Friday, October 2, 2015

Reddy on the Secret Dangers of Sitting—and Standing

In the September 28, 2015, edition of The Wall Street Journal, Sumathi Reddy discusses the dangers of sedentary work habits—and the hidden risks of standing desks. Excerpt:
Studies have found that sedentary behavior, including sitting for extended periods, increases the risk for developing dozens of chronic conditions, from cancer and diabetes to cardiovascular disease and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. Some ergonomics experts warn that too much standing also can have negative effects on health, including a greater risk for varicose veins, back and foot problems, and carotid artery disease.

“The key is breaking up your activity throughout the day,” said Alan Hedge, a professor of ergonomics at Cornell University. “Sitting all day and standing all day are both bad for you,” he said.

For every half-hour working in an office, people should sit for 20 minutes, stand for eight minutes and then move around and stretch for two minutes, Dr. Hedge recommends, based on a review of studies that he has presented at corporate seminars and expects to publish. He says standing for more than 10 minutes tends to cause people to lean, which can lead to back problems and other musculoskeletal issues.
Read the whole thing. Back in the day (and I mean about 30 years ago), my father had a Swiss client who absolutely swore by his standing desk. Since then, such salutary accoutrements have almost become mainstream. Several genre writers have publically praised writing on one’s feet. So imagine my disappointment when I had to abandon my own makeshift standing desk after only a few uses. Why? Shooting pains in my knees. (Curse you, high school sports injury!). Abominable aches in my feet. (Drat those high arches!) Now, though, I feel somewhat better knowing that standing all the time causes its own health issues—some of them serious.

For what it’s worth, dear reader, allow me to offer my own regime for remaining at least a little active in the writing life. I keep a Pomodoro app running on my phone (although you can easily employ it with any timer if you’d prefer a more low-tech solution), and whenever a break rolls around, I pick up a pair of dumbbells beside my desk. Five minutes is more than enough time to pound out a quick set each of curls, front raises, lateral raises, tricep extensions, sitting reverse flies, and pushups. (Working at home has its advantages, such as no one watching you look faintly ridiculous as you huff and puff around your desk.) I’m not exactly swinging steel or breaking a sweat, just maintaining muscle tone while moving around. According to Dr. Hedge, it just may prolong my life.

(Picture: CC 2011 by Garret Voight)

Friday, September 25, 2015

Tea is Bitter in the End

Cyberpunk started as a rebellious subgenre, a sort of thumb in the eye to both Golden Age and New Wave SF. Over the years, though, it has developed an orthodoxy all its own. The prototypical cyberpunk novel contains 1) a near-future setting; 2) plenty of high-tech body modification; 3) an anti-capitalist distrust of all things corporate; 4) virtual reality of some sort; 5) a fascination with Asia in general and Japan in particular; 6) an impressively intense anti-authoritarian impulse; and 7) drugs, lots of drugs. Of course, no cyberpunk story needs equal emphasis on all these elements, and what makes things interesting is the way in which authors trumpet some and mute others. Take Pat Cadigan’s Tea from an Empty Cup, which was praised by no less than William Gibson, Mister Cyberpunk himself (“ambitious and brilliantly executed”). It’s a novel which so focuses on surreal VR and Japanese culture that it ends up feeling like an eastern-tinged Through the Looking-Glass.

Yuki Harame worries over the disappearance of Tom Iguchi, her boyfriend and one of the few Japanese still alive after the island’s destruction. Sure, Tom has never been known for his stability, but this sudden vanishing seems strange even for him. That’s why Yuki is seeking out Joy Flower, a local mogul notorious for ... well, no one’s entirely sure what she does. Criminal, sex addict, madam to the degenerate rich—Joy Flower could be any of them. Yuki only knows that she manages a coterie of male eye candy and Tom might have joined it. So she’s going to seek him out the only way she knows how, namely by hiring on to Joy Flower’s crew. Meanwhile, homicide investigator Doré Konstantin finds herself investigating the strangest case of her career. A man has died during an Artificial Reality bender, his throat slashed open while still sheathed in the trademark suit that makes electronic imaginings feel realer than real itself. His throat was slit, a savage slice that clove clean through his trachea at the very moment that his avatar perished in exactly the same way while touring a projection of post-apocalyptic Noo Yawk Sitty. Strange that a simulation could kill—and stranger still that the victim was going by the name Tom Iguchi.

I want to love Tea from an Empty Cup. Cadigan has such an expansive imagination, sprinkling the novel with incidental details that hint a larger speculative world. For instance, devotees of a religion dedicated to dwarfism warp their metabolisms during childhood. A female cop somehow manages to grow a mustache. No one ever mentions Washington, D.C., without intoning, “Life is so cheap there.” And in Artificial Reality (or “AR” as it’s called), reflections become sentient, UFOs funnel abductees into secret sex clubs, and help programs are hobos with attitude. But despite such delightful details, Tea plays it too coy with the plot to inspire adoration. Cyberpunk often features trippy interludes usually brought on by computer interfacing or proscribed pharmaceuticals, and Tea does the same—for a full nine-tenths of the book. Yuki and Konstantin spend almost all of their time in AR with neither having the slightest idea what’s going on around them. Such mutual lack of comprehension quickly becomes irritating, oddity after oddity swirling kaleidoscopically around them while imparting little sense of progress. Then—bam!—the resolution hits like a sucker punch, everything wrapped neatly up in a few pat pages. It left me reeling. Tea may taste sweet at first, but it’s bitter in the end.

(Picture: CC 2006 by Damien Gabrielson)

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

"Dialect" Doesn’t Intensify (Mass Effect 2)

Note: Discussions about profanity require using profanity, at least in quotation. Just so you know.

Space operas might have gone out of style in the SF community, but they’re all the rage among gamers, and few have garnered as much critical and popular acclaim as Mass Effect 2. With over four million copies sold, this second installment in the venerable shooter/RPG series avoided the sophomore slump by getting grim from the outset. The game opens with the player character, Commander Shepard, perishing from deep-space decompression as the Normandy, the ship he or she was captaining, gets blasted to bits by an insectoid species called the Collectors. (FYI, you can select Shepard’s sex at the onset.) Good night, sweet prince or princess? Not quite. Shepard wakes up two years later on an operating table. A shadowy organization named Cerberus has brought Shepard back from the dead using cutting-edge technology. But Shepard’s new life comes with strings attached, namely finding out why the Collectors are abducting entire human colonies and then destroying the marauders. It’s a suicide mission, no doubt about it, and to succeed Shepard will need to recruit some of the deadliest talent the galaxy has to offer. A scientist responsible for the nigh extermination of an entire species. A grudge-bound, amoral biotic (think of the psychic hijinks in Stephen King’s Firestarter or Paul McGuigan’s Push). A lethal hitman who’s devoutly religious. Still, Shepard doesn’t need such death dealers to figure out who’s being the Collectors. It’s the Reapers, a race of sentiment machines who appear every fifty-thousand years to obliterate all organic life.

While a dour tone dominates, Mass Effect 2 wisely includes some comic relief in the form of Jeff “Joker” Moreau, a hotshot pilot who suffers from Lobstein syndrome and is as quick to crack a joke as he is a bone. His banter with the rechristened Normandy’s cold-as-Arctic-ice artificial intelligence EDI never failed to bring a smile to my face. I wish the same could be said for the single mission in which you, the player, get to control Joker. Some background: Commander Shepard and the Normandy’s fighting forces have absconded on a shuttle when a group of Collectors surprise the ship and start taking out its skeleton crew. Their only hope is for limping, brittle Joker to remove EDI’s protocol restraints and give it control of the Normandy.

“Shit, shit, shit,” Joker exclaims, lurching down the Normandy’s bridge as a chitinous, multi-limbed monstrosity with an anvil-shaped head lit by lambent eyes rends his friends apart. A second such horror scuttles up a nearby laboratory window as Joker ducks into a maintenance tunnel, muttering, “Shit, shit, shit, shit.” A brawny security guard gets hurled into a bulkhead moments after proclaiming, “Stay close. I’ll protect you.” Meanwhile, a comely yeoman is dragged shrieking into an elevator by a malformed humanoid horror. “Shit, shit, shit,” Joker states. Then EDI dispassionately informs him that the main reactor is offline. “What the shit?” Joker opines. After Joker gets to engineering and discovers that the rest of the crew is either dead or abducted, he huffs, “Shit.”

Quick quiz: Is this section supposed to be humorous or dire? I played it several times and still can’t tell. It isn’t devoid of chuckles. When EDI tells Joker he has to reactivate the primary drive, Joker says, “You want me to go crawling through the ducts again.” EDI sweetly responds, “I enjoy the sight of humans on their knees. That is a joke.” Neither does it lack terror. Watching the Collectors dispatch characters you’ve come to know by name is chilling. Sadly, Joker’s dialogue doesn’t cater to either tone, a consequence (I’d argue) of it being composed almost entirely of a single, oft-repeated profanity. Yes, yes, I know it’s possible to wring pathos and drama out of a lone obscenity by repeating it with different inflections (content warning). But you can count such examples on one hand, and you know why? Profanities and obscenities are intensifiers, ways of adding emotional and rhetorical impact. Repeat an intensifier enough, though, and it stops, er, intensifying. It becomes dialect or patois—commonplace, in other words. And while we can argue the various merits and demerits of that, it does nothing to make our art more impactful.

(Picture: CC 2012 by Midhras)

Friday, September 11, 2015

Wang on the Emotional Elements of Procrastination

In the August 31, 2015, edition of The Wall Street Journal, Shirley S. Wang discusses the emotional element of procrastination. Excerpt(s):
Scientists define procrastination as the voluntary delay of an action despite foreseeable negative future consequences. It is opting for short-term pleasure or mood at the cost of the long-term. Perhaps we didn’t finish preparing a presentation on the weekend because we had house guests. That is just intentional delay based on a rational decision, says Timothy Pychyl (pronounced pitch-el), a psychology professor at Carleton University, in Ottawa, who has published extensively on the topic.

The essence of procrastination is “we’re giving in to feel good,” Dr. Pychyl says. “Procrastination is, ‘I know I should be doing it, I want to, it gets under my skin [when I don’t].’” ...

Chronic procrastinators often hold misconceptions about why they procrastinate and what it means, psychologists have discovered. Many chronic procrastinators believe they can’t get started on a task because they want to do it perfectly. Yet studies show chronic procrastination isn’t actually linked to perfectionism, but rather to impulsiveness, which is a tendency to act immediately on urges, according to Piers Steel, an organizational-behavior professor at the University of Calgary.

People may assume anxiety is what prevents them from getting started, yet data from many studies show that for people low in impulsiveness, anxiety is the cue to get going. Highly impulsive people, on the other hand, shut down when they feel anxiety. Impulsive people are believed to have a harder time dealing with strong emotion and want to do something else to get rid of the bad feeling, Dr. Steel says. ...

Dr. Sirois and Dr. Pychyl also have focused on short-term mood repair as an anti-procrastination strategy. They teach people to recognize that they might have strong emotions, such as anxiety, at the start of a project but to not judge themselves for it. The next step is just to get started, step by step, with a narrow focus.
Read the whole thing. Confession time: I procrastinate more often than I care to admit. That peculiar breed of perfectionism (or, if the article is correct, hedonistic impulsiveness) pulls me most days in every direction except toward my work. It’s a hard, almost shameful thing to wrestle with. One consolation, though, is that I bet I’m not alone. Wang’s article reminded me of Roald Dahl’s autobiography, Boy: Tales of Childhood. In it, he describes the various horrors of writing:
The life of a writer is absolute hell compared with the life of a businessman. The writer has to force himself to work. He has to make his own hours and if he doesn’t go to his desk at all there is nobody to scold him. If he is a writer of fiction he lives in a world of fear. Each new day demands new ideas and he can never be sure whether he is going to come up with them or not. Two hours of writing fiction leaves this particular writer absolutely drained.
Oh, yes, the fear. Fear of failure, of inadequacy, of being revealed as a sham to friends and family and passing acquaintances. No wonder Dahl concluded, “A person is a fool to become a writer.” But that’s hardly the whole story, is it? Because there’s also joy, joy inexpressible the whole cursed enterprise somehow starts to work. For my part, I’ll set that joy before me instead of my anxieties.

(Picture: CC 2011 by Viktor Hertz)

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Concrete Angel is a Finely Carved Debut

Note: Patti Abbott is a long-running friend of this blog, but rest assured that I purchased a copy of the title below with my own funds. ISLF doesn’t accept review copies.

Concrete Angel isn’t at all the sort of book I was expecting. Its author, Patti Abbott, is a prolific short-fiction writer and Derringer Award winner, having made a name for herself with a long-running stream of hardboiled- and noir-influenced stories. I expected that pattern to repeat in her debut novel, but while Concrete Angel certainly has a genre bent, it isn’t primarily about conmen and cordite. You really can’t even call it crime fiction. Instead, Abbott has chiseled a profile of a very fractured family, a kleptomaniac matriarch whose narcissism knows few bounds and a daughter so desperate to please that she’ll take any rap for the woman who gave her life—even murder.

The night Christine’s mother brought home Jerry Santini isn’t her first memory, just her most consequential. She doesn’t remember Eve Moran returning with him, a stranger she’d met mere hours before. Or how they shared drinks. Or how they shared a bed. But she does recall Eve emptying a pistol into him and then rousing her to help deal with the body. Seems Santini caught Christine’s mother trying to slip some cash from his wallet and made a move toward the phone, muttering about her “not getting away with it.” He didn’t know about Eve’s two overweening desires, namely to steal and stay free. Those obsessions cause her to convince Christine to claim that she killed Santini. After all, Eve reasoned, no judge would put the esteemed Hank Moran’s daughter in prison, no matter how estranged the man might be from ex-wife and child. And Christine will acquiesce like she always does, unaware that ordinary mothers don’t defraud major corporations, see the inside of windowless department-store security rooms, or receive shock treatments in asylums ...

Imagine how Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle might read if it were a novel rather than a memoir, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what Concrete Angel is like. Abbott has the same understated touch as Walls, perhaps even more so, spinning significance from incidental details, stray lines of dialogue, recollections dredged up long after they’ve slipped down the well of years. Concrete Angel isn’t a barn burner or a page turner. Rather, it’s a slow, meditative, character-centered novel that will break your heart if you give it time to. Little niceties slowly accrue until you realize that Abbott isn’t merely creating a single supremely broken character: She’s putting down on paper how Eve’s actions ripple outward, a capillary wave unsettling generations of people around her. Unfortunately, such dedication to detail means that Christine doesn’t come into her own as a character until well past the halfway point and the ending feels a little abrupt. But these are minor quibbles. Concrete Angel is a finely carved debut.

(Picture: CC 2011 by Quinn Dombrowski)

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Mims on the Rise of Killer Robots

In the August 17, 2015, edition of The Wall Street JournalI, Christopher Mims discusses killer robots, military research, and how murderous automata might rise from unexpected quarters. Excerpts:
Here’s the good news about killer robots: Despite their near ubiquity in science fiction, they aren’t inevitable.

The bad news is that stopping them is going to be much harder than simply banning government-sponsored research on them, as frequently proposed by technologists and nongovernmental organizations. Understanding why tells us a great deal about the massive impact that robotics and automation will have on every part of the 21st century. ...

Imagine the following scenario: It’s 2025, and self-driving cars are widely available. Turning such a vehicle into a bomb isn’t much harder than it is to accomplish the same thing with a conventional vehicle today. And the same goes for drones of every scale and description.

It’s inevitable, say the experts I talked to, that nonstate actors and rogue states will create killer robots once the underpinnings of this technology become cheap and accessible, thanks to its commercial use.

“I look back 10 years, and who would have thought people would be using cellphone technology to detonate IEDs?” says retired Rear Admiral Matthew Klunder, who as chief of research spent four years heading up the Navy’s work on autonomous systems.
Read the whole thing. I'm a fan of genre conventions, mostly because they promote readerly enjoyment and clear composition. It's easier to have fun when both authors and audiences have an idea of where things are headed. But I'll readily admit that tropes can quickly become ossified. The evil corporation tries to squash the cyberpunks. Religious characters are ineffectual, hypocritical, or insane. The military performs clandestine experiments on a supersoldier who goes rogue. Sound familiar? Writers often fail to consider the thematic implications of such old standards and simply roll with them because they've accreted a kind of compositional orthodoxy. But as Mims points out, these tropes can prove problematic with more than just a story's message: They can clash with verisimilitude. The only way to avoid it seems to be solid research married to a measure of imagination.

(Picture: CC 2010 by JD Hancock)

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Music To Write By: Andrew Peterson's "You Came So Close"

Why Listen? For an object lesson in the artistic power of surprise; melancholy and melodic ambient post-rock.

Longtime Andrew Peterson fans must've been shocked after first listening to "You Came So Close" on Counting Stars, the singer-songwriter's seventh studio album. Whether poppy or pensive, sophisticated or spare, almost all of his music had one thing in common: It was informed by folk music. But "You Came So Close" brushes all of that aside in the first few bars. Forget sprightly banjo licks and double stopped violin flourishes. Channeling Sigur Rós, an arpeggiated, three-note riff meets droning drum work, and the song structure itself reinforces the ambient effect. Essentially chorus-less, the tune slowly swells into two crescendos, each of which suddenly slumps into silence. Peterson's voice floats above it all, both melodic and melancholy as he recounts an adulterer's confession of unfaithfulness to his wife:
You could no more kill the darkness
Than you could raise the sun,
And the sky was cold and black
Like the barrel of a gun.
Apocalyptic imagery punctuates the man's struggle, emphasizing how he "came so close to letting go." Simple enough, but the song surprises, firstly by having the marriage miraculously survive the infidelity and secondly by throwing out a final verse that seems almost non sequitur:
And the sky in Nashville,
It can bend you low
'Cause the winter here is gray
Without a trace of snow.

But there is no shadow
On the silver stars,
And the colder the night is,
The closer the heavens are.
Of course, a little rumination reveals that the lines are entirely apropos, a metaphorical embodiment of the song's main theme. Hope exists. Darkness doesn't equal doom. Struggle on, and don't let go. It isn't an unfamiliar point, just one that Peterson drives home with the power of surprise.