Review: Survival

Apr. 30th, 2017 18:45
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Review: Survival, by Julie E. Czerneda

Series: Species Imperative #1
Publisher: DAW
Copyright: May 2004
ISBN: 0-7564-0180-1
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 401

Dr. Mackenzie Connor, Mac to everyone she works with, is a biodiversity researcher specializing in salmon. In her future United States, humanity seems to have caught on to the importance of preserving wild places and learning about them, and is willing to invest in good equipment and a semi-permanent research installation. This comes with some occasional drawbacks, since she has to fight to get access to the salmon runs inside a nature preserve, but she wouldn't have it any other way. She wins enough of those fights, won the latest, and is now in position to monitor a run in a way that she's never been able to before.

She was not expecting an alien to go diving in the middle of her salmon run. She was certainly not expecting that alien to be accompanied by a bureaucrat insisting that this alien's curiosity is more important than her research (hah). But the accompanying letter she receives is scarily persuasive, if maddeningly unhelpful. Much like the apparently jovial, earnest, eager, and very odd alien.

Mac's continued hopes that she can quickly put this bizarre intrusion to rest and go back to her salmon are dashed by an impossible power outage, an alien visitor, and a violent kidnapping. Now her best friend and colleague is missing, the bureaucrat is not who he appears to be, and Mac is getting caught up in something that feels way over her head.

SF novels feature a lot of science, but not a lot of scientific research. The research that does appear is often impulsive, wildly compressed, or far too focused on the breakthroughs of single people. The SF novel that everyone points to for accurate portrayal of real scientific research is Benford's Timescape, which I found deeply unexciting. Now I have a new novel to point to for a better treatment, although (somewhat disappointingly) Mac's research gets sidelined relatively early in the story and left behind for the conclusion.

Czerneda gives us not just a few scientists and an imaginary research project, but an entire operational field station with a history. The Norcoast Salmon Research Facility is located just off-shore in carefully-designed domes to provide easy access to the sea with minimal intrusion into the local ecology. It's a bustling mix of research scientists, engineers, and the ever-present seasonal grad students, who come and go in all their immature enthusiasm and are viewed with a motherly bemusement that I immediately recognized from years of working at a university. Mac splits administrative duties with another scientist in an arrangement that will be familiar to academics everywhere, and the book opens with a mutually suspicious but mostly scripted turf fight with the guardian of the neighboring wildlife trust, the same fight they've been having every six months for years. I know Czerneda is herself a biologist by training; I'm not sure what her other academic background is, but if she hasn't spent years around academics and field studies, she's at least done some excellent research.

A lot of novels have a quotidian background that's interrupted by the arrival of the plot. At the start of the story, the characters often care more about their day-to-day lives than the plot, and are dragged into it reluctantly. But one sign of an excellent writer is their ability to get the reader to care about that quotidian background alongside the character, and to sympathize with the character's reluctance to get pulled into the promised (and generally more exciting) novel plot.

Czerneda succeeds in this about as well as any writer I've read since Robin McKinley's Sunshine, and that's high praise. I cared about Mac's salmon, I was nearly as irritated as she was when her research was interrupted, and I still want to go back and see more of the experiments and studies she was hoping to run. Interstellar drama and threats to multiple species are all well and good, but the salmon are running!

The actual plot is a mysterious threat that turns into a combination of a biological and cultural puzzle and a sort of first-contact story. Mac is not truly the first human to encounter the Dhryn, but she's certainly the first person they've explained anything to, and the first human to go where she goes. Sadly, it also shares some of the characteristics that sour me a bit on biological SF for personal reasons: a bit too much description of food, eating habits, squishy body parts, digestive processes, and biological discomfort. This is mostly a personal gripe, and won't bother other people as much as it does me, but I could have done without bits like the descriptions of Mac's attempts to figure out how to survive on alien cuisine. I'm also dubious of some of the biology of the Dhryn; given the startling bizarreness of Earth biology, maybe I shouldn't be, but I still think there are a few problems with the square-cube law here. But Mac's irrepressible grumpy curiosity makes this story, even in the bits that made me squeamish. I think I'd read any book in which she's the main character.

I will warn that the ending is surprisingly dark and wasn't what I was expecting, and Survival doesn't resolve its central mysteries. This is clearly the first book of a trilogy and should be read with that expectation. But I thoroughly enjoyed it, and hopefully the next book will have more salmon.

Followed by Migration.

Rating: 8 out of 10

git-pbuilder 1.48

Apr. 30th, 2017 10:46
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Not clear that anyone gets this from my web site instead of just using the version included in git-buildpackage, but just in case, this release syncs up the version with patches already applied to git-buildpackage (thank you, Guido!).

Previous versions did not check for --basepath in the options passed through the environment by gbp buildpackage and hence would ignore some settings. Fixed via a patch by Kevin Locke.

Stop removing *_source.changes files after completion of the build, since pbuilder 0.228 and later no longer create bogus changes files with invalid hashes, and the code in git-pbuilder could remove other files that shouldn't be deleted. Patch from Guido Günther.

Log the exact pdebuild command ran by the script. Patch from Guido Günther.

You can get the latest version from my scripts page.

Review: Periodic Tales

Apr. 29th, 2017 20:42
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Review: Periodic Tales, by Hugh Aldersey-Williams

Publisher: HarperCollins
Copyright: February 2011
ISBN: 0-06-207881-X
Format: Kindle
Pages: 451

Perhaps my favorite chapter in Randall Munroe's What If? is his examination of what would happen if you assembled a periodic table from square blocks of each element. As with most What If? questions, the answer is "everyone in the vicinity dies," but it's all about the journey. The periodic table is full of so many elements that we rarely hear about but which have fascinating properties. It was partly in the memory of that chapter that I bought Periodic Tales on impulse after seeing a mention of it somewhere on the Internet (I now forget where).

Hugh Aldersey-Williams is a journalist and author, but with a background in natural sciences. He also has a life-long hobby of collecting samples of the elements and attempting to complete his own private copy of the periodic table, albeit with considerably more precautions and sample containment than Munroe's thought experiment. Periodic Tales is inspired by that collection. It's a tour and cultural history of many of the elements, discussing their discovery, their role in commerce and industry, their appearance, and often some personal anecdotes. This is not exactly a chemistry book, although there's certainly some chemistry here, nor is it a history, although Aldersey-Williams usually includes some historical notes about each element he discusses. The best term might be an anthropology of the elements: a discussion of how they've influenced culture and an examination of the cultural assumptions and connections we've constructed around them. But primarily it's an idiosyncratic and personal tour of the things Aldersey-Williams found interesting about each one.

Periodic Tales is not comprehensive. The completionist in me found that a bit disappointing, and there are a few elements that I think would have fit the overall thrust of the book but are missing. (Lithium and its connection to mental health and now computer batteries comes to mind.) It's also not organized in the obvious way, either horizontally or vertically along the periodic table. Instead, Aldersey-Williams has divided the elements he talks about into five major but fairly artificial divisions: power (primarily in the economic sense), fire (focused on burning and light), craft (the materials from which we make things), beauty, and earth. Obviously, these are fuzzy; silver appears in craft, but could easily be in power with gold. I'm not sure how defensible this division was. But it does, for good or for ill, break the reader's mind away from a purely chemical and analytical treatment and towards broader cultural associations.

This cultural focus, along with Aldersey-Williams's clear and conversational style, are what pull this book firmly away from being a beautified recitation of facts that could be gleamed from Wikipedia. It also leads to some unexpected choices of focus. For example, the cultural touchstone he chooses for sodium is not salt (which is a broad enough topic for an entire book) but sodium street lights, the ubiquitous and color-distorting light of modern city nights, thus placing salt in the "fire" category of the book. Discussion of cobalt is focused on pigments: the brilliant colors of paint made possible by its many brightly-colored compounds. Arsenic is, of course, a poison, but it's also a source of green, widely used in wallpaper (and Aldersey-Williams discusses the connection with the controversial death of Napoleon). And the discussion of aluminum starts with a sculpture, and includes a fascinating discussion of "banalization" as we become used to use of a new metal, which the author continues when looking a titanium and its currently-occurring cultural transition between the simply new and modern and a well-established metal with its own unique cultural associations.

One drawback of the somewhat scattered organization is that, while Periodic Tales provides fascinating glimmers of the history of chemistry and the search to isolate elements, those glimmers are disjointed and presented in no particular order. Recently-discovered metals are discussed alongside ancient ones, and the huge surge in elemental isolation in the 1800s is all jumbled together. Wikipedia has a very useful timeline that helps sort out one's sense of history, but there was a part of me left wanting a more structured presentation.

I read books like this primarily for the fascinating trivia. Mercury: known in ancient times, but nearly useless, so used primarily for ritual and decoration (making the modern reader cringe). Relative abundancies of different elements, which often aren't at all what one might think. Rare earths (not actually that rare): isolated through careful, tedious work by Swedish mining chemists whom most people have never heard of, unlike the discoverers of many other elements. And the discovery of the noble gases, which is a fascinating bit of disruptive science made possible by new technology (the spectroscope), forcing a rethinking of the periodic table (which had no column for noble gases). I read a lot of this while on vacation and told interesting tidbits to my parents over breakfast or dinner. It's that sort of book.

This is definitely in the popular science and popular writing category, for all the pluses and minuses that brings. It's not a detailed look at either chemistry or history. But it's very fun to read, it provides a lot of conversational material, and it takes a cultural approach that would not have previously occurred to me. Recommended if you like this sort of thing.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Review: Neverness

Apr. 28th, 2017 19:55
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Review: Neverness, by David Zindell

Publisher: Bantam Spectra
Copyright: May 1988
Printing: July 1989
ISBN: 0-553-27903-3
Format: Mass market
Pages: 552

Mallory Ringess is a Pilot, one of the people who can guide a lightship through interstellar space from inside the dark cocoon and biotech interface that allows visualization of the mathematics of interstellar travel. At the start of the book, he's young, arrogant, impulsive, and has a deeply unhealthy relationship with Leopold Soli, the Lord Pilot and supposedly his uncle by marriage (although they share a remarkable physical resemblance). An encounter with his uncle in a bar provokes a rash promise, and Ringess finds himself promising to attempt to map the Solid State Entity in search of the Elder Eddas, a secret of life from the mythical Ieldra that might lead to mankind's immortality.

The opening of Neverness is Ringess's initial voyage and brash search, in which he proves to be a capable mathematician who can navigate a region of space twisted and deformed by becoming part of a transcendent machine intelligence. The knowledge he comes away with, though, is scarcely more coherent than the hints Soli relates at the start of the story: the secret of mankind is somehow hidden in its deepest past. That, in turn, provokes a deeply bizarre trip into the ice surrounding his home city of Neverness to attempt to steal biological material from people who have recreated themselves as Neanderthals.

Beyond that point, I would say that things get even weirder, but weird still implies some emotional connection with the story. I think a more accurate description is that the book gets more incoherently mystical, more hopelessly pretentious, and more depressingly enthralled by childish drama. It's the sort of thing that one writes if one is convinced that the Oedipal complex is the height of subtle characterization.

I loathed this book. I started loathing this book partway through Ringess's trip through the Solid State Entity, when Zindell's prose reached for transcendent complexity, tripped over its own shoelaces, and fell headlong into overwrought babbling. I continued reading every page because there's a perverse pleasure in hate-reading a book one dislikes this intensely, and because I wanted to write a review on the firm foundation of having endured the entire experience.

The paperback edition I have has a pull quote from Orson Scott Card on the cover, which includes the phrase "excellent hard science fiction." I'm not sure what book Card read, because if this is hard science fiction, Lord of the Rings is paranormal romance. Even putting aside the idea that one travels through interstellar space by proving mathematical theorems in artificially dilated time (I don't think Zindell really understands what a proof is or why you write one), there's the whole business with stopping time with one's mind, reading other people's minds, and remembering one's own DNA. The technology, such as it is, makes considerably less sense than Star Wars. The hard SF requirement to keep technology consistent with extrapolated science is nowhere to be found here.

The back-cover quote from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch is a bit more on-target: "Reminiscent of Gene Wolfe's New Sun novels... really comes to life among the intrigues of Neverness." This is indeed reminiscent of Gene Wolfe, in that it wouldn't surprise me at all if Zindell fell in love with the sense of antiquity, strangeness, and hints of understood technology that Wolfe successfully creates and attempted to emulate Wolfe in his first novel. Sadly, Zindell isn't Wolfe. Almost no one is, which is why attempting to emulate the extremely difficult feat Wolfe pulls off in the Book of the New Sun in your first novel is not a good idea. The results aren't pretty.

There is something to be said for resplendent descriptions, rich with detail and ornamental prose. That something is "please use sparingly and with an eye to the emotional swings of the novel." Wolfe does not try to write most of a novel that way, which is what makes those moments of description so effective. Wolfe is also much better at making his mysteries and allusions subtle and unobtrusive, rather than having the first-person protagonist beat the reader over the head with them for pages at a time.

This is a case where showing is probably better than telling. Let me quote a bit of description from the start of the book:

She shimmers, my city, she shimmers. She is said to be the most beautiful of all the cities of the Civilized Worlds, more beautiful even than Parpallaix or the cathedral cities of Vesper. To the west, pushing into the green sea like a huge, jewel-studded sleeve of city, the fragile obsidian cloisters and hospices of the Farsider's Quarter gleamed like black glass mirrors. Straight ahead as we skated, I saw the frothy churn of the Sound and their whitecaps of breakers crashing against the cliffs of North Beach and above the entire city, veined with purple and glazed with snow and ice, Waaskel and Attakel rose up like vast pyramids against the sky. Beneath the half-ring of extinct volcanoes (Urkel, I should mention, is the southernmost peak, and though less magnificent than the others, it has a conical symmetry that some find pleasing) the towers and spires of the Academy scattered the dazzling false winter light so that the whole of the Old City sparkled.

That's less than half of that paragraph, and the entire book is written like that, even in the middle of conversations. Endless, constant words piled on words about absolutely everything, whether important or not, whether emotionally significant or not. And much of it isn't even description, but philosophical ponderings that are desperately trying to seem profound. Here's another bit:

Although I knew I had never seen her before, I felt as if I had known her all my life. I was instantly in love with her, not, of course, as one loves another human being, but as a wanderer might love a new ocean or a gorgeous snowy peak he has glimpsed for the first time. I was practically struck dumb by her calmness and her beauty, so I said the first stupid thing which came to mind. "Welcome to Neverness," I told her.

Now, I should be fair: some people like this kind of description, or at least have more tolerance for it than I do. But that brings me to the second problem: there isn't a single truly likable character in this entire novel.

Ringess, the person telling us this whole story, is a spoiled man-child, the sort of deeply immature and insecure person who attempts to compensate through bluster, impetuousness, and refusing to ever admit that he made a mistake or needed to learn something. He spends a good portion of the book, particularly the deeply bizarre and off-putting sections with the fake Neanderthals, attempting to act out some sort of stereotyped toxic masculinity and wallowing in negative emotions. Soli is an arrogant, abusive asshole from start to finish. Katherine, Ringess's love interest, is a seer who has had her eyes removed to see the future (I cannot express how disturbing I found Zindell's descriptions of this), has bizarre and weirdly sexualized reactions to the future she never explains, and leaves off the ends of all of her sentences, which might be be the most pointlessly irritating dialogue quirk I've seen in a novel. And Ringess's mother is a man-hating feminist from a separatist culture who turns into a master manipulator (I'm starting to see why Card liked this book).

I at least really wanted to like Bardo, Ringess's closest friend, who has a sort of crude loyalty and unwillingness to get pulled too deep into the philosophical quicksand lurking underneath everything in this novel. Alas, Zindell insists on constantly describing Bardo's odious eating, belching, and sexual habits every time he's on the page, thus reducing him to the disgusting buffoon who gets drunk a lot and has irritating verbal ticks. About the only person I could stand by the end of the book was Justine, who at least seems vaguely sensible (and who leaves the person who abuses her), but she's too much of a non-entity to carry sustained interest.

(There is potential here for a deeply scathing and vicious retelling of this story from Justine's point of view, focusing on the ways she was belittled, abused, and ignored, but I think Zindell was entirely unaware of why that would be so effective.)

Oh, and there's lots of gore and horrific injury and lovingly-described torture, because of course there is.

And that brings me back to the second half of that St. Louis Post-Dispatch review quote: "... really comes to life among the intrigues of Neverness." I would love to know what was hiding behind the ellipses in this pull quote, because this half-sentence is not wrong. Insofar as Neverness has any real appeal, it's in the intrigues of the city of Neverness and in the political structure that rules it. What this quote omits is that these intrigues start around page 317, more than halfway through the novel. That's about the point where faux-Wolfe starts mixing with late-career Frank Herbert and we get poet-assassins, some revelations about the leader of the Pilot culture, and some more concrete explanations of what this mess of a book is about. Unfortunately, you have to read through the huge and essentially meaningless Neanderthal scenes to get there, scenes that have essentially nothing to do with the interesting content of this book. (Everything that motivates them turns out to be completely irrelevant to the plot and useless for the characters.)

The last 40% of the book is almost passable, and characters I cared about might have even made it enjoyable. Still, a couple of remaining problems detract heavily, chief among them the lack of connection of the great revelation of the story to, well, anything in the story. We learn at the very start of the novel that the stars of the Vild are mysteriously exploding, and much of the novel is driven by uncovering an explanation and solution. The characters do find an explanation, but not through any investigation. Ringess is simply told what is happening, in a wad of exposition, as a reward for something else entirely. It's weirdly disconnected from and irrelevant to everything else in the story. (There are some faint connections to the odd technological rules that the Pilot society lives under, but Zindell doesn't even draw attention to those.) The political intrigue in Neverness is similar: it appears out of nowhere more than halfway through the book, with no dramatic foundation for the motives of the person who has been keeping most of the secrets. And the final climax of the political machinations involves a bunch of mystical nonsense masquerading as science, and more of the Neanderthal bullshit that ruins the first half of the book.

This is a thoroughly bad book: poorly plotted, poorly written, clotted and pretentious in style, and full of sociopaths and emotionally stunted children. I read the whole thing because I'm immensely stubborn and make poor life choices, but I was saying the eight deadly words ("I don't care what happens to these people") by a hundred pages in. Don't emulate my bad decisions.

(Somehow, this novel was shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke award in 1990. What on earth could they possibly have been thinking?)

Neverness is a stand-alone novel, but the ending sets up a subsequent trilogy that I have no intention of reading. Followed by The Broken God.

Rating: 2 out of 10

Review: Small Gods

Apr. 27th, 2017 20:50
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Review: Small Gods, by Terry Pratchett

Series: Discworld #13
Publisher: Harper
Copyright: February 1994
Printing: March 2008
ISBN: 0-06-109217-7
Format: Mass market
Pages: 357

Small Gods is the thirteenth Discworld novel, but it features new characters and is unrelated to any of the previous books. Some reading order guides show it as following Pyramids in an "ancient civilizations" track, but its only relationship with that book is some minor thematic similarities. You could start here with Discworld if you wanted to.

Brutha is a novice in the hierarchy of the church of the Great God Om, and his elders are convinced he'll probably die a novice. He's just not particularly bright, you see. But he is very obedient, and he doesn't mind doing hard work, and there's nothing exactly wrong with him, except that he looks at people with startling intensity when they're talking to him. Almost as if he's listening.

All that seems about to change, however, when the Great God Om himself approaches Brutha and starts talking to him. Not that Brutha is at all convinced at first that this is happening, particularly given that Om appears in the form of a small, battered, one-eyed tortoise who was dropped into the church garden by an eagle attempting to break his shell.

Small Gods is, as you might have guessed, a parody of religion, at least large, organized religion with fixed hierarchies, organizations called the Quisition that like to torture people, and terrifyingly devout deacons who are certain of themselves in ways that no human ever should be. It's also an interesting bit of Discworld metaphysics: gods gain power from worship (a very old idea in fantasy), and when they don't get enough worship, they end up much diminished and even adrift in the desert. Or trapped in the form of a small tortoise. One might wonder how Om ended up in his present condition given the vast and extremely authoritarian church devoted to his worship, but that's the heart of Pratchett's rather pointed parody: large religious organizations end up being about themselves, rather than about the god they supposedly worship, to such an extent that they don't provide any worship at all.

Brutha is not thinking of things like this. Once he's finally convinced that Om is who he claims to be, he provides worship and belief of a very practical but wholehearted and unshakable sort, just as he does everything else in life. That makes him the eighth prophet of Om as prophecy foretold, but it's far from clear how that will be of any practical use. Or how Om will come back into power. And meanwhile, Brutha has come to the attention of Vorbis, the head of the Exquisitors, who does not know about the tortoise (and wouldn't believe if he did), but who has a use for Brutha's other talent: his eidetic memory.

In typical Pratchett fashion, the story expands to include a variety of other memorable characters from the neighboring city of Ephebe, a country full of gods and philosophers. Vorbis's aims here are unclear at the start of the book, but Vorbis being who he is, they can't be good. Brutha is drawn along in his wake. Meanwhile, Om is constantly watching for an opportunity to regain his lost power and worshipful following, and also to avoid being eaten.

Despite the humorous components, Small Gods is rather serious about religion and about its villain. It's also a touch repetitive; Om's lack of power and constant fretting about it, Brutha's earnest but naive loyalty, and Vorbis's malevolent determination are repeatedly stressed and get a little old. Some bits in Ephebe are quite fun, but the action is a bit disjointed, partly because the protagonist is rarely the motive force in the plot. There are also some extended scenes of trudging through the desert that I thought dragged a bit. But Pratchett hits some powerful notes in his critique of religion, and there are a few bits with Death at the end of the book that I thought were among the better pieces of Discworld philosophy. And when Brutha gets a chance to use his one talent of memory, I greatly enjoyed the resulting scenes. He hits just the right combination of modesty, capability, and earnestness.

I know a lot of Pratchett readers really like Small Gods. I'm not one of those; I thought it was about average for the Discworld series (at least among the books I've read so far). But average for Discworld is still pretty good, and its new setting makes it a plausible place to start (or to take a break from the other Discworld plot threads).

Followed, in publication order, by Lords and Ladies. I don't believe it has a direct plot sequel.

Rating: 7 out of 10

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Review: Necessity

Apr. 26th, 2017 21:42
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Review: Necessity, by Jo Walton

Series: Thessaly #3
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: July 2016
ISBN: 0-7653-7902-3
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 331

Athena's experiment with a city (now civilization) modeled after Plato's Republic continues, but in a form that she would not have anticipated, and in a place rather far removed from its origins. But despite new awareness of the place and role of gods, a rather dramatic relocation, and unanticipated science-fiction complications, it continues in much the same style as in The Just City: thoughtful, questioning debate, a legal and social system that works surprisingly well, and a surprising lack of drama. At least, that is, until the displaced cities are contacted by the mainstream of humanity, and Athena goes unexpectedly missing.

The latter event turns out to have much more to do with the story than the former, and I regret that. Analyzing mainline human civilization and negotiating the parameters of a very odd first contact would have, at least in my opinion, lined up a bit better with the strengths of this series. Instead, the focus is primarily on metaphysics, and the key climactic moment in those metaphysics is rather mushy and incoherent compared to the sharp-edged analysis Walton's civilization is normally capable of. Not particularly unexpected, as metaphysics of this sort are notoriously tricky to approach via dialectical logic, but it was a bit of a letdown. Much of this book deals with Athena's disappearance and its consequences (including the title), and it wasn't bad, but it wanders a bit into philosophical musings on the nature of gods.

Necessity is a rather odd book, and I think anyone who started here would be baffled, but it does make a surprising amount of sense in the context of the series. Skipping ahead to here seems like a truly bad idea, but reading the entire series (relatively closely together) does show a coherent philosophical, moral, and social arc. The Just City opens with Apollo confronted by the idea of individual significance: what does it mean to treat other people as one's equals in an ethical sense, even if they aren't on measures of raw power? The Thessaly series holds to that theme throughout and follows its implications. Many of the bizarre things that happen in this series seem like matter-of-fact outcomes once you're engrossed in the premises and circumstances at the time. Necessity adds a surprising amount of more typical science fiction trappings, but they turn out to be ancillary to the story. What matters is considered action, trying to be your best self, and the earnest efforts of a society to put those principles first.

And that's the strength of the whole series, including Necessity: I like these people, I like how they think, and I enjoy spending time with them, almost no matter what they're doing. As with the previous books, we get interwoven chapters from different viewpoints, this time from three primary characters plus some important "guest" chapters. As with the previous books, the viewpoint characters are different again, mostly a generation younger, and I had to overcome my initial disappointment at not hearing the same voices. But Walton is excellent at characterization. I really like this earnest, thoughtful, oddly-structured society that always teeters on the edge of being hopelessly naive and trusting but is self-aware enough to never fall in. By the end of the book, I liked this round of characters nearly as much as I liked the previous rounds (although I've still never liked a character in these books as well as I liked Simmea).

I think one incomplete but important way to sum up the entire Thessaly series is that it's a trilogy of philosophical society-building on top of the premise of a universal love for and earnest, probing, thoughtful analysis of philosophy. Walton's initial cheat is to use an deus ex machina to jumpstart such a society from a complex human world that would be unlikely to provide enough time or space for it to build its own separate culture and tradition. I think the science-fiction trick is required to make this work — real-world societies that try this end up having to spend so much of their energy fighting intrusion from the outside and diffusion into the surrounding culture that they don't have the same room to avoid conformity and test and argue against their own visions.

Necessity is not at all the conclusion of that experiment I would expect, but it won me over, and I think it worked, even if a few bits of it felt indulgent. Most importantly for that overall project, this series is generational, and Necessity shows how it would feel to grow up deep inside it, seeing evolution on top of a base structure that is ubiquitous and ignored. Even the generation in The Philosopher Kings wasn't far enough removed to support that; Necessity is, and in a way this book shows how distinctly different and even alien human culture can become when it has space to evolve on top of different premises. I enjoyed the moments of small surprise, where characters didn't react the way that I'd expect for reasons now buried generations-deep in their philosophical foundations.

This book will not win you over if you didn't already like the series, and I suspect it will lose a few people who read the previous two books. The plot structure is a little strange, the metaphysics are a touch strained, and the ending is, well, not quite the payoff that I was hoping for, although it's thematically appropriate and grew on me after a few days of thinking it over. But I got more Socrates, finally, who is as delightful as always and sorely needed to add some irreverence and contrariness to the the mix. And I got to read more about practical, thoughtful people who are trying hard to do their best, to be their best selves, and to analyze and understand the world. There's something calming, delightful, and beautifully optimistic about their approach, and I'm rather sad to not have more of it to read.

Rating: 7 out of 10

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Review: Zero Bugs and Program Faster, by Kate Thompson

Publisher: Kate Thompson
Copyright: 2015
Printing: December 2016
ISBN: 0-9961933-0-8
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 169

Zero Bugs and Program Faster is another book I read for the engineering book club at work. Unlike a lot of the previous entries, I'd never heard about it before getting it for the book club and had no idea what to expect. What I got was a lavishly-illustrated book full of quirky stories and unusual turns of presentation on the general subject of avoiding bugs in code. Unfortunately, it's not a very deep examination of the topic. All that an experienced programmer is likely to get out of this book is the creative storytelling and the occasionally memorable illustration.

I knew that this may not be a book aimed at me when I read the first paragraph:

If two books in a bookstore teach the same thing, I take the shorter one. Why waste time reading a 500-page book if I can learn the same in 100 pages? In this book, I kept things clear and brief, so you can ingest the information quickly.

It's a nice thought, but there are usually reasons why the 500-page book has 400 more pages, and those are the things I was missing here. Thompson skims over the top of every topic. There's a bit here on compiler warnings, a bit on testing, a bit on pair programming, and a bit on code review, but they're all in extremely short chapters, usually with some space taken up with an unusual twist of framing. This doesn't leave time to dive deep into any topic. You won't be bored by this book, but most of what you'll earn is "this concept exists." And if you've been programming for a while, you probably know that already.

I learned during the work discussion that this was originally a blog and the chapters are repurposed from blog posts. I probably should have guessed at that, since that's exactly what the book feels like. It's a rare chapter that's longer than a couple of pages, including the room for the illustrations.

The illustrations, I must say, are the best part of the book. There are a ton of them, sometimes just serving the purpose of stock photography to illustrate a point (usually with a slightly witty caption), sometimes a line drawing to illustrate some point about code, sometimes an illustrated mnemonic for the point of that chapter. The book isn't available in a Kindle edition precisely because including the illustrations properly is difficult to do (per its Amazon page).

As short as this book is, only about two-thirds of it is chapters about programming. The rest is code examples (not that the chapters themselves were light on code examples). Thompson introduces these with:

One of the best ways to improve your programming is to look at examples of code written by others. On the next pages you will find some code I like. You don't need to read all of it: take the parts you like, and skip the parts you don't. I like it all.

I agree with this sentiment: reading other people's code is quite valuable. But it's also very easy to do, given a world full of free software and GitHub repositories. When reading a book, I'm looking for additional insight from the author. If the code examples are beautiful enough to warrant printing here, there presumably is some reason why. But Thompson rarely does more than hint at the reason for inclusion. There is some commentary on the code examples, but it's mostly just a discussion of their origin. I wanted to know why Thompson found each piece of code beautiful, as difficult as that may be to describe. Without that commentary, it's just an eclectic collection of code fragments, some from real systems and some from various bits of stunt programming (obfuscation contests, joke languages, and the like).

The work book club discussion showed that I wasn't the only person disappointed by this book, but some people did like it for its unique voice. I don't recommend it, but if it sounds at all interesting, you may want to look over the corresponding web site to get a feel for the style and see if this is something you might enjoy more than I did.

Rating: 5 out of 10

[syndicated profile] us_cert_current_feed

Posted by US-CERT

Original release date: April 25, 2017

Applications developed using the Portrait Displays software development kit (SDK), versions 2.30 through 2.34, contain a critical vulnerability. A local attacker could exploit this vulnerability to take control of an affected system.

The affected applications, pre-installed on some Fujitsu, HP, and Philips devices, are:

  • Fujitsu DisplayView Click: Version 6.0 and 6.01. The issue was fixed in Version 6.3.
  • Fujitsu DisplayView Click Suite: Version 5. The issue is addressed by patch in Version 5.9.
  • HP Display Assistant: Version 2.1. The issue was fixed in Version 2.11.
  • HP My Display: Version 2.0. The issue was fixed in Version 2.1.
  • Philips Smart Control Premium: Versions 2.23, 2.25. The issue was fixed in Version 2.26.

US-CERT recommends users and administrators review Vulnerability Note VU#219739 for additional information and refer to their device vendors for appropriate patches. Portrait Displays has released a patch for its SDK software.


This product is provided subject to this Notification and this Privacy & Use policy.


IBM Releases Security Update

Apr. 25th, 2017 12:47
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Posted by US-CERT

Original release date: April 25, 2017

IBM has released a security update to address a vulnerability in IBM Domino server IMAP EXAMINE. An attacker could exploit this vulnerability to take control of an affected system.

 Available updates include:

  • Domino 9.0.1 Feature Pack 8 Interim Fix 2
  • Domino 8.5.3 Fix Pack 6 Interim Fix 17

Users and administrators are encouraged to review the CERT/CC Vulnerability Note VU#676632 and IBM's Security Bulletin for more information and apply the necessary updates.


This product is provided subject to this Notification and this Privacy & Use policy.


It's been awhile

Apr. 23rd, 2017 23:48
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Posted by Graydon

If it's been long enough that I've been asked if I still have a cat, I should probably post a picture.


Sleepy black cat in cat-loaf pose facing the camera

Eef would like to not fall asleep just yet, or the sound of typing prevents falling asleep, or something inscrutably feline.  The current sheet of random-jotting paper is safely out of my possession, though.  (It's worth a surprising number
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Posted by WT Sharpe

Help us select the book that the MobileRead Book Club will read for May, 2017.

The nominations will run through midnight EST April 26 or until 10 books have made the list. The poll will then be posted and will remain open for five days.

The book selection category for May is: Science Fiction.

For a book to be included in the poll it needs THREE NOMINATIONS (original nomination, a second and a third).

How Does This Work?

The Mobile Read Book Club (MRBC) is an informal club that requires nothing of you. Each month a book is selected by polling. On the last week of that month a discussion thread is started for the book. If you want to participate feel free. There is no need to "join" or sign up. All are welcome.

How Does a Book Get Selected?

Each book that is nominated will be listed in a poll at the end of the nomination period. The book that polls the most votes will be the official selection.

How Many Nominations Can I Make?

Each participant has 3 nominations. You can nominate a new book for consideration or nominate (second, third) one that has already been nominated by another person.

How Do I Nominate a Book?

Please just post a message with your nomination. If you are the FIRST to nominate a book, please try to provide an abstract to the book so others may consider their level of interest.

How Do I Know What Has Been Nominated?

Just follow the thread. This message will be updated with the status of the nominations as often as I can. If one is missed, please just post a message with a multi-quote of the 3 nominations and it will be added to the list ASAP.

When is the Poll?

The poll thread will open at the end of the nomination period, or once there have been 10 books with 3 nominations each. At that time a link to the initial poll thread will be posted here and this thread will be closed.

The floor is open to nominations. Please comment if you discover a nomination is not available as an ebook in your area.


Official choices with three nominations each:

(1) In Times Like These: A Time Travel Adventure by Nathan van Coops
Goodreads | Amazon US / Barnes & Noble / Kobo US
Print Length: 384 pages
Spoiler: <input ... >
From Goodreads:

"We broke something. How do you break time? Can something so bad happen that you fracture the world?" Benjamin Travers has been electrocuted. What's worse, he and his friends have woken up in the past. As the friends search for a way home, they realize they're not alone. There are other time travelers, and some of them are turning up dead. When Ben meets an enigmatic scientist and his charming, time-traveling daughter, salvation seems at hand, but escaping the dangers of the past may lead to a deadly future. If he hopes to save his friends, Ben must learn to master space and time, and survive a journey where past and future violently collide.


(2) Balance of Trade (Liaden Universe #3) by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller
Goodreads | Amazon US / Audible / Baen
Print Length:464 pages
Spoiler: <input ... >
From Goodreads:

Assistant Trader Jethri Gobelyn was an honest, hardworking young man who knew a lot about living onboard his family's space-going trade ship; something about trade, finance, and risk-taking; and a little bit about Liadens. It was, oddly enough, the little bit he knew about Liadens that seemed like it might be enough to make his family's fortune, and his own, too. In short order, however, Jethri Gobelyn was about to find out a lot more about Liadens...like how far they might go to protect their name and reputation. Like the myriad of things one might say-intentionally or not-with a single bow. Like what it would take to make a Liaden trade-ship crew trash a bar. Like how hard it is to say "I'm sorry!" in Liaden. Pretty soon it was clear that as little as he knew about Liadens, he knew far less about himself. With his very existence a threat to the balance of trade, Jethri Gobelyn needed to learn fast, or else help destroy all he held dear.


(3) Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
Goodreads | Wikipedia
Print Length: 145 pages
Spoiler: <input ... >
From Goodreads:

Red Schuhart is a stalker, one of those young rebels who are compelled, in spite of extreme danger, to venture illegally into the Zone to collect the mysterious artifacts that the alien visitors left scattered around. His life is dominated by the place and the thriving black market in the alien products. But when he and his friend Kirill go into the Zone together to pick up a “full empty,” something goes wrong. And the news he gets from his girlfriend upon his return makes it inevitable that he’ll keep going back to the Zone, again and again, until he finds the answer to all his problems.


(4) The Collapsing Empire (The Interdependency #1) by John Scalzi
Goodreads | Overdrive
Print Length: 334 pages
Spoiler: <input ... >
Our universe is ruled by physics. Faster than light travel is impossible—until the discovery of The Flow, an extradimensional field available at certain points in space-time, which can take us to other planets around other stars.

Riding The Flow, humanity spreads to innumerable other worlds. Earth is forgotten. A new empire arises, the Interdependency, based on the doctrine that no one human outpost can survive without the others. It’s a hedge against interstellar war—and, for the empire’s rulers, a system of control.

The Flow is eternal—but it’s not static. Just as a river changes course, The Flow changes as well. In rare cases, entire worlds have been cut off from the rest of humanity. When it’s discovered that the entire Flow is moving, possibly separating all human worlds from one another forever, three individuals—a scientist, a starship captain, and the emperox of the Interdependency—must race against time to discover what, if anything, can be salvaged from an interstellar empire on the brink of collapse.


(5) Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Goodreads
Print Length: 194 pages
Spoiler: <input ... >
From Goodreads:

Guy Montag is a fireman. In his world, where television rules and literature is on the brink of extinction, firemen start fires rather than put them out. His job is to destroy the most illegal of commodities, the printed book, along with the houses in which they are hidden.

Montag never questions the destruction and ruin his actions produce, returning each day to his bland life and wife, Mildred, who spends all day with her television 'family'. But then he meets an eccentric young neighbor, Clarisse, who introduces him to a past where people did not live in fear and to a present where one sees the world through the ideas in books instead of the mindless chatter of television.

When Mildred attempts suicide and Clarisse suddenly disappears, Montag begins to question everything he has ever known.


(6) Kirinyaga by Mike Resnick
Goodreads
Print Length: 306 pages
Spoiler: <input ... >
From Goodreads:

Hailed for his grandeur of imagination and superb worldbuilding, winner of and nominee for more than fifty awards for his outstanding work, Mike Resnick has rightfully won a place as one of science fiction's master storytellers. Now, in Kirinyaga, Resnick presents the haunting and utterly compelling tale of one man's utopia.

By the twentieth second century in the African nation of Kenya, polluted cities sprawl up the flanks of sacred Mount Kirinyaga. Great animal herds are but distant memories. European crops now grow on the sweeping savannas. But Koriba, a distinguished, educated man of Kikuyu ancestry, knows that life was different for his people centuries ago--and he is determined to build a utopian colony, not on earth, but on the terraformed planetoid he proudly names Kirinyaga.

As the mundumugu--witch doctor--Koriba leads the colonists. Reinstating the ancient customs and stringent laws of the Kikuyu people, he alone decides their fate. He must face many challenges to the struggling colony's survival: from a brilliant young girl whose radiant intellect could threaten their traditional ways to the interference of "Maintenance" which holds the power to revoke the colony's charter. All the while, only Koriba--unbeknownst to his people--maintains the computer link to the rest of humanity.

Ironically, the Kirinyaga experiment threatens to collapse--not from violence or greed--but from humankind's insatiable desire for knowledge. The Kikuyu people can no more stand still in time than their planet can stop revolving around its sun.

Deeply moving, swiftly paced, and profound in its implications, Kirinyaga is Mike Resnick's most triumphant work to date. His Fable of Utopia is the book every science fiction reader will want to own and savor for years to come.


Nominations are now closed.

Drupal Releases Security Updates

Apr. 20th, 2017 00:17
[syndicated profile] us_cert_current_feed

Posted by US-CERT

Original release date: April 19, 2017

Drupal has released an advisory to address a vulnerability in Drupal core 8.x versions prior to 8.2.8 and 8.3.1. A remote attacker could exploit this vulnerability to obtain sensitive information.

US-CERT encourages users and administrators to review Drupal's Security Advisory and upgrade to version 8.2.8 or 8.3.1.


This product is provided subject to this Notification and this Privacy & Use policy.


Cisco Releases Security Updates

Apr. 20th, 2017 00:14
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Posted by US-CERT

Original release date: April 19, 2017

Cisco has released updates to address several high-impact vulnerabilities affecting multiple products. These and other lower-impact vulnerabilities are listed at Cisco Security Advisories and Alerts. A remote attacker could exploit one of the high-impact vulnerabilities to cause a denial-of-service condition.

Users and administrators are encouraged to review the following Cisco Security Advisories and apply the necessary updates:


This product is provided subject to this Notification and this Privacy & Use policy.


Mozilla Releases Security Updates

Apr. 20th, 2017 00:04
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Posted by US-CERT

Original release date: April 19, 2017

Mozilla has released security updates to address a vulnerability in Firefox and Firefox ESR. An attacker could exploit this vulnerability to take control of an affected system.

US-CERT encourages users and administrators to review the Mozilla Security Advisories for Firefox 53, Firefox ESR 45.9, and Firefox ESR 52.1 and apply the necessary updates.


This product is provided subject to this Notification and this Privacy & Use policy.


[syndicated profile] us_cert_current_feed

Posted by US-CERT

Original release date: April 19, 2017

Google has released Chrome version 58.0.3029.81 for Windows, Mac, and Linux. This version addresses multiple vulnerabilities that an attacker may exploit to take control of an affected system.

Users and administrators are encouraged to review the Chrome Releases page and apply the necessary updates.


This product is provided subject to this Notification and this Privacy & Use policy.


VMware Releases Security Updates

Apr. 18th, 2017 20:34
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Posted by US-CERT

Original release date: April 18, 2017

VMware has released security updates to address vulnerabilities in Unified Access Gateway, Horizon View, and Workstation. Exploitation of these vulnerabilities could allow a remote attacker to take control of an affected system.

US-CERT encourages users and administrators to review VMware Security Advisory VMSA-2017-0008 and apply the necessary updates.


This product is provided subject to this Notification and this Privacy & Use policy.


Oracle Releases Security Bulletin

Apr. 18th, 2017 20:30
[syndicated profile] us_cert_current_feed

Posted by US-CERT

Original release date: April 18, 2017

Oracle has released its Critical Patch Update for April 2017 to address 299 vulnerabilities across multiple products. Exploitation of some of these vulnerabilities may allow a remote attacker to take control of an affected system.

Users and administrators are encouraged to review the Oracle April 2017 Critical Patch Update and apply the necessary updates.


This product is provided subject to this Notification and this Privacy & Use policy.


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