Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Life and Works of Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach was one of many Johanns in his family. His parents died when he was an older kid, leaving him to be raised by older siblings. He was a musical genius fairly early on and he knew it. He had 20 kids and bounced around a few esteemed musical jobs before settling in Leipzig.

I had always thought of him as a "Lepzig guy". However, it appears here that he was primarily the "family man" there. A lot of his more wild years and creative output happened earlier in his career where he worked in other cities in Germany. During his time, he seemed to be well renowned as an accomplished musician, yet not nearly venerated the way he is today. He managed to keep incredibly busy, teaching, performing and composing, while also having a large family. Here he is portrayed as a boisterous man, capable of having a good time, yet fairly socially inept. He would tutor individual students while writing great works for others. He has a produced a very significant output. However, there are some works credited to him that may not actually be his. (He kept notebooks of music for others that included some of his own work as well as those of others.

What would Bach be like today? Perhaps a David Byrne or Peter Gabriel? Or maybe a Yo-Yo Ma? Nah. He'd probably just be a pop-punk musician that incorporates some Organ with his guitar.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Praise of Folly

In Praise of Folly uses humor to present a scathing critique of 16th century society. Erasmus personifies "folly" and notes how well she is respected by people. Folly does not need a whole lot of additional praise because people give her so much respect. Erasmus is at his best when he carries things to their absurdity. (We all must be fools, because we were the offspring of people that were foolish enough to get married.)

The first part is the best. Closer to the end he starts to get more critical of the church and society. However, even in his "serious" sections, some of the dark humor remains.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Converting Overdrive WMA to MP3

I love to listen to audiobooks on my Android phone. My local library has a bunch to check out. Most are in MP3 format. With those, I run them through some SOX scripts to speed them up (and reduce their size.) WMA files are a different story.

There are a few options:
1) Transfer to iPhone, then use a program to pull the files off the phone. (sort of works, but requires an iPhone)
2) Use a tool to DRM from WMA and another to convert to MP3. (Looked at it, but the tools either look sketchy or require Windows XP)
3) Burn to CD and rip. (Some software automates this with virtual cds, but there is a mixture of shareware, sketchiness and convoluted here.)
4) Record the file as you play it.

I opted for 4. This also had the bonus of including the speedup step in one fell swoop.

First, I updated my sound drivers to try to get "stereo mix". However, now it was called "Rec. Playback". I had to right click on the volume task bar icon to bring up "recording devices. Then right click in empty area to "show disabled devices". Then enable RecPlayback. It still didn't say it worked (even when I set it as default.) But Audacity seemed to work, so I was happy.

Install Audacity http://audacity.sourceforge.net/
(To export MP3 files, you will need to install LAME. When you export for the first time, it will give a link to download. On my system, the file was placed in: C:\Program Files (x86)\Lame For Audacity)

In Audacity, under Preferences, select default sample rate of 11025 Hz under Quality.
Under devices, select the appropriate input stream (Microsoft Sound Mapper - Input) and change to 1 Channel. (Mono)

Adjust volume to a comfortable level. (I set it fairly low.) Plug in headphones so you don't hear it.

Go to Overdrive or Windows Media. On the "Play Speed" time icon, select Fast 2X Normal (or whatever speed sounds good for the book.)

Go to Audacity and hit record.

Go to Overdrive and hit play.

Make sure you so some output on the Audacity screen. Stop both. Play audacity output and verify that it sounds ok.

Now delete the audacity project and start over.

Let it run overnight (or however long it needs to go to finish playing it all.)

In the morning, stop Audacity if it is done.

Now tweak the audacity project.

If there is a bug chunk of silence at the end, delete that. (Select the range then Edit->Delete)

Normalize the volume: (Select All, then Effect->Normalize)

To split into smaller tracks, you can find silence (Analyze-Silence Finder) This may take some tweaking. I used 1.5 dB, 1 second and .5 seconds for the values.

File->Export Multiple
Select Split Files based on labels and check "Include audio before first label"
Use MP3. Options: 32Kbps, Joint Stereo. For naming, pick one method that works well. (I use numbering after prefix)
Click Export and then the tag screen will appear. Enter the info.
If you don't mind having all tracks have the name "S", just click ok a bunch of times.
It pays to upload to a single folder.

Now the folder of tracks can be uploaded to the phone and enjoyed.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Ender's World

Ender's World is made up of a number of essays about Ender's Game. Most are by literary types describing how the novel impacted their lives and writing career. Interspersed with the essays are some short Q&As and other short bits from Card providing details on the book and his writing process.

What I found most interesting was some of the commentary about the end of Ender's Game. One started out describing how he initially wanted to change the ending to keep a strong "action" story. After reading again, he later realized the ending was useful after all and decided to keep it. I had almost the exact opposite experience. I did not care much for Ender's Game. It just seemed to be a lame action story. However, the ending really turned me on. It showed that there was some promise, and lead me to read the excellent sequel, Speaker for the Dead. (In one of the essays, Card mentions that the novel form with its ending was written to set up Speaker for the Dead.)

When Ender's Game was released, I was reading a lot of Science Fiction. However, I have no recollection of the story. Either it had no impact on me, or I never read it. (I'm guessing I never read it, since I did enjoy some of Card's other Mormon humor and Commodore 64 computer writings.)

Did Ender's Game really have a big role on literature and society? One essay talked about the true independent world-changing child protagonist. Previously, children would have things happen to them, but now it seems every story is lead by a child or a teenager. Was Ender's Game really that influential in bringing out the strong-willed child? Or did it just go along for the ride? The Narnia children did a pretty good job of saving the world on their own. Roald Dahl's children lead the narrative. Charlie Bucket may have been dominated by Willy Wonka's machinations, but Mathilda sure enacted plenty of change on her own. Today we have Percy Jackson, Hunger Games, Twilight and Harry Potter. All are stories where a child or teen needs to make decisions to help save the world. Have we swung too far in the direction of strong-willed child? Are adults just not interesting anymore? Do books need to be centered on functional adolescents to be successful?

Another interesting essay was from a military leader who used Ender's Game to train other military officers. I was amazed to hear that Card did not have any military experience. He seems to dive deeply into the experience of a true leader - the person that controls rather than the person that wears the stripes. I can see how the story would be useful in modelling leadership. The "crusty" military are concerned more with their own position and rank, and are more able to sit in an office than fight a war. The "leaders" need to be able to think on their own and value the goal above personal gain. (It is interesting to hear that both Card and the military leader were giddy about their meeting.)

Friday, November 28, 2014

InterGalactic Medicine Show: Big Book of SF Novelettes (InterGalactic Medicine Show Big Books)

The nice thing about story collections is that you can quickly get past the bad stories. The downfall, is that once you find a story that has characters you really like, it is over too soon. The novelettes in this collection are a little longer than typical stories, but still in the "short" category. Few of the stories were really memorable.

Content list available at producer's site

Introduction by Edmund R. Schubert, read by Stefan Rudnicki - A nice introduction of the advantages of development that can take place in novelettes (and the disadvantages of longer stories costing more on a per-word basis.)

“Sojourn for Ephah” by Marina J. Lostetter, read by Arthur Morey - something with some church and colony.

“Brutal Interlude” by Wayne Wightman, read by Paul Boehmer - A pet-shop owner is attracted to a woman who runs a tea shop across the street. He finally gets the courage to talk to her, and she returns to his shop to ask him a favor. But then she gets chosen for a reality show that monitors every last minute of their life. Contestants are paid well and get what they want, but they can't leave the show as long as they produce good ratings. She is miserable at first, but then she transforms herself into a new personality. She uses this notoriety to manipulate her fans to carry out their base desires and eventually destroy all of those that set up the show. It all makes a strong statement on the gradual debasement of society.

“Under the Shield” by Stephen Kotowych, read by Stefan Rudnicki - Something about revisionist history, Russians and a death ray.

“Hologram Bride” by Jackie Gamber, read by Roxanne Hernandez - Some girls go as part of a marriange exchange program to another planet. They discover the marriage isn't what they thought it was. (Something about being shared, and hormonal craziness of men and outward appearance of women.) They also end up foiling a plan of a older woman there. It's a little farfetched. Somehow these aliens have very similar deep-set values, but very different physical values.

“The Curse of Sally Tincakes” by Brad R. Torgersen, read by Emily Rankin - Some type of race where all the women seem to die, and this woman just ends up in the hospital at the end.

“The Absence of Stars” by Greg Siewert, read by Arthur Morey - Something about a roving black hole that wiped away Pluto.

“Essay: Making Ender Smart” by Orson Scott Card, read by Orson Scott Card - It all seemed very logical.

“Mazer in Prison” by Orson Scott Card, read by Stefan Rudnicki - I think I read this in another of IGMS collection before.

“When I Kissed the Learned Astronomer” by Jamie Todd Rubin, read by Paul Boehmer - A simple love story that happens to lead to a discovered alien ship. Not a "great" story, but the simple innocence made it one of my favorites in this collection.

“Body Language” by Mary Robinette Kowal, read by Gabrielle de Cuir - A motion capture pupeteer uses her skills to help rescue a kidnapping victim, and in turn unravel a number of different cover-ups. It almost tries to be a thriller.

“Tabloid Reporter to the Stars” by Eric James Stone, read by Stefan Rudnicki - I remember reading this one earlier as a flash-fiction short story. This version expands on the characters, but still relies on the main hook. I think I liked the shorter version better.

“On Horizon’s Shores” by Aliette de Bodard, read by Emily Rankin - An alien race on an important commercial planet is proving difficult to interact with. Some people receive a treatment that allows them to become more like them. They need to carry out there mission and return before they loose their humanity for good. One person is in it for relative and ends up staying. Or something like that. There was an interesting premise, but I seemed to have lost the story.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Earth Awakens (The First Formic War)

Two gung-ho youth bankrolled by a billionaire's son infiltrate an alien ship and make a plan to defeat it. Through the help of a crack military team (MOPS), they are able to go back and use the ship's weapons and some A-team type ingenuity to defeat the alien formics.

Like the other books in this "first formic war" series, this is all action with just enough plot and character to cause conflict and keep things moving along. (This just leads itself to a Jerry Bruckheimer/Michael Bay summer action flick.) And in the action vein, it ends with a character discovering that this alien ship was only a scout ship that split off from a huge armada.

The "good" characters in the book always seem to know what to say and how to lead the other characters. The only real growth in character we see comes from the billionaire's son. He wants to be appreciated and wants to help, but he has trouble distinguishing between friend and enemy (and acting appropriately.) It is almost painful to watch him because we always know who will be good or bad (because the other characters are so black and white.)

The story is a fun quick read, but not something worth investing a lot of time.

Lovelock: Mayflower Trilogy Part I

The narrator of this book plans an incestuous relationship with his own daughter, but murders her when he discovers she will not bear his children. He also throws excrement when he gets mad. He is also nosy, and peaks in on other people's secrets. (From this he is able to discover an incestuous relationship between a teenage daughter and her father.) He works as a servant to an esteemed biologist. The biologist has plenty of problems with her family. Her mother in law is an overbearing, melodramatic rich snob. Her father in law is subservient, but eventually leaves the family for single life (and dies after engaging in hard work.) Her husband has an affair with her friend, but that seems to be more of an excuse to leave the relationship and hide the true affair with another man. It all makes for a great uplifting story, right?

The setting is on a ship set to go on a long interstellar colinizing voyage. The narrator is a super-genius monkey that is trained to be a "witness" to record all the details of his master. He realizes that he has been denied the ability to reproduce and longs for it, thus trying to hatch his own spouse from some stored embryos. His daughter does not do well without a full time mother, and he later discovers there are separate "enhanced" monkeys like himself that are out there.

The ship is divided into groups, such as "Mayflower" and "Ganges" that are extreme caricatures of real life. The biologist and her family are also overly stereotyped. The only moderately believable characters are the children, and they only play a minor role in the story.

The story feels like a first pass at an interesting concept. Perhaps it would have been fleshed out better if the next two books in the planned trilogy were ever written.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Why Economies Rise and Fall

The rising tide lifts all boats. As such, wouldn't everybody want their economy to rise? If so, why do economies sometimes fall? This teaching company course presents a historical overview of what has caused the rise and fall of various economies and lessons that can be applied today. The approach is much more historical than quantitative.

Countries seek to raise the standard of living of everyone. Through trading, specialization and industrialization, they can seek those results. Many different ideologies and policies have been used to help grow economies. These lectures, however, intentionally dismiss the ideology arguments and focus on what has worked. Some policies from opposite ends of the political spectrum have in their respective times produced impressive economic growth. At other times, each has fallen on their face. There have been numerous "miracles" of outsized economic growth. However, these miracle growths are often followed by a sharp fall. The US has become one of the largest economies by growing only a percentage point more than other economies - but compounding that over many years. Will China be able to sustain its growth rate?

These lectures though short on hard science were fairly interesting in "magazine article" sense. Only in the ending did he drift off into conjecture of the future. (Is the US ceding its place? Will other countries really stop lending so much money to the US, and how will that impact the country? We don't know.)

I and Thou

There were some interesting parts of this work. However, wading through the text to get to them was a challenge. The audiobook started with plenty of commentary before getting to the actual work. Then there is the matter of it being a philosophical work originally written in German. This was not intended to be easy for the average English speaker to read. The commentary even admits that some may be lost in translation. The work has some religious undertones, but is more philosophy than religious. He posits that relationships, especially to God are very important, yet he doesn't care what type of relationship. There also seemed to be a good deal about the meaningless material "you" vs. the more important eternal "thou". I imagine this may have been clearer with the grammatical constructs of Germany. Alas, in English, it is very muddled.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Erik the Red's Saga

Erik the Red's saga is a nice adventure story that includes people getting lost, engaging in hyperbole to sell real estate and deciding it is better to leave in peace than stay and fight. It also has bits about conflict between Christianity and the "old" religion. Everything together makes for an interesting story.

What makes it even more interesting is the setting and passing remarks about location. These guys just happened to voyage from Norway out to Greenland. That is quite a trip. But that what was not all. They also made it even further, out to what seems to be Newfoundland. They seemed to like it, but decided they would have to spend too much time fighting the natives, so they stayed away. It all seems so Scandinavian. Sure, they discovered all this stuff way before the other Europeans. But, they didn't want to rock the boat, so they never made a big deal about it. We only know about it, because it just happens to be part of a good story.

The Long Shadow of the Ancient Greek World

The Long Shadow of the Ancient Greek World covers Greece from early civilization to Alexander the Great.

The Greek society has been an important base for modern western thought. These lectures start with early Greek thinkers from the "archaic" age. We get the originator of democracy. He did not necessarily create it out of some high-minded ideal, but merely thought it was a could we to keep order and reign in some of the problems in his current society. It didn't really hold, but was eventually restored.

We also get the origins of "Draconian" law. The law was finally written down. However, the punishment for nearly everything was death. Well, at least that was what was going to happen without the law. At least now, there is some support of the state.

Then we have the history of Sparta. They evolved into a warrior state. Even the women had to be strong in order to birth strong babies. They were able to keep their warrior state going by enslaving some of the neighboring communities.

There are many details of Greek history that we just don't know for sure. We do have plenty of records, but they tend to be very opinionated. You could easily argue both sides of an issue and find some support.

The Persian wars were a dividing line between archaic and classical Greece. Athens got a little too cocky in the end. Greece had a very slave-driven economy, thus giving people free time to engage in things like arts, war and democracy.

Ian Worthington had a very personable opinionated style of lecture delivery. He would present the "common" historical view, but also give balanced weight to his "heresy". His views often run somewhat counter to historical consensus, but are well supported. He also presents them in such a way that makes it easy to pick to believe in either view (or adopt one of your own.) He tends to view people like Alexander the Great as being overrated, while some others as underrated. It makes for a very well done series of lectures that not only teaches that facts but also gets you thinking.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Oh Strava, why did you not start?

I turned on the Strava app and set out on a bike ride. Today, I went over the Aurora bridge. There were a couple cyclists and a jogger on the bridge today, but all gave way really well to make it work. At the end, I decided "what they hey!" I'll just continue on Aurora.

However, they do not make it easy to do so. While there is a crosswalk from the bridge sidewalk to the sidewalk on Aurora, there is a drop of almost a foot down. Not the easiest thing to do on bike.

I eventually made it down. Since it was after 7, the bus lane had "opened up". There were a few cars parked in it. (Love how it works. It takes just a couple cars to eliminate an entire travel lane.)

I saw a RapidRide bus go by. Since it was after rush our there would probably not be any more going by. (and there weren't) So, I just continued down Aurora. The bus lane made for a great bike lane, with cars also avoiding it.

I was cruising fast down Aurora. There were no lights until I got past Green Lake. The few red lights after there turned green quickly. It was a nice fast cruise. I couldn't wait to see how fast I'd gone.

Then I pulled out the GPS.

There was the Strava app, showing 0. Ok. That sometimes happen. It will quickly refresh and show the current time.

Only it didn't. It had never started.

Ugghh! It often takes a few seconds to "really start" after I press the button. I had gotten into the habit, and thought that it had started. Only this time, it never did.

I pieced together some other activity from the phone to guess when the start time was. But, it is just not the same to not be able to get personal records and see exactly how fast you are going. And it would have been nice to see the line down Aurora.

Oh well.

Maybe this means it is time to get a new (more powerful) phone.

Catch the Lightning

Meh. A girl moves from the Mayan homeland to Los Angeles and gets mixed up with physics students and gang bangers. The toughs try to take advantage of her and kill her friends. Then she runs into a mysterious dude who causes her to run into the same issues on an intergalatic imperial scale. She marries the guy and they have some narrow escapes before somehow surviving.

The story had a few distinct divisions. There were numerous places where it felt like it could have been all wrapped up. Then something would come and it would get all wound up again. When it did finally end it seemed abrupt and left you wondering, "huh?"

The author seemed intent on showing off scientific knowledge that didn't help the story. The main character was a Mayan girl who moved to LA and had her family destroyed by gang members. Oh, and she happened to have a bunch of friends at Cal Tech who would spout off all sorts of advanced theoretical physics to explain things. Ok. I get it. You try to contrast a couple very different worlds. It was cool for a bit. But when they keep going on about the physics of time travel and other things, it just starts to get old. We really don't care. And the character of the protagonist doesn't seem to care either. It just seems like a bunch was interjected into the story to make it "hard" science fiction. Does it hurt the story if you take it out? Nope, it doesn't. Axe it.

Then there is the smutty romance. Too much information. We even get extreme responses. A bad guy gets drugged up and rapes her, so they end up nuking his entire planet. Extreme punishment, right? Oh well.

This book is simply a bad book. The story gets sidetracked with pointless junk. The characters are not well developed. There are a few interesting ideas, but they are just not executed well. This is a book well worth skipping.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Anatomy of a good bike commute

What makes a good bike commute? Here are a few of the key points that I can think of.

Weather

I've had great commutes with temperatures above 100 and high humidity. I've also had a great commutes in sub-zero temperatures. Snow can be a blast. Even rain can be fun. Strong winds can be great (as long as they are in the right direction.) Thunderstorms? I'll avoid those, but lightening in the distance looks nice.

A Danish friend once told me "there is no such thing as too cold, just not enough clothing." For bike commuting, that can be reworked to include "appropriate clothing". When I first started biking in sub-zero temperatures I boiled, then froze. I dressed so I was warm enough when I started. After pedaling a little, I was soon overheating in my warm gear. Then the sweat kicked in, and I started to freeze. The trick I learned was to start out a little cold, then the ride worked well. It was also good to make sure every part of the body was covered. The ski goggles looked weird, but they got the job done.

I used to hate getting stuck in warm summer downpours. I would try to pedal in it, then show up in my wet clothes, freezing in the indoor air conditioning. Then it dawned on me to bike in swimwear with sandals and bring a change of clothes (in a water-proof bag). Problem solved.

For hot weather, I like to load up on fluids beforehand. A place to shower afterwards is also really nice.

While there is no such thing as weather too poor to ride in, nice weather can make things very enjoyable. A nice warm ride with a pleasant breeze can't be beat.

Route options

A commute with one direct route, can get old quickly. I'm sure there are some people that enjoy going the same way every day, but I'm not one of them. I like to have multiple options that don't add significantly to the distance. The options may simply be alternate parallel streets. However, the ideal route will have different types of options. The scenic bike path can be nice for a gentle cruise at a consistent pace. The high traffic arterial provides the "fast" option. (I always seem to work myself faster when there is car traffic zooming along with me.) The quiet residential street can be the slow option. Different hill options are also useful. A steep hill with many traffic lights is great for going up, but not much fun for going down. The long, gently sloped downhill is great for going down (but may seem to take forever when going up).

On a bike route, there are often "choke points" You may be able to choose from many options, but everything will have to go through this point. The fewer the choke points, the better. Sometimes, I'll even take some crazy 20 mile detour just to "prove" I can avoid a certain choke point.

Traffic lights

Traffic lights are the bane of bike commuting. It seems they are always set to turn red right when I reach maximum velocity. The worst ones are those with an eternal cycle that sit at the bottom of a hill (especially when there is another hill to climb on the other side.) After commuting for a while, you get to know the timing of a traffic light. (I've found myself silently cursing the car that shows up just in time for the opposing left turn, thereby delaying my carefully plotted gradual slow down.)

Urban lights on timers are the lessor of evils. With a good sight path, you can see the change from a distance, and plan your approach so you hit it on green every time.

Lights that sense traffic can be more of a challenge. Occasionally, I've tried to time the approach based on the typical traffic pattern, only to be burned when it ran on a shorter cycle due to different traffic.

On my routes, I end up categorizing the traffic lights. The "evil" ones have ridiculously long cycles that often cause me to wait a long time. The "ok" ones tend to cycle quickly, thus not requiring me to worry about much. The "fako" ones are almost always green (though they'll probably pick my fastest day to decided to turn red.) The alternate fakos have an easy right turn option (or a one-way to one-way left turn option) if they happen to be red when I get to them.

Sometimes, I'll pick a route with a stop sign, rather than a light just because I want to be in control. It may mean a longer wait for a break in traffic, but the wait involves actively trying to find a slot to go, rather than passively waiting for a light change. The working brain cells seem to make a difference.

With lights, there is also the concept of "evil cars". Sometimes cars will block the bike lane turning right. Or they may simply crowd the intersection. It is the pits when you end up missing a perfectly timed light due to somebody else getting in the way.

Transit options

I love it when there are frequent, viable transit options connecting my home to my commute destination. (It is even better when my employer provides a free transit pass!) If my bike breaks down or I'm not feeling well, I can just hop on a train (or bus). I may rarely use it, but it comes in handy when I do. And the fact that it exists helps me to feel better about biking. Typically I've found biking to be a little faster than transit for different reasons. A train may be super fast, but add in getting to the station on both ends and it slows down. A bus may go directly from point A to point B, but meanders along at a slow pace. There is also the matter of adhering to a schedule. Transit just isn't as flexible as biking. But it provides a nice safety net.

Terrain

I like options in terrain. I can always seem to get my heart pumping when I'm going up or down hills. "Dips" provide the greatest motivation. I want to power down as fast as possible to make it up the other side. Short, steep hills are also a great motivation to get going. Sometimes, however, I just feel like the easy flat route. If I am forced to go up, then I'll get a workout no matter what. Otherwise, I might try the "easy way up". Options are nice, but sometimes a forced hill gives you a needed kick in the pants.

Facilities

Bike lanes are nice. A locker room and shower at the destination are extremely useful, especially for a long bike ride. A place to park your bike is also important. (A secure parking place is ideal - then you can feel comfortable bringing any type of bike.) Bike racks are a bit more of a gamble, depending on location. I once had a low-end bike that I parked daily at a bike rack. A coworker's nice bike was stolen the first day he parked it at the same rack. I also had a bike stolen from a bike rack the first day at a new job. Then I parked a new bike at the same place (with a better lock) for the next few years without a problem. It is also really nice to have a parking area indoors or otherwise sheltered from the elements.

Distance

I think somewhere around 10 miles is a good biking distance. I've had bike commutes that were under a mile. It is hard to justify something so short. (It was barely faster than walking once you added in the overhead of locking up the bike, etc.) Up to about 3 miles is a good distance for a "casual bike commute". Here you just bike in your regular clothes and don't need to shower or anything else. In this case, you are usually looking for the quiet, slow street. After about three miles, I find myself in the awkward range. I'll want to go faster, but that will cause me to work up a sweat and then I'll need to take a shower, slowing me down. There is also the matter of getting the "bicycle rip" in clothes.

Once you get up around 8 miles, you can easily justify putting on some bike clothing. I typically go with the padded mountain bike shorts and a t-shirt. Others may like "real" bike gear. This gives you the freedom to really pump it up as fast as you want. It is long enough to be a good workout.

Above 15 minutes, things start to be a drag. You are probably spending over an hour each way on the bike. While some people like it, I find that distance starts to get old quick. I've done 40 and 80 mile "commutes" a few times, but these are more "one off" things. It feels nice to provide that you can get somewhere on bike, but it is not something you would like to do every day.

Other bikers

It is fun when there are lots of cyclists on sections of a bike commute. Some days you just feel motivated to get in an impromptu race. Other times you see if you can try an alternate route that is faster than the one somebody else is taking. Other times, you may look back and see what looks like a pack of bicycle racers waiting with you for a bridge to go down. Other cyclists also help you to feel more confident about your route choices. It also increases safety and reduces obnoxious car behavior. (You are not likely to hear a "get on the sidewalk" yelled from a car when you are one of a dozen bikes on that street.)

Venus

This reminded me a lot of an Orson Scott Card book. The audiobook was produced and narrated by a Stefan Rudnicki, who also narrates many of Card's works. It also has a focus on youth and family relationships, combined with concern of a future world facing environmental issues.

Venus focuses on a boy who is rather estranged from his billionaire father. Dad just does not respect him, and always belittle's him as being the inferior child. Alas, Dad's favorite boy has died on a Venus exploration mission. So, he offers a 10 billion credit reward to the person that brings back the body. (And to help pay for it, he cuts of his living son's allowance.) The son feels obligated to go and do it, as does the father's former rival.

They both go out in ships to Venus. They have to battle all sorts of challenges. The son is attracted to one of his crew members (the cloned daughter of his ship's captain.) However, his ship has trouble and they are rescued by the other ship, piloted by the rival. It turns out he is actually the son of the rival. (His mother was the rival's former wife before he was "stolen".) They succeed in rescuing the body and return to earth to obtain his prize. He proclaims his love to the girl, but they break up, and he has a good time telling off his "fake" father. (Alas, his real father died on the mission.)

It all makes for a fun read. If you pay too much attention, you'll notice characters that just don't act "real". However, the story is interesting and well paced, with plenty of "science" thrown in there.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive

How do you persuade somebody to do what you want them to do? This book attempts to tell you how. It presents 50 ways to "ethically" persuade. Many of the ways rely on the differences between what we think we do and what we really do. Our emotional condition can change the way we make decisions (causing us to overpay for things.) Our name can encourage our career path merely because it sounds like a profession. Inconveniencing somebody or asking them to do a small favor may be the key to forming a long-lasting friendship.

Each of the "ways" is filled with anecdotes and easy to understand descriptions. Reading it helps you to understand some of the subtle cues (like post-it notes) that can help an argument to be accepted. There generally has to be some legitimate meat behind the argument. However, even the flimsiest argument can be enhanced with a good use of these techniques.

Worm: The First Digital World War

I initially thought this was a fictional work. After getting into it a bit, I discovered that it was in fact non-fiction. But, it was still a good book. It details the ragtag bunch of security professionals that faught to prevent the Conficker worm from causing mass destruction. Microsoft had released a patch to fix a known vulnerability. This patch opened the door for Conficker to utilize that vulnerability to propagate in unpatched computer. It gradually accumulated a bot-net of millions of computers. Those computers used an ever-increasing list of random domains to "phone home" to get instructions. The "cabal" that was fighting the worm would buy up these domains in advance in an attempt to prevent the instructions from getting out (and to measure the worm's penetration.) The worm later outsmarted them and used peer-to-peer communications. In the end, they never discovered who created the worm. The botnet assembled was also not used for any major destructive action, being only used for a minor spamming operation. Through the process, the "cabal" members were mostly working on their own time, while the government was fairly oblivious.

The will sometimes get a little flaky on the technical details. However, it does a great job of bringing out the personalities and producing a riveting narrative on what is mostly a bunch of people sitting around computer screens. It also helps to make clear how our internet and computer systems are at the same time both extremely fragile and robust.

Thank God for Evolution: How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World

This book promises to marry religion in science, but instead manages to botch both. It ends up mixing a naive interpretation of science with a simplistic version of Christianity. He tries to tie all of his belief set into principles from "evolution" but it just falls flat. You could easily get the same results by substituting "Mario Brothers" for "evolution" (or Christianity for that matter.)

On the surface, it did seem like something that could be worthwhile. Some of the arguments presented in the creation vs. evolution debate border on sheer stupidity. The arguments are in different realms and could never come to a "consensus". However, it is also perfectly reasonable to hold both beliefs together. To his credit, Dowd does attempt to distinguish between the metaphorical "night language" and the literal "day language". However, he then goes off on pseudo-scientific sermons on the great benefits of adding evolutionary thought to our lives. Uh. Yeah! He sounds like a snake-oil salesman ready to find the next fool. Christian Evolution did him great because it is a controversial topic that attracts attention and allows him to gain enough notoriety to support himself in a fulfilling way. For the rest of the world, scientific and religious knowledge may be helpful together but not the be-all end-all he pronounces.

Towards the end of the book he takes a shift to "the world will start acting this way if they understand what I'm saying." A merger of Christianity and evolution will supposedly end global warming and clean up the environment. Wow! Impressive. That is really stretching things.

At the end, he finally gets our the truth. People need meaning and purpose in their lives with something they are striving for. An "evolution ministry" was his thing. Other people may have their own thing. The calling wont necessarily come to them. They must seek it out. Hallelujah! That does sound like a useful bit of advice. It doesn't have much to do with the rest of the book. But, I suppose people would not be reading the book if they weren't curious about the merger in his subject. Alas, that is about the only good point in this pseudo-science, pseudo-religious book.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Commuting by Bike Trail - Seattle Edition

Bike trails can be nice for a leisurely ride. Some can even be useful for commuting. An ideal commute route is flat, has few intersections and goes straight to where you want to go. Rail to trail conversions seem like they could be ideal here. Trains usually prefer the flat, straight route with minimal intersections. They also tend to connect old developed areas where people live and work. Alas, the most popular rail lines also tend to still be in use (or have been sold off before they had a chance to be made into a trail.)

Another great trail candidate is along a river or other body of water. There are often bridges to carry roads over. This minimizes intersections. They also tend to be fairly flat. Alas, they also tend to meander.

Seattle is filled with hills. Thus, one of the main benefits of trails is the flatness. Alas, you often pay for this in a meandering route.

The Burke Gilman is the most popular trail. For commuting purposes, it works pretty well coming from Fremont to the University of Washington. The trail is in decent condition. The path is fairly direct and has few intersections.

Coming from the west to the Fremont bridge the utility is not so great. There are a lot of road crossings. These are mostly in low traffic industrial areas with good sight lines, so you can usually keep going. However, the condition of the pavement at the crossings tends to be awful (and the rumble strips before the crossings don't help.) You also need to exit the trail to go a few blocks on low traffic local roads before getting to the Fremont bridge. Then there is the matter of the railroad track crossing. The trail smartly does a 90 degree bend so we can cross perpendicularly instead of parallel. (I've had a bad wipeout on parallel tracks in San Francisco. It is not fun.) However, the turn does slow you down. For speed, Leary is a great alternative. The pavement is new, it is straight and fairly flat. There are just a couple lights before the bridge - and you can easily take a quick right turn to get back to the trail if you get a red light. (The disadvantage is that Leary has two lanes of traffic in each direction without a bike lane.)

The section of the Burke Gilman trail north and east of the University of Washington campus is fairly flat. However, it meanders a lot. There are also currently plenty of detours through campus, as well as a lot of bike and pedestrian traffic in the area. The pavement condition can be described in two words "tree roots". The trail is filled with them. There is supposedly a 15 mph limit, but you would be hard pressed to reach it. The trail also has a bunch of "grade level" street intersections. Sand point is a road option near the trail. It has fairly heavy traffic, but not a whole lot of intersections. There are also plenty of roads options that can provide a more direct connection to various points. (I recall seeing a sign saying something like "fast cyclists go here")

Once you get north of Matthews Beach, the trail hugs Lake Washington and provides a direct route with minimal intersections. (The tree roots also seem to not be as bad.) Alas, there are not a whole lot of attractions up here. However, this section of the trail would be useful for commuters going down to Seattle. (An inertia may make it worth staying on the trail.)

Jumping to another trail, the Northern Interurban trail is fairly useful in spurts. From 110th to 128th it is a flat, smooth trail, with only significant intersection at 125th. Of course, Fremont, Dayton and Phinney also are good roads that meet that criteria nearby. The disadvantage is all of those end at 130th. The Interurban continues as a "cycle track" down Linden. The two way bike lane is pretty well done. However, you need to be cautious at the driveways. (Cars sometimes go through oblivious to any traffic - they have to get through the bike path and the parking row to see if anybody else is coming.)

South of 110th to just north of the zoo, Fremont is signed the Interurban street route. This is a good "bicycle boulevard", with plenty of traffic circles, stop signs on the side streets and stop lights on the major streets. The street is very quiet. Perhaps this is why I just seem to want to go it slow. Dayton is also a decent alternative here (though it has a little more traffic and a little hairier intersections.) Greenwood has lots of stop lights, but has a bike lane and can be really fast - as long is you don't get caught by the red at 85th. 3rd Ave NW and 8th Ave NW are great ones for descending south. (Though not so good for going uphill) However, we are diverging from bike paths.

North of 145th, the interurban trail turns into a trail. This is one of the best sections. It is flat, with the only real "hill" being the bridges over 155th and Aurora. Oh yeah, The bridges. It flies over the only major intersections. (The nearby alternative would be Greenwood/Dayoton, with a few big traffic lights and plenty of nasty hills.

North of 155th, however, the trail takes a turn for the worse. There are a number of street crossings. Most of these streets are low traffic residential streets. However, there is just about zero sight distance, with a stop sign on the trail (and not on the street.) So much for speed. The trail also jumps on a sidewalk (and can be difficult to follow.) The sidewalk is in good condition, but with small chunks it is almost a rumble strip.

The Mountain to Sound and I90 trails are great commuter trails - if only for the fact that they are the only alternative. The Mountain to Sound has a few road intersections with lights that can take some time. Once you pass those, it is a long trip through the tunnel and over the bridge to Mercer island. Straight, fast, long and with enough up and down to keep you going. This is a nice one.

Once in Mercer Island things get a little sketchy. There are trails forking off in a few different directions, and it is not clear which one is the direct one to take you to Bellevue. (They could use some better labeling.) The next bridge to Bellevue is shorter. The trail continues on for bit, but does a lot of turning and meandering. Eventually it becomes a bike lane towards eastgate and then disappears altogether. (Eastgate has a bizarre pedestrian/bike bridge over a freeway that just dumps you at a street corner. It is one huge massive interchange for what looks like only a moderately sized street. Oh well, if Seattle likes cars, Bellevue is madly in love.

The south ship canal bike path is a great commuter path from Magnolia to South Lake Union. Going along the water, it is flat, in good condition and does not intersect other streets. It continues on as the "westlake parking lot path".

The westlake path requires some vigilance to watch out for cars, and some slow down for a few raised sidewalks. However, it is a flat alternative to the Dexter bike lanes. (The Dexter lanes south of Mercer are really nice. However, there is a nice hill involved.) There are plans to make the westlake path "official". We'll see if that works out.

The Eliot Bay trail connects downtown to Magnolia. It is a flat alternative to getting there and avoids a lot of the intersection hassle. However, it seems to be really long. The big interbay loop to access Thorndyke and Magnolia can get fairly narrow (and can be subject to closure.) The trail also leaves you along the coast downtown - which could mean some distance through downtown traffic to get to a destination.

The verdict? Trails can be useful in commuting in Seattle, but usually they are the "quiet", rather than the fast option.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Oil!

Why do I always seem to get Upton Sinclair and Sinclair Lewis confused? Similar names with an overlapping time period will do that.

In the Jungle, Upton Sinclair attempted to write a novel advocating for workers' rights. Instead, he ended up alarming everyone to the dangers of poor food safety. In Oil! he tries again. Again, his story manages to fail in its original goal, while succeeding in other levels.

I found myself sympathizing with the corrupt father. He saw business as a means unto itself. What was best for his business was best for everyone. Bribes were an important part of getting things properly done. They just a small expense that helped to extract maximum value. Bad things may happen, but you must keep going. On the surface the father seems horrid. However, you can't help but be attached to him. He really wanted the best for everyone. He would unite with the oil companies in keeping the wages down, but support the oil workers with housing. Maybe these corrupt businessmen really do have our interest at heart.

The workers and the communists are less desirable. These people seem to be in it for themselves. The communists, especially, seem to be proto-hippies, overly idealistic, but waffling and even being hypocritical in carrying things out. They try to be physically peaceful while at the same time riling everyone up. The main character wants to support the workers and thinks the communists and socialists have good ways of doing it. However, he also enjoys some of the trappings of the well-to-do lifestyle. They also can't decide what to do with traditional morals. Are they imposed or beneficial? Will it detract from the movement.

There is also an ultra hypocritical evangelical preacher, a gold digging wife and a stolen inheritance thrown in for good measure.

It is fascinating to read this from the time period in which it was written. You could place many of those discussions in the 1960s or the 2010s and they would come out the same. When this book was written, the cold war was far in the future. The Great Depression and World War II were also years away. Yet many of the conversations and activities could have easily taken place in 1969 or 2013. Do all generations go through the same phases?

Surprisingly, Oil plays very little role in the story. Sure, it is the background and the source of the family's money. (Which alas, doesn't make it past the death of the father.) We do get pits of how it influences some of the development patterns, especially in California, but it plays a minor role in this story of life in the roaring 20s.

Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety

The book starts out detailing the dangers of the fuel on nuclear warhead rockets. Then we hear the uh oh as a bolt slices open a gash on the rocket. This looks like it could be a problem.

The book then drifted into the background on nuclear weapons and the cold war arms race. There goes the excitement. It feels like a technical military history was interleaved with a thriller. The momentum from the thriller is quashed by the exposition on the history of the politics between nuclear armaments. (Though there are some funny bits, such as when they discover that the "nuclear stockpile" doesn't really exist.) We do hear about a few "accidents" that could have led to large scale nuclear disaster, but luckily did not.

The "Illusion of Safety" is repeatedly brought up. There are often complex mechanisms put in place to ensure safety. However, these can often backfire due to the humans carrying them out. There are also the trade-offs inherent in a "weapons of mass destruction" military policy. If the weapons are too safe, they may not be effective in a rapid retaliation.

After a lot of history, the book finally ends up with the big explosion in Arkansas. It shifts back into narrative action, as we have some bravery as people attempt to rescue others and escape the missle that has decided to launch itself. Then there is some post mortem. There were a lot of things to blame (including a bumbling public response by the air force.) They eventually chose to blame the little guy because they could, however, there were plenty of things done right and wrong all around.


Sunday, August 10, 2014

Liar's Poker

Before Michael Lewis was a popular non-fiction writer, he worked on wall street. Liar's Poker is the story of wall street of the 80s and his experience there. The language and the characters involved are all of the salty, unsavory types. These are not the people you would want to meet your family. They were a frat in all the bad ways. Yet somehow they managed to make tons of money. (However, they could just as easily lose a lot or see the great money-making scheme whisked away from them.) Some traders manage to be in the ideal middleman position where they can make money with minimal risk.

Lewis manage to get the job through personal connections. The procedure could be cut-throat, with the littlest thing disqualifying you for the job. His description of the interview process sounded more like a hazing. You had to rise up the ranks through force of will. You just don't want to get banished to Dallas.

Part of the the book then goes on to describe bond trading and mortgage backed securities. Solomon Brothers happened to be at the right place and the right time, ready to lead off the boom in mortgages. By bunching them together, they could get people the investment that they wanted. (Of course, a couple decades later, the whole thing would come crashing to the ground.)

After reading, I'm left thinking that "we are letting these guys manage our financial systems?" scary.

Purple Cow

Purple cows are so unusual that you can't help put notice them. In this book, Seth Godin argues that businesses need their "purple cow" to differentiate themselves. However, he also cautions that their must be some meat behind it to keep it from becoming too common place. (A purple cow store stood out and was known for its great service. However, as it expanded it lost it's service edge, and became "normal".

The author spends a lot of time saying that the "TV" era is over and that you can't force somebody to like something just by buying a huge amount of ads. You must actually make something that stands out and that people remember and like.

It all seems like common sense. Perhaps people that have been entrenched in the marketing world too long started adopted to their tried paradigms and forgot the real purpose for what they were doing. This book reminds them that there has to be some meat behind the marketing. For the rest of us, there is really not much here.

Upon This Rock: A History of the Papacy From Peter To John Paul II

Upon this Rock is a Modern Scholar offering presenting the history of the papacy. The papacy is tightly interwoven with the history of Europe, from the heyday of Rome to the rise of modern "Empires" and modern Europe of today. At first, the church was a minor sect. The pope had little real power outside his local flock. Gradually, the Roman ruler began to become more aristocratic and assume a greater role in society. In part due to Constantine's conversion and subservience to the church in religious matters, the pope and the church grew to gain even more strength. The papacy was the de facto government of Europe during the middle ages. The church even had its own papal lands.

Alas, at this time, the popes became more regal, worldly figures, and forgot about their pastoral missions. This led to the reformation. At first, the reformation looked like the mumblings of a few scholars. (The church did heavily support scholarship - even if at times it seemed accepted teachings.) However, things began to really catch on - especially among some leaders who say a great chance to take some of the church riches. Eventually the popes had to come back down to earth and focus again on their religious mention, and so they did.

Hammer of God

A big object in space is on

a collision course for earth. Astronomers with their fancy equipment fail to spot it. However, an amature did notice the oddity and now the earth is on high alert. They decide to use a super powerful missile to destroy the object and save the earth. The bulk of the book is the build up to this event. It feels like a downer when it finally occurs and the novel ends.

Ok. That was it. Done.

In the process, there were a group of people that were located close to the object and willing to sacrifice their lives for the good of all. Luckily for them, the missile impacted the object, but the warhead but didn't explode. It did however, manage to nudge it a little off course of the earth. It did cause a lot of destruction, but most people survived.

The book took lots of break for social and scientific commentary. This may have actually been some of the better points of what was not a very good story in itself.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Ready Player One

Read Player One is set in 2044. However, it really feels more like 2010 meshed with the 1980s with a few "futuristic bits" thrown in. Clearly the author grew up in the 80s and enjoyed the classic video games of those days. Modern video games don't play a huge role.

The novel starts with the death of a major video game designer. He is a billionaire who made a fortune from this game (and even the associated schools.) However, he died without any heirs. There are however, easter eggs in his famous video game, Oasis, and whoever finds them first, inherits his money. The novel is the story of the boy who found it.

It seemed like a great topic, but it wasn't executed well. The setting just wasn't convincing. Laptops? Really. Those probably wont make it to 2020 let alone 2040s. I liked the 80s games, and could see this as an alternate universe where we just went straight from that. But this setting is not convincing. Some of the philosophizing and language gets tiring also. It does, however, succeed as an 80s nostalgia piece. Just turn off the part of your brain that wants something at least remotely believable and you'll be entertained.

The Ascent of Money

The Ascent of money tells the story of the rise of finance as a key part of our economy. It starts with the basic trading units, and then goes on to the derivatives and the derivatives of the derivatives. As finance has become more important, people have continued to react irrationally to things. People also tend to underestimate the irrationality of others, leading to financial crises.

This book covers the rise of money in many parts of the world, from western Europe to Incan America to China. The focus is on the major events - often when one group gains or loses a large amount of money. From conquistadors to corrupt Savings and Loan owners, there is almost always somebody that tries to beat the system (often to be beat themselves by the system.) Often it is the very rules to protect that lead to future problems.

Words of Radiance

Words of Radiance is written as a number of interleaved stories that eventually come together at the end of the book.
As with the first book in this series, I liked the story of Shallan best. I had trouble distinguishing among some of the light-eyed nobles. We also learn more about the Voidbringers. They seem to be a bad force that destroys the world, but we also gain some sympathy towards them.

We see the characters go through great trials and emerge the more powerful. Khaladan, in particular, must repent from his approval of an assassination attempt in order to regain his powers. (And in the process, it seems like a new "bad guy" is being set up.

It is a very long book. The start is a little tough to get through, but it does pick up the pace and moves along well afterwards.

The Men Who United the States

Simon Winchester applies his a rambling, personal style to the history of the United States. Here, he focuses on some key people and events that shaped the culture that people live in today. The builders of roads, telephones, telegraphs and radios all get attention here. The politicians? Yeah, they are mentioned. However, the inventors and entrepreneurs are the ones that have helped to give America its current flavor. The work has some good historical stories tied together with modern experiences. (We get the story of the first person who flew across the United States tied in with the September 11, 2001 attacks.) The narrative itself is loosely tied together, though it is more of a collection of short essays.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

1066: The Year That Changed Everything

The Teaching Company course on 1066 is one of the shortest courses I have listened to. It provides some background to the William the Conqueror's invasion of England as well as a bit of the aftermath. William had a claim to the English thrown, though it was not a strong one. The English had just completed a major victory and were a little full of themselves (as well as a little spent.) The Normans were originally from the Viking lands, but they had quickly assimilated into the French culture. (Would we consider it like Americans and British? Or perhaps German Americans and Germans would be a better comparison today.) In the end the Norman's come over and continue to merge some cultures that were already merging.

These lectures are a quick overview of 1066. There are a few new things and new ways to look at things, but it mostly an overview of the key events of the Norman invasion.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

The Way of Kings

The Way of Kings is long - fantasy long. And this is only the first of a multi-volume saga. This was much harder to really get "into" than Sanderson's other books. It does, however, seem to borrow from some of his other ideas and even names. (Occasionally, I think I remember a character or event, only to realize it was from another book.) By the end, I was eager for the next book in the series.

The novel is told from the point of view of a number of different characters that (at least initially) seem to be unrelated. I found the story of Shallan to be my favorite. I was eager for more "installments" of this arc while going through other sections. Shallan is attempting to steal a Soulcaster from Jasnah, a heretic nobel academic. She apprentices herself to Jasnah to become close to her. In the process, she comes to become attached to her master and enjoy her studies. She also gains feelings for the ardent Kabsal. However, it turns out Kabsal was trying to kill Jasnah with poisonous bread. (The antidote is in the jam - Jasnah is known to not like jam.) Jasnah soulcasts the jam into something else, and Kabsal ends up being the one that dies. (Jasnah soulcasts Shallan's blood to heal her.) From this episode Shallan begins to learn that Jasnah and herself can soulcast without a soulcaster.

The other arcs involve an assassin, a nobel who has dreams, and Kaladin, a slave. Kaladin was initially the son of a "dark eyes" surgeon. (In the society, light eyes were nobles. Another society was mentioned where leadership is entirely based on age. It seems very open, until one realizes that the dominant clan simply kills off other pretenders before they get too old.) He joins the army to help protect his younger brother who was drafted. However, he gets in trouble, especially as his powers begin to manifest themselves. Eventually, he helps train a lowly "bridge crew" to be brave fighters. They come back and rescue the army of a rival ruler (even though they could have just escaped to freedom.) After doing this the ruler buys their freedom and gives them a spot in the military.

These arcs all go together for a large story about a society that is cycling through a fall. They are fighting a human-like class of people called parshinde (who happen to be similar to their docile servents the parshmen.) There are, of course, some magical and supernatural powers. And there are a number of philosophical questions involed. Many of the characters are torn by situations that do not have clear cut black and white morality. (Is it okay to harm somebody to prevent them from harming other people in the future?) The philosophical interludes slowed the action, but they could often be more interesting.

My biggest complaint of the novel is the bizarre names. This seems to be an issue with all Fantasy works. There are so many "odd" names that I have trouble telling them apart. With the many different stories going, I'd think the names were the same, when they weren't (or that they were different, even though they were the same.)

I also see elements of many of Sanderson's other novels here. You could almost create a unified universe by adding in Mistborn and even the Alcatraz series. Alas, this is "long fantasy". But, as far as fantasy goes, it is pretty good.

Monday, June 02, 2014

Hellstrom's Hive

Hellstrom's public persona is an insect afficionado that spends most of his time making nature documentaries from his isolated compound in a remote corner of Oregon. The locals pretty much ignore him and let him go about doing what he does. However, the happenings inside this compound are much more complex than first meets the eye. He is part of a community of humans acculturated to an insect-like behavior. Through a number of biochemicals, people are brought into the fold and their behavior is controlled. Breeding is carefully carried out to maximize the most desirable traits. (Breeding with outsiders is also encouraged in order to bring in valuable mutations.) The compound is built primarily underground, with a number of tunnels and elevators leading to different areas, including one area carrying out research in advanced weaponry. Even dead bodies are sent to the vats to become the next meal. Resources are very efficiently used. Anybody that stumbles into the area is often exterminated (and thrown to the vats.)

Into this setting, we have some agents of a super-secret government agency. They managed to uncover portions of the plans for the weapon that were accidentally left on the desk of an MIT library. The first agent was put to the vats, so a new crew was sent out. This crew didn't make it, so another crew came out. A large team ended up descending on the compound, though not many survived. (Hellstrom's compound also had a number of security measures, including radio blockers as well as audio listening and communication equipment.)

The novel ends as Hellstrom's group sets off a major explosion in Asia and the government workers invasion fails. During the story, we find ourselves sympathizing with Hellstrom, in spite of the community that seems to go against the core beliefs of western society.

What could become of this society? Would it eventually encompass all of humanity? We see that the insect-like humans still maintain some of their free-thinking. They occasionally violate hive orders (though is that for the betterment of the hive itself.) They also allow an agent to escape the hive, due to a limited chemical treatment. (He was weaned off the control chemical, but maintained the "member" chemical. Thus, the drones ignored him, even as he retained the ability to act on his own.

The society reminded me a little of the Formics in Orson Scott Card's Ender books. (However, in this case, they are true humans rather than an alien species.)

The book also provides some criticism of the politics of both the left and the right. Being in the early 70s, Hippies and Vietnam would have been on people's minds. The Hive is the hippie commune taken to extreme: everyone is totally free to do what they want - as long as they do it the hive way. The secret government agency is plagued by infighting and internal conflict and ends up seeking its personal goals, rather than what is best for the country.

Saturday, May 03, 2014

This Book is Not Good For You

A Tuning "Fork" that can make anything taste delicious. Chocolate that can transform a boy into a Samurai warrior. A secret chocolate plantation hidden in a theme park. It all comes together to make zany, entertaining children's novel.

The plot centers around three kids: Cass, Yo-Yoji, and Max-Ernest. They are a member of a secret society and protectors of the secret (though they do not know the secret.) Cass accidentally lets something slip about the tuning fork when they during a cooking class. It turns out the supposedly blind chef is actually a member of the bad guy society. A few things happen, and Cass's mother gets kidnapped. They demand the tuning fork to get it back. It turns out the principal has it. The kids get it, but the mother is not released. They eventually infiltrate a wild animal theme park to get it.

The story is quite good. However, the deliver is even better. There are asides, random factoids thrown in and even interjections by "the bad guys" to plead there case. It all makes for a great book for young and old alike.