Oct 30

Words in a row

The tagline of this blog, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, is “Putting words in a row since 2001.” It occurred to me recently that I’ve never explained where that phrase came from.

It’s from a Robert A. Heinlein novel. But not, as you might expect, from his science fiction. Heinlein wrote one fantasy novel, Glory Road, that deserves a lot more attention than it gets. It’s the story of an American soldier, just discharged after a tour of duty in Vietnam, who finds the following ad in the classified section of a French newspaper:

ARE YOU A COWARD? This is not for you. We badly need a brave man. He must be 23 to 25 years old, in perfect health, at least six feet tall, weigh about 190 pounds, fluent English with some French, proficient with all weapons, some knowledge of engineering and mathematics essential, willing to travel, no family or emotional ties, indomitably courageous and handsome of face and figure. Permanent employment, very high pay, glorious adventure, great danger. You must apply in person, 17, rue Dante, Nice, 2me etage, appt. D.

Intrigued, he answers the ad and is hired to escort and protect a beautiful woman (and her manservant) on a perilous journey through a fantasy world populated by ogres, minotaurs, Rodents of Unusual Size, and dragons — at the end of which they must enter an evil stronghold and recover a priceless artifact.

At one point during the journey, the travelers stop for the night and camp under the stars. The protagonist finds himself afflicted with insomnia and appeals to the manservant for help:

But I didn’t go to sleep. The truth is, I’ve got a monkey on my back, a habit worse than marijuana though not as expensive as heroin. I can stiff it out and get to sleep anyway — but it wasn’t helping that I could see light in Star’s tent and a silhouette that was no longer troubled by a dress.

The fact is I am a compulsive reader. Thirty-five cents’ worth of Gold Medal Original will put me right to sleep. Or Perry Mason. But I’ll read the ads in an old Paris-Match that has been used to wrap herring before I’ll do without.

I got up and went around the tent. “Psst! Rufo.”

“Yes, milord.” He was up fast, a dagger in his hand.

“Look, is there anything to read around this dump?”

“What sort of thing?”

“Anything, just anything. Words in a row.”

“Just a moment.” He was gone a while, using a flashlight around that beachhead dump of plunder. He came back and offered me a book and a small camp lamp. I thanked him, went back, and lay down.

When I first read Glory Road, that scene stuck in my mind because I have the same problem. I always read for a few minutes before going to bed, and if there’s no reading material available, I have trouble composing myself for sleep. So when I was casting about for a way to describe the process of writing, the phrase “words in a row” popped into my head. Now you know; it’s all Heinlein’s fault.

Oct 30

Tech-news podcasts

At a recent gathering of friends, the subject of podcasts came up. I promised to write something about the podcasts I listen to, particularly the ones covering news and information about technology.
If I’m going to talk about tech-news podcasts, I probably should start with the best-known one: This Week in Tech. TWiT is Leo Laporte‘s attempt to revive his former TechTV show The Screen Savers in podcast form, and he did a pretty good job of it. The best thing about TSS was always the rapid-fire discussion of tech topics by the ubergeek cast of the show, and that’s what TWit consists of.
Unfortunately, the show has been getting out of control lately. It was originally recorded in a pseudo-studio format, with the various commentators talking to each other via Skype or some other VoIP connection. This format made it comparatively easy for Leo to edit the show to keep it tight and focused. But recently, TWiT has shifted to a recorded-live-with-an-audience format. The number of people participating also has increased, and the result is too chaotic for me. The participants get excited and all try to talk at the same time, or interrupt each other constantly, and the discussion is frequently sidetracked by irrelevant digressions or inane blather. And Leo doesn’t seem to be trying to edit the show at all anymore. As a result, TWiT has been losing its appeal for me. I still listen to it, but it’s not at the top of my list anymore. When the show was new, I would have given it a grade of A, but nowadays it only rates a C.
So what other tech-news podcasts do I like? Well, first of all, I highly recommend a TWiT spinoff called Security Now! This show came into existence because TWiT‘s new format requires all the participants to meet physically in San Francisco. Steve Gibson had been participating via Skype, but he can’t attend in person. So Leo created a separate podcast that consists of just him and Steve discussing computer security. SN gets everything right that TWiT is doing wrong. It involves just two people (one of whom is a technical expert who does most of the talking), so the discussion is orderly and focused. There’s no live audience to introduce ambient noise that might make editing difficult. The show has a clearly defined topic, so Steve and Leo aren’t tempted to digress or waste time on trivial banter. And the show is short: typically, 20 to 30 minutes devoted to one security issue. Security Now! gets an A+ grade from me.
For broader coverage of tech news, I’ve become quite fond of the Power User Podcast (PUP for short). This show uses a round-table format, so it’s theoretically like TWiT — but only three or four people are involved, so the discussion stays on track most of the time. Host Kristin Hatcher is smooth and professional, and does a good job of keeping the other participants in line (although Brad Wardell seems to slip into standup-comedy mode occasionally). And the shows tend to be a bit shorter than TWiT: about 30 to 45 minutes, which strikes me as just about right. PUP is informative, entertaining, and doesn’t overstay its welcome. I give it a B.
My exploration of podcasts began with technology-oriented ones like these, but since then it has expanded into other subject areas. I’ll write about those in another post.

Oct 06

The twenty-third post

I encountered an interesting new meme at Neil’s World recently. Theoretically, I should wait until someone tags me with it. But it sounds like fun, so I’m going to go ahead and do it. Here’s the meme:

  1. Search your blog archive.
  2. Find your 23rd post.
  3. Find the fifth sentence (this is meant to say something about you).
  4. Post that sentence in your blog along with these instructions.
  5. Tag five people to do the same.

My archives show my twenty-third post to be Falling stars, an account of watching the Leonid meteor shower with my children in 2001. The fifth sentence of that post is: “We weren’t disappointed.” What does this say about me? I’m not sure, except that I enjoy watching bits of comet debris vaporize in the upper atmosphere.

I hereby tag the following people with this meme: Ben, Bob, Gail, Greg, Virgil

I thought about tagging Alana, but her blog is too new to have twenty-three posts. I’m sure won’t take her long to reach that number, and then someone else can tag her.