Eagle's Path

Passion and dispassion. Choose two.

Larry Wall

2017-12-16: Saving window position in Xfce session

TLDR: If you're having problems saving window position in your Xfce session, enable save on logout and then log out and back in. This will probably fix the problem (permanently, if you like keeping the same session and turn saving back off again). See below for the details.

I've been using Xfce for my desktop for some years now, and have had a recurring problem with saved sessions after a reboot. After logging in, all the applications from my saved session would be started, but all the workspace and window positioning data would be lost, so they'd just pile onto the default workspace like a train wreck.

Various other people on-line have reported this over the years (there are open bugs in Ubuntu, Xfce, and Red Hat bug trackers), and there was apparently a related bug fixed in Xfce 4.10, but I'm using 4.12. I would have given up (and have several times in the past), except that on one of my systems this works correctly. All the windows go back to their proper positions.

Today, I dug into the difference and finally solved it. Here it is, in case someone else stumbles across it.

Some up-front caveats that are or may be related:

  1. I rarely log out of my Xfce session, since this is a single-user laptop. I hibernate and keep restoring until I decide to do a reboot for kernel patches, or (and this is somewhat more likely) some change to the system invalidates the hibernate image and the system hangs on restore from hibernate and I force-reboot it. I also only sometimes use the Xfce toolbar to do a reboot; often, I just run reboot.

  2. I use xterm and Emacs, which are not horribly sophisticated X applications and which don't remember their own window positioning.

Xfce stores sessions in .cache/sessions in your home directory. The key discovery on close inspection is that there were two types of files in that directory on the working system, and only one on the non-working system.

The typical file will have a name like xfce4-session-hostname:0 and contains things like:

Client9_ClientId=2a654109b-e4d0-40e4-a910-e58717faa80b
Client9_Hostname=local/hostname
Client9_CloneCommand=xterm
Client9_RestartCommand=xterm,-xtsessionID,2a654109b-e4d0-40e4-a910-e58717faa80b
Client9_Program=xterm
Client9_UserId=user

This is the file that remembers all of the running applications. If you go into Settings -> Session and Startup and clear the session cache, files like this will be deleted. If you save your current session, a file like this will be created. This is how Xfce knows to start all of the same applications. But notice that nothing in the above preserves the positioning of the window. (I went down a rabbit hole thinking the session ID was somehow linking to that information elsewhere, but it's not.)

The working system had a second type of file in that directory named xfwm4-2d4c9d4cb-5f6b-41b4-b9d7-5cf7ac3d7e49.state. Looking in that file reveals entries like:

[CLIENT] 0x200000f
  [CLIENT_ID] 2a9e5b8ed-1851-4c11-82cf-e51710dcf733
  [CLIENT_LEADER] 0x200000f
  [RES_NAME] xterm
  [RES_CLASS] XTerm
  [WM_NAME] xterm
  [WM_COMMAND] (1) "xterm"
  [GEOMETRY] (860,35,817,1042)
  [GEOMETRY-MAXIMIZED] (860,35,817,1042)
  [SCREEN] 0
  [DESK] 2
  [FLAGS] 0x0

Notice the geometry and desk, which are exactly what we're looking for: the window location and the workspace it should be on. So the problem with window position not being saved was the absence of this file.

After some more digging, I discovered that while the first file is saved when you explicitly save your session, the second is not. However, it is saved on logout. So, I went to Settings -> Session and Startup and enabled automatically save session on logout in the General tab, logged out and back in again, and tada, the second file appeared. I then turned saving off again (since I set up my screens and then save them and don't want any subsequent changes saved unless I do so explicitly), and now my window position is reliably restored.

This also explains why some people see this and others don't: some people probably regularly use the Log Out button, and others ignore it and manually reboot (or just have their system crash).

Incidentally, this sort of problem, and the amount of digging that I had to do to solve it, is the reason why I'm in favor of writing man pages or some other documentation for every state file your software stores. Not only does it help people digging into weird problems, it helps you as the software author notice surprising oddities, like splitting session state across two separate state files, when you go to document them for the user.

2017-11-23: Review: Range of Ghosts

Review: Range of Ghosts, by Elizabeth Bear

Series Eternal Sky #1
Publisher Tor
Copyright March 2012
ISBN 0-7653-2754-6
Format Hardcover
Pages 334

Temur is one of many grandsons of the Great Khagan. We meet him on a bloody battlefield, in the aftermath of a fight between his cousin and his brother over the succession. His brother lost and Temur was left for dead with a vicious cut down the side of his neck, improbably surviving among the corpses and even more improbably finding a surviving horse (or being found by one). But a brief reprieve and a potential new family connection are cut brutally short when they are attacked by ghosts and his lover is pulled away into the sky.

Once-Princess Samarkar was heir and then a political wife of a prince, but her marriage was cut short in bloody insult when her husband refused to consummate the marriage. Now, she's chosen a far different path: be neutered in order to become a wizard. If she survives the surgery, she gains independence from her brother, freedom from politics, and possibly (if she's lucky) magical power.

Range of Ghosts is the first book of a fantasy trilogy set in what appears to be an analogue of what's now far northwest China and the central Asian steppes (although the geography doesn't exactly follow ours). There are mountainous strongholds, a large city-based civilization in the east, a civilization with onion domes and a different god in the west, and nomadic horse clans in the north. That said, there's also, as one discovers a bit later in the book, a race of huge bipedal cat people, just to be sure you don't think this is too much like our world.

I had a hard time with the start of this book due to the brutality. Just in the first 70 pages or so, we get a near-fatal wound that a character has to hold closed with his hand (for pages), human sacrifice, essentially medieval invasive surgery, a graphic description of someone losing an eye, and then (I think a little later in the book) serious illness with high fever. And this is Elizabeth Bear, which means the descriptions are very well-written and vivid, which was... not what I wanted. Thankfully, the horror show does slow down by the middle of the book.

The opening also didn't quite connect with me. There's a lot about war, the aftermath of war, and the death of Temur's family, but I found Temur mostly boring. The reader enters the story in at the aftermath, so none of the death and battle really touched me. Temur's steppe mythology is vaguely interesting, but only vaguely.

Samarkar saved this book for me. She's pragmatic, introspective, daring, but also risk-conscious. She pays attention and learns and studies, and she takes the opportunity to learn from everyone she can. The magical system she's learning also has some nicely-described effects without being too mechanical, and I liked the interweaving of magic with science. As she started taking charge of the plot, I thought this book got better and better. Also, full points for the supposedly pampered concubine (one of Samarkar's relatives) turning out to have iron determination and considerable ability to put up with hardship when it was required. That was refreshing.

More positive points to this book for allowing both men and women can choose to become neutered and become wizards. Same principle, so why not the same effect? One of the things I like about fantasy is the opportunity to explore human society with little tweaks and differences, and the ones that poke at gender roles and ask why we gender something that clearly could be gender-neutral make me happy.

I wasn't as fond of the hissable villain. I think I'm getting increasingly grumbly about books in which the villain is so obviously evil as to be basically demonic. Maybe Bear will twist this around in later books, but this one opens with human sacrifice, and the villain doesn't get any more appealing as we go along. I think I wasn't in the mood to read about someone plotting horrible dark things, keeping hostages, and practicing black magic, particularly since Bear's vivid descriptions make it a bit hard to tune the horrors out.

Thankfully, there isn't that much of the villain, and there's rather a lot of Samarkar, which left me generally happy with the book and wanting more. However, be warned that this is in absolutely no way a standalone book. Essentially nothing is resolved in this volume; you will need the sequel (if not the third book as well) for any sense of completed story whatsoever.

Followed by The Shattered Pillars.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2017-11-23: Holiday haul

Catching up on accumulated book purchases. I'm going to get another burst of reading time over the holidays (and am really looking forward to it).

Alfred Bester — The Stars My Destination (sff)
James Blish — A Case of Conscience (sff)
Leigh Brackett — The Long Tomorrow (sff)
Algis Budrys — Who? (sff)
Frances Hardinge — Fly By Night (sff)
Robert A. Heinlein — Double Star (sff)
N.K. Jemisin — The Obelisk Gate (sff)
N.K. Jemisin — The Stone Sky (sff)
T. Kingfisher — Clockwork Boys (sff)
Ursula K. Le Guin — City of Illusions (sff)
Ursula K. Le Guin — The Complete Orsinia (historical)
Ursula K. Le Guin — The Dispossessed (sff)
Ursula K. Le Guin — Five Ways to Forgiveness (sff)
Ursula K. Le Guin — The Left Hand of Darkness (sff)
Ursula K. Le Guin — Planet of Exile (sff)
Ursula K. Le Guin — Rocannon's World (sff)
Ursula K. Le Guin — The Telling (sff)
Ursula K. Le Guin — The World for Word Is Forest (sff)
Fritz Leiber — The Big Time (sff)
Melina Marchetta — Saving Francesca (mainstream)
Richard Matheson — The Shrinking Man (sff)
Foz Meadows — An Accident of Stars (sff)
Dexter Palmer — Version Control (sff)
Frederick Pohl & C.M. Kornbluth — The Space Merchants (sff)
Adam Rex — True Meaning of Smekday (sff)
John Scalzi — The Dispatcher (sff)
Julia Spencer-Fleming — In the Bleak Midwinter (mystery)
R.E. Stearns — Barbary Station (sff)
Theodore Sturgeon — More Than Human (sff)

I'm listing the individual components except for the Orsinia collection, but the Le Guin are from the Library of America Hainish Novels & Stories two-volume set. I had several of these already, but I have a hard time resisting a high-quality Library of America collection for an author I really like. Now I can donate a bunch of old paperbacks.

Similarly, a whole bunch of the older SF novels are from the Library of America American Science Fiction two-volume set, which I finally bought since I was ordering Library of America sets anyway.

The rest is a pretty random collection of stuff, although several of them are recommendations from Light. I was reading through her old reviews and getting inspired to read (and review) more.

2017-11-18: Free software log (October 2017)

I've not been taking the time to write these promptly in part because I've not found the time to do much free software work. Thankfully, November will at least contain some work-sponsored work (on a package that isn't widely used yet, but maybe we can make it appealing enough).

Anyway, that's for next month. For October, the only thing I have to report is refreshing the signing key for my personal Debian repository (generating a new key for the new release) and finally updating the distributions to move stretch to stable, jessie to oldstable, and create the new testing distribution (buster). If for some strange reason you're using my personal repositories (there probably isn't much reason just at the moment), be sure to upgrade eyrie-keyring, since I'm going to switch signing over to the new key shortly.

2017-11-14: Review: The Piper's Son

Review: The Piper's Son, by Melina Marchetta

Series Francesca #2
Publisher Candlewick Press
Copyright 2010
Printing 2011
ISBN 0-7636-5458-2
Format Kindle
Pages 330

Tom Mackee's family has fallen apart. The impetus was the death of his uncle Joe in the London tube terrorist bombings, but that was only the start. He destroyed his chances with the only woman he really loved. His father's drinking got out of control, his mother left with his younger sister to live in a different city, and he refused to go with them and abandon his father. But then, six months later, his father abandoned him anyway. As this novel opens, Tom collapses while performing a music set, high on drugs and no sleep, and wakes up to discover his roommates have been fired from their jobs for stealing, and in turn have thrown him out of their apartment. He's at rock bottom.

The one place he can turn for a place to stay is his aunt Georgie, the second (although less frequent) viewpoint character of this book. She was the one who took the trip to the UK to try to find out what happened and retrieve her brother's body, and the one who had to return to Australia with nothing. Her life isn't in much better shape than Tom's. She's kept her job, but she's pregnant by her ex-boyfriend but barely talking to him, since he now has a son by another woman he met during their separation. And she's not even remotely over her grief.

The whole Finch/Mackee family is, in short, a disaster. But they have a few family relationships left that haven't broken, some underlying basic decency, and some patient and determined friends.

I should warn up-front, despite having read this book without knowing this, that this is a sequel to Saving Francesca, set five years later and focusing on secondary characters from the original novel. I've subsequently read that book as well, though, and I don't think reading it first is necessary. This is one of the rare books where being a sequel made it a better stand-alone novel. I never felt a gap of missing story, just a rich and deep background of friendships and previous relationships that felt realistic. People are embedded in networks of relationships even when they feel the most alone, and I really enjoyed seeing that surface in this book. All those patterns from Tom's past didn't feel like information I was missing. They felt like glimpses of what you'd see if you looked into any other person's life.

The plot summary above might make The Piper's Son sound like a depressing drama fest, but Marchetta made an excellent writing decision: the worst of this has already happened before the start of the book, and the rest is in the first chapter. This is not at all a book about horrible things happening to people. It's a book about healing. An authentic, prickly, angry healing that doesn't forget and doesn't turn into simple happily-ever-after stories, but does involve a lot of recognition that one has been an ass, and that it's possible to be less of an ass in the future, and maybe some things can be fixed.

A plot summary might fool you into thinking that this is a book about a boy and his father, or about dealing with a drunk you still love. It's not. The bright current under this whole story is not father-son bonding. It's female friendships. Marchetta pulls off a beautiful double-story, writing a book that's about Tom, and Georgie, and the layered guilt and tragedy of the Finch/Mackee family, but whose emotional heart is their friends. Francesca, Justine, absent Siobhan. Georgie's friend Lucia. Ned, the cook, and his interactions with Tom's friends. And Tara Finke, also mostly absent, but perfectly written into the story in letters and phone calls.

Marchetta never calls unnecessary attention to this, keeping the camera on Tom and Georgie, but the process of reading this book is a dawning realization of just how much work friendship is doing under the surface, how much back-channel conversation is happening off the page, and how much careful and thoughtful and determined work went into providing Tom a floor, a place to get his feet under him, and enough of a shove for him to pull himself together. Pulling that off requires a deft and subtle authorial touch, and I'm in awe at how well it worked.

This is a beautifully written novel. Marchetta never belabors an emotional point, sticking with a clear and spare description of actions and thoughts, with just the right sentences scattered here and there to expose the character's emotions. Tom's family is awful at communication, which is much of the reason why they start the book in the situation they're in, but Marchetta somehow manages to write that in a way that didn't just frustrate me or make me want to start banging their heads together. She somehow conveys the extent to which they're trying, even when they're failing, and adds just the right descriptions so that the reader can follow the wordless messages they send each other even when they can't manage to talk directly. I usually find it very hard to connect with people who can only communicate by doing things rather than saying them. It's a high compliment to the author that I felt I understood Tom and his family as well as I did.

One bit of warning: while this is not a story of a grand reunion with an alcoholic father where all is forgiven because family, thank heavens, there is an occasional wiggle in that direction. There is also a steady background assumption that one should always try to repair family relationships, and a few tangential notes about the Finches and Mackees that made me think there was a bit more abuse here than anyone involved wants to admit. I don't think the book is trying to make apologies for this, and instead is trying to walk the fine line of talking about realistically messed up families, but I also don't have a strong personal reaction to that type of story. If you have an aversion to "we should all get along because faaaaamily" stories, you may want to skip this book, or at least go in pre-warned.

That aside, the biggest challenge I had in reading this book was not breaking into tears. The emotional arc is just about perfect. Tom and Georgie never stay stuck in the same emotional cycle for too long, Marchetta does a wonderful job showing irritating characters from a slightly different angle and having them become much less irritating, and the interactions between Tom, Tara, and Francesca are just perfect. I don't remember reading another book that so beautifully captures that sensation of knowing that you've been a total ass, knowing that you need to stop, but realizing just how much work you're going to have to do, and how hard that work will be, once you own up to how much you fucked up. That point where you keep being an ass for a few moments longer, because stopping is going to hurt so much, but end up stopping anyway because you can't stand yourself any more. And stopping and making amends is hard and hurts badly, and yet somehow isn't quite as bad as you thought it was going to be.

This is really great stuff.

One final complaint, though: what is it with mainstream fiction and the total lack of denouement? I don't read very much mainstream fiction, but this is the second really good mainstream book I've read (after The Death of Bees) that hits its climax and then unceremoniously dumps the reader on the ground and disappears. Come back here! I wasn't done with these people! I don't need a long happily-ever-after story, but give me at least a handful of pages to be happy with the characters after crying with them for hours! ARGH.

But, that aside, the reader does get that climax, and it's note-perfect to the rest of the book. Everyone is still themselves, no one gets suddenly transformed, and yet everything is... better. It's the kind of book you can trust.

Highly, highly recommended.

Rating: 9 out of 10

2017-11-12: Review: Night Moves

Review: Night Moves, by Pat Green

Publisher Aquarius
Copyright 2014
ISBN 0-9909741-1-1
Format Kindle
Pages 159

In the fall of 2012, Pat Green was a preacher of a failing church, out of a job, divorced for six months, and feeling like a failure at every part of his life. He was living in a relative's house and desperately needed work and his father had been a taxi driver. So he got a job as a 6pm to 6am taxi driver in his home town of Joliet, Illinois. That job fundamentally changed his understanding of the people who live in the night, how their lives work, and what it means to try to help them.

This is nonfiction: a collection of short anecdotes about life as a cab driver and the people who have gotten a ride in Green's cab. They're mostly five or six pages long, just a short story or window into someone's life. I ran across Pat Green's writing by following a sidebar link from a post on Patheos (probably from Love, Joy, Feminism, although I no longer remember). Green has an ongoing blog on Patheos about raising his transgender son (who appears in this collection as a lesbian daughter; he wasn't out yet as transgender when this was published), which is both a good sample of his writing and occasionally has excerpts from this book.

Green's previous writing experience, as mentioned at several points in this collection, was newspaper columns in the local paper. It shows: these essays have the succinct, focused, and bite-sized property of a good newspaper article (or blog post). The writing is a little rough, particularly the remembered dialogue that occasionally falls into the awkward valley between dramatic, constructed fictional dialogue and realistic, in-the-moment speech. But the stories are honest and heartfelt and have the self-reflective genuineness of good preaching paired with a solid sense of narrative. Green tries to observe and report first, both the other person and his own reactions, and only then try to draw more general conclusions.

This book is also very hard to read. It's not a sugar-coated view of people who live in the night of a city, nor is it constructed to produce happy endings. The people who Green primarily writes about are poor, or alone, or struggling. The story that got me to buy this book, about taking a teenage girl to a secret liaison that turned out to be secret because her liaison was another girl, is heartwarming but also one of the most optimistic stories here. A lot of people die or just disappear after being regular riders for some time. A lot of people are desperate and don't have any realistic way out. Some people, quite memorably, think they have a way out, and that way out closes on them.

The subtitle of this book is "An Ex-Preacher's Journey to Hell in a Taxi" and (if you followed the link above) you'll see that Green is writing in the Patheos nonreligious section. The other theme of this collection is the church and its effect on the lives of people who are trying to make a life on the outskirts of society. That effect is either complete obliviousness or an active attempt to make their lives even worse. Green lays out the optimism that he felt early in the job, the hope that he could help someone the way a pastor would, guide her to resources, and how it went horribly wrong when those resources turned out to not be interested in helping her at all. And those stories repeat, and repeat.

It's a book that makes it very clear that the actual practice of Christianity in the United States is not about helping poor or marginalized people, but there are certainly plenty of Christian resources for judging, hurting people, closing doors, and forcing abused people back into abusive situations, all in the name of God. I do hope some Christians read this and wince very hard. (And lest the progressive Christians get too smug, one of the stories says almost as brutal things about liberal ministries as the stories of conservative ones.)

I came away feeling even more convinced by the merits of charities that just give money directly to poor people. No paternalism, no assuming that rich people know what they need, no well-meaning intermediary organizations with endless rules, just resources delivered directly to the people who most need resources. Ideally done by the government and called universal basic income. Short of constructing a functional government that builds working public infrastructure, and as a supplement even if one has such a government (since infrastructure can't provide everything), it feels like the most moral choice. Individual people may still stay mired in awful situations, but at least that isn't compounded by other people taking their autonomy away and dictating life to them in complete ignorance.

This is a fairly short and inexpensive book. I found it very much worth reading, and may end up following Green's blog as well. There are moments of joy and moments of human connection, and the details of the day-to-day worries and work style of a taxi driver (in this case, one who drives a company car) are pretty interesting. (Green does skip over some parts for various reasons, such as a lot of the routine fares and most of the stories of violence, but does mention what he's skipping over.) But it's also a brutal book, because so many people are hurting and there isn't much Green can do about it except bear witness and respect them as people in a way that religion doesn't.

Recommended, but brace yourself.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2017-11-04: Review: Sweep in Peace

Review: Sweep in Peace, by Ilona Andrews

Series Innkeeper Chronicles #2
Publisher NYLA
Copyright 2015
ISBN 1-943772-32-0
Format Kindle
Pages 302

This is the sequel to Clean Sweep. You could pick up the background as you go along, but the character relationships benefit from reading the series in order.

Dina's inn is doing a bit better, but it still desperately needs guests. That means she's not really in a position to say no when an Arbitrator shows up at her door and asks her to host a peace summit. Lucky for the Arbitrator, since every other inn on Earth did say no.

Nexus has been the site of a viciously bloody conflict between the vampires, the Hope-Crushing Horde, and the Merchants of Baha-char for years. All sides have despaired of finding any form of peace. The vampires and the Horde have both deeply entrenched themselves in a cycle of revenge. The Merchants have the most strategic position and an apparently unstoppable warrior. The situation is hopeless; by far the most likely outcome will be open warfare inside the inn, which would destroy its rating and probably Dina's future as an innkeeper. Dina will need all of her power and caution just to stop that; peace seems beyond any possibility, but thankfully isn't her problem. Maybe the Arbitrator can work some miracle if she can just keep everyone alive.

And well fed. Which is another problem. She has enough emergency money for the food, but somehow cook for forty people from four different species while keeping them all from killing each other? Not a chance. She's going to have to hire someone somehow, someone good, even though she can't afford to pay.

Sweep in Peace takes this series farther out of urban fantasy territory and farther into science fiction, and also ups the stakes (and the quality of the plot) a notch. We get three moderately interesting alien species with only slight trappings of fantasy, a wonderful alien chef who seems destined to become a regular in the series, and a legitimately tricky political situation. The politics and motives aren't going to win any awards for deep and subtle characterization, but that isn't what the book is going for. It's trying to throw enough challenges at Dina to let her best characteristics shine, and it does that rather well.

The inn continues to be wonderful, although I hope it becomes more of a character in its own right as the series continues. Dina's reshaping of it for guests, and her skill at figuring out the rooms her guests would enjoy, is my favorite part of these books. She cares about making rooms match the personality of her guests, and I love books that give the character a profession that matters to them even if it's unrelated to the plot. I do wish Andrews would find a few other ways for Dina to use her powers for combat beyond tentacles and burying people in floors, but that's mostly a quibble.

You should still not expect great literature. I guessed the big plot twist several chapters before it happened, and the resolution is, well, not how these sorts of political situations resolve in the real world. But there is not a stupid love affair, there are several interesting characters, and one of the recurring characters gets pretty solid and somewhat unusual characterization. And despite taking the plot in a more serious direction, Sweep in Peace retains its generally lighthearted tone and firm conviction in Dina's ability to handle just about anything. Also, the chef is wonderful.

One note: Partway into the book, I started getting that "oh, this is a crossover" feeling (well-honed by years of reading comic books). As near as I can tell from a bit of research, Andrews pulled in some of their characters from the Edge series. This was a bit awkward, in the "who are these people and why do they seem to have more backstory than any of the other supporting characters" cross-over sort of way, but the characters that were pulled in were rather intriguing. I might have to go read the Edge books now.

Anyway, if you liked Clean Sweep, this is better in pretty much every way. Recommended.

Followed by One Fell Sweep.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2017-10-28: Review: Why We Sleep

Review: Why We Sleep, by Matthew Walker

Publisher Scribner
Copyright October 2017
ISBN 1-5011-4433-2
Format Kindle
Pages 341

The world is full of theories, and corresponding books, about things that will make you healthier or prevent disease. Nearly all of them are scams, either intentional or created through the placebo effect and the human tendency to see patterns that don't exist. The rare ones that aren't have a certain pattern: they're grounded in our best understanding of biology, align with what our body wants to do anyway, have been thoroughly studied using proper testing methodology, and don't make money for powerful corporations.

I'm fairly sure this is one of those rare ones that isn't a scam. And, if so, it's rather important and worth your attention.

Matthew Walker is a professor of neuroscience and biology at the University of California at Berkeley, where he's the founder of the Center for Human Sleep Science. He's not a doctor; he started medical training, but (as he says in the book) found himself more attracted to questions than answers. He's a professional academic researcher who has been studying sleep for decades. This book is a combination of summary of the current state of knowledge of academic sleep research and a plea: get more sleep, because we're literally killing ourselves with the lack of it.

Walker opens the book with a discussion of the mechanisms of sleep: how we biologically fall asleep and why, how this has changed over time, and how it changes with age. Along with that, he defines sleep: the REM and NREM sleep cycle that you may have already heard of, how it manifests itself in most people, and where dreams fit in. The second part then discusses what happens when you sleep, with a focus on what goes wrong when you don't. (Spoiler: A lot. Study after study, all cited and footnoted, has found connections between sleep and just about every aspect of mental and physical health.) The third part does the same for dreams, fitting them into the picture along with a scientific discussion of just what's going on during dreams. The fourth and final part tackles the problem: why don't we get enough sleep, and what can we do about it?

I will warn in advance that this book will make you paranoid about your sleeping patterns. Walker has the missionary zeal of an academic who has sunk his teeth into something really important that society needs to take into account and will try to drown you in data, analysis, analogies, and sheer earnestness until you will believe him. He wants you to get at least seven, and preferably eight, hours of sleep a night. Every night, with as little variation as you can manage. Everyone, even if you think you're someone who doesn't need as much sleep (you're probably not). There's a ton of science here, a great popularization of a whole field of research, but this is also a book that's trying to get you to do something.

Normally, that sort of book raises my shields. I'm not much of a believer in any book of the general genre of "most people are doing this basic part of life wrong, and should do it my way instead." But the hallmarks of good science are here: very widespread medical consensus, no corporate interest or obvious path to profit, and lots of studies (footnoted here, with some discussions of methodology — although not the statistical details, which will require looking up the underlying studies — and careful caveats where studies indicate correlation but may not find causes). And Walker makes the very telling point early in the book that nearly every form of life on the planet sleeps in one way or another (defined as a daily recurring period of time during which it doesn't respond to outside stimulus), which is a strong indicator of universal necessity. Given the vulnerability and loss of useful hours that come with sleep, one would expect some species to find an evolutionary path away from it if it were dispensable. But except for extremely short-lived species, we've never found a living creature that didn't sleep.

Walker's argument for duration is also backed up by repeated studies on human capability before and after various quantities of sleep, and on studies of the sleep phases in various parts of the night. Study after study used six hours as the cutoff point and showed substantial deterioration in physical and mental capabilities even after only one night of short sleeping. (Reducing sleep to four hours is nearly catastrophic.) And, more worrisomely, that degradation is still measurable after "catching up" on sleep on subsequent nights. Sleeping in on weekends doesn't appear to fully compensate for the damage done by short-sleeping during the week.

When Walker gets into the biological reasons for sleep, one starts to understand why it's so important. I think the part I found the most fascinating was the detailed analysis of what the brain is doing while you sleep. It's not inactive at all, even outside of REM sleep. Walker and other sleep researchers have done intriguing experiments showing how different parts of the sleep cycle transfer memories from short to long term storage, transfer physical skills into subconscious parts of the brain, discard short term memories that the conscious brain has tagged as being unwanted, and free up space for new knowledge acquisition. REM sleep appears to attempt to connect otherwise unrelated memories and bits of knowledge, inverting how association normally works in the brain, thus providing some concrete explanation for sleep's role in creativity. And (this research is fairly new), deep NREM sleep causes temporary physical changes in the brain that appear to be involved in flushing metabolic waste products away, including the plaque involved in Alzheimer's.

The last part of the book is probably the most concretely useful: what can one practically do to get more sleep? There is quite a lot that's proven effective, but Walker starts with something else: sleeping pills.

Here, you can almost see the lines drawn by a lawyer around what Walker should say. He stresses that he's not a medical doctor while laying out study after study that all point in the same direction: sleeping pills are a highly dangerous medical fraud that will shorten your lifespan for negligible benefit in helping you fall asleep, while limiting your brain's ability to enter true sleep. They're sedation, sedation is not sleep, and the four billion dollar sleeping pill market is literally making everything worse.

The good news is there is an effective treatment for insomnia that works for many people; the better news is that it's completely free (although Walker does suggest some degree of medical supervision for serious insomnia so that some parts of it can be tailored to you). He walks through CBT-I (cognitive behavior therapy for insomnia), which is now the medically recommended primary treatment for insomnia, and takes apart the pieces to show how they line up with the results of sleep research studies. Alongside that are recommendations for improving sleep for people who don't have clinical insomnia but who aren't regularly getting the recommended amount of sleep. There are a lot of interesting bits here (and he of course talks about blue LED light and its relationship to melatonin cycles), but I think the most interesting for me was that you have to lower your core body temperature by a couple of degrees (Fahrenheit) to enter sleep. The temperature of your sleeping environment is therefore doubly important: temperature changes are one of the signals your body uses to regulate circadian rhythms (cold being a signal of night), and a colder sleeping area helps you lower your core body temperature so that you can fall asleep. (The average person does best with a sleeping room temperature of 65F, 18C.)

There's even more in here: I haven't touched on Walker's attack on the US tendency to push high school start times earlier and earlier in the day (particularly devastating for teenagers, whose circadian rhythms move two hours later in the day than adults before slowly returning to an adult cycle). Or the serious problems of waking to an alarm clock, and the important benefits of the sleep that comes at the end of a full night's cycle. Or the benefits of dreams in dealing with trauma and some theories for how PTSD may interfere with that process. Or the effect of sleep on the immune system.

Walker's writing style throughout Why We Sleep is engaging and clear, although sometimes too earnest. He really wants the reader to believe him and to get more sleep, and sometimes that leaks around the edges. One can also see the effort he's putting into not reading too much into research studies, but if there's a flaw in the science here, it's that I think Walker takes a few tentative conclusions a bit too far. (I'm sure these studies have the standard research problem of being frequently done on readily-available grad students rather than representative samples of the population, although the universality of sleep works in science's favor here.) Some of the recitations of research studies can get rather dry, and I once again discovered how boring I find most discussion of dreams, but for a first book written by an academic, this is quite readable.

This is one of those books that I want everyone to read mostly so that they can get the information in it, not as much for the enjoyment of reading the book itself. I've been paying closer attention to my own sleep patterns for the last few years, and my personal experience lines up neatly with the book in both techniques to get better sleep and the benefits of that sleep. I'd already reached the point where I was cringing when people talk about regularly going on four or five hours of sleep; this is an entire book full of researched reasons to not do that. (Walker points out that both Reagan and Thatcher, who bragged about not requiring much sleep, developed Alzheimer's, and calls out Trump for making the same brag.) The whole book may not be of interest to everyone, but I think everyone should at least understand why the World Heath Organization recommends eight hours a night and labels shift work a probable carcinogen. And, as Walker points out, we should be teaching some of this stuff in school health classes alongside nutrition and sex education.

Alas, Walker can't provide much advice on what I think is the largest robber of sleep: the constant time pressure of modern life, in which an uninterrupted nine hour sleep opportunity feels like an unaffordable luxury.

Rating: 9 out of 10

2017-10-27: Review: Provenance

Review: Provenance, by Ann Leckie

Publisher Orbit
Copyright September 2017
ISBN 0-316-38863-7
Format Kindle
Pages 448

In a rather desperate attempt to please her mother, Ingray has spent every resource she has on extracting the son of a political enemy from Compassionate Removal (think life imprisonment with really good marketing). The reason: vestiges, a cultural touchstone for Ingray's native planet of Hwae. These are invitation cards, floor tiles, wall panels, or just about anything that can be confirmed to have been physically present at an important or historical moment, or in the presence of a famous figure. The person Ingray is retrieving supposedly pulled off the biggest theft of vestiges in history. If she can locate them, it would be a huge coup for her highly-placed politician mother, and the one time she would be victorious in her forced rivalry with her brother.

About the best thing that could be said for this plan is that it's audacious. The first obstacle is the arrival of the Geck on the station for a Conclave for renegotiation of the treaty with the Presger, possibly the most important thing going on in the galaxy at the moment, which strands her there without money for food. The second is that the person she has paid so much to extract from Compassionate Removal says they aren't the person she was looking for at all, and are not particularly interested in going with her to Hwae. Only a bit of creative thinking in the face of a visit from the local authorities, and the unexpected kindness of the captain from whom she booked travel, might get her home with the tatters of her plan intact. But she's clearly far out of her depth.

Provenance is set in the same universe as Ancillary Justice and its sequels, but it is not set in the empire of the Radchaai. This is another human world entirely, one with smaller and more provincial concerns. The aftermath of Ancillary Mercy is playing out in the background (so do not, on risk of serious spoilers, read the start of this book without having read the previous trilogy), but this is in no way a sequel. Neither the characters nor the plot are involved in that aftermath. It's a story told at a much smaller scale, about two political families, cut-throat maneuvering, horrible parenting, the inexplicable importance of social artifacts, the weirdness of human/alien relations, and the merits of some very unlikely allies.

Provenance is a very different type of story than Ancillary Justice, and Ingray is a very different protagonist. The shape of the plot reminded me of one of Lois McMaster Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan stories: hair-brained ideas, improvisation, and unlikely allies. But Ingray couldn't be more different than Miles. She starts the book overwhelmed, despairing, and not at all manic, and one spends the first part of the story feeling sorry for her and becoming quite certain that everything will go horribly wrong. The heart of this book is the parallel path Leckie takes the reader and the characters along as they discover just what Ingray's true talents and capabilities are. It's a book about being hopelessly bad at things one was pressured towards being good at, while being quietly and subtly good at the skills that let one survive a deeply dysfunctional family.

There are lots of books with very active protagonists, and a depressing number of books with passive protagonists pushed around by the plot. There are very few books that pull off the delicate characterization that Leckie manages here: a protagonist who is rather hopeless at taking charge of the plot in the way everyone wants (but doesn't particularly expect) her to, but who charts her own path through the plot in an entirely unexpected way. It's a story that grows on you. The plot rhythm never works in quite the way one expects from other books, but it builds its own logic and its own rhythm, and reached a very emotionally satisfying conclusion.

The Radchaai, or at least one Radchaai citizen, do show up eventually, providing a glimmer of outside view at the Ancillary Justice world. Even better, the Geck play a significant role. I adore Leckie's aliens: they're strange and confusing, but in a refreshingly blunt way rather than abusing gnomic utterances and incomprehensible intelligence. And the foot-stomping of the spider bot made me laugh every time.

The stakes are a lot lower here than in Ancillary Justice, and Ingray isn't the sort of character who's going to change the world. But that's okay; indeed, one of the points of this book is why and how that's okay. I won't lie: I'd love more Breq, and I hope we eventually get an exploration of the larger consequences of her story. But this is a delightful story that made me happy and has defter character work than most SF being written. Recommended, but read the Ancillary trilogy first.

One minor closing complaint, which didn't change my experience of the book but which I can't help quibbling about: I'm completely onboard with the three-gender system that Leckie uses for the Hwae (I wish more SF authors would play with social as well as technological ideas), and I think she wove it deftly into the story, but I wish she hadn't used Spivak pronouns for the third gender. (e/em/eir, for those who aren't familiar.) Any of the other gender-neutral pronouns look better to me and cause fewer problems for my involuntary proofreader. I prefer zie/zir for personal reasons, but sie/hir, zhe/zhim/zher, or even thon or per would read more smoothly. Eir is fine, but em looks like 'em and throws my brain into dialect mode and forces a re-parse, and e just looks like a typo. I know from lots of Usenet discussions of pronouns that I'm not the only one who has that reaction to Spivak. But it's a very minor nit.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2017-10-26: Review: The Black Gryphon

Review: The Black Gryphon, by Mercedes Lackey & Larry Dixon

Series Mage Wars #1
Publisher DAW
Copyright 1994
Printing January 1995
ISBN 0-88677-643-0
Format Mass market
Pages 460

The Mage Wars series (or the Gryphon series, which isn't its official title but which is in all of the titles) is part of the sprawling Valdemar mega-series, but it's a prequel to all of the other stories. It's also slightly challenging if you're reading in publication order, since it was published simultaneously with the Mage Storms series. If you're following publication order, in theory you should interleave the two series, but I hate doing that. I'm therefore reading it after Mage Winds and before Mage Storms. We'll see whether that was a good idea when I get to the next series.

You could, if you really wanted to, read this series before any other Valdemar book. As a prequel from the deep past of Valdemar's world, it doesn't depend on the other series, and you'll get a rediscovery of lost knowledge feel from later books. The downside is that it's a rather boring introduction, and that order would spoil a lot of the revelatory flow of the other series (particularly Elspeth's adventures in the Mage Winds books).

I'm now getting into the Valdemar books that I've only read once. I've been putting off continuing my Valdemar re-read because this series was next and I remember being rather bored with it the first time I read it. But I'm re-reading for the world-building and background as much as for the characters, and this is a huge chunk of world background that fills in the bones underneath Winds of Fate and its sequels. Here's why Dhorisha is a crater, here's why the Pelagiris forests are such a mess, here's where Ma'ar starts, here's the origin of both the gryphons and K'Leshya, and here, finally, we get to see the legendary Urtho on the page.

The problem with writing novels set in the epic backstory of your universe is that it's hard to live up to the drama that readers have invented for themselves. A lot of The Black Gryphon is background to events Valdemar readers already know will happen, creating a corresponding lack of surprise. I reached the end of the book and said "yup, that's pretty much what everyone said had happened."

Lackey and Dixon do try to do some interesting things here, one of which being the backgrounding of the war. The Black Gryphon starts in the middle of a long-running conflict between Urtho and Ma'ar and doesn't follow the generals or the battles. The protagonists, instead, are a kestra'chern (a type of psychiatrist and spiritual healer who also uses sex, with the expected conflicts of people who incorrectly think of them as prostitutes) and the eventual leader of the gryphons (Skandranon, who is referenced in later books and who provides the title). We get some combat scenes from Skandranon and later another gryphon, but a lot of the book is Amberdrake fighting the effects of the war instead of the details of the war itself.

There's a deep and moving story in that idea, and in some of the attached love stories that play out in the army camps. There's also a great story somewhere around Urtho: a brilliant but detached mage who is way out of his depth trying to run an army but smart enough to gather good people around him. He's also a creator of new life, including the gryphons. The Black Gryphon tries to talk about Urtho's paternalism, the weird emotional currents of his relationship with his creations, and the places Urtho keeps things from others for, supposedly, their own good. If this book had looked a bit deeper at the support structure for an army that's trying to be humane, or at the ways in which Urtho strays far too close to being an abusive tyrant through inaction despite having the best of intentions at every step, I think it could have said something significant.

Unfortunately, that's not this book. This book is full of relentlessly black and white morality (the flaw of much of the Valdemar series) that bleaches away interesting shades of grey. Urtho is good and wise by authorial fiat, and Ma'ar is the same utterly irredeemable force of evil that he is in other books. The story skitters over Urtho's odd tyrannies, making them all better with the pure power of friendship and good intentions. There just isn't much emotional depth, and while I don't expect that of Lackey in general, this story really needed that depth to work.

What we get instead is repetition, as Lackey and Dixon hit the same emotional notes with Amberdrake repeatedly. This is one of those books that makes me wonder if Lackey was trying to write too many novels in a short time than was good for their individual quality. (Collaborations often mean that the lesser-known name is doing all the work, but Dixon is Lackey's husband and the tone of the book is sufficiently Lackey that I don't think that happened here.) It felt padded by Amberdrake turning over the same emotional rocks repeatedly, to largely the same effect.

This is, in short, not Lackey's finest effort, although it does have its moments. As always, Lackey is at her best when writing psychological healing narratives. Zhaneel's story is a bit too easy, but the dynamic between Amberdrake and Winterhart is the best part of the book. And The Black Gryphon does tell the reader exactly what led up to the Cataclysm and why. There are no major surprises, but there are some small ones, and it's a nice payoff for the lore-obsessed (like me).

This is missable unless you want the full world-building behind Valdemar's past, and it's not the best writing. But if you're heavily invested in the Valdemar universe, it's at least readable and provides an important bit of the history.

Followed by The White Gryphon.

Rating: 5 out of 10

2017-10-25: Review: Waypoint Kangaroo

Review: Waypoint Kangaroo, by Curtis C. Chen

Series Kangaroo #1
Publisher Thomas Dunne
Copyright June 2016
ISBN 1-250-08179-3
Format Kindle
Pages 312

Disclaimer: Curtis was a classmate of mine at Stanford and part of the same social circle. That was a surprisingly long time ago.

Kangaroo is a spy (and, for this book, you should think James Bond). Agency training, fake identities, lots of gadgets, grumpy yet ridiculously competent support staff... the typical package. But Kangaroo also has a special power, which is the entire reason he ended up in the position he has. He's apparently the only person in the world who can open the pocket: a hole into another dimension, which can function as infinite storage and quite a bit more.

Waypoint Kangaroo opens with the tail end of a mission and Kangaroo in action, as an introduction to Kangaroo's first-person narrative voice, job, and the capabilities of the pocket. But the real story starts when Kangaroo is sent on vacation. The office is being audited, Kangaroo hasn't had time off basically ever, and his boss insists on a trip to Mars on the space equivalent of a cruise ship. No work. An expense account. Just relax and have fun.

Kangaroo isn't sure he knows how to not work. Or how to avoid boredom when trying hard to not work. It leads to probably ill-advised decisions like falling in love at first glance with the chief engineer, or going on entirely unauthorized spacewalks in the middle of the night. It's very lucky for him that the captain of this commercial cruise ship appears to also work for his agency. And it's good for his inability to stop working that there's a murder on board.

For a first novel, this is refreshingly free of a lot of first novel problems. It's lean, well-structured, easy to follow, moves right along, and doesn't feel over-stuffed with exposition or world-building. There's an interplanetary war in the past background, and of course a lot of loving description of the precise mechanics of the pocket and the tricks with momentum and retrieval Kangaroo can do with it, but the book never falls into too much explanation. And the plot is satisfyingly twisty. It's an action story plot, to be clear: don't expect deep puzzles or complex deduction. But there are enough players and hidden motives to keep things interesting.

The downside is that I didn't like Kangaroo very much. He's a bit of an ass.

Some of this goes with the spy novel territory, and some of it is good (if occasionally grating) characterization. Kangaroo doesn't know how to turn off the part of his brain that makes everything a mission. But his flippant, know-it-all attitude got on my nerves after a book full of first-person narration, and while (full credit to Curtis here) the romance in this book is clearly consensual and stays well away from the creepy romances so common in spy stories, the love-at-first sight bits and some of Kangaroo's awkward reactions provoked more eye-rolling than enjoyment. A lot of this is just personal taste, but that's the peril of books told with first-person narration. The reader has to really like the protagonist to spend a whole book in their head. If that relationship doesn't click, the supporting characters have a harder time salvaging the experience.

Waypoint Kangaroo avoids the problem of too many loving descriptions of guns, partly because it's a spy novel and instead has loving descriptions of spy equipment in a future that supports implanted devices. I think there was a smidgen too much of this, but it was within genre conventions and spy stuff is more interesting than guns. But (and I admit that this is probably idiosyncratic), it also had way too many loving descriptions of alcohol and one drunk scene. I don't care to ever read another book with a drunk protagonist (particularly first-person), and I care considerably less about alcohol than I do about spy equipment or guns.

That said, I still liked this well enough that I'll probably buy the sequel. (No cliffhangers; Waypoint Kangaroo is a complete story. But this is a character who could easily support a long episodic series.) The pocket is a neat gimmick, the world background is at least mildly interesting, and some of the supporting characters were excellent. (Particularly the security chief and the engineer.) I might even warm to Kangaroo over time if subsequent stories stay more on his creative fast-talking rather than his drinking and awkward romances.

I don't think this is quite good enough for me to recommend it, but if you're in the mood for a light and fast-moving first-person Bond-style story with science fiction trappings, it does deliver.

Rating: 6 out of 10

2017-10-24: Review: Clean Sweep

Review: Clean Sweep, by Ilona Andrews

Series Innkeeper Chronicles #1
Publisher NYLA
Copyright 2013
ISBN 1-62517-343-1
Format Kindle
Pages 228

Dina owns a bed and breakfast in a small town in Texas. As the book opens, her neighbor's dogs are being killed by some beast. As far as Dina is concerned, this should be the problem of the local werewolf, given that this is his territory, and she takes him to task for apparently doing nothing about it. The werewolf doesn't take that well, nor wants to admit to being a werewolf, and reacts by threatening Dina. Given Dina's position and the nature of her bed and breakfast, that turns out to be ill-advised.

At this point, you're doubtless thinking urban fantasy, and you're not exactly wrong. You're probably also thinking love interest, and you're not entirely wrong there either. The dead dogs are, of course, an early warning sign of an evil monster who has moved into the area and whose violence may escalate. And if I mention that a vampire shows up later in the story and the werewolf and vampire dislike each other at first sight, you'll probably start rolling your eyes. But this also isn't quite what it looks like on the surface.

I'm going to gleefully spoil what you find out about a fifth of the way into the book, since it's what got me to buy this book: neither the werewolves nor the vampires are magical creatures. They're aliens. Werewolves are bio-engineered soldiers; vampires are members of a militaristic order with advanced technology and almost imperceptible circulatory systems. And Dina doesn't truly have a bed and breakfast. She maintains an inn: a refuge for aliens traveling on Earth, part of the secrecy that keeps them out of the eyes of normal humans, and an institution sworn to neutrality in local problems.

Dina is straining the last part. The alien creatures who are hunting and killing her neighbors' pets aren't exactly threatening the inn, but she's not willing to stand idly by while her neighbors are threatened. It's a dangerous path, since her inn is struggling already. Failure to prioritize correctly and protect her guests might lower her inn's rating, possibly fatally. She's also without a guide ever since her parents (prominent innkeepers themselves) mysteriously disappeared. But she does have an inn. It may be a weaker one, coaxed out of dormancy and desperately in need of more visitors, but it still has considerable technological resources and other abilities that are indistinguishable from magic.

It's also sentient, although more like a large animal than a person, and it knows its innkeeper.

This is a light, straightforward sort of book that does not take itself particularly seriously, as you might have guessed. It is very aware of the conventions of urban fantasy and is both following them and intentionally poking fun at them. The authors (Ilona Andrews is a husband and wife writing team) play an impish game of wedging fantasy tropes into a science fiction framework, preserving much of the outward appearance while playing with the explanations. I particularly liked the clannish reworking of vampires into a sort of crusader knight, which works considerably better than it has any right to. Clean Sweep is at its best when the story seems to be going down well-trodden urban fantasy paths and then takes an abrupt right turn into science fiction: Dina going through a dimensional gate to an interstellar marketplace to stock up on weapons, for instance.

Also, it has a sentient house. This is one of my favorite story elements ever, provided that the story isn't horror (which is all too often the case with sentient houses, but which is not at all the case here).

I found the early parts of this book, during which Sean is insulting Dina and Dina is unimpressed but not doing anything about it, rather tedious. Thankfully, once Dina finally loses her patience and knocks some sense into him it gets a lot better. It never becomes great literature, but sometimes that's a feature. If you're in the mood for some urban fantasy with an adequate, if hand-waved, re-spun science fiction justification and an uncomplicated and loyal sentient house, I can wholeheartedly recommend Clean Sweep. I liked it better than I had expected to.

Followed by Sweep in Peace.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2017-10-23: Review: Raven Stratagem

Review: Raven Stratagem, by Yoon Ha Lee

Series Machineries of Empire #2
Publisher Solaris
Copyright 2017
ISBN 1-78618-046-4
Format Kindle
Pages 400

Raven Stratagem is the sequel to Ninefox Gambit and will make very little sense if you've not read the previous book. In fact, I'll add a rare warning, one that I wish I'd had and followed: you need to be deeply familiar with the details of the end of Ninefox Gambit or large chunks of this book will make no sense. I read the previous book earlier this year, but my memory of some of the specifics of the ending had slipped, and I ended up having to skim the ending of the previous book several times. Consider re-reading that bit before starting this book if you share my lack of memory for plot specifics and it's been more than a few months.

I unfortunately can't provide a plot summary, since there's almost nothing I can say about the plot that doesn't spoil Ninefox Gambit. It is basically the story that you would expect from the very end of Ninefox Gambit, though, although the way it's carried out is not quite as dramatic as I was expecting.

I wanted to like this book a great deal. Ninefox Gambit introduced a beautiful magitech system, but it was otherwise mostly setup and one extended battle. Its ending promised engagement with larger universe politics, and prospects of doing something about the deep unfairness of the current political system. I was hoping this book would contain the payoff of that escalation. It does deliver on that payoff, but something about it didn't quite work for me.

The best description I've been able to come up with is that Raven Stratagem skitters. Some of this is an increase in the number of viewpoint characters, which made it harder for me to get into a reading rhythm with any of them. But most of it, I think, is that the characters have so many layers of deception, emotional shielding, weariness, and resignation that it's hard to find the true emotional beats of the story except in retrospect. I kept bouncing off surfaces, so many different and conflicting surfaces. This book is full of people who are not being honest with each other, or sometimes with themselves, and who are pretending to motives they don't really have. As a reader, I wanted to be placed in a privileged position where I could experience the character emotions even when they were lying about them. For good or ill, Raven Stratagem doesn't do that.

There was also something about the dramatic structure of the story that didn't work for me. When describing the book to a friend, I said that the main plot climax was off-camera. In skimming the book again for this review, I found that wasn't the case, but it still felt that way. I think that's because, despite some event build-up, the emotional build-up wasn't in place for me, so I wasn't ready as a reader for the climax when it came. The build-up to the climax is partly sacrificed to keep the secrecy of a couple of long-awaited revelations. I very much enjoyed those revelations (one satisfying one was set up with Cheris's behavior at the start of Ninefox Gambit), but I wanted the catharsis of the climax as well. As written, the strongest emotional hit was from a somewhat ancillary climax, and that involved characters who mattered considerably less to me than Cheris.

The climax also involves quite a lot of hand-waving. While some of that is expected in magitech, I would have liked to understand the mechanisms of what happened, not just the effects.

Lee introduces several new viewpoint characters here, including two very contrasting Kel. I warmed to them by the end of the book, but I liked Cheris as a viewpoint character considerably better than either of them. Both of them spend most of this book in conditions of varying powerlessness; Cheris, despite difficult circumstances, was at least driving the plot. I can kind of see why Lee picked the viewpoint characters he did, but I still feel grumbly about it. I would have loved to have a servitor as a primary viewpoint character in this story.

All that said, I'm still glad I read this book. The climax is satisfying, as is the growing respect of the characters and the growing realization of just how the universe is being changed. I wanted more of that on camera rather than being held for dramatic surprise, but I still savored it when it happened. The mechanisms of the Hexarchate, particularly formation instinct, are considerably creepier than Ninefox Gambit reveals, which is saying something, and yet oddly logical in their own magitech way. I liked all the pieces; I just wanted them to have more emotional oomph and momentum. Instead, I felt like I was bringing my own emotion to the story rather than letting the story sweep me away, which meant being more analytical and less engrossed than I prefer to be in a novel.

I'm still going to read the third book, though. By the end of Raven Stratagem, Lee has set most of the scenery on fire, and I want to see what sort of world rises from the flames.

Rating: 6 out of 10

2017-10-22: Review: Algorithms to Live By

Review: Algorithms to Live By, by Brian Christian & Tom Griffiths

Publisher Henry Holt and Company
Copyright April 2016
ISBN 1-62779-037-3
Format Kindle
Pages 255

Another read for the work book club. This was my favorite to date, apart from the books I recommended myself.

One of the foundations of computer science as a field of study is research into algorithms: how do we solve problems efficiently using computer programs? This is a largely mathematical field, but it's often less about ideal or theoretical solutions and more about making the most efficient use of limited resources and arriving at an adequate, if not perfect, answer. Many of these problems are either day-to-day human problems or are closely related to them; after all, the purpose of computer science is to solve practical problems with computers. The question asked by Algorithms to Live By is "can we reverse this?": can we learn lessons from computer science's approach to problems that would help us make day-to-day decisions?

There's a lot of interesting material in the eleven chapters of this book, but there's also an amusing theme: humans are already very good at this. Many chapters start with an examination of algorithms and mathematical analysis of problems, dive into a discussion of how we can use those results to make better decisions, then talk about studies of the decisions humans actually make... and discover that humans are already applying ad hoc versions of the best algorithms we've come up with, given the constraints of typical life situations. It tends to undermine the stated goal of the book. Thankfully, it in no way undermines interesting discussion of general classes of problems, how computer science has tackled them, and what we've learned about the mathematical and technical shapes of those problems. There's a bit less self-help utility here than I think the authors had intended, but lots of food for thought.

(That said, it's worth considering whether this congruence is less because humans are already good at this and more because our algorithms are designed from human intuition. Maybe our best algorithms just reflect human thinking. In some cases we've checked our solutions against mathematical ideals, but in other cases they're still just our best guesses to date.)

This is the sort of a book where a chapter listing is an important part of the review. The areas of algorithms discussed here are optimal stopping, explore/exploit decisions (when to go with the best thing you've found and when to look for something better), sorting, caching, scheduling, Bayes's rule (and prediction in general), overfitting when building models, relaxation (solving an easier problem than your actual problem), randomized algorithms, a collection of networking algorithms, and finally game theory. Each of these has useful insights and thought-provoking discussion of how these sometimes-theoretical concepts map surprisingly well onto daily problems. The book concludes with a discussion of "computational kindness": an encouragement to reduce the required computation and complexity penalty for both yourself and the people you interact with.

If you have a computer science background (as I do), many of these will be familiar concepts, and you might be dubious that a popularization would tell you much that's new. Give this book a shot, though; the analogies are less stretched than you might fear, and the authors are both careful and smart about how they apply these principles. This book passes with flying colors a key sanity check: the chapters on topics that I know well or have thought about a lot make few or no obvious errors and say useful and important things. For example, the scheduling chapter, which unsurprisingly is about time management, surpasses more than half of the time management literature by jumping straight to the heart of most time management problems: if you're going to do everything on a list, it rarely matters the order in which you do it, so the hardest scheduling problems are about deciding what not to do rather than deciding order.

The point in the book where the authors won my heart completely was in the chapter on Bayes's rule. Much of the chapter is about Bayesian priors, and how one's knowledge of past events is a vital part of analysis of future probabilities. The authors then discuss the (in)famous marshmallow experiment, in which children are given one marshmallow and told that if they refrain from eating it until the researcher returns, they'll get two marshmallows. Refraining from eating the marshmallow (delayed gratification, in the psychological literature) was found to be associated with better life outcomes years down the road. This experiment has been used and abused for years for all sorts of propaganda about how trading immediate pleasure for future gains leads to a successful life, and how failure in life is because of inability to delay gratification. More evil analyses have (of course) tied that capability to ethnicity, with predictably racist results.

I have kind of a thing about the marshmallow experiment. It's a topic that reliably sends me off into angry rants.

Algorithms to Live By is the only book I have ever read to mention the marshmallow experiment and then apply the analysis that I find far more convincing. This is not a test of innate capability in the children; it's a test of their Bayesian priors. When does it make perfect sense to eat the marshmallow immediately instead of waiting for a reward? When their past experience tells them that adults are unreliable, can't be trusted, disappear for unpredictable lengths of time, and lie. And, even better, the authors supported this analysis with both a follow-up study I hadn't heard of before and with the observation that some children would wait for some time and then "give in." This makes perfect sense if they were subconsciously using a Bayesian model with poor priors.

This is a great book. It may try a bit too hard in places (applicability of the math of optimal stopping to everyday life is more contingent and strained than I think the authors want to admit), and some of this will be familiar if you've studied algorithms. But the writing is clear, succinct, and very well-edited. No part of the book outlives its welcome; the discussion moves right along. If you find yourself going "I know all this already," you'll still probably encounter a new concept or neat explanation in a few more pages. And sometimes the authors make connections that never would have occurred to me but feel right in retrospect, such as relating exponential backoff in networking protocols to choosing punishments in the criminal justice system. Or the realization that our modern communication world is not constantly connected, it's constantly buffered, and many of us are suffering from the characteristic signs of buffer bloat.

I don't think you have to be a CS major, or know much about math, to read this book. There is a lot of mathematical details in the end notes if you want to dive in, but the main text is almost always readable and clear, at least so far as I could tell (as someone who was a CS major and has taken a lot of math, so a grain of salt may be indicated). And it still has a lot to offer even if you've studied algorithms for years.

The more I read of this book, the more I liked it. Definitely recommended if you like reading this sort of analysis of life.

Rating: 9 out of 10

2017-10-16: Bundle haul

Confession time: I started making these posts (eons ago) because a close friend did as well, and I enjoyed reading them. But the main reason why I continue is because the primary way I have to keep track of the books I've bought and avoid duplicates is, well, grep on these posts.

I should come up with a non-bullshit way of doing this, but time to do more elegant things is in short supply, and, well, it's my blog. So I'm boring all of you who read this in various places with my internal bookkeeping. I do try to at least add a bit of commentary.

This one will be more tedious than most since it includes five separate Humble Bundles, which increases the volume a lot. (I just realized I'd forgotten to record those purchases from the past several months.)

First, the individual books I bought directly:

Ilona Andrews — Sweep in Peace (sff)
Ilona Andrews — One Fell Sweep (sff)
Steven Brust — Vallista (sff)
Nicky Drayden — The Prey of Gods (sff)
Meg Elison — The Book of the Unnamed Midwife (sff)
Pat Green — Night Moves (nonfiction)
Ann Leckie — Provenance (sff)
Seanan McGuire — Once Broken Faith (sff)
Seanan McGuire — The Brightest Fell (sff)
K. Arsenault Rivera — The Tiger's Daughter (sff)
Matthew Walker — Why We Sleep (nonfiction)

Some new books by favorite authors, a few new releases I heard good things about, and two (Night Moves and Why We Sleep) from references in on-line articles that impressed me.

The books from security bundles (this is mostly work reading, assuming I'll get to any of it), including a blockchain bundle:

Wil Allsop — Unauthorised Access (nonfiction)
Ross Anderson — Security Engineering (nonfiction)
Chris Anley, et al. — The Shellcoder's Handbook (nonfiction)
Conrad Barsky & Chris Wilmer — Bitcoin for the Befuddled (nonfiction)
Imran Bashir — Mastering Blockchain (nonfiction)
Richard Bejtlich — The Practice of Network Security (nonfiction)
Kariappa Bheemaiah — The Blockchain Alternative (nonfiction)
Violet Blue — Smart Girl's Guide to Privacy (nonfiction)
Richard Caetano — Learning Bitcoin (nonfiction)
Nick Cano — Game Hacking (nonfiction)
Bruce Dang, et al. — Practical Reverse Engineering (nonfiction)
Chris Dannen — Introducing Ethereum and Solidity (nonfiction)
Daniel Drescher — Blockchain Basics (nonfiction)
Chris Eagle — The IDA Pro Book, 2nd Edition (nonfiction)
Nikolay Elenkov — Android Security Internals (nonfiction)
Jon Erickson — Hacking, 2nd Edition (nonfiction)
Pedro Franco — Understanding Bitcoin (nonfiction)
Christopher Hadnagy — Social Engineering (nonfiction)
Peter N.M. Hansteen — The Book of PF (nonfiction)
Brian Kelly — The Bitcoin Big Bang (nonfiction)
David Kennedy, et al. — Metasploit (nonfiction)
Manul Laphroaig (ed.) — PoC || GTFO (nonfiction)
Michael Hale Ligh, et al. — The Art of Memory Forensics (nonfiction)
Michael Hale Ligh, et al. — Malware Analyst's Cookbook (nonfiction)
Michael W. Lucas — Absolute OpenBSD, 2nd Edition (nonfiction)
Bruce Nikkel — Practical Forensic Imaging (nonfiction)
Sean-Philip Oriyano — CEHv9 (nonfiction)
Kevin D. Mitnick — The Art of Deception (nonfiction)
Narayan Prusty — Building Blockchain Projects (nonfiction)
Prypto — Bitcoin for Dummies (nonfiction)
Chris Sanders — Practical Packet Analysis, 3rd Edition (nonfiction)
Bruce Schneier — Applied Cryptography (nonfiction)
Adam Shostack — Threat Modeling (nonfiction)
Craig Smith — The Car Hacker's Handbook (nonfiction)
Dafydd Stuttard & Marcus Pinto — The Web Application Hacker's Handbook (nonfiction)
Albert Szmigielski — Bitcoin Essentials (nonfiction)
David Thiel — iOS Application Security (nonfiction)
Georgia Weidman — Penetration Testing (nonfiction)

Finally, the two SF bundles:

Buzz Aldrin & John Barnes — Encounter with Tiber (sff)
Poul Anderson — Orion Shall Rise (sff)
Greg Bear — The Forge of God (sff)
Octavia E. Butler — Dawn (sff)
William C. Dietz — Steelheart (sff)
J.L. Doty — A Choice of Treasons (sff)
Harlan Ellison — The City on the Edge of Forever (sff)
Toh Enjoe — Self-Reference ENGINE (sff)
David Feintuch — Midshipman's Hope (sff)
Alan Dean Foster — Icerigger (sff)
Alan Dean Foster — Mission to Moulokin (sff)
Alan Dean Foster — The Deluge Drivers (sff)
Taiyo Fujii — Orbital Cloud (sff)
Hideo Furukawa — Belka, Why Don't You Bark? (sff)
Haikasoru (ed.) — Saiensu Fikushon 2016 (sff anthology)
Joe Haldeman — All My Sins Remembered (sff)
Jyouji Hayashi — The Ouroboros Wave (sff)
Sergei Lukyanenko — The Genome (sff)
Chohei Kambayashi — Good Luck, Yukikaze (sff)
Chohei Kambayashi — Yukikaze (sff)
Sakyo Komatsu — Virus (sff)
Miyuki Miyabe — The Book of Heroes (sff)
Kazuki Sakuraba — Red Girls (sff)
Robert Silverberg — Across a Billion Years (sff)
Allen Steele — Orbital Decay (sff)
Bruce Sterling — Schismatrix Plus (sff)
Michael Swanwick — Vacuum Flowers (sff)
Yoshiki Tanaka — Legend of the Galactic Heroes, Volume 1: Dawn (sff)
Yoshiki Tanaka — Legend of the Galactic Heroes, Volume 2: Ambition (sff)
Yoshiki Tanaka — Legend of the Galactic Heroes, Volume 3: Endurance (sff)
Tow Ubukata — Mardock Scramble (sff)
Sayuri Ueda — The Cage of Zeus (sff)
Sean Williams & Shane Dix — Echoes of Earth (sff)
Hiroshi Yamamoto — MM9 (sff)
Timothy Zahn — Blackcollar (sff)

Phew. Okay, all caught up, and hopefully won't have to dump something like this again in the near future. Also, more books than I have any actual time to read, but what else is new.

Last modified and spun 2017-12-16