Archive for October, 2008

I was going to spend the evening drawing…

October 29th, 2008 by Reinder

... but Terry Pratchett's Nation happened to me. Damn you, Terry Pratchett! Damn you to hell!

Seriously, after the disappointment that was Making Money and the news of his being diagnosed with Alzheimer's, it's a big relief to see that he still has a book this good in him. The book does go off the rails a bit towards the end, with the "Island-of-Science" dénouement never quite gelling. Naturally, all the old Pratchett themes are there in spades: the Plato's Cave references, the never-resolved ponderings on religion and atheism, the naive protagonists in a culture clash, and so on. It's a good execution of the formula, benefitting from not being Yet Another Discworld Novel, but it's formulaic nonetheless.

While we’re on the subject of Flixotide…

October 27th, 2008 by Reinder

While looking for places to link to for my post on weaning myself off Flixotide/Flovent, I came across a patients' forum in which many people posted a number of behaviour-altering/psychoactive side effects for the drug, which I hadn't come across in any of the official documentation for it. Reported side effects, mostly in young children but also in adults, include irritability, trouble concentrating, sleep problems and anxiety - all of them problems I've suffered from myself.

Now, I've followed the thimoserol scare over the years - the anti-vaccination hysteria caused by claims that an ingredient in common childhood vaccines caused or contributed to autism. The scientific evidence for that is non-existent and the movement that spawned from the hysteria is an anti-scientific mob that I really don't have anything good to say about. This could be like that. It could be a case of people, especially parents of young children, wanting to blame something for behavioral/mental problems that would have occurred anyway, with the groupthink that inevitably shows up on those sites making a tenuous link seem much stronger than it really is. On the other hand, I could also see how a drug that mimics the action of a hormone secreted by the adrenal gland could influence a person's emotional balance, so this particular link doesn't seem implausible on the face of it. I wonder if there've been any serious clinical studies done into psychological, emotional and behavioral side effects of inhaled corticosteroids. Does anyone reading this know?

Wall Street Wives…

October 27th, 2008 by Reinder

Treaclelilly at Livejournal linked to this article: Wall Street Wives had the richer, now they're a bit poorer in the LA Times online, refering to the wives in question as her choice for "asshats of the day". I'll admit it's very hard to feel sorry for people who earned ten times as much as Treaclelilly or I do, managed it so recklessly that they end up with nothing or so close that they can't get by anymore, talk like they feel entitled to having what they used to have and still haven't learned to control their spending. But psychologically, there's more going on than that. The people in this story worked hard and dreamed big, and now their plans are in ruins. For all their flaws, I can feel sorry for them because of that.
It also strikes me that at least one of the couples in the story, the Monds, have more going on than is mentioned in the story itself. They had tried to get out of the Wall Street life in 2001 and found that they couldn't. And they saw the problems coming two years ago, had started cutting down, and still got swept up in the downswing. Whatever motivates them to want so much is more complex than simple greed - they seem addicted to the Wall Street way of life, to their dreams, or perhaps motivated by a fear of poverty. Looking at them that way, they don't look so unsympathetic.

Weaning myself off flixotide

October 27th, 2008 by Reinder

For the past 10 years or so, I have used the synthetic corticosteroid Flixotide (sold in the US as Flovent) for long-term asthma control. It does a pretty good job at preventing asthma symptoms, but I've been wary for some time about depending on any particular drug for too long.

Last summer, while staying in Tennessee with Aggie, I cut my dosage in half, from two inhalations of 100 micrograms a day to one. I had a slight wheeze for a day or two, then functioned normally again. Last week, again while staying in Tennessee with Aggie, I cut it in half again, to an inhalation every two days. The same thing happened: minor wheeze for a short time, then normal functioning. Aggie has a dog and a cat in the house and I've been diagnosed as being allergic to both - she did vacuum the house before I came though. Whether it's the Tennessee air that's doing it, the changes in my lifestyle since 2006 or the beneficial effect of all the love and attention from Aggie while I'm over there, I don't know, but I don't seem to need it as much as I used to. Of course, now that I'm home in the Dutch climate and feeling stressful from separation and the need to go back to work, I'm not doing all that well. It could be a combination of factors.

In any case, I should talk to my doctor about switching to a lower (but preferably twice-daily) dose formally, or even switching to milder meds.

The state of the comic

October 26th, 2008 by Reinder

Preview of a page from Invasion

Preview of a page from Invasion

The two pages from Invasion above (not shown on some feeds) are all I have to show for myself in terms of new comics work over the past few weeks. My motivation to do comics has been down a bit, in favour of individual illustrations and living my life, but at least with these pages that are already scripted all the way to the end, it's easier to snatch some time here and there to execute what's already planned. I don't know if there'll be any more ROCR after Invasion and Feral are both finished.

There were some plans for Aggie and me to work on the next episode of Feral together while I was with her last week, but we didn't get around to working on our art much at all. The week just flew by. It would have been convenient, because the page in question as it floats around in my head involves horses, which I'm kind of wary of drawing. But it'll be a while before we get around to it now. I think I'll just wrap up Invasion first. It'll all be in the right order in the archives anyway.

John Brunner – The Shockwave Rider

October 26th, 2008 by Reinder

The Shockwave Rider has been listed among Brunner's great novels along with Stand on Zanzibar, The Jagged Orbit, and The Sheep Look Up, and it has been written up as a novel that anticipated the emergence of the internet and coined the term worm for a self-replicating, malicious computer program. Wikipedia article on The Shockwave Rider. So is it?

Not quite. On reading it, I found it weaker than the other three "great" Brunner novels. It's simpler and more linear and while it had some of the kaleidoscopic trappings of the other novels, it didn't quite take them as far as the other three did. It also felt very much like a repeat exercise. Stylistically, it didn't gel for me either, though on the plus side, it did have an engaging female character in Kate Lilleberg.

As for it anticipating the internet, it was a bit late for that, having been published in 1975 when DARPANET had been around for a few years. The use of the term "worm" does seem to be original though what Brunner speaks of is "tapeworms" and his description of them suggests that he conceptualizes them as being essentially worm-like in structure as well as behaviour. In other words, the lead character's descriptions of his worms suggests that they are segmented creatures and that this is part of the reason why they are called that.

Of course, those are mere technological details. What makes Brunner's most ambitious work interesting is his broad-brush depiction of entire social systems. In The Shockwave Rider, what Brunner puts under the microscope is the influence of extensive data registration and manipulation on society as a whole and the well-being of its individuals, and what happens when corporations and governments try to control and suppress their data while still having access to that of individual consumers and citizens. And in its handling of these concepts, The Shockwave Rider does not disappoint. Some choice quotes:

At Tarnover they explained it all so reasonably! Of course everybody had to e given a personal code! How else could the government do right by its citizens, keep track of the desires, tastes, preferences, purchases, commitments and above all location of a continentful of mobile, free individuals?
Granted, there was an alternative approach. But would you want to see it adopted here? Would you like to find your range of choice restricted to the point where the population became predictable in its collective behavior?

Chilling, huh? And (in character):

The behaviorists reduced the principle of the carrot and the stick to the same kind of 'scientific' basis as the Nazis used for their so-called racial science. It's not surprising they became the darlings of the establishment. Governments rely on threat and trauma to survive. The easiest populace to rule is weak, poor, superstitious, preferably terrified of what tomorrow may bring, and constantly being reminded that the man in the street must step into the gutter when his superiors deign to pass him by. Behaviorist techniques offered a meanst to maintain this situation despite the unprecedented wealth, literacy and ostensible liberty of twenty-first-century North America.

Unlike The Sheep Look Up, The Shockwave Rider ends more or less happily, with the "good guys" dealing some serious blows to the (as always mostly anonymous) powers-that-be. It's well worth reading if you've already read the other classic Brunner novels and are hungry for more.

Edited to add: one impressive feat of technical prescience that hasn't been mentioned as much in criticism of The Shockwave Rider is that the novel anticipated the rise of the mobile phone: ubiquitous phones tied to a person rather than a place, which are used, among other things, as data devices.

A Wonko the Sane moment, on a pack of whipped cream

October 24th, 2008 by Reinder

Ingredients label found on a pack of heavy whipping cream bought in middle Tennessee:

Ingredients: Heavy cream, carrageenan, mono and diglycerides and polysorbate 80.
Contains: Milk

Isn't that just the sort of thing to make you wanna live in an inside-out house named "Outside the asylum"?

The Sheep Look Up, by John Brunner

October 22nd, 2008 by Reinder

I've had John Brunner's The Sheep Look Up by my bedside for months, but hadn't had the energy to finish it. Actually, I have several books that have been partially read over the past few months, and during my latest plane trip too Tennessee I finally got around to finishing some of them. The Sheep Look Up, one of Brunner's sprawling dystopian novels from the late 1960s, early 1970s, has a huge underground reputation as a classic tale of ecological catastrophe, and it lives up to it almost completely. Like his better known Stand on Zanzibar, it has a huge cast and a caleidoscopic structure in which future press cuttings, parodies of old poetry, anecdotes, TV commercial and some present-day information get mixed up with the interlocking storylines. Unlike SoZ, though, it is almost unrelentingly grim, with every member of the huge cast falling sick, and dying either from that or through violence. As usual with the Brunner dystopias, there are some moments of uncanny prescience, such as the portrayal-through-soundbites of a buffoonish US president who goes by the name of Prexy and serves no purpose at all but to distract the population through one-liners, a credit crisis, creeping socialism introduced by a conservative government for the benefit of its patrons, "organic" food that isn't, climate change resulting from the wasteful lifestyles of the developed populace and much more. One particularly chilling aspect is the set-up in which there is one smart, well-informed activist character who offers insight into the problems and even some solutions, who is already marginalised at the start of the novel. As he disappears from public life, extremists take up his mantle and resort to terrorism, which serves to taint that character, Austin Train, even further. Meanwhile, throughout the novel, a thoughtful, reasonable, not-at-all-activist thinker is patiently working with computer models to come to a thoughtful, reasonable solution. A silver bullet that will solve everything without having to listen to the Luddites. What this thoughtful, reasonable person comes up with at the end, as the problems have multiplied and the United States are collapsing into fascism and anarchy simultaneously? "Eliminate the most wasteful 200 million people from the population".

The Sheep Looks Up is not quite as good as Stand on Zanzibar - the characterisation, particularly of female characters, doesn't always work, the technological forecasts are dated (Brunner famously anticipated the Internet, but that was in another novel - here, he has completely missed out on the increase in computing power that would happen in the real world, and while a seasoned science fiction reader can ignore that most of the time, it still detracts from the verisimilitude of the rest of the novel) and there are some dull bits towards the end. But it is very, very good and speaks to many concerns that I for one have today.

(Personal note 1: I am writing this from sunny Tennessee where I'm staying with Aggie. No work is getting done, and blog posting will be light for a while. Also, I can't be bothered right now to polish up this review like I would if I was posting from home.)

(Personal note 2: I will be reading that other novel, The Shockwave Rider on my trip home. I do need a writer of Brunner's caliber to distract me from the fact that I won't be seeing my girlfriend for two months after that).

Whoo! 4 mile run results

October 12th, 2008 by Reinder

Despite having grown 13 years older since last year's 4 Mijl van Groningen, according to my classification (fill in the number 6104), I have shaved a minute and a half off my previous record by net time, finishing in 28:52.4 this year. Or have I? This time around, the explanation of what gross vs. net finishing times mean is incomprehensible and self-contradictory, but considering that I passed the starting line something like half a minute after the signal, I think I should use the net. If not, I still ran 29:37.7, which is almost a minute off last year's result. And I beat my boss this year, even though he improved his personal record too.

As usual at the 4 Mijl van Groningen, I had all sorts of agues and pains at the start, needed to go to the bathroom when the signal was given, didn't feel my right shoe was tight enough after the first 500 meters, had to duck and weave past other runners, bumping into at least one (sorry!) and got another runner's hand in my face at about 5 km. But I still felt great once I was done with it. The weather was once again great and seeing all those other people run was very motivational. There's nothing like passing runners with a much lower start number than you, who started several minutes before you.

I did catch a glimpse of winner Eliud Kipchoge (start number 1), who was apparently born in 1900 according to the event's database, shoeing up with two other very skinny African guys. Kipchoge, who also won last year, is impressive to watch, making me look obese in comparison. He finished in 17:30, not improving his personal record - I don't think I'll ever bridge that gap though.

Hyperinflation II – The hoarder

October 11th, 2008 by Reinder

Top hat, spats, blunderbuss, but no pince-nez
Second in the Hyperinflation sequence, and a sequel to Hyperinflation .
I've been a fan of the Uncle Scrooge comics since I was a child... so this drawing was a lot of fun to do. The top hat, spats and blunderbuss have, to me, at least, iconic qualities.

To a lot of people, holding on to what they've got will become a very high priority, and yes, some will take it this far.

I really enjoy drawing with pencils now... and these larger images are more satisfying to do than the little boxes in which a comic takes place. Some progress is being made on the comics, but it's very very slow because I'm more motivated to do these.