Saturday, July 30th, 2011

Ringworld by Larry Niven
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is a very popular science fiction book. I doubt a week can pass without my seeing someone mention it in a reddit thread somewhere. So I was expecting to be blown away.

But, really, it just doesn’t hold up as a novel. As an idea, the Ringworld is captivating. I can certainly understand why so many people continue to invoke its name when discussing anything close to it. But the story around it is just uncompelling.

I’d hoped this to be something closer to Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama: a brilliant bit of hard sci-fi that manages to really evoke a sense of wonder about a particular alien artifact (an artifact whose awesomeness pales in comparions with the Ringworld, I should add). But Niven lacks the emotion and humanism necessary to really make his Ring come alive. Instead, it’s very cold and sterile. Most of the conversations are didactic: “This is obviously true.” “Well how do you know?” “Because of this and this and this and this and science, you see.” “Oh. I should have figured that out.”

They seem like an excuse to show how hard Niven thought about things and how he did his homework. Well, I commend him for that. But, I think a good rule of thumb is that an editor should become heavily involved any time characters start speaking in scientific notation.

I don’t think I’m going to invest anymore time in the Known Space series. But, there’s enough that’s interesting in the background of it that I’ll probably at least skim some of the Wikipedia articles about it.

Thursday, July 28th, 2011

The Lives of Dax
The Lives of Dax by Marco Palmieri
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If 90% of everything is crap*, licensed sci-fi novels are the exception that push that law close to 95%. There are a lot of poorly written cookie-cutter novels on whose covers publishers slap a couple logos and sell it to folks like me who’ll buy things because they’re fans. Indeed, I’ve largely moved past the licensed books that so completely dominated my youth because the quality tended so far towards the crappier end of the curve.

But, my spouse and I had recently finished watching the full series of Deep Space Nine and I wanted more. What better place to start than with the DS9 relaunch, of which this book has been retroactively named the first? So I grabbed it, excited to read more about one of the more compelling characters Trek has ever produced.

And I find myself fortunate that it’s not bad. It’s no great work of literature. It won’t stand the touch of time. But it’s a collection of decent stories that all add a little more flavor to the Star Trek universe. If I had any complaints, it was that a couple of the stories had a bit too much fan service. Sure, it was inevitable that Curzon’s story would involve a young Ben Sisko. And I suppose it was already canon that Emony Dax had met an even young Leonard McCoy. But did they have to drink a Picard wine on their date? That’s just ridiculous.

That aside, this was a fun bit of Star Trek. If you like that sort of thing, you should pick it up.


Friday, July 22nd, 2011

This morning, my boss said something to the effect of: “This test-server is pretty under-powered. It still only has 16 gigs of RAM.”.

Yesterday, I saw an estimate that Apple shifted almost 4 petabytes during the first twenty-four hours after they released their latest operating system on the Internet. The petabyte was a unit that my beloved spouse had never heard of before.

I’ve recently started using Spotify which is a music service that gives me instant access to any one of 15 million songs.

I currently follow 404 people on twitter. These people represent nations, professions, and hobbies that span the globe and the gamut from high-tech to iron-age-tech. I’m even fortunate to call some large percentage of that 404 a friend — even people that I’ve never actually met.

The sheer scale of technology is increasing at almost frightening speeds. More and more, it seems that our improvements are running into a wall created by the laws of physics: from heat dissipation in microchips to the size of magnetic filings on hard disks. I read an article the other day noting that we’re getting to the point in our fiber optic lines where the pulses of laser light are so short that they start to blur into each other.

This is a far cry from the DEC Rainbow I first used while sitting on my dad’s knee. And if I’m not careful, I’ll forget just how much magic is in the things I use every day.

I try not to forget, though. Because that sense of childlike wonder makes my own job even better than it already is.

Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without OrganizationsHere Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations by Clay Shirky
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book was doomed to age poorly. With a copyright date of 2008, it’s now three years out of date; and 3 years is an eternity in the world that Here Comes Everybody tries to describe.

I think it’s worse than that for me, though, because the target audience of this book is clearly someone trying to "figure out what this MySpace thing is all about" over the weekend. But I’ve been steeped in this world for years: I’ve experimented with all the major blogging platforms (and written my own). I’ve done MySpace and Facebook and I met my spouse on twitter. I’ve gone to meetups and tweetups and had my pictures picked for flickr groups and printed Moo Cards and handed them out. I’ve re-syndicated all of my social media feeds to FriendFeed (which barely even exists today) and tried out federated status networks.

Which is to say that this book felt like a remedial course on how I’ve spent my spare time since I started college back in 2001. It’s not that the content of the book is bad, because it’s not. But it didn’t tell me very much that I didn’t already know.

The final chapter (and, to an extent, the epilogue) was good, though. This was where Shirky finally took all of the stuff from the rest of the book and tried to tie it together into a "this is how everything works together" narrative. I definitely got value there; but it would’ve been served better as a blog post. I also have started seeing power distributions everywhere. I’d not thought of the world in that way before, but I do now. So that’s a definite plus. I read non-fiction to acquire context about the world, after all.

So, this is a great crash course on social technologies and what they are. There’s a very little bit about how to harness them (and largely the advice is "Don’t try. The advantages of social technologies is latent and organic."). So that can be useful and informative, I suppose. But, if you intend to read it, do so quickly: I’m not sure that it’s going to hold up for another three years.

Saturday, July 16th, 2011

I was perusing the threads at my favorite message board when I came across a thread discussing Word vs. LaTeX. I’ve always liked the idea of LaTeX but since I don’t do much writing, it’s always been far more powerful than I need. That power leads to complexity that I have to learn and manage with no gain. So I usually just turn to a word processor when I need to bang out some paragraphs. And, of course, I always get supremely frustrated with trying to use styles in Word or Pages. They work, but they’re terrible.

So I asked myself, “Why can’t writing for print be as simple as styling my blog posts with CSS?”. So I typed something similar into Google and found A List Apart’s article about writing their book in CSS.

So, people who actually produce books are thinking about it. Neat! I’m sure there’s a lot more work that could be done to ease the workflow, but the basics seem pretty solid. The only sticking-point is that the tool they use to go from CSS+HTML to PDF is an expensive piece of commercial software. I went through the article assuming it would be open-source. But alas, no.

I can’t fault anyone for making money with their hard work (I enjoy profiting from my company’s software, after all!), but I don’t think it’s something I’ll be able justify playing around with any time soon.

But, if I were a professional publishing type, I’d take a hard look at it. It feels like this sort of workflow could fit in a sweet spot between Word and InDesign.

As an aside, CSS3 is really powerful. I’m really looking forward to increased browser support for some of this stuff. And I’m not even really a web developer!