Review

Oh Hugo Awards, where have you gone?

I follow the Hugo awards closely, and 20 years ago published the 1993 Hugo and Nebula Anthology which was probably the largest anthology of currently released fiction ever published at the time.

The Hugo awards are voted by around 1,000 fans who attend the World SF Convention, so they have their biases, but over time almost all the greats have been recognized. In addition, until the year 2000, in the best novel Hugo, considered the most important, the winner was always science fiction, not fantasy even though both and more were eligible. That shifted, and from 2001 to 2012, there have been 6 Fantasy winners, one Alternate History, and 5+1 SF. (2010 featured a tie between bad-science SF in the Windup Girl and genre-bending political science fiction in The City & The City.)

That’s not the only change to concern me. A few times my own pick for the best has not even been nominated. While that obviously shows a shift between my taste and the rest of the fans, I think I can point to reasons why it’s not just that.

The 2013 nominees I find not particularly inspiring. And to me, that’s not a good sign. I believe that the Hugo award winning novel should say to history, “This is an example of the best that our era could produce.” If it’s not such an example, I think “No Award” should win. (No Award is a candidate on each ballot, but it never comes remotely close to winning, and hasn’t ever for novels. In the 70s, it deservedly won a few times for movies. SF movies in the mid and early 70s were largely dreck.)

What is great SF? I’ve written on it before, but here’s an improvement of my definition. Great SF should change how you see the future/science/technology. Indeed, perhaps all great literature should change how you view the thing that is the subject matter of the literature, be it love, suffering, politics or anything else. That’s one reason why I have the preference for SF over Fantasy in this award. Fantasy has a much harder time attaining that goal.

I should note that I consider these books below as worth reading. My criticism is around whether they meet the standard for greatness that a Hugo candidate should have.

2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson

This is the best of the bunch, and it does an interesting exploration into the relationship of human and AI, and as in all of Stan’s fiction, the environment. His rolling city on Mercury is a wonder. The setup is great but the pace is as glacial as the slowly rolling city and the result is good, but not at the level of greatness I require here.  read more »

Best SF recommendations

I recently updated my book recommendation box to list the very best recent SF to read from the last few years. This is SF that meets my goals for great SF. I see somewhat “hard” SF that speaks about important and real ideas, while being entertaining writing at the same time.

The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi (2011)

This astounding first novel rates as best of 2011 for me. Except it came out in 2010, but in limited release in the UK so most people did not see it until 2011. An amazingly constructed post-singularity world that deserves all the superlatives. The next book is eagerly awaited. Particularly remarkable is that as a Finn, I presume his first language was not English. It is disappointing that it did not receive a Hugo nomination.

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart (2010)

This novel was paid surprisingly little attention by the SF community, but in fact it’s the best SF novel of 2010. A wonderful dystopian view of a failing USA where only dollars backed by the Yuan are valuable and the coveted jobs are in retail and media. A dark view of whuffie-like reputation where everybody’s credit score is displayed everywhere they go, and at every gathering everybody is rated on fuckability (and you see where you stand.) The anti-hero works for an anti-aging company that is a marvelous parody but the topics are deep and serious. Not even nominated for the Hugo which is a terrible mistake.

The City and the City by China Miéville (2009)

The best of 2009 (tied for the Hugo award, too.) The City and the City at first may not seem like SF because the cities are so implausible, but it’s really a fun experiment in social or political science to imagine two towns co-existing like this, partly overlaid in space while the residents are trained from birth to pay no notice to the other city. This is probably the weakest on this list, and indeed the co-winner that year (Windup Girl) was almost anti-SF as the science it it was fully bogus. But CatC grew on me as I came to see it as alternate-social worldbuilding.

Anathem by Neal Stephenson (2008)

It came 2nd for the Hugo, but even the winner, Neil Gaiman, declared it should have won. Read my full review.

Rainbow’s End by Vernor Vinge (2006)

The Hugo Winner for 2006 is also my pick for the best of the decade. If you like your SF full of wonderful new ideas, in this case related to the near future rather than the more abstract distant ones seen in earlier Vinge triumphs, this is the book for you. The protagonist has recently been cured of Alzheimer’s but that doesn’t mean many of his memories weren’t destroyed. He tries to fit into a world where everybody wears augmented reality lenses and clothes, education and play are radically different and a conspiracy is trying to develop a drug that makes you more accepting of suggestions. Note that 2006 also included the excellent Blindsight by Peter Watts available free here.

Other great reads

As noted above check out Embassytown (nominated for the Hugo in 2012) and other Miéville works, and Blindsight by Peter Watts. If you like Zombies, read Feed by Mira Grant — or rather read it for its treatment of a future, blogger-centered media world. It and its sequel were/are Hugo nominated. Several by Charlie Stross rate highly, such as Halting State, which is probably the best SF novel of 2007 — though the alternate history and Hugo winner The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a better overall novel. And if you’re from the 80s like me you will want to read the recent Ready Player One, a novel about a world where the now richest man in the world created a globe-spanning MMORPG, and then willed it to whoever could solve a challenge in it. To win, you needed to know all the obscure 70s and 80s culture references that were dear to the deceased programmer.

Going back in the decade 2004 was also a very strong year with River of Gods being worth of a best-of-decade list, and The Algebraist and Iron Sunrise (particularly for its wonderful reMastered cult of the unborn god) are also very strong. 2006 had the very fun Old Man’s War as a fine debut novel, and Accelerando is superb (indeed unmatched until Rainbow’s End) for its ideas but lacking in its characters — Stross gets better at this later.

Review of standalone wand scanner

Back at the start of this blog, in 2004, I described a product I wanted to see, which I called the Paperless Home Scanner. Of late, several companies have been making products like this (not necessarily because of this blog of course) and so I finally picked one up to see how things pan out.

Because I’m cheap, I was able to pick up an asian made scanner sold under many brand names for only $38 on eBay. This scanner sometimes called the Handyscan or PS-4100 or similar numbers, can also be found on amazon for much more.

The product I described is a portable sheetfed scanner which runs on batteries and does not need to be connected to a computer because it just writes to a flash card. This particular scanner isn’t that because it’s a hand scanner you swipe over your documents. For many years I have used a Visioneer Strobe, which is a slow sheetfed unit that has to be connected to a Windows computer. I found that having to turn the computer on and loading the right software and selecting the directory to scan was a burden. (You don’t strictly have to do that but strangely you seem motivated to do so.) The older scanner was not very fast, and suffered a variety of problems, being unable to scan thermal paper receipts (they are so thin it gets confused) and having problems with even slight skew on the documents.

I was interested in the hand-scanner approach because I presumed there had been vast improvements using the laser surface scanning found in mice. I figured a new scanner could do very good registration even if you were uneven in your wanding. Here are some of my observations:  read more »

  • While it does a better job of making an undistorted scan than older hand scanners, it is still far from perfect, and any twists or catches can distort the scan, though not that much. Enough that you wouldn’t use it to print a copy, but fine for records archiving.
  • It’s exactly 8.5” wide. Since it’s hard to be exactly straight on any scan, that’s an annoyance as you will often drift slightly from a page. A scanner for letter paper should really be about 9” wide. I’ll gladly pay the extra for that.
  • Even today with Moore’s law it’s too slow scanning colour. Often the red light comes on that you are scanning too fast in colour. In B&W it is rare but still can happen. Frankly, by this time we should be able to make things fast and sensitive enough to allow scanning as fast as anybody is likely to do it.
  • While it is nice a small (and thus good for travel,) for use in the home, I would prefer it be a bit wider so I can get it on to the paper and scan the whole page with no risk of catching on the paper. And yes, there is always a risk of it catching.
  • It also catches on bends and folds in the paper, and so ideally you are holding the paper with one hand somehow and swiping with the other, but of course that is not really easy to do if scanning the whole page.
  • This particular scanner resets every time it turns off. And it resets to colour-300dpi. I wish it just remembered my settings.
  • In spite of what it said, it does not appear to have a monochrome setting, such as bitmap-600dpi or even 300dpi. That turns out to be fine, and even what you want, for records archiving. Sure, why throw away information in this era of cheap storage, I agree. On the other hand if it allows scanning-super-fast it may be worth it. A trick might be to start in grayscale and get levels, and then switch to bitmap/threshold
  • One huge difference with swipe scanners is they don’t know where the edges of the paper are. You can scan on a black background and have software crop and straighten, but feeding scanners do that for you because they know where those edges are. Again, having a bit of the background there is fine for archiving bills etc.
  • Overall, I do now realize that not having a view of what I scanned is more of burden than I thought. Particularly if you are thinking of disposing of the document after scanning. Did you get a good scan or not? Though it would add a lot to the cost and size, I now wonder if a very small display screen might be in order.
  • Instead of a display screen, one alternative might be bluetooth, and send the scan image to your smartphone or computer directly. Not required, so you can still scan at-will, but if you have your device with you, you can get a review screen and perhaps some more advanced UI.
  • Indeed, the bluetooth approach would save you the trouble of having to transfer the files, or of having a flash card. (A modest number of megs of internal flash would probably do the job of storing until you can get near the computer.)
  • While it does plug into USB (to read the flash card) that would be a pain if you wanted to scan to screen. Bluetooth is better.

Hand swipe vs. motor fed

Review of Everyman HD 720p webcam and Skype HD calling

I’ve been interested in videoconferencing for some time, both what it works well at, and what it doesn’t do well. Of late, many have believed that quality makes a big difference, and HD systems, such as very expensive ones from Cisco, have been selling on that notion.

A couple of years ago Skype added what they call HQ calling — 640 x 480 at up to 30fps. That’s the resolution of standard broadcast TV, though due to heavy compression it never looks quite that good. But it is good and is well worth it, especially at Skype’s price: free, though you are well advised to get a higher end webcam, which they initially insisted on.

So there was some excitement about the new round of 720p HD webcams that are coming out this year, with support for them in Skype, though only on the Windows version. This new generation of cams has video compression hardware in the webcam. Real time compression of 1280x720 video requires a lot of CPU, so this is a very good idea. In theory almost any PC can send HD from such a webcam with minimal CPU usage. Even the “HQ” 640x480 line video requires a fair bit of CPU, and initially Skype insisted on a dual core system if you wanted to send it. Receiving 720p takes far less CPU, but still enough that Skype refuses to do it on slower computers, such as a 1.6ghz Atom netbook. Such netbooks are able to play stored 720p videos, but Skype is judging them as unsuitable for playing this. On the other hand, modern video chips (Such as all Nvidia 8xxx and above) contain hardware for decoding H.264 video and can play this form of video readily, but Skype does not support that.

The other problem is bandwidth. 720p takes a lot of it, especially when it must be generated in real time. Skype says that you need 1.2 megabits for HD, and in fact you are much better off if you have 2 or more. On a LAN, it will use about 2.5 megabits. Unfortunately, most DSL customers don’t have a megabit of upstream and can’t get it. In the 90s, ISPs and telcos decided that most people would download far more than they uploaded, and designed DSL to have limited upload in order to get more download. The latest cable systems using DOCSIS 3 are also asymmetric but offer as much as 10 megabits if you pay for it, and 2 megabits upstream to the base customers. HD video calling may push more people into cable as their ISP.  read more »

Review: Billy: The Early Years (DVD and book)

I have written in the past about my late father’s careers most of which are documented in his memoirs and other places. In spite of being almost 60 years in the past, his religious career still gets a lot of attention, as I recently reported in the story of the strange exhibit about him in the infamous Creation Museum.

Recently, two movies have been released in which he is a character. I recently watched Billy: The Early Years which is a movie about the early life of Billy Graham told from the supposed viewpoint of my father on his deathbed. Charles Templeton and Billy Graham were best friends for many years, touring and preaching together, and the story of how my father lost his faith as he studied more while Graham grew closer to his has become a popular story in the fundamentalist community.

While it doesn’t say that it’s fictional, this movie portrays an entirely invented interview with Charles Templeton, played by Martin Landau, in a hospital bed in 2001, shortly before his death. (In reality, while he did have a few hospital trips, he spent 2001 in an Alzheimer’s care facility and was not coherent most of the time.) Fleshed out in the novelization, the interview is supposedly conducted on orders from an editor trying to find some dirty on Billy Graham. Most of the movie is flashbacks to Graham’s early days (including times before they met) and their time together preaching and discussing the truth of the Bible.

It is disturbing to watch Landau’s portrayal of my father, as well as that by Mad Men’s Krisoffer Polaha as the younger version. I’m told it is always odd to see somebody you know played by an actor, and no doubt this is true. However, more disturbing is the role they have cast him in for this allegedly true story — namely Satan. As I believe is common in movies aimed at the religious market, Graham’s story is told in what appears to be an allegory of the temptation of Christ. In the film, Graham is stalwart, but my father keeps coming to him with doubts about the bible. The lines written for the actors are based in part on his writings and in part on invention, and as such don’t sound at all like he would speak in real life, but they are there, I think, to take the role of the attempted temptation of the pure man.  read more »

Avatar isn't Dances With Wolves, it's another plot

Everybody has an Avatar review. Indeed, Avatar is a monument of moviemaking in terms of the quality of its animation and 3-D. Its most interesting message for Hollywood may be “soon actors will no longer need to look pretty.” Once the generation of human forms passes through the famous uncanny valley there will be many movies made with human characters where you never see their real faces. That means the actors can be hired based strictly on their ability to act, and their bankability, not necessarily their looks, or more to the point their age. Old actors will be able to play their young selves before too long, and be romantic leading men and women again. Fat actors will play thin, supernaturally beautiful leads.

And our images of what a good looking person looks like will get even more bizarre. We’ll probably get past the age thing, with software to make old star look like young star, before we break through the rest of the uncanny valley. If old star keeps him or herself in shape, the skin, hair and shapes of things like the nose and earlobes can be fixed, perhaps even today.

But this is not what I want to speak about. What I do want to speak about involves Avatar spoilers.  read more »

Flashforward, Deja Vu and Hollywood's problem with time travel

Tonight I watched the debut of FlashForward, which is based on the novel of the same name by Rob Sawyer, an SF writer from my hometown whom I have known for many years. However, “based on” is the correct phrase because the TV show features Hollywood’s standard inability to write a decent time travel story. Oddly, just last week I watched the fairly old movie “Deja Vu” with Denzel Washington, which is also a time travel story.

Hollywood absolutely loves time travel. It’s hard to find a Hollywood F/SF TV show that hasn’t fallen to the temptation to have a time travel episode. Battlestar Galactica’s producer avowed he would never have time travel, and he didn’t, but he did have a god who delivered prophecies of the future which is a very close cousin of that. Time travel stories seem easy, and they are fun. They are often used to explore alternate possibilities for characters, which writers and viewers love to see.

But it’s very hard to do it consistently. In fact, it’s almost never done consistently, except perhaps in shows devoted to time travel (where it gets more thought) and not often even then. Time travel stories must deal with the question of whether a trip to the past (by people or information) changes the future, how it changes it, who it changes it for, and how “fast” it changes it. I have an article in the works on a taxonomy of time travel fiction, but some rough categories from it are:

  • Calvinist: Everything is cast, nothing changes. When you go back into the past it turns out you always did, and it results in the same present you came from.
  • Alternate world: Going into the past creates a new reality, and the old reality vanishes (at varying speeds) or becomes a different, co-existing fork. Sometimes only the TT (time traveler) is aware of this, sometimes not even she is.
  • Be careful not to change the past: If you change it, you might erase yourself. If you break it, you may get a chance to fix it in some limited amount of time.
  • Go ahead and change the past: You won’t get erased, but your world might be erased when you return to it.
  • Try to change the past and you can’t: Some magic force keeps pushing things back the way they are meant to be. You kill Hitler and somebody else rises to do the same thing.

Inherent in several of these is the idea of a second time dimension, in which there is a “before” the past was changed and an “after” the past was changed. In this second time dimension, it takes time (or rather time-2) for the changes to propagate. This is mainly there to give protagonists a chance to undo changes. We see Marty Mcfly slowly fade away until he gets his parents back together, and then instantly he’s OK again.

In a time travel story, it is likely we will see cause follow effect, reversing normal causality. However, many writers take this as an excuse to throw all logic out the window. And almost all Hollywood SF inconsistently mixes up the various modes I describe above in one way or another.

Spoilers below for the first episode of FlashForward, and later for Deja Vu.

Update note: The fine folks at io9 asked FlashForward’s producers about the flaw I raise but they are not as bothered by it.  read more »

Review of Downfall / Der Untergang

Last month I released a parody video for the film “Downfall” (known as Der Untergang in German.) Having purchased the movie, I also watched it of course, and here is my review. At least in my case, the existence of the parody brought some new sales for the film. There are “spoilers” of a sort in this review, but of course you already know how it ends, indeed as history you may know almost everything that happens in it, though unless you are a detailed student of these events you won’t know all of it.

The movie, which deals with Hitler’s last days in the bunker, is dark and depressing. And there is the challenge of making some of the nastiest villains of the 20th century be the protagonists. This caused controversy, because people don’t like seeing Hitler and his ilk humanized even in the slightest. Hitler in this film is in some ways as you might expect him. Crazy, brutal and nasty. He’s also shown being kind to some friends, to Eva, to his dog, his secretaries and a few others. He has to be human or the film becomes just caricature, and not much as a drama. Goebbels gets little humanity, and his wife, who has the most disturbing scene in the film, has a very twisted sort of humanity.

While we have only a limited idea of what Hitler was like at this time, I feel the movie actually still made him a madman caricature. The real Hitler must have been highly charismatic and charming. He inspired people to tremendous loyalty, and got them to do horrible things for him, including taking their own lives at the end as we’re shown several times. The Nazis who were recruited by Hitler in his early days all spoke warmly of his charm, but none of this comes through in the film. We don’t like to think of him that way.

The movie is told in large part from the viewpoint of Frau Traudl Junge, one of Hitler’s private secretaries, who escaped the bunker and died a few years ago. The real Junge appears in the film, apologizing for how she just got caught up in the excitement of being Hitler’s secretary, and how she wished she never went down that road. Like all the people who were there, she says she was unaware of what was really going on. Considering she typed Hitler’s last testament, where he blames the Jews for the war, and other statements he dictated to her, it’s not something she could have been totally unaware of. Junge asks Eva Braun about Hitler’s brutality as a contrast to his nicer moods and she explains, “that’s when he’s being the Führer!” suggesting she compartmentalized the two men, lover and dictator, in two different ways.

During the movie the Soviets are bombing Berlin, and Hitler refuses surrender, in spite of urging from his generals and pleas for the civilians. Even Himmler, whose dastardly evil side is not shown in this film, is the “smart one” encouraging Hitler to leave Berlin, and who “betrays” Hitler in trying to negotiate a surrender. As in any war movie, when you see people being blown up by bombs and shot from their point of view, your instinct is to sympathise, and it’s easy to forget it is the allies who are doing the bombing, and the people dying are the ones who stuck with Hitler to the end. Some of them are “innocent,” including many of the citizens of Berlin, but many are not. Their loyalty may seem redeeming but they are giving that loyalty (and have reached a level of trust from Hitler) in a world where many in Germany wanted him out, where a number had been executed for plots to be rid of him.

A few Nazis get favourable treatment. Speer, for example. A scene from his memoirs, which is probably false, has Speer telling Hitler that he has disobeyed his “Nero” scorched Earth orders. This scene appears in Speer’s later memoirs but is denied in earlier ones, making it likely to be an invented memory. To give Speer credit, of course, he did disobey the orders, and he was the only top Nazi to own up, even partially, for what he did. Junge herself comes off as perfectly innocent and loyal. General Mohnke and SS Doctor Ernst-Günther Schenck (both of whom died moderately recently) get positive treatments.

The most disturbing scene involves Frau Goebbels executing her own children. There are conflicting stories on this, though the one piece of documentation, her last letter, makes it somewhat credible. Movie directors “like” such scenes, as they are incredibly chilling and nightmare-inducing. While Hitler was losing his grip on reality, the others were not, and these horrors are all a result of how much they embraced their bizarre ideology. Frau Goebbels could have sent her children to safety, she felt there was no point in them living in the world that was to come. Still, this scene will give you nightmares, along with a number of other gruesome suicides, even if you know in your mind that the people suiciding have done such incredibly nasty things.

But this is a part of history worth understanding. And it is worth trying to understand — though we may never do so — how human beings not as different from us as we would like to believe —could have been such monsters. The movie is well made, and powerful, if depressing and disturbing at the same time.

Not entirely fair review of the Gigapan imager

This is an unfair review of the “Gigapan” motorized panoramic mount. It’s unfair because the unit I received did not work properly, and I returned it. But I learned enough to know I did not want it so I did not ask for an exchange. The other thing that’s unfair is that this unit is still listed as a “beta” model by the vendor.

I’ve been wanting something like the Gigapan for a long time. It’s got computerized servos, and thus is able to shoot a panorama, in particular a multi-row panorama, automatically. You specify the corners of the panorama and it moves the camera through all the needed shots, clicking the shutter, in this case with a manual servo that mounts over the shutter release and physically presses it.

I shoot a lot of panos, as readers know, and so I seek a motorized mount for these reasons:  read more »

  • I want to shoot panos faster. Press a button and have it do the work as quickly as possible
  • I want to shoot them more reliably. With manual shooting, I may miss a shot or overshoot the angle, ruining a whole pano
  • For multi-row, there’s a lot of shooting and it can be tiresome.
  • With the right shutter release, there can be lower vibration. You can also raise the mirror just once for the whole pano, with no need to see through the viewfinder.

Book review: Anathem by Neal Stephenson

The latest tome — and at 900 pages, I mean tome — from Neal Stephenson (author of Snow Crash, the Diamond Age and Cryptonomicon) is Anathem. I’m going to start with a more general review, then delve into deep spoilers after the jump.

This book is highly recommended, with the caveat that you must have an interest in philosophy and metaphysics to avoid being turned off by a few fairly large sections which involve complex debate on these topics. On the other hand, if you enjoy such exploration, this is the book for you.

Anathem is set on a planet which is not Earth, but is full of parallels to Earth. The culture is much older than ours, but not vastly more advanced because on this world scientists, mathematicians and philosophers live a cloistered life. They live in walled-off communities called Concents, with divisions within which only have contact with the outside world, and with each other, for one 10 day period out of each year, decade, century or millennium.

As such the Avout, as they are called, lead a simple life, mostly free of technology, devoted to higher learning. It’s a non-religious parallel to monastic life. In the outside “saeclular” world, people live in a crass, consumer-oriented society both like and unlike ours.

I give the recommendation because he pulls this off really well. Anathem is a masterwork of world-building. You really get to identify with these mathematical monks and understand their life and worldview. He really builds a world that is different but understandable.

One way he does this, which does frustrate the reader at first, is through the creation of a lot of new coined terms. Some terms are used without introduction, some get a dictionary entry to help you into them. The terms are of course in a non-Earth language, but they are constructed from Latin and English roots, so they make sense to your brain. Soon you will find yourself using them.

So, if you like clever, complex worldbuilding and the worlds of science and philosophy, this book, long as it is, is worth it for you. However, I will shortly talk about the ending. Stephenson has a curse — his world building is superb, and his skill at satisfying endings is not up to it. Anathem actually has a decently satisfying ending in many ways — better than he has done before. There is both an ending to the plot, and some revelations at the very end which make you rethink all you have read before in the book. This time, I find fault with the consistency of the metaphysics, and mainly because I have explored the same topic myself and found it very difficult to make it work.

It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that after we are shown this remarkable monastic world, events transpire to turn it all upside-down. You won’t be disappointed, but I can’t go further without getting into spoilers. You will also find spoilers in my contributions to the Anathem Wiki. That Wiki may be handy to you after you read the book to understand some of the complex components.  read more »

DVD recorders, so much potential, but not delivered

I decided to digitize a lot of my old video tapes. Since I have many video capture cards in my MythTV system, I started by plugging my old VCR into that and recording. Turned out that there’s not really good standalone capture software for Linux, so I ended up using MythTV itself, which is not very well designed for this. But it worked OK. However, I then foolishly decided to clean the VCR heads, pulled out my old head cleaner, put methanol in it and — destroyed the heads. It was time for a replacement VCR, something that’s pretty rare in the stores.

What is popular now are combo VHS/DVD players and for not much more (on eBay at least) VHS/DVD-recorder combos. These combos all feature the ability to copy from a VHS tape to a DVD. Of course, with just a remote control you can’t get nearly the flexibility that a computerized capture system can give you, but you do get a big convenience feature — the same system is controlling the VCR and the DVD burning, and can start and stop the VCR, detect index marks on the tape, detect end of tape, tape speed and many other things. They all try to give you a “one touch copy” or almost that, so you can just insert the tape, a disk and have it do the work.  read more »

Harry Potter series review

For the fun of it, we joined a line at a local independent bookstore last Friday night to get a copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Here I will first review the series without reference to the final book, and then make some remarks about things that are missing from the series that could be viewed as very minor spoilers, because they refer to things that might have taken place in the final book, but did not — but for which knowing they did not will not spoil the book in any meaningful way. However, if you want absolutely no knowledge of this sort, stop reading.

Then I will link at the bottom to a section of the review that is full of spoilers of the final book.

I want to address two issues that play a major and minor role. The lesser one is slavery. While Hermione regularly complains about it, and Harry arranges to manumit one slave elf, the truth of it is that pretty much all the other “good guys” embrace slavery on a deep level. In a way, Hermione’s protest group only makes it worse. The good guys can’t claim they are ignorant of the situation. Dumbledore may be sympathetic to Hermione, but his school still owns many slaves.

It is not just the elves that are enslaved. It is rarely examined, but most classical magic requires the enslavement of intelligent spirits of various kinds. The creatures that live in the portraits seem to be fragments of intelligent minds. But nobody cares.

The big issue is that of nature and nurture. Voldemort’s agenda demands wizards be purebloods, a classic racist/fascist theme. The “good guys” oppose him, but at times only with lip service, for most of them remain highly prejudiced against Muggles. They are never seen to socialize with them, and there are no redeeming Muggle characters in the book. Hermione’s parents are never seen, and while the senior Weasley is fascinated by Muggles, this is considered a strange quirk, and he doesn’t seem to have them around to tea. Muggle acceptance consists largely of not killing or abusing them, and being tolerant of magical people who are born to them. We see references to Muggle studies, but it seems that most of the students learn nothing but magic at Hogwarts. There is no talk of science, human history, literature or the arts. Wizards seem to never be employed in anything but jobs relating to magic — thanks to the slaves and spells that manage most of the work. One wonders if the wizards and witches, out of the context of magic, would be remarkably dull people.

Voldemort’s own Muggle father never makes a lot of sense. Yes, we are told he hates that father and hates Muggles because of him, but why does his band of racist followers find this acceptable? It is suggested they don’t know it, but if so, why was this never released? Certainly Hitler’s Jewish roots were publicized after the war.

But most disturbing is Harry himself. Harry’s foster family — the ones who truly raised him — are shallow, mean and selfish. Remarkably so. And yet Harry’s strongest trait is being the opposite of these things. Harry is kind, giving, brave and true. Why? Clearly not because of his adoptive parents. And not because of upbringing by his genetic parents. There can be only one reason — blood will out. His genetic parents were good people, so he must be too, just as he inherited magical abilities from them. But this is not how it is for people who grow up raised by and abused by people like the Dursleys. Hermione is the only good present day character with Muggle parents. The rest of the major characters, as far as we can tell, except Voldemort, have magical parents.

So the book says one thing about race but does another. For Harry, breeding is what matters. Non-humans are generally hated, and while Hagrid is tolerated by our good guys, he’s an exception, not a rule.

Now, if you’ve read the book you can read on for the review of Harry Potter with spoilers.

Harry Potter Review (Spoiler section for Deathly Hallows)

This section of the review contains spoilers.

The first comment is that the 760 page Deathly Hallows is overlong. People have been amazed that Rowling has kids reading books of this length, and it is good, but she may have come upon the curse of the top-ranked writer — becoming more powerful than your editor. Rowling is way more powerful than any editor, and while I am sure she has good intentions and tries to listen to her editors, you can’t escape this.

The novel spends way too long with Harry and friends on the run, camping out. Her plan for the novel precluded any time at Hogwarts before the end, and the book has to suffer for it. This book has to be too much about Harry, and Harry on his own. It also results, I think, in the poor treatment of Snape.

I found Snape’s fate highly disappointing. Snape was the most conflicted character of the series. Yes, we had six books of Harry convinced that Snape was evil, and him not being so at the end, and we could tell that Snape killing Dumbledore was all part of a plan, but I had hoped this all pointed to a dramatic redemption for Snape.

Instead, he barely appears in the book, and his last brief appearance has him killed pointlessly. Voldemort is convinced that killing Snape will give him control of the wand, but it won’t, so Snape is eaten for nothing. It is only by tremendous luck that Harry is hiding nearby and can come collect his memories so that Snape can carry out the last part of the plan — convincing Harry he must let Voldemort kill him. Short of that he would have been just snake food, and the plan would have quite possibly failed.

Yes, many expected Snape’s redemption to involve learning to love Harry, and perhaps dying for that love in a repeat of Harry’s childhood tragedy. It’s OK that we didn’t get that, but we got little else in exchange. Snape’s real appearance is in his memories, where Dumbledore’s long term plan is revealed, with no real shockers other than Dumbledore telling Snape that Harry is to die, and he’s OK with that. It’s all for love of Lily, we learn, but sure shown in a strange way.

Voldemort also remained one dimensional, a caricature of evil. We’re given the excuse that his soul has been torn apart, but could he not have been given some better motives, a little more depth? Could we not have believed for a second he might have listened to Harry’s plea that he have some remorse?

Draco Malfoy’s fate is also confusing and disappointing. As a child, he had a serious opportunity for redemption, especially after Harry saves him. He does not appear to go to prison (because he is a child) though his parents surely will. They also gain no redemption, stopping their aid to Voldemort only to protect their son.

So the only character who really changes, from our view, is Dumbledore, and he’s dead. He becomes more 3 dimensional, has a little evil in his past. Hermione remains smart and Harry pure. Ron gets a bit smarter but remains Ron. Hagrid and all the rest remain the same.

There is some resolution of the points I speak of in the non-spoiler part of the review of course. The slavery of the elves is given a little more treatment, and Ron wakes up about it, but there is not much more. We also finally learn a little bit about the Goblins, and their history and mistreatment. In an interesting side note, we are warned of the dangers of trying to cheat a Goblin, and yet after Harry deals the Sword to the Goblin, Longbottom is able to pull it out of the sorting hat to kill the snake, which presumably means the Goblins have lost it again, and should come back angry.

The entire “It could be Longbottom or Potter” in the prophecy gun-on-mantelpiece is never fired. It’s Potter. And we see that the prophecy is one of those causal-loop types. Voldemort comes to kill baby Harry because of the prophecy, and it is this mission which sticks a bit of his soul into Harry, causing his eventual defeat in a battle with Harry and other fulfillments of the prophecy.

As other critics have suggested, the Deathly Hallows, and the Elder wand are something seemingly invented entirely for this book. Usually in a planned 7 book series you hope the crucial plot points were introduced in earlier books.

As I noted in my non-spoiler section, I was always disappointed with the Dursleys, the only real Muggle characters in the book. They are quickly disposed of in the first few pages, and not seen again except for an appearance in memories by Petunia. Curiously, we are told she applied to Hogwarts, and was apparently accepted, and then backed out. Were they willing to take a Muggle? Or is this a hint she had some sort of magical powers that never were revealed, which might show up in a future non-Harry book?

Now I may sound a bit down here, but there were many positive elements. The final battle is dramatic and satisfying, and it’s good to see Harry actually standing up to Voldemort and telling him he knows magic that Voldemort doesn’t. But there is much that could have been improved.

Review of The Old Man's War Trilogy by John Scalzi

In 2005, John Scalzi burst on the scene with a remarkable first novel, Old Man’s War. It got nominated for a Hugo and won him the Campbell award for best new writer. Many felt it was the sort of novel Heinlein might be writing today. That might be too high a praise, but it’s close. The third book in this trilogy has just come out, so it was time to review the set.

It’s hard to review the book without some spoilers, and impossible for me to review the latter two books without spoiling the first, but I’ll warn you when that’s going to happen.

OMW tells the story of John Perry, a 75 year old man living on an Earth only a bit more advanced than our own, but it’s hundreds of years in the future. Earth people know they’re part of a collection of human colonies which does battle with nasty aliens, but they are kept in the dark about the realities. People in the third world are offered o ne way trips to join colonies. People in the 1st world can, when they turn 75, sign up for the colonial military, again a one-way trip. It’s not a hard choice to make since everybody presumes the military will make them young again, and the alternative is ordinary death by old age.

The protagonist and his wife sign up, but she dies before the enlistment date, so he goes on his own. The first half of the book depicts his learning the reality of the colonial union, and boot camp, and the latter half outlines his experiences fighting against various nasty aliens.

It’s a highly recommended read. If you loved Starship Troopers or The Forever War this is your kind of book. Now I’ll go into some minor spoilers.  read more »

A new sub-blog about Battlestar Galactica

I’ve been participating in online discussions about my favourite TV show, Battlestar Galactica, so I have collected a number of my selected postings about the show, along with some new ones, into a sub-blog on this web site.

If you are a fan of the site I invite you to subscribe to my Battlestar Galactica Analysis Blog.

It has its own RSS feed as well. You can also find it in the menu for this site. The show is now on a 9 month break before Season 4, so postings should become scarce after a while, but I still have a number in my queue to add. Theories will range from the well-grounded to the invented, but I hope it will help you enjoy the show.

Farewell, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

I’ve decided to stop watching Studio 60. (You probably didn’t even know I was watching it, but I thought it was worthwhile outlining the reasons for not watching it.)

Studio 60 was hailed as the most likely great show of this season, with good reason, since it’s from Aaron Sorkin, creator of one truly great show (the West Wing) and one near-great (Sportsnight.) Sorkin is deservedly hailed for producing TV that’s smart and either amusing or meaningful, and that’s what I seek. But I’m not caring about the characters on Studio 60.

I think Sorkin’s error was a fundamental conceit — that the workings of TV production will be as interesting to the audience as they are to the creators. Now I’m actually more interested than most in this, having come from a TV producing family, and with a particular interest in the world of comedy and Saturday Night Live. It’s not simply that this was a “Mary Sue” where Sorkin tries to tell us how he would do SNL if he were in charge, since I’m not sure that’s what it is.

I fear that he went into the network and said, “Hey! The heroine is the principled network president! The heroes are the show’s executive producers!” and the network drank their own kool-aid. How could they resist?

The West Wing tried to really deal with DC issues we actually care about. We went from seeing Bradley Whitford battle to save the education system to battling to avoid ticking off sponsors. How can that not be a letdown? The only way would be if it were a pure comedy.

It’s possible to do an entertaining show about TV. Sorkin’s own Sportsnight was one, after all. However, you didn’t have to care a whit about sports, or sports TV, or TV production to enjoy that show. Those things were the background, not the foreground of Sportsnight. There have been many great comedies about TV and Radio — Dick Van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore, SCTV, Home Improvement, Murphy Brown, WKRP etc. However, dramas about TV have rarely worked. The only good one I can think of was Max Headroom, and it was more about a future vision of media than about the TV industry.

Studio 60 is sometimes amusing (though not even as amusing as the West Wing) but surprisingly unfunny. Indeed, the show-within-the-show is also surprisingly unfunny. You would think they could write and present one truly funny sketch a week. SNL has to write over an hour’s worth, and while it often does not succeed, there’s usually one good sketch. Had he wanted a Mary-Sue story, he would have done this.

So let that be a lesson. TV should stick to making fun of itself, not trying to make itself appear heroic. We’re not buying it.

Will Battlestar Galactica 2.0 update the "descended from aliens" mistake?

I’m enjoying the new version of Battlestar Galactica. Unlike the original, which was cheezy space opera, this show is the best SF show on TV. Yes, I watched the original when I was 18. I knew it was terrible (and full of bad science) but in the 70s TV SF was extremely rare, and often even worse.

The original show began with Pactrick Macnee narrating an opening “There are those who believe that life here, began out there, with tribes of humans who may have been the forefathers of the Egyptians…” They sought the lost tribe of Earth, and in a truly abyssmal sequel finally came to 1980 Earth, which was of course technologically backward compared to them and unable to help in their fight.

This idea was a common one in science fiction of the 20th century. It was frequent in written SF, and Star Trek twice took it up. In one 60s episode, the Enterprise met Sargon, who claimed to have sewn most of the humanoid races. Spock states this meshes with Vulcan history, but another character says that Humans appear to have evolved on Earth. A later episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation reverses this, and Picard follows clues left in DNA to discover the common ancestry of all the humanoids.

Back in the 60s and 70s, when Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek were written, you could get away with this plot. It had a romantic appeal. While there was tons of evidence, as even Star Trek of the 60s knew, that humans were from Earth, we had not come to the 90s and the DNA sequencer. Today we know we share 25% of our DNA with cabbages. We’re descended from a long line in the fossil record that goes back a billion years. If life on this planet was seeded from other planets, it was over a billion years ago. It certainly wasn’t during the lifetime of Humanity, and nor were all the animals also seeded here at the same time as we were unless the aliens who did it deliberately created a fake fossil record.

(Of course creationists try very hard to make the case that this could be true, but they don’t even remotely succeed. If you think they do have a point, you may want to stop reading. You can read on for more SF theory though.)  read more »

Get a giant display screen

Yesterday I received a Dell 3007WFP panel display. The price hurt ($1600 on eBay, $2200 from Dell but sometimes there are coupons) and you need a new video card (and to top it off, 90% of the capable video cards are PCI-e and may mean a new motherboard) but there is quite a jump by moving to this 2560 x 1600 (4.1 megapixel) display if you are a digital photographer. This is a very similar panel to Apple's Cinema, but a fair bit cheaper.

It's great for ordinary windowing and text of course, which is most of what I do, but it's a great deal cheaper just to get multiple displays. In fact, up to now I've been using CRTs since I have a desk designed to hold 21" CRTs and they are cheaper and blacker to boot. You can have two 1600x1200 21" CRTs for probably $400 today and get the same screen real estate as this Dell.

But that really doesn't do for photos. If you are serious about photography, you almost surely have a digital camera with more than 4MP, and probably way more. If it's a cheap-ass camera it may not be sharp if viewed at 1:1 zoom, but if it's a good one, with good lenses, it will be.

If you're also like me you probably never see 99% of your digital photos except on screen, which means you never truly see them. I print a few, mostly my panoramics and finally see all their resolution, but not their vibrance. A monitor shows the photos with backlight, which provides a contrast ratio paper can't deliver.

At 4MP, this monitor is only showing half the resolution of my 8MP 20D photos. And when I move to a 12MP camera it will only be a third, but it's still a dramatic step up from a 2MP display. It's a touch more than twice as good because the widescreen aspect ratio is a little closer to the 3:2 of my photos than the 4:3 of 1600x1200. Of course if you shoot with a 4:3 camera, here you'll be wasting pixels. In both cases, of course, you can crop a little so you are using all the pixels. (In fact, a slideshow mode that zoom/crops to fully use the display would be a handy mode. Most slideshows offer 1:1 and zoom to fit based on no cropping.)

There are many reasons for having lots of pixels aside from printing and cropping. Manipulations are easier and look better. But let's face it, actually seeing those pixels is still the biggest reason for having them. So I came to the conclusion that I just haven't been seeing my photos, and now I am seeing them much better with a screen like this. Truth is, looking at pictures on it is better than any 35mm print, though not quite at a 35mm slide of quality.

Dell should give me a cut for saying this.

Long ago I told people not to shoot on 1MP and 2MP digital cameras instead of film, because in the future, displays would get so good the photos will look obviously old and flawed. That day is now well here. Even my 3MP D30 pictures don't fill the screen. I wonder when I'll get a display that makes my 8MP pictures small.

The War Tapes

Got to preview a powerful and interesting movie last night, The War Tapes. The producers, one of whom I met, gave quality video cameras to various members of a National Guard company doing a tour of duty in Iraq. The goal was to show the war from the soldier’s POV. It’s graphic at times, and puts forward a variety of views (though I doubt it will make many people decide to favour the war more) and well worth a watch. It opens in San Francisco and Oakland this weekend, later in other places.

Review: Trafficguage live traffic map

Through the SV100 I was given an interesting product called the Trafficgauge to review. It’s a small thick-PDA sized live map of the highways of your area, with indicators as to where there are traffic slowdowns. They cover about a half dozen cities.

What interested me about the product was its user interface. It doesn’t have one. There’s a button on it which does initial start (which you press only once when you get the item) and which can turn on a backlight and one very minor feature if you hold it down that I doubt any of the owners of the box even know about.

It’s always on, receiving traffic data presumably from some broadcast sideband, since it works indoors and in cars all around the bay area. By having no user interface, you can almost think of it as something like a smart map rather than a computer. I’m trying to figure out if it’s too simple or just right. When I first proposed in the early 90s that my cell company, since it knows where I am, should phone me if it sees me driving in to heavy traffic, I’ve wanted this sort of service to be aware of my location, and not bother me with data about traffic problems I am unlikely to care about. Radio traffic reports spend most of their time on stuff you don’t need to know either. As GPS chips drop in price (which they are) this box could know where you are but I am not sure it could do much with it other than show you. The indicators are not a bitmap, it’s a custom made LCD with bars for each section of highway which can be on or blinking.

(It also has icons to tell you what sporting events are taking place that day. This part is not well designed, first because I am not going to know what time the events are — could be day or night game — and the icons are in the corner, rather than in the approximate locations of the stadia (which admittedly is a challege as the stadia are all close together.)

It didn’t come with a dashboard mount, so it is a bit distracting to pick it up and look at, but not tremendously so.

On the other hand, the pricing to me, with a monthly fee, is not attractive. The data bandwidth is not so expensive as to demand this, it is largely a marketing decision. $80 plus $7/month seems a tad high. Mind you the eqivalent cell phone services also will get you coming and going. (Somehow I don’t know if the marketing departments would use “We get you coming and going” as a slogan, though it’s a good one!)

Which brings me to an idea of my own in this space, much simpler and cheaper. Namely a tiny radio (or feature in in-car radios) that constantly listens to the station that does traffic every 10 minutes — there’s one or more in every town. The box would know the little tune they always play with traffic reports, so when you pushed the button on it, it would play the latest traffic report. If it could not find the tune, it would just play from the approximate time the report comes with a button to hold down for fast forward or rewind. The standalone box would just retransmit the signal (usually from AM) onto an FM channel. Such a box could be cheap, and need no service fee. Of course the traffic station may not like it since when it works well, you would not hear their ads. And of course, most of the report is about highways you don’t care about.

For people with a computer or full blown PDA, of course, there are some alternatives. And indeed, the other downside of a dedicated box like this is that over time it really makes more sense to have it all in your PDA, not in independent boxes.

At a full browser, [SigAlert]http://www.sigalert.com/map.asp?Region=Bay+Area gives a much more detailed map, with popups on all the incidents and links to full CHP traffic reports. The CHP website itself gives a text summary of all police reports, it’s the same thing the radio stations use, and it can be fetched quickly on a simple browser.

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