Monday, January 31st, 2011

Geosynchron (The Jump 225 Trilogy, #3)Geosynchron by David Louis Edelman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

You know how Back to the Future is fantastic, BttF II is really good, and BttF 3 is good? Jump 255 is like that, only the first one is merely good and then it’s downhill from there.

The first book had some interesting ideas: what will business and computer programming and such look like in the future? As a computer programmer myself (and one who gets paid by a business! Parallels!), I found this rather fascinating.

The second book didn’t add much: but it’s the middle book of a trilogy. It’s not supposed to. It did an admirable job of moving the major arcs forward, I suppose.

The third book is where the trilogy traditionally wraps up. And, certainly, Edelman was trying. There were secrets galore (Margaret Suriana had a son! Fathered by Quell!) . Relationships which had been teased were finalized (as a fat programmer who’s ended up with a fantastic partner, may I just give props to my man Horvil?). And we finally learn who was pulling the strings of the master plan all along…

Except it wasn’t really much of a master plan. And you can’t really see the master plan, but characters eventually talk about it so you know it’s there. And the puppet masters are really hands-off so maybe they’re not really doing anything and are just taking credit for it. And you don’t really ever see the puppet masters so maybe it was just some guy taking credit for it. And there plan didn’t actually work. Or maybe it did. You don’t know because the book ends.

And it’s a happy ending where only millions of people die instead of billions. And the protagonist ends up trapped inside his own body. Maybe. You don’t really know because the book ends.

And those relationships? Maybe they’re still around. Maybe they got reset. You don’t really know because the book ends.

This book leaves you hanging. It’s not ambiguous in the way that Donnie Darko or even The Dark Tower is ambiguous, though. It’s not a big mystery left open for interpretation and discussion. The book just stops.

I very much get the feeling that the author was sick of writing in this world and had a contract to finish the trilogy by some date and so he finished it by stopping. It’s good enough for an advance check, but I found it very unsatisfying.

After reading the first one, I had high hopes. The first book is flawed, but it had a tons of promise, and I had every expectation of the author improving his craft over time. Now?

I’m kind of sorry I read any of them.

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Thursday, January 27th, 2011

Smoke and MirrorsSmoke and Mirrors by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the second book of short stories I’ve read by Neil Gaiman. The first was "Fragile Things". This one is much older than "Fragile Things", having been published a good eight years before. While they’re both anthologies of stories that Gaiman has written throughout his career, I think it’s probably a safe assumption that most of the stories in Smoke and Mirrors are older.

Which really shows, I think. Though there are certainly some mighty fine stories in this collection ("Chivalry", "The Goldfish Pool and Other Stories", "We Can Get Them From You Wholesale", "The Sweeper of Dreams", and "Murder Mysteries" are the fantastic standouts), the overall quality seems much rougher. As a sort of testament to that, I found myself skipping some of the poetry in this one as opposed to "Fragile Things" where the poems are every bit as enticing as the prose stories.

Noticeably, it seems like almost all of the stories in this book feature sex: and it’s usually creepy and disturbing sex. So, be warned: there’s a lot in here that just made me uncomfortable*. I don’t remember sex being such a big deal in the later volume (though I could be mistaken and the sex was either not as disturbing or the writing was so much better that I didn’t notice it).

It’s certainly unfair for me to judge this book harshly by comparing it to the one that came after. It’s only natural that an author would improve his craft over six years of constant writing, after all. But I can’t help it. I read these out of order and I’m a human being subject to cognitive biases just like everyone else. That’s just the way it is.

If you’re thinking of reading this and you haven’t read "Fragile Things", put this one on the shelf for a while and pick that one up. If I’d read "Smoke and Mirrors" first, I don’t think I’d have moved on to the other.

*I don’t find the topic of sex to be uncomfortable, as a rule. But dark, creepy sex? That’s not my style. I prefer sex, even literary sex, to be light and airy and happy and enjoyable. Your milage may vary, of course.

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Thursday, January 27th, 2011

Guns, Germs, and SteelGuns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is basically the history of humanity squeezed into 400 pages. Where did we come from? Where did we go? How did we get there? And, crucially for the book’s thesis, Why did things turn out the way they did?

It’s a fascinating story: all 13,000 years of it. The author presents history as a single story starting with the rise of homo sapiens in Africa and our subsequent dispersal around the world. He describes how various geographical factors caused certain groups to get a "head start" (in technological innovations as well as developing immunities to certain epidemic diseases) over other groups and begin to displace them.

Most of the non-fiction I read tends to be on a universal scale: cosmology and quantum mechanics and such, answering the question of "Where did everything come from and how does it work?". This book examines a much smaller part of the cosmos, but it also resonates far more because it’s about us. This book provides a look of my place in my culture and society and how that culture came to be so dominant at the expense of others.

The ideas in this book are incredibly useful at placing everything into a context of geography and evolution. For anyone who wants to examine their place in the world, this is a great place to start.

It should probably be a must-read for any human being.

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A couple of weeks ago I went to see a doctor for a minor ear issue. It was no big deal. I saw the doctor, she prescribed some antibiotics, and it all cleared up in a few days. After seeing the doctor and getting my prescription, I (of course) had to stop by the billing desk. Which is, as always, things get weird.

They already had my insurance card which they assured me would tell them all about my insurance and how much they should charge me vs. how much they should charge my insurance company. Of course, after taking in the insurance card and its magical number, they asked me how much my co-pay is. I’m on a high deductible plan: I don’t have a co-pay.

So I say “Oh, I don’t have a co-pay. I’m on a high deductible plan. So you should charge me the full amount today because my insurance won’t cover any of it. It’s only January after all!” The person at the desk smiled and says “Okay. That will be $80.” I think it’s a small amount, but I’m assured that it’s correct. So I pay my $80, and I go on my way.

Time passes.

Today, I get a note from my insurance company letting me know that the doctor’s office billed them and that they weren’t paying for any of it. The total charged was $254. $72 of which is not covered so it only $181 counts towards my deductible balance for the year. And the insurance company paid the doctor $0. So the insurance company kindly let me know that the doctor can bill me $181. Even though they charged $254.

You’ll note that both $181 and $254 are different from the $80 I was originally charged. So, by my estimation, I owe my doctor either $254 or $181 or $254 – $80 = $174 or $181 – $80 = $101. I honestly have no idea.

If I were naïve, I might wait for the doctor to bill me. They have my address, after all. But this has happened before.

A few years ago, I went to see a doctor (I don’t visit doctors often. Thankfully I’m not currently seriously ill.) and went through a similar process. At the time, my employer contracted by benefits out to a different insurance company who didn’t send me the helpful “Your provider may bill you $XYZ” notices. And since I had explained that I needed to pay the full amount and then had given them what they told me was the full amount, I didn’t think I still owed the doctor anything.

I was wrong. Six months later, they sent me a bill. With six months worth of late fees attached to it. So I don’t trust doctors anymore. It’s too easy for them to scam me.

Back to today, I think I owe this doctor some money. I don’t know how much because the numbers do not use any math that I’m familiar with. And I can’t trust them to tell me what I owe them in a timely fashion. So I have to go up there and try to straighten it out.

But I have a dream.

One day, I hope that the IRS will assess a tax against me. I will then pay that tax. Then, when I am sick, I will go to a doctor’s office. And I will receive care. And then I will leave.

And the doctor’s office will bill the government (who has taxed me) and the government will pay the doctor.

That’s a sane system. That’s a system without magic insurance cards which provide no real information. It’s a system where math makes sense and numbers aren’t pulled out of thin air.

It’s a system where health care is not inscrutable.

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Sunday, January 16th, 2011

MultiReal (The Jump 225 Trilogy, #2)MultiReal by David Louis Edelman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the second book in a trilogy. And it fills that space in the traditional fashion.

It doesn’t start the story. Its predecessor took care of that. And the ending leaves all of the loose ends lying there. Loosely. One assumes this is so its sequel will have something to do.

But the third of the story told in Multireal is competent. There’s little else to say that I haven’t said about the first book in this trilogy, Infoquake. This book isn’t better that that. But it’s not worse.

I think the characters are not drawn as well in this sequel as they were in the first. But that could just be a consequence of the characters, though they do fine in a single novel, not really being up to the task of filling out an entire trilogy. It doesn’t help that Natch (the most interesting and entertaining character by far) spends a good deal of time absent with others saying "Where’s Natch?!".

High drama, it’s not. But, it’s mostly unsurprising. And that’s not bad for light (almost fluffy) Sci-Fi. Is it?

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