MaxBarry.com
not just a pretty face

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.

Blog

Fri 27
Apr
2007

The Joy of Creation

Writing So I’m almost finished the last pre-publisher draft of my new book, and I’m watching the TV show Heroes. Where I live we’re about three months behind the US. Well, a few weeks ago on Heroes they introduced a minor character with a super power that’s very similar to one of mine. Uh, I mean, similar to a particular talent that one of my characters has. It’s not particularly original—it’s a form of mind control—but in the show it’s described in an atypical way, the exact same atypical way I’ve used.

Last episode, this character shot herself in the head. On the sofa, I said, “Yes!” It was a terrific moment.

Hopefully by the time my book comes out, nobody will remember her.

Thu 19
Apr
2007

Danger: Linux Advocacy Ahead

Max Last week I helped my 17-year-old brother-in-law build his own computer. Moo, as I shall call him, as I have since he was four, is not particularly geeky. He is what they call emo. And he lives in England, so all I could do was give advice over the phone and hope I wasn’t about to hear, “Is this bit meant to be smoking like… OH MY GOD IT’S—beep, beep, beep.”

But he put the whole thing together with no real dramas or explosions, which I was very impressed with. Then we got to what turned out to be the hard part: setting up Windows XP.

I haven’t used Windows much in the last three years. It’s possible that my mind has become clouded by the religion that is Linux. But I don’t think so. I think Windows has gotten crappier.

I seriously can’t believe how many hoops you have to jump through now to do even simple tasks, like upgrade Internet Explorer. (Before you are permitted to plug the gaping security holes in the 2001 version that comes on the CD, you must install some other software that’s of no benefit to you, which requires much clicking, restarting, and rebooting.) The Internet Chat program, Messenger, is so crammed full of ads and promotions that it’s hard to work out where the non-commercial content is. Programs crash. Installing drivers is click-and-hope. It won’t recognize your wireless network card because it wasn’t invented in 2001, and you can’t go on the internet for updates because it won’t recognize your wireless network card. Even if you could, you don’t have any security patches installed, and by the time you download them, your system will be infected with Sasser. Everything you install tries to change your home page, start by default, and fill your desktop with icons.

But what really bothers me is the feeling that you must constantly fight for control of your own computer, because your aims are apparently in conflict with those of Microsoft and half of everyone else who writes Windows software. They want your computer to report information about you, keep ongoing watch over what you’re doing in case you turn pirate (activation, registration, and validation?), show you ads, and lock you out of protected media. If you lose this battle, then six months later you find yourself with a computer so clogged with malware that the only way to make it usable again is to reinstall the operating system and begin the fight again.

Occasionally I see articles about whether Linux is ready to compete with Windows on the desktop. But it’s become obvious to me that Linux is already a better operating system. That’s purely on the merits—features, reliability, and ease of use—and even before you throw in the fact that Linux is free and has more accessible support.

So to me the question isn’t whether Linux is good enough any more. It’s down to the applications: whether Linux programs are available to do everything you want.

Today the latest version of Ubuntu was released. Ubuntu is the best home Linux distribution going around, so if you’ve thought about switching, it’s a good time. You can download a Live CD, which lets you try Linux out without actually installing it, but even better might be to consider which applications you could switch to. If you can find Linux versions that do everything you need, you’re good to go. If you can’t—and there are certain holes here that will rule Linux out for some people—then you might want to stay put. (It is possible to run most Windows applications on Linux with emulation, but it’s clunky. And dual-booting for anything except games gets tedious fast.)

P.S. Here is the last thing I wrote about Linux, in February 2005.

P.P.S. I understand that to many people, Linux users are fanatical freaks with no appreciation for the basic fact that the majority of the world doesn’t fall in love with computers but simply uses them to get things done. But that’s because they’re running Windows. If only they switched, the scales would fall from their eyes and they too would realize that they are eating delicious cherry pie while everyone around them chews on mud, saying, “It’s not too bad, once you get used to it.”

Oh, and the mud is evil.

Wed 11
Apr
2007

Travel Diary: Days #11-13 (San Francisco, Los Angeles, Melbourne)

Writing I wake to the aroma of banana loaf. I’ve made barely a dent in Katrina’s goodies, and my hotel room smells as if Momma’s been a-bakin’. It’s quite delightful. Hotels should consider leaving out banana loaf instead of chocolates, I think.

Take two for Google. This time I seem to have the right day, and Ricky leads me through the campus to do my talk. And oh my God. The stories are true. It is the most wonderful place in the world. It’s like the company is saying, “Just come in, hang out, and I’ll give you everything you could possibly want. And if, you know, you have a minute free and want to do some work for us, that’d be cool, too.”

There are endless cafeterias; free, of course. Snack and drink machines everywhere. Massage chairs. A laundromat. A beach volleyball court. A wave pool. Grass, trees, open space. A full-scale model of SpaceShipOne. A T-Rex skeleton being attacked by a flock of pink flamingos. And geeks, geeks, as far as the eye can see: young, free, happy geeks. I want to weep for the years I spent at HP: why did I waste a single minute of my life there when this exists? If I didn’t already have my dream job, I swear I would throw myself on the Google doorstep and beg for employment.

Which makes things a little ridiculous, because I am here to preach about the innate evil of workplaces, and Google’s campus is so wonderful that I expect bunnies to frolic amongst the cubicles while chocolate donuts rain from the sky. Still, I’m not persuaded that my thesis is wrong. I strongly suspect that Google will never be as good a place to work again as it is right now. Today, Google’s corporate identity is dominated by the personality of its founders. I expect that as it ages, and outlives the people who started it, the corporation’s natural inclinations will gradually take over. After all, one time, long ago, HP was something like this.

The good thing about speaking to a room full of people who have probably never heard of me is that I can dredge out old stories I no longer tell on book tour out of fear that everyone who cares has already heard them. I also try to make the most out of the sensation that I am a Person Worth Listening To, because I know that in 24 hours I will be back to Person Who Needs To Do Those Dishes.

[Update: Here’s the full Google video of my talk.]

The very first question is whether I am wearing the same shirt as in my author photo on the back of the book. I confess that I am, and use as my excuse that it’s all I have clean on my last day of tour. But hey, I’m at Google. There are guys here who probably consider it unnecessary and inefficient to own more than one shirt.

Back to my hotel, and as I pack for the last time I begin to feel like I might miss this. I dunno; there’s just something about people rushing to open doors for you and delivering hamburgers to your room at 1am that’s fairly easy to get used to.

The desk clerk asks if he can fetch me a cab, and I say, “No thanks, I’m catching Bart.” I am quite excited about my plans to catch Bart, and being able to use the sentence, “No thanks, I’m catching Bart.” I was meant to take a cab, but when I mentioned this to Katrina last night she was horrified at the idea, since Bart pretty much runs direct from my hotel room to SFO check-in. So I trundle my suitcase down Market St to the station. Unfortunately it’s 5pm and a lot of people are doing the same thing, only without suitcases and with annoyed looks at people standing around with suitcases trying to figure out where they’re going. I know that most public transport systems don’t make much of an effort to tell newbies how to use them, but Bart seems to take that to a whole new level of mystery. It even leaves up to me how much the ticket should cost: at first it suggests $20, I bargain it down to five cents with the down arrow, then we compromise on $5, which sounds about fair to me. I hope any transit police I encounter feel the same way.

The train is packed and disappointingly not covered with Simpsons characters or, really, remarkable in any way. It’s just a train. So sitting there with my 50-pound suitcase biting into my thighs, I’m thinking I probably should have caught that cab after all. But I don’t want to leave you with the vague idea that this is all Katrina’s fault. I want that to be clear. It totally is.

On my ninth journey through airport security screening in eleven days, I find myself appreciating how polite and serene the staff are. They deal with the exact same situations about a million times per day. I am already shouting in my head: Hey, you! Shoes off, idiot! You there, a laptop in your bag? What are you, stupid? Whoa! Where do you think you’re going with that jacket? Hey! Yes, moron, you! Shoes! SHOES!

For the flight home I am reaquainted with my old friend seat 48G, which no amount of begging, calling, and mouse-clicking over the last two weeks has been able to budge me from. But it turns out that the seat beside me is miraculously empty—one of only a handful of spaces on the entire flight. This allows me to angle my legs diagonally under the next seat along and, oh sweet jesus yes, straighten them. It’s a wonderful feeling, knowing you can fall asleep without risking Deep Vein Thrombosis.

We touch down in Melbourne and before long I’m through Customs. At first I can’t see Jen and Finlay, and do a big circuit of the arrivals hall. Then I spot them from behind. I yell, “Hey!” They turn and grin. Jen sets Fin down and she stumble-runs toward me across the floor. It’s like the day I left, except instead of leaping into my arms, she pulls up right in front of me, looking suddenly shy. I sweep her up and hug her tight, and after a second I feel her little arms hug me back.

Wed 04
Apr
2007

Travel Diary: Days 9-10 (Phoenix, San Francisco)

Writing I can’t sleep. Part of the problem is that when I lie down, all the blood in my body rushes to my sinuses. Actually, maybe that’s rushing phlegm. Yeah. It’s phlegm. The other part of the problem is that back home, it’s Round 1 of the football season, and my team is playing.

It would be stupid to get up, turn on my laptop, and check the scores online. The game won’t finish until 3am my time, so I won’t get to find out the result tonight anyway. But…

I get up, turn on my laptop, and check the scores online. It’s Richmond 44, Carlton 44. I also discover that there’s a streaming radio broadcast available. “Hmm…” I say.

At 3am, I’ve got the laptop in bed with me, piping out commentary. We lose. I turn it off and fall asleep.

Sunday is a travel day: the first day without a bookstore event since I started the tour. All I have to do is fly to San Francisco, check into my hotel, and marvel at the can of personal oxygen on offer in the bathroom. It’s a relief to know that’s there, just in case, say, all the oxygen molecules in the air coincidentally rush to the other end of the room. I will grab that can and inhale until the entropy principle reasserts itself.

For dinner I meet up with Katrina, a NationStates moderator, and discover that she’s the girl who gave me a home-baked banana loaf in San Francisco when I was here last time. I figure this out because this time Katrina has brought me not one but two banana loaves. And not just that: she and players John and Thom have hand-made a “NationStates Monopoly” set, complete with “Issue cards,” “UN Resolution” cards, custom money, and a board where key regions and alliances are the property. It’s amazing. And I would post a picture, except when I set up the game back at my hotel room later, my camera batteries die in the middle of extending the lens. But trust me: it’s amazing. I can’t believe how much time and care went into it.

On Monday morning I shave my head, because my hair was getting so unruly, and meet Frank, who was also my media escort from last time. One of the many great things about Frank is that he has an extraordinary, apparently endless store of pithy quotes. Any given situation, Frank can produce a famous quote to express what I was trying to say, only better.

Frank takes me out to Mountain View, where I’m scheduled to read at Google. I’m very excited about this, because I’m a geek, and because as far as I can tell Google is the best big company in the world. I have heard many tales of wonder about the Google offices and want to see if these are true.

We’re there early, though. Really early. About 24 hours early, in fact. There’s been a miscommunication and I’ll have to come back tomorrow.

So instead of wandering through the magical fields of Google, I drop into San Francisco bookstores and sign stock. Everyone in San Francisco is very fit, I notice. Not that I’m surprised. Just walking up and down those hills, residents must build incredibly powerful thighs. They probably need to exercise a lot to balance that out.

I call home and discover that Finlay has really gotten into YouTube lately. When Jen turns on the computer, Fin comes up and says, “Movies? Movies?” Then she sits on Jen’s lap and watches clips from the “Pets & Animals” section. Apparently Charles has a licking problem is popular.

Then it’s time for my reading. I’m expecting a small crowd, because it’s in Danville, which was met with howls of despair from my Bay Area readers when announced. And indeed there are fewer people, perhaps 15 or 20, but since most have made a big effort to get here, they’re a lovely audience. One guy, Fazil, has brought me a bottle of the legendary Fukola Cola, which I discover tastes pretty much like regular cola. I was expecting to at least hallucinate a little. Disappointing.

On the drive home, Frank suggests that I take a photo of each audience and post it on my blog. That’s a terrific idea, one that I could have used about ten days ago. Damn. Next time.

The last thing I do is a little more bathtub washing. I thought I was done with this, but since my Google reading was knocked back a day, I need one more non-ugly shirt. I decide to try a technique recommended by Tim in the comments of a previous blog, whereby you wrap the wet item in a towel and stomp on it. I’m generally in favor of plans that include stomping on things. And this technique seems to work pretty well, although Tim did promise that I would be “astounded” by it. I’m not sure I’m astounded. I think to astound me, my shirt would need to come out bone dry and already ironed. Or have maybe transformed into a much hipper, more expensive shirt. That would be astounding. This is merely satisfyingly less wet.

Mon 02
Apr
2007

Travel Diary: Day #8 (Austin, Phoenix)

Writing On the plane from Austin to Phoenix, I finish my advance copy of Rant, the new Chuck Palahniuk novel. Somehow I have ended up reading incredibly explicit books on every flight. I flew from Melbourne to LA with Past Mortem, by Ben Elton, and unexpectedly found myself in the middle of the filthiest sex scene I’ve ever encountered. Seriously, it was very educational. Only a Brit could could produce a book that’s essentially a comedy of manners, but with felching. I was sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with a mother traveling with her two young children, and had to tilt the book away from her during these passages. The danger then was that the man across the aisle would think I was trying to show it to him. It was a delicate balance.

Next up was Craig Clevenger’s Dermaphoria, and a sex scene involving a dripping tap. By the time I got to Palahniuk, I decided that if people didn’t want to know about olfactory cunnilingus, they shouldn’t be reading over my shoulder.

All three were great books, by the way. I’m now going to get myself a copy of Clevenger’s first, The Contortionist’s Handbook. And Rant is brilliant; nobody messes with my head as delightfully as Chuck. Definitely one of my favorites.

It’s my first visit to Phoenix, and the city has a great feel. Although maybe part of that is my joy at seeing the sun again, which I last sighted in Denver. My cab driver is an effortlessly cool Jamaican man who jabbers into his cellphone and gestures wildly with his free hand, controlling the steering wheel with, as far as I can tell, sheer willpower.

Phoenix has palm trees, mountains popping unexpectedly out of endless plains, and cacti. The latter strike me as jokes, as if somebody put them there to be funny. I’m not really sure why. But they are very amusing.

I settle into my hotel, pausing only to note that the doormen wear shorts, and then it’s off to Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe. I’m supposed to do a 2-hour writing workshop ahead of my reading, and not really sure what that means. I’m imagining maybe five or six people and an interactive session where I set them a writing task and then we discuss their work. While they’re writing, maybe I’ll go out for pizza.

But 20 or 30 people have turned up, and the questions fly. I end up doing the entire session as Q&A. I think most people are relieved at not having to write something and talk in public about it, although a few were clearly looking forward to that part. I guess my next workshop should be longer.

Some people leave, others arrive, and then I do my reading. Halfway through, I realize that a young girl in the audience, maybe eight years old, is staring at me stonily. At first her gaze is startling, and then I find it funny, and have to deliberately avoid looking at her to keep it together. Really, you try reading something in public while a little girl with eyes the size of dinner plates stares at you unblinkingly. It’s not easy.

Afterward, her mother brings her up to have a book signed, and I learn that her name is Kaia. Kaia has a question: “Have you met The Wiggles?” She thought that seeing as we’re all Australian, maybe I occasionally bump into them. But, sadly, no.

In line, Lisa gives me a home-made rabbit. It’s extremely cute, with long, dangling arms and legs, and wearing a sweater. She tells me not to give it to Fin, though, because the hands and feet might pop off and choke her to death. But I can put it on her bedroom shelf, where it can smile down at her temptingly.

As I’m leaving the store, a young, muscular man rushes out the darkness at me. “Max! Max!” This turns out to be Kale, who wants some books signed but I guess didn’t want to wait in line. It’s just as well for Kale that I’m not very famous. If I was Jimmy Carter, my bodyguards would have put five slugs into him. Maybe one day I will have armed bodyguards. One day.

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