not dead yet

Max Barry wrote the novels Syrup, Jennifer Government, Company, Machine Man, and Lexicon. He also created the game NationStates and once found a sock full of pennies.


Mon 28

The Jennifer Government Code

Jennifer Government Barcode

Dear Max Barry,

after visiting i decided to read your book, Jennifer Government. While reading, I read something which made me think: “What would you get if you scanned the barcode?” Is it simply a random arrangement of numbers, or does it have meaning?

~A Jennifer Government Fan

Well, A Jennifer Government Fan, that’s a good question. The answer is long, convoluted, and filled with heartbreak. Well, no, not really. It’s just long and convoluted.

First, the barcode on the book’s cover doesn’t match the one in the story. That is, while Jennifer Government in the novel has a barcode tattoo for a particular product—which nobody is going to give away in the comments here, lest I smite their account—the barcode under Jen’s eye on the cover is for the book itself. More specifically, it’s for the US hardcover edition.

Or so I was told at the time. The truth, I was to discover, ran deeper.

During cover design, I didn’t care much whether the barcode matched up to what was in the book, partly because I had very little say in it, partly because I was so grateful to get a cover that didn’t suck balls I was weeping with joy, and partly because who the hell would ever know? But upon hearing what Doubleday wanted to do, I thought, “That’s cool. You could take the book up to the counter and buy it by scanning the front.”

I went around telling people this, until about a year later a guy with more knowledge of barcodes than is really healthy, Todd Larason, wrote an exposé on the Jennifer Government cover. It’s a very interesting piece, if you’re me or unhealthily fascinated by barcodes. Here’s a taste:

“But wait!”, I hear you cry, “You said it’s an EAN-13, not an ISBN, and as everyone knows they have incompatible checksum digits!”

Todd uncovered the non-match between the story and the cover, and that was just his warm-up. He also discovered that while the barcode digits on the covers of many editions of Jennifer Government are for the US hardback, one of the few that doesn’t match is… the US hardback. For some reason, in a last-minute change, the barcode number on its front cover was altered: instead of ending in a 2 (like here), it ends in a 3 (like here). This means it matches the book’s ISBN, but not its barcode.

Why? It’s a mystery. I can only presume that somebody thought they were catching a typo just before the print run.

Todd Larason wasn’t done there. His final observation was that according to the official EAN-13 standard, the barcode’s bars don’t match its numbers—nor the ISBN, nor anything else. It’s not actually a valid barcode. It’s just funky-looking black lines.

(P.S. If you’re interested in seeing how the cover evolved, take a look at the Jennifer Government Extras.)

Wed 23

I’m just sayin’

Jennifer Government A riot outside a shoe store as customers fight each other for limited-edition Nike sneakers worth $1,000 a pair? Who’d a thunk it?

Tue 22

We’re not in Redmond any more, Toto

Max About nine months ago I switched from Microsoft Windows to Gentoo Linux. I wasn’t unhappy with Windows, but Linux is very handy when you’re designing a web site, and I got sick of rebooting all the time to switch from one to the other. So I decided to suck it up and go all the way.

This turned out to be a lot like moving to another country, both in the sense that I didn’t know where anything was or understand the local language, and because I realized things about the place I’d left. So here’s what I learned.

(Note: There are several different types of Linux, and they each do some things better than the others. Not all my comments apply to all Linux distributions. But I’m still going to just say “Linux.”)

  1. Linux is a religion. When you first hear about Linux, it’s from slightly creepy people whose eyes shine with a born-again fervor while they rattle on about all kinds of things you don’t understand. I have become one of those people. There really needs to be some kind of warning sticker on the CD: “May cause you to blog about the philosophies of operating systems.” I mention this up front because it helps to explain everything else.

  2. Windows thinks you’re an idiot; Linux thinks you’re a genius. What I love about Windows is that no matter what it asks you to do, you can choose the default and it works. You can actually install software by inserting the CD, closing your eyes, and hitting ENTER over and over again. You have no idea what you’re doing, but you don’t care.

    Linux, on the other hand, wouldn’t dare to assume it knows what you want. There’s hardly a default setting on anything, anywhere. Naturally you will want to do some in-depth reading about horizontal frequency rates before leaping into anything as advanced as displaying a picture on the screen, right? The first time you do anything in Linux, you come away with an education.

    Each approach is handy at different times. It’s very handy being treated as an idiot, until you want to do something smart. Then it’s annoying.

  3. Windows plays soccer; Linux plays rugby. In soccer (sorry, to me this is football), whenever one player makes the slightest contact with another, he collapses to ground, writhing in agony and clutching at his ankle. Everyone gathers around and looks very worried until the referee holds up a yellow card and then—amazing!—the player springs up again, completely cured. So too Windows: as soon as anything goes wrong with any program, the whole thing collapses in a screaming heap, and requires a reboot. Linux, on the other hand, shrugs off application failures like a rugby player ignores broken fingers. Programs crash, but Linux keeps going.

  4. Linux marketing sucks. Microsoft is a corporation with an overriding financial interest in persuading people to buy Windows. The people who make Linux, on the other hand, are mostly volunteers who simply love building good code. So while there are plenty of Microsoft advertisements and salespeople and lobbyists to tell the government that you can’t trust Linux, there is practically nobody on the other side. It’s always a bit creepy when you have a big corporation up against a non-profit or non-entity; you end up being told that sugared drinks are better for you than water, you wouldn’t dare breast-feed your baby when good old manufactured formula is available, and there’s no such thing as global warming. Linux people don’t merely lack the funding to match Microsoft’s marketing; they also don’t really want to. The Linux attitude is that they have built a magnificent operating system and if you can’t see that, well, that’s your problem. So Microsoft’s aim is to sell operating systems while Linux people focus on building them.

  1. Windows lets you, Linux unleashes you. Occasionally I see the phrase “lets you” in discussions of Windows software—as in, “This software lets you press C to get a preview.” The idea that you are not allowed to do anything to your computer unless it “lets you” is, I realized, very Microsoftian. Because in Linux, you can do whatever the hell you want to pretty much any piece of code: improve it, change it, or break it. Not that you need to, because everything is incredibly customizable already, but you can. If you complain about any piece of software in Linux, you stand a good chance of being told, “Well go make it better, then.” By comparison, Microsoft asks, “Where do you want to go today?” but then strongly recommends you select: “Default.”

  2. Windows gets in your face. Like an annoying four-year-old, Windows can’t go two minutes without attention. You boot, start to do something, and suddenly there windows are flying at your face. Everything is checking for updates or activating or deactivating or switching channels and IT HAS TO TELL YOU THIS RIGHT NOW. Linux puts its messages in the log, and you read them when and if you feel like it.

  3. Windows fails silently. Oh my God. Before, I never even noticed this. But now every time I have to use Windows I end up bug-eyed and yelling at the screen, “Just tell me what’s wrong!” When something goes wrong in Linux, it spews messages into the system log, which you can read through to see what it was doing. Then you copy a phrase or two into Google, click Search, and choose from a list of pages competing to tell you exactly what the problem is and how to fix it.

    Windows doesn’t do this. Windows doesn’t even have a system log, as far as I know. When things go wrong, they do so mysteriously and without complaint: you click buttons and nothing happens, or you try to run a program and it just vanishes. There’s no way to discover what the actual problem is. If you Google for the symptoms, you find endless pages complaining about the same thing, but no solutions. Or you do find solutions, but they all come down to the same thing: (1) Reboot (2) Reinstall. They should issue a Microsoft Support Manual that contains nothing except these two words, because that’s the solution to every single Windows problem. Even if you manage to fix it, you never find out what exactly the problem is; you just grope around blindly reinstalling things until suddenly and just as mysteriously things start working again. The other day I e-mailed a company’s tech support and their semi-automated advice was to reinstall their program and Windows XP. If that didn’t work, I was to e-mail again to get help from a human. That’s right, wiping my hard drive was the first step in their diagnoses process. This is like having to get a heart transplant before the doctor will see you about your hiccups.

    The end result is that even though Windows is simpler to get to grips with, I never felt really confident with it, because I couldn’t tell what it’s doing. Linux requires more understanding, but when you’ve got that, you’re more assured.

  4. Linux people rock. One day my Windows PC choked on an automatic security update, and thereafter every time it tried to update itself, it failed. Having an unpatched Windows computer connected to the internet is like walking through a bad neighborhood tossing your BMW car keys from hand to hand, so I wanted to do something about this. There was no error message, of course, aside from the gloriously unhelpful, “The update failed to install.” I ended up going through the maze of Microsoft’s technical support to send in a problem report. I received an automated e-mail back saying my report had been received, then nothing. Weeks went by. I tried again. Same thing. Then one day, it just started working again.

    Of course, this is not specific to Microsoft. Pretty much every company treats a support customer like something they just stepped in: their aim is to get rid of you with as little touching as possible. I can’t remember the last time I e-mailed a company for support and it didn’t go like this:
    1. Receive automated response suggesting I look in FAQs
    2. Receive response from alleged human being that consists of copy-and-pasted text from FAQ
    3. I write back thanking them for the information and expressing regret that none of it is remotely relevant to the problem I described
    4. Human being actually reads my e-mail starts being helpful.
    By which time I figure out the problem myself.

    The other day I had some trouble getting a piece of hardware working on my Linux machine, and found a web site by
    a guy who had written Linux drivers for it. Not because it was his job; he just felt like it. The hardware was Australian-specific and Google wasn’t helping much, so I e-mailed him a question, not really expecting a reply—because it’s a bit like e-mailing Bill Gates to ask what that DOS command is that displays all the directories. (Or would be if Gates actually wrote DOS. Bada boom! Sorry. I’m sorry. See point #1.) He wrote right back with the answer.

Wed 16

Retrospective #4: Comments, e-mails, Ellis, and Arjun

Max This is the bit when I look back at—ah, forget it, I can’t hand-hold you new people forever.

No sooner had I posted the blog about getting the Syrup screenwriting gig when I received an e-mail back. “Ah!” I thought. “Already the congratulations are rolling in!” This is what it said:

you only write about your scripts, and that too few and far between. youre ignoring your loyal website readers such as me. you stopped writing funny stuff long ago. im upset. :(

you need to get back to the old days when you wrote a post every other day, and incredibly funny ones too.


This evoked several competing thoughts. First was, “Kiss my butt, Arjun!” Second was, “Maybe he’s got a point. I haven’t done so many comedy blogs lately. And he is quite flattering about my older stuff.” The third was, “Kiss my butt, Arjun! What do you want, a refund?”

I know artists have to put up with people saying, “I like your old albums/books/films better than your new ones,” but geez, I didn’t think I’d get that about my web site. I searched through my e-mail and discovered that Arjun had written to me a couple of times before. If I were petty enough, I might observe that his earlier e-mails were much more entertaining than this one. And I am, so I have.

I finally changed my e-mail page to announce that I can no longer reply to all letters. I cringed as I did it, because I knew some people would take this as proof that I am an out-of-touch egomaniac with no time for his fans, and I’d prefer to keep that a secret. I also worried I would get fewer e-mails, since people might not bother writing if there wasn’t much chance of a reply. Instead, my e-mail inflow practically doubled. It’s like everyone was looking at that pathetic line, “I will try to reply in 19 weeks,” and thought, “Poor bastard, I’ll leave him be.”

Or maybe it was because of my interview with Ellis. This blog clearly encouraged a lot of people to e-mail me crazy comments in the hope that I would interview them for the site, too. Either that or a lot of genuinely crazy people suddenly all wrote to me at once. Hmm. That’s a more disturbing idea. But anyway, Ellis has his own web site now, which promises to reveal more of the enigma wrapped inside a riddle that is Ellis. Compulsory reading.

In December I added the ability for site members to post comments in response to my blogs, which, to my surprise, turned out great. If I post a funny blog, people post a bunch of funny follow-ups; if I post a serious blog, people post lots of thought-provoking comments. I have to admit, the reason it took me so long to add this was because I was sure it would get spammed into the ground by idiots. And I guess this will happen sooner or later, since this is the internet. But so far, so good!

I received many long, thoughtful e-mails in reply to my “On Capitalism and Corporatism” blog. I took the time to read them and mull them over and think how lucky it was I didn’t have to write equally thoughtful replies. Amongst them was a one-sentence letter that, possibly inadvertently, made the most persuasive argument for the ascendancy of capitalism of all. After digesting my opinions on political economics, globalization, and corporatism, Joseph had this to say:

you play world of warcraft? Cool lets play sometime

Sun 13

Entering the Fortress

Syrup It’s a good-news-bad-news kind of situation, except the good news is all for me and the bad news is all for you. That’s the best kind of good-news-bad-news, so long as you’re me. Which I am. So that’s great.

Here’s the good news. I got this e-mail from Fortress:

I am trying to talk to Siberell about hiring you. We want to give you a shot and want to make sure that Brian is open to making a creative deal.

Brian Siberell is my film agent. So I’m pretty sure this translates as: “Dear Max, Without wanting to invite you to pull down our pants and steal our wallets, we intend to hire you to write the Syrup screenplay.”

My reaction is: “Ohhhhhhh yeah!” I am so fired up to write this thing, I tell you. And now I don’t have to fly to L.A. and kneecap anybody.

The bad news is the sample script I posted on this site, then pulled down at Fortress’s request, is going to stay down. Sorry if you would have liked a look at that. But the idea now is not to expose my naked raw drafts to the world, but to keep things under wraps until I have a script that’s cool and polished and gleaming with edgy goodness. (Which it so will. Hot damn!)

Tue 01

Movie Update: We Have Writers!

Jennifer Government I often get asked what’s happening with the Jennifer Government film, because—well, you know, movies are cool. And it’s been about three years since Steven Soderbergh & George Clooney optioned my book, and so far not much has happened. On the one hand this isn’t so surprising, because making a movie is a major logistical challenge: you have to get the right people interested, and all available at the same time, and happy to work with each other, and then you need to pay them all stupid amounts of money. There are plenty of films that took ten or more years to make it to the screen. I really hope mine isn’t one of those, but I’ve held off getting measured for the tuxedo I’ll wear to the premiere.

What’s mainly happened so far, I think—and bear in mind that I am not involved in this process, because no film-maker or studio exec wants an author hanging around, wringing his hands over changes to his masterpiece—is that Section 8 has talked to writers. At first I thought they were actually hiring writers, then not liking what they produced, but I have since discovered they were just having meetings. Lunches, mostly, I believe.

Until now! Writers have been actually hired, and they are, I’m assured, typing words out and everything. They are Louis Mellis and David Scinto, who wrote the extremely cool British film Sexy Beast. (Seriously, it’s great. And Ben Kingsley will give you nightmares. You should see it.)

Obviously the idea of having a bound screenplay I’ll be able to rub my hands over and say, “Ahhh, it’s not as good as the book,” is very exciting. Also exciting is that Section 8 and Warner Bros. have asked to renew the option, to tie up the rights for another two years. This, coincidentally or not, would take us up to the point where Clooney & Soderbergh’s contract with Warner Bros. expires. What does this mean? I don’t know. But the next 24 months should be interesting.

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