Monday, December 11, 2017

Book Review: Foundation

book cover for FoundationFor twelve thousand years the Galactic Empire has ruled supreme. Now it is dying. But only Hari Seldon, creator of the revolutionary science of psychohistory, can see into the future—to a dark age of ignorance, barbarism, and warfare that will last thirty thousand years. To preserve knowledge and save mankind, Seldon gathers the best minds in the Empire—both scientists and scholars—and brings them to a bleak planet at the edge of the Galaxy to serve as a beacon of hope for a future generations. He calls his sanctuary the Foundation.

But soon the fledgling Foundation finds itself at the mercy of corrupt warlords rising in the wake of the receding Empire. Mankind's last best hope is faced with an agonizing choice: submit to the barbarians and be overrun—or fight them and be destroyed.

If you can look past certain technological anachronisms like paper still being a medium for the storage of information in a technologically advanced civilization with FTL travel or archaic cultural limitations on women (I didn't see a single female character that wasn't a secretary or wife, and these were throwaway roles), then this classic sci-fi novel (and later series) from the 1950s still merits reading (assuming you haven't done so already).

At this point in the series (several novels were written that take place before this one, although they were published later), the Galactic Empire has begun to decline, though there's little visible evidence for it. Hari Seldon, the leader of a group of psychohistorians, has declared that the empire will crumble, leading to a galaxy-wide dark ages that will last for thirty millennia. Seldon's scientific work leaves him without a doubt that the collapse is inevitable, but the recovery period doesn't have to be nearly as long. His plan involves the creation of a foundation that will work to preserve the empire's knowledge and minimize the damage from its fall.

The book is broken up into five sections. The first, the Psychohistorians, deals with Seldon's announcement and subsequent arrest. He's put on trial for treason and must successfully argue his case or face the death penalty. Although modeled after the Roman Empire, I found an interesting parallel to Seldon's argument about the eventual collapse of the empire in 500 years time and those individuals, most notably James Hansen, warning the American government and the world about climate change. Just as too many people have a problem envisioning how climate change is happening or that its effects will be more severely felt decades from now (or want to cover it up by discrediting the messengers), the Imperial government denies that the empire is crumbling, can't see the cracks that will take centuries to manifest, discredits Seldon's work, and seeks to silence him permanently. After all, who wants to hear that their way of life is having a deleterious effect upon the world (galaxy) around them?

From here, the remaining sections deal with pivotal moments in the Foundation's early years. These are dubbed "Seldon crises." In each one, the protagonist is a man who sees that the current political environment, if not handled correctly, will lead the Foundation down the wrong path. Sometimes the system needs to be overthrown; sometimes it needs a steady hand. Each one uses his wits rather than brute force to defeat his opponent. Like all successful chess players, he's able to see his opponents moves several steps in advance and plans accordingly.

While I wouldn't say it's an exciting work, it nonetheless makes for an entertaining read. Despite the aforementioned anachronisms, its influence is widespread and can be seen throughout sci-fi. When people as far apart on the ideological spectrum as Newt Gingrich and Paul Krugman cite it as an influential work, it bears looking into.


Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Book Review: Ronin

book cover for RoninIn this tale of a legendary warrior, the Ronin, a dishonored, masterless 13th Century samurai, is mystically given a second chance to avenge his master's death.Suddenly finding himself reborn in a futuristic and corrupt 21st Century New York City, the samurai discovers he has one last chance to regain his honor: he must defeat the reincarnation of his master's killer, the ancient demon Agat. In a time and place foreign and unfathomable to him, the Ronin stands against his greatest enemy with his life and, more importantly, his soul at stake.

When I first encountered comic books in the 70s, I thought they were garbage. The stories weren't worth the tissue paper they were printed on. But when I went to college, a roommate of mine told me that was no longer the case (more on that here). He used three graphic novels to make his case: Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, and Ronin.

Suffice it to say, I was convinced.

Having had a warm reunion with Watchmen, I decided to re-visit Ronin to see if still held up after all these years.

The artwork certainly isn't as good as I remember it. Most of the art strikes me as a rough draft or conceptual sketches meant to be passed on to the illustrator. I can see what imagery Miller was attempting to convey and the feelings he wanted to evoke, but the execution seemed amateurish.

And the color palette! Blech! Algae green and muddled browns. Scenes of the facility viewed from above reveal it to be an amorphous mass of greens ovals infecting the grey and brown straight lines of the city like a fungus.

However, I still enjoyed the story. We have a samurai who's lost his master (hence ronin) battling a demon in the distant past only to be carried into the future (the inspiration for Samurai Jack?). In the future, we have a limbless child (Billy) attempting to master telekinesis with the help of an AI (Virgo) with a grandmother complex. Both work for an advanced biotech company looking to resurrect Manhattan from severe degradation.

When the storylines converge, the tale hits its stride. All is not as it seems. Magic, technology, fantasy, identity: It all blurs. Caught up in the middle of it all are Peter and Casey, a couple who work at the facility. Peter is a research scientist responsible for most of the science behind the technology. Casey is head of security. Each tries to hold firm to reality despite what their eyes are telling them. When people start dying, they refuse the easy answers and dig deeper to find the truth.

Since I first read the story, I'd heard about Miller's negative view of Manhattan. To paraphrase, he felt that the city was overrun by degenerates. He projected the future Manhattan in Ronin to be filled with racists, criminals, and cannibalistic mutants. Life holds very little value. It makes me question why a biotech company would bother building a mammoth (and expensive) facility among such filth and decay. The corporate directors talked about revitalizing the city, but we never saw anyone outside of the company that wasn't a degenerate. So why bother? But such a viewpoint works perfectly for Batman, which Miller would write (but not illustrate) not long after this one.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Finished That Writing Course

Cover for DVDAfter all of the home repairs and seasonal chores, I finally got around to finishing this DVD writing course that I started back in February. I have to say that it was fantastic. I'm talking 5 stars. Landon opened my eyes to the potential of the sentence. I was a long sentence skeptic, but Landon demonstrated that they can be done well and delivered eloquently. He fights the notion that style should be invisible as it drains writing of its joy and makes it a tiresome burden for many a student. He sees long sentences as instrumental in the development of a writer's style, the text lending shape to the writer's voice.

The guidebook that accompanies the DVD, while complete, lacks Landon's delivery and many examples that he presents in the lecture. It's like the "Cliff Notes" version of the lectures. Let me put it another way: The lectures have been boiled down, and this guidebook is the precipitate. While it covers the essential nuggets and provides what you need to know, it doesn't deliver the goods in the same way as Landon's lectures.

In the DVD, Landon's delivery clearly demonstrates his passion for literature. Not only is he lively, but he also punctuates his lectures with emphatic gesture and wit. At no point did I ever find myself bored, even when the material seemed too technical for my needs. The time spent viewing these lectures was well worth it. While I don't see myself trying to emulate Faulkner, following his lengthy written footsteps, I do feel that I can apply what I've learned to my writing. I highly recommend it for all aspiring authors.

Here's the link to their website. I bought it when it went on sale, so check back periodically if you're on a budget (like me).


Friday, October 13, 2017

Book Review: Ancillary Justice

Book cover for Ancillary JusticeOn a remote, icy planet, the soldier known as Breq is drawing closer to completing her quest. Once, she was the Justice of Toren - a colossal starship with an artificial intelligence linking thousands of soldiers in the service of the Radch, the empire that conquered the galaxy. Now, an act of treachery has ripped it all away, leaving her with one fragile human body, unanswered questions, and a burning desire for vengeance.

I was initially intrigued by the concept of a ship's AI out for revenge, but hesitated when the hype machine started rolling. When something gets hyped up, I tend to keep my distance until things cool down. I won't say I regretted waiting, but I can see where the praise (and backlash) came from.

The story is told from the POV of the starship Justice of Toren. Each of these massive ship's is run by an AI that not only embodies the ship, but thousands of its cyborgs (basically mindwiped POWs), known as ancillaries. So during the flashback chapters, Justice of Toren is in multiple places at once. I thought Leckie did a great job with managing this as the narrator always specified which ancillary (they have designations) was observing which scene.

But with an AI as narrator, we're given a character that isn't human and thus doesn't make for an easy read. The AI isn't going to wax poetic about the view, nor will it pay attention to a person's physical features unless they're relevant. We get a very clinical description of other characters' behavior, and the AI's algorithms determine said behavior to mean a particular state of mind. Reading other reviews, I see that turned some people off. It can be dull and repetitive, but I appreciated it. This is how I'd expect an AI to narrate.

Then there's the whole matter of gender. The Radch Empire, or rather their language, doesn't acknowledge gender, so the default pronoun is "she" (though "it" would've been more accurate). There were scenes were Justice of Toren was required to speak in other languages and guess the proper pronoun to use. It wasn't always successful. To readers, it was such a surprise that some praised it for its radical linguistic treatment of gender. Some critics saw this as some liberal plot; others just found it confusing. I was in the latter camp until I got used to it and figured out characters' genders.

As I mentioned earlier, the plot can be boiled down to "AI seeks revenge." But revenge implies an emotional response. So while the AI won't describe the sunset, it can develop emotional attachments to certain humans. Justice of Toren mentions that some ships became attached to their captains and became catastrophically despondent upon their deaths. There's no explanation for how these AIs came into existence (the story is set at least several thousand years in the future), but I got the impression that emotion wasn't in their programming (obeying orders is though). I found this part, the AI wrestling with emotions and programming, the most enjoyable.

The other disturbing part of the Radch, besides its conversion of POWs as ancillaries, was the fact that it was a surveillance state. Cameras were everywhere, recording everything. One misspoken sentence could have dire consequences. I'll leave it at that. Saying anymore would reveal too much of the story.

One last thing I have to mention: What is up with everyone drinking tea all the time? Holy crap! There was one reference to some sailors returning from shore leave flat out drunk, but otherwise it's all about bowls of tea.

Overall, I really enjoyed the story. It wasn't an easy read, but it was an honest one. By that I mean, I really had to follow the dialogue to pick up the clues. I think that Leckie did a great job providing us with a conflicted AI (the best since 2001's HAL?), but I recognize that it won't be everyone's cup of tea (Sorry, couldn't help myself).


Friday, October 6, 2017

But it wasn't all bad

Lest I give you the wrong impression, my summer wasn't all work and no play. For instance, in July my wife and I got to see the Church perform at Darryl's House in Pawling, which is just over the border in New York.

The Church performing at Daryl's House.
While most people only remember them for their 80's hit "Under the Milky Way," they actually have twenty-five studio albums. A new one, Man Woman Life Death Infinity, has just been released. They remain one of my all-time favorite bands.

Despite the small size of the club, there was a VIP section (basically right in front of us). VIPs were treated to a meet & greet with the band. It was weird. We were separated from the VIP section by a bar rail, so we looked on as the band talked with VIP fans right next to us but we were forbidden. Kind of silly.

Tim PowlesTowards the end of meet and greet period, Tim Powles, the drummer, was oblivious to the divider and, unbidden, came over to talk to us. When we informed him that we weren't VIP, he shrugged. I don't want to misquote him, so I'll just say that he didn't really care, having had enough pre-show wine. We were unprepared and scrambling for something to talk about. We noticed was that he was barefoot. Presto! Instant conversation starter. We pointed out their naked condition and wasn't he worried about stepping on something. He knew he probably should be, but he was more relaxed. I mentioned that one couldn't go too many place barefoot in the US due to liability issues. I asked if other places were as litigious as the US. He said, "No," with conviction.

We chatted with a little while longer, then let him go before he got in trouble with management (club or band). Nice guy.

The show was great. Old favorites dominated the set, with some newer tracks mixed in.

Every July our town hosts a small brewfest. This was the first time we had a chance to go. Normally it's one of the hottest weekends of the year. When the thermometer climbs into the 90s, the last thing I want to do is drink beer. But this year it was cloudy, drizzly, and cool enough to wear jeans. In fact, it's 78°F (25.5°C) today and I'm in shorts. You know the weather's gone weird in the northern hemisphere when an October day is warmer than a day in July. Anyway, it was pretty good. A few new local startup breweries (Nod Hill, Broken Symmetry) were present, which was nice to see.

Every year, the Newtown public library hosts a large book sale in one of the schools. My daughter and I got to go this year. Here's my haul:
Newtown book sale 2017
While I've always enjoyed perusing book stores (an activity all but extinct), I think this is the first time I've had a chance to go with my daughter. Yeah, she goes to the library, but that's always seemed to be satisfying some school requirement as opposed to reading because she enjoys it. It was a nice moment to connect with her over something we both enjoy.

But the highlight of the summer was witnessing the great North American eclipse of 2017! My parents live in the path of totality down in Tennessee, so we trekked on down to watch it from their front yard. The weather was perfect.

While I knew that the internet was going to be flooded with professional pictures and video, I just had to try and take some myself (Isn't that what people do?). I cut up one of the cheap (but Discover magazine approved) solar eclipse glasses and put one of the lenses in front of my phone camera lens. It didn't work very well. Most of the pictures were fuzzy blobs. This one was probably the best:

Obviously not good at all!

I waited until totality before I brought out my Olympus. I didn't want to risk damaging it (or my eyes) during the partial phase. I had much better results.

For these next four, I cropped the pictures so that I didn't have to re-size them. I think the pictures look better from a distance as the zooms reveal the limits of my camera.

This last picture is the same as the previous one, just zoomed out.

Venus made an appearance in the west once totality began, the reflected sunlight finally visible once the sky went dark. I didn't think to take a picture of it however.

If you've never seen a total solar eclipse in person, you should put it on your list of things to do. It was a sight to behold that my pictures don't do justice (or even the professional ones). It was like a hole in the sky, something physical yet completely dark. I understand why eclipses were viewed as ominous portents and signs from God (or the gods). For those two minutes and twenty seconds, it was as though a great secret had been revealed, but we all forgot just as soon as it was over.

I can't wait for the next one.


Saturday, September 9, 2017

How I Spent My Summer (2017)

Like every other summer, I had my usual assortment of tasks: take the kids to their various summer camps (band camp, Irish dancing camp, sewing & embroidery class, field hockey, ice hockey), chop some wood for winter, and finish random small outdoor projects (like power wash and re-stain the deck). I got off to a good start by finishing a small retaining wall for a flower bed and collecting a couple of cords of wood from my in-laws (they had a couple of trees taken down). But while I was in the shower one day, my daughter answered the door for a guy going house to house to set up sales meetings for a home remodeling company.

I was a bit taken aback by this behavior of hers. She's 11; I thought she knew better. We went through a plague of Jehovah's Witness visits whereupon we hid and pretended we weren't home. But no. I get out of the shower and learn from my son that his sister is talking to a guy through her window. I scrambled to get dressed and send this guy on his way as nicely as possible, but once I went outside to talk to him, I was already caught in his net. When I explained that my wife wouldn't meet with anyone after work—her average arrival time home is 7—he countered with a weekend visit. The time was drawing near that I had to drive my overly friendly daughter to her Irish dancing class. I couldn't get rid of him without being a jerk so I gave up and agreed to a weekend meeting.

My wife and I were impressed by the sales presentation, so we took the plunge on vinyl siding with a side order of new (and bigger) gutters. We'd been wanting to go vinyl for several years, but opted not to make the huge investment. The materials technology has improved over the past decade. That and the company's size made me feel confident that we weren't going to have any issues down the road. And new gutters...I've been struggling with the ones we had since year one.

So this meant that I had a few weeks to split and stack the wood in the driveway. They needed the space for the materials and the ginormous dumpster—7 feet high! It was doable, but one week later, after we'd returned from "celebrating" the move, fate threw a wrench into our plans. A pipe burst in the bathroom on the ground floor, flooding most of the lower level. I opened the garage door on my way to the main shutoff valve, and a wave of water rolled out and down my driveway. While it was only a couple inches, anyone who's been flooded will tell you that it doesn't take much water to cause damage (I can imagine what Harvey's victims are going through).

broken pipes

We pumped out as much water we could and used every non-bath towel in the house to absorb the rest. We thought that we were going to be ok. I left the dehumidifier on all night and hoped for the best. The next day we discovered that the wood parquet flooring in the foyer was trashed once and for all. The carpeting in the den was soggy. We tried the shop vac, but that was a joke. The padding underneath was a sponge and not letting go. It had to go. The more we ripped up, the more wet stuff we found. By the time we were done, half of the den and a quarter of the office was lost. We got to most furniture in time, but an old particle board shelf tower disintegrated.

Sheet rock is also notorious for disintegrating about immersion in water. If it doesn't crumble, that evil black mold grows on the surface. I had to rip out the bottom two feet of sheet rock in the bathroom and laundry room. The other rooms were spared as the carpet and padding sponginess worked in our favor, hogging the water to itself.

We kinda knew this day was coming. We've had water issues many times before. The guy who built our house in 1973 used the cheaper, thin-walled copper pipe meant to be used for re-circulating water heating systems. We have electric heat; so either he was an idiot or a cheapskate. 25+ years of hard and acidic water led to pinhole leaks and cracked pipes. As projects arose and pipes failed, we replaced the copper pipes throughout the house with PEX, except for the laundry room and downstairs bathroom. The pipe failed on the wrong side of the shutoff valve. It sheared right off, and at four gallons/minute (~15 liters/minute) it may well have been a fire hose.

I exposed the old copper pipes so that my plumber could get in there and make the swap. He also suggested getting our water tested so that we could get the proper water treatment system installed. We came in with a pH of 6.1 and a hardness of 154 ppm. That meant we had to install a water filter, neutralizer, and softener. It was a big expenditure on top of an already large investment, neither of which we'd planned on making.

Someone asked me if my insurance company was covering any of the cost. Honestly, I hadn't even considered it. So I decided to call my insurance agent and hear what they had to say. I was informed that the insurance company would cover the expense for the damaged flooring (minus the deductible) but not the corrective equipment we'd installed to get our water in line. After filing said claim, our rates would then go up as we'd lose our 20% discount for being claim free. Factoring the rate increase with the high deductible, we decided not to file a claim.

After I got this taken care of...

...I got to work on repairs. All the sheet rock has been replaced, spackled, primed, and painted. Both the bathroom and laundry room are fully functional again. All of the foyer flooring and old carpet have been disposed of (Thank you, ginormous dumpster).

I still have half the old padding and all the tack strips to remove and dispose of. Since we have to replace the foyer flooring, we decided to completely renovate it. That's on my plate for September. After that, we'll have someone install carpet (That's beyond my skill set) in the den and office. So you can see that I won't have a whole lot of time for writing in the weeks ahead. All is not lost though. I did manage to find the time to write up this explanation for my whereabouts.

EDIT 9/14/17: Forgot to mention that our microwave oven died the week before the siding guys arrived. So that was yet another thing to buy and install.


Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Book Review: Timing (Far from the Spaceports #2)

book cover for TimingWhen quick wits and loyalty are put to the test...

Mitnash and his AI companion Slate, coders and investigators of interplanetary fraud, are at work again in
Timing, the sequel to Far from the Spaceports.

This time their travels take them from Jupiter to Mars, chasing a small-scale scam which seems a waste of their time. Then the case escalates dramatically into threats and extortion. Robin's Rebels, a new player in the game, is determined to bring down the financial world, and Slate's fellow AIs are the targets. Will Slate be the next victim?

The clues lead them back to the asteroid belt, and to their friends on the Scilly Isles. The next attack will be here, and Mitnash and Slate must put themselves in the line of fire. To solve the case, they need to team up with an old adversary - the only person this far from Earth who has the necessary skills to help them. But can they trust somebody who keeps their own agenda so well hidden?

It was good to get back to Abbott's Far from the Spaceports series. In the first book, we're introduced to Mitnash and his AI companion, Slate. They work for the financial regulatory body ECRB (Economic Crime Review Board) and are periodically sent off-world to investigate financial shenanigans. I found Abbott's world-building solid and his take on AI refreshing (full review here).

This book adds more of the travelogue aspect of this series. Abbott sends his duo to Phobos and Mars before their return to the Scilly Isles, a cluster of settlements in the asteroid belt that was the setting for the first book. Abbott provides more detail on life on Phobos, demonstrating how the geology of the fragile moon has shaped the culture of the settlements there.

Abbott also delves more into the characters' relationships. Mitnash struggles with maintaining a long distance relationship (astronomical units!) while a local woman intrigues him. And it's not just Mitnash's relationships, but Slate's as well. I don't know how we'll imbue emotion into AIs, but in Abbott's universe, it happened and each AI has a unique personality. With their consciousness capable of living the human equivalent of decades in a fraction of the time, they seek out relationships with other AIs, hoping for a match. Mitnash is put into a situation where he has to consider that Slate's feelings are no less valid than his.

While the story remains non-violent, save for a couple of off-camera incidents, Abbott manages to build tension, primarily through the "old adversary" mentioned in the blurb. Mitnash is slowly learning that life (on multiple fronts) is seldom as simple and straightforward as it seems. There are complications during the investigation, and Mitnash finds himself in a predicament that isn't easily remedied and will hang over his head as his story continues.

4.2 out of 5 stars. I'm looking forward to the next book in the series.

It took me longer than expected to finish this book. The delay had nothing to do with the quality of the material, rather most nights I was too tired from the day's activities to read more than a page. Details forthcoming when I have time for a lengthy post.