Daily Archives: November 5, 2009

My Tech Life

I am occasionally asked to give recommendations for tech/software, based on my own usage. I don’t know that I would necessarily follow my own example in terms of tech usage if I were not me, but for everyone who is curious, here’s the hard-and-software I currently use, and the short form reasons why.

Primary Computer: PC from iBuyPower, featuring Intel i7 3.066 GHz quad core processor, dual ATI 4890 graphics cards in Crossfire mode, Creative X-Fi sound card, 6GB onboard memory, and 3.5 TB total storage, with Dell 24″ monitor. I’ve got a fairly tricked out system, for a number of reasons: One, I do a lot of multimedia stuff, including most obviously photo image manipulation; two, I play media-intensive computer video games; three, because I totally wanted a tricked-out system, so there. It’s not entirely overkill for the more mundane writing things I do either, and in particular having a large monitor is really useful. But the primary computer is probably the most high-end bit of tech I have.

Operating System: Windows 7 Home Premium (64 Bit). Because (among other things) most computer games run on Windows but not necessarily on Mac OS or on Linux. Win7 is also nicely composed and easy to use, so there’s a bonus there, too. On my last computer I had an Ubuntu dual-boot, and Ubuntu was fine, but I didn’t actually use it much, so I haven’t installed it on the new primary computer.

Browser: Firefox 3.5.4. That’s currently, but I generally update to the latest stable version when it becomes available. Because I like it and the extent to which is it customizable, and because I’m very used to it — I’ve used Firefox and most of its antecedents almost exclusively for as long as they’ve been about. For backup and for specialized purposes I use Chrome, which I like just fine. I use Opera sparingly and IE almost not at all, except to check how Web sites look and/or for the occasional times when some Web site designer is too stupid to check that his site code works for browsers other than IE.

Mail: GMail. Up until April 2007, I used some variation of the Eudora e-mail client, but when I went on my book tour for The Last Colony I started using GMail because that way I could get my mail whether or not I was on my own computer (a smart decision, it turns out, since my then-laptop crapped out on me mid-tour). I never bothered to go back to a dedicated e-mail client because GMail’s spam blocking skills are excellent, and the thing they do of grouping e-mails into “conversations” was really useful. Basically, it’s just about the best e-mail handling service. When on occasion GMail goes down, I access my mail from my host provider’s e-mail app, which it runs off its servers, but those instances are few and far between. This isn’t to say GMail is perfect, it’s just better for me than anything else out there.

Word Processing: Microsoft Word 2007. I like the way it works and I like its aesthetics, the latter of which may seem trivial, but on the other hand you probably don’t spend as much time looking at your word processing application as I do. On the occasions that I need a backup to Word, I usually use OpenOffice (currently on its 3.x iteration). I use Google Docs for certain specific tasks but I’ve found over time it’s not as featured as I need to be to use it on a regular basis. Note to Google: When you can’t be bothered to add indenting to your word processor, you’re signaling that you’re not actually serious. I buy Word as part of the larger Office suite, so on the rare occasions I need spreadsheets or to access Powerpoint, I’m good to go, with OpenOffice again being backup.

Blogging Software: WordPress. I started out with Movable Type back in 2003, which I liked very much, but eventually it became evident that MT was not playing nice with my host provider (or more accurately, my host provider was not playing nice with MT), and switched over to WordPress. WP turns out to be an excellent choice too, as it’s got enough features and widgets to let one customize one’s site to one’s desire. Disclosure: WordPress.com now hosts this blog, so I’m not an impartial commenter on the software. But on the other hand I wouldn’t be hosted on WordPress.com if I didn’t like the software.

Photo Editing: Photoshop CS4. I’ve been using Photoshop since the early 90s, so I’m comfortable with it and its interface, and that it’s the industry standard is nice too. For quick editing or specific specialized filters, I’ll use Picnic, which is bundled into my Flickr Pro account, but generally I’ll just pop open Photoshop.

Photo Management: Flickr. Simple, friendly interface and the Pro account is cheap at $25 a year. At this point most of the pictures on Whatever are housed there and linked to; if Flickr ever goes under, Whatever’s pictures will require lots of re-sourcing. But I’m optimistic Flickr will be about for a bit (also, lazy). For photo management on the actual computer, I simply use Win7’s photo viewer.

Audio Recording/Editing: Sony Acid Pro. I’m one iteration behind on the software, so I need to upgrade, but again I’m used to it (I’ve been using it since the early part of the century) and it’s got a nice set of features. My backup is Audacity, which is free, which is nice, but which I don’t typically seem to have good luck using. I used Adobe Soundbooth briefly and I liked it very much for voice recording but have been too cheap to pull the trigger to buy it.

Music Management: Rhapsody. Which is to say that at this point I end up not actually accessing the music I have stored on my hard drive, but just stream it off Rhapsody instead. Which is not to say I don’t buy music (or store it on the computer), as I like to support the musicians whose work I like; when I do that I tend to buy it off Amazon. I tend to avoid iTunes, except to manage my iPods. For casual “radio,” I’ll use Rhapsody’s channels or Pandora. I use the Windows Media Player when I play something housed on the computer; the Win7 version is much improved.

Video Game Management: Steam. By and large I’ve stopped buying video games on physical media and instead download them via Steam, which has a nice management and game-matching interface, and a nice selection of games at good prices. I also keep a GameTap subscription for casual gaming and for games I’d like to play but don’t want to buy.

IM Client: Digsby. Accesses a number of IM services and isn’t ugly/crammed with ads.

Twitter Client: TweetDeck. Lots of functions and easier to use the the Twitter Web interface.

Personal Music/Video Player: iPod Nano (3rd generation). It’s small and holds 1,200 songs, and that pretty much works for me. And personally I prefer the 3rd gen’s square look, although I know that puts me in the minority. The only thing I don’t like about it is that it doesn’t play my “rented” music from Rhapsody, but it’s not like I don’t already own more music than I can fit onto the nano as it is. I also own an Archos 605 player, with substantially more onboard memory and a great screen (800×480 or some such) for movies. But it’s bulky and not as convenient to carry about.

Cell Phone: BlackBerry Storm: Which is much maligned but which I like perfectly well, especially with the most recent software update. That said, when the contract is up next October I’m not necessarily going to upgrade within the Storm/BlackBerry family. I like my phone fine but it hasn’t won me over as a consumer.

I think that’s everything, but if you have additional questions regarding my tech usage, drop ‘em in the comments.

The Big Idea: Jeff VanderMeer

Jeff VanderMeer returns to his weird, fantastical city of Ambergris in his new novel Finch, but as he explains in this Big Idea, there’s more going on in this stand-alone tale than just the rich vein of fantasy he’s previously explored in this world. Finch has more on its agenda, and the idea that more is merrier when it comes to genres. Is he right? Let’s see if he convinces you below.

JEFF VANDERMEER:

Sometimes a Big Idea is about combining several different big ideas in such a way that they create what you hope is A REALLY BIG-ASS IDEA. If you do it right, these ideas create what you might remember from high school science classes as a chemical rather than physical reaction. You can’t separate out the parts, and readers don’t even notice those parts. All they notice is character and story.

In my novel Finch, a reluctant detective named John Finch and his partner Wyte must attempt to solve a difficult double murder. If Finch doesn’t, there will be a severe beat-down from his boss and if he does solve it, another faction will probably put a bullet through his head.

Fairly standard set-up, right? But layered onto that core situation are a number of major complications. The novel isn’t set in our world—it’s set in my fantastical city of Ambergris. Finch is basically a conscript. Finch’s boss, Heretic, isn’t human—he’s a gray cap, an intelligent species that has risen from the underground sections of the city and used advanced fungi-based technologies to subject Ambergris to a brutal Occupation. The people who might kill Finch if he solves the case are rebel factions fighting the Occupation. His partner Wyte is literally disintegrating into spores due to a fungal disease. The two bodies, found in an empty apartment, appear to have fallen from a great height. One of them is a gray cap missing its legs.

To make things worse, Ambergris is now the equivalent of a failed state. Although the gray caps run things, even basic necessities like electricity are inconsistent at best. The gray caps use human traitors called Partials as their security services, and to gather intel through spore cameras that supplement their vision. However, so much information is constantly coming in that the gray caps can’t process it all. This gap is what gives many people a chance to survive.

But that gap and others like it mean that Finch’s life is complicated by the presence of other forces that have slipped into the city. In a word, spies. Infiltrating from foreign countries, most are attempting to acquire gray cap technology to gain an advantage against other countries. These spies often come into conflict with the rebels. The rebels, meanwhile, are composed of two rival factions engaged in a civil war that ended only because of the need to band together to fight the gray caps. Not only do they have their own intelligence services but the simmering resentments of the old conflict sometimes puts them at cross-purposes despite their joint objective.

So…maybe it’s time to start counting. Just how many genres are we dealing with here?

(1) Noir. The set-up, the lone, reluctant detective, his friends who may or may not be in on the up-and-up, the number of beat-downs in crappy alleys, all reflect a strong noir influence. (Indeed, the British Commonwealth rights to Finch just sold to Atlantic’s new Corvus imprint, the backbone of which is mysteries and thrillers.)

(2) Thriller. Given the number of times John Finch gets embroiled in gun battles or chase scenes, I think it’s fair to add this designation, which also speaks to the novel’s pacing and the idea that a good thriller provides a test of the main character’s resolve, of their ability to persevere despite almost insurmountable obstacles.

(3) Political Thriller. With scenes involving illegal interrogation, prison camps, and other repression, you might even think about tacking on the word “political” to “thriller”, a very specific subgenre of the normal thriller. You might even start thinking about words like “Baghdad” or “extraordinary rendition.” This is entirely intentional, as is the rebel tactic of using suicide bombers. Fantasy gives me the distance to include the political so that hardwired into the story rather than a didactic statement.

(4) Spy Novel. Finch is faced with a mystery, but when the proliferating list of suspects includes a retired spymaster named Ethan Bliss, an operative from the country of Stockton named Stark, and a friend whose allegiances are uncertain, we’re suddenly in John Le Carre territory. Le Carre’s brilliant fiction is all about the individual attempting to survive in a world of hostile institutions; his spies are as often in conflict with their employers as with the enemy. He’s also exceptional at combining action and introspection, lessons that served me well in writing Finch. (Yes, there’s also the James Bond spy model, but James Bond wouldn’t last five minutes in Ambergris.)

(5) New Weird Fantasy.
Okay, you may be saying, but Ambergris is still identified as a New Weird setting. Yep, and that still comes into play. Ambergris is a secondary-world decaying, fungus-shrouded major, centuries-old metropolis. That setting shapes all of the characters, all of the other elements—in sense, it’s the broth in this cross-genre soup. It’s what makes it possible for all of the other elements to work in harmony.

So that’s my Big Idea: the ultimate cross-genre mash-up in which one character finds the pressure turned up to “11” and the only way out is to navigate a landscape scarred by civil war, occupation, infiltration, insurgencies, counter-insurgencies, betrayals, and, oh yeah, surreal fungal technologies. John Finch is an honest man with militia training, clear-headed and quietly brave, but even he may find it difficult to make it out alive.

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Finch: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Read an excerpt of the novel (pdf link), and visit the book site. Listen to the novel soundtrack. Follow VanderMeer on Twitter.

Wanted: Directors

This week over at AMC, I’ve put together a list of the 10 film directors who haven’t directed a science fiction movie, but should. It has names on it which you probably expect (such as Spike Jonze, above) and also at least a couple I’m almost certain you don’t, unless you live inside my head. And if you do, why don’t you dust in there for once? The place is a mess. As always, feel free to leave comments over on the AMC site. Because I know you’ll have them.