Eagle's Path

Passion and dispassion. Choose two.

Larry Wall

2016-10-23: Review: The Design of Everyday Things

Review: The Design of Everyday Things, by Don Norman

Publisher Basic Books
Copyright 2013
ISBN 0-465-05065-4
Format Trade paperback
Pages 298

There are several editions of this book (the first under a different title, The Psychology of Everyday Things). This review is for the Revised and Expanded Edition, first published in 2013 and quite significantly revised compared to the original. I probably read at least some of the original for a class in human-computer interaction around 1994, but that was long enough ago that I didn't remember any of the details.

I'm not sure how much impact this book has had outside of the computer field, but The Design of Everyday Things is a foundational text of HCI (human-computer interaction) despite the fact that many of its examples and much of its analysis is not specific to computers. Norman's goal is clearly to write a book that's fundamental to the entire field of design; not having studied the field, I don't know if he succeeded, but the impact on computing was certainly immense. This is the sort of book that everyone ends up hearing about, if not necessarily reading, in college. I was looking forward to filling a gap in my general knowledge.

Having now read it cover-to-cover, would I recommend others invest the time? Maybe. But probably not.

There are several things this book does well. One of the most significant is that it builds a lexicon and a set of general principles that provide a way of talking about design issues. Lexicons are not the most compelling reading material (see also Design Patterns), but having a common language is useful. I still remember affordances from college (probably from this book or something else based on it). Norman also adds, and defines, signifiers, constraints, mappings, and feedback, and talks about the human process of building a conceptual model of the objects with which one is interacting.

Even more useful, at least in my opinion, is the discussion of human task-oriented behavior. The seven stages of action is a great systematic way of analyzing how humans perform tasks, where those actions can fail, and how designers can help minimize failure. One thing I particularly like about Norman's presentation here is the emphasis on the feedback cycle after performing a task, or a step in a task. That feedback, and what makes good or poor feedback, is (I think) an underappreciated part of design and something that too often goes missing. I thought Norman was a bit too dismissive of simple beeps as feedback (he thinks they don't carry enough information; while that's not wrong, I think they're far superior to no feedback at all), but the emphasis on this point was much appreciated.

Beyond these dry but useful intellectual frameworks, though, Norman seems to have a larger purpose in The Design of Everyday Things: making a passionate argument for the importance of design and for not tolerating poor design. This is where I think his book goes a bit off the rails.

I can appreciate the boosterism of someone who feels an aspect of creating products is underappreciated and underfunded. But Norman hammers on the unacceptability of bad design to the point of tedium, and seems remarkably intolerant of, and unwilling to confront, the reasons why products may be released with poor designs for their eventual users. Norman clearly wishes that we would all boycott products with poor designs and prize usability above most (all?) other factors in our decisions. Equally clearly, this is not happening, and Norman knows it. He even describes some of the reasons why not, most notably (and most difficultly) the fact that the purchasers of many products are not the eventual users. Stoves are largely sold to builders, not kitchen cooks. Light switches are laid out for the convenience of the electrician; here too, the motive for the builder to spend additional money on better lighting controls is unclear. So much business software is purchased by people who will never use it directly, and may have little or no contact with the people who do. These layers of economic separation result in deep disconnects of incentive structure between product manufacturers and eventual consumers.

Norman acknowledges this, writes about it at some length, and then seems to ignore the point entirely, returning to ranting about the deficiencies of obviously poor design and encouraging people to care more about design. This seems weirdly superficial in this foundational of a book. I came away half-convinced that these disconnects of incentive (and some related problems, such as the unwillingness to invest in proper field research or the elaborate, expensive, and lengthy design process Norman lays out as ideal) are the primary obstacle in the way of better-designed consumer goods. If that's the case, then this is one of the largest, if not the largest, obstacle in the way of doing good design, and I would have expected this foundational of a book to tackle it head-on and provide some guidance for how to fight back against this problem. But Norman largely doesn't.

There is some mention of this in the introduction. Apparently much of the discussion of the practical constraints on product design in the business world was added in this revised edition, and perhaps what I'm seeing is the limitations of attempting to revise an existing text. But that also implies that the original took an even harder line against poor design. Throughout, Norman is remarkably high-handed in his dismissal of bad design, focusing more on condemnation than on an investigation of why bad design might happen and what we, as readers, can learn from that process to avoid repeating it. Norman does provide extensive analysis of the design process and the psychology of human interaction, but still left me with the impression that he believes most design failures stem from laziness and stupidity. The negativity and frustration got a bit tedious by the middle of the book.

There's quite a lot here that someone working in design, particularly interface design, should be at least somewhat familiar with: affordances, signifiers, the importance of feedback, the psychological model of tasks and actions, and the classification of errors, just to name a few. However, I'm not sure this book is the best medium for learning those things. I found it a bit tedious, a bit too arrogant, and weirdly unconcerned with feasible solutions to the challenge of mismatched incentives. I also didn't learn that much from it; while the concepts here are quite important, most of them I'd picked up by osmosis from working in the computing field for twenty years.

In that way, The Design of Everyday Things reminded me a great deal of the Gang of Four's Design Patterns, even though it's a more readable book and less of an exercise in academic classification. The concepts presented are useful and important, but I'm not sure I can recommend the book as a book. It may be better to pick up the same concepts as you go, with the help of Internet searches and shorter essays.

Rating: 6 out of 10

2016-10-17: pgpcontrol 2.5

pgpcontrol is the collection of the original signing and verification scripts that David Lawrence wrote (in Perl) for verification of Usenet control messages. I took over maintenance of it, with a few other things, but haven't really done much with it. It would benefit a lot from an overhaul of both the documentation and the code, and turning it into a more normal Perl module and supporting scripts.

This release is none of those things. It's just pure housekeeping, picking up changes made by other people (mostly Julien ÉLIE) to the copies of the scripts in INN and making a few minor URL tweaks. But I figured I may as well, rather than distribute old versions of the scripts.

You can tell how little I've done with this stuff by noting that they don't even have a distribution page on my web site. The canonical distribution site is ftp.isc.org, although I'm not sure if that site will pick up the new release. (This relies on a chain of rsync commands that have been moved multiple times since the last time I pushed the release button, and I suspect that has broken.) I'll ping someone about possibly fixing that; in the meantime, you can find the files on archives.eyrie.org.

2016-10-10: remctl 3.13

remctl is a client and server that forms a very simple remote RPC system, normally authenticated with Kerberos, although including a remctl-shell variant that works over ssh.

This release adds forced-command support for remctl-shell, which allows it to work without enabling setting environment variables in authorized_keys. This may be a preferrable configuration to using it as an actual shell.

Also in this release, the summary configuration option is allowed for commands with subcommands other than ALL, which allows proper generation of command summaries even for users who only have access to a few subcommands of a command. It also adds some build system support for building binaries with -fPIE.

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

2016-10-10: rra-c-util 6.1

This is my collection of supporting libraries, Autoconf macros, and test code for various projects.

This release fixes return-value checks for snprintf to avoid a few off-by-one errors (none of which should have been exploitable, but better to be safe and correct). It adds a new RRA_PROG_CC_FLAG macro to test compiler support for a specific flag and a new RRA_PROG_CC_WARNINGS_FLAGS macro to probe for all the flags I use as my standard make warnings target. And it fixes some problems with one utility due to the removal of the current directory from @INC in the latest Perl release.

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

2016-10-04: Review: Uprooted

Review: Uprooted, by Naomi Novik

Publisher Del Rey
Copyright 2015
Printing 2016
ISBN 0-8041-7904-2
Format Kindle
Pages 465

Agnieszka lives in a small peasant village on the border of the Wood. The malevolent forest is the source of dark corruption, illnesses that turn people into ravaging monsters, and lures and traps for the unwary who disappear into the Wood. Or, worse, return and appear the same, and then do horrific things, smiling all the time.

This neighboring storehouse of horrors is not what occupies Agnieszka's thoughts at the start of the book, however. Instead, it's the village's protector against the Wood: the Dragon. The Dragon is not a flying lizard; he's a man, a wizard who has lived in his tower for living memory and fights back against the Wood with magic. And, once every ten years, he takes a girl from a village. They go to his tower and serve him for ten years, and then leave, generally to move to some far-away city and never return to their village. Each says afterwards that the Dragon never did anything untoward to them. No one entirely believes them.

Agnieszka was born in the year that makes her one of the candidates for being taken by the Dragon. But that's not what she's worried about. She's known for certain since she was a small child that her best friend, Kasia, would be the one taken by the Dragon. Kasia was always the exceptional one: the most beautiful, the most talented, the one who stood out among all the girls in the neighboring villages. And she's about to be taken out of Agnieszka's life, to a mysterious and unknown fate.

It will hopefully surprise no fantasy reader (and hence not be much of a spoiler) that awkward Agnieszka, who can't keep her dress unstained for more than five minutes and has none of the skills that Kasia has, is the one the Dragon chooses.

I think a warning is important here, since I'm about to recommend this book highly. However, it is very fond of its stereotypes. Most of the other wizards are men, and they focus on books and formal understanding of magic. The one female wizard whose magic we see in some detail is a smith described as wearing male clothing. Uprooted then introduces a different type of magic that's much more intuitive, described largely through natural metaphors, and doesn't play well with formal rules... and is practiced by a woman. This is, unfortunately, persistently gendered, although the book never comes right out and calls it female magic. There are also quite a few traditional gender roles scattered through the rest of the book (although it does get a bit of a pass due to its obvious deep roots in traditional fairy tales).

Uprooted is still an excellent book despite this, but it's best read when you're in the mood to tolerate this sort of story. If you go in feeling irritated about gender stereotypes, you'll probably get frustrated by the book, overwhelming its merits. Best saved for a forgiving mood (or skipped entirely if this style of story just doesn't sound fun).

The beginning of Uprooted is about Agnieszka finding her feet in her bizarre arrangement with the Dragon, who turns out to be nothing like what either she or the reader expected. I think her panic and confusion drags on a little long, but Novik makes up for that by the delightful descriptions of Agnieszka's eventual understanding and the Dragon's frustrated consternation. Fantasy is full of prickly, arrogant wizards, but few have felt quite so human to me as the Dragon. Agnieszka is clearly nothing like he expected or like he's dealt with before, and his path from arrogant contempt to outrage to prickly confusion to uncomfortable respect is a delight.

This is, of course, a coming-of-age story for Agnieszka, and by the end the book deals with both the origins of the Wood and some sort of resolution. But the path there wanders through an exploration of a rather interesting magic system, quite a lot of court intrigue, and Agnieszka persistently defying everyone's expectations. As with the introductory panic and confusion, I could have done with less of her awkward bumbling at court (in general, I think the book could have been a bit tighter), but once I reached the second half of the book I couldn't put it down. I've previously read a fair chunk of Novik's Temeraire series, which were fun (at least in spots), but Uprooted is definitely better.

There is a fair bit of horror-tinged stuff in this book, as well as the stereotypes mentioned above, so it won't be for everyone. But I usually hate horror of any kind, and I still loved this. Agnieszka is sufficiently positive and solution-focused that the story never falls into the constant fear and panic and disgust that I particularly dislike in horror. If you're in the mood for a good fantasy coming-of-age story coupled with delightful disruption of the life of a prickly, cynical, but surprisingly ethical wizard, give this one a try.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2016-10-02: Review: Winds of Fury

Review: Winds of Fury, by Mercedes Lackey

Series Mage Winds #3
Publisher DAW
Copyright August 1994
ISBN 0-88677-612-0
Format Mass market
Pages 427

This is the concluding book of the Mage Winds trilogy and a direct sequel to Winds of Change. This series doesn't make sense to read out of order.

In traditional fantasy trilogies of this type, the third book is often the best. The author can stop developing characters, building the world, and setting the scene and can get to the meat of the story. All the guns on the mantles go off, all the twists the author has been saving can be used, and there's usually a lot more action than in the second book of a trilogy. That is indeed the case here. I'm not sure Winds of Fury rises to the level of a good book, but if you're invested in the Valdemar story, it works better than the previous books of this series.

As one might expect, the protagonists do return to Valdemar, finally. The method of that return makes sense of some things that happened in Winds of Change and is an entertaining surprise, although I wish more had been done with it through the rest of the book and we'd gotten more world-building details. I also like how Lackey handles the Valdemar reactions to the returning protagonists, and their own reactions to Valdemar. Lackey's characters might fit some heavy-handed stereotypes a bit too neatly, but they do grow and change over the course of a series, and the return home is a good technique for showing that.

Lackey also throws in her final twist for the villains of this series at the start of this book, and it's a good one (if typical Lackey; she does love her abused youth characters). The villains are still far too one-dimensional and far too stereotyped evil, but the twist (which I'll avoid spoiling) does make that dynamic a bit more interesting. And she manages to get the reader to root for one evil over another, since one of them is at least competent.

You'd think from the direction the series was taking that Winds of Fury would culminate in another epic war of magic, but not this book. Lackey takes a more personal and targeted approach, heavier on characterization and individual challenge. This gives Firesong a chance to grow into an almost-likable character and earn some of that empathy and insight that he'd gotten for free. Unfortunately, it sidelines Nyara a lot, and pushes her back into a stereotyped role, which made me sad. The series otherwise emphasizes the importance of magic users who know their own limitations and can thoughtfully use the power they have, but rarely extends that to Nyara herself. I would have much rather seen her play a role like that in the final climax instead of the one she played.

This is partly made up for by centering Need in the story and having her play the key connecting role between two different threads of effort. Those are probably the best parts of this book. I wish the entire series had been told from Need's perspective, with a heavy helping of exasperated grumbling, although I don't think Lackey could have written that series. But what we get of her is a delight. The gryphons, sadly, are relegated to fairly minor roles, but we get a few more tantalizing hints about the Companions to make up for it. (Although not enough to figure out their great mystery, which isn't revealed until future books.)

This series is nowhere near as good as I remembered, sadly, but I did enjoy bits of it. If you like Valdemar in general, the world building is fairly important and reveals quite a lot about the underpinnings and power dynamics of Lackey's universe. I'm not sure that makes up for some tedious characters, poor communication, and some uncomfortable and dragging sections, but if you're trying to get the whole Valdemar story, the events here are rather important. And this ending was at least entertaining, if not great fiction.

Rating: 6 out of 10

2016-10-01: Review: Winds of Change

Review: Winds of Change, by Mercedes Lackey

Series Mage Winds #2
Publisher DAW
Copyright August 1993
ISBN 0-88677-563-9
Format Mass market
Pages 475

Winds of Change is a direct sequel to Winds of Fate. This is a more closely connected trilogy than the previous Valdemar books. It's not the sort of thing you want to read out of order.

The events of Winds of Fate predictably left the multiple protagonists united and with some breathing space, but none of their problems are resolved. The Heartstone is still a mess; in fact, it may be getting worse. Elspeth needs to learn how to wield the magical power she apparently has. And there are a lot of interpersonal tensions, lingering hurt feelings, and (in the case of Elspeth and Darkwind) a truly prodigious quantity of whining that has to be worked through before the protagonists can feel safe and happy.

Winds of Change is the training montage book, and wow did my memory paper over a lot of flaws in this series. This is 475 pages of not much happening, occasionally in very irritating ways. Yes, we do finally meander to a stronger conclusion than the last book, and there is much resolving of old hurts and awkward interactions, as well as a bit of discovery of true love (this is Lackey, after all). But far, far too much of the book is Elspeth and Darkwind sniping at each other, being immature, not communicating, and otherwise being obnoxious while all the people around them try to gently help. Lackey's main characterization flaw for me is that she tends to default into generating characters who badly need to be smacked upside the head, and then does so in ways and for things at odd angles to the reasons why I think they should be smacked. It can make for frustrating reading.

The introduction of Firesong as a character about halfway through this book does not help. Firesong is a flamboyant, amazingly egotistical, and stunningly arrogant show-off who also happens to be a magical super-genius and hence has "earned" his arrogance. This is an intentional character design, not my idiosyncratic reaction to the character, since every other character in the book finds him insufferable as well at first. But he's also a deeply insightful healing Adept by, honestly, authorial fiat, so by the end of the novel he's helped patch up everyone's problems and the other characters have accepted his presentation as a character quirk.


So, okay, one doesn't read popcorn fantasy for its deep characterization or realistic grasp of human subtlety. But this is just way more than I can swallow. Lackey's concept of a healing Adept (which I like a great deal as a bit of world-building) necessarily involves both deep knowledge and deep empathy and connection with other people. Firesong is so utterly full of himself that there's simply no way that he could have the empathy required to do what he is shown to do here. (Lackey does try to explain this away in the book, but the explanation didn't work for me.) Every time he successfully intervenes in other people's emotional lives, he does so with a sudden personality change, some stunning insight that he previously showed no evidence of ability to understand, and somehow only enough arrogance in his presentation to prickle but not to close people's mind to whatever he's trying to say.

That's not how this works. That's not how any of this works. Lackey always treats psychology as a bit of a blunt instrument, and one either learns to tolerate that or gives up on her series, but Firesong is flatly the most unbelievable emotional mentor figure in any of her books I've read. (One of the more satisfying, if slight, bits of this series comes up in the next book, where Firesong runs into someone else who can do the same thing but has actually earned the empathy the hard way, and is a bit taken aback by it.)

My other complaint with this book is that Lackey adds more chapters from the viewpoint of the big bad of the series. These are deeply unpleasant, since he's a deeply unpleasant person, and seem largely unnecessary. It's vaguely interesting to follow the magical maneuverings from both sides, but there are more of these scenes than strictly necessary for that purpose, and the sheer unmitigated evil of Lackey's evil characters is a bit hard to take. Also, he somehow has vast resources of staff and assistants, and much suspension of disbelief is required to believe that anyone would continue working for this person. It's one thing to imagine people being drawn to a charismatic Hitler type; it's quite another when the boss is a brooding, imperious asshole who roams the hallways and tortures random people to death whenever he's bored. Fear and magic only go so far in maintaining a large following when you do that, and he generates dead bodies at a remarkable rate.

The best characters in this series continue to be Nyara, Need, and the gryphons. I'd rather read a book just about them. Need does use a bit too much of Lackey's tough love technique (another recurring theme of this larger series), but from Need that's wholly believable; her gruff and dubious empathy is in line with her character and history and fits a talking sword extremely well. But they, despite having a bit of their own training montage, are a side story here. The climax of the story is moderately satisfying, but the book takes far too long to get to it.

I remember liking this series when I first read it, and I still like some aspects of Lackey's world-building and a few of the characters, but it's much weaker than I had remembered. I can't really recommend it.

Followed by Winds of Fury.

Rating: 5 out of 10

2016-09-30: Review: Sailing to Sarantium

Review: Sailing to Sarantium, by Guy Gavriel Kay

Series Sarantine Mosaic #1
Publisher HarperPrism
Copyright 1998
Printing January 2000
ISBN 0-06-105990-0
Format Mass market
Pages 533

Crispin is a well-respected mosaicist, a Rhodian, heir to a long tradition of artistic accomplishment. Rhodias is largely in ruins, and the kings that fight over its land are far removed from the emperors of Rhodias at its height, but there's still demand for skilled craftsmanship. Crispin has a partner, assistants, and the opportunity to do at least adequate work. It's not a bad life, or at least wasn't before plague took his wife and daughters while he watched, helpless. Now, he's closed off, angry, and consumed by fatalism and futility.

His partner, Martinian, could never say why, when the imperious and obnoxious courier came from the far-off and half-legendary of Sarantium to summon him to assist with the rebuilding of the Sanctuary of Jad, he pretended not to be himself and pointed the courier at Crispin instead. Nor was Crispin entirely sure why he played along, although the courier was so arrogant and officious that he invited such treatment. He had no intention of going in Martinian's place and name until his friends intervened, united in their conviction that he needed something to focus on and a reason to live.

But nothing about Sarantium is simple. Even before Crispin leaves, the local queen, precariously balancing between warring factions, reveals her own reason to send Crispin to the capital of the far-off empire: using him as a desperate messenger to propose an alliance through marriage. And when he finally arrives, after unexpected perils on the road, he tumbles immediately into the deep complexities of the Sarantine court and its remarkable rulers.

Most of Guy Gavriel Kay's work is historical fiction with the serial numbers partly filed off and some magic added. The degree to which the serial numbers are removed varies by work; here, the history is obvious. Sarantium is Byzantium, fallen Rhodias is Rome, and the emperor Valerius and his former dancer empress Alixana are clearly Justinian and Theodora. Knowing that will provide a lot of context, but can also be distracting, since the temptation to scramble for Wikipedia and line things up with real history is strong. I read this book the first time without knowing the history and this second time knowing it. I think I enjoyed it a bit more on its own terms, instead of as a reflection and reinterpretation. Either way, though, it's one of Kay's best novels, which is saying quite a bit.

Sailing to Sarantium has two very different parts: Crispin's journey to Sarantium, and then what happens when he arrives. The first is a fairly linear travel narrative mixed with old religion, magic, and an experience in the woods that's a little disconnected from the rest of the story. The second is the fast-entangling politics and factionalism of the city itself, which wastes no time pulling Crispin into meetings with the most influential people at court.

In my memory, I liked the Sarantium narrative the best, and found the travel story less significant. Re-reading, I'm not sure I agree with my earlier self. Kay does write some of the best conversations in fiction; if you want to see careful verbal maneuvering or gut reactions with wide-ranging consequences, I can't think of any author who shows both the words and the nuances as well as Kay. He makes the court maneuvering feel truly epic. Watching Crispin's blunt competence cut through the Sarantine court, and seeing him stay focused on his life work despite all those distractions, is a truly rewarding experience. But that second part of the book also has some structural problems, and a few characterization problems.

The structural problem is that Kay wants to tell the same story from multiple angles, viewpoints, and timelines to show the reader every implication of the hornet's nest that Crispin kicks over, since quite a lot happens in the course of one day and night. This mostly works, but it is so laden with flashbacks, foreshadowing, and rewinds that I started losing track of the time relationship between the scenes. Kay is a very skilled author, so he avoids confusing the reader entirely, but I think he still tried too complex of a temporal structure here.

The characterization problem is that I previously wasn't paying as close of attention to Kay's portrayal of women and of male sexual reactions to women. It didn't bother me before; this time, it started getting on my nerves. Yes, this is historical fiction (although limitations on roles for women in history is rather overstated in fiction), and to give Kay credit it does feature a very strong female character in Alixana. But the male protector and female seducer dynamic is very strong, and all the women in this book seem to get shoehorned into it. And perhaps I'm missing some weakness that other men have, but I have never had the sort of overwhelming, thought-destroying reaction to the presence of a seductive woman as Kay's men seem to routinely have in this book. To give Crispin credit, he maneuvers his way through those conversations without doing anything stupid. (Kay's characters very rarely do stupid things, which is refreshing.) But the effort required started undermining my suspension of disbelief. Even making allowances for a culture that might consider a woman with her hair down the equivalent of an entirely nude woman, I simply don't believe that a man who had been married with two daughters, had a long career, and had the life experience Crispin had would have that much difficulty with an aggressively seductive woman that he already doesn't trust.

As a result, as much as I love Kay's political conversational fencing, I enjoyed the travel portion of the book more on this re-read. Crispin is a type of character Kay writes extremely well: an honest, honorable man trying to navigate unfamiliar waters without a lot of context, but with a firm sense of internal morality, a lot of natural intelligence, and a true passion for something. At one point in this book, another character decides to walk away from his current job and follow Crispin wherever he goes. Kay makes you believe that and want to do it yourself. It's a very rewarding experience as a reader to watch a character you can trust find careful, courageous, and tricky solutions to complicated problems.

But I think the best part of this book is Kay's ability to put Crispin's art, the creation of mosaics, on the page in a way that lets the reader viscerally appreciate it. Crispin is passionate about mosaics, about how to make them and how to think about them, and the passion is contagious and forms the heart and soul of this novel. Kay manages to make mosaics overshadow some of the most dramatic politics in history, which says quite a lot. There is almost nothing I love more than reading about talented, passionate people doing things they are extremely good at. I know nothing about mosaic that I haven't read in this book and its sequel, so I have no basis from which to judge the accuracy of Kay's portrayal, but he made me feel like I could appreciate some of the nuance, skill, and design constraints of the art form. It's a wonderful reading experience.

Sailing to Sarantium is best thought of half of a long book that was divided for publication reasons, so don't expect much of an ending here. It can only be read in combination with Lord of Emperors, which you'll want to have on hand when you finish this book so that you can continue the story.

Followed by Lord of Emperors.

Rating: 9 out of 10

2016-09-24: podlators 4.08

A new release of the distribution that provides Pod::Man and Pod::Text for Perl documentation formatting.

The impetus for this release is fixing a rendering bug in Pod::Man that spewed stray bits of half-escaped *roff into the man page for the text "TRUE (1)". This turned out to be due to two interlocking bugs in the dark magic regexes that try to fix up formatting to make man pages look a bit better: incorrect double-markup in both small caps and as a man page reference, and incorrect interpretation of the string "\s0(1)". Both are fixed in this release.

podlators 4.00 changed Pod::Man to make piping POD through pod2man on standard input without providing the --name option an error, since there was no good choice for the man page title. This turned out to be too disruptive: the old behavior of tolerating this had been around for too long, and I got several bug reports. Since I think backward compatibility is extremely important for these tools, I've backed down from this change, and now Pod::Man and pod2man just silently use the man page name "STDIN" (which still fixes the original problem of being reproducible).

It is, of course, still a good idea to provide the name option when dealing with standard input, since "STDIN" isn't a very good man page title.

This release also adds new --lquote and --rquote options to pod2man to set the quote marks independently, and removes a test that relied on a POD construct that is going to become an error in Pod::Simple.

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

2016-08-14: Review: Winds of Fate

Review: Winds of Fate, by Mercedes Lackey

Series Mage Winds #1
Publisher DAW
Copyright 1991
Printing July 1992
ISBN 0-88677-516-7
Format Mass market
Pages 460

As a kid working my way through nearly everything in the children's section of the library, I always loved book series, since it meant I could find a lot more of something I liked. But children's book series tended to be linear, with a well-defined order. When I moved into the adult SF section, I encountered a new type of series: one that moves backwards and forwards in time to fill in a broader story.

I mention that here because Winds of Fate, although well into the linked series that make up Valdemar, was one of the first Valdemar books I read. (I think it was the first, but my memory is hazy.) Therefore, in my brain, this is where the story of Valdemar "begins": with Elspeth, a country that has other abilities but has forgotten about magic, a rich world full of various approaches to magic, and very pushy magic horses. Talia's story, and particularly Vanyel's, were always backstory, the events that laid the groundwork for Elspeth's story. (I didn't encounter Tarma and Kethry until somewhat later.)

Read now in context, this is obviously not the case. The Mage Winds trilogy, of which this is the first book, are clearly sequels to the Arrows of the Queen trilogy. Valdemar was victorious in the first round of war with Ancar, but the Heralds have slowly (and with great difficulty) become aware of their weakness against magic and their surprising lack of it. Elspeth has grown into the role of heir, but she's also one of the few who find it easy to talk about and think about magic (perhaps due to her long association with Kerowyn, who came into Valdemar from the outside world in By the Sword). She therefore takes on the mission of finding an Adept who can return to Valdemar, solve the mystery of whatever is keeping magic out of the kingdom, and start training mages for the kingdom again.

Meanwhile, we get the first viewpoint character from the Tayledras: the elf-inspired mages who work to cleanse the Pelagiris forests from magic left over from a long-ago war. They appeared briefly in Vanyel's story, since his aunt was friends with a farther-north tribe of them and Valdemar of the time had contact with mages. Darkwind and his people are far to the south, up against the rim of the Dhorisha crater. Something has gone horribly wrong with Heartstone of the k'Sheyna, his tribe: it cracked when being drained, killing most of the experienced mages including Darkwind's mother, and now it is subtly wrong, twisting and undermining the normal flow of magic inside their Vale. In the aftermath of that catastrophe, Darkwind has forsworn magic and become a scout, putting him sharply at odds with his father. And it's a matter of time before less savory magic users in the area realize how vulnerable k'Sheyna is.

Up to this point in the Valdemar series, Lackey primarily did localized world-building to support the stories and characters she was writing about. Valdemar and its Heralds and Companions have been one of the few shared elements, and only rarely did the external magic-using world encounter them. Here, we get the first extended contact between the fairly naive Heralds and experienced mages who understand how they and their Companions fit into the broader system of magic. We also finally get the origin of the Dhorisha Plains and the Tayledras and Shin'a'in, and a much better sense of the broader history of this world. And Need, which started as Kethry's soul-bonded sword and then became Kerowyn's, joins the story in a much more active way.

The world-building is a definite feature if you like this sort of thing. It doesn't withstand too much thinking about the typical sword and sorcery lack of technology, but for retroactive coherence constructed from originally scattered stories, it's pretty fun. (I suspect part of why I like the Valdemar world-building is that it feels a lot like large shared universe world-building in comics.) And Need is the high point of the story: she brings a much-needed cynical stubbornness to the cast and is my favorite character in this book.

What is not a feature, unfortunately, is the characterization. Darkwind is okay but a largely unremarkable here, more another instance of the troubled but ethical Tayledras type than a clearly defined character. But Elspeth is just infuriating, repeatedly making decisions and taking hard positions that seem entirely unwarranted by the recorded events of the book. This is made worse by how frequently she's shown to be correct in ways that seem like authorial cheating. At times, it feels like she's the heroine by authorial fiat, not because she's doing a particularly good job. I can muster some sympathy for not wanting to follow the plan of the Companions when it became clear they were acting entirely out of character and actively intervening, but she expresses that with petulant, childish insistence rather than reasoned argument. And she suddenly decides Skif is in love with her and treating her like a fragile princess on the basis of absolutely no action that occurs on camera in this book so far as I can tell, and proceeds to treat him like dirt for large sections of the book. That Skif then lives down to this suddenly negative impression doesn't help.

This book also has quite a lot of the U-shaped story arc in which everything gets worse and more horrific and more hopeless for the heroes over the course of the book until it turns into torture, and only then do they manage to claw their way back out. I've come to dislike this way of building tension. It's undeniably effective, but the parts of the story near the bottom of the U are difficult and painful reading. I prefer a bit more evenly-spread hurt/comfort storytelling in my popcorn fantasy reading.

Winds of Fate is, sadly, not a very good book. Most of the characterization is intensely irritating, the writing is a bit uneven, and the middle section of the book is rather painful to read. For me, though, that's balanced by the world-building and the sense of broadened scope, by Need's abrasive decisiveness, and by some really entertaining reactions to the combination of Elspeth, Need, and her Companion walking naive into the broader world. I still have a fond spot in my heart for it, but I'm hoping the remaining books of the trilogy are better.

Rating: 6 out of 10

2016-08-14: Summer haul

The reality is that I've just not been reading very much, as you can probably tell from the lack of reviews here. Lots of other things have been occupying my time, including rather too much on-line political reading eating into my off-line book reading. But hope springs eternal, so more books have been acquired in the interim. Since I use these posts to keep myself from buying duplicates, in the absence of a real database that I've not yet written or set up, here they are:

Mishell Baker — Borderline (sff)
Curtis C. Chen — Waypoint Kangaroo (sff)
Mark Forster — Secrets of Productive People (nonfiction)
Yoon Ha Lee — Ninefox Gambit (sff)
Seanan McGuire — Every Heart a Doorway (sff)
Don Norman — The Design of Everyday Things (nonfiction)
Kristina Rizga — Mission High (nonfiction)
John Scalzi — Lock In (sff)

This a pretty random collection of things from authors I know I like, non-fiction that looked really interesting from on-line reviews, the next book for book club reading for work (The Design of Everyday Things, which I've somehow never managed to read), and the first SF novel by an old college friend of mine (Waypoint Kangaroo by Curtis Chen).

2016-08-13: git-pbuilder 1.42

A minor update to my glue script for building software with pdebuild and git-buildpackage. (Yes, still needs to get rewritten in Python.)

This release stops using the old backport location for oldstable builds since oldstable is now wheezy, which merged the backports archive into the regular archive location. The old location is still there for squeeze just in case anyone needs it.

It also adds a new environment variable, GIT_PBUILDER_PDEBUILDOPTIONS, that can be used to pass options directly to pdebuild. Previously, there was only a way to pass options to the builder, via pdebuild, but not to configure pdebuild itself. There are some times when that's useful, such as to pass --use-pdebuild-internal. This was based on a patch from Rafał Długołęcki.

You can get the latest version of git-pbuilder from my scripts page.

2016-07-29: remctl 3.12

This release adds a new, experimental server implementation: remctl-shell. As its name implies, this is designed to be run as a shell of a dedicated user rather than as a server. It does not use the remctl protocol, instead relying on ssh to pass in the command and user information (via special authorized_keys configuration). But it supports the same configuration as the normal remctl server. It can be useful for allowing remctl-style simple RPC in environments that only use ssh public key authentication.

Also in this release is a new configuration option, sudo, which is like the existing user option to run a command as another user but uses sudo instead of calling setuid() directly. This allows the server to switch users when running as a non-root user, which will be the normal case for remctl-shell.

The remctl-shell implementation in this release should be considered a first draft and is likely to improve in the future. (I already have a list of things that probably should be improved.)

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

2016-07-23: Review: The Run of His Life

Review: The Run of His Life, by Jeffrey Toobin

Publisher Random House
Copyright 1996, 1997
Printing 2015
ISBN 0-307-82916-2
Format Kindle
Pages 498

The O.J. Simpson trial needs little introduction to anyone who lived through it in the United States, but a brief summary for those who didn't.

O.J. Simpson is a Hall of Fame football player and one of the best running backs to ever play the game. He's also black, which is very relevant much of what later happened. After he retired from professional play, he became a television football commentator and a spokesperson for various companies (particularly Hertz, a car rental business). In 1994, he was arrested for the murder of two people: his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ron Goldman (a friend of Nicole's). The arrest happened after a bizarre low-speed police chase across Los Angeles in a white Bronco that was broadcast live on network television. The media turned the resulting criminal trial into a reality TV show, with live cable television broadcasts of all of the court proceedings. After nearly a full year of trial (with the jury sequestered for nine months — more on that later), a mostly black jury returned a verdict of not guilty after a mere four hours of deliberation.

Following the criminal trial, in an extremely unusual legal proceeding, Simpson was found civilly liable for Ron Goldman's death in a lawsuit brought by his family. Bizarre events surrounding the case continued long afterwards. A book titled If I Did It (with "if" in very tiny letters on the cover) was published, ghost-written but allegedly with Simpson's input and cooperation, and was widely considered a confession. Another legal judgment let the Goldman family get all the profits from that book's publication. In an unrelated (but also bizarre) incident in Las Vegas, Simpson was later arrested for kidnapping and armed robbery and is currently in prison until at least 2017.

It is almost impossible to have lived through the O.J. Simpson trial in the United States and not have formed some opinion on it. I was in college and without a TV set at the time, and even I watched some of the live trial coverage. Reactions to the trial were extremely racially polarized, as you might have guessed. A lot of black people believed at the time that Simpson was innocent (probably fewer now, given subsequent events). A lot of white people thought he was obviously guilty and was let off by a black jury for racial reasons. My personal opinion, prior to reading this book, was a common "third way" among white liberals: Simpson almost certainly committed the murders, but the racist Los Angeles police department decided to frame him for a crime that he did commit by trying to make the evidence stronger. That's a legitimate reason in the US justice system for finding someone innocent: the state has an obligation to follow correct procedure and treat the defendant fairly in order to get a conviction. I have a strong bias towards trusting juries; frequently, it seems that the media second-guesses the outcome of a case that makes perfect sense as soon as you see all the information the jury had (or didn't have).

Toobin's book changed my mind. Perhaps because I wasn't watching all of the coverage, I was greatly underestimating the level of incompetence and bad decision-making by everyone involved: the prosecution, the defense, the police, the jury, and the judge. This court case was a disaster from start to finish; no one involved comes away looking good. Simpson was clearly guilty given the evidence presented, but the case was so badly mishandled that it gave the jury room to reach the wrong verdict. (It's telling that, in the far better managed subsequent civil case, the jury had no trouble reaching a guilty verdict.)

The Run of His Life is a very detailed examination of the entire Simpson case, from the night of the murder through the end of the trial and (in an epilogue) the civil case. Toobin was himself involved in the media firestorm, breaking some early news of the defense's decision to focus on race in The New Yorker and then involved throughout the trial as a legal analyst, and he makes it clear when he becomes part of the story. But despite that, this book felt objective to me. There are tons of direct quotes, lots of clear description of the evidence, underlying interviews with many of the people involved to source statements in the book, and a comprehensive approach to the facts. I think Toobin is a bit baffled by the black reaction to the case, and that felt like a gap in the comprehensiveness and the one place where he might be accused of falling back on stereotypes and easy judgments. But other than hole, Toobin applies his criticism even-handedly and devastatingly to all parties.

I won't go into all the details of how Toobin changed my mind. It was a cumulative effect across the whole book, and if you're curious, I do recommend reading it. A lot was the detailed discussion of the forensic evidence, which was undermined for the jury at trial but looks very solid outside the hothouse of the case. But there is one critical piece that I would hope would be handled differently today, twenty years later, than it was by the prosecutors in that case: Simpson's history of domestic violence against Nicole. With what we now know about patterns of domestic abuse, the escalation to murder looks entirely unsurprising. And that history of domestic abuse was exceedingly well-documented: multiple external witnesses, police reports, and one actual prior conviction for spousal abuse (for which Simpson did "community service" that was basically a joke). The prosecution did a very poor job of establishing this history and the jury discounted it. That was a huge mistake by both parties.

I'll mention one other critical collection of facts that Toobin explains well and that contradicted my previous impression of the case: the relationship between Simpson and the police.

Today, in the era of Black Lives Matter, the routine abuse of black Americans by the police is more widely known. At the time of the murders, it was less recognized among white Americans, although black Americans certainly knew about it. But even in 1994, the Los Angeles police department was notorious as one of the most corrupt and racist big-city police departments in the United States. This is the police department that beat Rodney King. Mark Fuhrman, one of the police officers involved in the case (although not that significantly, despite his role at the trial), was clearly racist and had no business being a police officer. It was therefore entirely believable that these people would have decided to frame a black man for a murder he actually committed.

What Toobin argues, quite persuasively and with quite a lot of evidence, is that this analysis may make sense given the racial tensions in Los Angeles but ignores another critical characteristic of Los Angeles politics, namely a deference to celebrity. Prior to this trial, O.J. Simpson largely followed the path of many black athletes who become broadly popular in white America: underplaying race and focusing on his personal celebrity and connections. (Toobin records a quote from Simpson earlier in his life that perfectly captures this approach: "I'm not black, I'm O.J.") Simpson spent more time with white businessmen than the black inhabitants of central Los Angeles. And, more to the point, the police treated him as a celebrity, not as a black man.

Toobin takes some time to chronicle the remarkable history of deference and familiarity that the police showed Simpson. He regularly invited police officers to his house for parties. The police had a long history of largely ignoring or downplaying his abuse of his wife, including not arresting him in situations that clearly seemed to call for that, showing a remarkable amount of deference to his side of the story, not pursuing clear violations of the court judgment after his one conviction for spousal abuse, and never showing much inclination to believe or protect Nicole. Even on the night of the murder, they started following a standard playbook for giving a celebrity advance warning of investigations that might involve them before the news media found out about them. It seems clear, given the evidence that Toobin collected, that the racist Los Angeles police didn't focus that animus at Simpson, a wealthy celebrity living in Brentwood. He wasn't a black man in their eyes; he was a rich Hall of Fame football player and a friend.

This obviously raises the question of how the jury could return an innocent verdict. Toobin provides plenty of material to analyze that question from multiple angles in his detailed account of the case, but I can tell you my conclusion: Judge Lance Ito did a horrifically incompetent job of managing the case. He let the lawyers wander all over the case, interacted bizarrely with the media coverage (and was part of letting the media turn it into a daytime drama), was not crisp or clear about his standards of evidence and admissibility, and, perhaps worst of all, let the case meander on at incredible length. With a fully sequestered jury allowed only brief conjugal visits and no media contact (not even bookstore shopping!).

Quite a lot of anger was focused on the jury after the acquittal, and I do think they reached the wrong conclusion and had all the information they would have needed to reach the correct one. But Toobin touches on something that I think would be very hard to comprehend without having lived through it. The jury and alternate pool essentially lived in prison for nine months, with guards and very strict rules about contact with the outside world, in a country where compensation for jury duty is almost nonexistent. There were a lot of other factors behind their decision, including racial tensions and the sheer pressure from judging a celebrity case about which everyone has an opinion, but I think it's nearly impossible to underestimate the psychological tension and stress from being locked up with random other people under armed guard for three quarters of a year. It's hard for jury members to do an exhaustive and careful deliberation in a typical trial that takes a week and doesn't involve sequestration. People want to get back to their lives and families. I can only imagine the state I would be in after nine months of this, or how poor psychological shape I would be in to make a careful and considered decision.

Similarly, for those who condemned the jury for profiting via books and media appearances after the trial, the current compensation for jurors is $15 per day (not hour). I believe at the time it was around $5 per day. There are a few employers who will pay full salary for the entire jury service, but only a few; many cap the length at a few weeks, and some employers treat all jury duty as unpaid leave. The only legal requirement for employers in the United States is that employees that serve on a jury have their job held for them to return to, but compensation is pathetic, not tied to minimum wage, and employers do not have to supplement it. I'm much less inclined to blame the jurors than the system that badly mistreated them.

As you can probably tell from the length of this review, I found The Run of His Life fascinating. If I had followed the whole saga more closely at the time, this may have been old material, but I think my vague impressions and patchwork of assumptions were more typical than not among people who were around for the trial but didn't invest a lot of effort into following it. If you are like me, and you have any interest in the case or the details of how the US criminal justice system works, this is a fascinating case study, and Toobin does a great job with it. Recommended.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2016-07-02: Review: Coming Home

Review: Coming Home, by Jack McDevitt

Series Alex Benedict #7
Publisher Ace
Copyright November 2014
Printing November 2015
ISBN 0-425-26088-7
Format Mass market
Pages 356

Coming Home is a direct sequel to Firebird, the first time McDevitt has done that in this series. You therefore don't want to start here, although the nature of the sequel doesn't require that you remember Firebird in that much detail.

The mystery of the disappearing starships was understood in Firebird but not resolved. The title advertises that as a major theme in this book, but it progresses very slowly. There's more media bickering and various factional attempts to draw Alex (and, to a lesser extent, Chase) into the controversies. McDevitt does a good job writing popular media, the strange position of public intellectual and talk-show favorite, and the way this filters into popular arguments. But with Alex trying to take a nuanced and unsure position and with a lot of talk but little action, it's not the most compelling reading.

Coming Home holds to form in balancing a mystery and a second plot. Since the starship problem is understood, it can't be the central mystery of the book. That role is taken by the discovery of communication device from the very early days of space flight, which takes Alex and Chase to Earth for the first time in this series (at least that I can recall). This time, the search is for a legendary trove of historical artifacts that was moved from a space flight museum in Florida when the ocean rose to cover the state. From there, its location was lost in the middle of a general economic collapse called the Time of Troubles that destroyed most of Earth's governmental systems (and, apparently rather more importantly to McDevitt, the space program).

Anyone who has gotten this far in the series will know the standard problem with McDevitt's futures: they're indistinguishable from the 1960s except that they have flying cars. There is a tiny break from that tradition here, since climate change has clearly happened to Earth, covering Florida with the ocean and shifting the major cities north. But the sense of deep history that McDevitt is trying for in this series doesn't work: I just don't believe as much time has gone by as the story claims. He does offer an explanation for why technology has been stagnant for apparently millennia, but it's just a contention that science ran out of more things to discover due to authorial fiat and is now just a matter of engineering and step-wise refinement. (I think the science behind the disappearing starships happening in this very same book undermines that contention considerably.)

Even if one can put that aside, Earth is, well, boring. This is partly an intriguing stylistic choice by McDevitt: Earth is intended to be just one more world. It might have a longer history than many other human-occupied worlds, but history is so long everywhere that this only matters to a few people like Alex and Chase. The choice makes sense, but it doesn't make a good story. And there are other things that I flatly didn't believe, such as the supposed isolation of Earth from the communication network of Alex's home world of Rimway for... no apparent reason other than that different communication networks don't talk to each other except via, essentially, letters. Even if one is willing to ignore the mysterious failure of forward progress in technology, this makes no social or engineering sense given the capabilities already shown in the series.

I found the main mystery at best mildly interesting. McDevitt does a good job showing the research and investigation process, with all its tedium and dead ends, but I wasn't as invested in the search as he wanted me to be. The endless space boosterism started getting on my nerves, as it so often does in science fiction of a certain type, and I had a much harder time swallowing McDevitt's Earth than his fictional Rimway. I will give him credit for a surprisingly affecting conclusion of the main mystery, but the missing starship subplot putters to an undistinguished end.

I think this series is running out of steam. It's become increasingly formulaic, and the characters, like McDevitt's future technology, have stopped developing. I was hoping the reunion foreshadowed since Firebird would shake things up, but at least in this book it doesn't. Maybe it will in subsequent books, but I'm starting to question whether I really want to keep reading.

Rating: 5 out of 10

Last modified and spun 2016-10-24