Friday, December 31st, 2010

Manifold: TimeManifold: Time by Stephen Baxter
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a weird book. At some parts, it’s an excellent example of hard sci-fi (at the end of the volume, the author makes an extensive list of which of the ideas he used are true). At other times, the book gets so deep into the hand-wavy mumbo-jumbo techno-babble that it becomes frustrating and almost comical. The book introduces several super-intelligent characters whose job seems to be to babble on for several pages of science-y exposition while the view-point characters say "I don’t understand." over and over.

As the reader, neither did I. And given the way this exposition butts up against the more understandable hard sci-fi elements, it all becomes a bit disconcerting. For a little while, I understand what’s going on. And then I don’t. And then I do, but no one ever really follows up to re-explain the bit I missed.

While all of this is going on, there’s a reasonably serviceable adventure story happening. Still, at the end of it all, it seems that the adventure wasn’t really a part of the plot at all. One of the characters assures us that it was, but they don’t explain why. So that was somewhat dissatisfying.

And then there’s the entirely new species that’s created just for them to wander off without doing much. Also unsatisfying.

And then there’s the end which…well, you know.

So this is an okay book. It has some fun stuff going on. It has some neat sci-fi ideas of both the hard and soft variety. It plays with some interesting questions (though never answers them in a really satisfying way). So, it’s okay.

There are a couple of other books in Baxter’s Manifold series (it’s not REALLY a trilogy since, as Wikipedia notes, "…the books can be read in any order because the series takes place in a multiverse."). I’ll probably read them one day.

But I’m not in a rush to see what happens.

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The Battery: How Portable Power Sparked a Technological RevolutionThe Battery: How Portable Power Sparked a Technological Revolution by Henry Schlesinger
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a popular science book at that great genre’s finest. And, of course, it necessarily will have the genre’s ever-present flaws.

Contrary to what it says on the cover, this book isn’t so much about the battery as it is a whirlwind tour of electronics history. Since it turns out that the history of the battery and the history of electronics matches up pretty closely (for electronics research proceeded based on capacitors and batteries for a good hundred years before generators started to appear), it’s hard to say that the title of the book is a deception. But it’s not entirely the truth, either.

Once you get past the title and figure out what the book is REALLY about, though, it does an admirable job. Don’t expect any real technicalities here, though. If you don’t already know how batteries (or telegraphs or telephones or transistor radios) work, you won’t know it by the end of this book either. Instead, Schlesinger tells the stories of the personalities and historical circumstances surrounding each leap forward.

It’s a nice and fluffy way to approach the subject. And considering how much electronic devices (battery-powered and otherwise) have infiltrated our lives, it’s probably worth getting a small grasp on their histories. And this is a fine book for just that sort of thing.

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How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It ComingHow I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming by Mike Brown
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sometimes, especially when looking at Goddard Space Flight Center’s Astronomy Picture of the Day, I really regret not becoming an astronomer. There’s something magical about the sky, and (of course) I find the sheer scale and beauty of the universe as a whole fascinating and awe-inspiring and humbling. It’s heady stuff.

This book heavily rekindles that feeling. Dr. Brown’s descriptions of the emotional impact of scanning the night sky looking for faint wandering objects really hits the buried astronomer part of my psyche and makes me long for a what-if version of my life to play out a career of peering through telescopes attempting to discern the mysteries of the cosmos.

He never gets too technical (or very technical at all: the one or two asides that he makes to make sure the reader knows what he’s talking about are all at roughly middle-school level), but instead focuses on the personal-interest side of his story. And it’s to good effect. This book reminds me of nothing so much as "The Cuckoo’s Egg" by Cliff Stoll (who, incidentally, is *also* an astronomer). It’s just a great and entertaining read.

The only downside is that he spends a lot of time talking about his young daughter who was born during the events of this tale. I can certainly understand the urge of a father to talk endlessly about his kid: but it certainly seems like something that an editor should have cut out of a book about Pluto. So, those bits tended to lag.

But, other than that, this is a fantastic look at one of the few scientific topics to really grip the public imagination (Neil deGrasse Tyson says he still has people asking him why Pluto’s not a planet any longer). It’s a light and easy read that I can recommend without reservation.

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Saturday, December 25th, 2010

The Dark is Rising (The Dark is Rising, #2)The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have been informed by reliable witnesses of unimpeachable character that The Dark Is Rising is a timeless classic of young person’s literature. So, of course, it was necessary for me to read it.

I regret that I found it so late in life. I think, had I been 9 or 10 or 11 (like the main character), I would have loved it. Unfortunately, I now find myself reading it from an adult’s eyes with an adult’s expectations for narrative and story.

It’s a standard fantasy coming-of-age quest story. Young boy finds himself the heir of a magical heritage. Young boy must go on a quest. Young boy saves the world. We’ve all read it thousands of times. It’s a nice and comforting structure: you know what you’re getting.

The Dark Is Rising builds on that by going further to try to create a modern myth. Will’s quest (for Will is the name of the young boy who comes of age and has to save the world) is filled with Capital Letters to signify things that are important from beyond time. This can be a convenient shorthand, but The Dark Is Rising takes it to an almost comical level. Every time Will turns around, there’s five new proper nouns proclaiming that he is on a Very Important Quest indeed.

Speaking of that Quest, it’s much too long for the book. In only a scant few hundred pages, Will goes from learning of his Destiny to finding all the lost Objects to learning his Magic to wakening That Guy to vanquishing Evil. Throw in Christmas celebrations, family drama, and other things in an attempt to make it relatable and it just gets silly. Will moves from one object of his quest to another as if he were hastily crossing off items on a checklist instead of saving the world (and himself) from mortal peril. It’s all so breakneck that you never feel that Will is in any actual danger: the schedule just wouldn’t allow it.

That said, I think I would have liked this very much as a kid. The characters are likeable enough. The main villain of the piece is obviously malicious without being scary. And everything ends up well with a healthy help of magic. Plus, I’ve always been a sucker for hidden power and destinies. I still kind of wish that I will one day find out that I’m secretly a wizard. ::crosses fingers::

So, The Dark Is Rising: it is what it is. A mad romp of magic and danger throuh England at Christmastime. I suspect it will one day find it’s way into my nephew’s stocking as he gets a bit older. Mostly, I’m just a tad unimpressed. But, I think that has more to do with me and my expectations than the book itself which is what it aims to be: a fun fantasy adventure aimed at kids.

And I think it does *that* very well.

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Saturday, December 25th, 2010

It’s Christmas Day (or, at least, it should be if I’ve set the scheduled posting up correctly), and you may be one of those lucky millions who unwrapped a shiny new iPad this morning. It seems like a good time, then, to finally write a long-form post about my own iPad. And, it’s been about 9 months since I got mine; and 9 months seems about the right amount of time to have let things develop. So here it is.

If you know me, it should come as no surprise that I love my iPad. I give it 6-out-of-5-stars (I’d probably give it 7 if I’d gotten the 3G model). It really has changed a lot of things about my life, though the fact that I’m a gadget nerd probably has at least as much to do with that as the device itself. I wouldn’t expect it to make such an impact on my mother, for example — which isn’t to say I don’t think she should have one.

The most noticeable change the iPad has effected in my life is that I’m reading a lot more. A LOT more. Even though I love reading (and always have), the physical act of reading a book has always annoyed me. I’ve never managed to figure out a good way to hold a paperback so that it doesn’t close itself and my fingers don’t cover up the words and I don’t block the light with my giant head and my neck doesn’t start hurting and on-and-on-and-on.

As I moved into a post-university world, I just sort of naturally stopped reading books and instead focused on web content and television and movies and video games and what not. It was just easier. Towards the beginning of this year, I’d started reading some novels on my iPod Touch to some success. But this sort of reading fits in more at work during lunch or (more often) a compile break. I rarely found myself curling up on the couch with my iPod for a long evening read.

The iPad changes that. The iPad is an excellent way to read. It’s the right size to hold a decent amount of text at an easy-to-read resolution. It’s back-lit so I don’t ever have to worry about blocking the light. It’s great and I do come home just about every night now to settle in on the couch for a bit of reading on the iPad. And if I’m tired and can’t deal with book-sized text? I just make the type bigger and keep on reading. It’s been absolutely fantastic and if a rebirth of my reading habits were all that I’d gotten from it, I’d consider it well worth the price.

This is not to say that the iPad is a perfect eReader: it’s far from it. It’s very heavy. I have to hold it with both hands or prop it up on something to use it, which can make finding a comfortable position tricky. The backlight is a curse as well as a blessing as it (presumably combined with the relatively low dot-pitch of the screen) can cause stress to my eyes and I find myself having to micromanage the brightness slider more than it seems should be necessary.

It’s slightly ironic (I think) that the iPad has turned me into a digital reader so completely that I now desire a better eReader. In fact, today, I suspect that I’ll be unwrapping a Kindle 3, which should be interesting. I’m wondering how the pros and cons of not having a backlight will shake out (the official lighted case should help here, but who knows?). I suspect that I’ll continue using the iPad to read in the dark (in bed, for instance), but I’m also curious how much less I’ll use it if I start reading primarily on the Kindle. If it’s a significant amount, it would almost be like the iPad had convinced me that I should use it less in favor of something else. Which is kind of funny.

Still, that sort of thing is for the next 9 months. For now, I’m reading tons and almost all of it is because of the iPad. Steve Jobs said he wanted to make a great eReader and Apple went above and beyond. And, because of all the other things it can do, if I could only have a Kindle or an iPad, I’d pick an iPad. Indeed, that’s basically what I did choose 9 months ago.

It’s fascinating that the next most obvious change that the iPad has wrought in my life since April comes in second. If you knew me before April and you knew just how far I’ve moved in this area from where I started 9 months ago, you might think I’m understating this second thing. But I’m not: it’s just that I’m reading SO MUCH more now that anything else would have to take second place.

Even the fact that I almost never use my computer anymore.

I know.

I’m rather shocked by this as well.

“Being on the computer” has been my default state for as long as I can remember. Maybe it was computer games or experimenting with the consequences of starting dosshell from my autoexec.bat. As I got older, it was tying the phone lines up dialing in to the local boards to play my rounds of LORD or BRE. Still later, it was AOL and chat rooms and web surfing. And, until I got my iPad, I would unwind with web comics and RSS feeds and hobby programming. On my Mac.

I still unwind web comics and RSS feeds, of course. But I’m far, far, far more likely to peruse them from the couch with the iPad than I am to sit at the computer. These days, the only thing I do that involves me spending large chunks of time at the computer is programming. And I do that far less than I used to. In a way, that makes me sad. On the other hand, I’m reading a lot more.

I’m hoping it’s a cycle: that the time I spend reading on the iPad (or Kindle) will wax and wane compared to the amount of time I program-for-fun. Historically, my hobbies have always been cyclical: so, it seems a safe bet. For now, though, I’m mostly happy with the way things have turned out. Although, it has proven much more difficult to justify dropping three grand on a new Mac when I barely use the one I have.

First world problems, I suppose.

And that’s really it for the real life-changes that the iPad has wrought. There are hundreds of little minor things, of course. But that’s more of my finding a new spot for the iPad in my life instead of wholesale disruption.

It’s great for taking notes at meetings (really, any short or medium-length writing I do will probably happen on the iPad. I’m really only writing this blog post on the computer because the iOS Mars Edit isn’t done yet.

When the opportunity arises to play Dungeons & Dragons, I have all my books on the iPad so I don’t have to lug the books themselves around.

It’s my preferred way to read twitter.

It’s my preferred way to read the news (I like the BBC app).

It’s my go-to calendar (and, of course, it syncs to gCal, iCal, Outlook, and my iPod Touch).

When I’m bored, I amuse myself with solitaire or by losing at chess to the iPad. It even got me liking crossword puzzles (though I’m still waiting for the iOS version of Black Ink).

When I’m handed a Word document to read for work, I just send it to the iPad instead of printing it or trying to read it on the computer monitor.

Heck, I even use the iPad to SSH into the Mac for emergency system administration when something makes the windowing server go bonkers.

And that’s how the iPad has affected my life since April. Perhaps it’s sad that a piece of consumer electronics could affect me so greatly. But I think that’s just a factor of me being me and the iPad really being amazing little device. Even after all of these months, it’s still essentially magic.

That said, I should probably also talk about things I *don’t* use the iPad for. I don’t have any music on it and I only very rarely use it for Pandora. It’s big and heavy, so plugging earbuds into it is just awkward. This might be different if I had some Bluetooth headphones. But I don’t so I just don’t use it for music.

For the most part, I also don’t use it to watch TV or movies. I have used the Netflix app, but mostly for the novelty of the thing (it is rather cool to have Star Trek streaming to a device I’m waving around in the air). But, we have two TVs and I have a reasonably big monitor on my Mac. There’s just no reason for me to watch long-form entertainment on the thing. The only time I’ve done so since I got it was when I was waiting for my car to get serviced and wanted to catch up on an episode of Stargate Universe. And there was so much glare on the screen that it was a rather unsatisfying experience because there was so much glare on the screen. It’s weird: for all the work Apple put in to the media abilities of the thing, I just don’t use them. It’s ill-suited for such things.

It’s great for YouTube, though.

I have used it to show off pictures of my nephew. Other than that, I never start the Photos app.

I bought the iWork apps, but never use Pages or Keynote (for the writing I do, Simplenote and Elements suit me far better). I did build a Numbers spreadsheet for sprint-planning which I find pretty useful. But I only start it up what? Once every four weeks?

It’s surprising, but I never start up Evernote.

Other than twitter (and Facebook in Safari), I don’t use social networking.

I’ve used it for AIM. It’s a frustrating experience (I think that’s because the multitasking still isn’t really good enough for such things).

Surprisingly, I haven’t been able to find good apps for looking up movie showtimes or TV listings: you’d think the iPad would be perfect for those.

I’m looking forward to more experimentation with digital newspapers and magazines, but I’m very price-conscious right now and most of that content is available via RSS or the Web (though in a slightly less elegant manner).

And that’s my iPad usage (and non-usage). I still consider it the best $500 I’ve ever spent and the only downside is that after spending that $500, I won’t be able to afford the iPad2. Which is a shame: FaceTime could be really cool.

Since it’s not impossible that you found this after unwrapping a shiny new iPad and you were looking for advice, I’ve decided to end this piece with a top 10 list of apps in no particular order. Enjoy.

  1. Kindle – Amazon’s eBook Reader
  2. Instapaper – Save things from the web to read later. If you don’t use Instapaper, shame on you.
  3. iBooks – Apple’s eBook Reader
  4. GoodReader – A reader app for everything from PDFs to video files
  5. Reeder – A Google Reader (RSS) client
  6. Twitter – The official Twitter app
  7. Simplenote – An elegant and simple note-taking app
  8. Elements – An elegant and simple text-editor that syncs with Dropbox
  9. Dropbox – The official Dropbox app. It offers access to your files from anywhere.
  10. Articles – A fantastic Wikipedia client
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