Saturday, September 10th, 2016

I finally received my big-box-of-things-to-plug-into-the-CHIP. So I started plugging things into my CHIP.

So far, I’ve figured out how to control LEDs and wrote a small Ruby gem to do so from Ruby.

The end result?

Red and Green Blinking LEDs

It’s not much, but I have some more interesting plans for where to go next. Stay tuned!


I bought a CHIP computer! It’s a little ARM-based Linux computer in the style of the well-known Raspberry Pi.

And I didn’t just buy it. I bought it ages ago. It was a Kickstarter that I backed in June 2015. It arrived a year later in June 2016. And then I didn’t touch it until late August 2016 when I realized that I wouldn’t have to find a monitor to plug into it: I could just connect over serial using a USB cable. I didn’t even know screen could *do* that but it was in CHIP’s documentation and everything.

So I was able to get my CHIP onto the WiFi and start SSHing into it. And now the hijinks ensue!

I haven’t actually done much with it, but I’ve started poking around. With the help of trailblazers before me, I figured out how to blink the status LED in patterns of my choosing. I figured out how to interrogate the power controller and get all sorts of fun information back.

And I’ve started reading up on what might be next. I have some plans to figure out how to control external LEDs and even analog meters. Anything interesting I learn will be posted to github and the CHIP forum (ask for “willia4”).

At the moment, I’m in sort of a limbo: I’m placing an order for all sorts of components and more exciting things like a multimeter and a soldering iron. While I wait for that to arrive, I’m continuing to read and learn and poke. And to watch my status light blink, just to let me know that it’s there.


Sunday, September 13th, 2015

One Hundred Years of Solitude
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of the amazing things about a great piece of art is that everyone who sees it experiences something meaningfully different.

My experience of this book is wrapped up in my own dreams and fears: fears of aging and forgetting and losing what little competence I possess mixed in with dreams of mattering to the world and leaving a memory after I’m gone. I can say that this book is the most powerful expression of that which I’ve ever found. The promised one hundred years pass emphatically in a way that I’ve never seen represented on page or screen before. Time feels weighty and its effects are heavy.

Much could be said of the themes of cyclical history or pride or family. But, for me, all of those pale in comparison to the theme of everyone’s personal yet relentless march to become nothing more than dust. And it’s brilliant, if in a sad and lonely way.

I am certain that this work will travel with me for the rest of my days. This is one to put back on the shelf to take down in a decade’s time and see what I take from it when I bring so many year’s worth of spent life to it. At thirty-two, I wonder if I read it too young.

On a more practical note, One Hundred Years of Solitude was an extremely slow start for me. To emphasize the repetition of stories through the years, Márquez gives his characters repetitive names: José, Arcadio, Aureliano, Amaranta — he provides clues to help distinguish one character from another; but, for me, the combination of most of those names starting with “A” while also being foreign to my monolingual brain meant that all of the characters sort of blurred together.

I struggled for a long time trying to keep everyone organized in my head. Eventually, though, I gave up and simply read without worrying too much about who was who. I don’t know if there’s a “right” way to read a book, but I feel that this is at least an acceptable way to read this book: by allowing the characters to blur in my head, it reinforces the idea that history repeats over and over and that all of them are heading towards the same end just by different means.

If you’re struggling in a similar fashion: relax. Let the words wash over you and just see what experience you can find in these pages. It will be worth it.

Tuesday, April 21st, 2015

The Goblin Emperor
The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As both a Hugo and Nebula nominee, The Goblin Emperor is owed more consideration than can be found in a simple star rating. Especially as I will be voting for the Hugo in a few months, I need to be able to fully articulate where I see this book standing in relation to both its fellows on the ballot and to the genre as a whole.

In both senses, I find it lacking. Which certainly isn’t to say that it is bad: it’s perfectly pleasant. It is, in fact, a delightfully easy read. I read it in an afternoon which shows that it is neither ponderous nor annoying. The characters, such as they are, are likable enough and their motivations (though broad) are plausible.

One notable positive was the book’s attempt to bring back some of the depth of the English language’s pronouns. It would occasionally use the now-archaic informal “thee/thou/thy” instead of “you/your”. And it used “we” as a stand-in for a formal “I” which English has never had (at least, as far as I know).

Unfortunately, “thee” and “thou” sound horribly formal to modern ears, even when those ears know better. And it was extremely confusing trying to figure out who sentences were about with no distinction between the formal first-person singular and the more typical first-person plural “we”. This confusion was magnified because man characters had multiple titles and names. Context didn’t always make it clear if one person was talking of themselves of of a group.

None of which should be taken as a criticism. I love playing with language and I was pleased to see the attempt to bring more depth to our pronouns. That the experiment fell a little flat is no failure and it was easy to sit back and let the exposition wash over me without worrying too much about which character was saying what.

That, I think, starts to hint at my true criticisms of the book: the characters largely don’t matter. They are all exceptionally cookie-cutter. There’s “corrupt vizier”, “loyal advisor”, “devoted guard”, etc. The fact that I couldn’t keep them straight didn’t really matter since I knew they would all act according to type anyway.

Nowhere is that more in evidence than in the “traitor guard” who was a “devoted guard” until the moment of his betrayal. Neither the characters nor the reader could see it coming because the guard didn’t really transition from loyalty to treachery; instead there was just a switch flipped from one to the other. It was forced and inorganic.

None of which is to ignore the main character who, aside from being the person the book is about, is hardly even present in the story. He moves from room to room and people say things and things happen to him, but he could mostly be replaced by a shop dummy with little change to the writing.

Until the very end where he suddenly becomes a great emperor, at least. Somehow. Maybe by asking questions? It’s not really clear — he goes from being completely out of his depth to being a good ruler with no real transition. That’s just how the story was supposed to end. So it did.

The rest of the plot is like that. There is an attempted coup which starts suddenly and then ends. It didn’t really affect anyone or anything (though “traitor guard” was replaced with “devoted [female] guard” to no real effect).

Absolutely none of which is to say this is a bad book! It’s fine. It’s a nice afternoon’s diversion and lets you play the game of imagining what it would be like to be emperor for the day (aka, “the King Ralph scenario”). It’s good clean fun. But to deserve that “Nebula Award Winner” sticker, a book needs more than a fun premise combined with flat characters. And I couldn’t find that something here.

Sunday, April 5th, 2015

Ready Player One
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

It may seem like I didn’t give it a fair chance, but the truth is that I was fairly unimpressed with Ready Player One from the get-go.

Almost immediately, it starts listing classic video games with no real coherent purpose other than setting the tone for the entire book: lists of pieces of shared nerd culture without context. You can almost hear the author begging, “You love these things, right? So why won’t you love meeeeeee?” (In my head, the author sounds like Dick from 3rd Rock From the Sun — there’s a nerd reference for you!

It turns out, though, that the lists are welcome compared to the author’s other favorite literary technique, the lecture. Sometimes, it is merely an infodump to explain the state of the world without having to bother doing any world-building. That is certainly bad writing, but it’s not exactly unknown in SF.

Other times, the lecture takes the form of the main character going into a great amount of detail about the person who set off the Quest that drives the plot. This is mostly a subset of the more general infodump — but instead of standing in for world-building, it tries to explain why the nerd-reference for this page really is integral to the story and not a thinly-veiled attempt to cover up bad writing with a shared culture and earn popularity the easy way. These lectures are annoying, but they are not the worst.

No, that is saved for the lecture about the nerd references. The author spends an astounding number of words to make clear that he read the Wikipedia page for, say, the Tomb of Horrors or Family Ties.

This led me to my first big question about this book: who is it for? Based on the hilariously transparent way it tries to use lists of nerd-things to gain favor from us, one might think it must necessarily be aimed at nerds like me. Yet, the constant lecturing about the things I love is really insulting to me. Of course I know what a kill screen is. Yes, I’ve played D&D. I’ve even used a quarter to hold my place at an arcade machine. This is my life and he is explaining it to me over and over like I grew up…playing basketball or something.

So maybe it was really aimed at muggles (reference!). Maybe it is an instruction manual to help them understand us. But why would anyone want to read this sort of book if they weren’t already into Neuromancer?

But even so, this book only examines nerds at the most superficial level of “Boy, these geeks sure do like Monty Python, don’t they? Hyuk! Hyuk!” It actually reminds me of The Big Bang Theory — a show that is “about” nerds (at the broadest level) but isn’t really *for* us at all.

In my own experience (and certainly, this world offers plenty of opportunity for variance), nerdom is chiefly defined by a love (if not a need) of pulling things apart to understand them at a deep level before putting them back together again in new and creative ways. It’s this quality that has shown to be definitional to me from the classic computer and D&D nerd to the fantasy football nerd with a collection of spreadsheets on top of their team wallpapers.

We like Monty Python, as an example, because they understood comedy, deconstructed the humor at a fundamental level, and built something from it that was stranger (and funnier) than anyone could have expected.

We learn the name of every droid in Star Wars because Lucas gave us a giant universe to play with. When we learn everything about it, we can play games with its rules and figure out, say, if an Imperial Star Destroyer could take the Enterprise in a fight.

We are what we are because it’s fun. Our hobbies and obsessions are complicated, but we use that complexity to play.

Absolutely none of which can be captured by a list of Atari 2600 games. Absolutely none of which has anything to do with a bunch of kids watching Blade Runner over and over so they can win a contest.

At least, this book captures absolutely none of the ways that I experience being a nerd. I couldn’t see myself in any of these characters. I couldn’t see anyone I know. All I could see were cheap caricatures and pathetic attempts to make me associate a bad book with things I love. (Obviously, if your experiences tend more towards the “here’s a list” side of things, we will disagree. I would never intend to exclude anyone from being a nerd. We are an exceptionally big tent, after all.)

Then, of course, there is the writing. It is possible to write an easy-to-read book that is also engaging (John Scalzi excels at this), but it is clearly harder than it looks. So much of this book is plain exposition followed by generic action sequences followed by the introspection of a teenager who has never been challenged by the world before. I have been that teenager, but even at my most inane, I like to think I could have risen past a 6th grade reading level. This book never does and the result is page after page of numbingly boring prose.

The writing skill-level possibly explains why this entire world is so infuriatingly non-sensical and disconnected from itself. For example, the country outside the cities finds itself in a Mad-Max scenario (to the point that busses must be heavily armored and armed), but they are able to keep a global network of fiber optic cable working without incident.

A fuel crisis has destroyed the world economy (half the world is starving and the wait-list to work at a fast food restaurant is years long), yet the main character is bullied for being poor. That makes no sense in a world where EVERYONE IS POOR. That is the point of an economic dystopia.

Also (and this is incidental, but it really bugged me)? The fast food business model depends on cheap fuel for factory farming and affordable transport of food to far-flung restaurants. A fast food restaurant could not exist in this world. Or, at least, it wouldn’t be considered an entry-level job: it’d be more like Taco Bell in Demolition Man (reference!).

Let’s not forget the OASIS. The world is utterly dependent on this VR world that is run by a single private company? How has this not been nationalized?

Not that the company really does much running of things. The bad guys (an evil corporation because of course it is) wreak online havoc throughout the book while the sysadmins do nothing. Did they burn all of the Terms of Service for fuel after the oil ran out? The OASIS actually has elections. And some sort of government. Except the custodian company decides what will be on the ballot. And even though they keep electing Wil Wheaton, he doesn’t even seem to try to enforce a “Don’t Be A Dick” policy. The villains set up a military operation on a protected school planet and all the corporation can think to patent the idea that they eventually uncover.

This laissez-faire approach to the virtual world makes even less sense when you consider the stated and extremely public goals of the evil company: to win the Quest in order to perform a hostile takeover of the OASIS and its parent company.

In the real world, one could assume that limited resources prevent a reasonable response to the situation. Certainly, we see that today with all sorts of crises that governments are not well-suited to respond to. But this is not the real world. The people who run the servers have god-like powers over everything that happens online. And they have a vested interest in stopping the evil company. That they are absent caretakers is mind-boggling.

It could almost be a commentary on theodicy; but I see nothing to make me believe that this book could ever hope to reach for that level of sophistication. The caretakers do nothing because the story demands it.

There are other examples of shoddy writing. The evil corporation is a cookie-cutter cartoon villain, but at least their motivations (power and money!) rings true. The rich guy showing up to save the day at the end is evidence of a rushed ending (and the less said about the “extra life”, the better). But it’s hard to get annoyed by things like these after reading page after monotonous page of expository text bout a world that doesn’t really make any sense.

But all of this wasn’t enough to make me hate the book. Ultimately, that verdict was decided when I read:

A dude just ahead of me line actually had a top-of-the-line miniature Sinatro OASIS console concealed inside a prosthetic testicle. Talk about balls.

The unexpected crudity of it combined with the puerile joke drives home just how truly juvenile this book is. Can’t you imagine a thirteen year old boy coming up with this joke and almost dancing with joy at the thought of sharing it with his friends when the teacher’s back is turned? Isn’t it a lot harder to imagine a grown man including it in a published book?

Yet it makes sense in this book because the whole thing is childish. The main character very quickly reaches max level in the game-world and constantly brags about this or that piece of magical armor. He goes from dual-wielding energy rifles to casting spells to flying around with a jetpack. He pilots a giant mecha and even turns into Ultraman. Throughout, he is throughly impressed with himself as though any of it really matters or we because he was actually amazing. It’s almost anti-climatic when his character becomes immortal at the end…

All of this was surprisingly familiar to me. When I was a kid, I used to pretend that a special tile on the lunchroom floor would transport me to my own Voltron or it would give me my own supersuit or any number of pre-pubescent fantasies.

But when I grew up, I put away these childish things. I certainly didn’t write a book about my old private games. It would have been gauche. And boring. And probably very poorly written.

Oh. Wait.

In summary, I cannot recommend Ready Player One.