Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

In some ways, Chamber of Secrets is a retread of Sorcerer's Stone. It follows the same basic mystery plot, with the same red herrings and clues. This is probably why it's most people's least favorite Harry Potter book.

That's not to say it's a bad book, though. Rowling is pretty good at setting up a mystery and peppering the clues throughout for the attentive reader to put together. Of course, most people fly through this book too quickly to solve the mystery on their own. Like the rest of the books in this series, it's a compulsive page-turner. It's the first book I ever stayed up way too late to finish after all (good thing it was summer). But it has a structure that rewards re-reads, that stands up to further scrutiny (unlike so many other page-turners I could mention).

There's also a lot in this book that becomes hugely important later in the series. We get some of Voldemort's past, come across the first Horcrux, and learn more about the history of Hogwarts. The first mention of Azkaban, the Whomping Willow, and house elves are all here, too. And we get one of the best Defense Against the Dark Arts teachers, one of the things the movies absolutely nailed in the casting of Kenneth Brannagh.

Still, this book can feel like so much setup. After the initial introduction to the magical world in the rather short first book, there's still a lot to set up before the story can really take off. It's done well, but it's just not as exciting or intricate as the later books in the series.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Book Review: Rogues

I'll admit, I bought this $30, 800+ page tome in order to read one single short story. Because that short story was written by Patrick Rothfuss about Bast, and I am desperate for new material in that world. Of course, this collection also contains plenty of other stories by plenty of other authors I love, so it felt worth that price tag. Let's go through it story by story, shall we?

The Lightning Tree by Patrick Rothfuss - This story basically chronicles a day in the life of Bast an indeterminate amount of time before the first book starts, but after Kvothe has established himself as Kote, owner of the Waystone Inn. Bast trades secrets and favors with children, gets into some mischief, does some highly questionable and uncomfortable things, but also does some tough and honorable things. He's a tough guy to pin down, because his moral code is skewed by his Fae heritage. This story left me more confused about him than before, but it was a nice little slice of life, nonetheless.

A Year and a Day in Old Theradane by Scott Lynch - After I finished The Lies of Locke Lamora I was eager to read more from Scott Lynch. So I turned to this short story. Like Lies it centers on a band of thieves in a magical city. But man, I want so much more from these thieves. The group consists of four women and a robot (and a dead dude, but he's dead). They are tasked with stealing a street and are given a year to both figure out how to do this and pull it off. It's a lot of fun to watch them try out different things. More than that, the world around them, with magic used to make interesting drinks and mechanical men switching out their bodies like humans changes clothes, is truly fantastical. It was so rich and amazing and entirely too short. I want an entire series set in Theradane. 

How the Marquis Got His Coat Back by Neil Gaiman -  This story follows a character from one of Gaiman's first novels, Neverwhere. This was never my favorite novel of Gaiman's; I read it years ago and have yet to return to it. But the story was fun and mostly unrelated to the events of that book. It's important that the Marquis died in the story, since this happens after that, but that mostly gets explained in the short story. Having returned, the Marquis is on a quest to get his coat back. Along the way he encounters an old enemy, a family member he'd rather forget, and a doomed courtship. The story was entertaining, though my favorite part was the all-too-brief cameo by C.M.O.T. Dibbler, one of Pratchett's characters who has a tendency to pop up everywhere.

What Do You Do? by Gillian Flynn - I've been seeing a ton about Gillian Flynn lately, and I was excited to get a chance to sample some of her work. This story is twisty, and by the end I was left questioning everything. What was the truth? Who was manipulating who? But the protagonist did an amazing job of just rolling with it, thanks in large part to her lack of morals. It was satisfying, if ambiguous, and more than anything else it has me convinced that I should check out some of Flynn's other work.

The Roaring Twenties by Carrie Vaughn  - This was a little snapshot of life, more a vignette than a full story. It follows Pauline and her employer, Madame M, through a night at a hidden, magical club. There's a lot going on, but not a ton of resolution. Change is coming, possibly a war of some sort, and Madame M is trying to line up her ducks before that happens. The story is interesting, if unsatisfying. Like so many other stories in this book, I was left craving more.

The Rogue Prince by GRRM - You know, I may just be done with A Song of Ice and Fire. This last season of Game of  Thrones was incredibly uncomfortable; there was at least one scene per episode that I just couldn't watch. And the books are just so dense and complicated and there's so much else I want to read. This story takes place long before the series proper, when the Targaryans were firmly in control of Westeros. It's about family strife and may be painting a picture of the beginning of the end for the reign. I don't know; I had a hard time placing it in the history of the world. There were far too many characters to keep track of and the entire thing ended just before it finally got interesting. I mean, I might still read The Winds of Winter when it comes out, depending on when that it. But this story did little to recapture my interest in this world.

Tough Times All Over by Joe Abercrombie - This story was a lot of fun. It opens on a courier who, having obtained a mysterious package, is headed out of town as quickly as possible to deliver it. But then she gets mugged and we're off. The narrative follows the package itself as it passes from thief to thug to mob boss and back to thief, across the city. There's a wonderful mix of characters who manage to all become complete people in the 1-2 pages they are afforded. The mystery of where teh package will eventually end up and what's in it pulls you through the story.

The Inn of the Seven Blessings by Matthew Hughes - A thief accidentally steals a god and is compelled to rescue his priest, but then the priest double-crosses him. Put like that this story sounds interesting. But man does it have a gender problem. The thief also manages to rescue a woman, the daughter of an innkeep. And she is, of course, super ugly. But that doesn't stop him from trying to force himself on her, being fought off, and ending up with her anyway. Ugh.

Heavy Metal by Cherie Priest - This story had more than a little in common with any given episode of Supernatural, minus the angsty brothers. The rogue in question comes to a small mining town where he must exorcise a malevolent sprite that killed a couple of grad students. It was a bit blah with a predictably triumphant, though strangely confusing ending.

A Cargo of Ivories by Garth Nix - A thief and his puppet sorcerer thing (it was weird) are tasked with stealing a crate of ivory idols before the gods contained within manifest and wreak some havoc. There's a lot - almost too many - of magical items to aid them in this theft. There's another thief who complicates some things. There's a convenient magical beast. I wasn't terribly taken by this tale, but it did build up to a sufficiently satisfying and thrilling ending.

Bent Twig by Joe R. Lansdale - This story was just awful on every level. From the plot to the characters to the choppy language to the weird moralizing. Awful.

This is as far as I made it into the book. Ultimately, the stories were a lot longer than I was hoping for from an anthology. Most of them were bordering on novella length, which made it difficult to just fit in a short story before bed. Add to that the fact that so many of these rogues were basically the same character, and a boring retread at that, and I just couldn't bring myself to finish off the book.

It was still worth it, I think, for the stories I enjoyed from Rothfuss, Lynch, and Abercrombie. Maybe I'll come back to it at some point. But at this point it's more of an obligation than an escape, and that's when you know it's time to quit.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

I can hardly believe I haven't revisited Harry Potter since I started this blog. The last time I read the series was just over four years ago. I actually marked my calendar to figure out how long it took me to read all seven books (just under five weeks), so I know exactly when I last read these books.

I also, like so many others, remember the first time I read this book - though the countless re-reads in between have blurred together. It was the summer I turned 13, the first summer we were living in the house where my mom still lives. I was an avid reader, but getting my brother interested was a struggle. Harry Potter was the latest in a series of attempts to get him interested in the written word. Every night he and my mom would read a chapter together. When they were about halfway through, he asked me to catch up so we could all read it together. I agreed, even though I was just old enough that it seemed beneath me. But then I screwed up and read the entire book in one sitting and had already started on the second by the time my brother got home that evening.

I'm not sure whether or not my brother actually finished the first book that summer. By the time they announced the movies, he decided to just watch those instead, and I remember being really mad that they were releasing the movies before the series had been completed. What if they left something important out? And what about all those other kids who had started reading again and would now abandon the rest of the books in favor of what were sure to be mediocre movies?

I needn't have worried, of course. The movies weren't as good as they could have been (should have been), and they did nothing to hinder sales of the books. My brother eventually read the entire series (over a decade later). The magic of Harry Potter shows no sign of dying out any time soon.

It's hard to figure out exactly what fuels that magic. What was it about Harry Potter that was so special it transformed an entire generation? It's a cultural touchstone for nearly every millenial I know. It spawned not just movies but whole theme parks. And it all started with a simple children's book.

Of course there's nothing simple about the first book. It introduces us to a truly magical and expansive world. There's a great mystery that blindsides you the first time through. Part of the fun of re-reads is seeing how liberally the clues are sprinkled through the rest of the book (it's not surprised JK Rowling has shifted to mystery with her latest series), as well as catching jokes like the throw-away line about Fred and George enchanting snowballs to follow Quirrell around, bouncing off his turban all day.

There's something about this world that never quite gets boring. No matter how many times I read the introductions to Diagon Alley or Hogwarts, they don't feel stale. A good bit of that is probably nostalgia at this point. But there has to be something more for them to still feel exciting and enchanting, all these years later.

Not to mention how much fun it is to revisit the starting points of these characters and watch them soften. Hermione remains smart and driven, and she pushes Ron and Harry to excel. But she also learns that school isn't the most important thing in the world, and she makes allowances for the rest of life to intrude. Ron gains confidence while maintaining his sense of humor. Neville doesn't have Harry's fame or recklessness, but that never stops him from standing up for himself and what he thinks is right. All of these kids, growing up together, are part of that magic too.

These books are a part of me in a way that's bigger than me. They're comfort reads when I need them, classics I can't wait to share with my kids. The universe continues to expand, and I love reading the extra tidbits. Both the official ones written by JK Rowling at Pottermore and the head canons at places like Flourish and Blotts where fans postulate about what happened to characters before or after the books, about how the world changed or didn't, about how people who weren't really given a place in the books might still find a place in the universe.

All of this is to say that I love these books too much to really be too critical of them. Yes, there are plot holes. Yes, Rowling's language is flowery, and she tends to overuse adverbs. Yes Dumbledore is a seriously questionable authority figure (Or is he actually a time-traveling Ron Weasley?) and equating Slytherin with evil is one-dimensional and reductive. But the themes of friendship, resilience, and hard work transcend those problems. At least they do for me.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Running Again

I hate running. But as cardio goes it's basically the least bad of a series of options. The bike hurts my butt and the elliptical makes my toes go numb and the stair climber can only be used for, like, ten minutes max. At least I like the way I feel after I run.

Intervals make this all easier. And as I am determined to become a runner (for some foolish reason) I have developed a new system that makes heavy use of them.

This all started when my trainer added the intervals to my weekly session. I alternate 30 seconds jogging with 30 seconds of walking for somewhere between 15 and 20 minutes before lifting. I decided to extend this on my own time.

The ultimate goal is to run for an entire episode of the Gilmore Girls, during which I think I would travel somewhere between 3 and 4 miles. Walking I cover just over 2.5 miles, and with my intervals I haven't managed to go farther than 2.7 miles. But this is baby-steps. And a long-term goal will help keep me motivated an on-task. The seven seasons of Gilmore Girls should also help.

The problem is that I'm super out of shape (when it comes to running, I'm actually in pretty decent shape generally). My calves do not like all of this running and they complain loudly after just a few intervals. So I made a deal with myself. I can always take a minute off from the intervals if I increase the incline during that rest minute.

This ultimately results in me running with the incline set at 5 or 6. Or, if I really can't run one day, I end up walking up a rather steep hill for ten or twenty minutes instead. Which is certainly better than nothing, and probably nearly as good as running.

I'm hoping to stick to doing this 2-3 times a week moving forward. Once I can do intervals the whole way through, I'll start lengthening the running portion and shortening the walking portion. Like my own custom "couch to 5K", but on a longer timescale. I don't want to injure myself again by pushing too hard too fast, so I'm giving myself room to go slow. And I'm staying on the treadmill. Partly because it's getting cold and wet outside, but also because I'm way less likely to twist my ankle on the flat surface.

Let's see how long I can stick with this. It'd be great to get to a point where I can run a mile again. Or even further, if my ankle cooperates. I should probably start doing some ankle exercises more frequently, too.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Book Review: Dataclysm

I got really excited about this book from the second I heard about it. Big Data is everywhere these days, and it's something I've been working on, adjacently or directly, for years. The data I'm working with now isn't included in the scope of Christian Rudder's work, which focuses on applications in the fields of sociology and psychology. But there was a time when I almost broke into this world. There are even some projects he talks about in this book that I was involved in or hearing really cool talks about. Alas, I never quite broke into it in the way I wanted to.

I've remained interested in this field, though. We're experiencing what will be the beginning of an absolute golden age for sociology and psychology. Data is available in unprecedented amounts and ways. It's not only that you can finally look at the behaviors of literally millions of people, but free from a lab those behaviors are far more natural than in any hitherto performed experiment or survey. Facebook, Twitter, Google Search, Reddit, OKCupid and the like are veritable treasure troves, just waiting to be examined for what they can tell us about the human condition. And computer science has reached a point where we can process all this data and start to come to grips with it.

Christian Rudder started as a founder and analyst at the online dating site, OKCupid. His blog over there has always interested in me, as he looks at the various ways people interact and how sex, race, and orientation still have a huge impact on our interactions with the world. In his book he expands to looking at data from other social sites.

I should emphasize that all of this, this whole field really, is still in the preliminary stages. There aren't any formal experiments being done. There aren't really conclusions being drawn, and when there are I don't always agree with them. There's just a whole lot of interesting analysis. At this point it's about finding patterns in human existence and providing hard numbers instead of anecdotes. I remember a former colleague telling me that 95% of humans behave completely predictably 95% of the time. Up until now psychology has necessarily been focused on the outliers; that's where the interesting stuff was happening. But now we can start to for a picture of the broader, typical human experience.

As I said, I came very close to breaking into this field at my previous job (I didn't for a whole bunch of reasons). But the projects I did work on, and the projects I heard people talking about are almost all represented in this book. Facebook networks can be used to determine the stability of a marriage or the likelihood that someone is gay. I attempted to use them to predict other things as well. Twitter can be used to track unrest and take the temperature of social movements, and I remember attending a talk that likened information spread on the site to viral spread. The same equations apply. Twitter is also challenging previously held beliefs about linguistics. And more long form communications (blogs and dating profiles) can be used to find trends among like people or pick out anomolies.

I got a bit bored by some of Rudder's math, mostly because his explanations were simplistic. I've done most of this math, so I found it unnecessary to got through the motions like a high schooler, but those explanations are probably more interesting for people who haven't done this analysis before (some of it would have been useful for me to read 5 or 6 years ago). The conclusions are also frustrating, both in their large absence and because it almost seems premature to be drawing any conclusions at all. Getting to the heart of what some of this data really means is going to take more people with more expertise that Rudder (trained in mathematics) can bring to the problem.

We're at the very beginning of a new era right now, standing at the brink of a much deeper and broader understanding of ourselves than ever before. I'm really excited to see where this all goes in the next few years.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Book Review: Red Seas Under Red Skies

The first I ever heard of Scott Lynch was him vehemently defending one of the characters in this book. The character in question is one Zamira Drakasha. She's a pirate captain. She's middle-aged. She's black. And she's a mom, who brings her toddlers on the high seas with her. Some fans were upset, claiming that this was unrealistic wish fulfillment. To which Lynch replied that he's writing speculative fiction, not history. Wish fulfillment is the name of the game.

Seriously though, you should go read his whole response. It's pretty amazing.

I filed that bit away until one friend and then another began gushing about Lynch's books, and I had no choice but to pick them up. Zamira wasn't in the first book, though it was still a very good novel. If a bit uneven. But I knew she featured in the second one, and I was excited to meet her.

Imagine my disappointment when it took her over half of the 760 page book to show up. Actually it wasn't that bad, because Zamira is far from the only interesting character created by Lynch. The book opens with Locke and Jean approaching the end of a two-year plan to rob a high-end casino. Flashbacks to the months following the end of the previous book help fill in the gaps, and it seems like everything is going well.

Until things start to get complicated. Locke and Jean find themselves unwilling servants of a man who knows too much about them. They try to balance his demands with their job until he forces them out to sea, effectively abandoning the initial plot thread of the book. It would be annoying if the pirates weren't so perfect. Everything eventually comes together in the thrilling conclusion, and I found myself having a hard time putting the book down. There are a few things I wish had happened differently, but for the most part it was excellent. Far better balanced than the first book

One of my favorite things about Lynch is the effort he makes to present both men and women equally. It's not that this is a perfect egalitarian society, that there aren't stereotypes and the like. But women are present in the background in a way that isn't always true. Even faceless groups of guards always have a handful of women in the mix. And the minor characters - the nobility and artisans and assassins - all have an equal chance of being a man or a woman. I'd have loved for there to have been some estrogen in the Gentlemen Bastards in the first book, but barring that it's nice to have so many female faces populating the rest of the world

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Weekend in New England

Kevin and I traveled up to New England last weekend with his mom to spend some time visiting family and friends. We were there for almost three whole days, and we managed to cram in a whole bunch of people. Some were out of town, but it's probably for the best. We might not have gotten any sleep if we'd really attempted to see everyone we know who lives in that area.

We landed in Providence mid-morning on Friday. We actually had some time to kill before we could visit Kevin's great aunt, so we spent some time exploring Roger Williams Park and downtown Providence. The city is adorable, much smaller than cities I'm used to. We got some great burgers for lunch, then found a brewery and had a few beers.

In the late afternoon, we headed over to the rehab center where we spent some time visiting with Kevin's great aunt, who will soon turn 100. Everyone caught up on the family gossip and we shared our wedding pictures. Then it was out to dinner with some cousins at a delicious Asian restaurant. After dinner we drove up to Massachusetts to spend the night with Kevin's aunt.

Saturday was mostly devoted to visiting with Kevin's grandmother. We took her out to lunch then showed her our wedding and honeymoon pictures. In the evening we drove in to Boston and got dinner with an old friend of mine who just started graduate school there. Then we met up with other friends for beers and went back to their place to play board games. Of course, I only made it halfway through the first game before I fell asleep. All that traveling takes it out of me.

The next morning we got up and went to brunch at a cute little restaurant with live jazz music. Then it was more board games and the beginning of the Patriots football game. We finished watching that game back at Kevin's aunts before heading back to Providence to fly home. Everything worked out perfectly timing-wise, and we made it home shortly after 10:00.

While we were gone, the cat tore into a brand new loaf of bread and ate some of it. This is the third time a loaf of bread has been eaten by one of the animals, and I've always blamed the dogs before (either Kina or Lily). But this time it was definitely the cat. They must all be in on it together, with the cat initiating and the dogs finishing off the loaf.