Book List – September and October 2011

Am I late, or am I early? Do they cancel out? Does it matter?

The Zen of Zombie: Better Living Through the Undead, by Scott Kenemore, © 2007. Finished September 25.

A self-help book crossed with zombies. The premise wears thin long before the end, since there’s really only so many ways you can go with the idea. The book could’ve had potential as a satire of the self-help genre, but it’s not played nearly straight enough for that to work.

Pay Me, Bug!, by Christopher Wright, © 2011. Finished October 19.

A starship captain pulls off an impossible heist against a heavily fortified facility, but before he and his crew can enjoy the spoils, they are blackmailed into performing an even more impossible caper against an even harder target. But with an assassin on their tail, will Grif Vindh and his crew survive long enough to try to make lightning strike twice? From the man who often brings you Help Desk and occasionally Kernel Panic comes Pay Me, Bug!

Seriously, though, it’s worth the price of admission just for the fight scene in Chapter 31 alone. But since the entire thing is posted online, I guess the price of admission is zero. But that just means you have no excuse.

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Book List – August 2011

Even later than before!

Moving Pictures, by Terry Pratchett, © 1990. Finished August 31.

The tenth Discworld novel, and the first in the series where Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler plays a prominent role in the plot. I thought for sure that elephants were going to play some important part in the climax, given the recurring imagery of them earlier on, but I was mistaken. I also totally missed one of the (fairly obvious) Hollywood references being made repeatedly until near the ending.

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I survived another earthquake

This time it was a 5.8-5.9. That’s a bit more impressive than that that dinky little 3.6 from a year ago. Figures that Maryland decides that earthquakes are fun times after I’ve become a property owner. Also, hurricanes, maybe.

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Book List – July 2011

Late? I don’t know what you’re talking about.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, by Arthur Conan Doyle, © 1892. Audiobook. Finished July 25.

Unsurprisingly, a collection of Sherlock Holmes short stories. Less unsurprisingly, a couple of the stories seemed vaguely familiar — I’m not sure whether I’ve read them before a long time ago, or if (being in the public domain and all), the core of the plots of some of them got transplanted into other works. Surprisingly, Holmes doesn’t manage to win in all of them. More surprisingly, in one of the stories Holmes goes up against the KKK.

The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde, © 1890. Audiobook. Finished July 25.

I came away from this one somewhat disappointed. A lot of the dialogue felt a bit contrived to fit in a bunch of witticisms, and there’s hardly a likable character to be found. OK sure, the reprehensibility of the titular character is sort of the point, but still.

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Book List – June 2011

Here’s what I read this past month:

Machine of Death, edited by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, and David Malki !, © 2010. Finished June 18.

An anthology of short stories all based on the premise of a machine that, given a small blood sample, can predict with 100% accuracy how a person will die. You might think there’d be a lot of similarity between the stories given that unifying concept, but there’s a huge variety in how each of the authors build on that premise to create interesting and compelling stories. Thankfully, the only thing you’ll be hard-pressed to find is the obvious twist-ending-where-the-prediction-was-being-interpreted-incorrectly. Besides, any book that can enrage Glenn Beck has got to be worth something!

Them: Adventures with Extremists, by Jon Ronson, © 2002. Finished June 30.

A description of Jon Ronson’s experiences shadowing various fringe conspiracy theorists and trying to track down the truth, if any, underlying their beliefs. Despite the variety of groups he spends time with, from Islamic extremists to KKK leaders, he finds them unwittingly unified by the common belief that somewhere there’s a small cabal of wealthy Western businessmen secretly pulling the strings to control the world (and, to a lesser extent, the belief that many other conspiracy theorists are puppets of that cabal, trying to discredit them). He finds that it’s difficult to keep track of what’s real and what’s not once you go down that rabbit hole, when it becomes uncertain what is really a code word for what, or when you find yourself being tailed after trying to infiltrate a suspected Bilderberg meeting. The book reminded me of Michael Shermer‘s book Why People Believe Weird Things, in that once you get past the people who are just flat out crazy and/or evil, a lot of the conspiracy theorists fixated on a particular theory, and then became adept at finding ways to interpret any facts encountered after that as supporting their theory. This is particularly evident in the climax of the book, where Ronson and a couple conspiracy-theory radio hosts sneak into Bohemian Grove and come away with vastly different interpretations of what they saw.

Book List – May 2011

You know the drill by now:

Ship of Fools, by Richard Paul Russo, © 2001. Finished May 22.

A massive space ship, in operation so long that nobody on board knows for sure what its original mission was or where it came from, has gone fourteen years since its last landfall, until it suddenly receives a beacon from an unknown planet. The discovery of the signal, and whatever lies on the planet that sent it, threatens to decide the outcome of the brewing power struggle on the ship. But none of the factions are prepared for what awaits them. (There, I described the book in a much less spoilery fashion than the dust jacket.) If only there had been a way in the story to reveal just what the heck the antagonists’ motivations were, because seriously, who does that?

Faust Eric, by Terry Pratchett, © 1990. Finished May 29.

A lot shorter than all the previous Discworld novels, enough so that I’d be tempted to wish it were longer, if not for taking to heart the novel’s lesson of how careful one should be when doing something like that. Especially when you try to summon a demon to grant your wish and wind up with a wizard who’s a lot better at running away than at actual magic. Since finishing the book I’ve hardly made any summoning circles at all, just to be safe.

Book List – April 2011

Oh yeah, I still have this blog, don’t I? I guess I might as well post about April’s books:

Earth (The Book): A Visitor’s Guide to the Human Race, by Jon Stewart et al, © 2010. Finished April 9.

A mostly comprehensive summary of human civilization, for the benefit of any aliens who happen across our planet after our inevitable demise. Sadly, I’m not sure they’ll have the context necessary to catch most of the humor. Hopefully they will, because then they’ll understand an awful lot more about us. Also, here’s how you can be sure I’m a nerd: on page 223, I readily noticed both that the chess board is improperly set up (the black king and queen are swapped), and that the box art for Metroid II: Return of Samus is improperly paired with a screenshot of the original Metroid, in the section awkwardly explaining to the alien reader about how many of our video games were about us killing them.

The Sign of the Four, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, © 1890. (Audiobook) Finished April 18.

The second Sherlock Holmes novel, and works better as a single cohesive story than its predecessor. In this one you get to see Holmes actually working, instead of somehow figuring out the whole thing right away but not telling anyone else until the last chapter or two.

Through the Looking-Glass, by Lewis Carroll, © 1871. (Audiobook) Finished April 18.

The sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, though if your only exposure to the Alice stories is through the various adaptations of them, you might not realize that this is a separate story, since pretty much every adaptation takes things from Looking-Glass Land and throws them into Wonderland. I’m looking at you, Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson, by Mark Twain, © 1894. (Audiobook) Finished April 30.

A slave woman tries to secure a better future for her infant son by secretly swapping him with her master’s infant son. As one might infer from the title, things don’t go quite so well as expected. Today the Chekhov’s Gun established early on is painfully obvious, though given the time the book was written and the time the story takes place, perhaps it wasn’t originally so. Definitely my favorite Twain story thus far.

Book List – March 2011

It’s that time again!

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll, © 1865. (Audiobook) Finished March 18.

Good, but I strongly urge you to avoid the above-linked Librivox audiobook version. Unlike the others I’ve listened to before, here almost every chapter is read by a different narrator, and one of the narrators who does two chapters is absolutely horrible. He speaks as though reading to a two-year-old, with the style of someone who thinks kids are just dumb little adults. Cadences rarely match sentence structure, delivery is excruciatingly slow, and emphasis is extreme and all over the place. It’s bad enough to make those two chapters unlistentoable. Also, the audiobook is in dire need of volume normalization.

A Study in Scarlet, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, © 1887. (Audiobook) Finished March 20.

This is the first Sherlock Holmes novel. Unexpectedly, I thought the second half of the book, primarily told from a different character’s point of view and where Holmes and Watson don’t even appear again until near the end, was far more interesting a story than the murder mystery surrounding it. I wonder if that means I’d prefer reading Doyle’s other works more than the rest of the Sherlock Holmes series?

HTML5: Up & Running (published online as Dive Into HTML5), by Mark Pilgrim, © 2010. Finished March 29.

A good introduction of the new features of HTML5, aimed at people already familiar with HTML4 and JavaScript. It provides lots of examples of how to use the features, but doesn’t cover all of them, and doesn’t go into significant depth for any. Some of the sections, particularly on <video> and microdata, drag on as examples are driven into the ground — I don’t need to see how half a dozen different tools can be used to encode video, thank you. A good overview, but don’t try to use it as a reference.

Book List – February 2011

So yeah, I’ve been pretty light on the posting lately. Nevertheless, I’m continuing the trend I started last month.

All-in-One CISSP Exam Guide, Fifth Edition, by Shon Harris, © 2010. Finished February 13.

I’m going to go ahead and cite this 1,000+ page beast for the reason for the relatively low number of books this month and last month. Granted, I skimmed through several sections, but still. It’s about as readable as you can hope for from a book intended to prepare you for a certification exam. I could see this being useful professionally even after taking the exam; should all your physical perimeter security safeguards fail, you could definitely bludgeon the attacker with it.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, by Mark Twain, © 1889. (Audiobook) Finished February 19.

A satire of the romanticized picture of medireview medieval England prevalent in Twain’s time (and still pretty prevalent today). A modern (well, late 1800s) man finds himself in Arthurian England, finds his knowledge of science and technology to be no match for the gullibility and superstition that pervades the kingdom, and promptly sets about trying to secretly transform it into a modern superpower 1300 years ahead of the rest of the world. Even given the premise, it can strain credulity at times (The main character happens to know the date of a solar eclipse 1300 years before he was born? That’s… convenient. But now I know where that one DuckTales episode got the idea from.), and some of the social commentary gets a bit thick approaching the end (Lynch mobs in Arthurian England?!) — and the ending just kind of happens — but overall it’s enjoyable. The downside to listening to it as an audiobook: you get to suffer along with the main character as a traveling companion rambles on at length with a story that goes nowhere.

Book List – January 2011

Reneé has challenged me to keep track of what books I read from month to month like she does. I know she has me beat for January in terms of how many books she’s finished, but then, I’m beating her in posting the list promptly, so I’ll call it even.

The Scarlet Pimpernel, by Baroness Emmuska Orczy, © 1905. (Audiobook) Finished January 3.

From the first chapter, you might think this book is going to be an adventure story about a daring and mysterious figure sneaking aristocrats out of revolutionary Paris before they can be executed by the Reign of Terror. Then you hit several chapters of people in an English tavern having political discussions about the Revolution. Then the main character gets introduced, and things really slow to a glacial pace that persists through the end of the book. Then you realize it’s not an adventure story at all, but a romance novel, about a wealthy Frenchwoman who married into British aristocracy, is bored of her husband, and secretly longs for the daring and mysterious Scarlet Pimpernel who — spoiler alert — turns out to be her husband. The reader can figure this out many chapters earlier than she does. The worst part about all of it is the persistent feeling that there’s a vastly more interesting and exciting story happening in the background that gets shut out by yet another chapter of the main character going on and on about her feelings.

My Man Jeeves, by P. G. Wodehouse, © 1919. (Audiobook) Finished January 15.

Despite the title, only half the stories involves Jeeves and Wooster; the other half involves Reggie, a character roughly similar to Wooster, except that the situations he gets himself into are more serious and Jeeves-less. For example, Jeeves and Wooster might conspire to help a cousin by tricking a relative into thinking the cousin is living it up in New York, whereas Reggie might conspire to cover up a friend’s apparent drunken murder of a member of the local royal family. Kind of an odd shift in tone switching between the two characters from one story to the next. Not enough to ruin the collection of stories or anything, but if you’re like me, you’ll catch yourself at one point thinking, “wow, this Reggie guy is really a terrible person.”

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Counterproductive

Look, I find the electronic highway signs Maryland has all over the place announcing a “TERROR TIPS?” phone number rather silly — drivers around here are far too busy driving erratically to bother — but I can’t help but think that letters to the governor and Department of Transportation complaining about them would be more effective if they didn’t contain incendiary devices. (Wait, is that in itself considered a TERROR TIP? Where’s my phone….)

So you want to attend a rally in DC

Here’s some tips I learned, or at least things I was able to confirm first-hand, about rallies yesterday while I was in DC doing my part to restore sanity:

  • It’s impossible to arrive too early. I got to The Mall about two and a half hours before the scheduled start time and wandered directly as far to the front as I reasonably could. Although I could see the stage, I couldn’t really see anything going on on it. Good thing there were giant monitors and some pretty good camera-work.
  • Conversely, don’t think you’re going to be able to leave when it’s over. The Metro stations within walking distance were so full afterwards people were crowded outside, not even able to get onto the escalators at the entrances. I went ahead and visited the Jefferson Memorial and FDR Memorial out by the Tidal Basin where the crowds were much sparser. Two hours later, when I started my return trip, congestion on the Metro had dropped down to peak rush hour levels.
  • Use sunscreen. It doesn’t matter if it’s late October. If you’re standing outside for hours on end, you’ll get at least a minor sunburn.
  • Speaking of which, be prepared to stand for several hours.
  • Be careful with water consumption. Too little, and you’ll get dehydrated. Too much, and you’ll have to head to the restrooms, losing the spot you got there early for.
  • Take a camera, or you’ll be stuck wading through other people’s photo galleries to try to find that one awesome sign you saw.

Las Vegas considered harmful

Never go to Las Vegas. Especially not during the summer.

The problem isn’t the heat. Which isn’t to say the heat isn’t a problem, of course. I mean, it’s a city in the middle of the desert. And yes, I know the definition of a desert is in terms of rainfall and not temperature, and yes, much of Antarctica is a desert despite it being so very cold. That doesn’t matter. The particular desert that Las Vegas is in is your typical scorchingly hot desert.

But hey, heat is a solved problem. Drink plenty of fluids, and stay inside most of the time where it’s air conditioned. You can even find some places outside that will be misting water in the general area, but as anyone who wears glasses can tell you, those kind of suck.

No, you’ll find the real problem with Las Vegas when you do venture outside the air-conditioned confines of the casino — and trust me, when you’re indoors, you are in a casino — is not the heat, but the people. The throngs and throngs of people choking every sidewalk in sight.

Try as you might, there is no escaping them. They are everywhere. And all of them will get in your way, turning your walk to the casino next door into an agonizing twenty minutes of misery. Why? Because they are all tourists. And tourists are incapable of walking like normal people.

The reasons for this are legion, as anyone who has been there can tell you. They’ll have had plenty of time to study the phenomenon whether they wanted to or not, after all. The people take approximately one step every five seconds. This is not counting the times they will randomly stop without warning to point and stare at a building. They will not look first to see if anyone is trying to walk past them before the stretch out their arm. Why would they? None of them, not a single one, even bothers to look where they’re walking in the first place anyway. There is always at least a 45-degree difference between their sight vector and movement vector. And all of these people are packed tightly together on the sidewalk, except for the couples holding hands; they invariably put as much distance between each other as possible while maintaining physical contact, enabling them to take up enough room for three people.

As you try to walk down the sidewalk, you will be tempted to weave your way through the crowd, taking advantage of the fleeting gaps between people in order to move forward at a less glacial pace. This is, of course, folly. Hey DARPA, I have a Grand Challenge idea for you: build a robot that can walk down The Strip at an average pace greater than two miles an hour. That’s much more impressive than a car that can drive itself in traffic.

Just make sure you remember to tell the Strip-walking robot that exterminating the meat-bags in its way isn’t allowed. Cyberdyne forgot to add that, and everyone knows how that turned out.

Am I suggesting that the experience will drive anyone to hate humanity? Yes. Yes I am.

And just to complicate things further, while you struggle to make forward progress down The Strip, you’ll get to avoid all the people passing out ads for the other thing Las Vegas is popularly known for: prostitutes. They’ll stand in a row of three or four along the street, wordlessly passing out cards covered with scantily clad (if that) women and occasionally slapping a stack of them against their hand in what’s apparently the local signal for “want to hire some prostitutes?”

I suppose if one were to collect as many of them as possible, they could be used to play poker.

“I’ve got three-of-a-kind with starred-out nipples.”

“Beats my pair of handbras.”

“Does four pair beat three-of-a-kind?”

“Um, that’s only two pair. You count the girls.”

“Oh.”

“I’ve got you all beat: flush, girl-turned-away-from-camera-so-the-nipple-is-just-out-of-view high.”

“You moron, it has to be their natural hair color to count as a flush.”

Unsurprisingly, the sidewalks are paved with discarded ads for prostitutes. But don’t worry, if for some reason you can’t find anyone handing them out, and are too dignified to pick them off the sidewalk, rest assured that 75% of the newspaper boxes are actually filled with full-size ads for prostitutes.

But in a way, I expected all that. What I didn’t expect was the latest innovation in mechanizing the gambling experience: the electronic blackjack table. Not video blackjack, mind you. This is a blackjack table where the dealer is replaced by a large computer screen displaying a “dealer” avatar, and you play using the touch screen in front of each seat. (And yes, you can select which dealer you want to see, in case you aren’t satisfied with the particular revealing outfit she — obviously it’s always a she — is wearing.)

These machines are an abomination. It’s the dealer’s eyes. How they’re always staring off at some point past the seats during the idle animation. The empty, vapid smile clinches it. Obviously the machines are soulless, but it’s like the designers tried their hardest to evoke that sense through the dealer, and succeeded beyond comprehension. Most arcade games — remember those? — had an attract mode when no one was playing. These machines have a repel mode.

But, as much as it pains me to admit, Las Vegas does have a few good points. Blue Man Group is worth seeing. Their show is… hard to describe. Suppose an alien race landed on Earth and somehow, after all the prerequisite take-me-to-your-leader stuff got taken care of, somehow wound up with a Vegas show. I imagine it would be something like Blue Man Group.

Penn & Teller were also good. Before going to the show, I had the brilliant idea for a souvenir for Renee: get a playing card signed by them, and then present it to her in the course of doing a card trick, a sort of “is this your card?” kind of thing.

I started by going to the Rio’s gift shop to buy a deck of cards before the show. I wound up in the checkout line behind a woman who was evidently buying one of every fragile item they had. I got to watch for several minutes as the cashier individually wrapped each one of them, as I checked my watch and worried I was going to miss the start of the performance.

Fortunately, I did not, finally getting into the theater with a little time to spare. The show itself was good, and for obvious reasons I won’t spoil it other than by saying that one thing Penn & Teller like to do is to do a different trick than the one you think they’re doing. That’s like a whole other level of misdirection.

After the show, for whatever reason only Teller went out into the lobby to sign autographs and whatnot. Undeterred, this was my chance. When I got up to the front of the line, I handed him — what else? — the three of clubs from the deck I had purchased. He signed it “Teller” and handed it back to me. As I began to move away to give someone else a chance, he stopped me and said — yes, said, out loud — “Wait, I can do better.” I handed it back, and he wrote on the top of it “Is THIS Your Card?”

Awesome.

It’s a shame that I’m terrible at doing card tricks, not helped by how Renee saw though the obvious trick and deliberately ruined things for me. That’s what I get for underestimating her.

But yeah, aside from that, Vegas is terrible.

I survived!

In case anyone was worried, yes, I did survive the strongest recorded earthquake in Maryland history.

Busy

It turns out that moving into a newly-purchased home can be just as time-consuming as purchasing it in the first place. Who knew?

Anyway, that’s the excuse I’m going to go with for not having posted here in about a month.