Eagle's Path

Passion and dispassion. Choose two.

Larry Wall

2015-01-10: Short catch-up haul

First weekend back home after being away for the holidays. That was a lot of fun, but it's also nice to be back home with all my stuff and my normal schedule. Apparently nice enough that today I went on a productivity binge and did lots of random chores that had been building up. Quite satisfying.

This is a catch-up haul post for a few random things that popped up over the past few months apart from a full book order.

Ibraheem Abbas and Yasser Bahjatt — HWJN (sff)
Ibraheem Abbas and Yasser Bahjatt — Somewhere! (Hunaak!) (sff)
Shannon Appelcline — Designers & Dragons: The '70s (non-fiction)
Shannon Appelcline — Designers & Dragons: The '80s (non-fiction)
Shannon Appelcline — Designers & Dragons: The '90s (non-fiction)
Shannon Appelcline — Designers & Dragons: The '00s (non-fiction)
Tor.com — Some of the Best from Tor.com: 2014 (sff anthology)

The Appelcline four-volume history of RPGs was a gift from a friend, and a lovely set of books. The first two were available for free on the Kindle (as was the last) as part of an effort to publicize Arab SF, and I always like to broaden my cultural reading horizons.

2015-01-05: Review: Code Complete, Second Edition

Review: Code Complete, Second Edition, by Steve McConnell

Publisher Microsoft
Copyright June 2004
ISBN 0-7356-1967-0
Format Kindle
Pages 960

As mentioned in the title, this is a review of the second edition of Code Complete, published in 2004. There doesn't appear to be a later edition at the time of this writing.

I should say, as a prefix to this review, that I'm the sort of person who really likes style guides. When learning a language, a style guide is usually the second or third document I read. I enjoy debates over the clearest way to express a concept in code, trying to keep all the code in a large project consistent, and discussing the subtle trade-offs that sit on the boundary between mechanical style issues and the expressiveness of programming. I try to spend some time reading good code and getting better at expressing myself in code.

Presumably, therefore, I'm the target audience for this book. It sounded good from the descriptions, so I picked it up during one of the Microsoft Press sales. The stated goal of Code Complete is to collect in one place as much as possible of the oral tradition and lore of the programming field, to try to document and communicate the techniques and approaches that make someone a good programmer. The table of contents sounds like a style guide, with entire sections on variables and statements in addition to topics like how to improve existing code and how to design a new program.

If you're starting to think that a 960 page style guide sounds like a bad idea, you're wiser than I. (In my defense, I grabbed this as an ebook and didn't realize how large it was before I bought it.)

I have not actually finished this book. I hate to do this: I don't like reviewing books I haven't finished (this will be the first), and I hate starting books and not finishing them. (This is probably not particularly wise, since some books aren't worth finishing, but I've gotten into a rhythm of reading and reviewing that works for me, so I try not to mess with it.) But I've been trying to finish this book off and on for about a year, I don't think it's worth the time investment, and I think I've gotten far enough in it to provide some warnings by others who are deceived by the very high ratings that it gets on Amazon and other places.

The primarily problem with Code Complete is its sheer, mind-numbing comprehensiveness. It tries to provide a set of guidelines and a checklist to think about at each level of writing code. This is one of those ideas that might sound good on paper, but which completely doesn't work for me. There is no way I'm going to keep this many rules in my head, in the form of rules, while programming. Much of good style has to be done by feel, and the book I'm looking for is one that improves my feel and my sense of taste for code.

What Code Complete seems to provide instead is a compilation of every thought that McConnell has ever had about programming. There's a lot of basic material, a few thoughtful statements, a ton of style advice, an endless compilation of trade-offs and concepts that one should keep in mind, and just a massive, overwhelming pile of stuff.

Each chapter (and there are a lot of chapters) ends in a checklist of things that you should think about when doing a particular programming task. To give you a feel for the overwhelming level of trivia here, this is the checklist at the end of the chapter where I stopped reading, on quality assurance in software. This is one picked at random; a lot of them are longer than this.

I'm not saying those are bad things to think about with quality assurance, but you may notice a few issues immediately. They're very general and vague, they're not phrased in a particularly compelling or memorable way, and there are a lot of them. This falls between two stools: it's too much for the programmer who is thinking about quality as part of an overall project but not focusing on it (particularly when you consider that the book is full of checklists like this for everything from variable naming to how to structuring if statements to program debugging), but it's not nearly specific or actionable enough for someone who is focusing on quality assurance.

It's not that the information isn't organized: there's a lot of structure here. And there are bits and pieces here that are occasionally interesting. McConnell is very data-driven and tries to back up recommendations with research on error rates and similar concrete measurements. It's just insufficiently filtered and without elegant or memorable summary. There is far too much here, an overwhelming quantity, and hopelessly mixed between useful tidbits and obvious observations that anyone who has been programming for a while would pick up, all presented in the same earnest but dry tone.

It didn't help that there's a lot here I didn't agree with. Some of that is to be expected: I've never agreed completely with any style guide. But McConnell kept advocating variable and function naming conventions that I find rather ugly and tedious, and the general style of code he advocates feels very "bureaucratic" to me. It's not exactly wrong, but one of the things that I look for in style discussions is to be inspired by the elegant and simple way someone finds to phrase something in code. A lot of the code in this book just felt mind-numbing. It's functional, but uninteresting; perfectly adequate for a large project, but not the sort of discussion that inspires me to improve the quality of my craft.

So, I didn't finish this. I gave up about halfway through. It's frustrating, since I was occasionally finding an interesting nugget of information. But they were too few and far between, and the rest of the book was mostly... boring. It's possible that I just know too much about programming to be the person for whom that McConnell was writing this book. It's certainly true that the book has not aged particularly well; it's focused on fairly old-school languages (C, C++, Java, and Visual Basic) and says almost nothing about modern language techniques, although it does have a bit about extreme programming. But whatever the reason is, it didn't work for me at all. I would rate it as one of the worst books about programming I've tried to read. And that's notably different enough from its reviews that it seems worth throwing this out there as a warning.

I'm quite disappointed, since I'd heard nothing but praise for this book before picking it up. But it's not for me, and I'm now dubious of its value for any programmer outside of a fairly narrow, large-team, waterfall development process involving large numbers of people writing very large quantities of code in languages that aren't very expressive. And, well, in that situation I think one would get more benefit from changing that environment than reading this book.

Rating: unfinished

2015-01-04: Review: Ancillary Sword

Review: Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie

Series Imperial Radch #2
Publisher Orbit
Copyright October 2014
ISBN 0-316-24665-4
Format Trade paperback
Pages 354

This is the second book in the Imperial Radch series and a direct sequel to Ancillary Justice. You don't want to read this book out of order, since the previous book sets up the background of everything that happens here. Besides, Ancillary Justice is an amazing book.

It's going to be challenging to review Ancillary Sword without spoiling the previous book. If you're planning on reading Ancillary Justice but haven't gotten to it, you may want to stop here and come back to this review after you've read it. Or, even better, just read both books. They're some of the best science fiction I've read.

Ancillary Justice started small, with one person and their quixotic search for revenge, and grew large, to encompass conflicts and confrontations that would shake the Radch. Ancillary Sword returns to a smaller scale and stays there. This means that much of what was left unresolved at the end of the previous book is still unresolved; Leckie does not continue escalating into large-scale conflict. It also means that we see a lot more of Breq making personal choices and trying to work out her own sense of morality, plus semi-adopting a couple more injured people along the way.

One of my favorite types of stories is where I get to watch someone who is very good at something do the thing that they're very good at. Breq's unique background and experience makes her a wildcard outsider with vast experience in her new role. (Not to mention the special advantages she has from her implants.) Her long experience with people, similarly from a unique perspective, lets her use her power to effectively navigate political situations while keeping people slightly off-balance. And now she has some real power, made more potent for being somewhat ill-defined.

In short, this is a story of political agency, given to someone who hasn't had it before but who is very good at using it. It's immensely satisfying, in part because it's not a simple wish fulfillment. Breq can't just reshape the world to her preferences; in fact, she can't do much about one of the social conflicts she runs into, except treat the people involved with unexpected respect. But she can occasionally do something, and she can always upset existing power structures in subtle ways, and the way Leckie writes this makes it so much fun to read.

I think one of the reasons why I enjoyed this so much is that Breq is not relentlessly introspective. She just acts. Usually this sort of book involves lots of soul-searching and analysis, and the lack is refreshing. The other people in the story analyze Breq much more than she analyzes herself, sometimes incorrectly, and Breq finds the whole thing faintly amusing. Not only does this keep the story from bogging down in too much internal drama, it means that Breq frequently surprises the reader, usually in ways that had me grinning. And, despite not mulling things over incessantly, she is growing and developing, finding her own sense of morality and and ethics in a way that's sometimes only apparent in retrospect.

The one caveat I will mention is that this is a book that concerns itself a great deal with colonialism and racial slavery, but it's a fantasy of political agency focused on someone who's part of the dominant culture. While it's not quite accurate to say that Breq is this world's equivalent of white, she can pass, and she's Radchaai. I thought the book handles the issues reasonably well, but it is still using oppressed cultures to focus on the agency and power of someone who is, comparatively, privileged. This didn't bother me while I was reading the story, but it started to bother me a little afterwards once it was pointed out. There's nothing inherently wrong with that story, but it's a rather common pattern, and I'm afraid Ancillary Sword doesn't do much to broaden the pattern. That said, it's a caveat rather than a fatal flaw, at least for me.

Ancillary Sword is obviously the middle book of a trilogy, and normally the lack of forward progress on the overarching story and the sense of filling in background and setting the scene would undermine the book. But Breq and the other characters in this world are so fascinating that I didn't mind. The ending was not quite what I expected, but worked better the more that I thought about it. I'm really looking forward to the next book.

Followed by Ancillary Mercy.

Rating: 9 out of 10

2015-01-04: faq2html 1.33 and release 1.48

These changes to a couple of my scripts were done some time ago, but I never pushed them out or announced them.

faq2html, which I use to convert package README files and other documentation to something suitable for the web, no longer tries to parse the document for leading headers when a title is specified with -t. This makes the web page generation for new copyright-format 1.0 LICENSE files a little less awful, although I really need to write an HTML converter specifically for that file format. (That will require me to figure out what a reasonable web conversion of that file format actually is.)

You can get the latest version of faq2html from my web tools page.

The release script I use to prepare and move around copies of my software releases has been updated to handle Perl distributions that use Build.PL a little better, and to generate xz-compressed tarballs if the upstream build system only generates gzip-compressed tarballs (as Perl's does). I'm moving towards standardizing on xz compression for all of my software releases, although I'll also provide gzip-compressed tarballs for the forseeable future.

You can get the latest version of release from my scripts page.

2015-01-03: Review: Programming Ruby

Review: Programming Ruby, by Dave Thomas, et al.

Publisher Pragmatic Bookshelf
Copyright 2005
Printing May 2006
ISBN 0-9745140-5-5
Format Trade paperback
Pages 785

There are a few different editions of this book. The version I read is the second edition, written by Dave Thomas with Chad Fowler and Andy Hunt and published in 2005, covering Ruby 1.8.2. There's now a fourth edition, covering Ruby 1.9 and 2.0, which is probably what you'd want if you were buying this book today. This book, in whatever edition, is called the Pickaxe in the Ruby community after its cover.

I've used a lot of different programming languages, so I can usually pick one up on the fly reasonably well, but I still like to read a good introductory book before using one seriously. It's a bit too easy to get lost or to fall into habits that don't match the best practices of the language community without a solid introduction. I've been using a bit of Ruby off and on since I started using Puppet, but I'm looking at doing more serious development using Chef, so I decided it was time to get that introduction. (It helped that I had this book sitting around, although that's also why I read an older edition.)

Programming Ruby starts with the obligatory introduction to installing and running Ruby, and then provides a high-level introduction to the language and its basic types — just enough to make Ruby comprehensible before starting into the object system. Everything is an object in Ruby, so the book introduces the object system as early as possible, and then shows the rest of the language from constants up in the light of that object system. The rest of part one follows the normal language introduction path, building up from constants and methods to exceptions, modules, and basic IO. It closes with chapters about threads and processes, unit testing, and the debugger.

Part two is a grab-bag of one-chapter topics describing how to use Ruby in a particular setting, or showing one angle of the language. The best of those chapters for me was the one on RDoc, partly because I'm quite impressed by Ruby's documentation system. A few of these chapters are oddly in-depth for an introductory book — I doubt I'm ever going to use all the details about special irb configuration, and if I do, I'd just look them up — but I greatly appreciated the solid chapter on how to write Ruby extensions in C. There is also the obligatory chapter on writing GUI applications with Tk, which always seems to show up in these sorts of introductions and which always baffles me. Does anyone actually do this any more instead of writing a web application?

Part three dives back into the language and provides a more complete and formal description. The authors aren't afraid to get into some of the internals, which I appreciated. There is a good chapter here on the details of the type system and how objects and classes interact, and a much-needed extended discussion of duck typing. This type of weak typing and runtime binding is fundamental to how Ruby approaches objects, for better or worse. (I have mixed opinions; it makes some things easier, but I increasingly appreciate strong typing and more formal interface definitions.) Some discussion of marshalling and introspection closes out the discussion portion of the book.

That's about 420 pages of the material. The rest of the book is a detailed reference on all of the core classes, and a quicker overview of the standard library. Normally, this sort of thing is thrown into language introductions to pad out the page count, but usually the language's official documentation is better at this sort of reference. But I found Programming Ruby to be an exception. The reference is succinct, sticking to a paragraph or two for each method, and did a great job of providing enough cross-reference and discussion to put each class into a broader perspective. It's the most useful example of this type of reference section I've seen. I still probably won't use it after this initial reading, but I think I got a better feel for the language from reading through it.

It's hard to review a book like this without reviewing the language it documents, at least a little bit. I'll indulge: it entertains me how much Ruby is obviously based on Perl, including borrowing some of Perl's more dubious ideas. The global punctuation variables will look familiar to any Perl programmer, and the oddly-named global variables for the interpreter flags are in the same spirit. The language unfortunately has similar problems as Perl with safely running commands without using the shell; it's possible, but not the default and not what the built-ins do. There are places where I wish Ruby were a little less like Perl.

The plus side for an experienced Perl programmer is that Ruby feels quite familiar and has made some clear improvements. The ? and ! convention for methods that return booleans or modify objects in-place is brilliant in its simplicity, and something I'd love to see in more languages. And the way Ruby implements ubiquitous code blocks for both iterators and for any temporary objects is lovely once one gets used to it. It's similar to Python's context managers, except more general and built deeper into the language. Returning to the review of the book, rather than the topic, Programming Ruby has a good, clear explanation of blocks, iterators, and yield.

If you're interested in getting a grounding in Ruby, this book still feels like a solid introduction. The edition I read is getting a bit long in the tooth now that we're on Ruby 2.1, but the pace of language change has slowed, and most of the book is still applicable. (If you're buying it new, you should, of course, get the later edition.) The table of contents makes it seem like the book is covering the same ground multiple times, but that organizational strategy worked better than I expected. Ruby is not the most organized language in the world, so I still felt a bit overwhelmed with random method names in places, but I never felt lost in the mechanics of the language.

In short, recommended if you want a good introduction to the language, although probably in a later edition.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2015-01-02: Review: The Ring of Charon

Review: The Ring of Charon, by Roger MacBride Allen

Series Hunted Earth #1
Publisher Tor
Copyright December 1990
ISBN 0-8125-3014-4
Format Mass market
Pages 500

Larry Chao is a junior scientist at a gravity research on Pluto, at the very outer limits of human reach in the solar system. The facility is for researching artificial gravity, which is one reason it's in the middle of nowhere. Another is that their experimental generator is built in a ring around Charon, and the close proximity of the two bodies is useful for scientific observation. Unfortunately, there hasn't been much to observe. They can create very short-lived gravity fields in very small areas, but nothing like the artificial gravity that was the original promise of the facility.

As a result, the government is shutting the facility down. The authoritarian director, Simon Raphael, is... not exactly happy with that decision, but resigned to it and running the facility to completion with a sullen anger. When Larry makes a startling breakthrough at nearly the last minute for the society, Simon is uninterested and hostile. This leads Larry and his fellow scientist Sondra Berghoff to attempt a more radical demonstration of Larry's success and prove to the rest of the solar system that the facility should be kept open. That decision has a far deeper impact on humanity and the solar system than they could have possibly imagined.

The Ring of Charon and its sequel, Shattered Sphere, were recommended to me as good harder science fiction. It took me a while to track down copies — in fact, it took an in-person trip to Powell's. Once I found them, a relatively straightforward, old-school science fiction novel seemed like just the thing to read during my commute.

Allen delivers there. I'm not spoiling the main plot driver of the book even though it's given away on the back cover, since it's some time in coming in the novel. But The Ring of Charon turns into a multi-viewpoint cross between a disaster novel and a scientific investigation. Larry and Sondra stay central to the plot, of course, but Allen adds a variety of other characters who are attempting to figure out what happened to the solar system and then deal with the consequences: everyone from scientists to pilots to communications officers in weird surrealistic stations.

The science is mostly believable, apart from the scientific breakthrough that motivates the plot. Characterization isn't absent completely, but it's simple and unsubtle; dialogue is a bit wooden, characters aren't entirely multidimensional, but Allen does a reasonably good job with both pacing and the sense of mystery and investigation, and a surprisingly good job portraying organizational politics.

As you might guess from the tone of my review, this is not the book to reach for if you want something ground-breaking. It's a very conventional, multi-viewpoint SF novel full of scientists and investigation of unknown and possibly hostile phenomena. If you've read much science fiction, you've read books like this before. But one thing that Allen does surprisingly well, which makes The Ring of Charon stand a bit above the pack, is that he doesn't write villains. Even Simon, who goes out of his way to make the reader hate him at the start of the book, becomes a surprisingly sympathetic character. The characters who are usually villains or at least foils in books like this — the smooth PR person, the religious man, the blindly-focused scientist who isn't interested in anyone else's theories — never turn into caricatures, play important roles in the plot, and turn out to be competent in their fields of expertise.

There are actual villains, sort of, but I found myself feeling sympathetic even towards them, at least in places. Allen takes a rather old SF dodge to achieve conflict without an evil enemy, and, because of that, the end of the book felt like a bit of an anticlimax. But I did like the feel of the book where there isn't a good versus evil fight, just a wide variety of people (and others) trying to understand and control the universe in the best ways they know how.

I'm not sure I can quite recommend this book. The quality of the writing is not particularly high, and I'm not generally a fan of the disaster novel style of storytelling. But despite not being very original, there's just something likable about it. It moves along reasonably well for a 500 page book, and it's refreshingly light on irritating stereotypes. I think one has to be in the right mood when reading it and set expectations accordingly, but it fit what I was looking for when I picked it up.

One warning, though: although The Ring of Charon reaches a climax, the major plot conflict is not resolved at the end of this book, so you may want to have the sequel around.

Followed by Shattered Sphere.

Rating: 6 out of 10

2015-01-01: Review: An Imaginary Tale

Review: An Imaginary Tale, by Paul J. Nahin

Publisher Princeton University
Copyright 1998, 2007
Printing 2010
ISBN 0-691-14600-4
Format Trade paperback
Pages 259

Subtitled The Story of √-1, An Imaginary Tale is a history of the use of the number mathematicians normally call i. Nahin starts in the 15th century with the discussion of the time on solving cubic equations, specifically del Ferro's solution to the depressed cubic. He walks through how to approach that solution with imaginary numbers, provides a brief introduction to the complex number plane, and then explains that del Ferro didn't follow the logic in those directions at all. Mathematicians at the time were dubious about negative numbers because they were not intuitive representations of real-world quantities. The square root of negative numbers was considered simply impossible.

Nahin continues on in this historical vein for three chapters, walking through the mathematical problems that arose from analysis of cubics and the constant appearance of imaginary numbers, the early attempts to find a geometric interpretation, and then the slow development of the modern conception of imaginary numbers in the 19th century. The emphasis throughout is on the specifics of the math, not on the personalities, although there are a few personal tidbits. Along the way, he takes frequent side journeys to highlight the various places complex numbers are useful in solving otherwise-intractable problems.

After that initial history come two chapters of applications of complex numbers: vector analysis, Kepler's laws, applications in electrical engineering, and more. He does win a special place in my heart by walking through the vector analysis problem that George Gamow uses to demonstrate complex numbers in One Two Three... Infinity: a treasure map whose directions depend on landmarks that no longer exist. Following that is a great chapter on deeper mathematical wizardry involving i, including Euler's identity, ii, and a pretty good explanation of hyperbolic functions. The final chapter is an introduction to complex function theory.

One's opinion of this book is going to vary a lot depending on what type of history of math you like to read. Unfortunately, it wasn't what I was hoping for. That doesn't make it a bad book — other reviewers have recommended it highly, and I think it would be a great book for someone with slightly different interests. But it's a very mathematical book. It's full of proofs, calculations, and analysis, and assumes that you remember a reasonable amount of algebra and calculus to follow along. It's been a long time since I studied math, and while I probably could have traced the links between steps of his proofs and derivations with some effort, I found myself skimming through large chunks of this book.

I love histories of mathematics, and even popularizations of bits of it (particularly number theory), but with the emphasis on the popularization. If you're like me and are expecting something more like The Music of the Primes, or even One Two Three... Infinity, be warned that this is less about the people or the concepts and more about the math itself. If you've read books like that and thought they needed more equations, more detail, and more of the actual calculations, this may be exactly what you're looking for.

Nahin is fun to read, at least when I wasn't getting lost in steps that are obvious to him. He's quite enthusiastic about the topic and clearly loves being able to show how to take apart a difficult mathematical equation using a novel technique. His joy reminds me of when I was most enjoying my techniques of integration class in college. Even when I started skimming past the details, I liked his excitement.

This wasn't what I was looking for, so I can't exactly recommend it, but hopefully this review will help you guess whether you would like it. It's much heavier on the mathematics and lighter on the popularization, and if that's the direction you would have preferred the other similar books I've reviewed to go, this may be worth your attention.

Rating: 6 out of 10

2015-01-01: 2014 Book Reading in Review

This year, after a series of catastrophically horrible and unethical management decisions, I walked away from my job of seventeen years and found a new job.

As you might expect, reading wasn't the top priority for much of the year. I'm moderately surprised that I read as much as I did. The good side is that I'm now in a much better place both professionally and personally and no longer have to put up with draining and demoralizing nonsense happening on a regular basis. The downside for my review output is that the new job is more engrossing and is, in some ways, harder work, so I expect my reading totals going forward to stabilize somewhere below where they were in the past (although it's possible that the daily commute will change that equation somewhat).

As mentioned last year, I had a feeling that something like this would happen (although not that it would be anywhere near this bad), so I had no specific reading goals for the year. Next year, I'm going to see how it goes for the first few months, and might then consider setting some goals if I want to encourage myself to take more time for reading.

The below statistics are confined to the books I reviewed in 2014. I read three more books that I've not yet reviewed, partly because the end of the year isn't as packed with vacation as it was at Stanford. Those will be counted in 2014.

Despite the low reading totals for the year, I read two 10 out of 10 books. My favorite book of the year was Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice, which was one of the best science fiction novels I've ever read. Highly recommended if you like the space opera genre at all. A close second was my favorite non-fiction book of the year and the other 10 out of 10: Allie Brosh's collection Hyperbole and a Half. Those of you who have read her blog already know her brilliant and insightful style of humor. Those who haven't are in for a treat.

I read a lot of non-fiction this year and not as much fiction, partly for mood reasons, so I don't have honorable mentions in the fiction department. In the non-fiction department, though, there are four more books worth mentioning. Cryptography Engineering, by Niels Ferguson, Bruce Schneier, and Tadayoshi Kohno, was the best technical book that I read last year, and a must-read for anyone who works on security or crypto software. David Graeber's Debt was the best political and economic book of the year and the book from which I learned the most. It changed the way that you think about debt and loans significantly. A close second, though, was David Roodman's Due Diligence, which is a must-read for anyone who has considered investing in microfinance or is curious about the phenomenon. We need more data-driven, thoughtful, book-length analysis like this in the world.

Finally, The Knowledge, by Lewis Dartnell, is an entertaining and quixotic project. The stated goal of the book is to document the information required to rebuild civilization after a catastrophe, with hopefully fewer false starts and difficult research than was required the first time. I'm dubious about its usefulness for that goal, but it's a fascinating and entertaining book in its own right, full of detail about industrial processes and the history of manufacturing and construction that are otherwise hard to come by without extensive (and boring) research. Recommended, even if you're dubious about the efficacy of the project.

The full analysis includes some additional personal reading statistics, probably only of interest to me.

2014-12-31: Review: Three Parts Dead

Review: Three Parts Dead, by Max Gladstone

Series Craft #1
Publisher Tor
Copyright October 2012
ISBN 1-4668-0203-0
Format Kindle
Pages 336

Tara Abernathy was a student in the Hidden Schools, learning Craft, until she was expelled. Literally expelled: thrown from the floating schools to crash painfully to earth in the Badlands, left to return to her family and village and a life of small workings of Craft and contracts on behalf of local farmers. She had largely resigned herself to that life until raiders started killing people. Tara is not the sort of person who could stand by and watch that, or someone to refrain from using Craft to fix the world. The result was undead guardians for the town, perhaps unwisely formed from the town's risen dead, and only a job offer saves Tara from the ungrateful attention of her neighbors.

That's how Tara finds herself employed by the firm of Kelethras, Albrecht, and Ao, in the person of partner Elayne Kevarian. Provisionally, depending on her performance on their job: the investigation of the death of a god.

It's possible to call Three Parts Dead urban fantasy if you squint at it the right way. It is fantasy that takes place largely in cities, it features the investigation of a crime (and, before long, several crimes), and Tara's attitude is reminscent of an urban fantasy heroine. But this is considerably different from the normal fare of supernatural creatures. In this world, magic, called Craft, is an occupation that requires a great deal of precision and careful construction. Small workings are described similar to magic, although with an emphasis on metaphor. Larger workings more often come in the form of energy flows, contracts, and careful hedging, and the large Craft firms bear more resemblence to mergers and acquisitions specialists than to schools of wizards.

This means that the murder investigation of the god of Alt Coulumb involves a compelling mix of danger, magic, highly unusual library investigations, forensic accounting, hidden Craft machinery, unexpected political alliances, and an inhuman police force. Rather than the typical urban fantasy approach of being beaten up until the resolution of the mystery becomes obvious, Tara and her companions do quite a lot of footwork and uncover a more complex political situation than they were expecting. And, in keeping with this take on magic, the story culminates in a courtroom drama (of a sort). I really enjoyed this. It combines the stylistic elements of urban fantasy that I like with some complex and original world-building and a great take on magical contracts. I prefer worlds like this one, where any source of power people have lived with for a long time is surrounded by the controls, formal analysis, and politics that humans create around anything of value.

Tara is also a great protagonist. This is a coming of age story in a sense, and Tara is sometimes unsure of her abilities, but it's refreshingly devoid of worry or angst over new-found abilities. Tara enjoys her work, and approaches it with a well-written mix of uncertainty, impulsiveness, and self-confidence (sometimes warranted, sometimes not). I've read some good stories where the protagonist gets dragged into the story against their will, and some of them are quite good, but it's refreshing to read a book about someone who takes to the story like a duck to water. This is a believable protrayal of a character with a lot of native ability and intelligence, not much wisdom (yet), but a lot of thoughtful enthusiasm. I was disappointed to learn that she isn't the protagonist of the next book in the series.

The biggest flaw I found in this book is that Gladstone doesn't stick reliably to his world conception. At times, Craft collapses into something more like typical fantasy magical battles, instead of legal procedure and contract made concrete. I suppose this makes parts of the book more exciting, but I would have preferred a plot resolution that involved less combat and more argument. This isn't helped by the utterly hissable villain. There's a lot of complexity in understanding what happened and who was going to benefit (and how), but there is absolutely no doubt who the enemy is, and he's essentially without redeeming qualities. I would have preferred more nuance, given how satisfyingly complex the rest of the world-building is.

Three Parts Dead also occasionally suffers from the typical first novel problem of being a bit overstuffed. The world-building comes fast and thick, and nearly everything Tara does involves introducing new concepts. But the world does have a coherent history, and quite a lot of it. It used to be a more typical fantasy world ruled by gods, each with their own territory and worshippers (and Alt Coulumb is a throwback to this era), but an epic war between gods and Craft is in Tara's past, leading to the defeat or destruction of many of the gods. She lives in a time of uneasy truce between human and inhuman powers, featuring some very complex political and economic alliances. There's a lot of material here for an ongoing series.

This is a great first novel. It's not without its flaws, but I enjoyed it from beginning to end, and will definitely keep reading the series. Recommended.

Followed by Two Serpents Rise.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2014-12-27: Review: Some Remarks

Review: Some Remarks, by Neal Stephenson

Publisher William Morrow
Copyright June 2013
ISBN 0-06-202444-2
Format Trade paperback
Pages 336

This is going to be another weird review, since I read this essay collection about three months ago, and I borrowed it from a friend. So this is both from fading memory and without a handy reference other than Internet searches. Apologies in advance for any important details that I miss. The advantage is that you'll see what parts of this collection stuck in my memory.

Some Remarks is, as you might guess from the title, a rather random collection of material. There's one long essay that for me was the heart of the book (more on that in a moment), two other longer essays, two short stories, and thirteen other bits of miscellaneous writing of varying lengths.

I found most of the short essays unremarkable. Stephenson uses a walking desk because sitting is bad for you — that sentence contains basically all of the interesting content of one of the essays. I think it takes a large topic and some running room before Stephenson can get up to speed and produce something that's more satisfying than technological boosterism. That means the most interesting parts of this book are the three longer works.

"In the Kingdom of Mao Bell" was previously published in Wired and is still available. Some Remarks contains only excerpts; Stephenson says that some of the original essay is no longer that interesting. I had mixed feelings about this one. Some of the sense of place he creates was fun to read, but Stephenson can't seem to quite believe that the Chinese don't care about "freedom" according to his definitions in the same way and therefore don't have the same political reaction to hacker culture that he does. This could have been an opportunity for him to question assumptions, but instead it's mostly an exercise in dubious, sweeping cultural evaluation, such as "the country has a long history of coming up with technologies before anyone else and then not doing a lot with them." A reminder that the detail with which Stephenson crams his writing is not always... true.

Stronger is "Atoms of Cognition: Metaphysics in the Royal Society 1715–2010," which covers material familiar to readers of Stephenson's Baroque Cycle. The story of Newton, Leibniz, their rivalry, and the competing approaches to thinking about mathematics and science was my favorite part of that series, and in some ways the non-fiction treatment is better than the fictional one. If you liked the Baroque Cycle, this is worth reading.

But the highlight of the book for me was "Mother Earth Mother Board." This is a long essay (50,000 words, practically a small book and the largest part of this collection) about the laying of undersea fiber-optic cables. Those who have read Cryptonomicon will recognize some of the themes here, but there's way more to this essay than there was to the bits about undersea cables in Cryptonomicon. It's mostly about technology, rather than people, which puts Stephenson on firmer ground. The bit about people reads more like a travelogue, full of Stephenson's whole-hearted admiration of people who build things and make things work. There's a bit of politics, a bit of history, a bit of tourism, and a lot of neat trivia about a part of the technological world that I'd not known much about before. I would say this is worth the price of the collection, but it too was previously published in Wired, so you can just read it online.

Those reading this review on my web site will notice that I filed it in non-fiction. There are a couple of stories, but they're entirely forgettable (in fact, I had entirely forgotten them, and had to skim them again). But, for the record, here are short reviews of those:

"Spew": This originally appeared in Wired and can still be read on-line. The protagonist takes a job as a sort of Internet marketing inspector who looks for deviations from expected profiles. While tracing down an anomaly, though, he finds another use of the Internet that's outside of the marketing framework he's using.

It's unlikely that anyone who's been online for long will find much new in this story. Some of that is because it was originally published in 1994, but most of it is just that this isn't a very good story. Stephenson seems to have turned up his normal manic infodump to 11 to satisfy the early Wired aesthetic, and the result is a train wreck of jargon, bad slang, and superficial social observation. (3)

"The Great Simoleon Caper": Originally published in TIME, this story too is still available online. It's primarily interesting because it's a story about Bitcoin (basically), written in 1995. And it's irritating for exactly the same reason that Bitcoin enthusiasm often tends to be irritating: the assumption that cryptocurrency is somehow a revolutionary attack on government-run currency systems. I'm not going to get into the ways in which this doesn't make sense given how money is used socially (David Graeber's Debt is the book to read if you want more information); just know that the story follows that path and doesn't engage with any of the social reasons why that outcome is highly unlikely. Indeed, the lengths to which the government tries to go to discredit cryptocurrency in this story are rather silly.

Apart from that, this is typical early Stephenson writing. It's very in love with ideas, not as much with characterization, and consists mostly of people explaining things to each other. Sometimes this is fun, but when focused on topics about which considerably more information has become available, it doesn't age very well. (5)

Overall, there was one great essay and a few interesting bits, but I wouldn't have felt I was missing much if I'd never read this collection. I borrowed Some Remarks from a friend, and I think that's about the right level of effort. If it falls into your hands, or you see it in a library, some of the essays, particularly "Mother Earth Mother Board," are worth reading, but given that the best parts are available on-line for free, I don't think it's worth a purchase.

Rating: 6 out of 10

2014-12-25: pam-krb5 4.7

It's been a long, long time since the last upstream release. Rather too long, as the changes to the portability and test framework were larger than the changes to the module itself. But there are a few bug fixes here and one new feature.

The new feature is a new option, no_update_user, which disables the normal update of PAM_USER for the rest of the PAM stack to the canonicalized local username. This allows users to do things like enter Kerberos principals into the login prompt and have the right thing happen, but sometimes it's important to keep the authentication credentials as originally entered and not canonicalize, even if there's a local canonicalization available. This new option allows that.

In the bug-fix department, the module now suppresses spurious password prompts from Heimdal while using PKINIT and understands more Kerberos errors for purposes of try_first_pass support and returning better PAM errors.

The documentation now notes next to each option the version of pam-krb5 at which it was introduced with its current meaning.

You can get the latest version from the pam-krb5 distribution page.

2014-12-25: rra-c-util 5.6

rra-c-util is my personal collection of infrastructure for C and Perl packages. This release has a quite-large accumulation of small fixes, mostly from work Julien ÉLIE has done on merging it into INN and testing INN's portability on a wide variety of platforms.

The highlights:

You can get the latest version from the rra-c-util distribution page.

2014-12-25: C TAP Harness 3.2

This is a fairly minor release, mostly to have a release of files that I'm updating in rra-c-util. Most of the changes are typos and other cosmetic fixes. But I hate releasing a new version of something without a little bit of new functionality, so I implemented comment support in test lists. The runtests driver now ignores comments (lines starting with #) and blank lines in test list files, and leading whitespace in front of test names.

You can get the latest version from the C TAP Harness distribution page.

2014-12-24: Review: Bad Pharma

Review: Bad Pharma, by Ben Goldacre

Publisher Faber and Faber
Copyright 2012, 2013
Printing 2014
ISBN 0-86547-806-6
Format Trade paperback
Pages 397

If you have previously read Bad Science by Ben Goldacre, it's doubtful you need me to do anything other than point out that he has a new book. Oh, and it's subtitled How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients, and it's written with the same indignant determination, clear explanation, and appreciation for real science as Bad Science.

If you haven't read Bad Science, I recommend it. You don't have to read it before Bad Pharma, but it's a more approachable start, and a funnier book. Bad Science opens with some obviously horrible examples, and slowly develops the tools required to analyze more advanced and deceptive quackery. Bad Pharma jumps straight into the deep end of statistical biases in data, how and why they're introduced, and why they undermine your health care.

This is a more serious book than Bad Science, since it lacks the medical quackery that is so ludicrous it's funny. Everything in Bad Science is successfully sold to someone — there are people who believe in candling — but most readers of the book can laugh a bit that anyone would believe in such things before getting to the parts of the book where the quackery is widespread and kills people. Bad Pharma focuses on the mainstream pharmaceutical industry and the way that it distorts the scientific process, which leads to serious consequences quite quickly.

Goldacre is more pointedly on a mission here than in his previous book. This is not just an exposé. It includes detailed recommendations for how to make the drug evaluation process better, and some specific ethical recommendations for doctors to avoid being unduly influenced by drug company marketing. But before that, he provides the best detailed explanation of how the drug research and approval process is supposed to work that I've seen. There's also a lot of good information about how to detect trials and related studies that haven't been done properly, and how to separate marketing language from scientific evidence. Goldacre wisely does not get into all the details of how to do a trial properly, which would be way beyond the scope of this book, but he does provide valuable rules of thumb and red flags that indicate when someone is probably not doing the trial properly.

A point that's both frustrating and enlightening, and made very well by this book, is that fixing many of the problems with the drug approval process is not that difficult. Fixing all of them would be exceedingly difficult, of course, since they involve humans, complex financial motivations, the effectiveness of propaganda, and talented people who are paid well to create favorable impressions for new drugs. But we could get quite significant benefits from a few straightforward enhancements of the existing drug approval process, such as requiring that all clinical trials be pre-registered and all trial results published as a prerequisite for any drug approval. Goldacre makes his case for these changes forcefully and persuasively, and with justified anger. The current situation is bad enough for people like me who are only potential patients with no urgent medical issues. For a practicing doctor like Goldacre, it's infuriating to be actively denied the information required to effectively save people's lives.

Normally, I find books like this interesting, but depressing and frustratingly limited. It's easy to write books about abuses that currently exist, or the limitations of the current approach. It's much harder to do what Goldacre does here: clearly describe the goals and ideals of drug testing for the lay reader, detail how the current approaches fall short of that goals, and then propose practical and concrete ways to correct the situation. And keep the details interesting and entertaining enough that I enjoyed reading every page of a nearly 400 page book.

This is not a book that will fill you with trust or enthusiasm for the medical establishment (anywhere in the world). But it's still oddly comforting: we do know how to do these things properly, and occasionally we even act on that knowledge. These problems are serious, but they should provoke outrage partly because they're correctable and yet aren't being corrected. And there are doctors like Goldacre who are trying to push medicine towards proper use of evidence, research, and knowledge, instead of commercial manipulation. Recommended if you have any interest at all in how medicine or scientific research is actually done, and what its pitfalls look like.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2014-12-22: Review: Wakulla Springs

Review: Wakulla Springs, by Andy Duncan & Ellen Klages

Publisher Tor
Copyright October, 2013
Format Kindle
Pages 99

This is another nominee for the 2014 Hugo Awards (for works published in 2013), this time in the novella category. In this case, though, I read the free ebook version from Tor (Macmillan) rather than the version from the voter packet, since I usually grab all the free ebooks of Tor.com stories. (Even if I'm quite behind in reading them, since I don't read much short fiction.) As an independently-published novella, it gets its own review in the book category.

Wakulla Springs is the story of three generations (and four protagonists) who lived near or visited Wakulla Springs in the Florida panhandle. This is a real place: a huge freshwater springs and underwater cave system, now protected as a national park. Two of the four episodes in this story revolve around the filming of movies: a Tarzan movie and Creature from the Black Lagoon. This actually happened as well, although of course the story takes liberties with the details.

This is also the story of race relations in the American deep south: the tense and uncertain interactions between black locals and rich white people, both locals and people from the film industry who came for a brief time and then left again. It's also a story about water, swimming, and the sense of being part of the water and knowing it well. This story doesn't develop any particular point; rather, it's more of a collection of character sketches, grabbing moments in time, glimpsing what it's like to cross racial barriers and to feel at home with one's choices. It's also, in a nicely subtle way, about encountering mythical creatures that are not part of one's world. To the locals, the film stars who visit Wakulla Springs are as wild and strange as the imagined creatures of the swamp, and in their way even more foreign.

What this is not, though, is science fiction, or even fantasy. One of the complaints I'd heard about Wakulla Springs in the context of the Hugos was that it didn't qualify as a genre story. I'm usually inclined to dismiss these sorts of complaints, since they're often put forth by people with a far narrower definition of genre than mine. But, having read this story, I have to concur. It's very well-written and engaging, but it's not genre in any sense that I'd define it. There are some rare mentions of mythical creatures, but only in ways that are part of the setting, and which are no more fantastic than I'd expect from many mainstream stories. I'm a bit baffled why an SFF publisher would have bought it for an explicitly SFF forum; I have to assume that it's just because it's well-written and the authors have both written SFF.

That said, even though this is not the sort of story I'd normally seek out, I'm still glad I read it. I thought the best part of the story was the first, which follows a black woman who takes a job at the Wakulla Springs resort during the filming of a Tarzan movie. The color lines are simply taken for granted by everyone, but Johnny Weissmuller comes off very well in his fictional representation and adds an enthusiastic energy that plays off well against the thoughtful care of the protagonist.

The second part echoes this with a boy as the protagonist, but shifts a generation later. This means the color line is fought instead of simply assumed, although with limited success. I thought this part of the story had the best descriptions of the joy of swimming, and once again the movie folks bring a disruptive and positive change to the tightly-drawn lines of local roles and politics. The third and fourth parts I found slighter, elaborating on the story by showing the reader glimpses of the later life of the first two protagonists, but not, I thought, adding anything fundamental to the story.

I'm not sure this would be satisfying if you were looking for a science fiction or fantasy story, but it's a solid mainstream story about race, class, and the joy of knowing and feeling a place. It captures an angle of Hollywood that I've rarely seen in movies: a disruptive and almost subversive playfulness and energy that doesn't fix problems but that does provide moments of escape from the realities of the world, even outside of the film. Worth reading, particularly since it's free.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Last modified and spun 2015-01-11