Eagle's Path

Passion and dispassion. Choose two.

Larry Wall

2016-05-15: Review: Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen

Review: Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, by Lois McMaster Bujold

Series Vorkosigan #15
Publisher Baen
Copyright 2015
Printing February 2016
ISBN 1-4767-8122-2
Format Kindle
Pages 352

This is very late in the Vorkosigan series, but it's also a return to a different protagonist and a change of gears to a very different type of story. Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen has Cordelia as a viewpoint character for, I believe, the first time since Barrayar, very early in the series. But you would still want to read the intermediate Miles books before this one given the nature of the story Bujold is telling here. It's a very character-centric, very quiet story that depends on the history of all the Vorkosigan characters and the connection the reader has built up with them. I think you have to be heavily invested in this series already to get that much out of this book.

The protagonist shift has a mildly irritating effect: I've read the whole series, but I was still a bit adrift at times because of how long it's been since I read the books focused on Cordelia. I only barely remember the events of Shards of Honor and Barrayar, which lay most of the foundations of this story. Bujold does have the characters retell them a bit, enough to get vaguely oriented, but I'm pretty sure I missed some subtle details that I wouldn't have if the entire series were fresh in memory. (Oh for the free time to re-read all of the series I'd like to re-read.)

Unlike recent entries in this series, Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen is not about politics, investigations, space (or ground) combat, war, or any of the other sources of drama that have shown up over the course series. It's not even about a wedding. The details (and sadly even the sub-genre) are all spoilers, both for this book and for the end of Cryoburn, so I can't go into many details. But I'm quite curious how the die-hard Baen fans would react to this book. It's a bit far afield from their interests.

Gentleman Jole is all about characters: about deciding what one wants to do with one's life, about families and how to navigate them, about boundaries and choices. Choices about what to communicate and what not to communicate, and, partly, about how to maintain sufficient boundaries against Miles to keep his manic energy from bulldozing into things that legitimately aren't any of his business. Since most of the rest of the series is about Miles poking into things that appear to not be his business and finding ways to fix things, it's an interesting shift. It also cast Cordelia in a new light for me: a combination of stability, self-assurance, and careful and thoughtful navigation around others' feelings. Not a lot happens in the traditional plot sense, so one's enjoyment of this book lives or dies on one's investment in the mundane life of the viewpoint characters. It worked for me.

There is also a substantial retcon or reveal about an aspect of Miles's family that hasn't previously been mentioned. (Which term you use depends on whether you think Bujold has had this in mind all along. My money is on reveal.) I suspect some will find this revelation jarring and difficult to believe, but it worked perfectly for me. It felt like exactly the sort of thing that would go unnoticed by the other characters, particularly Miles: something that falls neatly into his blind spots and assumptions, but reads much differently to Cordelia. In general, one of the joys of this book for me is seeing Miles a bit wrong-footed and maneuvered by someone who simply isn't willing to be pushed by him.

One of the questions the Vorkosigan series has been asking since the start is whether anyone can out-maneuver Miles. Ekaterin only arguably managed it, but Gentleman Jole makes it clear that Miles is no match for his mother on her home turf.

This is a quiet and slow book that doesn't feel much like the rest of the series, but it worked fairly well for me. It's not up in the ranks of my favorite books of this series, partly because the way it played out was largely predictable and I never quite warmed to Jole, but Cordelia is delightful and seeing Miles from an outside perspective is entertaining. An odd entry in the series, but still recommended.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2016-05-08: BookRiot's SF/F by Female Authors

A list by Nikki Steele of the 100 best SF and fantasy novels by female authors (in her subjective take), published on BookRiot, has been making the rounds, with people noting which of those they've read. These crop up from time to time, and I've always been tempted to do the work to track the list over time the way that I track award winners. I had some free time this afternoon, so went ahead and set that up (although I badly need to refactor or rewrite a lot of my review posting code).

An extra advantage is that I can publish the list as a separate web page so that I don't spam RSS readers with a huge list.

The list, annotated with ratings and reviews where I've read the books, is under the reviews section of my web site. As I have time, I may add more lists. I'm also (slowly) working on the project of adding all the nominees for major awards and annotating those, since often the short lists contain a lot of interesting material too.

One big caveat for this list: Steele only lists the first book of series, and in many cases the first book isn't very good and is far from the best of the series. So you'll see some anomalous low ratings here for first books that improve later on.

2016-05-07: remctl 3.11

The primary change in this release is porting the remctl extension to PHP 7. PHP 7.0 included a major change to the PHP API for binary extensions, which required quite a lot of porting (contributed by Nish Aravamudan). Due to the depth of the changes, the extension has been forked and the PHP 5 version of the extension should be considered frozen. Currently, they both provide the same functionality, but expect new functionality to be released only for PHP 7 or later.

This release also includes numerous portability fixes for older versions of Heimdal and numerous fixes to the RPM spec, both thanks to Jeffrey Hutzelman.

You can get the latest release from the remctl distribution page.

2016-05-07: rra-c-util 6.0

Quite some time ago, I added strlcat and strlcpy functions to my portability C library. I've subsequently become convinced that those functions are a bad idea, and have been moving all of my code to asprintf and other functions. This release completes that change for all the code provided by rra-c-util and removes strlcpy and strlcat from rra-c-util.

network_set_freebind, network_set_reuseaddr, and network_set_v6only, to set various socket options, are now public functions, since INN wanted to use them directly rather than only as part of other interfaces.

This release also has new Autoconf probes for Perl that assist with linking with embedded Perl, checking the Perl version, and checking for Perl modules, and a fix to the OpenSSL Autoconf macros for 1.1.0. It also adds a replacement for gss_oid_equal for older versions of Heimdal that lack it.

Finally, rra-c-util 6.0 implements the transition in C TAP Harness 4.0 from SOURCE and BUILD to C_TAP_SOURCE and C_TAP_BUILD for all the test suite helper code provided by this package.

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

2016-05-07: C TAP Harness 4.0

When I originally wrote my test framework for C, I used SOURCE and BUILD as the preprocessor symbols and environment variables that pointed to the source and build directories of the software being tested. Subsequent discussion and thought convinced me that I should have used some sort of prefix on those variables to distinguish from other uses.

This release starts the process of changing to C_TAP_SOURCE and C_TAP_BUILD instead. You now have to use the new names when setting preprocessor directives when building the test harness. For now, the test harness will set all four environment variables, but test code should switch to the new environment variables, since I'll drop the old SOURCE and BUILD variables in a later release.

I also fixed a missing va_end() call in is_double(), thanks to a report from Julien ÉLIE.

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

2016-05-05: Review: The Language of Power

Review: The Language of Power, by Rosemary Kirstein

Series Steerswomen #4
Publisher Rosemary Kirstein
Copyright 2004, 2014
Printing April 2014
ISBN 0-9913546-3-X
Format Kindle
Pages 400

This is the fourth book in the Steerswomen series and definitely not the place to start. It's also a difficult series to review without spoilers, so I won't be able to provide too many details about the plot.

I will say that this is a reunion and a return of sorts to themes from earlier in the series, rather than a direct follow-up to the revelations at the end of The Lost Steersman. Rowan is back in the Inner Lands, continuing to investigate the affairs of wizards. In particular, she's digging into the past of the town of Donner, following up on the report of an earlier steerswoman and investigating a now-dead wizard who seemed to act far different from a typical wizard. And Bel is back at her side again, watching her back.

The first half of The Language of Power goes over somewhat familiar ground. Similar to both The Steerswoman and The Lost Steersman, Rowan is poking around in a city, getting to know unfamiliar people, being a steerswoman, and winning people over with her unique charm. But that's a theme I don't mind seeing repeated, since Rowan is one of my favorite protagonists from any series I've read. She's both ethical and respectful in a way that doesn't feel artificial or constructed. She thinks oddly and dives into sudden fascinations, and she does rely on the conventions for interacting with steerswomen, but the more time one spends with her, the better one likes her. This is true of both the reader and the town inhabitants, and Kirstein is brilliant at writing the gradual getting-to-know and growing-respect process.

Events in The Language of Power slowly build up to another confrontation with wizards, and this one is full of major revelations about the world. Some of the ambiguity of earlier books is firmly resolved, we find out a lot more about how wizards view themselves and their abilities, and tons of new questions are raised. It's not a conclusion in any way, which is a bit unfortunate given that the next book is still being written (twelve years later, although thankfully it's being actively worked on as I write this). But we get the first clear look at the substratum of the world that Kirstein is building in this series.

This sounds satisfying, and to some extent it is, but any regular SFF reader will have guessed at many of the revelations here. I was pretty sure the world was following one of two possible patterns partway through the second book, certain which it was during the third book, and was nodding right along with the revelations in this book. I'm trying to avoid spoilers, but if you read a lot of SFF, chances are you've read about something akin to this background before. That takes a bit of the thrill out of the revelations, unfortunately.

What adds the excitement and thrill back in are Rowan's reactions. It's very difficult to write a character who comes from an entirely different perspective than either the author or the reader, and Kirstein does an amazing job. Not perfect, quite, at least for me: there were a few points where I thought Rowan was more baffled or more upset than it felt like she should have been. But they are few and far between, and it's quite possible my expectations are the ones that wouldn't ring true if written into the story. It's just such a delight to see Rowan analyzing the world, incorporating new revelations into her growing world model, and figuring out how to take the most moral action at any point. I would happily read another dozen books of this (but I wish they were all already written).

If you've read the previous three books, definitely pick up this one as well. For me, it narrowly misses being the best book of the series (I think that's still The Outskirter's Secret because of the difficulty of the perspective change Kirstein pulls off), but it's a close competition. And the final reveal at the very end of this book points to upcoming adventures that I can hardly wait to read.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2016-05-02: Review: The Effective Engineer

Review: The Effective Engineer, by Edmond Lau

Publisher Effective Bookshelf
Copyright 2015
ISBN 0-9961281-0-7
Format Trade paperback
Pages 222

Silicon Valley start-up tech companies have a standard way of thinking about work. Large chunks of this come from Google, which pioneered a wide variety of new, or at least not-yet-mainstream, ways of organizing and thinking about work. The rest accreted through experience with fast-paced start-ups, engineer-focused companies, web delivery of products, and rabid turnover and high job mobility within a hothouse of fairly similar companies. A key part of this mindset is the firm belief that this atmosphere has created a better way to work, at least for software engineers (and systems administrators, although heaven forbid that one call them that any more): more effective, more efficient, more focused on what really matters.

I think this is at least partly true, at least from the perspective of a software engineer. This Silicon Valley work structure focuses on data gathering, data-based decision-making, introspection, analysis, and continuous improvement, all of which I think are defensibly pointed in the right direction (if rarely as rigorous as one might want to believe). It absorbs bits and pieces of work organization techniques that are almost certainly improvements for the type of work software engineers do: Agile, Lean, continuous deployment, and fast iteration times.

In other cases, though, I'm less convinced that this Silicon Valley consensus is objectively better as opposed to simply different; interviewing, for instance, is a puzzle that I don't think anyone has figured out, and the remarkable consensus in Silicon Valley on how to interview (basically, "like Google except for the bits we thought were obnoxious") feels more like a social fad than a sign of getting it right. But every industry has its culture of good ideas, bad ideas, fads, and fashion, and it's quite valuable to know that culture if you want to work in that industry.

The Effective Engineer is a self-published book by Edmund Lau, a Silicon Valley software engineer who also drifted (as is so common in Silicon Valley) into mentoring, organizing, and speaking to other software engineers. Its purpose, per the subtitle, is to tell you "how to leverage your efforts in software engineering to make a disproportionate and meaningful impact." While that's not exactly wrong, and the book contains some useful and valuable tips, I'd tend to give it a slightly different subtitle: "a primer on how a Silicon Valley software engineer is expected to think about their work." This is a bit more practical, a bit less confident, and a bit less convinced of its own correctness than Lau might want to present his work, but it's just as valuable of a purpose if you want to work in the industry. (And is a bit more honest about its applicability outside of that industry.)

What this book does extremely well is present, in a condensed, straightforward, and fast-moving form, most of the highlights of how start-ups and web-scale companies approach software engineering and the SWE role in companies (SWE, meaning software engineer, is another bit of Google terminology that's now nearly universal). If you've already worked in or around this industry for a while, you've probably picked up a lot of this via osmosis: prioritize based on impact and be unapologetic about letting other things drop, have a growth mindset, reprioritize regularly, increase your iteration speed, measure everything constantly, check your assumptions against data, derisk your estimates, use code review and automated testing (but not too much), automate operations, and invest heavily in hiring and onboarding. (The preceding list is a chapter list for this book.) If you're working at one of these sorts of companies, you're probably currently somewhere between nodding and rolling your eyes because no one at work will shut up about these topics. But if you've not worked inside one of these companies, even if you've done software engineering elsewhere, this is a great book to read to prepare yourself. You're going to hear about these ideas constantly, and, if it achieves nothing else at all, The Effective Engineer will give you a firm enough grounding in the lingo and mindset that you can have intelligent conversations with people who assume this is the only way to think about software engineering.

By this point, you might be detecting a certain cynicism in this review. It's not entirely fair: a lot of these ideas are clearly good ones, and Lau does a good job of describing them quickly and coherently. It's a good job for what it is. But there are a couple of things that limited its appeal for me.

First, it's definitely a primer. I read it after having worked at a web-scale start-up for a year and a half. There wasn't much in it that seemed particularly new, and it's somewhat superficial. The whole middle section in particular (build tools for yourself, measure everything, be data-driven) are topics for which the devil is often in the details. Lau gives you the terminology and the expected benefits, but putting any one of these techniques into practice could be a book (or several) by itself. Don't expect to come away from The Effective Engineer with much of a concrete plan for how to do these things in your day-to-day software development projects. But it's a good reminder to be thinking about, say, how to embed metrics and data-gathering hooks into the software you write. This is the nature of a primer; no 222-page book can get into much depth about the fractal complexity of doing good, fast, scalable software development.

Second, there's a fundamental question raised by a book like this: effective at what? Lau tackles that in the first chapter with his focus on impact and leverage, and it's good advice as far as it goes. (Regular readers of my book reviews know that I love this sort of time management and prioritization discussion.) But measuring impact is a hard problem that requires a prioritization framework, and this is not really the book for this. The Effective Engineer is written primarily for software developers at start-ups, leaves the whole venture-capital start-up process as unquestioned background material, and accepts without comment the standard measures of value in that world: fast-deployed products, hypergrowth, racing competitors for perceived innovation, and finding ways to extract money. That's as deep into the question of impact as Lau gets: increases in company revenue.

There's nothing wrong with this for the kind of book Lau intended to write, and it's not his fault that I find it unsatisfying. But don't expect The Effective Engineer to ask any hard questions about whether that's a meaningful definition of impact, or to talk much about less objective goals: quality of implementation, craftsmanship, giving back to a broader community via free software contributions, impact on the world in ways that can't be measured in market share, or anything else that is unlikely to lead to objective impact for company profits. At best he leaves a bit of wiggle room around using the concept of impact with different goals.

If you're a new graduate who wants to work at Silicon-Valley-style start-ups, this is a great orientation, and likewise if you're coming from a different area of software development into that world. If you're not working in that industry, The Effective Engineer may still be moderately interesting, but it's not written for that audience and has little or nothing to say of the challenges of other types of businesses. But if you've already worked in the industry for a while, or if you're more interested in deeper discussions of goals and subjective values, you may not get much out of this.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2016-05-01: Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson

Translator Reg Keeland
Series Millennium #1
Publisher Vintage Crime
Copyright 2005, 2008
Printing June 2009
ISBN 0-307-47347-3
Format Mass market
Pages 644

As The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo opens, Mikael Blomkvist is losing a criminal libel suit in Swedish court. His magazine, Millennium, published his hard-hitting piece of investigative journalism that purported to reveal sketchy arms deals and financial crimes by Hans-Erik Wennerström, a major Swedish businessman. But the underlying evidence didn't hold up, and Blomkvist could offer no real defense at trial. The result is a short prison stint for him (postponed several months into this book) and serious economic danger for Millennium.

Lisbeth Salander is a (very) freelance investigator for Milton Security. Her specialty is research and background checks: remarkably thorough, dispassionate, and comprehensive. She's almost impossible to talk to, tending to meet nearly all questions with stony silence, but Dragan Armansky, the CEO of Milton Security, has taken her partly under his wing. She, and Milton Security, were hired by a lawyer named Dirch Frode to do a comprehensive background check on Mikael Blomkvist, which she and Dragan present near the start of the book. The reason, as the reader discovers in a few more chapters, is that Frode's employer wants to offer Blomkvist a very strange job.

Over forty years ago, Harriet Vanger, scion of one of Sweden's richest industrial families, disappeared. Her uncle, Henrik Vanger, has been obsessed with her disappearance ever since, but in forty years of investigation has never been able to discover what happened to her. There are some possibilities for how her body could have been transported off the island the Vangers (mostly) lived, and live, on, but motive and suspects are still complete unknowns. Vanger wants Blomkvist to try his hand under the cover of writing a book about the Vanger family. Payment is generous, but even more compelling is Henrik Vanger's offer to give Blomkvist documented, defensible evidence against Wennerström at the end of the year.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (the original Swedish title is Män som hatar kvinnor, "Men who hate women") is the first of three mystery novels written at the very end of Stieg Larsson's life, all published posthumously. They made quite a splash when they were published: won multiple awards, sold millions of copies, and have resulted in four movies to date. I've had a copy of the book sitting around for a while and finally picked it up when in the mood for something a bit different.

A major disclaimer up front: I read very little crime and mystery fiction. Every genre has its own conventions and patterns, and regular genre readers often look for different things than people new to that genre. My review is from a somewhat outside and inexperienced perspective, which may not be useful for regular genre readers.

I'm also a US reader, reading the book in translation. It appears to be a very good translation, but it was also quite obvious to me that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was written from a slightly different set of cultural assumptions than I brought to the book. This is one of the merits of reading books from other cultures in translation. It can be eye-opening, and can carry some of the same thrill as science fiction or fantasy, to hit the parts of the book that question your assumptions. But it can also be hard to tell whether some striking aspect of a book is due to a genre convention I wasn't familiar with, a Swedish cultural assumption that I don't share, or just the personal style of the author.

A few things do leap out as cultural differences. Blomkvist has to spend a few months in prison in the middle of this book, and that entire experience is completely foreign to an American understanding of what prison is like. The degradation, violence, and awfulness that are synonymous with prison for an American are almost entirely absent. He even enjoys the experience as quiet time to focus on writing a history of the Vangers (Blomkvist early on decides to take his cover story seriously, since he doubts he'll make any inroads into the mystery of Harriet's disappearance but can at least get a book out of it). It's a minor element in the book, glossed over in a few pages, but it's certainly eye-opening for how minimum security prison could be structured in a civilized country.

Similarly, as an American reader, I was struck by how hard Larsson has to work to ruin Salander's life. Although much of the book is written from Blomkvist's perspective (in tight third person), Lisbeth Salander is the titular girl with the dragon tattoo and becomes more and more involved in the story as it develops. The story Larsson wanted to tell requires that she be in a very precarious position legally and socially. In the US, this would be relatively easy, particularly for someone who acts like Salander does. In Sweden, Larsson has to go to monumental efforts to find ways for Salander to credibly fall through Sweden's comprehensive social safety net, and still mostly relies on Salander's complete refusal to assist or comply with any form of authority or support. I've read a lot about differences in policies around social support between the US and Scandinavian countries, but I've rarely read something that drove the point home more clearly than the amount of work a novelist has to go to in order to mess up their protagonist's life in Sweden.

The actual plot is slow-moving and as much about the psychology of the characters as it is about the mystery. The reader gets inside the thoughts of the characters occasionally, but Larsson shows far more than tells and leaves it to the reader to draw more general conclusions. Blomkvist's relationship with his long-time partner and Millennium co-founder is an excellent example: so much is left unstated that I would have expected other books to lay down in black and white, and the characters seem surprisingly comfortable with ambiguity. (Some of this may be my genre unfamiliarity; SFF tends to be straightforward to a fault, and more literary fiction is more willing to embrace ambiguous relationships.) While the mystery of Harriet's disappearance forms the backbone of the story, rather more pages are spent on Blomkvist navigating the emotional waters of the near-collapse of his career and business, his principles around investigation and journalism, and the murky waters of the Vanger's deeply dysfunctional family.

Harriet's disappearance is something of a locked room mystery. The day she disappeared, a huge crash closed the only bridge from the island to the mainland, both limiting suspects and raising significant questions about why her body was never found on the island. It's also forty years into the past, so Blomkvist has to rely on Henrik Vanger's obsessive archives, old photographs, and old police reports. I found the way it unfolded to be quite satisfying: there are just enough clues to let Blomkvist credibly untangle things with some hard work and research, but they're obscure enough to make it plausible that previous investigators missed them.

Through most of this novel, I wasn't sure what I thought of it. I have a personal interest in Blomkvist's journalistic focus — wrongdoing by rich financiers — but I had trouble warming to Blomkvist himself. He's a very passive, inward character, who spends a lot of the early book reacting to things that are happening to him. Salander is more dynamic and honestly more likable, but she's also deeply messed up, self-destructive, and does some viciously awful things in this book. And the first half of the book is very slow: lots of long conversations, lots of character introduction, and lots of Blomkvist wandering somewhat aimlessly. It's only when Larsson gets the two protagonists together that I thought the book started to click. Salander sees Blomkvist's merits more clearly than the reader can, I think.

I also need to give a substantial warning: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a very violent novel, and a lot of that violence is sexual. By mid-book, Blomkvist realizes that Harriet's disappearance is somehow linked with a serial killer whose trademark is horrific, sexualized symbolism drawn from Leviticus. There is a lot of rape here, including revenge rape by a protagonist. If that sort of thing is likely to bother you, you may want to steer way clear.

That said, despite the slow pace, the nauseating subject matter, the occasionally very questionable ethics of protagonists, and a twist of the knife at the very end of the novel that I thought was gratuitously nasty on Larsson's part and wasn't the conclusion I wanted, I found myself enjoying this. It has a different pace and a different flavor than what I normally read, the characters are deep and complex enough to play off each other in satisfying ways, and Salander is oddly compelling to read about. Given the length, it's a substantial investment of time, but I don't regret reading it, and I'm quite tempted to read the sequel. I'm not sure this is the sort of book I can recommend (or not recommend) given my lack of familiarity with the genre, but I think US readers might get an additional layer of enjoyment out of seeing how different of a slant the Swedish setting puts on some of the stock elements of a crime novel.

Followed by The Girl Who Played with Fire.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2016-04-30: Review: The Oath

Review: The Oath, by Jeffrey Toobin

Publisher Anchor
Copyright 2012
Printing June 2013
ISBN 0-307-39071-3
Format Trade paperback
Pages 298

Jeffrey Toobin is a legal analyst for CNN and The New Yorker and plays a similar role for the intricacies of the legal system as popular science writers play for physics. I'd previously read and reviewed his The Nine, an excellent history of the Rehnquist Supreme Court. The Oath is half sequel and half extension, bringing the same analysis to the first four years of the Obama presidency and the appointments of Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

Sequels to popular history books that are not explicitly multi-volume works are a tricky publishing niche. People expect them to stand alone; I doubt it would work to tell people "read The Nine before reading this book," and regardless, Toobin did not take that approach. But the court profiled in The Oath only differs by two justices than that in The Nine. There was therefore a fair bit of repetition, since Toobin felt obligated to repeat his profiles of the five members of the court he had already deeply analyzed in the previous book. He even retold the story of Sandra Day O'Conner leaving the court despite it falling outside the focus of this book. I think these 300 pages could have been 150 pages of additional material in The Nine if Toobin had started this project later.

That said, if you enjoyed The Nine (and I very much did), this is more of the same. Toobin picks up with Obama's inauguration ceremony and a fascinating bit of legal trivia over the oath of office, and then provides a detailed profile of the Roberts court and the major decisions of the first four years of Obama's presidency. His discussion of the nomination process and Obama's judicial philosophy rang very true following the death of Scalia: Obama's nomination of Merrick Garland is exactly what one would predict from Toobin's discussion. And, as with the previous book, I discovered that I had a lot of misconceptions about both Sotomayor and Kagan that Toobin cleared up. He does a great job showing the complexities of the interplay between law, politics, apparently unlikely friendships (such as Scalia and Ginsburg), and the executive and judicial branch.

Worth particular mention is Toobin's discussion of the office of Solicitor General of the United States. I had no idea the role it plays in Supreme Court decisions. If I had given it any thought at all, I would have assumed it was essentially a variation on White House Counsel crossed with the Attorney General's office. But it's quite a bit more than that, as Elena Kagan's profile shows. If you, like I, raised an eyebrow at Obama's nomination of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court from Solicitor General, wondering if that was at all similar to Bush's nomination of Harriet Miers, this section will be very informative. White House Counsel and Solicitor General are very, very different positions.

However, The Oath has one major drawback that The Nine didn't: it's partisan.

Now, Toobin is a liberal, with a clear preference towards the progressive side of the court. This was also true in The Nine, and I don't think that's a serious problem. Everyone writes from a particular perspective; stating it is more honest than concealing it, and it's the reader's responsibility to weigh multiple sides. But I thought Toobin was largely fair to those he disagreed with in The Nine. Even Thomas received some defense against popular misconceptions. It probably helped that much of that book focuses on conservatives who became liberals as the court shifted, people like Sandra Day O'Conner for whom Toobin has clear respect. I commented in my review of the previous book that it didn't feel quite balanced, but it felt like Toobin was trying hard to be fair.

The Oath does not give that same feeling. Toobin hates the direction of the Roberts court, hates most of its 5-4 decisions, and strongly disagrees with the judicial philosophies of both Roberts and Alito. But more than that, he is clearly dubious that they even have coherent judicial philosophies. Maybe that's a legitimate critique, maybe it's not; regardless, I don't think he proves his case. The tone of much of the book is disgusted and angry rather than deliberate and relentless. Where Toobin engages with the thought process of Alito or, particularly, Roberts, the primary focus is to disagree with it rather than explain it. This happens to match my own emotional reaction, but I doubt it will be persuasive to someone who doesn't already agree with Toobin, and it hurts the quality of the history.

I suspect this would have been a better book if Toobin had waited ten years before writing it (still covering the same time frame). Some distance from the subject helps provide a more complete and thoughtful history. But, of course, it likely wouldn't have sold as well.

That said, one of the themes of this book is how the conservatives on the Roberts court are currently playing the role of radicals from the perspective of the judicial tradition, overturning settled case law and calling into question precedents that have been used to decide numerous cases. The liberals, in contrast, are currently mostly playing the role of conservatives: standing up for the principle of stare decisis, trying to maintain consistency with past decisions, trying to minimize disruptive change. Conservatives will argue (correctly) that this depends on one's time frame and that they're trying to overturn radical past decisions, but those radical decisions, whatever their merits, are now often more than fifty years into the past. I hadn't thought about the current Supreme Court ideological battles from that perspective and found it eye-opening. It also ties in well with Obama's judicial philosophy as Toobin presents it: preferring democracy, laws, and change from the ballot box, and with little appetite for controversial court decisions. Obama is a judicial conservative. He therefore favors the liberal wing as the court is currently constructed, but not because he has much appetite for pushing forward civil rights in the courts.

This is not the book The Nine was. It's repetitive if you've read the previous book (which you should, as it's the better book of the two), and I thought Toobin's critical balance was off. But it has a lot of interesting things to say about Obama's approach to the law, how the executive branch interacts with the Supreme Court, and the philosophy and approaches of the newer justices on the court. Recommended, although not as strongly.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2016-04-09: Largish haul

Let's see if I can scrounge through all of my now-organized directories of ebooks and figure out what I haven't recorded here yet. At least the paper books make that relatively easy, since I don't shelve them until I post them. (Yeah, yeah, I should actually make a database.)

Hugh Aldersey-Williams — Periodic Tales (nonfiction)
Sandra Ulbrich Almazan — SF Women A-Z (nonfiction)
Radley Balko — Rise of the Warrior Cop (nonfiction)
Peter V. Brett — The Warded Man (sff)
Lois McMaster Bujold — Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen (sff)
Fred Clark — The Anti-Christ Handbook Vol. 2 (nonfiction)
Dave Duncan — West of January (sff)
Karl Fogel — Producing Open Source Software (nonfiction)
Philip Gourevitch — We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families (nonfiction)
Andrew Groen — Empires of EVE (nonfiction)
John Harris — @ Play (nonfiction)
David Hellman & Tevis Thompson — Second Quest (graphic novel)
M.C.A. Hogarth — Earthrise (sff)
S.L. Huang — An Examination of Collegial Dynamics... (sff)
S.L. Huang & Kurt Hunt — Up and Coming (sff anthology)
Kameron Hurley — Infidel (sff)
Kevin Jackson-Mead & J. Robinson Wheeler — IF Theory Reader (nonfiction)
Rosemary Kirstein — The Lost Steersman (sff)
Rosemary Kirstein — The Language of Power (sff)
Merritt Kopas — Videogames for Humans (nonfiction)
Alisa Krasnostein & Alexandra Pierce (ed.) — Letters to Tiptree (nonfiction)
Mathew Kumar — Exp. Negatives (nonfiction)
Ken Liu — The Grace of Kings (sff)
Susan MacGregor — The Tattooed Witch (sff)
Helen Marshall — Gifts for the One Who Comes After (sff collection)
Jack McDevitt — Coming Home (sff)
Seanan McGuire — A Red-Rose Chain (sff)
Seanan McGuire — Velveteen vs. The Multiverse (sff)
Seanan McGuire — The Winter Long (sff)
Marc Miller — Agent of the Imperium (sff)
Randal Munroe — Thing Explainer (graphic nonfiction)
Marguerite Reed — Archangel (sff)
J.K. Rowling — Harry Potter: The Complete Collection (sff)
K.J. Russell — Tides of Possibility (sff anthology)
Robert J. Sawyer — Starplex (sff)
Bruce Schneier — Secrets & Lies (nonfiction)
Mike Selinker (ed.) — The Kobold Game to Board Game Design (nonfiction)
Douglas Smith — Chimerascope (sff collection)
Jonathan Strahan — Fearsome Journeys (sff anthology)
Nick Suttner — Shadow of the Colossus (nonfiction)
Aaron Swartz — The Boy Who Could Change the World (essays)
Caitlin Sweet — The Pattern Scars (sff)
John Szczepaniak — The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers I (nonfiction)
John Szczepaniak — The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers II (nonfiction)
Jeffrey Toobin — The Run of His Life (nonfiction)
Hayden Trenholm — Blood and Water (sff anthology)
Coen Teulings & Richard Baldwin (ed.) — Secular Stagnation (nonfiction)
Ursula Vernon — Book of the Wombat 2015 (graphic nonfiction)
Ursula Vernon — Digger (graphic novel)

Phew, that was a ton of stuff. A bunch of these were from two large StoryBundle bundles, which is a great source of cheap DRM-free ebooks, although still rather hit and miss. There's a lot of just fairly random stuff that's been accumulating for a while, even though I've not had a chance to read very much.

Vacation upcoming, which will be a nice time to catch up on reading.

2016-03-20: Term::ANSIColor 4.05

This Perl (core) module provides a variety of functions and tools for manipulating ANSI color and text style escape sequences.

The primary change in this release is a few internal tweaks to reduce memory usage, which apparently had ballooned by 70% since Perl 5.14. Unfortunately, that also meant dropping support for non-ASCII characters in color aliases, which I think previously would have theoretically worked (not that it was ever documented or tested). I have mixed feelings, but since the memory usage was reported as a bug (and this is the sort of module that one might legitimately want to use in some space-constrainted situations as part of core), and no one ever mentioned non-ASCII color aliases, I decided to apply this patch. Yell at me if this broke something.

I also cleaned up the metadata management following all the work that others helped me with for podlators.

You can get the latest release from the Term::ANSIColor distribution page.

2016-03-20: podlators 4.07

This is a minor bug fix release of the Perl POD translators for text and man pages. It fixes a warning about use of uninitialized variables when run on a Perl module in the current directory, cleans up a confusing warning during the Perl core build, and fixes a long-standing bug in turning off italic font in =item tags in a C<> block.

You can get the latest release form the podlators distribution page.

2016-02-29: Review: The Lost Steersman

Review: The Lost Steersman, by Rosemary Kirstein

Series Steerswomen #3
Publisher Rosemary Kirstein
Copyright 2003, 2014
Printing 2014
ISBN 0-9913546-2-1
Format Kindle
Pages 432

This is the third book in the Steerswomen series and a direct follow-up to the events of The Outskirter's Secret. It does, marvel of marvels, feature an in-character summary of the events of the series to date! I do love when authors do this; it helps immensely if you come back to a series after a bit of a break between books. But this whole series is so good, and the emotional tone and development of Rowan as a character is so strong, that I recommend against starting here.

After the events of the last book, Rowan has returned to the Inner Lands. She's sent her report back to the Archives, but stopped at the Annex in Alemeth. This is an auxiliary library that should have copies of the journals and other research that Rowan wants to search, and stopping there saves substantial travel time. However, she finds the steerswoman who was custodian of the Annex is deceased and the Annex is, from Rowan's perspective, a mess. Nothing is organized, the books aren't properly cared-for, and Mira's interactions with the townsfolk were far different than Rowan's natural attitude.

The start of this book was a surprising shift. After the large-scale revelations at the end of The Outskirter's Secret, and the sense of escalating danger, Rowan's return to small-town life in the Inner Lands comes as a shock. That's true for both the reader and for Rowan, and the parallels make it a remarkably effective bit of writing.

At the beginning of the story, the reader is already familiar with Rowan (at least if you've read the previous books) and how she thinks of being a steerswoman. Rowan is very much on edge and in a hurry given what's going on in the broader world. But the town is used to Mira: a gregarious socializer who cared far more about town gossip and her role as coordinator of it than she cared about most of her steerswoman duties. (At least as seen from Rowan's perspective. By the end of the book, we have a few hints that something else might be going on, but the damage to the books at least feels unforgivable.) Rowan is resented and even disliked at first, particularly by Steffie and Gwen who did most of the chores at the Annex and were closest to Mira.

One of the reasons why I love this series so much is that Kirstein has a gift for characterization. Rowan (and Bel, who largely doesn't appear in this book) are brilliant characters, but it's not just them. At the start of this book, the reader tends to share Rowan's opinion of the town: a sort of half-bemused, half-exasperated indifference. Even as the characters start to grow on one, it seems like a backwater and a diversion from the larger story. But it becomes clear that Rowan is very on-edge from her experience in the Outskirts, that she's underestimated the relevance of Mira to at least the town's happiness, and she's greatly underestimated the ability of the townsfolk to help her. Steffie, in particular, is a wonderful character; by the end of the book, he had become one of my favorite people in the series so far. He doesn't think he's particularly smart, and his life before Rowan is very simple, but there are depths to him that no one, including him, expected.

There is a plot here, apart from small town politics and Rowan's slow relaxation. (Although those were so compelling that I'm not sure I would have minded if that were the entire book.) The lost steersman of the title is an old student friend of Rowan that she unexpectedly meets in town, a former steersman who quit the order and refused to explain why. Rowan, of course, cannot resist trying to fix this situation. The second plot driver is a dangerous invasion of Outskirts monsters into the town. Those who have read the previous books will have some immediate guesses as to why this might be, and Rowan does as well. But there's more going on than it might first appear.

This book is not entirely a diversion. It returns to the main plot of the series by the end of the book, and we learn much more about Rowan's world. But, somewhat surprisingly, that was my least favorite part of the book. It has some nice bits of exploration and puzzle-solving, and Rowan is always a delight to spend time with. But the last section of the book is similar to many other genre books I've read before — well-written, to be sure, but not as unique. It also features a rather long section following a character who is severely physically ill, which is something I always find very hard to read (a personal quirk). But there's a lot of meat here for the broader plot, and I have no idea what will happen in the next book.

The part of The Lost Steersman that I'm going to remember, though, are the town bits, up through the arrival of Zenna (another delightful character who adds even more variety to Kirstein's presentation of steerswomen). Kirstein is remarkably good at mixing small-town characters with the scientific investigation of the steerswomen and letting them bounce off of each other to reveal more about the character of both. If it weren't for the end of the book, which bothered me for partly idiosyncratic reasons, I think this would have been my favorite book of the series.

Followed by The Language of Power, and be warned that this book ends on something close to a cliffhanger.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2016-02-07: Converted personal web sites to TLS

I've been in favor of using TLS and encryption for as much as possible for a while, but I never wanted to pay money to the certificate cartel. I'd been using certificates from CAcert, but they're not recognized by most browsers, so it felt rude to redirect everything to TLS with one of their certificates.

Finally, the EFF and others put together Let's Encrypt with free, browser-recognized certificates and even a really solid automatic renewal system. That's perfect, and also eliminated my last excuse to go do the work, so now all of my personal web sites use TLS and HTTPS by default and redirect to the encrypted version of the web site. And better yet, all the certificates should just renew themselves automatically, meaning one less thing I have to keep track of and deal with periodically.

Many thanks to Wouter Verhelst for his short summary of how to get the Let's Encrypt client to work properly from the command line without doing all the other stuff it wants to do in order to make things easier for less sophisticated users. Also useful was the SSL Labs server test to make sure I got the modern TLS configuration right. (All my sites should now be an A. I decided to not cut off support for Internet Explorer older than version 11 yet.

I imported copies of the Debian packages needed for installation of the Let's Encrypt package on Debian jessie that weren't already in Debian backports into my personal Debian repository for my own convenience, but they're also there for anyone else.

Oh, that reminds me: this also affects the archives.eyrie.org APT repository (the one linked above), so if any of you were using that, you'll now need to install apt-transport-https and might want to change the URL to use HTTPS.

2016-01-31: Review: Oathblood

Review: Oathblood, by Mercedes Lackey

Series Vows and Honor #3
Publisher DAW
Copyright April 1998
ISBN 0-88677-773-9
Format Mass market
Pages 394

I have this story collection listed as the third book in the Vows and Honor series, but as mentioned in the review of The Oathbound, it's more complicated than that. This book has the first Tarma and Kethry story, which is not found in The Oathbound, and two of the better stories from that volume. This is probably the place to start for the series; you're not missing that much from the rest of that book. However, the last three stories ("Wings of Fire," "Spring Plowing at Forst Reach," and "Oathblood") have significant spoilers for Oathbreakers.

Therefore, if you care about both avoiding spoilers and reading this series, my recommended reading order is to ignore The Oathbound entirely, read Oathblood up to but not including "Wings of Fire," read Oathbreakers, and then come back here for the last two stories.

"Sword-sworn": This is the very first Tarma and Kethry story and hence where this series actually begins. As Lackey notes in her introduction, it's a pretty stock "rape and revenge" story, which is not something I particularly enjoy. Marion Zimmer Bradley liked it well enough to accept it anyway, and I can sort of see why: the dynamic between the two characters sparkles in a few places, and the Shin'a'in world-building isn't bad. The plot, though, is very predictable and not very notable. There isn't much here that you'd be surprised by if you'd read references to these events in later stories. And there's no explanation of a few things one might be curious about, such as where Need came from. (6)

"Turnabout": This is one of the two stories also found in The Oathbound. Merchants are plagued by bandits who manage to see through ruses and always catch their guards by surprise (with a particularly nasty bit of rape and murder in one case — Tarma and Kethry stories have quite a lot of that). That's enough to get the duo to take the job of luring out the bandits and dealing with them, using a nice bit of magical disguise.

This story is also a song on one of the Vows and Honor albums from Firebird (which I also have). It was one of my favorites of Lackey's songs, so I want to like the story (and used to like it a great deal). Unfortunately, the very nasty bit of revenge that the supposed heroes take at the end of the story completely destroyed my enjoyment of it on re-reading. It's essentially a glorification of prison rape, which is a trope that I no longer have any patience for. (4)

"The Making of a Legend": In order to explain the differences between the song based on "Turnabout" and the actual story, Lackey invented a bard, Leslac, who loves writing songs about Tarma and Kethry and regularly gets the details wrong, mostly by advertising them as moral crusaders for women instead of mercenaries who want to get paid, much to their deep annoyance. This is his debut in an actual story, featuring an incident that's delightfully contrary to Leslac's expectations. It's a slight story, but I thought it was fun. (6)

"Keys": Another story from The Oathbound, this is a locked-room mystery with a bit of magical sleuthing. Kethry attempts to prove that a woman did not murder her husband while Tarma serves as her champion in a (rather broken) version of trial by combat. I think the version here is better than the edited version in The Oathbound, and it's a fairly enjoyable bit of sleuthing. (7)

"A Woman's Weapon": I would call this the typical Tarma and Kethry story (except that, for a change, it's missing the rape): they stumble across some sort of serious injustice and put things to right with some hard thinking and a bit of poetic justice. In this case, it's a tannery that's poisoning the land, and a master tanner who can't put a stop to his rival. Competent although not particularly memorable. (6)

"The Talisman": A rather depressing little story about a mage who wants shortcuts and a magic talisman that isn't what it appears to be. Not one of my favorites, in part because it has some common Tarma and Kethry problems: unnecessary death, a feeling that the world is very dangerous and that mistakes are fatal, and narrative presentation of the people who die from their stupidity as deserving it. I couldn't shake the feeling that there was probably some better way of resolving this if people had just communicated a bit better. (5)

"A Tale of Heroes": Back to the rape, unfortunately, plus a bit of very convenient match-making that I found extremely dubious. For all that Lackey's introduction paints this as a story of empowering people to follow their own paths, the chambermaid of this story didn't seem to have many more choices in her life after meeting Tarma and Kethry than before, even if her physical situation was better. I did like the touch of Tarma and Kethry not being the heroes and victors in the significant magical problem they stumble across, though, and it's a warm-hearted story if you ignore the effects of trauma as much as the story ignores them. (6)

"Friendly Fire": An amusing short story about the power of bad luck and Murphy's Law. It hit one of my pet peeves at one point, where Lackey tries to distort the words of someone with a cold and just makes the dialogue irritating to read, but otherwise a lot of fun. (7)

"Wings of Fire": I love the Hawkbrothers, so it's always fun when they show up. The villain of this piece is way over the top and leaves much to be desired, but the guest-starring Hawkbrother mostly makes up for it. Once again, Tarma and Kethry get out of a tight spot by thinking harder instead of by having more power, although the villain makes that rather easy via overconfidence. Once again, though, the poetic justice that Lackey's protagonists enjoy leaves a bad taste in my mouth, although it's not quite as bad here as some other stories. (6)

"Spring Planting at Forst Reach": On one level, this is a rather prosaic story about training horses (based on Lackey's experience and reading, so a bit better than typical fantasy horse stories). But it's set at Forst Reach, Vanyel's home, some years after Vanyel. I like those people and their gruff approach to life, and it meshes well with Tarma and Kethry's approach. If you enjoy the two showing off their skills and wowing people with new ideas, you'll have fun with this. (7)

"Oathblood": As you might guess from the matching title, this novella is the heart of the book and about a quarter of its length. We get to see Kethry's kids, see more of their life in their second (post-Oathbreakers) career, and then get a rather good adventure story of resourceful and thoughtful youngsters, with a nice touch of immature but deeply-meant loyalty. I didn't enjoy it as much as I would have without one of the tactics the kids use to get out of trouble, but my dislike for reading about other people's bowel troubles is partly a personal quirk. This is a pretty typical Lackey story of resourcefulness and courage; if you like this series in general, you'll probably enjoy this one. (7)

Rating: 7 out of 10

Last modified and spun 2016-05-16