Friday, September 20, 2019

The Computer that Did Everything Twice

“I see everything twice!” the soldier who saw everything twice shouted in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. He was in the throes of delirium and died soon afterward.

I’m not seeing everything twice. But thanks to my computer, I’m having to do a lot of things twice and that has, at times, given me feelings ranging from “going mildly crazy” to “presentiment of doom.”

I’m happy to report that the shenanigans Google Mail got up to about a year ago, which I wrote about here, are no longer troubling me. So, I don’t have to type my gmail password twice to login once; I don’t have to watch the progress bar ooze across the screen twice before arriving at my inbox. That’s one mercy.

However, I’ve picked up on a number of other issues demanding repetition of tasks that I would just as soon not have to repeat. They may be unique to my own personal computer (I mean to say, the PC I use at work). Or they may be signs that Microsoft, Adobe and their ilk are having a bad day this year. I’d give them a pat on the head for reassurance, but that would require me to reach up their … never mind.

First, there’s the background image settings on my Windows desktop. Earlier this year, I shot a nice, scenic photo and asked the computer nicely to make it my background image, set to fill the screen. Every time my computer restarts, however, it shows me a tantalizing glimpse of my desired background photo, then switches as if by default to a detail image from the same photo, set on tile. Every. Time. Would it be unreasonable to expect Windows to save my preference and not make me do this every time I restart the machine? I’d like to say no. But this is Microsoft we’re talking about.

When I stick my camera’s memory card in the card reader slot on the computer, I have to be careful what I do in what order. Say I’m dragging photos off the card into a folder on the harddrive. I have to have that folder ready before I insert the card, open the relevant folder on it and attempt to click and drag, or else the computer will likely freeze and I’ll have to restart and go through the whole process again.

When it comes time to remove the card, I try to be scrupulous about opening a context menu and asking the computer to eject it, so I can safely remove it from the slot. But I find that every time – again, every time – I get an error message saying something went wrong, and I have to click “Try Again” at least once before it will eject properly. Occasionally, if I’ve already Photoshopped a copy of some of the pictures that I pulled over to my computer, the cycle of “Something’s wrong, want to try again?” will continue until I close Photoshop. It’s as if there’s a file still open on the card, even though there isn’t.

While I’m mentioning Photoshop, let me also kvetch about the process of printing a JPEG. You go to the print dialog box and find, naturally, that the image is bigger than the printable area of the page. That’s no surprise. What’s weird is that it’s trying to squeeze the landscape-oriented image onto a portrait-oriented page, even though the portrait/landscape selector is, by default, set on landscape. So, I have to click portrait, wait a moment for the program to process the action (which has no effect whatsoever), then click landscape to get what it should have been showing me in the first place – and then check the “scale to fit media” box, etc. Not only is this frankly stupid to start with, but the next time I try to print a JPEG (sometimes I’m doing several in a row), I have to go through all these steps again.

Lately, I’ve become hip to a site called Scribd that allows me to upload a document – say, a PDF of a multi-page legal decision or a press release – then copy the embed code so that I can paste it into an embed on my newspaper’s web platform and include the original copy in the online version of my story. Ideally, the embed should display across the full width of the body text in the online story. But what actually happens is, on the first go around, what displays is a shrunken-down version that only goes across about a third of the column. Strangely, my computer seems to be the only one this happens to, and when I go back to Scribd, look up the existing upload and recopy the embed code, then paste the updated embed into the story, it works fine. It’s one of those things that just doesn’t work on the first try. Ever. But it works correctly when you go back into the upload and do it over. Always.

Weird, huh? Maybe this could be an early sign that my computer is fixing to go the way of the soldier who saw everything twice. I hope not. But who knows? I say, who knows?

Inadequacy Dreams

I spent a couple of days sick this past week. I took an afternoon off one day, and a couple of hours out of the next afternoon, to get a little extra sleep during the day. I think it did me good. But it also did a number on my head, to judge by the weird dreams I had, both during those naps and toward the end of both nights’ sleep.

I’ve referred to some of my past, recurring types of dreams as frustration dreams, job stress dreams, embarrassment dreams and so on. There were the entertaining dreams, inspired by whatever I’ve been reading or watching onscreen. There were the “get up and pee, stupid” dreams, in which I find myself searching in vain for bladder relief. But these last few dreams are in a class by themselves. Let’s call them inadequacy dreams.

They’re the sort of plot-heavy scenarios in which everything I do falls short of the expectation. They’re full of characters who are continually turning to look at me with pity, exasperation or (my least favorite of all) a smug little smile. Triumph. Schadenfreude. You name it, eyefuls of it were hurled my way, often because of mistakes I could only have avoided if someone had given me better information before I acted.

Literally everything I did, large or small, was inadequate. In some episodes, it might be merely reaching for the wrong taco on a platterful of them and taking a bite out of it before anyone told me that, on the side of the wrappers facing away from me, they had specific people’s names written on them. At other times, it was due to my capacity for getting lost in a weirdly laid out four-story building in which, for some reason, I was supposed to run a line of garden hose up from the ground floor to the roof – possibly (but don’t quote me on this) to fight off a dragon attack. Nobody was there to guide me through floorplans that were different on each level, and no stairwell went straight up all four levels, and one stairwell ended in thin air, and by the time I got there the show was over because some other guy with a line of hose had come up the other end of the building and did the job himself. Is it not enough that I must endure a dream about being lost in a labyrinthine building, but I must then go on to dream about people staring at me incredulously, clearly amazed at my uselessness, and (in one guy’s case) even lying about where he saw me and when?

Another vignette I remember from those dreams is one where I come home to find my front door wide open. Someone has been inside and looked around, but nothing has been taken. The house is a mess, but only its usual mess. I feel judged, ashamed, exposed, caught in the act of being an abject slob who couldn’t decorate an interior if his eternal soul depended on it. Upon waking, it actually takes me a few moments to sort out the dream from real life – the last indignity.

Maybe inadequacy is on my mind. Disappointment with my life. Unease about the future. But really – can’t a guy get some rest from these things, at least in sleep? What ever happened to those dreams where I was Jack Aubrey on the quarterdeck of the H.M.S. Surprise? Fighting off dragon attacks might be good – if only I got there on time to see the dragon! But sneering looks, eye-rolls and a little blond girl giving me that “you’re in for it now” smirk? Not my thing!

These dreams seem designed to crush the spirit out of me. I don’t know why my subconscious chose those sick-day naptimes and morning lie-ins to afflict me this way. Maybe it was a combination of the drugs I was on. Or maybe I was having a premonition of a book I started reading after the illness broke, which is totally about the kind of hopeless bloke I kept dreaming I was. Or am. It can be funny when it’s somebody else, someone fictional. But boy, does that kind of storyline take the fun out of being sick.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Reliquary

Reliquary
by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child
Recommended Ages: 14+

This is the second of 18 Agent Pendergast novels, of which the first was The Relic and which I read way back in the mid '90s when it was brand new, and there wasn't a huge franchise trailing after it. I also saw the movie version of The Relic that came out around that time, and which (as I recall) took serious liberties with the book. Since I'm all about moving forward, I'm not going to go back and re-read Book 1 so that I can add it to my canon of book reviews, which dates back to about the turn of the century. I'll just say that as far as I remember, with a little help from Book 2, The Relic was a grisly, creepy novel about a creature prowling the bowels of the New York Museum of Natural History, slavering over a certain species of lily that was used as packing material for a plundered relic of an extinct Amazonian tribe. Cut off from its drug of choice, the subhuman addict goes after the next best thing: a gland tucked inside the human brain. The outcome is a paroxysm of hideous violence. Dozens of victims, brains sucked out of a hole in the back of their heads. Icky in the extreme, and terrifying to boot. The city is made safe thanks only to a handful of scientists working at the museum, a dumpy city cop, a debonair FBI agent and a crusading journalist. But as the monster's corpse disappears into the back of a government van, mysteries remain unresolved, and now in Book 2, they break out again.

What museum curator Margo Green, Police Lt. Vincent D'Agosta, journalist Bill Smithback and Agent Pendergast know, as the sequel kicks off, is only that some unholy horror with a combination of human and reptile DNA, known as the mbwun, wreaked havoc before they as a group were able to kill it. What they only find out by degrees is that the mbwun lily is making more mbwuns (if that's the plural form), spreading an addiction into the literal underbelly of the city and, with the addiction to the plant, certain physical and mental transformations. People who live in the underground recesses of Manhattan are disappearing, but the authorities only take notice when a beautiful socialite turns up headless and skeletonized, in the embrace of a headless mutant skeleton, in one of the city's nasty rivers of mud. This sets two segments of the city's population on a collision course, with white privilege on the march from one direction and the Mole People, who dwell on a level of civic development aptly known as Route 666, from the other.

In the pinch point is a police department with crappy leadership, but some outstanding individuals doing their best to control the damage. The book does a good job of making the reader angry about a lot of bad decisions that don't fall very wide of the line between fiction and non. But it doesn't content itself with that. Instead, it brings up horrors from the depths – like, 30-odd stories down, in an abandoned rail line for the wealthy elite known today as the Devil's Attic – where a cult practicing a ritual involving polished skulls prepares it's next victim.

It doesn't stop at creeping horrors, either, building up a frenzy of excitement about a plot to drown the Wrinklers, as this deadly cult becomes known, followed by an even more urgent race to stop the reservoir dump from flushing the mbwun lily out into the ocean where, activated by the salt in the water, the gene-rewriting reovirus it carries will transform the world into a monster apocalypse. Suspense, fast-paced action, violence, gore, and a razor-thin margin between life and death make this book, degree by thrilling degree, the type of thing your fingernails will leave dents in.

Next in line after this, in the Pendergast canon, is The Cabinet of Curiosities. A 19th book in the series, Crooked River, is expected in February 2020. The writing team of Preston and Child are also responsible for the five-book Gideon's Crew series and the novels Mount Dragon, Riptide, Thunderhead, The Ice Limit, and Old Bones. Since I've already reviewed some of Lincoln Child's solo novels, I'd better mention that Douglas Preston also has a solo career, with such titles as Jennie, The Codex and four Wyman Ford novels under his belt. Cryptids and paranormal creepy-crawlies, investigated in the light of present-day science and law enforcement, seem to be their m├ętier. I was going to say "forte," but sometimes it's the pianissimo parts that make the hair stand up on your neck. I look forward to more of those experiences, if for no better reason than my neck can stand to be aired out now and again.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

The Jennifer Morgue

The Jennifer Morgue
by Charles Stross
Recommended Ages: 14+

In the second novel of the Laundry Files, U.K. government secret agent Bob Howard – who identifies as an applied computational demonologist and is also his office's IT guy – goes on a field assignment in the steamy Caribbean that showcases all the ways he isn't James Bond. Ironically, it does this by entangling him in a geas that compels him to act a part in an Ian Fleming novel, or perhaps an Albert Broccoli movie. This is the fiendish villain's way of ensuring that nobody can stop him before he achieves world domination – unless that person performs 007's role without missing a step. Hampering Bob in doing that is his essential nerdiness, the fact that his department's budget only allows him to rent a Smart Fortwo (a world away from an Aston Martin), and a bit of jiggery pokery that has linked him psychically with a not-entirely-human agent named Ramona Random, whose sex appeal is barbed with death.

Let's not even talk about what Bob's girlfriend will do when she catches up to them, or the betrayal of the local station chief, or the fact that the island of St. Martin is crawling with zombies, black beret-wearing goons, and cosmetics saleswomen whose products give them young looking skin at the cost of their souls. What's really of concern is a sunken piece of alien weaponry whose location, far below the ocean's surface, means that it belongs to the Deep Ones and, under the terms of the Benthic Treaty, messing with it could be more than the human race's survival is worth. But mess with it is what tech magnate Ellis Billington means to do, and he has a record of pursuing his goals with a ruthlessness equal to that of any Bond villain – augmented by a knack for necromancy.

This book blends, and bends, the tropes of spy thrillers, high-tech science fiction and Lovecraftian horror in a sexy, self-referentially funny way. It takes wry pokes at the software industry, government bureaucracy, corporate culture and pyramid schemes that peddle beauty aids. It chills with scenes depicting demonic possession, thrills with stunts like hitting the ejector button on a subcompact car, and keeps the scenery interesting with undead shootouts, gadgets concealed as eveningwear and two characters pscyhically handcuffed together.

Also included in this book is a short story titled "Pimpf," which (I just learned; thank you, Internet) is German slang for a boy whose voice hasn't changed. I guess that explains why Stross chose that title for a goofy romp in which Bob gets an intern, then almost loses him when a first-person-shooter computer game inhales his mind. Supported by his techie pals Pinky and Brains (keep up, now), Bob plunges into the cyberworld to rescue him, only to face the vilest enemy mankind may ever know: Human Resources. Stross adds an afterword in which he muses entertainingly about the Bond franchise. I recommend it all around, especially if you (like me) plan to move on quickly to Book 3 of the Laundry Files, The Fuller Memorandum.

The series continues with several other short stories and, most recently, a ninth novel titled The Labyrinth Index. Stross is also the author of three Singularity Sky novels, six Merchant Princes books and about 15 other books.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Shadows Still Remain

Shadows Still Remain
by Peter de Jonge
Recommended Ages: 14+

When a beautiful NYU student is first reported missing, then found murdered over Thanksgiving weekend, New York Police Detective Darlene O'Hara recognizes it as the case that could make her career. But she's just a lowly detective in the Seventh Precinct, not yet a Detective First Grade with the homicide squad, who take over the case while she's still working on it. So while the homicide guys follow one theory – their suspect a boyfriend whose resemblance to Darleen's college student son tugs at her heartstrings – she chases down leads they don't consider important enough to waste time on. After a certain point in her investigation, she starts to get in trouble with the brass just for following her own leads when it's no longer her case. She increasingly has to hide out, adopt disguises and skive off from work to follow a trail of clues that involve sexual exploitation, academic fraud and at least one more death.

O'Hara, aided and abetted by her detective partner Krekorian, runs an outlaw investigation that, if she's right, could show up those homicide guys. But she's digging into things people don't want her to find out. Even when it seems she's solved the case, she continues to turn over stones concealing even nastier buried things until you wonder when the breathtaking twists are going to end. Ultimately, O'Hara heeds the voice of a police friend in an internal dialogue (in her mind only), telling her that if she doesn't stop somewhere, the chain of cause-and-effect could lead all the way back to the trees from which the first hairless apes descended.

As I mentioned, this is a mystery that packs a lot of twists into relatively few pages. The large-print edition I read (because that was what the library had on offer) wasn't all that thick, and I guess the regular-size paperback would be quite a bit smaller. In spite of that, the mystery provides an ample field of activity for the main act, which is the character of Darlene. A high school dropout with a smart mind and an even smarter attitude, she drinks too much, thinks about her kid a lot, lusts after a nerdy medical examiner, picks and chooses the rules she'll follow, holds her immediate supervisor in contempt and identifies passionately with the victims of the crimes she detects – even when their identity comes into question. She has a warm, funny, down-to-earth voice and feels like good company, though her judgment isn't always the best. I've already read her second adventure, Buried on Avenue B, but I'm looking forward to more.

Peter de Jonge is also a member of James Patterson's coterie of co-authors, with about five books to their shared credit including Miracle on the 17th Green and The Beach House.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Over the Edge

Over the Edge
by Jonathan Kellerman
Recommended Ages: 14+

In the third mystery-thriller headlined by him, child psychologist Dr. Alex Delaware is awakened in the wee hours by a phone call from a former patient in crisis. Nothing that young Jamey Cadmus says makes immediate sense. He seems to be in the throes of psychosis. But by the time Alex gets to the inpatient clinic where Jamey is being treated, the kid has escaped and turns up, not long afterward, at the scene of a grisly crime with the murder weapon in his bloody hands. Suddenly a troubled kid Alex treated five years ago is the prime suspect in a serial killer case.

While Alex wonders how he could have failed Jamey so badly, he also wrestles with several strange contradictions in the boy's case. In the first place, there's something really odd about the way Jamey's symptoms respond to antipsychotic drugs. For another, there's the fact that somebody as crazy as Jamey seems to be couldn't possibly plan and carry out such a highly organized series of crimes. They may sound alike, but psychosis and psychopathy are very different disorders, and those afflicted by them aren't going to kill people in the same way. But while Alex suspects that Jamey may not be guilty at all, his (Alex's) best friend, LAPD homicide detective Milo Sturgis, thinks the kid is good for the crime, and a couple of his more obnoxious colleagues believe it even harder. On the other side is Jamey's family lawyer, who wants Alex to testify that Jamey is not guilty by reason of insanity – a defense Alex doesn't really believe in.

So, from the very start, it's a case fraught with problems. Alex becomes isolated by his differences with the lawyer on the one hand and Milo and Co. on the other. As he probes deeper – at risk of being caught interfering with the case by one side or the other – he detects a connection between Jamey's disturbed ravings and a real estate deal in a remote desert valley. Something about the kid's family history is coming back to bite him, and it may bite Alex, too.

This series continues to present a fascinating and unusual side of crime-solving – a side that involves serious psychological research, that delves into history, anthropology, class warfare, sexual identity, the socialization of extremely gifted children and the finer points of treating a serious mental illness – including, perhaps, creating one on purpose. It is, no pun intended, a disturbing look at the child psych issues, and other things, that can lead to terrible things happening to complex people. And, of course, it's a straight-up sexy thriller featuring a sleuth who, by now, should get more credit than he does for how well he does what he does.

As for reading about him doing more of it, please see the next book in this series, Silent Partner, as well as the whole series of titles that follow it. The 34th and latest is The Wedding Guest, and another titled The Museum of Desire is expected in February 2020.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Running Blind

Running Blind
by Lee Child
Recommended Ages: 14+

Alternately titled "The Visitor," this is the fourth in about 24 Jack Reacher thrillers, featuring a guy who doesn't resemble Tom Cruise in the slightest. In this book, the FBI fingers him as Suspect No. 1 in a series of murders targeting women whose complaints of rape and sexual harassment he investigated back when he was an army MP. They recognize soon enough that he's not their guy, but they use some low-down, dirty threats to force him to help them investigate the crimes, all while ignoring every suggestion he makes. Nobody in the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit (cf. Criminal Minds, The Silence of the Lambs, Unsub etc.) cares to hear Reacher's opinion that their psychological profile of the killer is complete bunk.

It takes all the resources of a, well, really resourceful guy to sneak around under the noses of the FBI, doing his own investigation that ultimately leads to – well, to be honest, I had this one figured out before Reacher did. But just to keep me unsure of myself, the author dragged a neon red herring across the track – a piece of deception so complete that I was tempted to go back and re-read parts of the novel to make sure it wasn't a cheat.

Jack Reacher is a fun character to follow. Not exactly a lovable type, he's a stone-cold killer who fixes problems that no one else seems able to fix – brutally, effectively, and permanently. In this book, he reveals a certain kind of vulnerability. For one thing, if you want to hurt Reacher, go after women he cares about – and on some level, at least, he cares about the victims of the crimes in this story. Then there's his wanderlust, an aspect of his character that feels pinched these days, what with a steady girlfriend waiting for him in New York City and a house of his own, inherited from a former C.O. who was all but a father to him. He feels the call of the road, and this adds tension to his romance with the lovely Jodie.

His compulsion to right wrongs also makes trouble for him, which is how the FBI gets its leverage over him. But watching him right those wrongs, to say nothing of how he gets out from under the Feds' thumb, adds zest to what would otherwise be just another crime procedural. It's also kind of refreshing, in a vaguely transgressive way, to experience a serial killer case from the point of view of a crime fighter who thinks behavioral profiling is a load of bull. Reacher doesn't have time for all that head-shrinking stuff. His more direct, hands-on approach to getting the bad guy is a refreshing break from head games, even in a case that clearly has some kind of psychological component.

Next on deck in my survey of the Jack Reacher novels will be Echo Burning. The latest book in the series, Blue Moon, is due to come out in October 2019.