Saturday, 10 o’clock at night, end of October. 18°C outside.

Spotted on the way to Costcutters:

  • one Superwoman,
  • one Zorro, accompanied by…
  • one anarchist, with scruffy gray coat and bandoliers, and
  • one witch, with black pointy hat and broomstick and all, and finally
  • one oil sheikh.

No, scratch that last one, that was just our Pakistani neighbour…

Finally!

I’ve made four (4) attempts to order the Visual Studio 2005 Beta DVDs, starting in January I think. Three times I got nothing. This fourth time I had more or less given up hope, and wasn’t expecting much, but since it didn’t cost me anything I clicked again. And it worked!

I wonder if MS just has really appallingly bad shipping systems, or if some Royal Mail employees steal everything that is labelled Microsoft. Both seem quite possible. Royal Mail hasn’t exactly excelled in the past. (Once they left me a note that I had a package to collect, and when I turned up at the post office with the notice slip in hand, they couldn’t locate the package…)

I’ve had the VB Express beta installed for a while now, and enjoyed playing with it, but haven’t touched C# or ILDASM or any of the other tools. Lots of fun ahead now!

This past Thursday, Eric came back from a trip to Sweden, and brought with him a pile of books from the stash that we left behind in storage when we moved to London. Most of the pile was made up by 9 books by Mercedes Lackey. Lackey writes fantasy, of the traditional sword-and-sorcery sort. To be correct, she does write some other stuff too, but none of the other books look particularly interesting and haven’t read any of them, while I do own all her s&s books.

She is my favourite writer, but in a peculiar way. Her books aren’t literary masterpieces, by any measure. I couldn’t even say about any of her books that this is the best I’ve read in a long time. But they have something that makes me read them over and over again – I just re-read one of her trilogies over the past 5 days. I have never thought much about why I like them, so I’d like to do it now. Writing about them looks like a great way of doing this.

The first fantasy book I read was Lord of the Rings – that’s “traditional” fantasy, stories about worlds different from ours, not counting children’s books where the boundaries between reality and fantasy can often be fuzzy. I would have been around 13 at the time, I guess – it was definitely before I moved to Sweden, but I guess my mother must have bought it for me when she was in Sweden. I can’t imagine that I could have bought it in an Estonian book shop at that time.

After moving to Uppsala (that’s in Sweden by the way) I discovered some fantasy and SF books in the library (quickly consumed) and then whole sections devoted to fantasy in the bookshops. Mercedes Lackey was one of the first fantasy writers I found. I am often attracted to books by their covers, and the trilogy of Magic’s Pawn, Magic’s Promise, Magic’s Price stood out with their mostly-black spines, and covers that didn’t show dragons or half-naked women wielding huge swords. I started browsing one of the books and couldn’t put it down – in fact one of the shop attendants came to scold me and asked me to either buy the book or leave it be. So I bought it, of course.

The trilogy turned out to be only one of many that all take place in the same world, and it’s her books about this world that I love. As with all fantasy worlds, it’s a world that appears simpler and wilder than ours – and somehow cleaner and better as well. And as with all good fantasy worlds, this one is coherent and makes sense: its magic is almost a science, it has its history and nations and geography, etc etc. Nowhere near as well-developed as Tolkien’s Middle Earth (then again, most people don’t spend decades dreaming up a single world) but definitely enough to feel solid, not like the flimsy fabrics of some books. This is one component of what I like
in these books.

The stories themselves are about one or a few people. They’re written in 3rd person, but we also hear the thoughts and feelings of whoever we’re currently following. (In fact, while writing this just now, I’ve learned with the help of Google that this technique is called “rotational limited” or “episodically limited third-person omniscient” point of view.)

The characters are a second important ingredient in the books. The main ones are always “fallible but likable”, and while they all stand out in their world in some way, and achieve something, they remain very human. They are not heros who are destined for greatness and never showing any weaknesses worse than being grumpy in the mornings. Most of them are young, at least initially – sometimes the trilogy starts following them in their teens and ends decades later. In several trilogies the protagonists are either orphaned or estranged from their parents, and they’re often outsiders who are misunderstood or shunned by people around them, until they find a community that values them more.

(Now why would a book like that appeal to a teenager who’s just moved to another country, where she doesn’t know the language, doesn’t feel like she fits in, and has to leave behind the parent she feels closer to?)

The stories themselves are mostly adventure, often with some romance mixed in. Some have grander action, wars and dangerous travels, others are more concerned with the characters’ daily life, but they’re all relatively simple and straightforward. Importantly, there are no god-given quests to retrieve magical artefacts that will save the world!

But the details of the stories aren’t really that important. It’s more the feelings they convey. Some books are built on ideas – these are bearers of feelings. They make for very emotional reading – there is excitement, discovery and danger; great friendships and strong bonds; love and loss; doubt and hope. They’re absorbing and intense, and I find it very easy to feel with the characters. It’s difficult to describe… I’ve seen reviews that describe the books as “whiny tripe” but her style works for me.

I like reading my Mercedes Lackey books in particular when I’m tired and need rest. I know the stories, and even if I read carelessly and miss some details, it doesn’t matter. The “stuff” that the books are made of gets through anyway. They are comforting in their familiarity, and yet they don’t grow stale – her storytelling keeps working. A bit like an old soft blanket – it works because you know it so well, not despite it.

PS: I couldn’t find any good links or reviews about these books, so just go to your favourite bookshop. The official and semi-official sites mostly just had acres and acres of bibliography – she is one prolific writer!

All of a sudden, it’s autumn.

The past week was this year’s first week of autumn. Late summer lasted long, and the week before had 17-degree weather still. But now it’s turned cold – I’ve needed gloves when cycling both to and from work. And we’ve had several days of steady rains, and strong gusty autumn winds.

We can’t really see the seasons from our apartment. Weather, yes, but not the larger longer-term changes. The few trees visible from our window are all evergreens, and never change.

The light changes, of course, and we get less of it. It’s barely light when I get up. In fact the time I get up has slowly been slipping together with the sun, so that I’ve gotten up just as it’s almost light. As the sun rises later and later, so do I. Just a few minutes every day, but it adds up… even after cutting my morning activities shorter, it’s now close to the point where I’m getting to the office too late.

Well, one more week and we turn back the clocks, so the inevitable struggle of getting up in the dark gets postponed for another while.

St Pauls dome at night
St. Paul’s, Saturday evening

Daytime, the City of London is ordinary. Ordinary streets, sober office buildings in pale grey stone or shiny glass. Add people in the streets, a few trees here and there, flowerbeds, and the brown waters of the Thames, and it’s a decent enough place to be – but it isn’t very exciting, really.

As it gets dark, the balance changes. Ordinariness is replaced by spots of stark beauty against a dim background, and the City becomes quiet and beautiful. The City is very calm in the evening. The noise and life that would fill a high street at night – bars, neon lights, KFC and McD – is conspicuously absent, and the little that’s there is concentrated to a few spots.

At night, all the flat grey buildings shift into the background, and others step forward. Church steeples are lit up by white lights. St. Paul’s, which is just a large grey cathedral during the day (as much as any cathedral can be “just a cathedral”), glows against the night sky, majestic and huge. Three of its sides have undergone a thorough cleaning over the past couple of years (the fourth side is still wrapped in scaffolding and white plastic) which has made it look even more beautiful.

Tower 42 - (C) freefoto.com Lloyds - (C) freefoto.com Gherkin - (C) freefoto.com
Tower 42 Lloyds The Gherkin
These 3 images (C) Freefoto.com

The top of Tower 42 (NatWest Tower) is bright blue and green; Lloyd’s steely sides are electric blue; the Gherkin (or the Swiss RE building) is topped with red sparks.

A few years ago, when the Gherkin was finished but still unoccupied, all of it was lit at night: every other floor was electric blue, and every other one was bright green. Some nights it even had huge floodlights pointing at the sky. It was a marvellous sight.

Nights are soft in London. In the country, the night sky can be a wide expanse of stark black with sharp stars. But in London, there is always a slight fuzziness to the sky, even when it isn’t really cloudy, and stars are few and dim. So the shining lights of the City have no competition.

I knew exactly three things about this book before I started reading it.

  1. It is written by the guy who wrote Fight Club, which I haven’t read, but I liked the movie.
  2. I must not read anything about it before reading the book itself – no reviews, and definitely not the back cover blurb.
  3. It is said to be good.

In fact I heard all of this from Eric, and he himself had neither seen nor read the book.

After I finished the book, I looked at the back cover just to see what I had so carefully been avoiding all the way – and it’s clear that it would have spoiled all the fun if I had seen it earlier. (It is one of the worst-chosen blurbs I’ve seen in a long time. Whoever wrote it should be fired.)

I’d like to tell you what I thought, because I it’s a good book… but since I don’t want to spoil it for you, in case you’re planning to read “Diary”, I cannot really say much at all. Hmm.

Let me just say this, then:
It won’t leave you indifferent – to use a tired cliche, you’ll either love it or hate it. Don’t buy it if you want your books to be about a fundamentally decent world. I wouldn’t recommend it to my mother, but I liked it myself.

The story is imaginative and unpredictable all the way to the end, even surreal. Like with Fight Club, even when you think you know what’s going on, you don’t know it all. There’s never a dull moment, and nothing is wasted.
The style is disturbing, and occasionally calculatedly jarring, but it suits the story. Not having read any of Palahniuk’s other books, I found his tone sufficiently different to be interesting in itself.

Just make sure not to read anything more about it before you read it. Don’t buy it from Amazon because you won’t be able to avoid the editorial review. Support your local bookseller instead.

Following from yesterday’s post: I’ve now found the Tom Waits “song” that I was looking for. It was “Russian Dance” from The Black Rider.

I wonder what the theatre show looks like. I’m imagining something dark and bizarre and twisted.

It took me years, literally, to get used to Tom Waits. It’s an acquired taste, sort of like whiskey or spicy food. Give any of those to a child and they’ll spit it out.

In the beginning I really disliked his music, but Eric liked it, so I kept hearing it again and again. With time, I got used to it, and after a while grew to really enjoy it. It grows on you. By now, some of his songs are among my absolute favourites – and I like them even more because in my head they are inextricably linked to Eric. To me, Tom Waits is Eric’s music (not that Eric’s dark and bizarre and twisted!) and listening to them always makes me think of him.

In the past few weeks, I’ve seen three performances of contemporary dance. In a way they were all similar, and all could be described by the same headline: “a humorous mixture of dance and circus”. Today’s performance was James Thierrée’s “La Veillée des Abysses”. I’ll try to write about the other two later, perhaps – “Opus Cactus” by Momix, and “Tricodex” by Lyon Opera Ballet.

The show had a decidedly French feel, the way Jeunet’s “Cité des enfants perdus” (“City of Lost Children”) could only be French. Somewhere between mime and dance, fanciful and intense, yet managing – like French circus/dance often does – to strike a balance between a wild imagination and a slight feeling of poetic sadness.

Five performers were all on stage all the time and made this a very coherent piece. While it wasn’t really a narrative, there was definitely an underlying story, with one scene fading smoothly into the next.

The first half circled in and around what seemed to be a dusty and aging castle – a place of decaying opulence, with fading red velvet, cracked wood and ornate iron gates. The dancers themselves are dressed in half-tattered evening gowns and worn uniforms. The scenes can best be described as conversations that go on so long that they get out of hand. One of the reviews I read describes this part as being marooned in an old house – imagine this, and add gentle humour as the dancers start playing games to fill their long evenings. Trying to fit four people in a sofa for three, that then starts swallowing people. Or locking the gates, and making up elaborate passwords (passmoves?) consisting of such complicated gestures that the guardian himself forgets the correct order.

The story then shifts from evening to night, and stranger things start happening. A sleek green cat/dragon creature crawls and climbs on the gates, pulling the gate guardian into a lovely pas de deux on the gates. Decorative suits of armour transform into bats, and a princess with her maid turn into a menacing horse. All done very sparingly with simple materials and few moves, so that the wild and imaginative props stay secondary to the dancers themselves.

The tone then changes for a while, and the feeling of magic is replaced with a starker setting and less interesting sketches, where both the dancers’ actions and the audience’s laughs are predictable. But towards the end, the magic returns, now with a half-wrecked ship instead of a castle – with billowing white sails, a man swinging in a high lookout point, and high waves and wind.

The sounds are as well designed as the sets and costumes, and vary from live piano, to Nina Simone’s Lilac Wine and Tom Waits. (I know that Tom Waits song so well, but can’t remember which one it is… now I have to listen through all our Tom Waits CDs to find it!)

Dreamlike and fantastic, beautiful, combining playful humour with melancholy and decay. Wonderful piece.

I am determined not to let this blog degenerate into another link collection, which is what many blogs out there have become nowadays. One blogger (or non-blog site) says something interesting, and then everybody else links to that, and posts a sentence or two, but doesn’t add anything new. Quite an incestuous club.

However, there are some sites out there that I just find too interesting to be ignored.

The blog about the upcoming new version of Excel is one of them. It’s a thorough overview of new features in Excel 12, with lots of detail and lots of screenshots. The blog is also quite well written, and the guy himself is very responsive. The blog is a pleasure to read and participate in.

For the first time ever, I find myself looking forward to a new version of Office, and feeling excited about what is coming. So many annoyances are getting fixed, and so many nice new features are coming!

Excel is my #1 tool at work – I use it for maybe 75% of my projects & tasks, so any shortcomings have ample opportunity to make themselves felt. Indeed, with many of them I’ve progressed through all 5 stages of frustration – ignorance, annoyance, denial, damning them to the nethermost hells, and acceptance. Finally I get so used to them that they become fixtures in my life, and I no longer question them. In fact I’ve almost grown fond of them and the workarounds and tweaks that I’ve learned to use in order to get around them, and I’ve long since given up expecting them to be fixed.

One doesn’t expect Microsoft to change any of the things that matter, after all – upgrades mostly just make minor tweaks to existing features, and change the looks of all toolbars. (This version is no different, of course – the toolbars get a new design again.) There hasn’t been anything really new for about 10 years, since Excel 97.

It is interesting to see that this time, Microsoft is actually fixing many of these annoyances – formula length limits, IF() nesting limits, array formula limits, the awful interface for conditional formatting. As one of the commenters at that blog jokingly said, Microsoft “are putting us developers out of business… In the old days, those of us who knew how to do Conditional Formatting wielded great power over less competent users.”

At the same time, they’re adding a lot of new features that really look very useful. And I’m sure we’ll discover that all sorts of new unexpected things will become possible as well. It’s an exciting time to be an Excel developer.

The blog is also interesting in and of itself. Well before the product is released, a Microsoft employee is sharing the firm’s plans and designs with users, engaging in a discussion with them, and soliciting their comments and feedback. A blog is an excellent medium for such a discussion. I’ve never submitted comments on any of Microsoft’s web sites or surveys – there’s always the feeling that they’ll just disappear into a black hole, get chewed up by the Microsoft Machine and never emerge again. Here, there’s a person on the other side who actually responds to my comments. A novel feeling!

This is me at age 3.

My father has always been interested in photography. But back when I was small, his photographing always used to happen in short bursts. So I have several sets of maybe a dozen photos, all clearly taken on the same day, and then sometimes nothing for about a year. Summer was usually productive, when my parents both had vacation and we were all in the countryside at my grandmother’s summer cottage.

He started scanning his old negatives and slides this summer, and gave me a CD a few months ago. I’ve been going through the photos and tried to sort them by time, and it’s been really hard.

Some can be placed fairly exactly using other known events. The one where I’m just standing up on my own (but still not looking quite stable) would have been taken in 1978, when I was a year old. If I’m sitting on a blanket and there’s a tiny baby crawling next to me, then it’s definitely 1980, the year my brother was born. My first day at school is also easy to place.
Others just have to be triangulated. Do I look slightly taller there than in those other pictures? Does my face seem slightly older?

My mother came by this evening, and brought a handful of old black-and-white photos with her. Some of them were pictures I hadn’t seen for years, but had strong memories of: Christmas party at age 3½, myself in a plaid dress, bravely facing Santa Claus… And luckily, most of the prints had dates pencilled in on the reverse, so we could use those to confirm the dates of at least some of the scanned photos.

Some of the photos were of herself as a child. I had never seen those before.
There was one where she would have been in her late teens, we figured, which would make it about 1970. She was pretty, I thought – with long straight hair and a paisley blouse, and this small serene almost-smile on her face.