Sep 30

A Six Pack of Old Friends

As a follow on to my general Recommended Book List, I wanted to dive in on why the first six books are favorites.

To recap, here’s the first six books on my all-time “recommend to others” list.

  1. Myth Adventures by Robert Asprin
  2. The Stainless Steel Rat, by Harry Harrison
  3. Callahan’s Lady, by Spider Robinson
  4. Retief, by Keith Laumer
  5. Phule’s Company by Robert Asprin

These books are also what my mom would call “old friends”.  They are some of the few media items that I could pick up at any time and just read.  Many of them I could flip to any page in any of them, and just start reading from there.

Why are these books so re-readable?

A Good Laugh

All of these books are funny.  They are all in what some have called the “humorous sci-fi/fantasy” genre.

Given even a year away from the book, the jokes and humor in these stories wraps you up and cuddles you, and it’s humor that doesn’t need to put someone else down, or gross you out, or make you cringe.  It just makes you smirk, grin, and feel good about the world.

The Difference is Readability

Unlike the “poster children” for this genre, like Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, or Discworld by Terry Pratchett, the books on my list are also highly readable….and not English.  I enjoyed Adams and Pratchett, but I’ve not real desire go back and read them over and over.

Every one of the books on my list is written with (for the time they were published, at least), smooth, flowing prose, with just enough humor to keep a near-perpetual smile on your face, but without so much political commentary, farce or forced jocularity that it distracts from the narrative or the characters.

Characters You Want to Spend Time With

And it’s the characters that really make the stories work, and make these books “friends” rather than just “fun reads”.

Every book is filled with people that you want to spend time with.  Characters with problems that seem funny on the surface, but end up reminding you not to take your own problems so seriously.

Human Tales

These stories may be set in alternate or fantastic or future realities, but they all use that setting to make their tales of human interactions more timeless.  They distill human interactions to their core, and set them against a tale of adventure to give those interactions motion.

Robert Asprin makes the list twice with two different books, both of which spawned series.  Let’s start with him.

Farcical Reality with Robert Asprin

While the humor is never far away with Robert Asprin, neither are a plethora of other emotions. He regularly sets up characters to be one thing (a funny stereotype, typically), and then carefully deconstructs that funny assumption for the rest of the story.

Aahz is the big scary demon, who turns out to be a lot more supportive and nurturing than evil and devouring. Asprin carefully nuances Aahz’s personality throughout the series, and eventually, despite a narriative landscape of the absurd, you feel like he could be any of the tough-on-the outside, squishy on the inside guys you know.

The Myth series’s main protagonist Skeeveo starts out young and naieve, and although he’s not clearly a Mary Sue character at the outset, he becomes one more and more as the series progresses, holding up a harsh light to Asprin’s own struggle with alcoholism.

The parade of supporting characters, Tanada, Chumley, Gleep, Massha, Ajax, Markie – they all follow the pattern of setting up a funny stereotype (Tanada is a Trollop), and then deconstucting that stereotype by making that character a ‘real’ person.

In his Phule’s Company world, the characters are as about as farcical on the surface as can be.  You have the rich Captain Jester, who’s attempts to try and save the world are confounded by the fact that he just tries too hard. Mother, the communications expert who can’t talk in the physical presence of anyone else. Chocolate Harry, the tough rocket-biker who constantly cuts black market deals to get supplies.

Like Myth Adventures, the characters in Phule’s Company are not only carefully fleshed out into real people beneath their stereotypes, but the way that Phule works with each of them to take advantage of their talents, and to make them work as a team to overcome their “disabilities” is both funny and deeply heartwarming.

Especially for those of us who manage people or are put into leader roles, it’s like a romantic comedy of leadership.  A little silly, not real in the way an instruction book would be, but real in that you can feel how the relationship Jester has with his people connects with the relationships of people you work with.

Plus the plot has good old fashioned mystery, capers, and that delight when a dozen loose ends all tie up together in the end in a hilarious way.

Linguistic Capers with Harry Harrison

Next on the list is Harry Harrison, an author who has a pretty diverse set of works – his West of Eden series makes my “Recommended with Reservations” list.  His short story Make Room! Make Room! was the basis for the Charlton Heston classic Solyent Green. However, he is primarily known for the Stainless Steel Rat series, which is considerably lighter and funnier than his other works.

Like the other authors on this list, Harrison manages to expertly balance humor and darkness.  For example, “Slippery Jim” diGriz, the eponymous Rat, falls in love with a psychopath, and only after capturing her is she reformed with sci-fi technology so that they can be together.

While later works in the series feel a lot like a sci-fi combination of LeverageOcean’s 11 and The A-Team, the early stories paint a vivid picture of what it takes to be a criminal in the future, where technology has rendered crime obsolete.  Like anime hero “Lupin III”, Slippery Jim is a lovable thief, who uses his talents, willingly or not, for the betterment of the galaxy.

His family, including wife Angelina, and sons James and Bolivar, are solid characters, and although they never get expanded into really deep characters, they are fond friends to readers especially upon repeated readings.

The relationships, capers, and the humor stand up well to repeated readings, and that’s is quite a feat.

Finally, Harrison inspired me in my college years to learn Esperanto, which is used heavily throughout the SSR books.  Learning Esperanto, like all the linguistic things I did in college, expanded my appreciation of language and communication, and set me up to be able to learn both real and computer languages in a way that learning “traditional” languages would not have.

Spider Robinson’s Utopian Drunks and Whores

If you are sensing a theme here, it’s that these are all sci-fantasy books that concentrate more on what people are like in the future or an alternate reality than what technology or the world is like.  Spider Robinson is no exception.

Following in the footsteps of Heinlein, Robinson wonders what kind of world it would take to really let people get along.  His answer is twofold – a bar, and a brothel.  His main Callahan’s series focuses on the bar, while his side works, Callahan’s Lady and Lady Slings the Booze focus on the brothel.

The conceit of the stories is that Mike Callahan and his wife Lady Sally are aliens, who chose to spend their time on earth running a bar and brothel, respectively.  It sounds a bit cheesy, and it is, but in the end, it just feels sweet.

It’s hard to argue with the idea that those two places might be the settings for a pair of fantastic urban utopia – they are certainly the places that many people go to seek out happiness.  While the bar stories are good, and a little closer perhaps to “hard” sci-fi, it’s the brothel stories that really captured my imagination, and keep me reading them over and over.

They are sweetly sexy, sure, but they also create a world where needs get met, and not just sexual ones.  And the characters are delightful.  The working girls, the boy-maid, and Lady Sally herself are people you know in prostitute form.  You want to hang out in Lady Sally’s parlor, even just to swap puns with the priest.  Ah, that’s a good point – Robinson is a master punster, so if such things offend, best read elsewhere. 🙂

The books are both collections of short tales; but they read more like a season of a TV show rather than a short story collection.  The stories build and influence each other, and allow a greater variety of interactions than a time-boxed narrative would.

I think Lady Slings the Booze is the better book, but you really need to read Callahan’s Lady to get the background (and it’s also very good).

Laumer’s Satirical Knight

Keith Laumer was a U.S. Ambassador before he was a sci-fi novelist, and he doesn’t shy away from telling his “horror” stories of the diplomatic corps thinly disguised as fantastic tales.

While all the Retief novels and stories are good, his “origin story” Diplomat-At-Arms, which was published in Issac Asimov’s Cosmic Knights collection is one of those stories that just makes you giggle and dance and read it over and over.

Jaime Retief is a superhero; a diplomat who has no problem scrapping with the bad guys all over the galaxy. And while his larger-than-lifeness could get silly after a while, the fact that he has to deal with his meddling and incompetent boss constantly balances him nicely.

He feels like the Indiana Jones of diplomacy; equally at home at the negotiation table as well as leading revolutionaries to conduct a coup – especially while his boss is trying to negotiate a peace between the government and revolutionaries.

Laumer is a master, like all the authors on this list, of telling a simple human story, set in a fantastic world with heroes that struggle to do the simplest things; but manage the impossible with ease.  As some of the older works on this list, the Retief novels age a bit roughly from their early 70’s-80’s perspective, but any student of history finds this more spice than anything else.

So there you go!  Six books (actually a lot more than that, since all of these are series as well) that you should get to know!  May they become your friends too!

Sep 17

Great American Beer Festival 2010!

GABF Logo
Kim and I went to the Great American Beer Festival this year, for the first time.
 
I’d tried to go in the past with various friends, but the massive crowds and general drunkenness turned me away, despite the desire to try so many great beers in one place.
 
Since I’ve been homebrewing this year quite a bit, I decided that I’d look into it again, and see if there was a way we could figure out to enjoy it.  Turns out, we’re not the only ones that would like something a bit smaller and quieter, and I found the Farm to Table Pavilion.
 
Essentially, it’s about 10 booths, each serving 1-2 appetizers or desserts, paired with 2 beers.  It didn’t seem like a lot when we started, but 20 food items (even small ones), and 20 beers (even in the 1-oz tasting glass they give you) is still quite a few. Especially when you go back and try your favorites more than once. 🙂
 
All the food is made as local as possible, right off of local farms.  Kim has been big into ‘Eat Local’ for a while now, so this was right up her alley.
 
Knowing we’d be trying a lot of beers, and wanting us both to be able to do so, I secured accomodations at downtown botique hotel “Hotel Monaco” for the evening.  So we met up in our room there around 5PM, freshened up, and then walked over to the convention center.
 
We are American Homebrewers Association members, so we were able to go into the “Members Entrance”…so we didn’t have to wait around outside the convention center, but we still had an amazingly long line to wait in before going into the hall.
GABF Entry Line
GABF Entry Line
To be fair, they have a pretty solid process, and a goodly amount of volunteers to check tickets, IDs, band people, get them tasting glasses, and get them into the hall.  But it’s a crazy amount of people, all of whom want to get right in at 5:30 and start drinking!
 
While one of the longest queues I’ve been in outside of my trip to Russia in 1990, it was also one of the fastest moving, so kudos to the GABF staff and volunteers.
 
We had to go through the main area to get to the Pavilion, which was basically a large chunk of hallway on the back side of the main convention area.  This experience proved to me why we hadn’t gone in previous years – it was insanely loud, and very very crowded.  Especially at the beginning, around 6PM when we finally got into the hall from the giant line outside, before the crowd was…pliable.
 
But we made it to the back, where it was blessedly quiet.  Apparently, going to the pavilion makes you a VIP, so they handed us goody bags with nice GABF leather coasters, and some advertising.  Which we then had to carry about for the rest of our time there.  Next time, we’ll get the goody bags on the way out. 🙂
 
And then we proceeded to eat and drink our way through the pavilion!  They had 4-5 cocktail tables that you could stop and eat at, and several low cube stool/couch things you could sit on.
 
Homebrewing pioneer Charlie Papazian’s daughter and granddaughter were hanging out on one of the couchlets for the whole time we were there.
 
We wished there had been more cocktail tables, even 2-3 more would have made it more comfortable to stand and eat.  But once we got into the rhythm of it, we could find an empty or sharable table quite easily.  We had some lovely conversations with beer  podcasters from Texas, a homebrewer from Highlands Ranch, and a nice older couple from Kiowa.
 
About halfway through, we were getting pretty tired of standing about, so we went out onto the deck that overlooks Speer.  It was a beautiful night, and they had tables and chairs you could sit and chillax at.  We watched traffic and the sunset for a bit, and chatted with a couple from Kansas who’s son was the Brewer’s Association graphic designer.
 
Back in we went to finish out the second half.  By the time we’d finished the last table, we were surprisingly full!  We went back into the main hall, there were a couple of recommendations we’d gotten from folks to try, and we hit those up on the way out.
 
We took a pedicab back to the hotel, and had a blessedly quiet night after the cacophany of the main hall!
 
The beer standouts:
  • Tim: Denver-Based Strange Brewing Company’s Cherry Kriek (Main Hall)

  • Kim: Victory Brewing’s V-12 (Farm to Table)

The Food Standouts:
  • Triple M Bar Ranch Lamb Polpette, Mint Pesto, Goat Cheese, Curry Pinenuts, Micro Basil, Balsamic Reduction (ironically made by Panzano, the restaurant in the hotel we were staying in)

  • Dessert: North Fork Valley Apple & Pine Nut Tartlets with Beer Caramel (Also Panzano)

Overall, we thought the pairings to be…odd.  Great beers, great food, but the portion sizes and ability to eat one bite at a time while standing up made some of the pairings hard to grasp.  Even when we could, the pairings sometimes seemed weird.
 
 Some of the food was so mild, and the beer so Imperial and heavy, that the pairings didn’t quite line up.
 
We had a great time though, and we both would love to go again next year!
 
Here’s the details on the rest:
 
Ninkasi Brewing:
Radiant
Kim +++.5
T ++
Oskar Blues:
Hoppy seconds
K ++++
T +++
bacon good, spent grain cracker good
Ten fidy
T ++
K +
Victory Brewing
V12
T++.5
K +++++
Sausage is very very good, slaw is tasty
Pate is meh
Pickled onions good
Helios beer is funky (almost as funky as golden monkey!)
Rogue Brewing
Chocolate stout
Tim +++.5
Kim+++
qionua salad bland lame
Juniper pale ale
Tim +++
Kim +++
corn cake good, tomatillo sauce great!!
Smoked trout on corn cake meh
Sweetwater Brewing
Happy ending
T ++
k ++
quesadilla
Doughy, goat cheese not quite present enough
Dank tank
K +++.5
T +++
Esther nose is good
Odell Brewing
Woodcut
K++++
Tim +++
polenta + mushrooms buerre blancy, woody
Tongue of fire stew very good.  3rd so far!
Cutthroat Porter
T +++
K drunk now!
Stone Brewing
Tripple
T +
K +++.5
Spice cake- meh
Rosemary Bison Burger – omg!!!! A little dry, but very good
Saison – wow hoppy!
K ++
New Holland Brewing
Dragon’s Milk
K ++ (for name)
T ++ (choked on it!)
Charkoota Rye
T +++ smoky goodness!!!
Ska Brewing:
Nut brown
K +++
T ++
rosemary bison burger good, dry
Out in the Hall:
Strange Brewing:
Cherry kreik sour cherry!
Tim ++++
Pizzaport:
Bacon and eggs coffee stout.
Tim +++
Sep 08

Choosing a Guitar Pick

Guitar picks (or “plectra” to be precise) are one of the most personal things that your average guitarist gets to choose – it’s half of your connection to your instrument.

There are hundreds of different kinds of picks available, and taking the time to try out a number of different styles can make a huge difference in your playing comfort, and your enjoyment and precision with the instrument.

Yet many electric guitarists still use the same “Fender-style” thick picks that came with their “Starter Kit”:

Fender Pick

These picks are made of celluloid, the same plastic that was used for early motion picture film.  They are about the only things around still made of it, because celluloid is very flammable, and large pieces can break very easily.

Celluloid also stinks – literally.  Especially in the sweaty hand of a guitarist, scraping along metal strings, it has a distinctive acrid smell that says ‘guitar’ to a lot of people.

Personally, I think it’s nasty.

Especially the way it lingers on the fingers after you play.

So, I asked my favorite guitar teacher (back in my college days) Dave Parsons (who now works over at http://kidscreatethemusic.org/ ), what my options were, and he handed me a tiny little “Jazz” pick that was made of a specialized nylon, not celluloid.

I went to get a couple of these from my friendly local music shop, and they offered three different thicknesses.  I ended up getting some of each, but I quickly became addicted to the “L3 – thin” version of this pick a mere .5mm in thickness.

Dunlop Tortex Jazz Thin L3 PickI love these Dunlop Tortex Jazz picks, and have since ordered mass quantities that I have stashed in the rock lab.

I carry one in my wallet, in case I end up guitar shopping, or there is an impomptu jam, because using the big celluloid picks just doesn’t work for me anymore.

There are four things going on here:

Thickness – I like to strum barre chords very quickly, and the thin pick lets me whip my right hand up and down without having to change the pick angle as drastically as you do with a thicker pick – less wrist strain, faster strumming.  However, you do have to grip the pick fairly firmly to get the same sharp sound that a ‘regular pick’ gives.  However, that’s one of the advantages, is that you can change the tone of your picking based on the tightness of your grip.

Size – The smaller pick fits my smaller hands better, and lets me keep a more consistent grip – there aren’t as many ways to hold these little guys, so you end up holding it the same way more often, leading to more consistent tone.  It’s part of the Tim White sound. 🙂 You do have a bit less flexibility in terms of tone, but switching picks for certain songs is pretty easy to do, especially when recording.  If you have really large hands, the big “triangle” picks, or the standard-style picks might feel better to you.

Point – the point on these picks is relatively sharp, compared to the ‘standard’ pick shape.  Interestingly, there are there different sharpnesses – L1 is close to the standard, whereas L3 is the sharp Jazz tip that I prefer.  Sometimes it’s hard to get the right version when you order online, which can be frustrating.  Plus, the tips do wear down fairly quickly with heavy use.

Material – I like the way that the Tortex feels in my hand, and how it slides across the wound strings.  It also has no smell.  They do come coated with a fine powder, which I recommend you wash off before use, as it tastes pretty nasty when you eventually jam one in your mouth during that fingerpicking section of your favorite tune.  The material affects the feel and tone, so try a number of different types to see how they work for you.

Guitar picks are like mousetraps – music companies are constantly coming up with new designs and styles and plastics.  Since picks are indeed so personal, and so inexpensive, it’s pretty easy to try a bunch of different ones to try and find something that works perfectly for you.

And doesn’t make your hand stink!

Here’s a few innovative picks:

Zero Gravity Orbit Guitar Pick Wirething Guitar Pick

Sep 08

A few of my favorite things…Books!

I love recommending books to people.  Unlike films, unless there is a HUGE buzz around a book, it can be hard to really get a feel for what’s out there.

Many of my favorite books were recommended to me by friends and loved ones, so it’s only fair to share the love!

I’ve broken the lists out into “recommended”, and “recommended with reservations”, in the style of the fabulous Cook’s Illustrated (another favorite thing).

Usually, the “Reservations” are because the book is incredible, but has some component that might offend a big enough chunk of people out there that it’s worth giving you a head’s up before you grab it.  Sometimes, the “Reservations” are because there is something incredible in the book, even though it might have other serious drawbacks.

Without further ado:

Recommended

1. Myth Adventures by Robert Asprin

2. The Stainless Steel Rat, by Harry Harrison

4. Lady Slings the Booze, by Spider Robinson

5. Diplomat-At-Arms, by Keith Laumer

6. Phule’s Company by Robert Asprin

7. Hellspark by Janet Kagan

8. The Eight by Katherine Neville

9. Stardust, by Neil Gaiman

10. Quarter Share, by Nathan Lowell

11. Storm Front, by Jim Butcher

12. Soulless, by Gail Carriger

Recommended with Reservations

1. Inherit the Stars, by James P. Hogan

2. Kushiel’s Dart, by Jacqueline Carey

3. The True Game, by Sherri S. Tepper

4. West of Eden, by Harry Harrison

5. Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein

6. Time Enough for Love, Robert A. Heinlein

7. Furies of Calderon, by Jim Butcher

8. Dragonflight, by Anne McCaffery

Bonus! Guilty Pleasures

1. Sahara, by Clive Cussler

2. Killing Floor, by Lee Child

3. Created, the Destroyer, by Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir

4. The Man Who Never Missed, by Steve Perry

5. Pawn of Prophecy, by David Eddings

6. Darkwalker on Moonshae, by Douglas Niles

7. Suite Scarlett, by Maureen Johnson

8. Castle Roogna, by Piers Anthony

9. Key of Light, by Nora Roberts

Bonus Bonus!  Technical Books

1. The Complete HyperCard Handbook, by Danny Goodman

2. Oracle: The Complete Reference, by George Koch and Kevin Loney

3. The Pragmatic Programmer, by Andrew Hunt and David Thomas

4. Coders at Work, by Peter Seibel

5. Thinking in Java, by Bruce Eckel

Short Stories

1. Diplomat-At-Arms, by Keith Laumer

2. Gift of the Magi, by O. Henry

3. Prostho Plus, by Piers Anthony

Scarred for Life Books

1. Anthonology, by Piers Anthony

2. Wizard’s First Rule, by Terry Goodkind

3. Splatterpunks: Extreme Horror, edited by Paul F. Sammon