Eagle's Path

Passion and dispassion. Choose two.

Larry Wall

2018-12-03: Review: The Winter Long

Review: The Winter Long, by Seanan McGuire

Series October Daye #8
Publisher DAW
Copyright 2014
ISBN 1-101-60175-2
Format Kindle
Pages 368

This is the eighth book in the October Daye series and leans heavily on the alliances, friendship, world-building, and series backstory. This is not the sort of series that can be meaningfully started in the middle. And, for the same reason, it's also rather hard to review without spoilers, although I'll give it a shot.

Toby has had reason to fear Simon Torquill for the entire series. Everything that's happened to her was set off by him turning her into a fish and destroying her life. She's already had to deal with his partner (in Late Eclipses), so it's not a total surprise that he would show up again. But Toby certainly didn't expect him to show up at her house, or to sound weirdly unlike an enemy, or to reference a geas and an employer. She had never understood his motives, but there may be more to them than simple evil.

I have essentially struck out trying to recommend this series to other people. I think everyone else who's started it has bounced off of it for various reasons: unimpressed by Toby's ability to figure things out, feeling the bits borrowed from the mystery genre are badly done, not liking Irish folklore transplanted to the San Francisco Bay Area, or just finding it too dark. I certainly can't argue with people's personal preferences, but I want to, since this remains my favorite urban fantasy series and I want to talk about it with more people. Thankfully, the friends who started reading it independent of my recommendation all love it too. (Perhaps I'm cursing it somehow?)

Regardless, this is more of exactly what I like about this series, which was never the private detective bits (that have now been discarded entirely) and was always the maneuverings and dominance games of faerie politics, the comfort and solid foundation of Toby's chosen family, Toby's full-throttle-forward approach to forcing her way through problems, and the lovely layered world-building. There is so much going on in McGuire's faerie realm, so many hidden secrets, old grudges, lost history, and complex family relationships. I can see some of the shape of problems that the series will eventually resolve, but I still have no guesses as to how McGuire will resolve them.

The Winter Long takes another deep look at some of Toby's oldest relationships, including revisiting some events from Rosemary and Rue (the first book of the series) in a new light. It also keeps, and further deepens, my favorite relationships in this series: Tybalt, Mags and the Library (introduced in the previous book), and of course the Luidaeg, who is my favorite character in the entire series and the one I root for the most.

I've been trying to pinpoint what I like so much about this series, particularly given the number of people who disagree, and I think it's that Toby gets along with, and respects, a wide variety of difficult people, and brings to every interaction a consistent set of internal ethics and priorities. McGuire sets this against a backdrop of court politics, ancient rivalries and agreements, and hidden races with contempt for humans; Toby's role in that world is to stubbornly do the right thing based mostly on gut feeling and personal loyalty. It's not particularly complex ethics; most of the challenges she faces are eventually resolved by finding the right person to kick (or, more frequently now, use her slowly-growing power against) and the right place to kick them.

That simplicity is what I like. This is my comfort reading. Toby looks at tricky court intrigues, bull-headedly does the right thing, and manages to make that work out, which for me (particularly in this political climate) is escapism in the best sense. She has generally good judgment in her friends, those friends stand by her, and the good guys win. Sometimes that's just what I want in a series, particularly when it comes with an impressive range of mythological creations, an interesting and slowly-developing power set, enjoyable character banter, and a ton of world-building mysteries that I want to know more about.

Long story short, this is more of Toby and friends in much the same vein as the last few books in the series. It adds new depth to some past events, moves Toby higher into the upper echelons of faerie politics, and contains many of my favorite characters. Oh, and, for once, Toby isn't sick or injured or drugged for most of the story, which I found a welcome relief.

If you've read this far into the series, I think you'll love it. I certainly did.

Followed by A Red-Rose Chain.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2018-12-02: Review: Linked

Review: Linked, by Albert-László Barabási

Publisher Plume
Copyright 2002, 2003
Printing May 2003
ISBN 0-452-28439-2
Format Trade paperback
Pages 241

Barabási at the time of this writing was a professor of physics at Notre Dame University (he's now the director of Northeastern University's Center of Complex Networks). Linked is a popularization of his research into scale-free networks, their relationship to power-law distributions (such as the distribution of wealth), and a proposed model explaining why so many interconnected systems in nature and human society appear to form scale-free networks. Based on some quick Wikipedia research, it's worth mentioning that the ubiquity of scale-free networks has been questioned and may not be as strong as Barabási claims here, not that you would know about that controversy from this book.

I've had this book sitting in my to-read pile for (checks records) ten years, so I only vaguely remember why I bought it originally, but I think it was recommended as a more scientific look at phenomenon popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point. It isn't that, exactly; Barabási is much less interested in how ideas spread than he is in network structure and its implications for robustness and propagation through the network. (Contagion, as in virus outbreaks, is the obvious example of the latter.)

There are basically two parts to this book: a history of Barabási's research into scale-free networks and the development of the Barabási-Albert model for scale-free network generation, and then Barabási's attempt to find scale-free networks in everything under the sun and make grandiose claims about the implications of that structure for human understanding. One of these parts is better than the other.

The basic definition of a scale-free network is a network where the degree of the nodes (the number of edges coming into or out of the node) follows a power-law distribution. It's a bit hard to describe a power-law distribution without the math, but the intuitive idea is that the distribution will contain a few "winners" who will have orders of magnitude more connections than the average node, to the point that their connections may dominate the graph. This is very unlike a normal distribution (the familiar bell-shaped curve), where most nodes will cluster around a typical number of connections and the number of nodes with a given count of connections will drop off rapidly in either direction from that peak. A typical example of a power-law distribution outside of networks is personal wealth: rather than clustering around some typical values the way natural measurements like physical height do, a few people (Bill Gates, Warren Buffett) have orders of magnitude more wealth than the average person and a noticeable fraction of all wealth in society.

I am moderately dubious of Barabási's assertion here that most prior analysis of networks before his scale-free work focused on random networks (ones where new nodes are connected at an existing node chosen at random), since this is manifestly not the case in computer science (my personal field). However, scale-free networks are a real phenomenon that have some very interesting properties, and Barabási and Albert's proposal of how they might form (add nodes one at a time, and prefer to attach a new node to the existing node with the most connections) is a simple and compelling model of how they can form. Barabási also discusses a later variation, which Wikipedia names the Bianconi-Barabási model, which adds a fitness function for more complex preferential attachment.

Linked covers the history of the idea from Barabási's perspective, as well as a few of its fascinating properties. One is that scale-free networks may not have a tipping point in the Gladwell sense. Depending on the details, there may not be a lower limit of nodes that have to adopt some new property for it to spread through the network. Another is robustness: scale-free networks are startlingly robust against removal of random nodes from the network, requiring removal of large percentages of the nodes before the network fragments, but are quite vulnerable to a more targeted attack that focuses on removing the hubs (the nodes with substantially more connections than average). Scale-free networks also naturally give rise to "six degrees of separation" effects between any two nodes, since the concentration of connections at hubs lead to short paths.

These parts of Linked were fairly interesting, if sometimes clunky. Unfortunately, Barabási doesn't have enough material to talk about mathematical properties and concrete implications at book length, and instead wanders off into an exercise in finding scale-free networks everywhere (cell metabolism, social networks, epidemics, terrorism), and leaping from that assertion (which Wikipedia, at least, labels as not necessarily backed up by later analysis) to some rather overblown claims. I think my favorite was the confident assertion that by 2020 we will be receiving custom-tailored medicine designed specifically for the biological networks of our unique cells, which, one, clearly isn't going to happen, and two, has a strained and dubious connection to scale-free network theory to say the least. There's more in that vein. (That said, the unexpected mathematical connection between the state transition of a Bose-Einstein condensate and scale-free network collapse given sufficiently strong attachment preference and permission to move connections was at least entertaining.)

The general introduction to scale-free networks was interesting and worth reading, but I think the core ideas of this book could have been compressed into a more concise article (and probably have, somewhere on the Internet). The rest of it was mostly boring, punctuated by the occasional eye-roll. I appreciate Barabási's enthusiasm for his topic — it reminds me of professors I worked with at Stanford and their enthusiasm for their pet theoretical concept — but this may be one reason to have the popularization written by someone else. Not really recommended as a book, but if you really want a (somewhat dated) introduction to scale-free networks, you could do worse.

Rating: 6 out of 10

2018-11-28: Review: The Blind Side

Review: The Blind Side, by Michael Lewis

Publisher W.W. Norton & Company
Copyright 2006, 2007
Printing 2007
ISBN 0-393-33047-8
Format Trade paperback
Pages 339

One of the foundations of Michael Lewis's mastery of long-form journalism is that he is an incredible storyteller. Given even dry topics of interest (baseball statistics, bond trading, football offensive lines), he has an uncanny knack for finding memorable characters around which to tell a story, and uses their involvement as the backbone of a clear explanation of complex processes or situations. That's why one of the surprises of The Blind Side is that Lewis loses control of his material.

The story that Lewis wants to tell is the development of the left tackle position in professional football. The left tackle is the player on the outside of the offensive line on the blind side of a right-handed quarterback. The advent of the west-coast offense with its emphasis on passing plays, and the corresponding development of aggressive pass rushers in the era of Lawrence Taylor, transformed that position from just another member of the most anonymous group of people in football into one of the most highly-paid positions on the field. The left tackle is the person most responsible for stopping a pass rush.

Lewis does tell that story in The Blind Side, but every time he diverts into it, the reader is left tapping their foot in frustration and wishing he'd hurry up. That's because the other topic of this book, the biographical through line, is Michael Oher, and Michael Oher the person is so much more interesting than anything Lewis has to say about football that the football parts seem wasted.

I'm not sure how many people will manage to read this book without having the details of Oher's story spoiled for them first, particularly given there's also a movie based on this book, but I managed it and loved the unfolding of the story. I'm therefore going to leave out most of the specifics to avoid spoilers. But the short version is that Oher was a sometimes-homeless, neglected black kid with incredible physical skills but almost no interaction with the public school system who ended up being adopted as a teenager by a wealthy white family. They help him clear the hurdles required to play NCAA football.

That's just the bare outline. It's an amazing story, and Lewis tells it very well. I had a hard time putting this book down, and rushed through the background chapters on the evolution of football to get back to more details about Oher. But, as much as Lewis tries to make this book a biography of Oher himself, it's really not. As Lewis discloses at the end of this edition, he's a personal friend of Sean Tuohy, Oher's adoptive father. Oher was largely unwilling to talk to Lewis about his life before he met the Tuohys. Therefore, this is, more accurately, the story of Oher as seen from the Tuohys' perspective, which is not quite the same thing.

There are so many pitfalls here that it's amazing Lewis navigates them as well as he does, and even he stumbles. There are stereotypes and pieces of American mythology lurking everywhere beneath this story, trying to make the story snap to them like a guiding grid: the wealthy white family welcoming in the poor black kid, the kid with amazing physical talent who is very bad at school, the black kid with an addict mother, the white Christian school who takes him in, the colleges who try to recruit him... you cannot live in this country without strong feelings about all of these things. Nestled next to this story like landmines are numerous lies that white Americans tell themselves to convince themselves that they're not racist. I could feel the mythological drag on this story trying to make Oher something he's not, trying to make him fit into a particular social frame. It's one of the reasons why I doubt I'll ever see the movie: it's difficult to imagine a movie managing to avoid that undertow.

To give Lewis full credit, he fights to keep this story free of its mythology every step of the way, and you can see the struggle in the book. He succeeds best at showing that Oher is not at all dumb, but instead is an extremely intelligent teenager who was essentially never given an opportunity to learn. He also provides a lot of grounding and nuance to Oher's relationship with the Tuohys. They're still in something of a savior role, but it seems partly deserved. And, most importantly, he's very open about the fact that Oher largely didn't talk to anyone about his past, including Lewis, so except for a chapter near the end laying out the information Lewis was able to gather, it's mostly conjecture on the part of the Tuohys and others.

But there is so much buried here, so many fault lines of US society, so many sharp corners of racism and religion and class, that Oher's story just does not fit into Lewis's evolution-of-football narrative. It spills out of the book, surfaces deep social questions that Lewis barely touches on, and leaves so many open questions (including Oher's own voice). One major example: Briarcrest Christian School, the high school Oher played for and the place where he was discovered as a potential NCAA and later professional football player, is a private high school academy formed in 1973 after the desegregation of Memphis schools as a refuge for the children of white supremacists. Lewis describes Oher's treatment as one of only three black children at the school as positive; I can believe that because three kids out of a thousand plays into one kind of narrative. Later, Lewis mentions in passing that the school balked at the applications of other black kids once Oher became famous, and one has to wonder how that might change the narrative for the school's administration and parents. There's a story there that's left untold, and might not be as positive as Oher's reception.

Don't get me wrong: these aren't truly flaws in Lewis's book, because he's not even trying to tell that story. He's telling the story of one exceptional young man who reached college football through a truly unusual set of circumstances, and he tells that story well. I just can't help but look for systems in individual stories, to look for institutions that should have been there for Oher and weren't. Once I started looking, the signs of systemic failures sit largely unremarked beneath nearly every chapter. Maybe this is a Rorschach test of political analysis: do you see an exceptional person rising out of adversity through human charity, or a failure of society that has to be patched around by uncertain chance that, for most people, will fail without ever leaving a trace?

The other somewhat idiosyncratic reaction I had to this book, and the reason why I've put off reading it for so long, is that I now find it hard to read about football. While I've always been happy to watch nearly any sport, football used to be my primary sport as a fan, the one I watched every Sunday and most Saturdays. As a kid, I even kept my own game statistics from time to time, and hand-maintained team regular season standings. But somewhere along the way, the violence, the head injuries, and the basic incompatibility between the game as currently played and any concept of safety for the players got to me. I was never someone who loved the mud and the blood and the aggression; I grew up on the west coast offense and the passing game and watched football for the tactics. But football is an incredibly violent sport, and the story of quarterback sacks, rushing linebackers, and the offensive line is one of the centers of that violence. Lewis's story opens with Joe Theismann's leg injury in 1985, which is one of the most horrific injuries in the history of sport. I guess I don't have it in me to get excited about a sport that does things like that to its players any more.

I think The Blind Side is a bit of a mess as a book, but I'm still very glad that I read it. Oher's story, particularly through Lewis's story-telling lens, is incredibly compelling. I'm just also wary of it, because it sits slightly askew on some of the deepest fault lines in American society, and it's so easy for everyone involved to read things into the story that are coming from that underlying mythology rather than from Oher himself. I think Lewis fought through this whole book to not do that; I think he mostly but did not entirely succeed.

The Tuohys have their own related book (In a Heartbeat), written with Sally Jenkins, that's about their philosophy of giving and charity and looks very, very Christian in a way that makes me doubtful that it will shine a meaningful light on any of the social fault lines that Lewis left unaddressed. But Oher, with Don Yaeger, has written his own autobiography, I Beat the Odds, and that I will read. Given how invested I got in his story through Lewis, I feel an obligation to hear it on his own terms, rather than filtered through well-meaning white people.

I will cautiously recommend this book because it's an amazing story and Lewis tries very hard to do it justice. But I think this is a book worth reading carefully, thinking about who we're hearing from and who we aren't, and looking critically at the things Lewis leaves unsaid.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2018-11-20: Review: Skeen's Leap

Review: Skeen's Leap, by Jo Clayton

Series Skeen #1
Publisher Open Road
Copyright 1986
Printing 2016
ISBN 1-5040-3845-2
Format Kindle
Pages 320

Skeen is a Rooner: a treasure hunter who finds (or steals) artifacts from prior civilizations and sells them to collectors. She's been doing it for decades and she's very good at her job. Good enough to own her own ship. Not good enough to keep from being betrayed by her lover, who stole her ship and abandoned her on a miserable planet with a long history of being temporarily part of various alien empires until its sun flares and wipes out all life for another round.

At the start, Skeen's Leap feels like a gritty space opera, something from Traveller or a similar universe in which the characters try to make a living in the interstices of sprawling and squabbling alien civilizations. But, shortly into the book, Skeen hears rumors of an ancient teleportation gate and is drawn through it into an entirely different world. A world inhabited by the remnants of every civilization that has fled Kildun Aalda during one of its solar flares, alongside native (and hostile) shape-changers. A world in which each of those civilizations have slowly lost their technology from breakdowns and time, leaving a quasi-medieval and diverse world with some odd technological spikes. And, of course, the gate won't let Skeen back through.

This turns out not to be space opera at all. Skeen's Leap is pure sword and sorcery, with technology substituted (mostly) in for the sorcery.

It's not just the setting: the structure of the book would be comfortably at home in a Conan story. Skeen uses her darter pistol and streetwise smarts to stumble into endless short encounters, most of them adding another member to her growing party. She rescues a shapeshifter who doesn't want to be rescued, befriends an adventuring scholar seeking to map the world, steals from an alien mob boss, attaches herself to four surplus brothers looking for something to do in the world, and continues in that vein across the world by horse and ship, searching for the first and near-extinct race of alien refugees who are rumored to have the key to the gate. Along the way, she and her companions occasionally tell stories. Hers are similar to her current adventures, just with spaceships and seedy space stations instead of ships and seedy ports.

Skeen's Leap is told in third person, but most of it is a very tight third-person that barely distinguishes Skeen's rambling and sarcastic thoughts from the narration. It's so very much in Skeen's own voice that I had to check when writing this review whether it was grammatically in first or third. The narrator does wander to other characters occasionally, but Skeen is at the center of this book: practical, avaricious, competent, life-hardened, observant, and always a survivor. The voice takes a bit to get used to (although the lengthy chapter titles in Skeen's voice are a delight from the very start), but it grew on me. I suspect one's feeling about Skeen's voice will make or break one's enjoyment of this book. I do wish she'd stop complaining about her lost ship and the lover who betrayed her, though; an entire book of that got a bit tiresome.

One subtle thing about this book that I found fascinating once I noticed it is its embrace of the female gaze. In most novels, even with female protagonists, descriptions of other characters use a default male gaze, or at best a neutral one. Women are pretty or beautiful or cute; men are described in more functional terms. Skeen's Leap is one of the few SFF novels I've seen with a female gaze that lingers on the attractiveness and shape of male bodies throughout, and occasionally stands gender roles on their head. (The one person in the book who might be Skeen's equal is a female ship captain with a similar background.) It's an entertaining variation.

Despite the voice and the unapologetic female perspective, though, this wasn't quite my thing. I picked up this book looking for a space opera, so the episodic sword-and-sorcery plot structure didn't fit my mood. I wanted deeper revelations and more complex world-building, but that's not on the agenda for this book (although it might be in later books in the series). This is pure adventure story, and by the end of the book the episodes were blending together and it all felt too much the same. It doesn't help that the book ends somewhat abruptly, at a milestone in Skeen's quest but quite far from any conclusion.

If you're looking for sword and sorcery with some SF trappings and a confident female protagonist, this isn't bad, but be warned that it doesn't end so much as stop, and you'll need (at least) the next book for the full story.

Followed by Skeen's Return.

Rating: 6 out of 10

2018-11-19: Review: Hidden Figures

Review: Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly

Publisher William Morrow
Copyright 2016
ISBN 0-06-236361-1
Format Kindle
Pages 272

I appreciate the film industry occasionally finding good books that I should read.

As I suspect most people now know from the publicity of the movie, Hidden Figures is the story of the black women mathematicians who performed the calculations that put a man on the Moon. Or at least that's the hook, and the conclusion of the story in a way. But the meat of the story, at least for me, was earlier: the black women who formed the mathematical backbone of NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, and specifically the NACA facility at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. NACA eventually transformed into NASA and took on a new mission of space exploration, but that comes relatively late in this story.

The story opens in 1943 when Melvin Butler, the personnel officer at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, had a problem: he needed more support staff for NACA's mission to improve US airplane technology. Specifically, he needed mathematicians and computers (at the time, computer was a job title for a person who performed mathematical computations; practical electronic computers were still far in the future). An initially-controversial female computing pool, started at Langley in 1935, had proven incredibly successful, but mathematically-trained white women were in scarce supply. Butler therefore, with support and cover from A. Philip Randolph's successful push for Roosevelt to open war jobs to black candidates, made the decision to start recruiting black women.

Shetterly makes clear how complex and fraught this was. Langley was located in Virginia, a segregated southern state, and while the NAACP had already started opening cracks in the walls of segregation, Brown v. Board of Education was more than ten years into the future. The white female computers were already logistically separated, since no woman could supervise a man. The black women would need to be segregated further, and Butler's recruitment efforts were kept fairly quiet. But wartime necessity opened a lot of doors. And so, West Computing (distinct from the white women in East Computing) was formed, named after its location in Langley's underdeveloped West Area.

Hidden Figures starts with Dorothy Vaughan, the woman who will eventually become the head of West Computing, and later follows threads of connection from her to Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and others who started in West Computing. It also, effectively and memorably, starts by setting the scene through both biographical details of the women's lives and authorial descriptions of the complex tapestry of black colleges and social relationships they came from.

For me, writing this as a white man in 2018 who grew up on the west coast and visited even the modern US South a mere handful of times, it's very hard to get an emotional or visceral sense of what segregation was like, beneath the bones of historical fact. Hidden Figures does the best job of that of any book I have ever read. Shetterly is blunt and unflinching in her descriptions, but also borrows from her biographical subjects a sense of practical determination and persistence that avoids drowning the story in the injustice of US racial politics. Segregation was an obstacle and a constraint these women navigated around, persisted against, suffered through, and occasionally undermined, but it wasn't the point. The point was the work they were doing: the NACA work to develop and then fine-tune military aircraft technology, the post-war work of supersonic research, and finally the space program. Segregation, racism, and sexism were pervasive, but they weren't defining; they were barriers in the way of their true life's work. That core of determined joy in the work is what makes this book sing, and outlines a path towards hope.

That this is Shetterly's first book is extremely impressive. She has a confident grasp of her material, full control over a complicated interweaving of timelines and biographies of multiple women, and an ability to describe both cultural institutions and engineering work in a way that holds a reader's attention and interest. This is tricky material for a book because, while these women's lives are dramatic, it's a drama of careful work, slow progress, persistence, and carefully-chosen defiance. (I will always remember the story of Miriam Mann taking the "COLORED COMPUTERS" sign off the lunch table each day and making it disappear into her purse, until whoever was responsible for placing it finally gave up and stopped.) The dramatic beats don't follow a normal plot structure. But Shetterly handles this magnificently for most of the book, keeping the pacing fast enough to remain engrossing but slow enough to communicate the underlying reality and sense of place.

The one mild criticism I have of the book is that once it enters the NASA era and the challenge of the space program, I thought Shetterly started forcing her dramatic beats just a touch. I think she was trying to build to a climactic payoff and emphasizing the inherent drama of the Moon landing to do so, but it felt in a few places like she was trying too hard and not letting the story carry itself. This was at the same time as a huge transition from performing calculations themselves to learning to program computers, and I would have loved for Shetterly to dwell a bit more on that, but she rarely got into the details of the day-to-day work. That quibble aside, though, the story is compelling and fascinating to the very end.

Shetterly also pulls off a very advanced technique that I would not recommend other writers try: the whole story is told using the language of the time. Black people are Negros, women are girls, and the very language of the book rolls back decades of social progress. This was done carefully and exceptionally well, and for me it did a lot to communicate the visceral feel of the time (and to drive home just how much society has changed in at least the level of condescension and contempt that can be openly stated). I was surprised at how much the pervasive use of "girls" made my skin crawl, and how clearly and succinctly it communicated the struggle of the computers to be taken seriously as mathematicians and engineers.

I have not watched the movie version of Hidden Figures and probably won't, although I hear it's very good. But for others like me who prefer words over images, I can confirm that the book is excellent. It's not just a valuable history at the cross-section of aviation, computing, racial politics, and gender politics. It's also an illuminating and compelling case study on the effects of institutional racism and sexism, on how black women maneuvered through those restrictions, and on the persistence, determination, and patience required for social change.

Recommended. This is a piece of American history that you don't want to miss.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2018-10-31: Review: In Pursuit of the Traveling Salesman

Review: In Pursuit of the Traveling Salesman, by William J. Cook

Publisher Princeton University
Copyright 2012
ISBN 0-691-15270-5
Format Kindle
Pages 272

In Pursuit of the Traveling Salesman is a book-length examination of the traveling salesman problem (TSP) in computer science, written by one of the foremost mathematicians working on solutions to the TSP. Cook is Professor of Applied Mathematics and Statistics at Johns Hopkins University and is one of the authors of the Concorde TSP Solver.

First, a brief summary of the TSP for readers without a CS background. While there are numerous variations, the traditional problem is this: given as input a list of coordinates on a two-dimensional map representing cities, construct a minimum-length path that visits each city exactly once and then returns to the starting city. It's famous in computer science in part because it's easy to explain and visualize but still NP-hard, which means that not only do we not know of a way to exactly solve this problem in a reasonable amount of time for large numbers of cities, but also that a polynomial-time solution to the TSP would provide a solution to a vast number of other problems. (For those familiar with computability theory, the classic TSP is not NP-complete because it's not a decision problem and because of some issues with Euclidean distances, but when stated as a graph problem and converted into a decision problem by, for example, instead asking if there is a solution with length less than n, it is NP-complete.)

This is one of those books where the quality of the book may not matter as much as its simple existence. If you're curious about the details of the traveling salesman problem specifically, but don't want to read a lot of mathematics and computer science papers, algorithm textbooks, or books on graph theory, this book is one of your few options. Thankfully, it's also fairly well-written. Cook provides a history of the problem, a set of motivating problems (the TSP doesn't come up as much and isn't as critical as some NP-complete problems, but optimal tours are still more common than one might think), and even a one-chapter tour of the TSP in art. The bulk of the book, though, is devoted to approximation methods, presented in roughly chronological order of development.

Given that the TSP is NP-hard, we obviously don't know a good exact solution, but I admit I was a bit disappointed that Cook spent only one chapter exploring the exact solutions and explaining to the reader what makes the problem difficult. Late in the book, he does describe the Held-Karp dynamic programming algorithm that gets the work required for an exact solution down to exponential in n, provides a basic introduction to complexity theory, and explains that the TSP is NP-complete by reduction from the Hamiltonian path problem, but doesn't show the reduction of 3SAT to Hamiltonian paths. Since my personal interest ran a bit more towards theory and less towards practical approximations, I would have appreciated a bit more discussion of the underlying structure of the problem and why it's algorithmically hard. (I did appreciate the explanation of why it's not clear whether the general Euclidean TSP is even in NP due to problems with square roots, though.)

That said, I suppose there isn't as much to talk about in exact solutions (the best one we know dates to 1962) and much more to talk about in approximations, which is where Cook has personally spent his time. That's the topic of most of this book, and includes a solid introduction to the basic concept of linear programming (a better one than I ever got in school) and some of its other applications, as well as other techniques (cutting planes, branch-and-bound, and others). The math gets a bit thick here, and Cook skips over a lot of the details to try to keep the book suitable for a general audience, so I can't say I followed all of it, but it certainly satisfied my curiosity about practical approaches to the TSP. (It also made me want to read more about linear programming.)

If you're looking for a book like this, you probably know that already, and I can reassure you that it delivers what it promises and is well-written and approachable. If you aren't already curious about a brief history of practical algorithms for one specific problem, I don't think this book is sufficiently compelling to worth seeking out anyway. This is not a general popularization of interesting algorithms (see Algorithms to Live By if you're looking for that), or (despite Cook's efforts) particularly approachable if this is your first deep look at computer algorithms. It's a niche book that delivers on its promise, but probably won't convince you the topic is interesting if you don't see the appeal.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2018-10-29: California general election

Again, probably of direct interest only to California residents, and apologies to everyone else since my hand-rolled blog sofwtare still doesn't do cut tags.


No explanations, just vote justification, to try to keep this from getting too long. For those who aren't in California and want to follow along, see the voter guide.

Proposition 1: YES. I'm not a huge fan of this sort of half-assed attempt to address the housing shortage, but every little bit helps. The veterans programs are nice; the emergency housing for homeless families is even better. Also, the opposition is from someone ranting about the horrors of highrises, which couldn't be more opposite to my position on housing if they were actively trying.

Proposition 2: YES. Personally, I'd rather they just raise my taxes more and build more shelters and emergency housing rather than redirecting money from one pot or another, but I'll take what I can get.

Proposition 3: YES. It will be hard to find a public infrastructure project I would vote against right now, since this continues to be a great time to borrow money for such things (despite recent upticks in interest rates). Also, the opponents are loons who are apparently opposed to all water projects that aren't dams. That's not a good reason to vote for a proposition by itself, but it makes me feel better about doing so.

Proposition 4: YES but I'm not happy about it. Our health care system is such a joke. I'm wholly in favor of the state building more children's hospitals, and hospitals of all sort, if the state owned them. But instead we get this bullshit where the state gives away money to private companies to run a health care system. If it would have included grants to for-profit health care companies, I would have voted no. I'm right on the edge of voting no anyway, but I suspect this is as good as we're going to get right now. Meh.

Proposition 5: NO. No to more schemes to limit property tax. No to more propositions designed to make rich people richer. No to any expansion of Proposition 13, which was the biggest mistake in the history of California. Just no.

Proposition 6: NO. Not that I'm a huge fan of gas taxes, which are regressive, but since the people opposed to gas taxes are also opposed to raising the income tax, no. We need to shift away from individual personal cars, and while a gas tax isn't the best way to encourage that, I'll take the only way that seems to be political feasible.

Proposition 7: YES. Starting the long process of getting rid of the daylight saving time abomination.

Proposition 8: YES. All dialysis clinics, and all medical clinics of any kind, should be mandatory not-for-profit and be required to reinvest all profits back into better facilities or lower costs. Or, better yet, should just all be owned by the state. This doesn't do that, but it's a step in the right direction. Also, our health care system is still bullshit.

Proposition 10: YES. I'm not a big fan of rent control (just build more housing!), but I think it's a valid local issue and local governments should get to decide, not be blocked by the state. This is not one of the issues that I think benefits from state-wide policy.

Proposition 11: NO. How about we don't gut labor law protections for paramedics? Also, our health care system is still bullshit.

Proposition 12: YES. I'm tempted to vote no on this just because I don't think this sort of law should be written by initiative, but I otherwise agree with it, so I'm holding my nose.

Federal and State Offices

I'm mostly voting for the same people I voted for in the primary, or for the Democrat in partisan races where a Democrat is running against a Republican, so listing a bunch of these without comment.

US Senator: Diane Feinstein: I went back and forth on this for a long time. I'm not a huge Feinstein fan, and I suspect de León and I agree on more politics. But I think Feinstein did a good job with the Kavanaugh hearings given the impossible situation she was in, she's been pulled substantially to the left over the past few years, and now seems like the wrong time in history to vote a powerful woman out of the Senate.

Insurance Commissioner: Ricardo Lara. I voted the other way in the primary, and I'm still tempted to vote for Poizner, who seems professional and competent. But I had not done enough research last time to notice that Lara is gay and was a member of the LGBT caucus, and that's just enough of a concrete issue for California medical insurance that it pushes me towards him over my vague dislike of his campaign approach and my respect for Poizner's professionalism.

Governor: Gavin Newsom
Lieutenant Governor: Eleni Kounalakis
Secretary of State: Alex Padilla
Controller: Betty T. Yee
Treasurer: Fiona Ma
Attorney General: Xavier Becerra
State Board of Equalization (2nd): Malia Cohen
US Congress (14th): Jackie Speier
State Assembly (22nd): Kevin Mullin
Superintendent of Public Instruction: Tony Thurmond

For judges, I don't even remotely have enough time to do sufficient research to be an informed voter, since it requires researching their decisions. Instead, I'm going to magnify the opinions of a voting guide from someone who has done the research and who generally votes the same direction as I do on the other things I care about. I'm following the Broke-Ass Stuart voting guide for this one.

2018-10-27: Review: Record of a Spaceborn Few

Review: Record of a Spaceborn Few, by Becky Chambers

Series Wayfarers #3
Publisher Harper Voyager
Copyright July 2018
ISBN 0-06-269923-7
Format Kindle
Pages 360

This is the third book in the loose Wayfarers series and has a distant connection to (and a few minor spoilers for) The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, but it could easily be read out of order. That said, I think it carries some extra emotional heft from the sense of humanity's position in the larger galaxy one gains from reading the two previous books.

I'm about to rave about this book, but I also suspect this is the type of book that some will read and think "huh, what was the point of that story?" or find it lacking in plot. Others are going to bounce off of the science or world-building. I adore this book, but it's one that's best approached from a particular mindset, so let me try to frame it for you so that you know whether it will fit your mood.

First, Record of a Spaceborn Few is a mosaic novel: an interwoven set of stories told from the perspective of five inhabitants of the Exodus Fleet. It's set in the home of humanity in the stars in this universe, a place mentioned in the previous two books but never before seen directly. Mosaic novels can require some up-front investment because of the number of character introductions required. That's complicated here by starting the book with a brutal disaster, which makes the early parts of the novel both slow going and somewhat depressing.

Second, as you might guess from a setting on an evacuation fleet for humanity, or from reading previous books in this series, the science is in service of the story rather than the other way around. If you're going to be thrown out of the story by generating power for a spacecraft from the movement of water through its recycling system, do yourself a favor and put off reading this book until your suspension of disbelief is strong enough to hold perpetual motion machines. I've come to love how Chambers chooses technology to build atmosphere, particularly in this book where the subjective feel of the technology is a vital part of the story. But, despite some surface appearances, this is not hard science fiction, and will not be satisfying if read on those terms.

And third, this is not a book with a strong, driving plot. A Closed and Common Orbit had more narrative urgency, but Record of a Spaceborn Few is a return to the more relaxed pace and closer character work of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (only with more skill and more sure-footed writing). It shows excerpts from the lives of five people, touching and sometimes entwining, but following separate paths. None of those lives are dramatic, none are central to wars or diplomatic crises or the future of civilization. They are important to the individuals who lived them, and to their families, and for what they show of the ideals and structures of a culture and a community.

And now we come to the raving part of this review, because once Chambers starts drawing the pieces of the mosaic story together, it becomes a beautiful and deeply moving meditation on place and culture, on what it means to be from somewhere or to be part of something, on when and why social rituals matter. Like the best of Chambers's writing, it's a master course in empathy. She quietly leads you into other people's lives, helps you feel their day-to-day concerns and fears and frustrations, shows you their good and bad decisions, and leaves you caring deeply about the twists and turns of their lives. Her previous novels were about found and constructed communities, about chosen families; this one is about the communities you're born into, the ones you inherit, and all the ways people maneuver around them, and why none of those ways are wrong.

There are some tragedies at the center of this book, but it is not a tragic book. Quite the contrary: it's deeply hopeful in a way that's forgiving, understanding, open-hearted, and gracefully welcoming. It is one of the most touching presentations of the meaning of culture that I've read: how it can matter where you're from even if it's not where you choose to stay, how the shapes of our cultures are neither intrinsically good nor bad but the variety of them becomes good because of its diversity, and why passing down that culture matters as a gesture of humanity. And it does something very rare in a science fiction novel. It shows how the contributions of people who are not the strongest or most visible matter, not because they happen to be the linchpin in some grand plot, but because small actions build into a shared experience, and that shared experience is part of what makes us human.

The science is not hard science, and the focus is on universal truths about people and communities, but this is a science fiction story through and through. You could not tell the story Chambers does without the alienation of the reader provided by the tropes and setting of science fiction. She creates a human culture that is quite different from ours out of science fiction necessity, and then uses it to hold up a mirror that shows the special magic of all cultures while not hiding the dirt or the frayed corners or the sharp edges.

I suspect others won't have quite as strong of a reaction to this book as I did, but it was exactly the book I needed to read when I read it, and I love it beyond words. I was crying through most of the last third of the book and absolutely could not put it down. For me, this was something very magical, and very special, and one of the best books I've ever read.

Rating: 10 out of 10

2018-10-24: Review: Move Fast and Break Things

Review: Move Fast and Break Things, by Jonathan Taplin

Publisher Little, Brown and Company
Copyright April 2017
Printing 2018
ISBN 0-316-27574-3
Format Kindle
Pages 288

Disclaimer: I currently work for Dropbox, a Silicon Valley tech company. While it's not one of the companies that Taplin singles out in this book, I'm sure he'd consider it part of the problem. I think my reactions to this book are driven more by a long association with the free software movement and its take on copyright issues, and from reading a lot of persuasive work both good and bad, but I'm not a disinterested party.

Taplin is very angry about a lot of things that I'm also very angry about: the redefinition of monopoly to conveniently exclude the largest and most powerful modern companies, the ability of those companies to run roughshod over competitors in ways that simultaneously bring innovation and abusive market power, a toxic mix of libertarian and authoritarian politics deeply ingrained in the foundations of Silicon Valley companies, and a blithe disregard for the social effects of technology and for how to police the new communities that social media has created. This is a book-length rant about the dangers of monopoly domination of industries, politics, on-line communities, and the arts. And the central example of those dangers is the horrific and destructive power of pirating music on the Internet.

If you just felt a mental record-scratch and went "wait, what?", you're probably from a community closer to mine than Taplin's.

I'm going to be clear up-front: this is a bad book. I'm not going to recommend that you read it; quite the contrary, I recommend actively avoiding it. It's poorly written, poorly argued, facile, and unfair, and I say that with a great deal of frustration because I agree with about 80% of its core message. This is the sort of book from an erstwhile ally that makes me cringe: it's a significant supply of straw men, weak arguments, bad-faith arguments, and motivated reasoning that make the case for economic reform so much harder. There are good arguments against capitalism in the form in which we're practicing it. Taplin makes only some of them, and makes them badly.

Despite that, I read the entire book, and I'm still somewhat glad that I did, because it provides a fascinating look at the way unexamined premises lead people to far different conclusions. It also provides a more visceral feel for how people, like Taplin, who are deeply and personally invested in older ways of doing business, reach for a sort of reflexive conservatism when pushing back against the obvious abuses of new forms of inequality and market abuse. I found a reminder here to take a look at my own knee-jerk reactions and think about places where I may be reaching for backward-looking rather than forward-looking solutions.

This is a review, though, so before I get lost in introspection, I should explain why I think so poorly of this book as an argument.

I suspect most people who read enough partisan opinion essays on-line will notice the primary flaw in Move Fast and Break Things as early as I did: this is the kind of book that's full of carefully-chosen quotes designed to make the person being quoted look bad. You'll get a tour of the most famous ill-chosen phrases, expressions of greed, and cherry-picked bits of naked capitalism from the typical suspects: Google, Facebook, and Amazon founders, other Silicon Valley venture capitalists and CEOs, and of course Peter Thiel. Now, Thiel is an odious reactionary and aspiring fascist who yearns for the days when he could live as an unchallenged medieval lord. There's almost no quote you could cherry-pick from him that would make him look worse than he actually is, so I'll give Taplin a free pass on that one. But for the rest, Taplin is not even attempting to understand or engage with the arguments that his opponents are making. He's just finding the most damning statements, the ones that look the ugliest out of context, and parading them before the reader in an attempt to provoke an emotional reaction.

There is a long-standing principle of argument that you should engage with your opponents' position in its strongest form. If you cannot understand the merits and strengths of the opposing position and restate them well enough that an advocate of the opposing view would accept your summary as fair, you aren't prepared to argue the point. Taplin does not even come close to doing that. In the debate over the new Internet monopolies and monopsonies, one central conflict is between the distorting and dangerous concentration of power and the vast and very real improvements they've brought for consumers. I don't like Amazon as a company, and yet I read this book on a Kindle because their products are excellent and the consumer experience of their store is first-rate. I don't like Google as a company, but their search engine is by far the best available. One can quite legitimately take a wide range of political, economic, and ethical positions on that conflict, but one has to acknowledge there is a real conflict. Taplin is not particularly interested in doing that.

Similarly, and returning to the double-take moment with which I began this review, Taplin is startlingly unwilling to examine the flaws of the previous economic systems that he's defending. He writes a paean to the wonderful world of mutual benefit, artistic support, and economic fairness of record labels! Admittedly, I was not deeply enmeshed in that industry the way that he was, and he restrains his praise primarily to the 1960s and 1970s, so it's possible this isn't as mind-boggling as it sounds on first presentation. But, even apart from the numerous stories of artists cheated out of the profits of their work by the music industry long before Silicon Valley entered the picture, Taplin only grudgingly recognizes that the merits he sees in that industry were born of a specific moment in time, a specific pattern of demand, supply, sales method, and cultural moment, and that this world would not have lasted regardless of Napster or YouTube.

In other words, Taplin does the equivalent of arguing against Uber by claiming the taxi industry was a model of efficiency, economic fairness, and free competition. There are many persuasive arguments against new exploitative business practices. This is not one of them.

More tellingly to me, there is zero acknowledgment in this book that I can recall of one of the defining experiences of my generation and younger: the decision by the music and motion picture industries to fight on-line copying of their product by launching a vicious campaign of legal terrorism against teenagers and college students. Taplin's emotional appeals and quote cherry-picking falls on rather deaf ears when I vividly remember the RIAA and MPAA setting out to deliberately destroy people's lives in order to make an example of them, a level of social coercion that Google and Facebook have not yet stooped to, at least at that scale. Taplin is quite correct that his ideological opponents are scarily oblivious to some of the destruction they're wreaking on social and artistic communities, but he needs to come to terms with the fact that some of his allies are thugs.

This is where my community departs from Taplin's. I've been part of the free software community for decades, which includes a view of copyright that is neither the constrained economic model that Taplin advocates as a way to hopefully support artists, nor the corporate libertarian free-for-all from which Google draws its YouTube advertising profits. The free software community stands mostly opposed to both of those economic models, while pursuing the software equivalent of artist collectives. We have our own issues with creeping corporate control of our communities, and with the balance to strike between expanding the commons and empowering amoral companies like Google, Facebook, and Amazon to profit off of our work. Those fights play out in software licensing discussions routinely. But returning to a 1950s model of commercial music (which looks a lot like the 1980s model of commercial software) is clearly not possible, or even desirable if it were.

And that, apart from the poor argumentative technique and the tendency to engage with the weakest of his opponents' arguments, is the largest flaw I see in Taplin's book: he's invested in a binary fight between the economic world of his youth, which worked in ways that he considers fair, and a new economic world that is breaking the guarantees that he considers ethically important. He's not wrong about the problem, and I completely agree with him on the social benefit of putting artists in a more central position of influence in society. But he's not looking deeply at examples of artistic communities that have navigated this better than his own beloved music industry (book publishing, for example, which certainly has its problems with Amazon's monopsony power but is also in some ways stronger than it has ever been). And he's not looking at communities that are approaching the same problem from a different angle, such as free software. He's so caught up on what he sees as the fundamental unfairness of artists not being paid directly by each person consuming their work that he isn't stepping back to look at larger social goals and alternative ways they could be met.

I'm sure I'm making some of these same mistakes, in other places and in other ways. These problems are hard and some of the players truly are malevolent, so you cannot assume good will and good faith on all fronts. But there are good opposing arguments and simple binary analysis will fail.

Taplin, to give him credit, does try to provide some concrete solutions in the last chapter. He realizes that you cannot put the genie of easy digital copies back in the bottle, and tries to talk about alternate approaches that aren't awful (although they're things like micropayments and subscription services that are familiar ground for anyone familiar with this problem). I agree wholeheartedly with his arguments for returning to a pre-Reagan definition of monopoly power and stricter regulation of Internet advertising business. He might even be able to convince me that take-down-and-stay-down (the doctrine that material removed due to copyright complaints has to be kept off the same platform in the future) is a workable compromise... if he would also agree to fines, paid to the victim, of at least $50,000 per instance for every false complaint from a media company claiming copyright on material to which they have no rights. (Taplin seems entirely unaware of the malevolent abuses of copyright complaint systems by his beloved media industry.) As I said, I agree with about 80% of his positions.

But, sadly, this is not the book to use to convince anyone of those positions, or even the book to read for material in one's own debates. It would need more thoughtful engagement of the strongest of the arguments from new media and technology companies, a broader eye to allied fights, a deep look at the flaws in the capitalist system that made these monopoly abuses possible, and a willingness to look at the related abuses of Taplin's closest friends. Without those elements, I'm afraid this book isn't worth your time.

Rating: 3 out of 10

2018-10-22: Review: The Stone Sky

Review: The Stone Sky, by N.K. Jemisin

Series The Broken Earth #3
Publisher Orbit
Copyright August 2017
ISBN 0-316-22925-3
Format Kindle
Pages 464

So, this is it: the epic conclusion of the series that began with The Fifth Season. And it is a true conclusion. Jemisin's world is too large and her characters too deep (and too real) to wrap up into a simple package, but there's a finality to this conclusion that makes me think it unlikely Jemisin will write a direct sequel any time soon. (And oh my do you not want to start with this book. This series must be read in order.)

I'm writing this several months after finishing the novel in part because I still find it challenging to put my feelings about this book into words. There are parts of this story I found frustrating and others I found unsatisfying, but each time I dig into those disagreements, I find new layers of story and meaning and I can't see how the book could have gone any other way. The Stone Sky is in many ways profoundly uncomfortable and unsettling, but that's also what makes it so good. Jemisin is tackling problems, emotions, and consequences that are unsettling, that should be unsettling. Triumphant conclusions would be a lie. This story hurt all the way through; it's fitting that the ending did as well. But it's also strangely hopeful, in a way that doesn't take away the pain.

World-building first. This is, thankfully, not the sort of series that leaves one with a host of unanswered questions or a maddeningly opaque background. Jemisin puts all of her cards on the table. We find out exactly how Essun's world was created, what the obelisks are, who the stone eaters are, who the Guardians are, and something even of the origin of orogeny. This is daring after so much intense build-up, and Jemisin deserves considerable credit for an explanation that (at least for me) held together and made sense of much of what had happened without undermining it.

I do have some lingering reservations about the inhuman villain of this series, which I still think is too magically malevolent (and ethically simplistic) for the interwoven complexity of the rest of the world-building. They're just reservations, not full objections, but buried in the structure of the world is an environmental position that's a touch too comfortable, familiar, and absolute, particularly by the standards of the rest of the series.

For the human villains, though, I have neither objections nor reservations. They are all too believable and straightforward, both in the backstory of the deep past and in its reverberations and implications up to Essun's time. There is a moment when the book's narrator is filling in details in the far past, an off-hand comment about how life was sacred to their civilization. And, for me, a moment of sucked-in breath and realization that of course it was. Of course they said life was sacred. It explained so very much, about so very many things: a momentary flash of white-hot rage, piercing the narrative like a needle, knitting it together.

Against that backdrop, the story shifts in this final volume from its primary focus on Essun to a balanced split between Essun and her daughter, continuing a transition that began in The Obelisk Gate. Essun by now is a familiar figure to the reader: exhausted, angry, bitter, suspicious, and nearly numb, but driving herself forward with unrelenting force. Her character development in The Stone Sky comes less from inside herself and more from unexpected connections and empathy she taught herself not to look for. Her part of this story is the more traditional one, the epic fantasy band of crusaders out to save the world, or Essun's daughter, or both.

Essun's daughter's story is... not that, and is where I found both the frustrations and the joy of this conclusion. She doesn't have Essun's hard experience, her perspective on the world, or Essun's battered, broken, reforged, and hardened sense of duty. But she has in many ways a clearer view, for all its limitations. She realizes some things faster than Essun does, and the solutions she reaches for are a critique of the epic fantasy solutions that's all the more vicious for its gentle emotional tone.

This book offers something very rare in fiction: a knife-edge conclusion resting on a binary choice, where as a reader I was, and still am, deeply conflicted about which choice would have been better. Even though by normal epic fantasy standards the correct choice is obvious.

The Stone Sky is, like a lot of epic fantasy, a story about understanding and then saving the world, but that story is told in counterpoint with a biting examination of the nature of the world that's being saved. It's also a story about a mother and a daughter, about raising a child who's strong enough to survive in a deeply unfair and vicious world, and about what it means to succeed in that goal. It's a story about community, and empathy, and love, and about facing the hard edge of loss inside all of those things and asking whether it was worth it, without easy answers.

The previous books in this series were angry in a way that I rarely see in literature. The anger is still there in The Stone Sky, but this book is also sad, in a way that's profound and complicated and focused on celebrating the relationships that matter enough to make us sad. There are other stories that I have enjoyed reading more, but there are very few that I thought were as profound or as unflinching.

Every book in this series won a Hugo award. Every book in this series deserved it. This is a modern masterpiece of epic fantasy that I am quite certain we will still be talking about fifty years from now. It's challenging, powerful, emotional, and painful in a way that you may have to brace yourself to read, but it is entirely worth the effort.

Rating: 9 out of 10

2018-09-24: Smallish haul

It's been a little while since I've made one of these posts, and of course I'm still picking up this and that. Books won't buy themselves!

Elizabeth Bear & Katherine Addison — The Cobbler's Boy (sff)
P. Djèlí Clark — The Black God's Drums (sff)
Sabine Hossenfelder — Lost in Math (nonfiction)
N.K. Jemisin — The Dreamblood Duology (sff)
Mary Robinette Kowal — The Calculating Stars (sff)
Yoon Ha Lee — Extracurricular Activities (sff)
Seanan McGuire — Night and Silence (sff)
Bruce Schneier — Click Here to Kill Everyone (nonfiction)

I have several more pre-orders that will be coming out in the next couple of months. Still doing lots of reading, but behind on writing up reviews, since work has been busy and therefore weekends have been low-energy. That should hopefully change shortly.

2018-09-17: Review: The Collapsing Empire

Review: The Collapsing Empire, by John Scalzi

Series Interdependency #1
Publisher Tor
Copyright March 2017
ISBN 0-7653-8889-8
Format Kindle
Pages 333

Cardenia Wu-Patrick was never supposed to become emperox. She had a quiet life with her mother, a professor of ancient languages who had a brief fling with the emperox but otherwise stayed well clear of the court. Her older half-brother was the imperial heir and seemed to enjoy the position and the politics. But then Rennered got himself killed while racing and Cardenia ended up heir whether she wanted it or not, with her father on his deathbed and unwanted pressure on her to take over Rennered's role in a planned marriage of state with the powerful Nohamapetan guild family.

Cardenia has far larger problems than those, but she won't find out about them until becoming emperox.

The Interdependency is an interstellar human empire balanced on top of a complex combination of hereditary empire, feudal guild system, state religion complete with founding prophet, and the Flow. The Flow is this universe's equivalent of the old SF trope of a wormhole network: a strange extra-dimensional space with well-defined entry and exit points and a disregard for the speed of light. The Interdependency relies on it even more than one might expect. As part of the same complex and extremely long-term plan of engineered political stability that created the guild, empire, and church balance of power, the Interdependency created an economic web in which each system is critically dependent on imports from other systems. This plus the natural choke points of the Flow greatly reduces the chances of war.

It also means that Cardenia has inherited an empire that is more fragile than it may appear. Secret research happening at the most far-flung system in the Interdependency is about to tell her just how fragile.

John Clute and Malcolm Edwards provided one of the most famous backhanded compliments in SF criticism in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction when they described Isaac Asimov as the "default voice" of science fiction: a consistent but undistinguished style that became the baseline that other writers built on or reacted against. The field is now far too large for there to be one default voice in that same way, but John Scalzi's writing reminds me of that comment. He is very good at writing a specific sort of book: a light science fiction story that draws as much on Star Trek as it does on Heinlein, comfortably sits on the framework of standard SF tropes built by other people, adds a bit of humor and a lot of banter, and otherwise moves reliably and competently through a plot. It's not hard to recognize Scalzi's writing, so in that sense he has less of a default voice than Asimov had, but if I had to pick out an average science fiction novel his writing would come immediately to mind. At a time when the field is large enough to splinter into numerous sub-genres that challenge readers in different ways and push into new ideas, Scalzi continues writing straight down the middle of the genre, providing the same sort of comfortable familiarity as the latest summer blockbuster.

This is not high praise, and I am sometimes mystified at the amount of attention Scalzi gets (both positive and negative). I think his largest flaw (and certainly the largest flaw in this book) is that he has very little dynamic range, particularly in his characters. His books have a tendency to collapse into barely-differentiated versions of the same person bantering with each other, all of them sounding very much like Scalzi's own voice on his blog. The Collapsing Empire has emperox Scalzi grappling with news from scientist Scalzi carried by dutiful Scalzi with the help of profane impetuous Scalzi, all maneuvering against devious Scalzi. The characters are easy to keep track of by the roles they play in the plot, and the plot itself is agreeably twisty, but if you're looking for a book to hook into your soul and run you through the gamut of human emotions, this is not it.

That is not necessarily a bad thing. I like that voice; I read Scalzi's blog regularly. He's reliable, and I wonder if that's the secret to his success. I picked up this book because I wanted to read a decent science fiction novel and not take a big risk. It delivered exactly what I asked for. I enjoyed the plot, laughed at some of the characters, felt for Cardenia, enjoyed the way some villainous threats fell flat because of characters who had a firm grasp of what was actually important and acted on it, and am intrigued enough by what will happen next that I'm going to read the sequel. Scalzi aimed to entertain, succeeded, and got another happy customer. (Although I must note that I would have been happier if my favorite character in the book, by far, did not make a premature exit.)

I am mystified at how The Collapsing Empire won a Locus Award for best science fiction novel, though. This is just not an award sort of book, at least in my opinion. It's book four in an urban fantasy series, or the sixth book of Louis L'Amour's Sackett westerns. If you like this sort of thing, you'll like this version of it, and much of the appeal is that it's not risky and requires little investment of effort. I think an award winner should be the sort of book that lingers, that you find yourself thinking about at odd intervals, that expands your view of what's possible to do or feel or understand.

But that complaint is more about awards voters than about Scalzi, who competently executed on exactly what was promised on the tin. I liked the setup and I loved the structure of Cardenia's inheritance of empire, so I do kind of wish I could read the book that, say, Ann Leckie would have written with those elements, but I was entertained in exactly the way that I wanted to be entertained. There's real skill and magic in that.

Followed by The Consuming Fire. This book ends on a cliffhanger, as apparently does the next one, so if that sort of thing bothers you, you may want to wait until they're all available.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2018-09-02: Review: So Good They Can't Ignore You

Review: So Good They Can't Ignore You, by Cal Newport

Publisher Grand Central
Copyright September 2012
ISBN 1-4555-0910-8
Format Kindle
Pages 237

The problem area of task management, mental focus, and prioritization is vast and sprawling, full of techniques that work only in some situations, in some moods, for some people, or with some types of tasks. Time and attention management books therefore work best if the peculiar focus of that book happens to align with a set of problems the reader currently has. I occasionally survey the field for something that speaks to whatever corner of the problem I'm currently working on, and then chase that thread for as long as it seems useful.

Cal Newport is my latest thread. I encountered Deep Work while feeling frazzled and pulled in too many directions to do a good job at any one thing. It laid out a helpful approach to problems of focus and multitasking (enough so that I read it twice), so I started reading backwards through Newport's blog and picked up this earlier book. It's not his first, but before So Good They Can't Ignore You, Newport focused on practical study tips for high school and college students. I may read those someday as curiosities, but I doubt they'll be as interesting to me now, more than twenty years out of college.

Going backwards through an author's writing like this is a bit of a risk, since it's relatively common in this genre of non-fiction for an author to have only one book I find interesting. For example, David Allen's Getting Things Done is worthwhile reading for anyone interested in time management systems as long as you don't focus exclusively on that one system, but it's safe to skip everything else he's written. Thankfully, Newport appears to be an exception. His blog is full of interesting tidbits and is worth an archive trawl, and So Good They Can't Ignore You is a broader survey of what it means to have a good career and how to get there. I think it's worth reading alongside the more focused advice of Deep Work.

One caveat in all that follows: Newport is a computer science professor and is writing primarily for people with similar resources, so this book is a bit relentlessly upper-middle class. The audience of this book is primarily white-collar knowledge workers with college degrees, and its framework becomes increasingly dubious outside of that social class.

The core argument of So Good They Can't Ignore You is that "follow your passion" is awful career advice that you should ignore. More specifically, Newport argues that it is far more common to enjoy something because you're good at it than to be good at something because you enjoy it. Initial passion is therefore a risky and incomplete guide. This doesn't imply that you need to do work that you hate; in fact, if you dig deep enough you may find that you hate that work because you're not good at some less obvious but still essential part of it. It does imply that every career is going to have bits that you don't enjoy, that learning something new has inherently uncomfortable parts and is therefore not always something you'll feel passionate about, and that passion is more often a reward at the end of a journey than a signpost at the start. Therefore, rather than looking for work that immediately excites you, look for work that interests you (a lower bar) and that you are capable of learning how to do well.

On the surface, it's odd that I got as much out of this book as I did, given that I'm the poster child for following one's passion into a career. I'm working in the field I decided I wanted to pursue when I was around eight years old, with essentially no wobbles along the way. But, digging a little deeper, I've accidentally followed Newport's approach in my choices of career focus. I never set out to work in computer security, for example; I just did enough of it, first by happenstance and later by choice, that I became good at it.

The drawback of the unreliability of passion is that most people will not experience a sudden emotional epiphany that guides them into their ideal career, or may find that such epiphanies point them the wrong direction. The advantage Newport points out, and backs up with numerous anecdotal examples, is that choosing a career is less fraught than the passion approach would lead one to believe, and that your initial emotional reactions are less critical than you might fear. There is not one and only one career waiting for you that you must discover. While the possibilities are not completely unbounded, there are numerous careers at which you could succeed with sufficient practice, and any of them can lead to a happy and rewarding work life. Rather than searching for that one career that sets off a special spark, find a career that you can become good at and that people will pay you for, and then put in the work to build your skills. This will give you the resources to shape your work into something you're passionate about.

Newport's writing has a bit of "eat your vegetables" practicality: learning something will be uncomfortable at times, you have to put in the work before you'll get the rewards, and (specifically for careers) you have to test your goals against some measure of external value. But Newport also has a disarming and thoughtful way of talking about the overall arc of a career that avoids making this sound dreary and emphasizes the rewards along the way. His delight in the inherent merits of work done well shines through, as does his focus on a career as a process of taking control over one's own work.

That concept of autonomy as a career goal was the part of So Good They Can't Ignore You that most caught my attention. Newport's argument here is that how you do your work has as much impact on career satisfaction and overall happiness as what you work on. Autonomy, flexibility, and choice in one's work often translates into joy and passion for the work. But there are two control traps you have to avoid: trying to take control with insufficient career capital to back it up, and being prevented by others from spending your career capital on more control.

The first trap is the more obvious one: you need some external validation that you're good enough to start setting some of the terms of your own work. Newport recommends financial rewards as a feedback mechanism: if you ask people to pay you for your work, in money or other things of obvious value (increased vacation, for instance), you're likely to get a more honest (and therefore more actionable) measure of how good you are at your craft. The anti-capitalist in me wanted to argue with the financial focus, but Newport is very good at keeping his argument narrow. People may have a lot of social motives for praising your work uncritically. To improve, you need a feedback cycle that's more objective and is willing to tell you when you're not yet good enough to take the next career step. In our current society, one good way to force that feedback cycle is to ask for money, in one form or another.

The second trap is more subtle and very useful for where I'm at personally. Once you are good enough to have accumulated the career capital to start taking more control over your work, you're also good enough that your employer will want to prevent you from doing this. They instead will want to maximize your benefit to them, or give you the kind of control that comes with more responsibility rather than more freedom. (Newport titles this section of the book "Turn Down a Promotion.") You may have to force matters and make your employer somewhat unhappy to win the type of autonomy that brings more personal happiness.

Newport's own summary of So Good They Can't Ignore You is:

To construct work you love, you must first build career capital by mastering rare and valuable skills, and then cash in this capital for the type of traits that define compelling careers.

No one model of careers will capture all the nuance that goes into work, but I'm particularly fond of this one. It combines a cautious practicality with a clear-eyed vision of the end game that doesn't confuse the journey with the destination. The point is not to have rare and valuable skills; the point is to have a satisfying and compelling career, and the skills are a tool. Deep Work was focused on how to build a certain class of skills that are valuable in some types of work. So Good They Can't Ignore You is about the bigger picture: what are you using those skills to achieve, and why?

Those are big questions without any one universal answer, but Newport is thinking about them from an angle that shed some light on some things I'm mulling over. If the same is true of you, I think you'll find this book worth reading.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2018-08-31: DocKnot 1.06

DocKnot is the tool I use to generate some documentation for my free software releases. (And eventually will do a lot more, once I find time to write the code I have planned.) This release fixes a few issues with its text output: URL footnotes are put immediately after the paragraph with the reference instead of the bottom of the text section, and paragraphs that look like they contain a lot of broken lines are not wrapped.

This release also adjusts the wording in the templates I use for my packages around make warnings and the list information URL for a release announcement list, and adds support for some more supplemental links for package web pages.

You can get the latest version from the DocKnot distribution page.

2018-08-27: Review: So Lucky

Review: So Lucky, by Nicola Griffith

Publisher FSG Originals
Copyright 2018
ISBN 0-374-71834-2
Format Kindle
Pages 179

The first sign of trouble was easy to ignore. Mara tripped on the day her partner of fourteen years moved out, and thought nothing of it. But it was only a week and a half before the more serious fall in her kitchen, a doctor's visit, and a diagnosis: multiple sclerosis.

The next few days were a mess of numbness, shock, and anger: a fight at her job as the director of an HIV foundation over a wheelchair ramp, an unintended outburst in a spreadsheet, and then being fired. Well, a year of partial pay and medical coverage, "as gratitude for her service." But fired, for being disabled.

Mara is not the sort of person to take anything slow. Less time at the job means more time to research MS, time to refit her house for her upcoming disability, time to learn how to give herself injections, time to buy a cat. Time to bounce hard off of an MS support group while seeing an apparently imaginary dog. Time to get angry, like she had years ago when she was assaulted and threw herself obsessively into learning self-defense. Time to decide to fight back.

I so wanted to like this book. It's the first new Nicola Griffith novel since Hild, and I've loved everything of hers I've read. It's a book about disability, about finding one's people, about activism, about rights of people with disabilities, and about how people's reactions to others with disabilities are predictable and awful and condescending. Mara isn't a role model, isn't inspiration, isn't long-suffering. She's angry, scared, obsessive, scary, and horrible at communication. She spent her career helping people with a type of medical disability, and yet is entirely unprepared for having one herself.

I'm glad this book exists. I want more books like this to exist.

I mostly didn't enjoy reading it.

In part, this is because I personally bounced off some themes of the book. I have a low tolerance for horror, and there's a subplot involving Mara's vividly-imagined fear of a human predator working their way through her newly-discovered community that made me actively uncomfortable to read. (I realize that was part of the point, and I appreciate it as art, but I didn't enjoy it as a reader.) But I also think some of it is structural.

There is a character development arc here: Mara has to come to terms with what MS means to her, how she's going to live with it, and how she's going to define herself after loss of her job, without a long-term relationship, and with a disabling disease, all essentially at once. Pieces of that worked for me, such as Mara's interaction with Aiyana. But Griffith represents part of that arc with several hallucinatory encounters with a phantom embodiment of what Mara is fighting against, which plays a significant role in the climax of the book. And that climax didn't work for me. It felt off-tempo somehow, not quite supported by Mara's previous changes in attitude, too abrupt, too heavily metaphorical for me to follow.

It's just one scene, but So Lucky puts a lot of weight on that scene. This is a short novel full of furious energy, pushing towards some sort of conclusion or explosion. Mara is, frankly, a rather awful person for most of the book, for reasons that follow pre-existing fracture lines in her personality and are understandable and even forgivable but still unpleasant. I needed some sort of emotional catharsis, some dramatic turning point in her self-image and engagement with the world, and I think Griffith's intent was to provide that catharsis, and it didn't land for me, which left me off-balance and disturbed and unsatisfied. And frustrated, because I was rooting for the book and stuck with it through some rather nasty plot developments, hoping the payoff would be worth it.

This is all very individual; it doesn't surprise me at all that other people love this book. I'm also not disabled. I'm sure that would add additional layers, and it might have made the catharsis land for me. But I personally spent most of the book wanting to read about Aiyana instead of Mara.

Spending the book wishing I was reading about the non-disabled character, the one who isn't angry and isn't scary and isn't as scared, is partly the point. And it's a very good point; despite not enjoying this book, I'm glad I read it. It made me think. It made me question why I liked one character over another, what made me uncomfortable about Mara, and why I found her off-putting. As a work of activism, I think So Lucky lands its punches well. People like me wanting comfort instead of truth is part of how people with disabilities are treated in society, and not a very attractive part. But at the same time, I read books for pleasure. I'm not sure how to reconcile those conflicting goals.

So Lucky is a Griffith novel, so the descriptions are gorgeous and the quality of the writing is exceptional. Griffith gives each moment a heft and weight and physicality. The relationships in this book worked for me in all their complexity, even when I was furious at Mara for breaking hers. And Griffith's descriptions of physical bodies, touching and feeling and being in each other's spaces, remain the best of any author I've read. If the plot works better for you than it did for me, there's a lot here to enjoy.

I can't quite recommend it, or at least as much as I hoped I could. But I think some people will love it.

One final note: I keep seeing reviews and blurbs about this book that describe it as an autobiographical novel, and it irritates me every time. It's not autobiographical. Yes, Griffith and the protagonist both have MS, are both lesbians, and both taught self-defense. But Griffith has put lesbians, self-defense teachers, and people with MS in many of her books. Mara runs a charitable organization; Griffith is a writer. Mara's relationships are a mess; Griffith has been happily married for nearly 25 years. I'm sure Griffith drew heavily on her own reactions to MS to write this novel, as novelists do, but that doesn't make Mara a self-insert or make this fictional story an autobiography. Disabled authors can write disabled protagonists without making the story non-fiction. It's weirdly dismissive to cast the book this way, to take away Griffith's technique and imagination and ability to invent character and situation and instead classify the book as some sort of transcription of her own life. And I don't think it would happen if it weren't for the common disability.

This is identifying people as their disability, and it's lazy and wrong and exclusionary. Stop doing this.

Rating: 5 out of 10

Last spun 2018-12-04 from thread modified 2008-08-13