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The Martian

The Martian
The Martian by Andy Weir
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I won’t deny part of my motivation for reading this book is the impending release of the movie based on it. I have a strong preference for having read the book before seeing a film adaptation, and The Martian was both a book I’d been meaning to read and a movie I want to see. I think I managed to avoid picturing Matt Damon as the main character, despite having already seen the teaser trailers. The book also contains precisely the sort of descriptive action that maps well into visual storytelling on-screen. Part of me thinks it would also make a good adventure game (either text-based or point-and-click), in the way that its structure is largely a series of problem-solving exercises.

Stylistically the first person voice took some getting used to. There was almost too much internal dialogue for our beleagured astronaut Mark, and a lot of it made him come across as a bit… macho? He’s certainly nerdy and resourceful, and has an engineer’s mind, things I identify with, but also seems like someone I wouldn’t necessarily enjoy hanging out with, personality-wise. The book is naturally primarily his story, but I found a number of the supporting characters potentially more interesting; they just don’t get much page time. I wonder how much of that was a limitation of the book’s original serial format? It definitely feels like there could have been a much larger story here, but on the other hand these short action vignettes are probably a more enjoyable read, and make for more nailbiting as Mark prepares to attempt various dangerous improvised survival techniques.

From a technical perspective the book was excellent, at least as far as my own space aficionado knowledge goes. Pretty much any time I had a quibble with the science or engineering, or thought I had spotted a potential solution or technology-based plot hole, it was resolved within a few pages. Some aspects of their fictional mission profile reminded me of the Mars Direct program proposed in Zubrin‘s The Case for Mars, particularly sending cargo and return vehicles to Mars before any crew arrived; however it definitely differs in that the large interplanetary cruise module seems to be the more popular choice in fiction than in reality, where mass and cost matter a bit more. I also liked the callbacks to various past Mars missions.

I don’t think you need a technical background to enjoy the book, but it probably would help to be familiar with the history and technology of crewed spaceflight to enjoy some parts of it. Overall it’s a fun quick read, and I’d recommend it.

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Pirate Cinema

Pirate Cinema
Pirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I bought this as part of an ebook Humble Bundle some time ago, and finally got around to reading it. It only took me me three flights to or from Boston to finish it! (This was largely due to finding other activities on the plane, like movies, iPad games, and designing D&D encounters.) That is for me a somewhat unusual context for reading a book, but it’s a good chance to find time to do so.

This is very political fiction; Doctorow has a strong copyleft position that comes out both in the overall plot of the book, and occasionally in multipage lectures conducted in the voice of one of the characters. If you agree with that position, you’ll probably like the story. The main character is famous for his recut films, using the movies of a particular actor to tell new stories; this naturally gets him in trouble with intellectual property authorities, who in this dystopian near future have significant powers. As the popularity of his repurposed art grows, the powers that be in Parliament and Hollywood try to put a stop to his art.

As a quick aside, from someone who strongly believes in Fair Use protections, I would recommend watching Kirby Ferguson’s series Everything is a Remix. It uses several examples (including Star Wars, The Matrix, and Steve Jobs) to demonstrate how art stands on the shoulders of giants even when considered a new work. The films the main character creates are to me clearly transformative works that are new art, so I definitely agree with Doctorow there.

The story is set mostly in London, so there’s a fair bit of British slang throughout. That, combined with the Chaotic to Neutral alignment of most of the characters, did make it a little hard for me to identify with them. The story is mostly interesting; there weren’t really any slow parts. I did find the denouement kinda disappointing; in that regard it reminded me of older Stephenson. It felt like the book very quickly wrapped up the remaining threads after the climax in an unsatisfying way. On the other hand that probably means I wanted to see more from these characters.

This is the first novel of Doctorow’s that I’ve read, though I have tackled a few of his essays online at various points. I didn’t really notice anything distinctive about his style, outside of the political statement underlying the story. I liked it well enough, so I definitely want to read some of his other books.

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OS X 10.10 Yosemite

OS X 10.10 Yosemite: The Ars Technica ReviewOS X 10.10 Yosemite: The Ars Technica Review by John Siracusa

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have read every one of Siracusa’s epic OS X reviews since 10.5 on. Lately they provide my feature overview before I get around to installing the actual update; this year is no different. One of the best values he brings to these is his history with Macs – he can connect the past and present like few other Apple observers.

This review’s section on Extensions, with callbacks to the Classic era, was interesting because of my own fond and frustrating memories dealing with extension conflicts on System 7 through Mac OS 9. The absolute highlight of this review, and I say this in part as a computer scientist, is his overview of the new Swift programming language, and how it fits into the Apple ecosystem and developer toolchain. The technical detail he gets into with intermediate languages and type systems is fascinating. The future in that regard is particularly exciting, and I hope to find time to work in Swift myself soon.

I read the iBooks version of the review, but I would recommend the Ars Technica web version for a couple of reasons. First, John himself considers that the canonical version. Second, it has better image layout and some dynamic content demonstrating the various interface changes. Third, the reference links provide important context, and are easier to jump out to on the web than leaving the iBooks app on an iPad (especially on a poor A5-powered mini that likes to swap the book out of memory as soon as you open a link in Safari). I read the web version up until last year’s Mavericks review, but now I see that the iBooks experience, while an easy purchase, is an inferior read of (almost) the same content.

Obviously I am a Siracusa fan, so I’m predisposed to like his analytical style, but I also appreciate his Mac cultural references sprinkled throughout, like titling his conclusion using a quote from the “1984” commercial for the original Macintosh. If you are interesting in exactly what you are getting by upgrading your Mac’s operating system this year, read this.

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The Happiest Baby on the Block

The Happiest Baby on the Block

The Happiest Baby on the Block by Harvey Karp

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As you might have heard, our son Theodore was born two weeks ago. Since he is our first child, I naturally wanted to become more knowledgeable about little things like soothing him when he’s upset. We bought this book based on recommendations, and I think it met those expectations. The short summary is that the techniques described in the book work, but it is highly repetitive, and problematic in the way its thesis is presented.

The core concept is the 5 Ses: Swaddle, Shush, Swing, Side, and Suck. You can pretty much get that from the back of the book, and from some general knowledge of baby care. However, there were a few adjustments I learned that really helped:

  • I needed to swaddle more tightly
  • I needed to shush more loudly
  • I needed to swing more vigorously

With those minor changes, I’ve been able to calm him fairly quickly and in some cases even put him completely asleep. It’s worth noting that I am certain we are being helped by his apparent easy temperament. We generally have not needed to change his position to side or stomach holds (he prefers being upright anyway, I think because of womb position). Obviously a feeding works pretty well too, but I can’t help with that yet.

Given that, I think this book could have been much shorter. Mostly I would recommend reading the five core chapters on each S. He’s just very repetitive, which I guess drills things. I think that you can skip every personal anecdote (the stories in bold italics); nearly every one is of the form “My baby wouldn’t stop crying because of X. Dr. Karp showed me how to S, and now they calm themselves!”. They don’t add anything to the learning experience, but maybe they benefit other types of learners?

I had two major problems with the way the techniques were presented, both related to the narrative that American culture lost certain baby soothing techniques over the last 150 years. I think that change is true, and there are probably many factors (smaller family sizes, less intergenerational housing, consumer marketing of baby products, etc.) that have contributed to this shift. That discussion is out of scope for this book, but that didn’t stop Dr. Karp from trying, despite being a pediatrician and not a sociologist, anthropologist, or evolutionary biologist. I also took issue with some non-scientific pandering in the later chapters.

My first issue was in the area of evolutionary biology. Obviously I am not an expert in that field, but I know enough to note his errors regarding the Neanderthal timeline, when humans lived in caves, and being contemporaneous with dinosaurs! His idea that the soothing techniques work because in the womb a calm fetus is less at risk of umbilical cord entanglement sounds believable, but he provides no citations. I realize this isn’t that kind of book, but I’d like at least some justification.

Much more problematic was his presentation of baby care in other cultures. It smacked strongly of Romantic primitivism, perpetuating the stereotype that non-Western cultures are inherently more in tune with the natural world and our bodies’ needs because they don’t have industry and modern medicine so on. Relatedly it treated several examples as cultural monoliths, at one point even implying that Indonesia was a monoculture with a single belief about how babies should be swaddled. These examples annoyed me every time they came up, and were a reminder that the book is written for what seems to be a pretty narrow white middle class American audience.

An additional quick complaint: the chapter on dad’s duties was terrible. First I don’t appreciate the assumption that only moms would read the book, and second, it implied that dads barely help with the baby and are mostly just waiting for the post-partum “all clear” for sex.

Finally, there were some approving comments about non-scientific stuff like homeopathy that I felt didn’t have a place in this book. I figure they were there to pander to an audience looking for more natural solutions to colic?

Overall, a useful book for the basic calming techniques, but one with redundant problematic content that you probably won’t need to refer back to. Grab it from the library and skim it.

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How I Live Now

How I Live Now
How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a relatively rare example where I decided to read a book based entirely on the trailer for its upcoming movie adaptation. It was a serendipitous opportunity because Rebekah happened to have a copy sitting out at her apartment, so I borrowed it and tore through it quickly on the bus into work. I haven’t reviewed it until now on account of the baby.

This book, better than most YA fiction, captures well the way a teenager thinks. It’s entirely a first-person narrative, but unlike, say, Katniss in The Hunger Games, Daisy does not seem preternaturally mature in her thoughts or her handling of emotions. Her cousin Edmond reminded me a lot of an older Charles Wallace, circa A Swiftly Tilting Planet (one of my absolute favorite books) in the way he was intuitive and possibly even telepathic.

The book’s great strength is that it maintains a lot of mystery. The enemy is never specified, which keeps things more interesting and suspenseful while also capturing the feeling of panic on the part of the kids. I appreciated that a lot. That’s impressive restraint on the part of the author, for a first-time book. (I imagine that the film will, by nature of the third-person medium, specify more, while having less internal angst.)

The ending was sudden and unexpected, which does hurt the book a bit. It felt like maybe some additional plot was cut for length, but maybe I’m wrong? On the other hand it did allow for a time jump ahead to see the consequences of some of the events in the main storyline.

Still, a quick enjoyable YA read that is different from a lot of the other fare out there. I definitely recommend it, and will probably try to see the movie when it comes out.

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Alanna: The First Adventure

Alanna: The First Adventure
Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What surprised me most about this book, selected for a YA book club, is that I had never heard of it, any of the other Tortall books, or the author, Tamora Pierce, before. This is strange to me because this sort of literature was right in my wheelhouse as a young reader. I devoured fantasy almost as much as sci-fi in middle school and on. Given how much time I spent in that section of the library, all I can figure is that for whatever reason it wasn’t stocked, or something about the cover art or jacket description at the time made me pass it by. I wonder in part if, because it was published in 1983, it wasn’t yet considered a classic by the time I would have been browsing in the early ’90s.

Given all that, I tried very hard to read this as my younger self, but I wasn’t very successful. I think it has a lot of the classic fantasy tropes, and some interesting takes on them, but fundamentally it’s a coming of age story, and it hews to that pattern pretty closely. That’s a roundabout way of saying that I think I would have enjoyed this more had I read it as a kid. I don’t think it had anything to do with failing to identify with a female protagonist. Looking at other ratings and reviews, it’s clear that this book has a special nostalgic place in many hearts, probably similar to my connection to Tolkien, l’Engle, and other series I read and reread.

I found myself regularly comparing the story to Ender’s Game, in large part because of the amount of time spent “in school”, dealing with bullying and navigating a world while largely controlled by adults. This is of course a typical teen experience, although I don’t remember feeling that way as a young teen. Another parallel (one which I understand is developed further in the later books) is that while Alanna is in school, her sibling is elsewhere, honing his own special talents. I also found myself early on trying to figure out which of her fellow trainees would develop into a romantic interest, because I assumed that would transpire.

In our book club discussion, we focused a lot on the role of religion in this story as compared to other fantasy settings. I think the religious content has a few features common to those others, which I suspect are chosen mostly to avoid offending anyone by seeming too similar to a particular modern religion.

First, it’s non-liturgical: we hear the characters acknowledge the existence of gods, and maybe even give thanks or an oath here or there, but there’s effectively no communal religious practice, at least not one the main characters participate in on a regular basis. Any reference to organized religion is mostly about the political power structures – orders of priests, leaders like bishops, and so on. This is a huge distinction from the day-to-day medieval setting depicted in this book compared to European history. There are some quick asides referring to an order of female warriors that prevent men from entering a temple, but not much beyond that, at least in this first book.

Second, it tends to be highly ecumenical but polytheistic, where a given character probably worships one or more gods, but acknowledges the existence of others (usually in the context of claiming they’re dead/gone/weaker than theirs). We see Alanna’s encounters with the Goddess when she’s using magic, but I wouldn’t describe any of her experiences as worship. I think this is connected to how often the magic systems in fantasy derive power from gods (or at least an elder race with godlike powers), but also again to avoid the perception of an attack on a particular monotheistic religion.

Third, the gendered aspects of the gods and goddesses are usually pretty explicit, often along a sky father/earth mother axis. I don’t know how much of that is tapping into historical nomadic vs. agrarian splits compared to an author trying to make a point about the typically patriarchal power systems in a medieval setting.

We also touched briefly on the religions in other fantasy worlds, like in Narnia and on Arrakis, and the nature of good and evil. One trope talent Alanna had, a sort of child-like insight, was a better sense of who the good guys and bad guys were. To quote Samwise Gamgee, she noticed those that “look fairer but feel fouler”.

This book is probably a good one to have on hand for a young fantasy fan, boy or girl, but as an adult fantasy fan, I wasn’t able to get into it as much as I would have liked. I enjoyed it, but it just wasn’t that immersive. Again I think a big part of that was that Alanna’s school experience (ignoring the fantasy setting) was a typical teen one, but fairly different from my own, growing up in a very nerd-positive environment.

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I am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to Be Your Class President

I am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to Be Your Class President
I am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to Be Your Class President by Josh Lieb

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a book I received for Christmas three years ago and hadn’t yet read (hi mom!). The ego and attitude of the narrator initially turned me off, so I went in with kinda low expectations, but with an Aaron Sorkin joke on page four, and some great explicit and implicit Ray Bradbury references, Lieb had me hooked on this simple concept: the lowest-on-the-totem-pole kid in the entire middle school is not at all who he seems.

One thing I really appreciated was the narrative style – I think talking to Andrle about reading and writing has made me more aware of the distinctions. I believe this would be considered “first-person conversational”, because we are listening entirely to the main character’s thoughts as events unfold, his knowledge of events is limited to personal experience (i.e. we are surprised with him), but he regularly breaks the fourth wall to involve the reader in his thoughts about his family and classmates, using constructions such as “Remind me to…”. The narrator is also explicitly aware that we are reading this in a book, referring to pages, images, and chapters as he lays out what story is to come.

Lieb also used two interesting formatting tricks – first, there were visual aids (consisting mostly of oddly photoshopped composite images of events that were being described to or by the main character), and second, there was interesting use of chapter boundaries to pace the narrative, such as very short chapters used to indicate emotional state.

The narrator has a lot of interests that I suspect are more reflective of the author’s tastes (e.g., music) than a realistic middle school boy. This is by no means the most unrealistic thing in the story, so you just have to run with it. As an aside, it helps to have a familiarity with several elements of the James Bond canon, although probably the stuff that gets mocked in Austin Powers is sufficient.

The Bradbury references I mentioned earlier are the only spoilery part of this review. In the early chapters, the students are discussing Fahrenheit 451¬†in class. Shortly after that, the narrator describes how he’s been fully sentient since before birth. This immediately made me think of the short story “The Small Assassin”, about an infant who apparently causes the accidental deaths of its parents. For a more recent pop culture reference, think Stewie from The Family Guy.

Overall, a funny, quick read that made me chuckle more than once. It has a lot of cliches, but that’s okay… they’ll make you smile. A fair number of nerdy references on top of it all.

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PAX East 2012 Indie Megabooth


Early this year, I made my fifth PAX pilgrimage, this time to PAX East 2012. Even though we only attended two days (because of Easter Sunday and impending travel), we managed to fit in a mix of activities, including the keynote from Jordan Mechner, the Saturday night concert featuring JoCo, a few panels, and some good tabletop gaming. I also spent a fair bit of time on the expo hall floor. An interesting twist this year was the creation of The Indie Megabooth, for which a bunch of small independent developers pooled their resources to secure one large booth.

This is where I ended up spending most of my time, because to me, this is where the gameplay innovation is happening. Also unlike AAA games, many of these games were going to be available much sooner, are generally more affordable, and are more likely to be available on my platforms of choice (Mac and iOS). Another bonus was that the lines were short, so you could get a demo of many of these games without having to wait a couple of hours in line for a preview video (which in my mind is a total waste of your PAX ticket).

They also did something fun: they created a little achievement card, called the Indie Mega Passport, with silly activities or game actions that you had to complete at each booth. Pictures of my completed passport, plus a review of the games I was able to play, are below the cut.


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A Feast for Crows

A Feast for Crows
A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

No spoilers for my thoughts on this one. First, on a metapoint, I thought about holding off on a review until I had finished A Dance With Dragons, because this book doesn’t really come to a conclusion and focuses on an overlapping timeline with just a subset of the characters. I definitely missed a few of the narrators, because of that split, but I was glad to see more of the “bad” guys getting to tell their stories.

I don’t remember the exact publication dates, but Martin’s writing style has definitely evolved somewhat over the series. There were a few things I noticed. For a few of the narrating characters, instead of the chapter headings being their first name, they got some other identifier, which was an interesting touch. The other large difference was that a lot of the action was elsewhere, so we had a lot of events that weren’t directly experienced by the characters either being relayed to them in dialogue, or recently past events that they were thinking over. This can be bot an interesting style choice, and an annoyance, because you get weird verb tenses and don’t just see the action as it occurs. Obviously one of the factors here is that we had to know what other narrating characters who weren’t covered in this book were up to.

The ending to this book wasn’t as nicely wrapped up, I guess because of the two-parter effect. It also didn’t have the surprises that really shocked me near the end of Book 3. This is part of why I gave this book a slightly lower rating than the rest of the series – it felt mostly like filler leading to the big confrontations in the next book, instead of having a lot of interesting stuff on its own. That is, most of the characters were either alluding to events coming soon, or talking about events that had happened in Book 3, without making as much happen themselves.

It’s still a necessary read for the continuity of the series, but definitely not as impressive. I don’t know what kind of pressures Martin had from his publishers, but I think he would have been better off waiting to produce one large volume. I wonder how the hypothetical fourth season of the HBO series will handle it – I suspect they’ll interleave characters more, since they don’t want to not feature actors for an entire year.

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5 Very Good Reasons to Punch a Dolphin in the Mouth and Other Useful Guides

5 Very Good Reasons to Punch a Dolphin in the Mouth and Other Useful Guides5 Very Good Reasons to Punch a Dolphin in the Mouth and Other Useful Guides by The Oatmeal

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As with most collections of existing material, if you like content at, you will probably like this book. It is nice to have some of Inman’s classic comics and lists in hard copy. That said, this book falls short in two ways: first, in terms of content, there is no added value; second, in terms of layout, a number of Oatmeal comics were¬†originally created as a scrolling web page and so don’t adapt well to being broken up into multiple printed pages. I am still glad we bought a signed copy, because I like supporting digital artists whose work I enjoy, but I was expecting a bit more.

I mention the content issue because I think the Penny Arcade guys set the standard for providing backstory, notes, and other “DVD extra”-style stuff in between the printed versions of comics originally published for free online. Other than the introduction, this is just a dump of the art. Given Inman’s background as a web designer, his sometimes interesting blog posts, and some of his more infamous online clashes, I was hoping to see some additional context. As for the layout, that’s really just a minor quibble, but it is noticeable for some of the longer informational comics how the flow had to be forced into having page breaks.

On a somewhat related note, I have been following this Funny Junk lawsuit with morbid fascination. Obviously Funny Junk is engaged in massive copyright violation, and Inman called them on it. Their lawyer apparently takes an online insult as inspiration for suing The Oatmeal. From what I can tell, the only bad part about this story is the web vigilantism that was indirectly inspired by Inman’s posts on the matter. Carreon is clearly a jerk, but I don’t think he deserves to have his online life ruined just for picking a stupid fight.

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Nicolas Ward

Software engineer in Natural Language Processing research by day; gamer, reader, and aspiring UltraNurd by night. Husband to Andrle
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