0 0 0 1 0 1
Unsorted 1 6 0 0 0 7
Totals 117 131 93 96 75 512

Authors

Author 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 Total
Robert E. Howard 0 0 0 19 9 28
Lord Dunsany 13 0 0 0 0 13
Terry Eagleton 2 5 1 2 1 11
Jim Butcher 4 1 1 4 1 11
Anonymous 2 4 1 0 0 7
Andre Norton 0 1 6 0 0 7
A. E. van Vogt 0 0 6 0 0 6
Gardner F. Fox 0 0 0 3 3 6
Isaac Asimov 0 5 0 0 0 5
Leigh Brackett 0 0 0 4 1 5
Steven Brust 1 4 0 0 0 5
Edgar Rice Burroughs 0 0 0 5 0 5
Clifford D. Simak 0 1 2 2 0 5
Patricia Briggs 2 0 1 1 1 5
John Berger 2 2 0 0 1 5
Robert Adams 1 1 1 1 0 4
Irving Layton 0 0 2 2 0 4
Simon Critchley 0 2 0 2 0 4
Henry Kuttner 0 0 0 3 1 4
Richard Kadrey 0 0 0 0 4 4
J. F. Rivkin 0 0 0 2 2 4
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Creating a Checklist

September 17, 2013

In comics, you go to sales and conventions with your ‘want list’, a list of all the back issues that you want to buy. I’ve seen people use all sorts of things from hand-written paper to printed output from apps to desktop apps that had a mobile app that would sync when you got back home. The most extreme I’ve seen is a guy who came with a big thick binder filled with Excel reports…this guy had a big want list.

Also, a lot of people have worked out ‘pull’ lists with stores. This is slang for setting up a store membership and giving them a list of issues that you want to buy every month. They order a copy just for you and ‘pull’ it out of the stock they receive before it goes on sale and leave it behind the counter, along with anything else on your list. You show up on when you can and buy.

Because I’ve created my own custom system for tracking my comics, I decided that writing out my want and pull lists full-hand on paper was getting old, and that I should just create a custom web-page for it. The current advances in HTML 5, particularly offline storage and the application cache make it possible to make a single web page ‘sticky’, leaving it in your list of apps and allowing you to view and work with it, even when your device isn’t connected to the internet.

So that’s what I did. The screenshots below show you how the app looks.

This is what the page looks like when it first loads…a list of comics I’m looking to buy, a tabbed interface to get to the pull screen, and some button functionality to maintain a running tally of what I’ve bought when I’m out in the field, so to speak.

need-screen

This is the pull tab, much more static then the previous screen, mainly for checking in the store if something is on my list. Note that you see the last issue I’ve bought after the title, useful for helping me determine whether I’ve bought the book on the stands or not (in an age of multiple covers and other gimmicks, it’s easy to buy the same book twice).

pull-screen

So, going about this pulled me in a lot of directions at once, but things have finally settled down, and I have a page that relies on the following:

  • HTML 5
  • CSS 3
  • XSLT/PHP and SSI on the server, with a small dash of Apache configuration
  • Javascript

A mix of PHP and SSI is strange, but I’m using PHP exclusively to generate the XSLT reports and for nothing else, so it stayed. The SSI is there strictly to add the reports and a dash of time formatting.

The usage is fairly simple: once downloaded via the application cache and stored via offline storage, the app is fairly static. When I’m at a convention and am hunting for back issues, I consult the first tab. If I actually buy a back issue on the list, I tap the number, changing the colour of the button. This tells me I’ve bought the issue when consulting it later. When I’ve finshed updating my files at home, I connect my device to the net and re-request the page, triggering the cache to refresh the page with the new data.

This seems simple enough, but I chased my tail for months (I did this in bits and pieces when I had time), doing version after version with bugs and weird behavior until I finally got all the pieces in order. The application cache was one of the larger sticking points, as detailed in this article.

I’m going to walk through the HTML and Javascript for this, and leave the CSS out…there isn’t much there worth talking about…it’s fairly standard fare.

The HTML

Here’s the HTML for the main page, with SSI intact:


<!DOCTYPE html>
<html lang="en" manifest="manifest/manifest.manifest">
<head>
	<meta charset="utf-8" />

	<meta name="viewport" content="width=device-width" />
	<meta name="apple-mobile-web-app-capable" content="yes" />
	<meta name="format-detection" content="telephone=no" />

	<link rel="icon" type="image/png" href="xtra/favicon.png" />
	<link rel="apple-touch-icon" type="image/png" href="xtra/iphone_icon.png" />
	<link rel="apple-touch-startup-image" type="image/png" href="xtra/iphone_startup.png" />

	<link rel="stylesheet" media="screen" href="xtra/want.css" />

	<title>Need it, Pull it.</title>
</head>
<body>
	<header>
		<h1>Need it, Pull it.</h1>
		<nav>
			<ul>
				<li class="need">Need it</li>
				<li class="pull">Pull List</li>
			</ul>
		</nav>
	</header>
	<section>
		<div class="bag" id="need">
			<h2>Need it</h2>
			<!--#include virtual="/XMLDatabases/transform.php?type=Comics&report=wantlist_wanted"-->
		</div>
		<div class="bag" id="pull">
			<h2>Pull List</h2>
			<!--#include virtual="/XMLDatabases/transform.php?type=Comics&report=wantlist_buylist"-->
		</div>
	</section>
	<footer>
		© <!--#config timefmt="%Y-%m-%d" -->
		<time pubdate="pubdate" datetime="<!--#echo var="DATE_LOCAL" -->">
			<!--#config timefmt="%Y" --><!--#echo var="DATE_LOCAL" -->
		</time>
		Jeff Wyonch
	</footer>

	<script type="text/javascript" src="xtra/zepto.min.js"></script>
	<script type="text/javascript" src="xtra/want.js"></script>
	<script type="text/javascript">$(document).ready(bootstrap);</script>
</body>
</html>

I have CSS at the top and Javascript at the bottom, for all the performance goodness that entails. I also had to add a meta tag to turn off auto-detection for phone numbers, because my iPod was somehow determining ‘132’ was a phone number. I also have the shiny new HTML 5 header, section, footer, and time elements, so the page is a little more semantic than the usual sea of div‘s.

The XSLT reports are fairly simple, too.

The want list outputs a series of the following:


<h3><span class="title">Akiko. V1.</span><span class="pub">Sirius.</span></h3>
<ul class="clear">
	<li>47</li>
	<li>48</li>
</ul>

And the pull list is roughly the same without the issues a tweak to the title:


<h3>
	<span class="title">X-Men. V4.</span>
	<span class="pub">Marvel.</span>
	<span class="lastBought"># 3.</span>
</h3>

You’ll also notice I used Zepto, an almost feature-complete clone of jQuery, with a seriously reduced footprint in regards to filesize. Zepto was designed for use with modern mobile devices, and drops support for IE entirely, and early versions of Firefox, Webkit, and Opera. I consider this a decent tradeoff, given all I have is an iPod Touch right now. If I really needed this to work on a Windows phone, swapping back for jQuery wouldn’t involve much effort.

Finally, at the bottom, I have a fairly standard jQuery-like onload invocation. Because I’m not doing much more than a few simple effects and localstorage checks, there isn’t really a need to do anything more complex than a simple old-school boot loader at the bottom of the page.

The Javascript

I generally start off building Javascript with either pseudo-code, a checklist of features, or both. I find it helps immensely to have a skeleton of some sort prior to rolling up your sleeves.

While the skeleton changed a dozen times or more for this app, here’s what it looked like at the end:


/*
STEPS
~~~~~~~~

Boot
*- can we run in this browser?
*- create localstorage object to store ids
*- if it already exists, toggle classes on all matched items
*- set up interface

Clicking a tab
*- standard toggle behavior

Clicking an issue
*- compare ids to localstorage
*- if issue hasn't been bought, add to localstorage and toggle to bought
*- if issue has been bought, remove from localstorage and toggle to unbought

Cache update
*- if there's an update,
	*- show message
	*- empty temp and localstorage
	*- force-reload page

*/

Anything finished gets a ‘*’ as I go along.

The Nude Bomb

Ah, how I’ve been waiting to bring up a reference to the first time Maxwell Smart was featured in a film. As a bizarre sidenote, there is a fight in an amusement park that has the Cylons from the original Battlestar Galactica. But…back to the point.

Nowadays, we’re told that if we don’t wrap our Javascript in anonymous functions the World. Will. End. Global variables are even worse…they’ll blow up the sun.

And, well…no. While larger applications need that type of organization, small ones don’t. I feel programming approaches should shape themselves to the contours and size of the task at hand.

In the case of this application, there was so little code it didn’t make sense to go the full route. I can always ramp up to something more complex later, but only as I need it.

So, you’re going to see at least one global variable and a whole bunch of naked (get it? naked?) functions sitting in the global scope here. You’ll also notice that wrapping it all up in an anonymous function bow would be fairly simple if that time ever came. If you can’t look at commando Javascript without blushing, stop reading now.

Tools first

The first thing I’m going to do is add a slew of utilities. Full disclosure: these were added as I needed them, but for the sake of expediency here, I’m going to pretend these were all here from the start.


/* General Utilities */

function isLocalStorage() {
	return ('localStorage' in window) && window['localStorage'] !== null;
}

function isApplicationCache() {
	return !!window.applicationCache;
}

function strip( string, mode ) {
	if ( !string ) return;
	var mode,
		space = /[\s]+/g,    // normalize whitespace
		lead = /^\s+/,       // trim leading whitespace
		trail = /\s+$/,      // trim trailing whitespace
		ends = /^\s+|\s+$/g; // trim leading/trailing whitespace
	switch( mode ) {
		case 'T': string = string.replace( ends, '' );   break;
		case 'L': string = string.replace( lead, '' );   break;
		case 'R': string = string.replace( trail, '' );  break;
		case 'S': string = string.replace( space, ' ' ); break;
		default : string = string.replace( space, ' ' ).replace( ends, '' );
	}
	return string;
}

function echo( string, mode ) {
	if ( !string ) return;
	if ( !mode && typeof console == 'undefined' ) mode = 'A';
	switch( mode ) {
		case 'W': document.write( string ); break;
		case 'A': alert( string );          break;
		default : console.log( string );
	}
}

The first two functions are copied verbatim from Mark Pilgrim’s amazing Dive into HTML 5 site. These are the only two checks I need to make to ensure the browser can run the code, for now. If I port the app to things other than an iPod, I can always add Modernizr later. For efficiency’s sake, this is all I need for now.

The strip and echo functions are things I wrote myself, and while there’s no brain surgery here, I use them over and over in projects. I prefer to have all my regular expressions in variables so I can comment them (this gives my brain a mental kick when I come back to them later). While both of these functions can be whittled down to only the functionality I need, I use them so often I just paste them in to my code.

Boot to the head

Every time I code a bootstrap function, The Frantics play in my head. I’m going to declare my single global variable, and my bootstrap function next.


var temp = '';

function bootstrap() {
	if(capable()) {
		/* hide interface till ready */
		$('section').children().hide();

		/* set up localstorage  */
		setLocal();

		/* assign listeners */
		$('header nav ul li').click(showTab);
		$('#need').delegate('ul li','click',processIssue);

		/* all is ready, show interface */
		$('section #need').show();
	} else {
		return;
	}
}

Again, no brain surgery. The lone global var here is really just a space to hold the only variable I’m actually going to store in localstorage, so I can manipulate it in memory while the app’s running.

The bootstrap function takes care of running the compatibility check right at the start, then sets up the environment and checks the state of the app (have I actually bought any comics). I’m going to walk through these in blocks, starting with the compatibility check first.

Can we even run this thing?

The app is so small that I really only needed to check whether it could be run once.


function capable() {
	/* return boolean if browser can run the app */
	var ready = false, local = isLocalStorage(),
	cache = isApplicationCache();
	if (local && cache) ready = true;
	return ready;
}

All this does is return true or false. The bootstrap function either quits or continues to run. Easy peasy. This streamlines all the remaining code, giving us a filesize savings. Scaling up from here can only go so far…at some point, this would have to check for only the really large pieces of functionality needed, or be refactored.

Setting up localstorage

After making sure all the tabs are hidden until the interface is set up, the next step is determining the state of the application: is the localstorage variable we need present and does it have content? If it does, we need to make sure issues that have been bought are displayed properly in the interface.


function setLocal() {
	if (localStorage['bought'] == undefined) {
		localStorage['bought'] = '';
	} else {
		temp = localStorage['bought'];
		if (localStorage['bought'] != '') {
			paintIssues();	
		}
	}
}

function paintIssues() {
	var issues = localStorage['bought'].split(' '),
		i, loop = issues.length, item;
	for (i = 0; i < loop; i++) {
		item = parseInt(issues[i]);
		$("#need li").eq(item).toggleClass('bought');
	}
}

At this point, to understand what’s going on here, I need to explain what’s being stored in localstorage. A string. That’s it. That’s all I need.

Every time I tap an issue, all I’m doing is storing the DOM position of what was tapped as a space-seperated integer inside a string. The bought variable inside localstorage looks something like 0 5 9 12 22.

I can hear people’s teeth grinding right now…he’s using the DOM POSITION?!! Well…yeah. Remember, the app, once downloaded, doesn’t change until it’s refreshed only after I’ve updated the files back at the server. So, the DOM here is stable until the application cache signals an update, at which point locastorage is wiped anyway.

This is the only loop in the whole application. One of the great things about localstorage variables is that they can only be strings, so you can manipulate them with the built-in string functions in Javascript. As a sidenote, I know I could use the ECMAScript trim method instead of my own utility, but using a custom function helps scale this if I need it to work on other platforms with older versions of Javscript installed.

Making issues tapdance

The next part of bootstrap sets up listeners for the tabs and delegates listeners for all the issue buttons. Again, I’m using the DOM position to create a unique ID for each issue. On tap, the issue button’s display state toggles to either bought or unbought, and the change is stored in localstorage. The temp global var is also updated.


function processIssue() {
	var no = $('#need li').index(this);
	$(this).toggleClass('bought');
	if ( $(this).attr('class') == 'bought') {
		store(no);
	} else {
		remove(no);
	}
}

function store(no) {
	var bool = there(no);
	if ( bool == false ) {
		temp = temp + ' ' + no;
		temp = strip(temp);
		localStorage['bought'] = temp;
	}
}

function remove(no) {
	var bool = there(no);
	if ( bool == true ) {
		temp = temp.replace( no, '' );
		temp = strip(temp);
		if (temp == undefined) temp = '';
		localStorage['bought'] = temp;
	}
}

function there(no) {
	if (temp.indexOf( no ) == -1) {
		return false;
	} else {
		return true;
	}
}

While I could have incorporated the logic of the there method into the two preceding functions, that’s code duplication, which I try to avoid whenever possible. And yes, I could’ve used a ternary operater there (and in several other places), but I find them hard to read.

And…that’s about it

Well, almost. I still have to add the last function to toggle the main pull and need tabs.


function showTab() {
	$('section .bag').hide();
	$('#' + $(this).attr('class')).toggle();
	return false;
}

And…now it’s done. The whole Javascript library (apart from Zepto) clocks in at about 166 lines (including the huge comment at the start) and roughly 3K before minimization.

Adding the cache manifest

The last step to making this all work offline is adding the cache manifest. In order to get this working, I had to add some Apache configuration; first, to get Apache to serve the .manifest filetype with the correct MIME type, and then make it parsable via SSI. Here’s the manifest.manifest file:


CACHE MANIFEST

CACHE:
../xtra/favicon.png
../xtra/iphone_icon.png
../xtra/iphone_startup.png
../xtra/zepto.min.js
../xtra/want.css
../xtra/want.js

<!--#include virtual="/XMLDatabases/transform.php?type=Comics&report=cachebust"-->

The SSI include here adds a few lines to the end of the manifest file:


# Wanted : 347
# Series Wanted : 38 
# Buylist : 41

These are comments meant to do only one thing: make the browser aware that the cache manifest file has changed. Even if every file listed in that manifest has changed, unless the manifest file itself changes, the browser won’t signal an update. Because these numbers will change when I update files at the server, this accomplishes the goal with the minimum of fuss.

App updates

As it turns out, there’s one last bit of Javascript we need to add. Now that the manifest file is in place, and will alert the browser to an update, we need to make sure the user applies the update. All that happens when the cache manifest changes is an internal event…unless you program a response to the event, the browser will not download new files and update the app.

The last bit of code was found on the net in quite a few tutorials, and even though it doesn’t match the programming style of the rest of the Javascript, it’s workable for now.


window.applicationCache.addEventListener('updateready', function(e) {
	if (window.applicationCache.status == window.applicationCache.UPDATEREADY) {
		window.applicationCache.swapCache();
		if (confirm('A new version of this page is available. Load it?')) {
			temp = '', localStorage['bought'] = '';
			window.location.reload();
		}
	} else {
		// Manifest didn't change.
	}
}, false);

After I come home from a hard day of conventioning, I update my files with the back-issue goodies I bought, triggering the manifest to change. When I load the page on my iPod while it’s connected, it triggers the updateready event, which brings up a dialog to reload the app. If I click ‘yes’, the localstorage and global variables are reset to empty strings and the page reloads with the newly downloaded appcache files.

Last thoughts

I learned quite a bit about working with offline apps, but know I still have a long way to go. Some of the resources linked to in the article will help with general HTML 5 app stuff.

Unfortunately, the only way to add the code to github would be to add the megabytes of XML and XSLT files that support it underneath, and I don’t think those would be an appropriate use of github.

There are a lot of general tweaks that could be made to this, and I’ll probably revisit it in the future.

I’d love to hear feedback regarding this. Remember to be gentle in the comments area.

Cleaning up my longboxes

July 7, 2013

I’ve been looking at my “pull list”, the list of comics I buy regularly on Wednesdays, and it’s creeped up to over 50 titles, which is breaking the bank, not in a small way. Now, a fair portion of my list is mini-series and books that are published bi-monthly or even quarterly, but it’s still a big list, even for that.

Over the years, I’ve gotten into the habit of buying books until there’s enough of them to read in big batches, a reason why this crept up on me almost invisibly. Over the weekend, I sorted out my longboxes and took a long look at what I’ve been buying over the last 6-8 months, and have come to the inescapable conclusion that Marvel and DC just aren’t doing it for me right now.

I’ve thrown up my hands in disgust, at both Marvel and DC, several times over the decades, publicly vowing that “enough is enough” and I would never return. And, of course, I always come back.

I won’t throw my hands up again, but I am walking away from them for awhile.

DC seems to be a nightmarish swamp of bad decision-making, merging both Wildstorm and most of Vertigo back into the main DC Universe for seemingly no discernible reason. None of the “New 52” revamps are working out. There’s enough Bat-people to create another branch of the US armed forces.

Marvel’s current flagship product, the Avengers line, was going along fine under Bendis. I loved the writing, and although it dragged in spots and occasionally sagged under the weight of yearly tie-ins and too many concurrent titles, I liked it. It brought me back to Marvel. They’ve moved Bendis to the X-titles (where he seems completely lost) last year, and doubled the Avengers titles on the market. When you add retailer incentive covers, bi-weekly publishing schedules, and every major character having at least two titles, the whole Marvel line becomes expensive. Layer onto that the fact that Marvel never cleaned up all the fractures in their universe after Onslaught, and are now blithely rewriting history to make the comics look more like the movies, and you have a fairly large mess on your hands.

What I’m having trouble understanding is why both companies, who right into the 1980’s boasted alternative titles to superheroes, will now produce nothing else. Right into the 1960’s, DC’s had a ton of non-cape titles floating around, and Stan Lee’s written as many Millie the Model scripts as he has for Spiderman.

Both companies have access to creators who want (and are capable) of writing something other than capes (Matt Fraction, Warren Ellis, Brian Michael Bendis, Brian Wood).

I have nothing against superheroes. Some of my favorite comics are superhero comics: Miller’s run on Daredevil, the Byrne/Cockrum/Claremont X-Men’s, Miller’s Dark Knight, Bendis’ run on Avengers and Powers.

But, I’m tired of having to collect 10 titles a month just to understand what’s going on in just one corner of either the DC or Marvel universe. And how many times can you watch Thor and Hulk beat the crap out of each other?

I’ll also say this: I’m moving into my mid-40’s, and part of this griping is age-related, pure and simple. Comics have evolved, along with printing and distribution, and “my” comics died out in the 1980’s. Some of this is nostalgia.

Over the summer, I’m going to be paring down my list and focusing on reading some of the books I’ve accumulated over the last year. It looks like I’ll be reading very little superhero titles.

I can say, IMHO, that these are some of the best titles on the market right now:

The Massive (Dark Horse): Brian Wood’s eco-disaster comic is a direct descendant of his equally brilliant DMZ and Channel Zero before it. The characters are sharp, the artwork is consistently dazzling, and his ability to create a near-future world from current trends is amazing.

Saga (Image): Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples have built a science fantasy to rival Moonshadow and Starstruck. This is probably the most amazing book on the market right now. You Should Go Buy This.

The Manhattan Projects (Image): What if all the cold-war scientists (Einstein, Oppenheimer, Feynman, Fermi, von Braun) wanted to rule the world? And got away with it? Jonathan Hickman takes this premise and amps the suspense with every issue.

East of West (Image): another Hickman book. This time, Death has come to Earth searching for…his wife? And killing everyone who gets in his way.

Hawkeye (Marvel): Matt Fraction’s take on what Hawkeye does when he isn’t in his tights is probably the best book Marvel is publishing right now. From the bumbling Russian track-suit mafia to his budding relationship with Kate Bishop (another super-archer) to the incomparable Pizza Dog, this book is like mixing Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction with Whedon’s Avengers. I’m on this ride till it crashes into Dr. Doom’s castle.

Rachel Rising (Abstract): Terry Moore walked away from Strangers in Paradise and followed it up with Echo, a great sci-fi series. He’s now writing a horror romp with Rachel Rising. Like Echo, I suspect you’ll find references back to SIP in this, but Moore’s consistent monthly schedule, beautiful art, and tight plots make reading his work a joy. You know ahead of time that the book will move consistently forward and keep you on your toes.

I have many other books I’m collecting right now, but those are the ones I wait for every month.

Some thoughts on social media

June 3, 2013

I’ve been on, around, programming, or just generally familiar with the internet since about 1994, when the first web browsers starting hitting the market. At that point, there were no computer courses to take, no gurus to consult…the world hadn’t yet heard the terms ’email’, ‘open source software’, or ‘social media’…we had to make everything up as we went.

And that’s what we did. Almost everyone I know from those heady days were largely self-taught. Even the professional programmers with post-graduate degrees in computer science were cracking open O’Reilly’s Webmaster in a Nutshell to figure out what the hell was going on.

I didn’t really pay any attention to social media till about 2005, almost 10 years later, because, honestly? The first iterations were painful. Epinions, Friendster, MySpace, AOL’s gated communities…at their height, most of these sites barely registered the massive adoption of Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, WordPress, Tumblr, etc.

I was introduced to Facebook by a graphic designer at Blast Radius (thanks, Missy!), and I found it compelling enough that it became part of my regular ‘start-up cycle’ in the morning, along with checking email. At the same time I was teaching myself photography the hard way (trial and error), and was a heavy user of Flickr. Along the way I’ve also found myself with accounts to (in no particular order): LinkedIn, Twitter, 500px, Tumblr, Pinterest, WordPress, Youtube, last.fm, bit.ly, and about.me.

No one can possibly use all of these services equally, except celebrities who can afford to hire a full-time ghost-writer to manage all of these things at once.

After running a blog for 4 years, a Flickr photostream for 6, and using the other services off-and-on, I’ve developed some habits and (sometimes strong) opinions on how social media should be managed. These are my personal opinions, and they won’t fit everyone’s ideal, so I’m not presenting this as advice, merely what works for me.

YOYOW

This is a famous acronym developed by one of the very first online social networks, The WELL (Whole Earth Lectronic Link), and means You Own Your Own Words. The basic premise is simple: you’re responsible for what you say, and who you say it to. What you’re not responsible for is how it’s interpreted.

What this means for me is simple: the social media sites where I actively post my own content: my 2 WordPress blogs, my Flickr site, my 500px portfolio, my Twitter feed, and my LinkedIn profile are mine. If you show up and decide to stay for the ride, great. If not, no hard feelings. And I mean that sincerely. I’m not everyone’s cup of tea. But when you comment or participate in these creations of mine, You Own Your Own Words, too.

On blocking\reporting

There are folk on FB and Twitter that I genuinely never want to see again, as long as I frakking live. I’m sure most of them feel the same way about me. C’est la vie.

But I have never blocked anyone. A partial reason is that I’m not part of the 1% of top bloggers, who I’m sure receive a large amount of trolls. The more important reason, for me, is not having to deal with blow-back. As soon as you block someone, you are airing dirty laundry in public, and that is almost always bad news. I treat blocking or reporting someone as the last possible act, and a concession to defeat.

If you try to please everyone, no one will like it

I first saw these words of wisdom on a Murphy’s Law poster I picked up as a teenager. I clearly divide my social media into discrete areas of interest and keep them as separate as possible.

My LinkedIn account is for professional contacts only. My Facebook, Twitter, and G+ accounts are where I relax and maintain friendships. My Flickr, 500px, and WordPress blogs are for hobbies and interests I hope to take professional, or be considered seriously.

I even have a Plenty of Fish account for dating. Look me up. I’m single.

Each one serves a different purpose, and I make sure that each one only displays my ‘best side’ in that area. Sometimes my best side aint that grand, but that’s a different story.

Stats and all that

Seriously? I pay attention to them more than I should. And they have a place. But they are only a small part of what social media is all about. How many people read my Facebook feed isn’t that important, considering that’s where I let my hair down. In contrast, I watch my WordPress and 500px stats like a hawk. Remember what you’re using a network for, before you interpret (or even pay attention) to stats.

Slowing it down

I try not to post ‘machine-gun’ style. A couple of posts a day on G+, Facebook, and Twitter are enough. For Flickr and WordPress, if I have more than one post, I try to consolidate them as much as possible. I’ve seen many a person complain that nobody responds to their posts, when they’re posting 20, 30 posts a day (sometimes more). This is overkill, to me.

Being ‘that guy’

You know? The one who always hangs out in the kitchen at parties? The one who leads with a line of bullshit and a slightly grimy business card? I try not to be that guy. Nothing is an overnight success, and your content may not become relevant until after you’ve passed on (it took centuries for Vico to be recognized).

In an interview, Neil Gaiman remarked on how Brian Eno became associated with the first BBC adaptation of his book Neverwhere (I’m paraphrasing here): “And after the pitch, we said, ‘And by the way, there isn’t any money in this’. And Eno replied, ‘Well, there rarely is in the things you really want to do'”. Remember that the content is the important thing. Building relationships only comes after you’ve done the work. And even then, the relationships should be based on being honest.

On the subject of women

I’ve had a few occasions where I’ve added women whom I knew either personally or professionally to one of my networks who didn’t immediately remember who I was, and received some very negative responses to what they felt was unwelcome attention.

My rule now is to never add women, period. I always let them add me, and I’m very careful about interactions in their feeds.

To be blunt, women still experience problems in the workplace and socially that most men don’t. It’s just easier to let them decide to what extant they want to be in your social circles, and follow that lead.

A sense of amazement

Bronwen Wallace, a truly amazing Canadian writer (sadly lost to us), remarked in the introduction of her beautiful book Keep That Candle Burning Bright:

Always, I am amazed at what we tell, how much faith we put in it. Never really knowing who is listening, how they’re going to take it, where.

I can honestly say that everyday I post, whether it’s to my blog or to my Flickr/500px account, I’m amazed at who responds, where they are in the world, what they’re doing, what connected them to that infinitely small slice of my life.

You never really know who is listening.

Talk well. Talk hard.

R2, Where are You?

February 5, 2013

r2 1

To be honest with you, I can’t remember what, exactly, was my first ever Star Wars action figure, but R2-D2 may have been it. Luke Skywalker (in his Tatooine farmboy outfit and lightsaber that retracted into his arm) is another good candidate. I distinctly remember receiving C-3PO for Easter in lieu of chocolate (still can’t believe I managed to trick my parents into that), and Leia and Chewbacca were somewhere inbetween. I was never able to get the first Han Solo figure. I also remember that the original Solo doll was recalled, because they made the figure’s head too realistic a likeness to Harrison Ford without permission. My first Han figure was the Hoth arctic gear figure from Empire.

In 1977, I really dug the light saber. Seriously dug the light saber. I was all over light saber fighting. Han was cool, but not as cool as Luke. Luke was awesome. Luke blew up the Death Star. And Leia totally smooched him.

And then turned out to be his sister and secretly digging Han. But hey, we wouldn’t find that out for 5 more years. And I was 7 in ’77, so girls still had the cooties. Even the girl who lived next door, who had more Star Wars trading cards than I did. I didn’t know it at the time, but she was Nerd Hawt.

Me and that little droid have been through a lot together

The first vehicle I was able to own was the Land-Speeder. I had to use that as a stand-in for both the Millenium Falcon and the X-Wing…toys I neither had room for or my parents money to buy. I eventually ended up with a Fisher-Price boat that stood in for the Falcon. The tiny pistol they shipped with Leia slipped into a crack in the boat, and I had to have my father unassemble the entire toy to get it back.

In Canada, building the Death Star is easy. You just wait for the snow to pile up in the back yard. I packed snow from all over the yard into huge forts with all sorts of tunnels, playing out there for hours.

I even owned the Star Wars read-along book, with a 33′ single that read the book out loud. It had sound effects from the movie, and every time it wanted you to turn the page…R2 beeped! How freaking cool is that?

There have been many magazine stories over the last 10-15 years, with the rise of the “Maker” movement, detailing how hobbyists have built life-size replicas of the Star Wars droids, complete with sound effects, lights and working parts. During a Christmas party my father’s company held for employees and their families (in the 70’s!), a guy showed up with a remote-control R2! I almost lost control of my bladder. I think my parents had to slip me alcohol in the Kool-Aid to calm me down.

Star Wars was such a monumental moment of my childhood that almost all the memories that resonate involve that movie. Nerds were not cool in the 70’s, and I was mercilessly taunted for it. Star Wars, the X-Men, the Micronauts, Hot Wheels…even more Star Wars. I couldn’t get enough, and have seen the original movie in every theatrical release it ever had in Canada.

I’ve lost R2!

I don’t buy figures from the old days, because frankly, who has the money they command nowadays? I found this at the St. Lawrence Antique Show for ten clams. This is the original 1977 vintage R2, with the stickers in front and back, no third leg or periscope…just a tube of plastic with some blue and silver paint. (I’m not sure if I want to be quoted on that, though. My recollection is that the holes in their legs to attach them to dioramas was always circular, and this R2 has hexagonal ones.) They also had some 3PO’s and a vintage Land-Speeder, but they were a little pricey.

r2 2

By the time I had given away all my Star Wars figures to my nephews, my original Skywalker and R2 dolls were held together only by sheer force of will and multiple repairs by my father. He literally forced screws into the heads and limbs of the dolls and forced the pieces back on. The stickers from R2 had worn off, and I just painted on what I wanted him to look like.

Kids are fairly vunerable to collector’s mania, and I was constantly getting in trouble for wanting too many things. I had boxes of Star Wars, G.I. Joe, and Transformers figures. Of course, these were far too expensive for my family’s income level, and I was constantly howling for more. Mix comics into that, and you have one needy child. My mom wasn’t stupid. She bought what she could, and weaned me onto an allowance, which I mis-budgeted at first, but figured out how to make last, and save to buy my own toys.

But what I really wanted was superhero figures. By the time superhero figures came out in the 90’s, I was too old to really play with them the way a kid does. And damn, were they expensive. Were…they still are.

Even with all the toys I managed to have, I could never have enough. And, through my twenties and thirties, I responded to life with a “I want it all and damn the expense” attitude which I could never really afford.

I’m sure it’s perfectly safe for droids

I’ve taken my licks for that. And that’s all there really is to that. Ten bucks isn’t much to own a little piece of my childhood.

Holding R2 in my hand again, 36 years after receiving my first Star Wars action figure, is kinda cool. I won’t be reconstructing my collection. But one figure, if it’s the right one, is enough.

2012: The Year in Reading

January 29, 2013

Once more into the breach! Every year, I post a list of all the books I’ve read the previous year. Although these posts receive little fanfare or repeat traffic, I enjoy doing them for myself. Those interested can also read 2011, 2010 and 2009.

I’m going to break out the books into categories, with some brief notes on each. As with last year, I’ve added some tables at the bottom that break down and compare subjects, authors, and series/imprints for every year since 2009 (the year I started recording the date I read a book).

This was definitely the year of Robert E. Howard, dominating my reading with 19 books total. I went on a serious fantasy/sci-fi/pulp binge, and it shows in the numbers.

Fantasy

Patricia Briggs. River Marked. (Mercy Thompson)
It felt like a conclusion to the series, but I doubt a money-maker like this will be allowed to retire. I think there’s more adventures on the way for Mercy. Great series, and although this one started slow, it ended strong.

Jim Butcher. Changes. (The Dresden Files)
A very dark book, with a tragic ending. The action is fairly intense, but it’s the decisions that Dresden makes at the end of the book that leave you gasping for breath. It’s safe to say that every book in the series to this point was prelude, and we are now getting to the meat of the series.

Jim Butcher. Ghost Story. (The Dresden Files)
This is it, the start of the end game for the series. Harry’s life changes in many ways, and I doubt we’ll see much of the supporting cast that has grown in the series from this point forward. At least for a while. The next book in the series will probably be a page-turner. Can’t wait.

Jim Butcher. Small Favor. (The Dresden Files)
The stakes just keep getting higher. A fast book, full of twists and turns. Butcher’s series blends the best of hard-boiled noir with fantasy.

Jim Butcher. Turn Coat. (The Dresden Files)
This is probably the turning point in the series, ending the stories of several characters that were key in the first books. It also sets up the major plotlines that I suspect Butcher will follow as the series progresses.

Nancy A. Collins. Left Hand Magic. (Golgotham)
A good follow-up to the first, but Collins seems to be using up her villians a little too quickly. Looking forward to the third.

Nancy A. Collins. Right Hand Magic. (Golgotham)
A great start to a new series, but very much unlike the splatterpunk ethos of the Sonja Blue novels, her previous series. I liked it, but it took a little too much time setting up the supporting cast. I hope the direction of the series starts to become clearer in the next book.

Gardner F. Fox. Kyrik and the Wizard’s Sword. (Kyrik)
This is the last book in the series, which I’ve managed to read first. Fox is a comics legend, responsible for Hawkman and the first ‘super-group’, the Justice League. He was also a prolific novelist, and this is good, straight-ahead sword-and-sorcery, Conan-style adventure.

Gardner F. Fox. Thief of Llarn.
A decent read, but not much more. Fox gets in quite a few digs on ‘the weaker, fairer sex’ here…it was written for a different reader in a different time. This is probably the most recent of the planetary romance genre, started by Burroughs, but not the grandest.

Gardner F. Fox. Warrior of Llarn.
A fairly predictable read, very much modeled after Burroughs Mars series. While not offering much originality, it does offer a quick pace, a lot of action, and interesting characters.

Robert E. Howard. Almuric.
Muscular, straight-ahead, no-holds-barred sword and sorcery. Lots of heaving biceps and dainty women, with every argument settled with fighting. Lots of fighting. The cultural biases of an earlier age are sometimes hard to deal with, but if you can get past that, it’s a good book.

Robert E. Howard. Beyond the Borders. (Baen Robert E. Howard Library)
A mixed bag of modern fantasy and horror stories. Some good, some bad. This is Volume 7 of a collection that petered out after exhausting the more popular Howard stories in previous volumes.

Robert E. Howard. Bran Mak Morn.
Bran is part of the second string characters that Howard wrote about, which also includes Solomon Kane and Cormac Mac Art. There are some good stories, centered around the struggle to remove Roman rule from the British Isles. While not even remotely historically accurate, Howard knew enough of the real history to make the non-fantastical elements plausible. The action is ferocious, and the stories read fast.

Robert E. Howard. Cormac Mac Art. (Baen Robert E. Howard Library)
Cormac is one of the later Howard creations, and he only wrote a few stories about the character before his death. The rest of the book is padded out with a David Drake pastiche, and a few story outlines. This is book one in the Baen Howard library, and was probably not the best introduction.

Robert E. Howard. Eons of the Night. (Baen Robert E. Howard Library)
More blood and guts, this time in mostly ancient times. Very little fantasy, just straight-ahead fighting, “mighty thews”, and cringing women. The racism and female stereotypes make reading his material hard in this day and age, but I tend to side with most Howard apologists…what he lacks in political correctness, he more than makes up for in sheer action, inventiveness, and velocity.

Robert E. Howard. King Kull.
Almost all of the Kull stories in one book. Kull is almost the same as Conan, but with a more sombre, almost existentialist tone. While the adventures are full of plotting, angst, and intrigue, once Kull picks up his sword, all the self-reflection gets washed away by buckets of blood and gore. Not as good as Conan or Solomon Kane, but good nonetheless.

Robert E. Howard and Joe R. Lansdale (introduction). People of the Dark. (The Weird Works of Robert E. Howard)
This series ended up being issued in paperback first, then re-issued in trade, with the stories being broken up across more books. This contains less material than the paperback with the same name. More straight-ahead, kick-in-the-door and kill everything that moves fantasy. Great stuff.

Robert E. Howard. Shadow Kingdoms: The Weird Works of Robert E. Howard Volume 1. (The Weird Works of Robert E. Howard)
The series presents the bulk of Howard’s work for Weird Tales magazine. The collection is a little uneven (I could have done without his poetry), but there is a lot of good material here.

Robert E. Howard. Skull-Face and Others: Volume 1. (Skull-Face Omnibus)
The racism of the era comes to the fore in otherwise well-written pulp tales. There are a few stories that are very difficult to get through.

Robert E. Howard. The Dark Man and Others.
A good collection, but the racism rampant in that era comes fully to the surface in a few stories. Not a gentle introduction to Howard’s work. None of his signature characters are featured here, but the stories chosen are no less entertaining for that.

Robert E. Howard. The Hand of Kane. (Solomon Kane) (Centaur Press Time-Lost Series)
A good book, but a few of the stories were left unfinished at his death, and presented as-is. It made the book feel a little half-baked.

Robert E. Howard. The Haunter of the Ring & Other Tales. (Woodsworth Tales of Mystery & the Supernatural)
A decent blend of long and short stories, mostly set in the modern era. A good introduction to Howard.

Robert E. Howard. The Moon of Skulls. (Solomon Kane) (Centaur Press Time-Lost Series)
A great collection of solid action-adventure with supernatural overtones. Yes, Howard displays the prejudices against women and race common to pulp stories from that era, but it isn’t as extreme as some other writers. Solomon Kane wasn’t his greatest hero, but one of his most popular. A good book.

Robert E. Howard. The Right Hand of Doom and Other Tales of Solomon Kane. (Solomon Kane) (Woodsworth Tales of Mystery & the Supernatural)
Solomon has become one of my favorite Howard characters. Moody, intense, and obsessed with vengeance…my kind of guy. This is most of the short stuff, and a good intro to Solomon.

Robert E. Howard. The Second Book of Robert E. Howard Volume 2.
I have no idea what the Volume 2 indicates in the title. I imagine that the first book of REH was labelled Volume 1. This ranges over a lot of ground, covering his poetry, western, and boxing tales as well as his straight-ahead heroic fantasy. A decent read, but uneven if all you’re looking for is the barbarians.

Robert E. Howard. The Sword Woman.
A collection about a lesser-known character, and a few unfinished pieces. Good straightforward action stories with historical settings. Probably not the best place to start with Howard.

Robert E. Howard. The Valley of the Worm and Others: Volume 2. (Skull-Face Omnibus)
A good selection, but I have already read most of the stories.

Robert E. Howard. Trails in Darkness. (Baen Robert E. Howard Library)
A decent selection of horror and fantasy tales set in North America in the 1930’s. While the quality is not completely even, some of Howard’s best modern shorts are represented.

Robert E. Howard. Wolfshead.
I actually bought this book twice, each edition with slightly different contents. Either is a good choice, with a mix of fantasy/horror tales that are sharp, quick and engrossing reads.

Abraham Merritt. The Ship of Ishtar.
A great book, full of highly imaginative fare. The women get short shrift, and it drags in many places, but you can see the chrysalis of many modern fantasy tales in this book. This may not be ‘the’ Merritt book to read, but anyone interested in fantasy should at least read one of his books.

C. L. Moore. Jirel of Joiry.
The first few stories were very difficult to get through, but it improves noticably towards the end. Jirel was one of the first female leads in the realm of swords-and-sorcery fantasy, and she would give Conan more than a fair fight.

J. F. Rivkin. Silverglass. (Silverglass)
A good story, with strong female leads who may or may not be in love with each other. This books is apparently on many LGBT reading lists. Lots of action, and a very subtle and different magic system. Worth the price of admission.

J. F. Rivkin. Web of Wind. (Silverglass)
A good second book. The series is not epic, with worlds hanging in the balance, but it’s better for that. The two heroines are three-dimensional and quirky, and the world is very well thought-out.

Science Fiction

Leigh Brackett. The Big Jump.
A great book, combining a gritty noir detective story with science fiction. Brackett wrote a lot of mysteries, and it shows here. A great concept for first contact sci-fi, and a ton of compelling characters.

Leigh Brackett. The Ginger Star. (Skaith)
The Planet Skaith trilogy prominently features Eric John Stark, Brackett’s answer to Burrough’s John Carter. This is very well-written, but I found myself a little wearied by the pace. It’s a story that feels artificially expanded to trilogy-length that could just as easily have been a single book.

Leigh Brackett. The Secret of Sinharat / People of the Talisman. (Eric John Stark)
Brackett created a whole mythology surrounding the exploration of the solar system, and this features adventures on Mars. Stark was her barbarian foil for many adventures, and he hacks his way across the Martian desert and polar regions with equal relish here. Great fun, tightly written, and a great cast. This is two different novels marketed by Ace in their “Ace Double” line.

Leigh Brackett. The Sword of Rhiannon.
A great read. Another of the many Martian swords-and-sorcery adventures that came out in the early-to-mid twentieth century. Brackett keeps the action moving and although the female lead is a little wooden, the books is grand.

Edgar Rice Burroughs. A Princess of Mars. (John Carter of Mars)
Not quite as fast-paced as Robert Howards, but good science-fantasy from an acknowledged master. A bit too many coincidences for my tastes. Generally, though, a good book.

Edgar Rice Burroughs. Beyond the Farthest Star.
This was one of the last stories that Burroughs started, but never lived to complete. Near the end of his life, Burroughs was asked to cover the Pacific Theatre as a journalist. It radically changed his attitude towards war, and this book captured his feelings perfectly.

Edgar Rice Burroughs. John Carter of Mars. (John Carter of Mars)
The last book in the ‘mars’ series, but the stories are placed outside of the normal chronology, with the last starting a new series with John Carter on Jupiter. A hint of what could have been if Burroughs hadn’t passed away.

Edgar Rice Burroughs. The Gods of Mars. (John Carter of Mars)
As much adventure and strangeness as in the first, but much of the plot hinged on almost-absurd coincidences. A fast read, ending on a cliff-hanger.

Edgar Rice Burroughs. The Warlord of Mars. (John Carter of Mars)
Concludes the first trilogy in the series. All the bad guys die satisfying deaths, all the good guys get the girl. While I can see why the series is so popular and imitated, you can probably get away with more modern series that leave the colonial and victorian anachronisms behind.

Lin Carter. Thongor and the Wizard of Lemuria. (Thongor)
All the ingredients, but unfortunately a not very satisfying book. Almost every plotline hinged on almost superhumanly absurd coincidences and flimsy excuses. Defeat snatched from the jaws of victory.

Harry Harrison. Homeworld. (To the Stars)
Author of the Stainless Steel Rat series, Harrison is known for tight plots and lots of action. Homeworld is a good start to this series, if a little slow.

Harry Harrison. Starworld. (To the Stars)
Not the best conclusion to the series. The buildup seemed to require more action, and a more satisfying end to the villian. The series is a quick read, and has it’s good moments.

Harry Harrison. Wheelworld. (To the Stars)
A good second book that sets up for the climax.

Henry Kuttner. The Creature From Beyond Infinity.
A horrible name for a fairly enjoyable book. Written in the 1940’s, many of its assumptions regarding technology are dated, but the storytelling isn’t.

Henry Kuttner. The Dark World.
A good book that moves fast. Maybe too fast. The book ends so quickly, you hardly have time to get introduced into the world. Even so, it’s a great blend of mythology and sci-fi.

Adam Lebowitz and Robert Bonchune. Star Trek: Starship Spotter.
Hey, I love the technical manuals. Found this at Goodwill for a toonie, and had to get it. This isn’t one of the better technical manuals, but had some deets on some of the more obscure ships you see in the background of the big battle scenes.

Fritz Leiber. The Big Time.
It felt too long, like a short story that was artificially stretched to be a third longer than it needed to be. A good read, with lots of good ideas.

Roger McKenzie and Ernie Colon (artist). Marvel Comics Group Presents: Battlestar Galactica.
This was the first few issues of the Marvel Comics adaptation of the original 1970’s film, cut to fit into paperback format. Badly cut. A lot of the panels make no sense, and it’s hard to follow the story, even when you know what it is. There’s also a set of essays on the television show. It’s a bit of 70’s nostalgia, bought for a dollar at Goodwill.

C. L. Moore and Henry Kuttner. Earth’s Last Citadel. (Ace Great Years)
Nothing exceptional, but a decent, quick read.

Joanna Russ. Picnic on Paradise.
This is supposedly ‘feminist’ sci-fi, but I have to admit that I can’t see it that way. It does have a very strong, three-dimensional female lead, both aggressive in defending herself and going after what she wants, but there isn’t anything specifically political about that. The story didn’t seem to have much point, beyond a lot of sex and drugs. Well-written, but I’m not sure I’d recommend it.

Clifford D. Simak. The Trouble with Tycho.
This was really a novella, padded out to book length by adding blank pages between chapters and other typographical tricks. No less entertaining for that. Simak is a great author, with a clear ear for dialogue, and a love for his characters. It did feel, though, that this should have been part of a collection.

Clifford D. Simak. Worlds Without End.
A good collection of longer work, two novellas and a short story. “Full Cycle” is the standout in this collection, depicting a future America where the population has become entirely nomadic. It seems more relevant now, in an age where all you really need to pack is your laptop, and you can work anywhere.

Jack Vance. The Dragonmasters.
A good book. I’m a bit surprised, as the few other books I’ve read from Vance have been mediocre at best. This is a novella that you can get through quickly, but it’s good.

Jules Verne. Master of the World.
This is a sequel to an earlier work. I can’t say it was brilliant, but it is an example of some of the earliest science fiction to be written. Victorian-era morals come through clearly in the text. If you’re a steampunk, you’ll love it.

Ryder Windham, Chris Reiff (illustrator) and Chris Trevas (illustrator). Millennium Falcon: Haynes Owner’s Workshop Manual. (Haynes Owner’s Workshop Manual)
I found this to not be as satisfying as the Star Trek manuals. But that’s probably because Star Wars is more science fantasy than it is science fiction. The illustrations were awesome, and while it lacked in ‘science’, it more than made up for it in history and choice tidbits.

Poetry

Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Landscapes of Living and Dying.
A little bland. This is a later book, and there isn’t much thematic difference between this and his earlier poetry. While he gets an ‘A’ for consistency, there isn’t much reason to choose this over earlier, more dynamic collections.

Irving Layton. Droppings From Heaven.
A later book, and although it had a few good moments, it wasn’t for me. I had the feeling he was going over the same ground he had covered in previous books (at least, the ones I had read), and it didn’t hold my interest.

Irving Layton. The Pole-Vaulter.
My interest in Layton has cooled, and I didn’t get much out of this collection, other than it’s possible to write poetry with a lot of foul language. I’m not ready to right him off, as most of the work I’ve read is from his later period, and I think the gold may be from his earlier years.

Dorothy Parker. Death and Taxes.
Not as satisfying as Enough Rope, but just as acerbic. Both are very quick reads, available in omnibus editions, and recommended.

Kenneth Patchen. The Love Poems of Kenneth Patchen.
Not a particularly good collection. I like the Beats, but the quality is notoriously uneven. Given their penchant for very little editing and revision, this is a given you have to accept. However, I was hoping for more from a ‘cherry-picked’ collection of choice cuts.

Tomas Tranströmer. The Sorrow Gondola. (Green Integer)
Not very satisfying. I think you have to be in a certain frame of mind to appreciate this type of work. It was written shortly after Tranströmer had a stroke, and the themes of mortality, aging, and loss are apparent.

Politics

Noam Chomsky. Occupy. (Occupied Media Pamphlet Series)
A brilliant set of speeches, essays, and interviews on the Occupy movement, curent politics, and the methods of resistance. While Chomsky’s trademark avoidance of offering solutions continues, his lucid analysis and optimism feel right for this moment. I highly recommend the book.

Terry Eagleton. Why Marx Was Right.
Eagleton is slightly less acerbic in this book, but not necessarily at his most convincing. He’s very clear regarding his bias, but his love for the subject matter sometimes gets in the way. His argument would have carried more force if he delved deeper into the causes of Stalinism and other failed experiments in communism.

Oliver Stone (interviewer) and Tariq Ali. On History.
Stone interviewed Ali during and inbetween several of his documentary projects. I’m not sure I agree with either of them regarding their conclusions, but this is a great book regarding Latin American politics.

The Invisible Committee. The Coming Insurrection. (Semiotext(e) Intervention Series)
A bit hard in places, and there’s a lot of half-baked politics. It’s longer than it ought to be, but it raises a lot of good points. This is the primary ‘evidence’ against a group charged with terrorism in France, and it’s only till you get to the last few chapters that there is any talk of weapons or insurrection. This has been labelled as ‘ultra-left’, but the politics discussed are more clearly part of the anarchist tradition than socialist.

Howard Zinn. The Bomb. (City Lights Open Media Series)
A series of brief essays regarding Zinn’s involvement as a WWII airman, and his thoughts regarding nuclear weapons. Zinn is candid in the level of destruction he was responsible for, and it informs his later decisions regarding passive resistance and anti-nuclear stance. A quick read by an American legend.

Photography

Robert Adams. Along Some Rivers: Photographs and Conversations.
A collection of (very) short interviews with Adams, which didn’t feel very compelling. Adams is a tough nut to crack, as he is as well-known for his essays on photography as he is for his photography, and both seem to have divergent fan bases. He is a calm voice of reason in a sometimes very callous and ephemeral art and culture industry. This is a very brief introduction that includes a collection of his photographs.

Eugène Atget. Paris.
Atget spent almost the entire latter part of his life photographing Paris, and this is a representative cross-section of his prints. While it’s compelling architectural photography, it didn’t generate much feeling for me. For anyone interested in Paris at the beginning of the 20th century, this is a great book.

Jeremy Kai. Rivers Forgotten.
Kai charts the sewers and drainways of Toronto. A lot of what looks like HDR photography here, and well done. It’s a portrait of Toronto that most rarely see. Maybe not worth the price of admission, but I’d still recommend a trip to the local library for some quiet perusal.

Paolo Roversi. Paolo Roversi. (Thames & Hudson Photofile)

Philosophy

Jean Baudrillard. Passwords.
Actually a good book. A series of small essays, written shortly before his death, with no notion of being a summation. Instead, a selection of topics that have interested him throughout his career in ideas. A little expensive for the amount of material, but the writing is surprisingly clear, conversational, and full of ideas.

Simon Critchley. The Book of Dead Philosophers.
A great book that covers a lot of ground, geographically and temporally. Critchley looks at philosophy by studying their deaths, revealing that sometimes a person’s last act can tell us more about living than their lives. Often riotously funny, always humane, this is a highly recommended book.

Terry Eagleton. Figures of Dissent: Reviewing Fish, Spivak, Žižek and Others.
A collection of Eagleton’s book reviews. This was a little uneven, but it shows the things Eagleton pursues on a regular basis. Much of what you see here is recast in longer (and more compelling) form in his books over the last 10 years. While an introduction to his thought, you would be better served diving in to one of his longer works.

Paul Virilio and Bertrand Richard (interviewer). The Administration of Fear. (Semiotext(e) Intervention Series)
Not as turgid as I would have thought. Virilio is normally a horrible stylist, this book of short interviews clears some of the cobwebs. He ranges over many of the ideas he’s developed in other books, and I came away feeling this was an honest attempt to communicate to the general public.

Computers

Dan Cederholm. CSS3 for Web Designers.
The book largely focussed on practical applications of CSS3 that can be applied now, and as such, it didn’t cover a very broad range. What it did cover was well-written, and adds a few more tricks to a developer’s arsenal that are quick and relevant to daily tasks. While I was hoping for a bit more coverage, it’s still a good book. Maybe not worth the price of a print edition, but well worth the price of a digital edition.

Paul E. Ceruzzi. Computing: A Concise History.
The book’s title is very accurate, as the author ranges across over a hundred years of history, from The Difference Engine to Facebook. Although brief, the overview is very useful and mostly unbiased. A quick read that gives the basic high points of the history of computers.

Cory Doctorow. Context.
A series of reprinted posts from his blog. Doctorow fails to seize the opportunity to enlarge his original discussions by expanding them with the room afforded in a book. There are enough smaller gems to give this teeth, but they aren’t very sharp. I also tend to disagree on many of his conclusions regarding copyright.

Book Arts

Jacques Bonnet. Phantoms on the Bookshelf.
A short and wonderful about the pleasures (and addiction!) of building a personal library. The author ranges through centuries of history as he discusses the books on his shelves. While our tastes in authors share little overlap, we share his love of books and mania for collecting.

Gary Lovisi. Dames, Dolls & Delinquents.
A book on soft-core, romance, crime and generally lurid paperbacks from the 1950’s and 60’s. It’s surprising how many connections between sci-fi, fantasy, comic books, pulp and porn there actually are. There’s very little in this book that would be considered shocking today. Except the prices. The men and women who bought these in good condition back in the day and kept them that way are sitting on a small fortune. I, alas, can only afford this book.

Architecture

Doug Patt. How to Architect.
A very short book on architecture, with 26 chapters, each a letter of the alphabet (“A is for Asymmetry”, “J is for Juncture”, etc). Although not as good as Matthew Frederick’s 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School, it’s a respectable read, and everyone in the field of software or internet\mobile development owes themselves a favor by reading both. Recommended.

Ma Yansong and Jérôme Sans (interviewer). Bright City.
A quick read. Yansong is one of the few Chinese architects operating internationally, and some of his work is being completed in Mississauga. It doesn’t quite scratch far enough below the surface to warrant a second read, but some of his notions regarding traditional architecture are interesting enough.

Art

Marc Leverton. Banksy Myths and Legends.
A series of shaggy dog stories, statistics, and hearsay regarding Banksy. A lot of the information is suspect, but it’s a fun read, with a lot of supporting photographs. A pocket book of Banksy art and bollocks. Maybe not worth buying new, but great fun, nonetheless.

Mark Munson and Steve Cardwell. Skateboard Stickers.
I love patches, and stickers are a close cousin. While I’ve never been able to learn how to skate in any form (ice, roller, blade, board), I’ve always loved skateboards, BMX’s, and the 80’s counter-culture, DIY ethos they generated. This is a great collection of trivia, history, and plenty of stickers. Great book.

Business

Paul Krugman, David Rosenberg, Lawrence Summers, Ian Bremmer, Rudyard Griffiths (editor) and Patrick Luciani (editor). North America’s Lost Decade?. (Munk Debates)
A slim book that has some meat. The topic of the debate was whether North America was facing a decade or more of stagnation, similar to Japan’s experience since the early 90’s. Although the Summers/Bremmer team managed to convince the audience that it wasn’t, I felt that Krugman/Rosenberg had the better arguments. Neither side was willing to directly address whether the digital economy changes the economic game. And neither was willing to discuss the topic of military and weapons spending. I don’t think these are minor quibbles, as continued military spending and market deregulation in support of new industries form the backbone of conservative fiscal policy. Nonetheless, it was interesting to hear the arguments.

John Quiggin. Zombie Economics.
This is a great book that ties together all the ideas that have dominated economics and government policy for the last four decades, and then summarily demolishes most of them. Although Quiggin uses a lot of jargon, which causes the book to slow down in many places, he strikes a good balance between writing for a technical and general audience. I think the biggest fail point is the almost non-existant discussion of post-industrial economics, and whether it has any effect on traditional Keynesian economics (I think it does). Other than that, it`s a fascinating read. Highly recommended.

Essays

Sven Birkerts. The Other Walk.
A series of quiet essays. Meditations on life, writing, and aging. Birkerts takes the pains and pleasures of small moments and crystallizes them with a simple, direct style that keeps you interested. A good book for lazy days.

Interview

Simon Critchley. Impossible Objects.
A collection of interviews (some previously unpublished) that span Critchley’s career, this is a good introduction to his thought. The selection could have included a few longer interviews, as many end just as the conversation becomes interesting. This book covers a lot of modern philosophy in an accessible style, and is recommended.

Travel

Paul Gauguin. Noa Noa.
Gauguin spent the last years of his life in Tahiti, and this is one of his travelogues. Full of local colour and, unfortunately, the prejudices of the age of empire, it is a great book and a quick read.

Literary Criticism

C. S. Lewis. An Experiment in Criticism.
A good book, if a little half-baked. His argument that there are good readers and bad readers, and that a good reader can pull more meaning out of a bad book than a bad reader can from a good one is interesting. I’m not sure I agree, but his defense of genre and pulp fiction is better argued than many others.

Memoir

Geoff Nicholson. The Lost Art of Walking.
I wasn’t sure whether to place this in memoir, essays, or sports. This is a collection of inter-linked meditations on walking for pleasure, competition, sport, and sometimes even art. The author ranges over a lot of territory, but ultimately doesn’t scratch very far below the surface, opting for reportage rather than conclusions or synthesis.

Military

Trevor Paglen. I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have to Be Destroyed by Me.
A book of patches that have been unofficially leaked from classified US military projects. The author is the first to note that almost all the information in the book could be false, but the book is still compelling. For patch buffs, owning even a few of these would be awesome.

Science

C. P. Snow. The Two Cultures: and a Second Look.
This book is legendary in regards to it’s subject matter, but it left me cold and feeling antagonistic towards the author. He had some good points to make, but his endlessly optimistic tone and assertion that all science and all technology are inherently good and contain nothing but the truth has been called heavily into question in the decades since this book has been written. To be fair, Snow didn’t live to see the last few decades. But I can’t but feel his attitude would remain the same. If you are interested in how technology and science effect culture, this book is a must-read, even if you disagree with it.

Writing

Mindi White. Getting Past Me: A Writer’s Guide to Production Company Readers.
I would love to say I have a screenplay in me, but, frankly, I don’t. I thought this would be a little more informative, but it’s actually a collection of personal preferences and irritations from someone who feels bitter and defensive. This may be the only book to exclusively cover the subject, but there are better books on writing screenplays, and this has almost nothing of value. Not recommended.

Subjects

Subject 2009 2010 2011 2012 Total
Fantasy 6 17 9 33 65
Photography 13 29 6 4 52
Science Fiction 9 0 15 25 49
Poetry 14 10 7 6 37
Politics 17 2 6 5 30
Philosophy 11 9 4 4 28
Fiction 4 10 3 0 17
Book Arts 7 2 5 2 16
Essays 1 6 7 1 15
Literary Criticism 8 1 4 1 14
Business 5 3 4 2 14
Interview 7 2 3 1 13
Computers 1 3 4 3 11
Religion 4 3 1 0 8
Biography 3 2 2 0 7
Art 3 0 2 2 7
Sociology 0 4 1 0 5
Comics 0 0 4 0 4
Cooking 3 1 0 0 4
Quotations 1 1 2 0 4
Travel 3 0 0 1 4
Memoir 3 0 0 1 4
Psychology 2 1 0 0 3
Architecture 0 0 1 2 3
Design 0 1 1 0 2
Film 1 1 0 0 2
Sports 0 1 1 0 2
Science 1 0 0 1 2
Childrens 1 0 0 0 1
Drama 0 1 0 0 1
History 1 0 0 0 1
Humor 0 1 0 0 1
Music 1 0 0 0 1
Mystery 0 0 1 0 1
Military 0 0 0 1 1
Writing 0 0 0 1 1
Unsorted 1 6 0 0 7
Totals 117 131 93 96 437

Series and imprints

Series or imprint 2009 2010 2011 2012 Total
A Very Short Introduction 1 10 3 0 14
Thames & Hudson Photofile 9 4 0 1 14
Peter Pauper Press 9 4 0 0 13
The Dresden Files 4 1 1 4 10
Massey Lectures 2 3 2 0 7
Vlad Taltos 1 4 0 0 5
Foundation Novels 0 5 0 0 5
Witch World 0 0 5 0 5
Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series 2 1 1 0 4
John Carter of Mars 0 0 0 4 4
Baen Robert E. Howard Library 0 0 0 4 4
The Adventures of Han Solo 0 1 2 0 3
Penguin Great Ideas 0 1 2 0 3
Mercy Thompson 1 0 1 1 3
Semiotext(e) Intervention Series 0 0 1 2 3
To the Stars 0 0 0 3 3
Solomon Kane 0 0 0 3 3
Penguin Classics 2 0 0 0 2

Authors

Author 2009 2010 2011 2012 Total
Robert E. Howard 0 0 0 19 19
Lord Dunsany 13 0 0 0 13
Terry Eagleton 2 5 1 2 10
Jim Butcher 4 1 1 4 10
Anonymous 2 4 1 0 7
Andre Norton 0 1 6 0 7
A. E. van Vogt 0 0 6 0 6
Isaac Asimov 0 5 0 0 5
Steven Brust 1 4 0 0 5
Edgar Rice Burroughs 0 0 0 5 5
Clifford D. Simak 0 1 2 2 5
John Berger 2 2 0 0 4
Robert Adams 1 1 1 1 4
Patricia Briggs 2 0 1 1 4
Irving Layton 0 0 2 2 4
Simon Critchley 0 2 0 2 4
Leigh Brackett 0 0 0 4 4
Robert Bringhurst 2 0 1 0 3
Brian Daley 0 1 2 0 3
Gardner F. Fox 0 0 0 3 3
J. K. Galbraith 0 0 3 0 3
Harry Harrison 0 0 0 3 3
Scott Kelby 3 0 0 0 3
André Kertész 0 3 0 0 3
Jean Baudrillard 0 2 0 1 3
Henry Kuttner 0 0 0 3 3
Howard Zinn 0 2 0 1 3

I’d Tap That

January 18, 2013

This goes back almost 20 years. In my mid-twenties, I became obsessed with Magic the Gathering. Seriously obsessed. Unfortunately, I never became any good at it. Thankfully, it only lasted a few years. And a few thousand dollars. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

For those that played MtG, or still do, you don’t need any introduction to the game. For those that don’t, it’s a collectible card game (or CCG). Let’s go through CCG’s first.

A CCG is basically a card game that isn’t played with a standard 52-card deck. Instead, it’s played with custom cards and rules. CCG’s are collectible because the cards are sold randomly, meaning you have no idea what’s inside the package. Typically, there are ‘starter decks’ and ‘booster packs’; starter decks contain a bare minimum of the necessary cards to play the game, while booster packs contain somewhere between 10-15 cards. Starters and boosters contain rares, uncommons, and commons, in a random mix. These are what they sound like: a ‘rare’ card isn’t printed as often as an uncommon, and is therefore harder to get (usually, only one random rare is included in either a starter or booster). CCG’s that become popular are divided into sets, which usually contain several hundred individual cards, at varying degrees of rarity. For instance, Ice Age was a set of MtG, containing around 383 cards (121 rare, 121 uncommon, and 141 common cards). You can see from the spread that, even if you could guarantee you would get a different rare in each booster pack, you would still have to buy 121 of them to collect them all. One last note on sets: they don’t get reprinted, and are usually on the market only a few months before being replaced by another.

CCG’s almost immediately generated tournament play, with lots of additional rules designed to level the playing field between players who had just started, and players who jumped on the bandwagon at the beginning and had more cards. It reached a point where players could compete (and earn a living!) simply by playing CCG’s. One of the more popular (and lucrative for stores) types of tournaments is the ‘booster draft’, where everyone buys 1 unopened starter and several booster packs and plays with whatever fortune has gifted them with. The players like it because drafts of this sort are played for ‘ante’, meaning each player sets a card aside each game…the winner keeps both cards.

MtG was the first CCG, and still remains one of the most popular. Richard Garfield sold MtG to Wizards of the Coast (WotC) around 1993, and they have made a lot of money off the game, which has generated well over 80 distinct sets, and over 18,000 unique cards (I’m an avid collector of many things, but that is too much to handle, even for me).

It’s hard to explain MtG in a paragraph, but it’s a game of resource management. Typically, it’s a two-player game, with each player assuming the role of a ‘planeswalker’, a wizard who can use mana points to summon creatures for attack and defense, cast spells, and create permanent enchantments and artifacts that alter the game. Mana points are generated by a special type of card called lands. You can win a few ways: reduce your opponent to zero life (each player starts with 20), run them out of cards (you have to be able to draw cards from your deck into your hand each turn), or play a few special cards that introduce a win condition (for instance, if your opponent doesn’t meet a condition within x turns, you win the game).

Now, MtG isn’t the only CCG on the market. At the time I stopped playing (around 1997), there was probably over 100 CCG’s on the market, and I don’t doubt that number has quintupled since. While most focus on fantasy, sci-fi, or horror, there have been many genres and many licensed properties (both Star Trek and Star Wars had CCG’s at the time I was playing).

How do you assign value?

The value of cards in CCG’s is a bit of a sliding scale, but it’s basically a function of a couple variables: how many are in circulation versus how powerful the card is within the game. For instance, while I was playing MtG, the card ‘Counterspell’ was a powerful card, but it’s a common, meaning there was a lot in the game. So, it was only worth a buck or two on the secondary market. On the other hand, ‘Badlands’ was a rare and a very powerful card, and it was worth a lot more…around $50. Both of these cards were in the same set. Because cards that are found to dramatically unbalance the game are rarely reprinted, they end up being worth more. In MtG, the most valuable card is from one of the earliest sets, ‘Black Lotus’, which still can fetch hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.

How restricted the card is within tournament play is also a factor. In MtG, certain cards are restricted…you can only have one per deck. In addition, older sets are cycled out of certain types of tournament play to level the playing field for newer players. This effects demand which effects value.

Now, is there any real value? Well…no. Most dealers get the cards at a steep discount, and can afford to open a crate of each set and sort it into singles for resale at collector’s prices. They don’t need to buy back cards until they’re out of print, and even then, if the game is popular, there will be more cards on the market then there are buyers. So, the street prices for most cards are inflated and bogus. You will rarely get more than 30% of the street value of the card, and only for rares…uncommons and commons are practically worthless.

How I almost lost my shirt over pieces of brightly-painted cardboard

It’s an insanely expensive hobby, and I still have trouble understanding how people can afford it and still put food on the table. Of course, in Toronto alone there’s probably several dozen tournaments of various CCG’s held weekly, and most tournies have prizes for the winner. If you’re consistently good, and have the means to travel to local hobby, comic and gaming shops in and around your city, you probably have a shot at getting most of the expensive cards without paying the street price or picking up hundreds of booster packs. You can also just get lucky.

I was never good or lucky. But I did have a credit card and a total lack of understanding of how to budget money. All the game companies really had to do was come up with a cool fantasy game that forced me to collect cards to play and, well, a few thousand bucks and a few years later, I was broke with a shoebox full of mostly worthless cards.

I did have fun, if that counts. I did participate in a few tournies, one constructed and one booster draft (I lost both in the first round). I played mostly with a few friends, who regularly trounced me without paying a fraction of what I did in cards. I should have caught on sooner.

I even created a few cards. A friend (who now lives in Singapore) was having a birthday, and he was (probably still is) a fan of Roger Zelazny’s Amber series. I took several characters from the series and made cards for them by rubber-cementing new text and artwork onto old cards, and then colour-xeroxing and gluing playable cards together. I still have the originals.

Aside from the obscene amount of money I spent before realizing I would never be even a minor tournie champ, I have some other regrets. I never collected an entire set, even though I had cards from close to 10 of them. I also never was able to assemble a ‘land deck’, a deck comprised almost entirely of land cards, but was still playable. At the time, this was an almost absurd goal, but kicking around a bit, I’ve just found a tournie winning deck that’s almost all land.

Eventually, the game just bled me dry. I ended up giving away all my cards to another friend, the one I had played the game with the most. I wonder if he still has all the cards? With both our sets, he could probably have traded the works to a store for $100…maybe a bit more. Compared to what we spent, this is peanuts, but he has a mortgage, and every bit counts.

The game that inspired ‘Gamification’

MtG was the game that really cemented gameplay and collectibility into one phenomenom. Web sites like foursquare owe their existence to it. There are now mobile apps that are based on the CCG concept, where you buy boosters and individual cards from the company, and play competitively against other players. They’ve tried several times now to port MtG into a computer game, but have never really been able to capture the rules accurately (like traditional pen-and-paper role-playing games, many of the rules are fuzzy and have to be interpreted by judges at tournies). Apparently, though, Wizards now hosts an online version of the game.

Scratching the itch

Every few years, I really get the urge to play Magic again. I just can’t afford it, either the cost of buying enough cards for a competition deck, or the time to relearn all the rules and subtle twists on them. I also don’t want to be the whipping post for the pros at tournies.

But…when the urge really hits bad, I will buy the occasional starter, just to look at the rules, the new cards, and have a little bit of fun for myself. Every 4-5 years. Hey, after spending thousands, what’s $15-20 every 5 years? You can always toss the cards into Value Village, where they will be found by other collectors.

I recently felt that itch, and was in for a bit of luck. The antique/thrift/flea market that’s open every Sunday beside St. Lawrence Market had a dealer selling a stack of MtG cards for $2. These are all cards from 15 years ago, when I was playing. For $2, how can you go wrong?

When I opened it up, all I could think was, “finally…a person with worse deck-building skill than I ever had”. There were only a few cards worth more than $10 (Mana Vault: $10 and Helm of Obedience: $25). I doubt I could trade them in for even $5…which would still be a profit, come to think of it.

Game-bashing

‘Kit-bashing’ is a term used by hobbyists to refer to taking a bunch of model kit parts and creating something new. It’s how most of the props on science-fiction films actually get made (the Millenium Falcom was built off a custom frame that had dozens of parts from model cars, ships and planes glued onto it).

It would be nice to see a CCG that could be kit-bashed. You would buy a set of blank cards and a rulebook for what you could add to each card. Let your imagination be your guide. Each time you encountered another player, it would be different. Tournaments would be awesome. Sort of like Second Life meets Dungeons and Dragons.

A good bit of game-bashing is Cards Against Humanity, which is a very basic, very silly, and incredibly vulgar game. It’s also CC-licensed, allows you to make your own cards, and extend the rules.

Another interesting take is wtactics, which doesn’t yet seem to have anything downloadable.

Amber meets MtG

For the record, here’s the stats for the 4 MtG creature cards I created for my friend:

  • Corwin

    Type: Summon Amberite

    Cost: {3} {W} {R}

    Power/Toughness: 2/2

    Game Text:

    {B}: +1/+0 until end of turn

    {W}: +0/+1 until end of turn
  • Benedict

    Type: Summon Amberite

    Cost: {3} {U} {G} {R}

    Power/Toughness: 1/4

    Game Text:

    Benedict cannot be the target of any spell. All creatures blocking or blocked by Benedict are destroyed and cannot regenerate at end of combat.
  • Merlin

    Type: Summon Amberite

    Cost: {3} {W} {R}

    Power/Toughness: 2/2

    Game Text:

    {2} {B} {W} {T}: Destroy any target card in play except any Summon Amberite card.

    {T}: deal 1 damage to target demon.
  • Random

    Type: Summon Amberite

    Cost: {3} {R} {G}

    Power/Toughness: 2/3

    Game Text:

    During your upkeep, put a chaos counter on Random.

    {0}: Remove {X} Chaos counters to deal {X} damage any way you choose between any number of target creatures or players.
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