Monday, 21 September 2009

Millennium


Wow! I just finished the third volume of Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy. What an amazing piece of writing! I really think it's the most absorbing, entrancing fiction I've ever read (and I've read an awful lot of it). Unusually for me, I read it very slowly, savoring every sentence - normally I race through fiction, but with Millennium I wanted to make the most of it, especially since I know there will never, ever be another one.

It was hard to find all the volumes. The first one I found quite by chance, through an Amazon recommendation. Then when I wanted to read the second volume, I found that it isn't available in paperback in the US. I managed to get a "grey import" of the UK edition (which apparently is a different translation). But the third volume isn't available in the UK or the US, and won't be for some time. Luckily, though, it has been available in French (and Spanish) for quite a while, so I bought the French imprint from amazon.fr. I was concerned that it would "feel" different in French, but I needn't have worried - the author's style comes through in exactly the same way in either language. The French translation has a few oddities in it, but it's nicely done and enjoyable to read from a literary point of view. (Although there's a huge blog full of nit-picking criticisms by people with no life, who say they couldn't possibly read a translation where the subjunctive future pluperfect is used incorrectly, and so on - which of course is entirely their loss).

The pivotal character is of course the extraordinary Lisbeth Salander. Obsessive, brilliant, almost pathologically introverted, hacker extraordinaire, gifted with a photographic memory, and completely fascinating. She is pivotal - but not always central. In the first book she is an important, but not central character - everything revolves around Mikael Blomqvist. The second book is really hers, with Blomqvist often absent for a long time. Then in the third book, her circumstances (I won't say more, read it for yourself) keep her out of the main action for nearly the whole book, and Blomqvist is back on center stage. Until the climax of the whole series, the courtroom scene at the end, where she destroys one of her principal enemies (she has plenty) in a single blow.

Sadly, Larsson died shortly after finishing the third volume. It is rumored that the fourth volume was well advanced, but his heirs have said it will never be published. There are quite a few places where you can see loose ends left to be picked up later, and we'll never know, now, what Larsson had in mind - did the awful you-know-who really put the pictures on his computer, or were they planted by one of Salander's hacker friends? I'm sure he was going to tell us. Maybe it's better to have three extraordinary books, and be left panting for more, than to have ten (his original goal) that gradually deteriorate into repitition and mediocrity, which so often happens with long series. (Think how keen Conan Doyle was to be rid of Holmes).

In any case, a front-runner for "best read of a lifetime". Now I just have to wait for the English-subtitled movie versions to appear, and maybe re-read the third volume when it finally appears in English.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Ergonomics and Supermarkets


This morning I stopped in the Safeway next to the hotel I'm staying at, to get a couple of things. The staffed checkouts were quite busy, so against my better judgment I decided to use the self-service checkout for my three items.

I should really know better. With the honorable exception of ATMs - which somehow they got right early on and and which have stayed right ever since - just about ALL of these self-service booths seem to have been expressly designed to be impossible to use successfully without help. Which is why, for example, you will always find airline staff hanging round the self-service machines at airports. (Although they do mostly seem OK now, but for a long time they would always have some trick to catch you out just when you thought you were getting there. For example, the British Airways machines wanted to check the card used to buy the ticket - impossible if you had a company ticket issued through a travel agent. And I NEVER got a Lufthansa machine to work in the days when I flew with them just about every week).

Anyway back to Safeway. To my amazement, it let me scan all three items. As long as I ignored the irritating voiceover telling me about all the other things I could do, it seemed to be going well. Then came time to pay. I slid my card through the debit card reader, keyed my PIN, tapped "confirm", and all seemed well.

Except that the actual checkout screen said "amount paid $0.00". I pressed the help button and the store manager came along. Turns out you FIRST have to tell one screen how you want to pay, and THEN use the separate payment machine. It took several minutes to straighten it all out, made more complicated by the fact that I refused to scan my card again since I'm sure that I would then have ended up paying twice.

Now, how hard would it have been either:

a) to figure out that when you slide your card, you probably want to pay by card, so accept the payment

b) or if that is really too hard, then disable the card reader until you have made a payment choice?

In the end it all ended OK, in that I left the store with the items I wanted and didn't get arrested for shoplifting. But why does it have to be so painful?