FastReads – 4-day loan, no holds, no renewals

Our public library, which is great by the way, has a display of new, or newish but high demand, books which have the FastRead label on their spines. That label refers to the restricted time for a library loan on these books with no comment on the page-turning quality of their contents: 4 days with no renewal as opposed to 3 weeks with an indefinite number of renewals for fiction books without the FastRead label. The library will usually have multiple copies of such high demand books with only one or two placed in the FastRead category.

It’s always tempting to look through the books there, but I rarely sign one out. I often have multiple books on the go at any one time and setting everyone aside for a 4-day sprint read doesn’t always put one in the best reading frame of mind. It’s even more challenging if you end up spending two of those four days out of town in non-reading pursuits (dread phrase!). This past weekend I found myself engaged in just one of those intense reads that I try to avoid. Fortunately the book was worth it – William Gibson’s Zero History.

There is something about Gibson’s writing that catches and holds a pace, inundating the reader with a surfeit of brand-molested detail that feels as highly produced as the music his character, Inchmale, tends to be orchestrating for clients like The Bollards. The weave of fabric is no bad metaphor for Gibson’s Blue Ant trilogy as espionage (national and industrial), fashion, marketing, and addiction are carefully intermingled. He’s got good cloth and a superior cut with fine finishing. Is it any wonder that Zero History is as desirable as Pattern Recognition and the under-valued Spook Country?

But try not to get it out on a FastRead loan from the library. Take your time and enjoy it.

FSOSS 2010 – report

Today I attended the always interesting FSOSS event at Seneca Centre for Development of Open Technology in Toronto. I had a couple of goals for participating in the event. I hoped to get myself plugged back in to the open source community (at least more than sitting in my office permits) and there were a number of talks (and people) that I specifically wanted to see. Despite some disappointments, the high points more than compensated.

Key for me in the morning set of talks was Dru Lavigne speaking on Finding a Community (Even if You’re not a Developer). This was an excellent presentation – thorough, careful, and measured. Plenty here for anyone new to FOSS or anyone still trying to find their niche. Dru spent a fair bit of time outlining how to find a good fit for your skills. Clearly that is much easier if you are a developer and have a specific toolset. That rather narrows the field of projects to which you might contribute. But what if what you hope to offer to a FOSS project is documentation skills, or at least non-coding skills? Here the problem is that your skills are so general that you really could contribute to virtually any project. For me, the way to narrow the decision matrix in such a case is to find a project that you actually use and that you feel passionate about.

I was delighted to finally see Dru speak since I had been hearing her name (and seeing it) for some time. Worth the wait.

In the afternoon I went to a solid talk by Scott Nesbitt on FLOSS Manuals – Too Good to be True. FLOSS Manuals is the brain child of Adam Hyde, a New Zealander with a vision for facilitating documentation. And not just facilitating the creation of documentation, but rather getting documentation done! It is a long-standing truism that documentation is the bane of FOSS projects (well, any kind of project, really). Through the use of book sprints FLOSS Manuals helps with the rapid production and completion of user manuals. Scott detailed the book sprint that had been undertaken earlier in the week to create a user manual for Mozilla Thunderbird. He also pointed participants at the next generation of FLOSS Manuals, called Booki. Booki also has a Mozilla Drumbeat project, Open Web Publishing which is worth a look.

I wondered how the documentation effort in FLOSS Manuals co-ordinates or conflicts with the documentation efforts within a FOSS project. At least in the Thunderbird sprint key Mozilla Thunderbird developers directly participated. I’m not entirely certain I’m clear on whether or not the documentation effort of a FOSS project could get diffused by such work, but it’s clear that these are also live questions that are being worked out directly in practice. Scott did a good job encouraging those present to explore FLOSS Manuals further and, if possible, get involved.

The final talk that I want to mention is the one entitled Mozilla Drumbeat: open innovation for all. I had been looking forward to hearing (and seeing) Mark Surman again. I was really hoping he would clear up some muddle-headedness that I’m suffering regrading the Mozilla Foundation Drumbeat effort.  I totally get the idea of defending and extending the open web. I don’t quite understand the Drumbeat spin on this. Alas, Mark dropped out of the event, apparently having slipped off to Barcelona to help prepare for the Drumbeat Festival due to take place there next week. Okay, fair enough. Barcelona does have its attractions. And it might also be warmer than Toronto at this time of year.

Fortunately (for us) Mark was replaced by Matt Thompson. Matt did a good job in Mark’s stead. He gave a nice overview of Drumbeat’s goals. He reminded us how Mozilla Firefox defended the open web not by lobbying the powers that be, but by simply building a better browser than the massively dominant IE that was threatening the open web. Today, of course, there are many new threats to the open web, not least the attack on net neutrality. Can the Mozilla Foundation find new ways to defend and extend the open web?

I don’t know.  The Drumbeat projects highlighted all seemed very cool. I could see how they would garner lots of participation from “the people formerly known as users”. But I’m less clear on how they address the very things that Drumbeat itself identifies as threats to the open web. Of course, it could be that what really needs to be translated is the manner in which Mozilla built its fabulous open source browser. But then I would have thought I’d be hearing about a Mozilla Foundation project repository perhaps modelled on the Apache Foundation cohort of projects each of which partake to some extent in the well-tested development methodology found in the server project. There doesn’t seem to be that kind of guidance for proposed projects at this time. But perhaps it is just too soon to tell. Matt described the past year as, effectively,  Drumbeat in beta test mode. We should look for a major overhaul of both the website and (I think) the movement in the new year. No doubt that has something to do with what will be going on in Barcelona next week. If so, I look forward to the continued sharpening of the aims and objectives, and methods, that Drumbeat will seek to promote. I have a natural fondness for Mozilla, its browser, its Foundation, and a firm belief in its potential for good. I, for one, will be watching Drumbeat with anticipation in the weeks and months ahead.

All in all, it was a good day. I missed the presence of one or more significant keynote speaker. And I really don’t need another metal liquid container (which seems to be de rigueur as a participant goodie at every conference these days). And no, an extra-large t-shirt is unlikely to fit me (luckily I managed to make an exchange for a more plausible size). But most important were the people I spoke to, ate with, shared a drink with. Because community really is what FOSS is all about.

Managing a frontispiece website

With my blogs sorted for the moment, and at least the possibility of a tweet in the future, it behoves me to pay attention to my non-blogging websites. For this I have two (related) domains. One is essentially just a personal site for my friends and family. The content is variable, highly particular, and not really interesting to anyone for whom it was not intended. Unless you really, really want to know how to bake the best chocolate chip cookies in the world, ever 🙂

The other domain, which I mentioned in my previous post on this subject, is a frontispiece for a sole-proprietor consultancy business I set up some years ago. Almost any work I do these days is some form of consultancy, so it seemed appropriate. But it isn’t something that I intend to build into a vast business empire. So I want to keep that site mostly empty other than for contact details. People find out about me when they meet me in person, or, as per the norm, Google me, and if interested we take it from there. That’s enough for me. I’ve got other irons in the fire that need tending. Still, it would be nice to do something a bit more useful with this site. For example, I would like to write an article on my explorations of Drupal (ongoing) and host it there. That might lead to other articles, maybe even one on thinking through your PIO. So that site might grow. Managing content there might then become an issue.

You do not need to take on a full-blown web-hosting package in order to maintain a small frontispiece web presence. There are numerous no-cost options available. Two that I have looked at are Drupal Gardens and Google Sites. They both have their strengths and weaknesses.

Drupal Gardens is very enticing for anyone who has played with Drupal, is shamefully inept at backend systems administration (as I am), and who longs for the eye-catching goodness of the soon-to-be-released Drupal 7. Of course my claim that one doesn’t need to fully grok the Drupal backend is somewhat misleading. Once you get past the incredibly simple steps necessary to create a site, the user still finds himself or herself with a vast array of choices and decisions. Hard decisions. Despite being far more intuitive than the Drupal 6 interface, I think the user here will still want to go through some serious Drupal study and thinking. As per usual, Drupal 7 has almost limitless possibilities, but that may be too much for the simple frontispiece website. Nevertheless I’m going to keep exploring it in hopes that the veil will lift from before my eyes. It really is what I’d prefer to use.

Google Sites is equally easy to use in order to create a simple, or even a modestly complex, website. It is easy to enable co-operative website management. And there is plenty of room for growth beyond the 100MB of webspace a user is provided initially by moving up to the Premier Edition of Google Apps as and when it becomes appropriate. Indeed, if you are really just starting out, I think it would be best to simply start with the standard Google Apps package, which gives you Google Sites as well. The downside, at least for me, with Google Sites is the lack of rigour in its widgets. Whereas Google does a great job with the various widgets in Blogger.com, the comparable widgets in Google Sites are often just not up to the job. At least I’ve found many that didn’t really work. Maybe it is different in the Google Apps version, I just don’t know. Nevertheless, if all you really want is a simple frontispiece site, then Google Sites is fully able to provide that.

That brings me back to my thinking about my PIO. Do I really want or need a website that is substantially more than a frontispiece? That, as they say, is the real question.

Afterthoughts

I’ve been thinking about the discussion of Alison Pick’s Far To Go last night at the book club I frequent. I’m in the process of revising my interpretation of the principal narrator, Marta. Opinions about the book differed, but with reasons as all differences of opinion worth pursuing do. Some had high praise for the novel, especially its careful imagery and beautiful prose. I was in that camp, but I also had a few reservations. (None, however, that would prevent me heading out as soon as possible to read the author’s previous novel, The Sweet Edge, or whatever novel comes next for that matter.) I want to concentrate on just one of these because my afterthoughts have me rethinking what I said.

It struck me as odd, even jarring, that the Bauer family had a “governess” such as Marta. In the first half of the book this is the most typical term used to describe her role. Latterly, the narrator uses “nanny” frequently and then predominantly. What troubled me was that the Bauer family that employs Marta are supposed to be wealthy industrialists and socialites. They speak multiple languages. Their young son, Pepik, is 5 as the novel begins and turns 6 before he leaves on the Kindertransport. Marta is an uneducated, unworldly young woman, the child of farm labourers. Why would wealthy, worldly, sophisticated industrialists hire this woman as a “governess”?

Is Marta even literate? Yes, I think so. But it is clear that at 5 Pepik cannot read. And he still cannot read at 6. Just what kind of governess is Marta?

So that was bothering me, the decision to describe Marta as a governess. But now I think it might be more complicated.

Toward the end of the novel we learn that the story and its narrative frame are due to a female academic living in Montreal named Anneliese. This Anneliese is the daughter of Marta and her employer, Pavel. She is named after Pavel’s wife. (Pavel and his wife both die in the concentration camps.) Most important, however, is that this Anneliese is only 6 or 7 when her mother, the Marta of the story, dies. We learn that the entire book is supposed to be Anneliese’s imaginative exploration of her mother and father’s lives. This needs to be contrasted sharply with the letters and other documents that Anneliese has unearthed in archives from the time period.

What does this information tell us as readers? That’s what I’ve been thinking about. The purported “author” of the imaginative rendering is an “interested” party. She is the daughter of the main character and, so far as we know, has very little if any first-hand knowledge of her mother’s actions. Now I begin to think that maybe this narrator isn’t quite as trustworthy as she initially appears. Maybe she has coloured Marta’s tale, at least at first, to put her in as good of a light as possible. Hence the references to Marta as Pepik’s governess. Later in the tale it becomes less and less plausible to refer to Marta as a governess and so she takes on her more appropriate title as nanny to Pepik. A confusion which is taken further when Pepik, after a delirious transport to Scotland, associates the new English word “mother” for Marta when she is pointed at in a photo which he bears.

Now this, to my mind, makes the novel more interesting. Also more challenging than it first appears. It also washes away a number of other minor concerns I had. But is it the right reading? Is it even a better reading, at least better than I had before? Perhaps.

One thing is certain. I now look forward with special keenness to Alison Pick’s visit to Waterloo on 11 November. Maybe she will resolve some of these things I have been wondering about. Even better if she prompts new ones.

Reading again

One of my guilty pleasures is re-reading. There are tens of thousands of novels published worldwide each year of which there might be (I’m just guessing) maybe a thousand that, given sufficient time, I might find worth reading. On my current pace, I will be lucky to get through 60 novels this year. And those are not restricted solely to recent publications. So any way you slice it, there are going to be a rather large number of novels I do not read in my lifetime. Reading a novel a second or third or tenth time seems like an extravagance, a dereliction of duty somehow, almost selfish. Yet I do so enjoy returning to a novel that has given me pleasure in the past hoping, perhaps, to rekindle my admiration for the author, or revise it, as may be the case. And sometimes I thinking reading again is my favourite form of reading.

That may be one reason that I find talking to other readers about a recent read we’ve shared to be so much fun. It forces me to go back over the novel in my mind and attempt to articulate what I like or didn’t like about it, what I thought was clever or dull, where the author surprised me or disappointed me, how a phrase or image or paragraph leapt off the page for me. It isn’t re-reading itself, but it is part of that process. And the more input I get from others, especially careful and sensitive readers, the more likely I am to enjoy my experience of reading the novel again.

For the first time the book club I frequent has given me the perfect excuse for reading a novel again. A little more than a year ago, I read Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist, a book I thoroughly enjoyed. It reminded me what an exquisite craftsman Baker can be. A marvel. It triggered a bit of a Baker-fest in my reading schedule. So it was a great delight to discover The Anthologist on the list of books to be read in the book club this year. Now I have to re-read it. And I get the added bonus of anticipating a hearty discussion of same.

Will my fellow readers be as taken with Nicholson’s prose as I was? I have no idea. Will I be as admiring on a second read? I certainly hope so. In any case I expect to find a great deal more in the novel this time than I did the first time. Who knows, it may even prompt another plunge into Baker’s back catalogue. I can hardly wait.