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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YOURLS Plugin: Remove YouTube Play Indicator

A few months ago, I set up a self-hosted YOURLS install to handle all of my URL-shortening needs, replacing I decided I wanted to be wholly responsible for breaking any links in the future. It’s here, although probably at some point I’ll buy a shorter domain and redirect everything.

Last month, YouTube added a play indicator that modifies the <title> attribute to include U+25B6 BLACK RIGHT-POINTING TRIANGLE. I don’t like this showing up in the title in the YOURLS admin interface. I wrote a quick plugin that strips this out.

Remove YouTube Play Indicator is available on GitHub. Please comment there if you have any issues.

Posted in Code Projects Tagged with: , , , ,

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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Netflix Ratings Import/Export

Andrle and I each used to have our own Netflix accounts. For a time, after we got married, we kept both; mine was used for disc rentals, and hers for streaming. Eventually we realized we were mostly just streaming, so we canceled my account and went to a single shared account. Sadly, this meant I lost over 1400 movie ratings, since Netflix provides no official way to export. After a while, I gave up on ever getting my ratings back.

Finally, earlier this month, Netflix embraced their role as a household service and added profiles. I decided to pay for a month of streaming and reactivate my old account to see if I could get my ratings out. I found this browser script which, after applying a patch described there, gave me a JSON file containing all of my ratings. This is also a useful backup to have in case Netflix ever goes away (unlikely).

Unfortunately there is still no way to easily import ratings into Netflix, so I wrote a very basic Chrome extension that would read the exported JSON file and click through each movie, rating it. It’s available on GitHub. Make sure to read the instructions included with the code; it’s straightforward but requires some poweruser comfort to follow the steps, since I didn’t bother with an interface. (Incidentally, this is one thing I love about having programming skills – that sense of having more power and control over my own data.)

Obviously it would be nice if various online services practiced across-the-board data liberation (though with Facebook and Twitter adding export, it’s getting better), but hopefully this is one tiny step in helping other nerdy family units transfer their precious Netflix ratings.

Posted in Code Projects, How-Tos Tagged with: , , , ,

A Better git-svn Log

This morning, Devon tweeted a great git tip that shows how to create a git alias that produces more readable git logs. I decided I wanted to set this up.

At work, we use a central Subversion repository, but a number of us use git-svn because we prefer git’s various local branch tools for development. I decided that it would be useful to extend this alias to also include the Subversion revision number if the commit has one. Unfortunately, this information (in the form of a Subversion URL) is stored in the commit body by git-svn, which may include other notes added by a developer. git-log exposes this text via the %b format specifier, but since we want to do some post-processing to extract just the revision number, we’ll need to set up a shell alias.

Here’s the final version I’ve added to my ~/.aliases:

alias glog='git log --graph --pretty=format:'"'"'%Cred%h%Creset%C(yellow)%d%Creset %s %Cgreen(%cr) %C(bold blue)<%an>%Creset%Cred%b%Creset'"'"' | perl -e '"'"'$log = do { local $/; <> }; $log =~ s/(>\e\[m\e\[31m)([^\n]*\n\| )*git-svn-id: svn\+ssh:\/\/[^\s\@]*\@(\d+) [0-9A-F-]+\n(\|| ) (\e\[m)/$1 r$3$5/gm; print "$log\n";'"'"' | less -RS'

First you’ll note the weird quote escaping – we want the alias to be single-quoted (no expansion), but we want the arguments to the commands to also be single-quoted. That’s where the '"'"' trick comes in; see this explanation on StackOverflow. The format string is almost identical to Filipe’s solution, except for the addition of the body. The nasty Perl regular expression pulls out the revision number from that while also preserving the ANSI color escape sequences I inserted into the format string. Finally, we pass everything back to less for paging; -R makes sure it interprets the colors correctly, while -S disables line-wrapping.

One unfortunate side effect of adding the post-processing is that you can’t pass the -p option to git log anymore, because Perl needs to read the whole log in for multiline matching (in case a developer had literal newlines in their commit body), and the diffs are large and could get caught in the regex filter.

Hopefully you find this useful!

Posted in Computers, How-Tos Tagged with: , , , , , ,


If you were on the media social much shortly before Christmas, you no doubt heard quite the kerfuffle about changes to Instagram’s Terms of Service that would take effect on January 16th, 2013, in part related to Facebook’s purchase of the service earlier last year. While much of this response was overblown, and based on misunderstandings of the relevant legalese, and Instagram later apologized and canceled some of the changes, the folderol was a reminder to me that you can’t really trust a service you’re not paying for for hosting your content under the license you want. Thus, I quit.

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Posted in Code Projects, How-Tos, meta, Opinion Tagged with: , , ,

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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Posted in Reviews, Video Games Tagged with: , , ,

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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Ex Astris, Scientia

“From the stars, knowledge.”

This happens to be the Latin motto of Starfleet Academy, but it’s a phrase that’s stuck in my head as reflection of where I think our future as a species lies. Few people embodied that spirit better than Dr. Sally Ride, who died yesterday at the age of 61 from pancreatic cancer. She was a huge influence on my early childhood dreams of becoming a scientist and astronaut; outside of my parents, she was absolutely one of my heroes.

Grief at a Distance

I first found out about the death of Dr. Ride on Twitter, by someone retweeting Boing Boing. This news came as quite a shock, as she was relatively young, and had kept her cancer diagnosis private. I even experienced the denial stage a bit, seeking to verify that she had in fact died; I suppose it’s not fair to Boing Boing that I didn’t trust a retweet of theirs, but Twitter is not exactly the place to get reliable information about celebrity deaths.

This affected me emotionally far more than the death of Steve Jobs did, a comparison I can’t help but make since I wrote about his death as well. I was finishing up work, and didn’t get much done for half an hour or so as I found myself suppressing tears, and reading a few of the early obituaries. I didn’t jump into the discussion of her life on Twitter, but I did write a brief tribute on Facebook, and hammered out some quick thoughts on Google+ while I was in the moment (all of which are replicated here in longer form).

There were a couple of factors that made this harder for me – the first I think was the surprise element (whereas Steve’s illness had been fairly public, if spun in favor of recovery). The second was that, as influential as Dr. Ride had been on me as a kid, I had been pretty disconnected from her post-astronaut career in science education. I was brought back to how I felt about her when I was little, while The Steve was indirectly present in my recent day-to-day experiences. The last aspect is that Sally Ride inspired my childhood dreams on a path that I did not end up following.

Hero in the Blue Jumpsuit

I was a huge fan of Dr. Ride when I was little. I knew enough of her biography that I had decided, by age 5, that I would go to Stanford, get an engineering degree (aerospace if possible), become an astronaut, and then settle down to design airplanes for Boeing. When I got my own bedroom around that time, my decor of choice was a floor-to-ceiling photo wallpaper of one of the space shuttles gliding in for a landing. My recollection is that in 2nd grade, I did a presentation on Dr. Ride, complete with blue jumpsuit, velcro, and NASA patch that my mom had sewn for me. I thought I also wore it for Halloween that year, but my mom checked the photo albums and I must be misremembering.

Suffice it to say, I was, and still am, a huge fan of space exploration, and Sally Ride was for me a role model who had gotten that opportunity. Obviously I haven’t become an astronaut, but I still plan to go into space one day, even if it’s just as a tourist. I never went to Space Camp, and I didn’t major in aerospace engineering, but I think that fundamental spirit of scientific exploration is still with me, and Dr. Ride’s example was part of my inspiration in that area.

I’ve noticed a lot of the coverage mentioning that she was an inspiration for women in the sciences. While that’s true, I feel like that makes it sound like she wasn’t trying to be an inspiration to the little Nicks of the world. I don’t want to make this tribute political, but I think that young children can learn a love for science long before they develop a gender identity, and that Dr. Ride shouldn’t be remembered merely as a role model for girls or as the first American woman in space. She was a scientist, an astronaut, an educator… a hero.

Tonight, I will look up to the stars, and remember.


Posted in Life Tagged with: , , , , ,

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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