I picked up a bunch of pulp novels at Munseys recently and started with this one. I don't know if I lucked out or what, but this is a pretty damn good little book. I was a little disappointed at first because, well, it wasn't tawdry enough. Plus, it was well written! It became more tawdry and remained well written as I read on.
The plot is that a professional killer is sent to rural upstate New York to bump off a 15-year-old girl. Things go way wrong and bad people do bad things. There's a great conceit about the killer also being a pianist. It comes up in the way he thinks, the way he talks, even in the way he fights. It's well used.
Things wrap up nicely and horribly in the end. I was completely satisfied.
(It's important to note that, while bad and tawdry things happen, it's not really explicit about it. This disappointed me, at first. I thought pulps were, well, pulpier.)
They're short and they're funny. But they're not at all on par with her books. Each column is structured similarly and, after you've read a bunch in a row, it starts to feel rote. Alas, the short nature of each makes it tempting to keep reading just one more. But, frankly, that will do the book a disservice. I think the best way to read the book is to leave it in the bathroom and read a few columns at a time.
One complaint about them is that Roach is very wedded to traditional gender roles. I'm not that wedded to such roles, so humor based on them falls flat. It's 2013. Those kinds of observations aren't funny anymore. (Perhaps they still are to Reader's Digest's readership?)
So, if you're new to Roach's work, start with her other books. If you're already a fan, feel free to give this a read, now forewarned that it's not as good as her books.
I read this on a friends recommendation. He liked it. I really didn't. It's a smug self-satisfied book about a bunch of smug self-satisfied people. I found it torturous to read. I made it partway through the fifth chapter until it became too painful to continue. After a break of a few days, I flipped ahead to around chapter 20, where Animal House comes into play. It had become a better read by that point, humorously in direct correlation to how much it became about Saturday Night Live actors over National Lampoon writers.
This book is an examination of the weirder stuff in the world of religion. It suffer from the same weakness that many popular science books have: If you're at all well read on this subject, then you already know most of this. That said, it's still an interesting read. While I was familiar with much of the information, it's good to have it clearly written down all in one book. (Plus, the Quaker stuff was new to me.)
One weird thing is that the author visited many of these folks, to gain some insight. Alas, those sections seem shallow and tacked on for the sake of being able to say she did it. If you're going to try and gain real personal insight, you really need to throw yourself into it. See Ferocious Romance: What My Encounters with the Right Taught Me About Sex, God, and Fury by Donna Minkowitz for a good example of this.
On the other hand, a weakness Ferocious Romance has is that the author becomes fond of the folks she visits and is thus unable to really lay into them when they deserve it. (By my vague memory, at least. I read it years ago.) Stollznow has no such qualms. However, instead of a detailed criticism, she unloads with paragraphs of invective, but leaves the details to sources listed in the bibliography.
All of which makes this an odd book. The author doesn't gets personally involved enough to provide a good personal take, yet nor does she provide detailed critical analysis. That just leaves descriptions of the weird stuff. For many folks, that will be plenty. It just wasn't enough for me.
Alternate reality novel in which the Axis won the war. Don't be expecting a German-oriented book. Most of the story takes place along the Pacific coast of the US, in Japanese-controlled territory. It's an interesting read. I enjoyed most of the characterization although there isn't really much of a plot. You pick up on the lives of folks, follow them for awhile, and then the book ends. There's a wee bit of alternate-alternate reality in the form of a book-in-a-book that posits a world in which the Allies won, inside this world where the Axis won. The ending of the book tries to make something of that, but it really didn't do much for me. I'd rather have had it stick to just being an alternate reality. But, I suppose that isn't enough for an author like Dick.
This book is, in a word, harrowing. Mysterious illness strikes the author and doctors try to figure it out. The condition itself erased her own memories of much of the time. Reconstructed from interviews and video footage, she's really telling a third-person account of her own first-person story. Sounds confusing? It's not. It's very well done.
The only minor criticism I could lob is that I wanted a little more coverage of her rehab and less of her post-rehab activities. Minor nit-picking, nothing more.
Rolly is a Disney Imagineer. He's pretty famous for it. This book is simply his recollections of his time designing fun things, at Disney and away from the Mouse. The stories are indeed cute. The style is quaint in a captivating way. It sounds corny, but it does feel as if he's sitting there just telling you these stories. It's a delightful read.
Don't read it looking for dirt on the inner workings of Disney. It's not that kind of book.
Strange book. Don't go into it expecting Heisenberg-oriented hard sci-fi. That's not what it is at all. Rather, it's about the Optimen who control the rest of humanity, using them for work and breeding purposes. Of course, some normal folk rebel. There's a bunch of set-up that seems promising. Then there's some action and a chase. And then it just gets boring and noodling. The ending feels pretentious, without there being any there there.
Like pretty much everyone else who read this, I picked it up because it was billed as an epic tale in a single book. Like most other folks, I found it lacking in terms of storytelling and characterization, which may well be unavoidable in a single-book epic tale.
There are some interesting ideas here, particularly regarding the world's gods, but the plotting lags. Midway through the book, I really had to push myself to finish. It wasn't bad, but it just wasn't holding my interest. I did push on, but the ending doesn't really make sense and I didn't feel adequately rewarded for the effort I put into it.
So, as you've likely heard, Scalia did an interview in which he admitted believing in a personified Devil. When the interviewer was incredulous, he retorted:
You're looking at me as though I'm weird. My God! Are you so out of touch with most of America, most of which believes in the Devil? I mean, Jesus Christ believed in the Devil! It's in the Gospels! You travel in circles that are so, so removed from mainstream America that you are appalled that anybody would believe in the Devil! Most of mankind has believed in the Devil, for all of history. Many more intelligent people than you or me have believed in the Devil.
And I don't know which is worse, that Scalia believes in a personified Devil or that he's actually correct in his retort.
Constitutionalists are anything but. They're typically racist, sexist assholes trying to preserve the inequities of the past. Here's a nice post on the subject: Scalia and the 9th Amendment.
And here's my rant from a few years back: The Fallacy of Strict Constitutionalism.
I just wanted to point out this custom Moon Knight figure.
Normally, Moonie doesn't attract enough interest to garner really nice customs. This is an exception.
Still, ninety-nine bucks? That's a little steep for my blood.
But, still, damn that's nice!
A while back, we went to the Women in Secularism 2 conference and had a great time. The first session was about the vast wasteland of alternative medicine. Surly Amy talked about why alternative medicine can often appear to work at an anecdotal level. The thing is, if you're feeling like crap, random chance says you'll likely feel better the next day. People try cures when they're at extreme lows and then think the cure worked if they feel better the next day. But that can just be random chance. The technical jargon is
I wanted to get a feel for how much of an effect there really is, so I made up a quick dice game. Don't worry, you don't need one of those 20-sided D&D jobs. A normal 6-sided die is fine.
The numbers 1-6 on the die represent how good you feel, with 1 being really good and 6 being really awful. Here's how the game is played:
It should be immediately obvious that, if you rolled a 6 the first time, you won't be rolling an even bigger number the second time. Also plain to see is that there's only one roll to equal a 6, while there are five ways to roll a lower number.
The situation is similar when rolling a 5. There is a way to get worse on the second roll, namely by rolling a 6. There's one way to stay the same and four ways to get a lower number.
When you add up all the percentages, the probabilities about how you'll feel after resorting to alternative medicine look like this:
|How You'll Feel||In Fractions||As Decimals|
|You'll feel worse||1/12||8.3%|
|You'll feel the same||2/12||16.7%|
|You'll feel better||9/12||75%|
As you can see, the odds drastically favor feeling better, despite the alternative medicine in this game not having any role in the outcome of the roll. Also keep in mind that feeling the same isn't any big prize. You started out feeling shitty and still feel shitty.
(As a check, I also wrote a short chunk of Perl to simulate the rolls. It confirmed the percentages.)
But wait, it gets worse!
What if we assume that the alternative medicine actually hurts you a little? To model that, we'll add 1 to the second roll. So, if you roll, say, a 3, we'll treat it as a 4. What to do when you roll a 6? Treat it as a 7, I guess? For this game, we'll just round anything bigger than a 6 to a 6. In the real world, a 7 would mean you die and your story is left untold. We could also just leave the 7 as a 7. The only effect would be to make the numbers even worse, shifting much of the
feel the same outcome to
feel worse. In general, I mentally group the feel-worse and feel-the-same together anyway.
Obviously, this twist is going to change the outcome and make it less likely to see fake
improvement, right? Well, yeah, but just barely.
There's still no way to get worse after an initial 6, but now there are two ways to stay the same, rolling either a 5 or a 6. (Because the 5 will get 1 added to it.) Now there are only four ways to roll a lower number and feel better, namely rolling anything from 1 to 4.
The change is similar when rolling an initial 5. There are now two ways to get worse (5 & 6), one way to stay the same (4), and three ways to get better (1-3). Here are the resulting percentages:
|How You'll Feel||In Fractions||As Decimals|
|You'll feel worse||2/12||16.7%|
|You'll feel the same||3/12||25%|
|You'll feel better||7/12||58.3%|
Wait, what? Your chances of feeling better are still more than half, even if the so-called
medicine actually makes you sicker? That's right!
Okay, so let's make the
medicine even worse for you, by adding 2 to the second roll. I'll spare you the details and just show the resulting percentages:
|How You'll Feel||In Fractions||As Decimals|
|You'll feel worse||3/12||25%|
|You'll feel the same||4/12||33.3%|
|You'll feel better||5/12||41.7%|
Well, at least the chances you'll feel better are below 50% now. Yet feeling better is still the most likely outcome and feeling worse is the least likely. Although, again, feeling the same is no great prize when you already feel shitty. So, at this point, folks might start to doubt the validity of this harmful treatment.
Fine, fuck it, crank up the harm of the
medicine to 3. We'll add 3 to the second roll. Given that it's half the range, that's really quite a lot. Here's what you get:
|How You'll Feel||In Fractions||As Decimals|
|You'll feel worse||4/12||33.3%|
|You'll feel the same||5/12||41.7%|
|You'll feel better||3/12||25%|
Finally, we're getting to where feeling better is the least likely outcome. Note that you're still most likely to feel the same, but that
feeling the same level is basically feeling shitty.
If we make the
medicine flat out poison and add 4 to the second roll:
|How You'll Feel||In Fractions||As Decimals|
|You'll feel worse||5/12||41.7%|
|You'll feel the same||6/12||50%|
|You'll feel better||1/12||8.3%|
Adding 5 gives you a 50/50 chance of feeling the same or worse, based on whether the first roll was a 6 or 5.
So, that's why folks can be easily fooled into thinking that alternative medicine works. Now, real science has controls and procedures to take regression to the mean into account, as well as placebo effects, which we didn't talk about at all in this post. For more on this sort of stuff, give Trick or Treatment a read, even though it's not that great a read.
I have a vague memory of a TV trope. In my memory, it's an episode of the Andy Griffith Show. It involves Opie needing some self-confidence and Andy giving him a metal good luck charm printed with the word
Excelsior! With this charm in hand, things start going better for Opie. At the end of the show, Andy reveals that the so-called charm was just a brand name emblem that he had pried off a refrigerator. Opie's better luck was a consequence of his increased self-confidence, which was a consequence of him thinking he had external help via the charm.
The thing is, I can't find any mention of such an episode. I'm sure my brain has scrambled it. Maybe it was a different show. Maybe the charm said some other word or wasn't once part of a refrigerator. It doesn't really matter. The trope is a fairly common one. It often ends with someone saying something like
The magic was inside you all along! (That's what she said.)
And every time I hear religious folks talk about getting their morals and ethics from, say, the Bible, I just want to shake them and shout
The magic was inside you all along! People don't really get their morals from the Bible. They decide on their morals and then interpret the Bible in light of those decisions. (Both good ones about things like generosity and really shitty ones like being anti-gay and anti-women.)
So, for fuck's sake, toss the goddamn
Excelsior! charm away already! You have no external help and need to justify your actions on their own merits.
On the negative side, it reminds me of a lot of popular science books in that there's a lot of stuff that any decently well-read atheist already knows. It also reads more as a series of blog posts than as cohesive work. Until the very end, where it then attempts to string some chapters together. Which, at that point, merely illustrates the lack earlier in the book.
On the positive side? It's well written. It's breezy and fun while still being serious. There isn't a really bad chapter to be found. And there are some really good insights and examples that were new to me. It's not a wheat/chaff situation at all.
Just got back from a week in Vegas. My wife was at a conference and I was on my own each day. If you want to see photos of what I did each afternoon, those are on Flickr:
But that's not what I want to talk about. Write about. Whatever. What I want to talk about are the things I miss about Vegas. I've been to Vegas many a time over the years, never for long, but many a time. Over those years, things have changed. Here are the things that are sadly gone:
I don't really do much gambling in Vegas. I'm too good at math to not realize that I'll likely lose, but I'm not good enough at math to count cards or otherwise push the odds slightly in my favor. So I play a few slots. Yeah, I'm still gonna lose, but so what?
In the old days, when we were young and poor, we would save up change in a coin bank. (It's a large fake Crayola crayon.) When we would go to Vegas, we would haul all that change with us and run it through the slots, cashing in whatever was left at the end of the trip.
Today, the coins are all gone! Now you chuck bills into machines and get back paper slips that you cash at a redemption machine. You don't get to put coins in the slot. You don't get the sensual joy of a win clanging into the coin bin below. You certainly can't put your hands under there and feel the coins flowing past them. You don't get plastic coin cups emblazoned with the casino name in which to cart you booty from casino to casino either. Little old ladies don't wear slot-player gloves on their right hands, like ersatz Michael Jacksons.
All those aesthetics are simply gone. The machines still try to fake it by playing a fake coin-drop sound while printing your ticket. Whee.
Speaking of slot machines, it's harder and harder to find a machine with actual physical reels that spin, much less pull handles. Again, another loss of valued aesthetics. Fake video reels just don't cut the mustard. A
one-armed bandit without the one arm lacks a visceral connection with the machine and your fate.
One exception was a machine involving a goldfish. It had physical reels, with a transparent video overlay. This let them highlight various things, like bonus sections on the wheel, as well as provide cute fish which watched you play and occasionally swam in front of the reels. It was a nice hybrid.
On the other hand, video slots haven't really evolved. They just mimic the physical, skeuomorphism run wild!
We did see a couple exceptions. One was a Godzilla machine, typical in terms of video slot play, but, as with the example above, possessing an additional transparent video overlay. In this case, it allowed for a simple 2-plane form of 3D. There were also some machines that had several
reels with each subsequent one having an additional scoring position, forming a sideways pyramid of sorts.
Many years ago, Vegas tried to become more kid-friendly. Treasure Island had a fun pirate show out front and a huge skull and crossbones on their sign. A few years later, they went to a boring
TI sign and a show featuring scantily-clad boys and girls. Yes, I like scantily-clad girls, but Vegas is filled with that. Gimme back the fun pirate show.
The Stardust was the hotel we stayed at on our first trip there. I miss it. I miss the sign. I miss the casino that meandered to the left and right instead of back. I miss the motel rooms.
I miss the smoke-free casino that used to be across the Strip from it, too.
I also miss the Frontier, with its eternal labor strike. I feel bad for Circus Circus, abandoned in a no-man's land between the rest of the Strip and the now-closed Sahara. (Is the Riviera even open anymore? Yes, yes it is.)
By the time I made it to Vegas, the Landmark was already closed. But the tower was still there and still lit up at night. Way cool!
I miss casinos with strong themes. It seems that, for the latest crop of casinos, the theme is
luxury, bland banal luxury. Honestly, sit inside the Wynn or the Palazzo, or any number of other casinos opened in the wake of the Bellagio and see if you can detect any difference. Meanwhile, I still enjoy simply walking around the Mirage.
I miss Comdex. I supposed I could fill that void with some sort of comic convention, except work never pays for those.
(Yes, I miss AdultDex, too. Once, a girl was masturbating in her booth, but there was a big enough crowd to conceal her actions from the authorities. She threw her panties over the crowd and they smacked me in the head.)
The Liberace Museum
I only visited the Liberace Museum once, but it was awesome. Now it's gone, although there are rumors of a return.
Most tragically, the Pinball Hall of Fame is now located across the street from its old location. What a great one-two punch that combo would have made.
Escort Trading Cards
Okay, this one is admittedly strange. Plus, these guys aren't really gone, just marginalized. They're the annoying folks who hand out cards for
escorts. (I joke, but I actually mean no disrespect to sex workers. It ought to be legal.)
While annoying, part of me appreciated the sleaze factor they brought to an increasingly sanitized Vegas.
Where have they gone? Well, there was actually a running legal battle. First, they were outlawed. Then they sued the city on free speech grounds and won. The casinos retaliated by buying land up to the streets, leaving no public easement. Where you see them now are the only populated places on the Strip that are still public property.
I used to have a large stack of the cards, just for the hell of it. Finally tossed them last year.
Actually, what I really want is one of their T-shirts, but I'm always too timid to ask.
Geez, I haven't reviewed any books for a long while. So these'll be short:
The Universe in the Rearview Mirror
Ooo! Science non-fiction!
There's a problem with science non-fiction. The problem is that it rarely hits the sweet spot for me. I have a year of college physics under my belt, along with an interested layperson's perspective. Actual technical papers are far beyond me. Yet most popular books about physics are well below my knowledge level. I want something beyond
Gee, aren't black holes awesome!
A Universe From Nothing hit the mark pretty well. I think it's a good sign that The Universe in the Rearview Mirror does as well. No, I didn't understand all of it, but I did understand most and got the gist of the rest.
Here's an example of hitting the mark: Spaghettification. If you're in the market for this book, you know what that is and why it occurs. This book also details the forces at certain distances. It's that added step of technical detail that can make or break a science non-fiction book.
The overall premise is to explain how symmetries define our universe, while breaks in that symmetry are responsible for our very existence. Heady stuff.
The book is also packed with awesome illustrations in a great old-timey style. One benefit of the ePUB format is that the books are, literally, just ZIP files containing HTML, CSS, and image files. So I was able to easily extract the images and use them as screensavers for my Nook. (Once I stripped the DRM, which you should always do. But don't then give out copies. Don't be a dick!)
The downside to all the illustrations is that they bogged down my eReader. Page turns were slower, dramatically so in illustration-heavy chapters. (Nooks appear to cache a chapter at a time.)
The book is also packed with geek culture asides. Maxwell's Demon is drawn as a Cylon, for example. While entertaining and enriching, this does lead to a problem, at least in an eBook. The asides are presented as end notes. So, each time I want to see one, I have to tap on a wee little asterisk. Then I have to remember to tap on the
Done button at the top of the screen instead of mistakenly hitting the
Page Back button. Because the
Page Back will indeed take me back a page, to the prior end note, not back to the text. And then I can't hit the
Done button because changing the page makes that button go away. And then I have to go to the Table of Contents, go to the correct chapter, then page forward to where I left off, which is a pain with this book as the page turns are slow, as mentioned above. And that's a lot to bother with just to read a one sentence aside. Just put those suckers in parens, dammit!
Note that it also inflates the page numbering. I don't mean that as a criticism, as the book is a good length. But those last hundred pages? A hundred plus end notes, one per page.
Doctor Who: Harvest of Time
So, Alastair Reynolds wrote a Doctor Who novel. I guess I should read that.
Now, I'll be clear up front, I haven't watched Doctor Who since the Tom Baker days. To me, Tom Baker is Doctor Who. (I know, the mythology of the series itself explicitly allows for different actors. Logic really isn't going to sway my feelings here.) The Doctor in this novel is actually an earlier one than the one of my youth, and his manner is quite different than Tom Baker's portrayal. So I had this ongoing mental confusion where my mental image clashed with the book. I know, that's my problem, not the books.
The book itself was fun, a good read throughout. The plot ticks along and the various threads come together in a satisfying way.
My only real criticism is that Reynolds seemed to borrow visual imagery from his earlier books, particularly The Prefect.
Troika, The Six Directions of Space, and Thousandth Night
Like Scalzi (see below), Alastair Reynolds has been dipping into the eBook waters with some shorter works. Troika is a Big Dumb Object story, but a well done one. The Six Directions of Space is a bleeding multiverse sort of thing, with interesting characterization and settings. Thousandth Night is a precursor to House of Suns.
All are worthwhile reads. They're short and cheap and if you like Reynolds at all, then you outta pick them up.
He also has a few more short stories out there as eBooks. I'm not listing them here because I either haven't read them yet or I can't remember the name off the top of my head and I'm too lazy to look them up.
Various Sci-Fi Short Stories on Gutenberg
The Gutenberg Project collects up works that are now in the public domain. So you can read them for free! And they have a Science Fiction section! Most of the works are short stories or novellas. The quality varies from superb to pulpy. I tend to read a few in between longer books.
They also have downloadable disc images of the full Sci-Fi collection. Be aware that these images contain TXT files, not ePUBs. If you have an ePUB-compatible eReader, you'll probably want to download them individually.
The Good Life Lab
The Good Life Lab is about a couple who had meaningless jobs that contributed nothing to society, so they moved to a rural area and made a homestead that provides minimally more value to society. Being unduly proud of themselves, they wrote a book about it. I haven't officially abandoned this book yet, but I have set it aside for awhile. I never got to the actual homesteading part. I couldn't wade through all the self-congratulatory build-up to it.
Maybe it's because my job is both meaningful and contributes to society. I dunno.
Other reviews have noted that the actual DIY stuff is minimal. So, maybe I should consider this abandoned.
Trick or Treatment
Alternative medicines, do they work or are they crap? Trick or Treatment delves into the question. (Spoiler: They're mostly crap.)
It's an okay read. It melds the history of evidence-based medicine into an examination of some of the major alternative medicines. I don't think that structure works very well here. It comes across as if they're grasping at straws to explain away results they don't like. I know that's not the case, but that's how it would look to someone steeped in woo. The writing is stilted, too. It feels more like an academic paper than a book meant for public consumption.
The reference section at the end is more useful.
Overall, it's a great concept with a flawed implementation.
The Human Division
One thing I love about Scalzi is that he's willing to experiment with online publishing. For The Human Division, he released it in a serial format, doling out one chapter a week. (I did quick reviews of chapters one and two.) The assertion up front was that each chapter would be a self-contained story, yet you would still have a complete novel by the end. Did he make good on this assertion? Partially.
Don't get me wrong. I liked the book. I didn't drop what I was doing each week to read the newest chapter, but once I finished whatever I was reading, I did read the latest chapter. Each chapter was indeed a decent story on its own. Some were really good, most were okay, a few were obvious.
The novel as a whole was lacking. There was no real resolution at the end. Then, a week later, all was explained. This wasn't a traditional series of chapters forming a standalone novel. This was more like episodes of a TV show, with the book comprising a season.
So, first off, a quick
fuck you for keeping that to yourself. Would I have still bought the book? Yeah, probably. But I do prefer to be an informed consumer. I do want to know whether the book I'm buying relies on me buying future volumes. Not being clear about that up front is a dick move. (Yes, he intended this approach all along, but didn't tell us until he knew the first
season would be successful enough to justify a second.)
That said, when thought of in terms of a TV series, the book makes sense. Like any good TV show, some episodes are great, some okay, some clunkers. The season finale resolves just a little bit of plot and leaves open a bunch of questions to get you to tune back into the next season.
So, went to see Pacific Rim in 3D today. My feeling towards it is pretty much the same as my feelings towards the first Transformers movie. Here's a quick review:
Huge mechas fight huge monsters. Great designs on the jaegars. The kaiju are good, but not great. They seemed derivative of too many other things, including Cloverfield and Jurassic Park. The fight scenes are also great, particularly the one in Hong Kong. The 3D is superb. This is easily the best and most natural use of 3D I've ever seen in a live action film. It isn't gimmicky and it enhances the visuals instead of detracting from them. It also avoids making the sets look like small boxy sound-stages, a particular problem with the Avengers and the last Harry Potter movie.
There's too damn much character development in the middle. I don't care and it's boring. We all know how most of it is going to resolve anyway. (Is the hot-head going to come to respect the other guy? ~Gee, I just don't know.~) I want to see huge mechas fight huge monsters. I didn't walk in the door to see character development.
The movie also suffered from the same problem as Thor did, the fight seen in the middle of the movie, the aforementioned Hong Kong fight, was better than the one at the end. Compounding this is that nearly every great shot from the Hong Kong fight was already shown in the trailers. The unseen fight footage is all at the end and it isn't as good. It's not bad; it's just not as good. Plus, the ending is pretty much the same as the ending to the Avengers, only upside-down and underwater.
So, overall, I enjoyed myself but was really looking for more. I think, instead of structuring it as they did, which I'm not going to detail here, it would have been better as a straight-forward WWII-ish war movie, only with mechas and monsters instead of allies and Nazis/Japanese.