Archive for October 2012

The Windows 8 fans keep claiming that ‘oh, Windows 8 hatred is nothing new, everyone always hates the new version of Windows’.

Of course it’s a pure myth, as anyone who’s used Windows for years could tell you.

Windows 3.1/3.11 were major improvements over 3.0; for a start, they didn’t crash all the time. No-one said ‘uh, 3.1 sucks, I’m sticking with 3.0’, or, if they did, it was soon followed by ‘oh damn, it’s crashed again’.

Windows 95 was a major improvement over 3.11. No-one said ’95 sucks, I’m sticking with 3.11′, though increased hardware requirements discouraged upgrades. No-one said ‘this start menu sucks, I want Program Manager back’.

Windows 98 was basically 95 SP2.

Windows ME was widely hated because it was a downgrade from 98 which had no reason to exist other than to keep the Windows 9x team employed a bit longer.

When XP was released, many people stuck with 98 because of the increased hardware requirements, but it was an significant improvement once they bought a new PC that could run it well.

Vista was widely hated because it was slow and bloated.

7 fixed the speed and bloat and is now at least on the same level as XP, if not an upgrade.

8 is a clunker for desktops, it may be viable on tablets.

I don’t see how anyone can claim ‘everyone always hates the new version of Windows’, unless they’ve only used Windows since XP. Most versions of Windows have been clear and significant upgrades over the previous version; the only big failures have been ME and Vista, though Windows 8 looks to be a good candidate for the list.

Another good post on the subject:

http://annerallen.blogspot.ca/2012/10/8-sure-fire-ways-to-improve-your.html

Am I the only one who hates the recent switch from top-mounted to bottom-mounted PSUs? Now, instead of the PSU pulling air from inside the case and blowing it out the back, it pulls air from below the case and blows it out the back. In theory that might seem a better idea because the PSU is sucking in cool air, but most PCs are placed on carpet, which means you’re also sucking in dust, carpet fibres and all kinds of other crap that will soon cover the insides of the PSU. Not a good plan.

You can fit them upside down, as I did in my home server, but then if anything falls down (e.g. you accidentally drop a screw while fitting another component, or a tiny sliver of metal comes off while screwing it in) it goes straight in the PSU. If you can’t get it out, it will short out next time you start up.

Another argument used to justify the change is that modern computers are more power-hungry, so the PSU needs better cooling. That may make sense if you’re using a dual-CPU system with four GPUs, In this case, my new i7 system uses less power than the Pentium-4 it’s replacing.

With Canonical ending support on the version of Ubuntu on my laptop (the last with Gnome 2) and Microsoft likely to kill Windows 7 soon to force people onto Windows 8, I decided it probably is time to get a new Windows PC and offload the games from my laptop so I can wipe Windows from the disk and install Linux Mint. Since NCIX had a reasonable sale on this week I’ve got one on order that should be fine for games and video editing until at least Windows 9; i7 3770, 16GB RAM, Nvidia GTX 660 and various other goodies.

I’ll be interested to see how well Guild Wars 2 runs on it when it’s assembled.

Since the release I’ve been logging on most days to get the daily bonuses, then logging off as I don’t have time for long gaming sessions.

With five characters that means slow progress :). My Warrior finally passed level 30 last week and the Elementalist is getting close.

The 2000s horror revival has officially jumped the shark. Just as the Scream series killed horror in the 90s by making heavily hyped horror movies without any horror, The Cabin In The Woods seems to have done the same today.

I can imagine how this movie came about. The writer put on a brave smile to cover their fluttering heart as they walked in the room to pitch it to the producer, and sat in front of his gold-plated desk with sweaty palms and more rolling down their forehead.

“So what’s your pitch? I don’t have all day.”
“OK, you see, there’s this gang of cliched horror movie characters and they’re being killed off in a cabin in the woods, but get this. IT’S ALL A REALITY TV SHOW.”
“Oh, God. Reality TV is so last year. Got anything else?”
“What about this other one? There are ancient Gods living underground and this corporate cult lead by Sigourney Weaver are sacrificing kids to them so they won’t rise up and destroy all life on Earth.”

The producer yawns. “Lovecraft wrote that in the 30s. It sucked. It still sucks.”

The writer stands. He’s failed, he sucks, he couldn’t come up with a good movie idea to save his life, he’ll never work in Hollywood again. But as he turns to leave…

“Wait. They both suck, but… what if… WE COMBINED THEM IN ONE MOVIE?”

The smile returns, for real this time. What if the reality TV show was actually being run by a corporate cult lead by Sigourney Weaver who was sacrificing the kids to ancient Gods so they wouldn’t rise up and destroy all life on Earth?

“Wow, that totally makes sense. Why didn’t I think of that?”
“Because I’m a producer and you’re just a writer.”

And this is the big problem with the movie. They couldn’t decide whether it’s a reality TV movie, an evil corporate cult movie or a parody of cliched horror movies. The end result is the movie equivalent of mixing mushy peas, ice cream, marmite, bacon and mashed potatoes; all of them are perfectly edible by themselves, but not blended in one amorphous blob.

It starts well enough as an obvious parody of the cliched ‘cabin in the woods’ genre, but rapidly goes downhill, piling absurdity on absurdity until I simply can’t take any more. To give some obvious examples, if they’re killing off the kids for the ancient Gods… why not just kill them? Why bother with the whole ‘cabin in the woods’ fakery? If they need a specific mix of cliched character types to make it work, are we seriously supposed to believe all these characters know each other?

Worse, because all the characters are completely cliched caricatures, by the mid-point I really couldn’t care whether they lived or died. That is always fatal for a horror movie. The ending actually showed a little originality, but by that point it was too late.

It’s not a horrible movie, it’s often funny and, unlike Scream, I watched it to the end. But it wants to believe it’s far more intelligent than it really is and I can’t imagine ever wanting to watch it again.

Just booted up my Asus Transformer 300 for the first time in a week or so and it found an OS update to download. No idea what it was as it still claims to be Android 4.1.1.

I see the VLC Beta is finally officially available in Canada. I’ll see if it works any better than the early Beta I tried and had to manually install over USB.

I use gwibber to monitor Facebook and Twitter feeds so I don’t have to log in there. It hasn’t worked in a few weeks, and attempting to open the GUI did nothing.

I finally tried running it from the command line and got the obscure error “DatabaseError: database disk image is malformed”, which is tremendously unhelpful and shows someone isn’t checking their error conditions correctly.

Turns out that gwibber stores tons of data in an sqlite database hidden in ~/.config/gwibber. Since sqlite is hardly the most reliable of databases, this can get corrupted.

To fix it, first kill all gwibber-service processes. Then dump the database and rebuild it:

$ cd ~/.config/gwibber
$ echo ".dump" | sqlite3 gwibber.sqlite | sqlite3 new.db
$ mv gwibber.sqlite old.db
$ mv new.db gwibber.sqlite

When you’re happy with the way gwibber, just delete old.db.

I must admit, I’ve never seen the attraction of sqlite. It’s handy if you want to create a small database which you won’t be reading or writing often, but software like this abuses it by creating databases of hundreds of megabytes or more. When gwibber restarted after rebuilding the database it created a journal file of over half a gigabyte on a machine with 3GB free. Not good.

Do I buy a faster Windows 7 laptop now, or do I keep using this one until it’s no good for gaming and hope Windows 9 is out by then? I mostly run Linux, but I can barely imagine putting up with Windows 8 even for booting up and launching a game.

Gaming laptops are actually becoming hard to find; according to the web sites, none of the local stores have them in stock, they have to be ordered online. I don’t really think I want the courier leaving a $1500 computer on my door step.

Good post on cover design:

http://jmney-grimm.com/2012/10/cover-design-primer/

Just when you thought the Nobel Peace Prize committee couldn’t be more entertaining than by giving a prize to Obama for merely existing, they’ve raised the hilarity level by giving a prize to the EU.

The theory, so it goes, is that the EU has made everyone in Europe love each other so much that they don’t want to fight each other any more. The reality is that two generations remembered the devastation caused by WWI and WWII, governments feared an existential threat from the Soviet Union, and the US government stationed hundreds of thousands of troops across Europe with a big stash of nukes. EU or not, a European war would not have been possible, let alone desired.

All the EU has done is ensure that the next war in Europe will be a civil war, rather than a war between nations. We may be seeing the first battles right now as the EU is determined to keep the Euro going even if that means devastating economic collapse in the weaker nations.

50% off at Smashwords for the next week:

http://www.matthewgrantonline.com/comingoutdaypromo.html

At my sister’s wedding a while back my mother spoke about our family vacations when we were kids, and how much she liked Shell Island in Wales. So I was able tell her that by some strange coincidence on the flight over I happened to be reading an ebook about giant crabs eating tourists at Shell Island.

The seventies were a great time for pulp horror in Britain; pretty much anyone with a novel about monsters or demons or vampires could get it in print and many people did. Some of them were good, many of them were bad, most of them… well… let’s just say they filled a popular niche for escapist entertainment in the publishing world and not comment on their literary merits.

Guy N Smith was one of the more prolific pulp writers of that era, now with over eighty books to his name. However, he’s probably most remembered for his giant crab series, which captured the public imagination for a period and were popular enough that Night of the Crabs lead to several sequels; in the introduction to the ebook Smith talks about going into a book store in Wales and finding himself in an impromptu signing session. He’s now releasing some of his work as ebooks, and I bought Night of the Crabs for nostalgia’s sake when I saw it on Smashwords; it’s no longer for sale there, but should be elsewhere.

I’m sure I remember finding the paperback on the bookshelf in one of the houses my parents rented in that part of Wales a few years after it was published, but I’m not sure whether I actually read it at the time. I know I had heard of it, primarily because we did often visit the tourist areas mentioned in the book; which I suspect is why it became popular, as foreign travel was still rare and much of the British population would recognise the locations and the type of people mentioned in the story.

Giant crabs are a somewhat unlikely horror monster, particularly crabs as large and intelligent as those in the books; the laws of physics alone would mean that crabs of that size couldn’t easily move without huge legs to support their weight. But so long as people get eaten and the hero saves the day, no-one who likes these kind of books is going to worry much about the laws of physics.

And get eaten they do. From the opening line to the end, Smith seems to adopt the maxim that someone should get eaten at least every ten pages (and have sex at least every thirty) so the reader won’t get bored. The main character in the prologue doesn’t even last that long, becoming crab food within six pages

The prologue is actually one of the best parts of the book; it feels like a self-contained short story with few of the faults that the main story suffers from. However, the basis of the prologue’s plot (a man faking his death in the sea) probably seems more original now than it would have at the time when it had been in the news and a popular TV show.

I’m not going to comment much on the overall story because I don’t really need to. If you’ve read one monster animal novel or seen one monster movie you probably already know it; monsters start eating people, hero arrives to save the town, people don’t believe monsters exist, more people get eaten, hero saves the day, etc. That’s what happens in most of these stories, and what distinguishes them is the setting, the monsters, the characters and the author’s writing ability.

In this case the setting is different — while we’ve had stories like Jaws set in American seaside towns I don’t remember others in Wales — the monsters are different, and the main faults are the characters and the writing. James Herbert’s recently mentioned series about man-eating giant rats, for example, have better survived the intervening decades.

One of the biggest issues I noticed in the writing is blatant point of view shifts; with multiple characters in a scene, Smith has a tendency to jump from one head to another. That may have been more common at the time, but today it’s so widely discouraged that it immediately stands out. There’s also a fair amount of telling where showing would probably have helped to pull me into the story world and hide some of the more obvious character problems, and occasional bursts of passive voice. One final peculiarity is repeated references to characters by their full name rather than just their first name or surname, which is common early in the story but becomes rare by the end.

The characters are interesting, but the things the main characters do — or don’t do — often seem to stem more from a need to make the plot work than from the characters themselves. As a consequence I rarely felt that they were real people and hence felt distanced from the story; in general, although at times they did seem to have a remarkable ability to not be overly concerned that a giant crab had chopped off one or more of their limbs, the crab-bait characters who appear solely in order to be eaten seemed more real than the main characters in the story.

For example, the attractive divorcee almost immediately falls for the heroic biologist, and then when they see giant crabs eating one of the locals they don’t seem to be in much of a hurry to tell people about it; our biologist does talk to the government, who think he’s mad, but not to the local police or media. Even when the government do decide the threat is real, they don’t seem too concerned about evacuating the area or discouraging the heroic biologist’s new girlfriend from tagging along on his crab-hunting trips. In addition, when our heroic couple hide in the sand dunes to see if giant crabs really are sneaking out of the sea, they can barely manage to sit for two minutes before they decide that having sex would be a good idea.

Where Smith’s writing does work for me is in the entertaining set pieces through the book; he seems to delight in finding more characters to kill off in gruesome ways, possibly too much as the crab-bait scenes sometimes distract from the main plot and at one point take us away from the main characters for about twenty pages. The attack on a military base amused me, as the soldiers firing machineguns merely annoy the crabs because the impact of the bullets on their shells tickles them; they continue on to gleefully destroy tanks, trains and part of a tourist town in their search for delicious human flesh. Of course in the end the military are ineffective because using nuclear weapons “just isn’t on”, so only our heroic biologist can save the day while leaving the story wide open for a sequel.

This book is a product of its time and rating it by modern standards would be difficult and unfair; it’s different and if you’re a fan of pulp monster horror it’s entertaining. If you’re not a fan then the flaws probably overwhelm the good parts; I’d like to call it ‘Jaws with crabs’, but ultimately Jaws is just better written.

Still, it’s got me itching to sit back on the sofa and write a monster novel of my own, or at least rewrite my monster movie script into novel form. Maybe it’s finally time for that giant man-eating gopher story.

And I think I am going to have to track down those sequels.

Guy N Smith can be found at Guynsmith.com.

Another book I read recently is Herbert’s classic animal horror novel, The Rats. I read Domain as a teenager and picked up The Rats and Lair cheap on e-bay years ago, but I hadn’t got around to starting them until now.

The Rats is a very thin novel, apparently around 40,000 words. That made it ideal for a quick read on a flight to America. It was Herbert’s first novel and it seems made up as he went along with some odd twists and turns and various opportunities for increased conflict which were tossed aside in favour of rapid-fire blood, gore and violent death.

But it set the standard for animal horror novels of the 70s; the various bit-parts are set up and then killed by the rats in gory ways while the hero (in this case Harris, a school teacher) tries to determine why the animals went crazy and convince the authorities to act when they think he’s crazy himself. Oh, and throw in some sex for good measure.

The gore begins early and deaths continue at a rapid pace through the book; I soon lost count of the number of bodies. Most of the book consists of back-story for the rat-bait characters interspersed with set pieces as the rats attack en masse and the heroes defend against them, and those set pieces are entertaining if sometimes hard to believe.

They also contain some very seventies attitudes which would be considered politically incorrect today, but much of the social commentary about the rats preying on homeless people would still stand up; it reminded me of my own ‘Homeless Horror’ script that I must finish converting into a novel before long.

Overall it’s good fun and a fast read, and contains some scenes that are still quite horrific today. You’ll never look at the London Underground or a cinema quite the same way after reading it.

I can certainly see why The Rats launched an entire genre of copy-cat books. But I still preferred Domain, as Herbert had clearly improved as a writer in the intervening years.

For links to purchase:

http://www.james-herbert.co.uk/books-by-james-herbert/the-rats/

I’ve been reading The Worst Journey In The World, written by Apsley Cherry-Garrard, one of the men who accompanied Scott on his expedition to the South Pole. I have the print version, but it’s also available as an e-book on archive.org:

http://archive.org/details/theworstjourneyi14363gut

In a way I was surprised, because when he was talking about trudging through the snow at fifty below zero, I was thinking that it sounded like walking home from the bus stop here and had expected worse. But then I thought of doing that for six weeks without a chance to step into a warm house, in constant darkness, dragging supplies and having to force my way into a frozen sleeping bag every night. I think it probably does qualify for the title.

Certainly it qualifies far more than so much recent travel writing which spends much of the book trying to big up how awesome the trip was. If anything, Cherry-Garrard understates the awful situations they suffered through, including delights such as frostbitten fingers leading to blisters which froze into ice on his hands. I can just imagine a modern writer spending chapters on that experience alone.

I was also surprised at how rapidly I worked through it; the book looks huge, but after five or six hours I’ve almost finished.