Posts for February 2005

2005-02-02: Expendable

Review: Expendable, by James Alan Gardner

Publisher: Eos
Copyright: July 1997
ISBN: 0-380-79439-X
Pages: 337

In the far future, most of mankind has joined the League of Peoples, a collective of very advanced starfaring species with some strict rules about civilized behavior. Still, humans want to explore, and exploring is still dangerous. Explorers die a lot, and dead crew members are bad for morale. The death of an ugly person isn't as bad for morale as the death of a normal-looking person, though, and thus the idea of the Expendables is born.

An Expendable Crew Member is someone who was born with some sort of physical deformity that doesn't interfere with their mental acuity or ability to perform their job, but which makes them ugly. Most of these deformities are curable, but the Technocracy declines to do so since intelligent ugly people are too useful as explorers. ECMs get to do all of the interesting and dangerous work in space, and if they die, well, it's a lot easier for the crew to deal with.

Yes, I have a hard time writing this with a straight face.

The basic idea of this book is frankly absurd (and if you think that there's a subtle point being made about perceptions and judging books by their covers, rest assured that it isn't subtle in the slightest, nor is it particularly deep). The degree of coordination and effort this society would have to put into keeping chosen people ugly for a fairly marginal benefit in an area that governments are not well-known for caring much about is rather unbelievable. Caste systems that can be broken out of with the help of a single grey-market plastic surgeon using technology that is stated to be readily available aren't very convincing.

This in and of itself isn't a fatal problem, since it's played somewhat for laughs and clearly over the top, but the constant angst over personal appearance gets a little tiring after a while.

A more serious problem is that, after a pretty solid start and a nice humorous space opera background involving some enjoyably quirky characters, the book gets dragged into an extended low-tech meander across a not particularly interesting planet in the company of a one-trick semi-alien who acts like a spoiled ten-year-old. There are some interesting, if not particularly credible, ideas underlying the native species of this planet, but not interesting enough for the length of time spent on them. In a book with ideas that are mostly sight gags and don't hold up under a great deal of scrutiny, keeping things moving right along is very important and the middle third of the book just doesn't.

The last third improves slightly, with some okay if not particularly great action sequences involving a badly telegraphed villain (I saw all of the plot twists coming from pages away, and I don't try to see through plot twists). The world background just didn't retain enough credibility for me to swallow the ending, though. The constant focus on fairly shallow angst over physical appearance combined with the too-neat political solution thanks to the all-powerful, all-watching League of Peoples overseers who serve as a convenient way of altering human behavior to make the plot easier just didn't work for me.

It's a shame. I was hoping to like this book, as I'd previously read Trapped by the same author in a different portion of the same universe and liked it a great deal. This is his first novel, and I know he gets better later on, particularly with pacing. I see that he keeps using the Expendable concept in later books, and I'm curious to see if he manages to salvage it into something more believable. The League of Peoples idea is a very good one when it's not being used as a plot device, and his alien societies feel like they have the potential to be quite interesting. This book, though, while readable, isn't really worth the bother.

Rating: 5 out of 10

2005-02-09: Lots of web site work

I see I haven't made an entry in quite a while, mostly because I've been very busy with all sorts of projects (mostly work-related). As part of a larger work project to webify our internal documentation, I went through all of our AFS documentation, and that led me finally to finish writing up the AFS reporting database that we use and the balancing method that we use.

Also now available is the software to load the reporting database and the software to do the balancing.

I also moved a variety of notes that I had elsewhere over to my main web pages and updated several of them, so now my technical notes have more details and hints. There are still lots of other things that I've written at various times that I want to find, organize, and put up. It's an ongoing process.

There are some other AFS-related things linked in under notes, and will be more in the future I hope. I still have another half-dozen different AFS-related utilities that I want to finish polishing up and make available (not to mention lots more in other areas).

2005-02-09: volcreate 1.23

One of the problems that we've had with volcreate, which finds the AFS partition with the most free space and creates new volumes on it, is that for one reason or another we'd get a partition with a lot of free space and then every new volume would end up on it. Then, as people started using the volumes, that one partition would grow very quickly and end up too full.

This version of volcreate will randomize the placement of new volumes among the top 20% possible locations, still judged by available space. That should help out quite a bit with this problem, although occasional balancing will still be needed.

You can get the current version from the volcreate distribution page.

2005-02-10: Sandman: Endless Nights

Review: The Sandman: Endless Nights, by Neil Gaiman, et al.

Publisher: Vertigo
Copyright: 2003
ISBN: 1-4012-0113-X
Pages: 157

I have loved every one of Neil Gaiman's books that I've read, but I still think he's a better comic book writer than a novelist. His books are solid, well-written fantasies that touch a sense of wonder and understanding of the strange, but his graphic novels are something apart.

The Sandman, Gaiman's ten-volume magnum opus, onto which he previously added two more volumes featuring Death that are as good as or better than anything in the main series, is simply a masterpiece of the medium and as beautiful of an exploration of mythology, humanity, and fate as I've read anywhere. It is, however, finished, the characters largely left in their final configurations, and this is not a continuation of it. Rather, this is seven new short stories, one for each of the Endless, each done by a different artist. They are explorations of themes, a revisiting of the Sandman world, and a small additional taste of the characters we remember.

For those who do not already know of the Endless and are new to Sandman, don't start here. While some of the stories stand on their own to a degree, others don't, and for all of them much of the depth will be lost if you haven't read the main story. This is, in many ways, an encore, which is not the time to walk in on the performance.

The stories are a bit scattered and experimental, interesting in some cases for their daring, but not quite as satisfying as Sandman itself or the two Death stories. This isn't the work that catapulted Gaiman into our attention, nor does it have as many of the perceptive insights and wonderful comments as his other work. Nonetheless, if you loved Sandman, you won't be disappointed. There are interesting bits of revelation here and some beautiful art, but more than anything else a reminder of just how good Sandman was.

Individual story reviews below the cut.

Rating: 7 out of 10

"Death and Venice": Drawn by P. Craig Russell and colored by Lovern Kindzierski, this is one of the more traditional stories of the bunch. It tells of a man's encounter with Death, and how he helps her deal with a long-delayed problem. Alas, there isn't as much of Death in the story as one might have wished, and quite a lot of scene-setting, but when she does show up she's her wonderful self. Any Death story is a good one. (7)

"What I've Tasted of Desire": Milo Manara is the artist of a story that is fully as creepy as Desire itself. I never felt like Desire got quite enough screen time in The Sandman and remained something of an enigma throughout, and it was good to see a story that focused more on Desire's view of the world. The main character is both a victim and an interesting mirror of Desire's oddly unyielding tragedy. (8)

"The Heart of a Star": Miguelanxo Prado does a beautiful job with this, the earliest story ever told of the Endless. It's interesting as a curiosity, to see one of the first women Dream loved and the outcome of that love, to see Delight before Delirium, and to see, of all things, a taciturn and unsmiling Death. It's mostly just a tour of the early Endless and a simple story, though, with not a lot to hold one's attention beyond the references to later events. (7)

"Fifteen Portraits of Despair": One of the most experimental bits of this book, this isn't a story in any sense, but is instead fifteen separate works of art by Barron Storey, designed by Dave McKean and filled with disjointed bits of text by Gaiman, that capture some of the essence of Despair. It didn't do a lot for me, but it's disturbing and effective for what it is. (6)

"Going Inside": Another very experimental piece, this time illustrated by Bill Sienkiewicz, this is the story of several very different mentally ill people caught up in Delirium's wake. It is appropriately psychedelic and disturbing, but I was a little disappointed that there wasn't more of Delirium's "giddy profundity" here, mostly because she's out of it for much of the story. (6)

"On the Peninsula": I think this story, fairly conventionally drawn by Glenn Fabry and colored by Chris Chuckry, was my favorite of the collection. The down-to-earth simplicity of Destruction is a nice change of pace from the previous two bits, and here is Delirium the way I like her best. There isn't a lot of story, just the moments around an event captured, but Destruction and Delirium are wonderful together and something about Destruction just makes me like him. (8)

"Endless Nights": Destiny's story is not a story so much as an explanation, but it is hands-down the most beautiful work of art in this whole collection. The painted art by Frank Quitely is spectacular, capturing so well a sense of scale and scope for Destiny's walk that I lingered over every page. Wonderful work. (8)

2005-02-23: kstart 2.3

The only user-visible change here is a fix to make install so that it pulls the manual pages from the right location when building in a different directory than the source directory. Other than that, I just cleaned up the build system a little and removed the Debian packaging from the regular distribution to match Debian recommended practice.

You can get the latest version from the kstart and k5start distribution page.

2005-02-23: remctl 1.7

I fixed a long-standing problem with remctld that caused it to leave a couple of high-numbered file descriptors open when forking a child process. When remctld was used to start a daemon, this would cause remctl to think that the child process never exited since those extra file descriptors would never be closed, resulting in remctld apparently hanging.

While I was at it, I also fixed the algorithm that remctld uses to collect output from the command it ran so that it wouldn't busy-wait on output and instead wait properly in select. I also cleaned up some of the build system, and Debian packages are now available as well.

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

2005-02-23: spin 1.60

spin would previously give an odd error message and fail if the destination directory specified on the command line was a relative path. It now properly supports relative paths for both source and destination trees, canonicalizing them before starting to recurse.

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

2005-02-24: lbcd 3.2.3

The only user-noticable addition is a -b flag to lbcd to specify the bind address, so that lbcd will only listen to one address on the system instead of all of them.

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

Last modified and spun 2017-07-01