Book Review 72: Ready Player One

Going outside is highly overrated.
-Anorak’s Almanac, Chapter 17, Verse 32 Ready Player One

One day last fall, I glanced over at my Twitter feed and saw that Wil Wheaton (@WilW) was in Seattle that evening for a reading at the Elliott Bay Book Company. He would join author Ernie Cline (@erniecline)  to talk about Cline’s first novel -- Ready Player One. I  had to go.

It was fun evening. The author Q&A was awesome.Wil did the reading and was also awesome. I bought my copy of the book and got in line for the signing at the end of the event. I chatted with Wil and Ernie about my Atari shirt and their dealings with ThinkGeek. If you get the chance to see them, I highly recommend it. And by “them” I mean Wil and Ernie. Or ThinkGeek.  Either way.

Eventually, I worked through my reading queue and cracked open Ready Player One while having dinner at the Nine Fine Irishmen in Las Vegas during CES 2012. The book was quite good, but not quite as good as I hoped.  There are lots of things to love about it, but the book does have some flaws. That’s even more disappointing because, given the subject matter and the author’s presence at the reading, I wanted this to be the most awesome-est book I’d seen in years. It’s not. It’s still good, just not as awesome as I had hoped.

Still, if you’re a fan of 80s Geek Culture, you’ll likely enjoy the book.

The story takes place in a dystopian future where the Earth has suffered major environmental collapse.  The divide between the rich and poor is wider than ever. The most popular form of entertainment is the virtual world of the OASIS.  That basic setup is nothing new; we’ve seen it from William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, Melissa Scott, Richard Morgan, and more. While the basic scene may be familiar, Cline takes it in a different way.

The OASIS is the heart of the story. It is a virtual land, not unlike Second Life or World of Warcraft on a much larger scale.  You have an avatar that you design, buy clothes for, equip with weapons and special gear, and then you interact with other characters on different planets and virtual locations in the OASIS. Where you are in the real world is irrelevant.  You put on your goggles, headphones, gloves, and sometimes your special suit, login, and you’re walking and flying around the OASIS.

The story kicks of with the death of James Halliday, a game programmer, entrepreneur, inventory of the OASIS world, and child of the 80s.  

At first, I couldn’t understand why the media was making such a big deal of the billionaire’s death. After all, the people of Planet Earth had other concerns. The ongoing energy crisis. Catastrophic climate change. Widespread famine, poverty, and disease. Half a dozen wars. You know: “dogs and cats living together . . . mass hysteria!” Normally, the newsfeeds didn’t interrupt everyone’s interactive sitcoms and soap operas unless something really major had happened. Like the outbreak of some new killer virus, or another major city vanishing in a mushroom cloud. Big stuff like that. As famous as he was, Halliday’s death should have warranted only a brief segment on the evening news, so the unwashed masses could shake their heads in envy when the newscasters announced the obscenely large amount of money that would be doled out to the rich man’s heirs.

Page 1

Halliday’s death is momentous because of his will. He leaves his company shares and all his wealth to a gamer who finds the Easter Egg. Basically, he hid puzzles throughout the virtual world. The player who solves the puzzles and wins the game gets everything.

This draws individuals, teams, and organizations who all want to win the prize and control the OASIS for their own purposes.  One of those egg hunters, or “Gunters” is Wade Watts (AKA Parzival) our narrator -- a poor, orphaned teenager who’d long been an OASIS denizen and is obsessed with the 80s.  Halliday is his hero. He lives through the crushing depression that many teenagers face.  But he takes on the quest.

He’s got the background for it because he identifies so much with Halliday.  When a reporter ask Halliday’s former friend and business partner for tips, he offers this advice.

“As the person who knew James Halliday the best, do you have any advice for the millions of people who are now searching for his Easter egg? Where do you think people should start looking for it?”

“I think Jim made that pretty obvious,” Morrow replied, tapping a finger against his temple, just as Halliday had in the Anorak’s Invitation video. “Jim always wanted everyone to share his obsessions, to love the same things he loved. I think this contest is his way of giving the entire world an incentive to do just that.”

Page 122

As is often the case, completing the quest isn’t what the character needs. The quest itself matters. That was certainly the case for our narrator.

Then the Hunt for Halliday’s Easter egg began. That was what saved me, I think. Suddenly I’d found something worth doing. A dream worth chasing. For the last five years, the Hunt had given me a goal and purpose. A quest to fulfill. A reason to get up in the morning. Something to look forward to.

The moment I began searching for the egg, the future no longer seemed so bleak.

Page 19

Our narrator pursue the challenge like many geeky teenage boys shyly falls for a girl and rival.

This is an interesting story bit. Cline writes about these feelings in way that feels really familiar from back in those days.

I didn’t, of course. My whole relationship with Art3mis was in defiance of all common sense. But I couldn’t help falling for her. Somehow, without my realizing it, my obsession with finding Halliday’s Easter egg was gradually being supplanted by my obsession with Art3mis.

Page 178

I’d heard all the cliched warnings about the perils of falling for someone you only knew online, but I ignored them. I decided that whoever Art3mis really was, I was in love with her. I could feel it, deep in the soft. chewy caramel center of my being.

And then one night, like a complete idiot, I told her how I felt.

Page 179

I especially like that last line.  It feels right in that context.  The other interesting thing here is the way Cline tells the story. The whole book is told in flashback.  Parzival tells us he’s going to tell Art3mis how he feels and that it will go badly several pages before we actually see that encounter.  Going into many sections of the book, we already have a sense of what is going to happen, but Cline still builds a feeling of suspense around it.

Why does he finally tell her?  Well, Cyndi Lauper has a little something to do with it.

Her avatar lost its human form and dissolved into a pulsing amorphous blob that changed its size and color in synch with the music. I selected the mirror partner option on my dance software and began to do the same. My avatar’s limbs and torso began to flow and spin like taffy, encircling Art3mis, while strange color patterns flowed and shifted across my skin. I looked like Plastic Man, if he were tripping out of his mind on LSD. Then everyone else on the dance floor also began to shape-shift, melting into prismatic blobs of light. Soon, the center of the club looked like some otherworldly lava lamp.

When the song ended, Og took a bow, then queued up a slow song. “Time after Time” by Cyndi Lauper. All around us, avatars began to pair up.

Page 185

This section of the book is revealing in a number of ways. I’ve ready criticism of the book that says Cline is an immature writer and that when he writes about emotions and feelings, it all comes across as juvenile and immature. I do get that sense throughout most of the book, but I’m not sure if that a limitation of Clines skill or an example of it. The book should sound like a teenager wrote it because it’s told from a teenager’s first person point-of-view. 

This section is also interesting because it plays with the OASIS world a bit.  In the passage, Cline shows us just some of the things that are possible in the digital world.  You can defy gravity. You’re form can convert into blobs of light. Avatars can interact in ways that would be completely impossible in the physical world.  And if your avatar doesn’t know how to dance, just  add some software.

The huge open space in the center of the sphere served as the club’s zero-gravity “dance floor.” You reached it simply by jumping off the ground, like Superman taking flight, and then swimming through the air, into the spherical zero-g “groove zone.”

Page 183

SInce the OASIS is only 1s and 0s on servers, it can be infinitely big. Adding more space is as simple as writing some code.

Early in the Facebook days, you may remember friends giving on another virtual sheep and other goods.  Users could pay for fancier ones. Games like Farmville and Pet Society let you pay real cash to get fancier farm equipment and furniture.  And what do you actually get for your money? Nothing but an automated entry in a database.  “Items” are simply conjured out of code, and if the game goes away so does all that merchandise.  

The virtual world of the OASIS works in much the same way, and Haliday’s GSS made a fortune on it.

In addition to the billions of dollars that GSS raked in selling land that didn’t actually exist, they made a killing selling virtual objects and hides. The OASIS became such an integral part of people’s day-to-day social lives that users were more than willing to shell out real money to buy accessories for their avatars: clothing, furniture, houses, flying cars. magic swords and machine guns. These items were nothing but ones and zeros stored on the OASIS servers, but they were also status symbols. Most items only cost a few credits, but since they cost nothing for GSS to manufacture, it was all profit. Even in the throes of an ongoing economic recession, the OASIS allowed Americans to continue engaging in their favorite pastime: shopping.

Page 59

There are thousands of worlds in the OASIS. The world where Parzival confesses his feeling to Art3mis is called Neo Noir.

There were hundreds of cyberpunk-themed worlds spread throughout the OASIS, but Neo Noir was one of the largest and oldest. Seen from orbit, the planet was a shiny onyx marble covered in overlapping spider- webs of pulsating light. It was always night on Neo Noir, the world over, and its surface was an uninterrupted grid of interconnected cities packed with impossibly large skyscrapers. Its skies were filled with a continuous stream of flying vehicles whirring through the vertical cityscapes, and the streets below teemed with leather-clad NPCs and mirror-shaded avatars, all sporting high-tech weaponry and subcutaneous implants as they spouted city-speak straight out of Neuromancer.

Page 181-182

Because of the ability to equip avatars and the scope of the universe, there are still differences between the Haves and Have Nots, even in the OASIS. And early challenge for Parzival is simply to figure out how to get to different parts of the OASIS without any money.

The kids who didn’t own ships would either hitch a ride with a friend or stampede to the nearest transport terminal, headed for some offworld dance club, gaming arena, or rock concert. But not me. I wasn’t going anywhere. I was stranded on Ludus, the most boring planet in the entire OASIS.

The Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation was a big place.

Page 48

So I remained stuck at school. I felt like a kid standing in the world’s greatest video arcade without any quarters, unable to do anything but walk around and watch the other kids play.

Page 51

As Parzival figures out ways around the limitations, he devotes himself full time to hunting the egg.  He spends more and more time in the OASIS.  Aside from basic biological needs, why leave?  Everything he needs can be delivered to his home. All his friends are on the OASIS, and he can even earn money there.

My apartment was on the forty-second floor, number 4211. The security lock mounted outside required another retinal scan. Then the door slid open and the interior lights switched on. There was no furniture in the cube-shaped room, and only one window. I stepped inside, closed the door, and locked it behind me. Then I made a silent vow not to go outside again until I had completed my quest. I would abandon the real world altogether until I found the egg.

Page 166

Capitalism would inch forward, without my actually having to interact face-to-face with another human being. Which was exactly how I preferred it, thank you.

Page 191

Cline opens one of the chapters with Groucho Marx prescient thoughts on the matter:

I’m not crazy about reality, but it’s still the only place to get a decent meal.

Groucho Marx

Page 167

One of the most popular features of the book is all the 80s and pop-culture references.  Parzival has a series of videos running on his “channel” within the OASIS for others to watch.

I pulled up my programming grid and made a few changes to my evening lineup. I cleared away the episodes of Riptide and Misfits of Science I’d programmed and dropped in a few back-to-back flicks starring Gamera, my favorite giant flying turtle. I thought they should be real crowd pleasers. Then, to finish off the broadcast day, I added a few episodes of Silver spoons.

Page 202

That stuff really resonates with me. Misfits of Science is where I developed my crush on Courtney Cox. I was never an A-Team fan, but I loved Riptide with its pink helicopters. I like the show even more when they added June Chadwick to the caste in the last season (I developed my crush on her during V: The Series).  Gamera was always my favorite Godzilla monster. I mean, come on, he flies by pulling his legs into his shell and turning his leg holes into jet engines. That’s awesome. I was a regular Silver Spoons viewer, too, but there were no crushes involved in that.

There are other references that amused me.

I watched a lot of YouTube videos of cute geeky girls playing ‘80s cover tunes on ukuleles. Technically, this wasn’t part of my research, but I had a serious cute-geeky-girls-playing-ukuleles fetish that I can neither explain nor defend.

Page 63

The only cute-geeky-girls-playing-ukuleles that I’m familiar with are of course Molly Lewis and Kate Micucci, but I haven’t delved deeply enough into their back catalogs to know if they’re the ones Cline is referring to.

The whole book is built on 80s references and deep descriptions of the movies, video games, music, games of the era. It’s clear that Cline loves this stuff, and who can blame him? They 80s were an awesome time.

Sometime the references got to be a little too much for me, though. It wasn’t their volume that got to me. It was the way Cline explained all of them in a little too much detail. I’m undecided if I consider this a flaw of the book. It may have gotten to me because it feels like he was explaining stuff that was completely obvious.  The reason it’s obvious, though, is because I grew up with all this stuff.  Perhaps that level of explanation is important for those who were not children of the 80s. The deep dive did take me out and make me roll my eyes a few times.

While the book may not have been as awesome as The Empire Strikes Back, is at least as awesome as Return of the Jedi. It’s a great book to read, with a few flaws, and I look forward to Cline’s next book. I also look forward to the “Ready Player One” movie, should it come out.  If you’re a fan of light CyberPunk, or of 80s references, don’t miss this book.


Book Review 71: A Dirty Job

"Sometimes," he said to Lazarus, the steadfast golden retriever, "a man must muster all of his courage to simply sit still. How much humanity has been spoiled for the confusion of movement with progress, my friend? How much?"

Page 252dirtyjob

In “A Dirty Job” by Christopher Moore, Beta-Male Charlie  becomes a grim reaper, charged by mystical forces with collecting people souls when then die in parts of San Francisco. Several characters from other Moore books, including Jody and the Emperor from Blood Sucking Fiends and Minty Fresh from Coyote Blue put in in an appearance. This ties the book into the broader Moore-iverse of favorite characters.

This book has the weird zaniness all Moore books have, but it gets deeper. It’s a comical and sophisticated book.  One of the problems I had in writing this book is that there are fewer quotable phrases and line than there were in “Blood Sucking Fiends.” Many of the jokes just don’t have as much punch outside their paragraphs. That feels like a more mature style than we’ve seen in the past from Moore. The novel is less joke-y, but it’s no less funny. And that’s one of the things I like about it.

An example of this is Moore’s page-and-a-half description of the definition of can challenges faced by the beta-male.  Here is just a small part of it:

Charlie's problem was that the trailing edge of his Beta Male imagination was digging at him like bamboo splinters under the fingernails. While Alpha Males are often gifted with superior physical attributes—size, strength, speed, good looks—selected by evolution over the eons by the strongest surviving and, essentially, getting all the girls, the Beta Male gene has survived not by meeting and overcoming adversity, but by anticipating and avoiding it. That is, when the Alpha Males were out charging after mastodons, the Beta  Males could imagine in advance that attacking what was essentially an angry, woolly bulldozer with a pointy stick might be a losing  proposition, so they hung back at camp to console the grieving widows. When Alpha Males set out to conquer neighboring tribes, to count coups and take heads, Beta Males could see in advance that in the event of a victory, the influx of female slaves was going to leave a surplus of mateless women cast out for younger trophy models, with nothing to do but salt down the heads and file the uncounted coups, and some would find solace in the arms of any Beta Male smart enough to survive. In the case of defeat, well, there was that widows thing again. The Beta Male is seldom the strongest or the fastest, but because he can anticipate danger, he far outnumbers his Alpha Male competition. The world is led by Alpha Males, but the machinery of the world turns on the bearings of the Beta Male.


The problem (Charlie's problem) is that the Beta Male imagination has become superfluous in the face of modern society. Like the saber-toothed tiger's fangs, or the Alpha Male's testosterone, there's just more Beta Male imagination than can really be put to good use. Consequently, a lot of Beta Males become hypochondriacs, neurotics, paranoids, or develop an addiction to porn or video games.


Page 31

It goes on from there.

The book isn’t entirely devoid of jokes. Moore uses this structure in several places:

Audrey was showing them around the Buddhist center, which, except for the office in the front, and a living room that had been turned into a meditation room, looked very much like any other sprawling Victorian home. Austere and Oriental in its decor, yes, and perhaps the smell of incense permeating it, but still, just a big old house.

"It's just a big old house, really," she said, leading them into the kitchen.


Page 340

And he does play with names, such as the fireworks merchant who lost two fingers that Charlie patronizes.

"The White Devil has finally gone around the bend," said Three Fingered Hu's eleventh grandchild, Cindy Lou Hu, who stood at the counter next to her venerated and digitally challenged ancestor.

'His money not crazy," said Three.


Page 117

The story starts with Charlie’s wife dying in the hospital after giving birth to their daughter. While Charlie is in her room in her final moments, a grim reaper comes into the hospital room to collect and object and is shocked when Charlie can seem him. No one else can see the reaper and neither can the security cameras.

Charlie goes home to deal with his grief, raise his new daughter as a single parent, and deal the quirky employees that work at his second hand shop. They start to question Charlie’s sanity as he claims certain objects in the store may be radioactive because they glow red in a way that only he can see.

Meanwhile, he can’t seem to keep any of his daughter’s pets alive.

Before long, strange notes appear at his bedside, in his own handwriting, and he is hearing voices come up from the sewer grates around the city.

In many ways, Charlie feels like a more grown up and more fully drawn version of Moore’s earlier San Francisco beta-male -- Tommy, from “Blood Sucking fiends.”  I mentioned “A Dirty Job” several times in my review of that book, because I find the comparison between the two fascinating. This book is not a sequel to the other, but they do exist in the same universe. Several of the characters cross over between the two, but you do not need to read one to appreciate the other. Putting them both side-by-side, though is a great way to look at the author’s growth.

I don’t want to go into any further detail, lest I spoil a surprise.  I do recommend this book, especially if you enjoy humorous novels about the supernatural. It’s a got a nice story, some great storytelling, and several really interesting characters. It’s definitely worth the reading time.

More of my book reviews are available here


Radiolab and Bolero

I stood in the middle off the G-Terminal at ORD the other day listening to podcasts.

Contrasting with the bustle of busy, annoyed, stressed, and sweaty travelers, RadioLab podcasts explore deep concepts and have some of the most creative uses of sound I hear in my day-to-day life.

Unraveling Bolero is a great example. While it is typical in most respect, certain elements came together and it struck me as one of the most beautiful and terrifying episodes I've heard.


Book Review 70: Blood Sucking Fiends

‘I’ve seen him,” the Emperor whispered. “It’s a vampire.”

Tommy recoiled as if he’d been spit on. “A vampire florist?”

‘Well, once you accept the vampire part, the florist part is a pretty easy leap, don’t you think?’

Page 37
Blood Sucking Fiends is an early Christopher Moore novel. Jody, a redhead in San Francisco becomes a vampire and relies on newly arrived, aspiring writer Tommy to take care of her needs during the day.

This is the second time I’ve read it. The first time was years ago, before I startedwriting my own reviews. It was also the first Christopher Moore novel I read. The reason I read it the first time was that it seemed like an interesting take on the vampire mythology and that it would also be funny. It was. The second time I read it was because I had just finished reading Moore’s more recent “A Dirty Job” where a couple of the characters make an appearance (review coming shortly). Reading it the second time, after reading other more novels, made the experience richer.

It’s an entertaining book, but it is not nearly as good as his later novels. Over the course of his career Moore improved as a story teller and humorist. That’s not to say Blood Sucking Fiends isn’t good -- it is. It’s just not as mature as his later books. Which makes sense. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to expect someone to be better at their job after 15 years of doing it.

The strength of the book is in its flashes of awesome paragraphs. Moore sketches out memorable characters and gives them some common voices. Among the common themes is that women are much stronger than men.
She thought, There must be a hundred thousand dollars here. A man attacked me, choked me, bit my neck, burned my hand. then stuffed my shirt full of money and put a dumpster on me and now I can see heat and hear fog. I’ve won Satan’s lottery.

Page 16

‘Is there something wrong with your food?”

“No, I’m just not very hungry.’

“You’re going to break my heart, aren’t you?”

Page 60

“Me too,” he said. He hung up and thought: She’s evil. Evil, evil, evil. I want to see her naked.

Page 78

Why in the hell was she being so mysterious? He opened the envelope and took out a stack of hundred-dollar bills, counted them, then put them back in the envelope. Four thousand dol-lars. He had never seen that much money in one place. Where did she get that kind of money? Certainly not filling out claims at an insurance company. Maybe she was a drug dealer. A smuggler Maybe she embezzled it. Maybe it was all a trap. Maybe when he got to the impound lot to pick up her car, the police would arrest him. She had a lot of nerve signing her note “Love.” What would the next one say? “Sorry you have to do hard time in the big house for me. Love, Jody.” But she did sign it that way: “Love. What did that mean? Did she mean it, or was it habit? She probably signed all of her letters with “Love.’

Page 83

The vampire let go of Jody’s arm, reached across to put his hand on Hair Plugs’s shoulder, and held him fast to his seat. The drunk’s eyes went wide. The vampire smiled. “She’ll rip out your throat and drink your blood as you die. Is that what you want?”

Hair Plugs shook his head violently. “No, I already have an ex- wife.”

Page 214
Moore’s male main characters often appear at one of two poles -- the overconfident, macho character or the insecure, obsessive, and not-too-bright character represented by Tommy in several of these passages. Moore’s jokes, entertaining phrasing, and absurd situations keep me interested in reading.

It’s not just the supernatural and aspiring writers that Moore takes on. What book about San Francisco would be complete without the obligatory digs at Oakland? He’s able to comment on Oakland while giving us a vivid sensation of the enhanced senses a new vampire experiences.

She spotted a pay phone; a red chimney of heat rose from the lamp above it. She looked up and down the empty street. Above each streetlight she could see heat rising in red waves. She could hear the buzzing of the electric bus wires above her, the steady stream of the sewers running under the street. She could smell dead fish and diesel fuel in the fog, the decay of the Oakland mudflats across the bay, old French fries, cigarette butts, bread crusts and fetid pastrami from a nearby trash can, and the residual odor of Aramis wafting under the doors of the brokerage houses and banks. She could hear wisps of fog brushing against the buildings like wet velvet.. It was as if her senses, like her strength, had been turned up by adrenaline.

Page 15-16

Ah, but I must be strong for the troops. It could be worse, I suppose. I could be the Emperor of Oakland.

Page 12
The Emperor of San Francisco is a favorite recurring character in Moore novels. He’s an apparently homeless man with two dogs who sees himself at the emperor of the city. He’s well-known to many of the random citizens who appear to humor and defer to him. He offers many the wisdom of a benevolent king and the street-level intelligence of someone who hears and sees things on the street that most other people never notice. The Emperor, for example, worries about business people going about their days, and how for many, there is no future:
“They have to look right or their peers will turn on them like starving dogs. They are the fallen gods. The new gods are producers, creators, doers. The new gods are the chinless techno-children who would rather eat white sugar and watch science-fiction films than worry about what shoes they wear. And these poor souls desperately push papers around hoping that a mystical message will appear to save them from the new awkward, brilliant gods and their silicon-chip reality. Some of them will survive, of course, but most will fall. Uncreative thinking is done better by machines. Poor souls, you can almost hear them sweating.”

Tommy looked at the well-dressed stream of businesspeople. Then at the Emperor’s tattered overcoat, then at his own sneakers, then at the Emperor again. For some reason, he felt better than he had a few minutes before. “You really worry about these people, don’t you?’

‘It is my lot.”

Page 91-92
Make no mistake; this is a good book. It’s weakness is more evident, however, in comparison to later Moore novels. Unlike later books, this one feels like a series of interesting characters and scenes attached to an internal structure or outline. There’s a certain shallowness about it. It’s less of a funny book and more of a book with great jokes. In addition to other books in the same universe Moore also wrote a couple sequels to this book, and they’re sitting on my shelf right now. I can’t wait to read them.

More of my book reviews are available here


Life in the Garden Part 47: Trading Beer for Beans

Oh, the sacrifices we make for our gardens. For three days, I have surrendered beer for my pole beans.

I planted the starters 10 days ago, and all was well. Last year, the pole beans were one of my easiest crops. All I had to do was plant the seeds and they took off.  I had snacks available every time I stepped onto the deck.

Late last week, it looked like my arch nemesis, the aphid, was back. Those little green suckers have chomped way too many leaves on me in the past. I rushed out to the nursery and grabbed a bottle of Neem Oil and was ready to go to battle the next day.

But the holes in the leaves seemed a lot bigger than they should have been. I doubled down on the spray in the daylight. On Sunday evening, as it got a little darker, I realized the aphids were a mere distraction.  

My attacker this time was bigger.



Slugs. I founds a slug on a leaf.  

In damp, dark Seattle, slugs are as common as Thai food and coffee. But I don’t have ordinary slugs. I have industrious slugs.

Caffeinated slugs.

These slug in my pole beans didn’t just crawl over from the neighbor’s yard or the nearest salmon run.  My pole beans are planted in a big container. On a rubber covered deck.  60 feet in the air.

And they got up there.

I don’t know if they hitched a ride on a bird, snuck in with the plants from the nursery, or scaled the side of the building.

Fortunately, if there’s one thing we learned from The Simpsons, it’s that beer is the perfect solution to any problem.

Slugs like beer, and slugs are dumb. I built slug traps.

To deal with slugs,  you can dig a small hole in the dirt, and bury a small yogurt container up to the rim, and pour in some beer about a quarter or half way and leave it overnight.  The scent of beer will attract the slugs. The slimy bastards will wiggle their way over to feast on the beer. They’ll slither down the side for a sip, reach the beer, dive in, and drown.  The beer gorging is like 1:00 AM at a Capitol Hill bar with cheap pitchers and unlimited chicken wings. Only most bar goers don’t drown in their meal. Most.

My new nightly ritual involves dumping the previous night’s flat beer and dead slugs into a zip lock bag, which I then drop drown the trash chute. Then I open another beer and [sob] refill the container.  Then I drink the rest of the beer.

Tonight I took it another step. I added a small, formerly-juiced-filled bottle on its side with more beer bait.  I have to get more creative with these slugs.

Because I think the slugs are getting bigger. They’re starting to level up. Again.


Book Review 69: DIY U -- Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education

There are two basic options the way I see it: fundamentally change the way higher education is delivered, or resign ourselves to never having enough of it.

Page IX

DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education by Anya Kamenetz is an interesting book that feels a bit uneven. It’s really two different books -- one on the history of higher education and the conditions that have led to crazy price increases, and one about the alternatives to traditional higher education. I think my main problem with the book is that way it’s split. I picked it up expecting the book to be primarily about how individuals can completely change our current higher education system to make it more affordable, equitable, and effective for the future of our economy by embracing new technology and ways of thinking. I thought it would be more about the Do-It-Yourself University and the tools, peopel and organization that make that possible, than it turned out to be. There's definitely some of that. The problem is that it takes too long to get there in the text.

It seems like the author spends too much time building a case for changes to the system. I don’t think she needs to do that for this book. While some of it is needed, that fact that the reader has chosen to read this book already indicates they are interested in learning about different approaches.

That said, the sections where she builds the case and goes over the history of the higher education is still interesting and worth reading.

With those expectations appropriately set I can recommend the book, especially for someone who is interested in how we got where we are today.

At its heart, the book is about the “Edupunk” movement:

"Edupunk is about the utter irresponsibility and lethargy of educational institutions, and the means by which they are financially cannibalizing their own mission," is the opening salvo of his [Jim Groom’s] first e-mail to me.

"Higher education has become a given for most high school students in our culture, and the fact that they have to pay out the nose has become a kind of unquestioned necessity to secure a job. But as we are increasingly seeing with big media, newspapers, and the like—traditional modes of information distribution are being circumvented, and higher education is just as as vulnerable in this new landscape... There remains a general refusal to acknowledge the implications of how easy it is to publish, share, teach, and even apprentice one another outside of the traditional logic of institutions. "

What edupunk—DIY education, if you will—promises is an evolution from expensive institutions to expansive networks; it aims to fulfill the promise of universal education, but only by leaving the university behind. Educational futurist John Seely Brown talks about "open participatory learning ecosystems.'"' Alec Couros at the University of Saskatchewan calls my blend of news sources contacts on Google Reader, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and e-mail a "personal learning network."

Page 109-110
I found the author’s discussion of the history of higher education to be quite interesting. I never gave much thought the idea that today’s most prestigious universities weren’t that way for most of their history.

Any college that trumpets its "centuries-long tradition of academic excellence," however, is lying. Colonial colleges were established long before high schools, so they often filled classes with barely literate fourteen- or fifteen year-olds. Throughout the nineteenth century, "Nowhere were really challenging intellectual demands being placed upon [students]," Rudolph states flatly, and as late as 1904, "Dean Briggs of Harvard announced his preference for moderate intelligence'," preferring well-mannered and well-rounded gentlemen to grinds. Along with low standards, there was "little emphasis on completing degrees" well into the nineteenth century, writes University of Kentucky historian John R.Theun in his 2004 book A History of American Higher Education, something of a sequel to Rudolph's work. Students felt free to leave after a year or two of classes. The current college dropout rate of nearly 50 percent is actually pretty good by historic standards. Only a handful of colleges have ever done better.

Page 3

It’s helpful to keep this in mind. Traditional higher education is the standard in our country by tradition. And yet that tradition is only decades -- not centuries -- old.

A university degree is typically considered the way to advance and make life better in our society. The author reports that today that’s not the case. A degree doesn’t help someone advance; it just prevents them from falling behind. She explains that the value of a degree has declined relative to the cost of obtaining one. She also quotes a sociologist who calls financial aid a form of welfare and income redistribution, which is an interesting way to look at it.

Unfortunately, education alone has been the program, more or less, since the 1970s. Stanford sociologist Mitchell Stevens has called federal higher-education aid America's most ambitious social welfare program. "We don't call it welfare—heaven forbid! That's one of the reasons it's so popular. But if you think of welfare as a means of redistributing social resources or public wealth, there's no question this is a primary method in the post-World War II era," Stevens says. "In the twentieth century the federal government worked systematically to allow as many people as possible to lead middle-class lives. Obama's proposal for a majority of Americans to get a degree by 2025 is only an extension of a fifty-year-long federal government commitment to feeding prosperity through access, by investing in campuses and putting money in college students' pockets in the form of grants and federally subsidized or guaranteed loans." This is Becker's human-capital theory at work: invest in our young people and they will yield a return both for themselves and for the nation at large.

The problem is that it hasn't worked. In the decades since a BA became the primary visa for entry into the middle class, the middle class has only gotten smaller. We often hear about the $1 million average lifetime income premium for a college diploma." But if you look at median incomes by education since 1970, there's no increasing return to a college degree to go with the increased cost. There's a steep decline in the incomes of less-educated workers combined with flat or declining income for more-educated workers. That is, the noncollege penalty is rising, not the college reward.

Page 27-28

One of the items that makes a degree so important is just that -- the degree. It’s that it signals that the holder has completed the education process. Any plan or alternative to the traditional system that does not include that BA is doomed to failure regardless of how much or little education participant receives in an alternative system.

The signaling hypothesis says that whatever work earns you the diploma doesn't really matter. College is nothing more than an elaborate and expensive mechanism for employers to identify the people who were smarter and harder workers and had all the social advantages in the first place, and those people then get the higher paying jobs. Now that it's illegal to discriminate in employment by race, ethnicity, gender, religion, or sexual orientation, judging people by where and how much they went to school is just about the only acceptable form of prejudice left.

Page 35

A popular alternative that always comes up in discussions about how to fix the higher education system is to rely on more Community College, Vo-Tech, Apprenticeship programs, alternatives. They cost less, can provide skills people can use right away, provide more practical education than many University programs, offer alternative structures, and may be better suited for those whose expertise is not academic.

It seems like this is a great solution. When surveyed, people generally agree that this a great idea -- for other people’s children. Not for their own.

Carnevale has worked in the House, in the Senate, and for the AFL-CIO. He was named by President Clinton to chair the National Commission on Employment Policy and by Bush the younger to work on a similar commission, and he's also advised President Obama. Under Clinton, Carnevale was caught up in the sticky politics of trying to advocate paths other than four-year college. Clinton signed the 1994 School-to-Work Opportunities work-based learning and partnerships. But key provisions of the bill—including the use of the word 'apprenticeship"—were weakened in Congress. "We took it to the Hill and the people who care about poor people and minorities said to US, 'Look. There are two education systems in America: one where people go to college and live happily ever after and the other, where people don't, and struggle. The worst thing that can happen IS that we have two systems that work, because we all know who's going to be in the other one.'" In other words, explicit vocational tracking is a no-no even if the outcomes for poor people are better, because they enshrine social divisions in law, something Americans have always been wary wary of doing. "In the end the truth is the public rejected the idea," of school-to-work, says Carnevale. "In all the focus groups, we asked people: do you think everybody needs to go to college? Seventy to eighty percent said no. But what we forgot to ask, and asked a few years later, was, Should your kid go to college? Eighty-five percent said yes."

Page 37
The solution, the author suggests, is likely somewhere in between. Restructuring the system requires a mix of Universities, for-profit colleges, and personal learning networks. Online resources make more of this possible every day. Universities provide credibility and employ thousands of brilliant people and knowledge experts. They play a major role in credentialing students. The question about how to mix all these different resources together for maximum effectiveness and to drive costs down.

Cost cutting in public higher education, it should be clear, is a moral imperative. State and federal subsidies helped create the tuition monster, and state and federal governments can combat it I if they work in partnership with institutional leaders—not with across-the-board, feast-or-famine cuts, but with rational changes that focus on incentives for affordability and productivity Families and students have a role to play as well. They need to become more informed consumers who aren't afraid to ask tough questions about the value of their degree.

Page 72-73

The same is happening in education. Since 2001, a growing i movement, from MIT, Stanford, and hundreds of other universities worldwide to insurgent bloggers and entrepreneurs barely out of school themselves, is looking to social media to transform higher education. They're releasing educational content for free to the world and enlisting computers as tutors. Google has scanned and digitized seven million books. Wikipedia users have created the world's largest encyclopedia.YouTube Edu and iTunes U have made video and audio lectures by the best professors in the country available for free.

Page 81-82

Online education is becoming more of a possibility every day. Even though the web has been accessible by the general public for more than 15 years, we are still only beginning to understand how to use it. We continue to put lectures online and try to use existing pedagogies in online university education, but it’s similar to how people thought after the invention of automobiles when we still referred to them as horse-less carriages. It requires new ways of thinking about and presenting material. Done well, it can have a transformative effect.

Online classes like these are an example of what David Wiley at BYU calls the "polo parable."Think about playing polo with ponies on a field, versus water polo in a pool. "They're both called polo and at a high level they're both the same activity," he says. "But no person in their right mind would think you can take a playbook and run the same strategies as in the pool. The idea that you can take tried and true teaching methods from the classroom onto the Internet and see success boggles my mind."

Page 95-96

Gardner Campbell, an open-education figure who was responsible for hiring Jim Groom at the University of Mary Washington and currently teaches at Baylor University, does Wiley one better. He's argued in presentations that on the scale of disruptive technologies, the Internet is more than the printing press, it's the alphabet. "It's a new way of thinking. It's a meta-tool."

Page 128

The author does talk about a number of possible solutions, including expanding for-profit schools (which face some of their own perception troubles), start-ups partnering with existing small schools to leverage their accreditation,  and more.

For-profit colleges have led the way in innovations like self-paced, all-online programs, assessment-based learning, and student-focused customer service. They have the advantage of focusing exclusively on learning. They are free from the slightest hint of snobbery. John Holt, in his radical 1976 critique Instead of Education, speaks approvingly of the Berlitz language school, which judges itself by how well it serves everyone who wants to study, not by how much it discriminates in choosing students. He calls schools like these "schools for do-ers, which help people explore the world as they choose."

Dave Clinefelter, the provost of Kaplan University, would agree. Kaplan U has grown out of the test-prep company in just seven years I to enroll 68,000 students in associate's, bachelor's and master's degree programs on seventy campuses and online."Traditional universities : at yardsticks like how many students you denied entry to, what your peers think of you, and where your faculty published," he says. "We don't care about any of that. We care what our students learn and whether they get a job in their field. We want to be the best university in the world and we want to be able to prove it to people."

Page 125

A company called Straighterline already offers an important version of this idea: accredited online college courses for $399 per course, which includes ten hours of one-on-one tutoring. But the course credit is granted by just four small, unknown, community and for-profit colleges. This approach is half a step away from really blowing things up. It would just take a few more prestigious institutions getting on board to change the way people feel about online on-demand education.

Page 128

A complete program of education isn’t about going to a school for one thing. It’s about pulling together all sorts of different educations elements to enhance the learner’s knowledge, while still working to address the signalling issue.
The way I look at it, a complete personal learning plan ought to have four parts: finding a goal and the credentials or skills needed, formal study, experiential education, and building a personal learning network. Crabapple was kind enough to serve as my model and explain how she did each part her own way. '

Page 137

She includes a lot of resources in the book, and again, there’s a lot of useful bits in there. In fact, the last 15% of the book is all resources, bibliography, and Index. The book feels to me like it’s a collection of alot of stuff, rather than a straightforward story or how to get there. Still, if these are topics that interest you, it may well be worth reading the book. I did learn things.

I guess my problem here is that while it certainly has a lot of good points and information, they way it’s put together means that I can only give it an unenthusiastic recommendation.

You can find more of my book review here.


Book Review 68: Rapture of the Geeks

This book is about the future of technology and the evolution, coevolution, and possible merger of humans and computers. Some futurists and AI (artificial intelligence) experts argue that this merger is imminent, and that we'll be raising Borg children (augmented humans) by the year 2030. Others predict that supercomputers will equal and then quickly surpass human intelligence as early as 2015. We are accustomed to using computers as powerful tools, and we resist any invitation to think of them as sentient beings—and with good reason: Computers, even computers as powerful as Firefly, still just kind of sit there, patiently humming, waiting for instructions from programs written by humans.

Page 3

Rapture for the Geeks: When AI Outsmarts IQ by Richard Dooling is a disappointing book.  I had high hopes for a book about the singularity and the powerful role technology has for our future as a species. What I read was more of a rambling introduction of the singularity, punctuated by pointless and inaccurate Microsoft rants, and a narrative that appears designed to show us just how clever the author is. It’s the only book I’ve read in the last 10-years that I seriously considered abandoning half way through. I don’t recommend it.

There are some interesting observations in the book. It’s all focused around the idea of the Singularity, popularized by futurist Ray Kurzweil.  The Singularity is the point at which computer processing power surpasses cerebral processing power and what the means for the human race. If a desktop computer can process data as fast as the human mind, does that mean computers are finally smarter than people? Can we then download our selves into computers and live forever?  These questions are more than just philosophical; they are likely to be serious, practical ones in a few years due to the advances in the computing power and the decline in computing cost.

If futurist Ray Kurzweil is right, by 2020 a computer with the computational capacity of a human brain will cost $1,000 and will be sitting on your desk. "

Page 77

This will raise the question of when do we stop being human and become a machine. At what point does a person become a Cyborg? Is it when they wear a Bluetooth head set? Is it when the have a prosthetic limb? Is it when they can control that limb with their neurons? Is it when they stop remembering things and instead rely on Google or their smart phone? The border between human and robot narrows each day.

The ancient Greeks used to ask, "How many grains of sand make a heap?" Start with one. Add another. And another. Is it a heap yet? We'll soon be asking the same thing about brain components. We have no problem thinking that someone with a hearing aid, cochlear implant, or a pacemaker is still human, but Steven Pinker takes it to the next level with a hypothetical that poses questions we may face within ten years:

"Surgeons replace one of your neurons with a microchip that duplicates its input-output functions. You feel and behave exactly as before. Then they replace a second one, and a third one, and so on, until more and more of your brain becomes silicon. Since each microchip does exactly what the neuron did, your behavior and memory never change. Do you even notice the difference? Does it feel like like dying? Is some other conscious entity moving in with you?''

Page 79

There is also an interesting and brief discussion about whether or not AI even makes sense. There’s and advantage to using people instead of machines.  

IBM has the scratch to pursue silicon brain making, but most governments and corporations probably would not spend hundreds of millions of dollars trying to duplicate a human brain. As roboticist Hans Moravec put it, "Why tie up a rare twenty-million-dollar asset to develop one ersatz human, when millions of inexpensive original model humans are available?"'' Or as rocket scientist Wernher von Braun put it in a different context: "Man is the best computer we can put aboard a spacecraft... and the only one that can be mass produced with unskilled labor."

Page 81

For all the interesting discussions that sneak into the text, there are other passages where the author starts to raise an interesting point and then squanders it in excessive snarkiness. Here’s one example about the nature of idleness.

Several hundred years before the first click on the first hyperlink, Pascal wrote: "All human evil comes from a single cause, man's inability to sit still in a room." Little did he know at the time, but he had already built a primitive fossil of a machine (his calculator), which would one day lead to the mighty PC, which in turn would make it possible for us to sit still in a room for weeks, playing Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, drinking Mountain Dew Game Fuel, and eating Snickers bars.

Page 55

The silly gamer commentary doesn’t do anything to further his point.

Some of those types of comments seem mildly entertaining, but there are so many of them, they lose impact.  Here’s another example where his point gets lost in the silliness.

When you're in a panic to make an appointment and you can't find your car keys or your billfold or purse, do you instinctively begin formulating search terms you might use if the real world came with Google Desktop Search or a command-line interface? Whoever created the infinite miracle we glibly call "the Universe" Is surely at least as smart as the guys at Bell Labs and U.C. Berkeley who made UNIX. The UNIX creators wisely included a program "called Find, which enables you to instantly find any file on your system, especially any file in your "home" directory. Another command-line utility, Grep, enables you to find any line of text in any file on your entire system.' Mac OS X uses Spotlight to do essentially the same thing with spiffy visuals, and even Microsoft finally included "Instant Search" in Vista. So why can't the creator of the universe come up with a decent search box? Why can't you summon a command line and search your real-world home for "Honda car keys," and specify rooms in your house to search instead of folders or paths in your computer's home directory? It's a crippling design flaw in the real-world interface.

Page 5-6

This passage is interesting in a few ways. First, the comment about the “crippling design flaw” is an interesting way to look at things, but it takes too long to get there, and in context, if feels too forced and clever.  The passage also takes the opportunity to snipe at Microsoft unnecessarily. And all that obscures the point he is making and the story he is telling about technology.

And that brings me to commentary on Microsoft.  

Roughly 88 percent of scanned consumer PCs are found to contain some form of unwanted program (Trojan, system monitor, cookie, or adware).
Funny too how these infection rates hover at near 90 percent, which matches the percentage of computers running the Windows operating system. One might safely conclude that virtually all computers running a Windows operating system are infected if they are also connected to the Internet; it's just a question of whether the spyware compromises performance to the point where the user notices and becomes annoyed. Often the only cure is to erase your entire hard drive and reinstall the operating system. The Messaging Anti-Abuse Working Group also estimates that 80 to 85 percent of incoming e-mail is spam. An innocent Windows user might be tempted to inquire how Moore's law will soon produce computers that are smarter than people, while expensive, "intelligent" software programs running on today's latest, greatest hardware are still unable to stop spyware, or e-mails with the subject line "Visit the giant penis store',"

Page 122

It used to be all you needed was a computer and an Internet connection. Nowadays, an unprotected PC hooked to the Internet can be infected and hijacked within minutes, which means that now you need $200 worth of programs-firewall, antivirus, anti-spyware-before you can safely connect to the new, evolved, and improved Internet.

Page 123

The author loses credibility for a couple of reasons here. In addition to being full of cheap shots, there are a number of things that are just technically wrong.
  1. Cookies are not malware. Does your PC remember remember your password or user ID?  You’re enjoying cookies.
  2. System Monitor? Really?  A tool so you can see how your system is doing? Now, I know he describes these at “unwanted programs” and not malware, he does go on to describe them as infections.
  3. A few sentences later he refers to all these elements as “spyware” which simply isn’t true.
  4. He cites a survey showing 80-85% of incoming email is SPAM. while it may be true that 85% of the email on the ‘net is SPAM, the vast majority of that never gets to a user’s inbox. SPAM filters, even in 2008, were already quite effective and diverting it. Further, he buries this in a MSFT discussion. SPAM affects Linux and Apple users just as much.
  5. He goes on to say you need to spend $200 to keep a Windows machine safe. Even in 2008, when he wrote the book that wasn’t true. There were plenty of free, high-quality tools to protect users that didn’t require them to spend anything.

It’s hard to take him seriously after such a discussion.

It’s a shame because there are some interesting points he tries to make in the book. His overly clever writing and anger at Microsoft significantly diminishes the quality of the book. There are plenty of other books out there for those who want to learn more about the Singularity.  Check those out instead.


Book Review 67: The Dark River

Hollis handed Kevin the two hundred dollars and got up from the table. "Do a good job on this and I'll give you a bonus. Who knows? Maybe you'll make enough to fly to Paris."

"Why would I want to do that"?"

"You could meet the woman at the Eiffel Tower."

"That's no fun." Kevin returned to his computer. "Real flesh is too much trouble.

Page 163-164

The Dark River is the second book in John Twelve Hawks’ Fourth Realm Trilogy. You should read the first book, The Traveler, before reading this one. My review of The Traveler is here.

This book is just okay. The story isn’t as compelling as the first book in the series, and the overall theme drifts. Where the first book was all about the choices people make and the power of making decisions, this book is more about what happens to the characters and how we should fear the modern surveillance society.This book gets a little preachier and when it does that, it loses much of its impact. Still, if you liked the Traveler, you will probably want to read this one, too. And, while I haven’t started it yet, I do look forward to reading the next book in the series.

The book continues the adventures of Gabriel, Maya, Hollis, and their cohorts as they try to avoid the reach of the Tabula -- the vast surveillance organization and machine that seeks to control the world. Along the way, the try to find Gabriel's father, strike at the machine, and avenge those living off the grid. The novel takes us to the Arizona dessert, the tunnels of New York, the roof tops and squats of London, the craggy cliffs of Ireland, the catacombs of Rome, and the sands of Ethiopia. The novel also takes us out of our earthly realm (the fourth realm) and into others. There's adventure, violence, philosophy, violence, political commentary, and more violence.  The violence is not excessive for the story, but there is a lot of it.

One of the problems I have with the novel is one I also had with the first book. It’s just that here, it’s not overshadowed by other things. That problem is the tone of the writing. In many places, it feels immature. The author tends to write without subtlety, as though he wants to be extra sure that his readers “get it.”
The New Harmony operation had been good for morale; the necessary violence had unified a group of mercenaries with different nationalities and backgrounds.

Page 70

The Upper West Side was filled with restaurants, nail salons, and Starbucks coffee shops. Hollis had never been able to figure out why so many men and women spent the day at Starbucks sipping lattes as they stared at their computers. Most of them looked too old to be students and too young to be retired. Occasionally, he had glanced over someone's shoulder to see what project took so much effort. He began to believe that everyone in Manhattan was writing the same movie screenplay about the romantic problems of the urban middle class.

Page 162

Nathan Boone passed through the revolving door and entered the atrium lobby He glanced at the decorative waterfall and the small grove of artificial spruce trees placed near the windows. The architects had insisted on living evergreens, but each new transplant withered and died, leaving an unsightly carpet of brown needles. The eventual solution was a grove of manufactured trees with an elaborate air system that gave off a faint pine scent. Everyone preferred the imitation evergreens: they seemed more real than something that grew in the forest.

Page 200-201

There is a point to these passages, but it feels like the author is just trying too hard. Here’s another example where the author goes a long way around to make his point. As above, the imagery is solid, but it’s just a little too much. It feels like a stronger edit could have made the text better.

Something passed through the air and she gazed upward at the oculus—the round opening at the top of the dome. A gray dove was trapped inside the temple and was trying to escape. Desperately flapping its wings, the bird rose through the air in a tight spiral. But the oculus was too far away, and the dove always gave up a few yards from freedom. Maya could see that the dove was getting tired. Each new attempt brought another failure and it kept drifting lower—pulled down by the weight of its exhausted body. The bird was so frightened and desperate that all it could do was keep flying, as if the motion itself would provide a solution.

Page 280

At the same time, there are passages that sound like they are straight out of an action movie. And I mean that as a good thing. I can easily imagine these books being made into a series of movies. (Apparently, Warner Brothers is working on it.) They could be quite entertaining. Some of the heavy-handed exposition from earlier could translate well to cinematic imagery. Plus, there are some great movie lines in the book.

Hollis stood up and approached Naz. Although he held the shotgun with his left hand, he didn't need the weapon to be intimidating. "I'm not a church member these days, but I still remember a lot of the sermons. In his Third Letter from Mississippi, Isaac Jones said that anyone who takes the wrong path would cross a dark river to a city of endless night. Doesn't sound like the kind of place you'd like to spend eternity ..."

Page 58

"It's electronically activated." Mother Blessing scrutinized a small steel box attached to the wall near the door. "This is a palm vein scanner that uses infrared light. Even if we had known about this, it would be difficult to create a bio dupe. Most veins aren't visible beneath the skin."

"So what are we going to do? "

'When you're trying to overcome security barriers, the choices are either low-tech or very high-tech. "

Mother Blessing took the submachine gun from Hollis, removed a spare ammunition clip from the equipment bag, and slid the clip between her belt and waistband. The Harlequin pointed her weapon at the door and motioned Hollis to step aside. "Get ready. We're going low."

Page 332

Maya, the Harlequin, continues to be one of the heroes of the book.

Maya felt better when she finally got out of the building. Her favorite hour was approaching: the transition between day and night. Before the streetlights went on, the air seemed to be filled with little black specks of darkness. Shadows lost their sharp edges and boundaries faded away. Like a knife blade, sharp and clean, she passed through the gaps in the crowd and cut through the city.

Page 48-49

Even so, by about halfway through the book, her actions feel like they make less sense. The character is no longer driving the plot. Instead the plot drives the character. As a result, many of those actions don’t feel like those of the Maya we know from the first book or even the first part of this book. The way the author portrayed her in the first place doesn’t really fit with how she’s being portrayed later in the story. There are subtle elements of her character and thought process that seem to be missing.

There are still interesting things that happen here. For example, an orphan attaches herself to Maya.

What does she want? Maya thought. I'm the last 'person in the world to show her any love or physical affection. She remembered Thorn telling her about a trip he had taken through the southern Sudan. When her father spent the day with missionaries at a refugee camp, a little boy—an orphan of war—had followed him around like a lost dog. "All living things have a desire to survive," her father explained. "If children have lost their family, they search for the most powerful person, the one who can protect them. . . ."

Page 141

That assessment of orphan behavior can describe the rest of the citizenry as well, as they willingly surrender their lives to the vast machine.

John Twelve Hawks created a terribly interesting and terrifying cosmology with his books, and The Dark River is an interesting exploration of that. It’s an uneven follow-up to the first in the series, but is likely still worth reading.

This is the first time I’ve said this, but my ultimate recommendation about whether or not to read this book will depend on my opinion on the third book in the series -- The Golden City, which I haven’t read yet. If The Golden City turns out to be a great book, then I will recommend The Dark River as a way to advance the story. If it’s disappointing, then I’ll recommend stopping after The Traveller.

I’d better get on that.

You can find more of my book review here.


Pelican Cautions

I'm a big fan of Pelican cases. We use them to ship stuff all over the country for work. I just ordered a new batch and they came with these warning tags.  It never occurred to me that I could use them to ship children. Thanks for the tip, Pelican!


Movie Review 24: The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games is the antidote to Twilight. Over the weekend, The GF and I caught the first movie in the series at the Cinerama over the weekend. It's good film and one well worth seeing. It's based on a book of the same name, and the first one in a series. I haven't read the books yet,  but The GF has, and she reports the movie is a reasonably accurate adaptation.

The Hunger Games takes place is a post apocalyptic, dystopian North America. The ruling Capitol City of Panem defeated a rebellion by 12 districts 75 years prior to the start of the movie. As punishment for their uprising, each district is required to, once a year, send 1 boy and 1 girl between the ages of 12 and 18 to compete in the annual Hunger Games.  The Hunger Games is a reality TV show where all 24 teens must fight to the death while all 12 districts must watch the games play out on TV.

The point of the games is to continue to punish the districts for their uprising, intimidate them against future uprisings, and assert the dominance of the ruling party of Panem.

In Districts 1 and 2, children are trained from birth to win the games. As a result, the winner is usually from one of these districts.

The movie follows the story of Katniss Everdeen, the girl chosen from District 12. Her younger sister was actually chosen in the annual drawing, but Katniss volunteered to take her place.

The characters go through an intense personal journey as they meet the other tributes from other districts. In the time leading up to the games, they have to get used to the idea that they are going to die brutally soon, or that they are going to have to brutally murder other children soon. Most of them will encounter both fates since there can be only one winner.

As you can imagine, this is a violent movie. The focus is on children killing one another for the entertainment/intimidation of the entire society.

The violence is not even the driving theme for the movie.  It's the commentary on Reality TV.  The way the producers run the games and manipulate players is an important part of the movie.  It's not too difficult to imagine a show like this as the natural extension of what already airs on cable channels across the airways. It gets into fascinating areas of hope, love, story-telling, and more, in a very dark way.

In addition to the knowing-they-have-to-kill-each-other thing, the kids also have to learn to appeal to sponsors. Like on American Idol where winning fans is the key to success, appealing to fans and sponsors in the Hunger Games can mean bonuses during the game that make the difference between life and death.

That leads to another interesting aspect of the film. At times it reminds me of a role playing game as characters learn new skills and "level up" throughout the game. They acquire loot and gain experience points. That could just be me reading too much into forest quests with swords and bows, but it helped involve me deeper in the film.

The cinematography is excellent. The film manages to  maintain an intense feeling of fear and sense of violence, while minimizing the graphic nature of it through subtle camera work.  In the heat of a massacre, they are are still able to maintain a PG13 rating.

The sound design was even more impressive. They adjusted the sound to what the characters were hearing, made excellent use of background audio, and effectively created an immersive surround sound environment.

The Hunger Games is long movie. It may have been possible to tighten up the earlier parts of the film, but that's tough to say. There is a lot of background information the movie needs to convey. It tries to do that while minimizing the exposition, and that is a tough challenge.  According to The GF, they did leave out some of the key elements the book goes into. They're not essential to the plot, but do contribute to the overall atmosphere of the book.  It feels a little slow in the beginning, but the pace does pick up. It's a tough balance for the movie makers.

In this adaptation we do miss some of Katniss's internal monologue. Here character grows, but apparently not  in the same way she grows in the novel.

In short I like the movie. It's an interesting social commentary combined with a great story. I do care about what happens to the characters. I really want to see what happens in the next movie, and this movie makes me want to read the books.  Overall, I'd call it a success.

You can find more of my movie reviews here.


American Theater Wing announces new Partnership with DHS

Today, the American Theater Wing and The Broadway League announced an new partnership with the Department of Homeland Security. The American Theatre Wing's Tony Awards® are presented by Tony Award Productions, a joint venture of The Broadway League and the American Theatre Wing. The two organizations have jointly administered the Tony’s since 1967, the year of the first Tony telecast.  The Department of Homeland Security is charged with protecting Americans from terrorist threats.

This new partnership will come into the spotlight on June 10, 2012 during the 66th annual Tony Awards.  The show will feature three new categories – Best Airport Cast, Best Performance by a Backscatter Specialist, and Best Performance by Gate Screening Specialist.

A spokesperson for the Tony organization said, “It’s only natural we should recognize excellence in the stage performance of the TSA. These agents don’t just do a show every night and a Wednesday matinee. They are on stage all the time. They are never dark.”

He went on to praise the skills of the officers. “The way they can say, ‘We are here for your protection,’ and ‘Your safety is our priority,’ over and over with a straight face is truly astounding.

The Best Airport Cast award will recognize the TSA team a particular airport that most effectively conveys the illusion that they make flying more secure. The judges will consider how many people in the community actually believe the TSA, with a special weighting given to the views of the airport staff.  The winner is the ensemble that has so effectively portrayed the role of “security” that its own members actually start to believe they have value.

The Best Performance by a Backscatter Specialist will recognize an officer that most clearly acts as though selection is a random and that displays the most convincing portrayal of someone not afraid of the non-FDA tested and non-AMA tested radiation emitters, more commonly known as nude-o-scopes.

Because every great show needs an encore, the Best Performance by a Gate Screening Agent will recognize an officer for their excellence in this task. It’s a tough category. Gate Screenings are the random, surprise inspections that take place at the boarding door, where TSA does its best to delay flights and further annoy passengers. The agent in this role must be able to convince passengers not only of the value of this task, but also that they even though they are doing it, that does not mean that the check point team frequently misses things.

The TSA was originally created by Congress on November 19,2001, as a way to make the American people think they were doing something about the very real threat of terrorism the country faced. The illusion has largely been considered effective. The legislation included a framework that would allow for collective bargaining. TSA rank and file are expected to select Actors' Equity as its union of choice.

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I'm a couple weeks late with this post, but that's not so surprising considering my updates over the past year.

2012-01-23 was my 6th Blogaversary.  In that time, I've done 1,470 posts. Between years 5 and 6, though, I did just 32.  It's quite a drop off from when I was doing near daily posts a couple years back.  There are a number of reasons (or excuses) for that, but I won't go into them here. In previous drafts they just came across as whiny to me. 

What intrigues me about this whole process is that I came up with excuses at all. Excuses are often something we come up with when we've let others down or failed to meet their expectations. I'm not arrogant enough to think my readers are eagerly anticipating a bunch of posts. 

Writing is a personal obligation to myself, and one that I enjoy. And yet my excuses are least effective when offered to myself.

This blog is about more than just being an outlet for my personal writing energy.It's about chronicling the events in my life. It's about recording details of trip and activities I enjoy before they get pushed out of my brain when that snippet of dialog for "The Big Bang Theory" decides it wants to set up camp on that stack of neurons.  

I write my book reviews for a similar reason.  In addition to the process making me think more about my reading and take and active roll in the process, it's also about remembering the books.  When I think back on the books I read before I started this process, I find I can't remember much beyond a general impression.  And considering the 5-35 hours that reading a book can take, that just feels wrong.  Plus it's inconvenient when I'm reading several books in a series over the course of a few years.

So what can I predict over the next year?  

I'd like to think my pace will pick up.  I'll be satisfied if I do 50+ posts between now and 2013-01-13. That means more reviews, phones, and new commentaries.  

Aside from that, I don't think there will be other major changes over the next year.  But keep checking back. There will be more stuff on here that is interesting to me. And maybe -- just maybe -- to you too.

Previous Blogaversary posts:

  • Year 0: 2006-01-23 -- To Begin with... (First Post)
  • Year 1: 2007-01-24 -- 371
  • Year 2: 2008-01-24 -- 685
  • Year 3: 2009-01-24 -- 990
  • Year 4: 2010-01-23 -- 1,262
  • Year 5: 2011-01-23 -- 1428