Review: In the Beginning…Was the Command Line

In the Beginning...Was the Command Line
In the Beginning…Was the Command Line by Neal Stephenson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s entirely possible that “Neal Stephenson thinking about stuff” might be one of my favorite genres of non-fiction.

This little book is an oddity. It’s a seventeen-year-old look at the state of computer operating systems, but it’s also essays, musings, and other thoughts. Hence my earlier point: it’s Stephenson thinking about stuff.

And for anyone else, that would be a criticism. But Stephenson is fascinating. You can tell by his work that when he becomes interested in a topic, he throws himself headfirst into it with the velocity of a BASE jumper. He does his homework. And his research. And his dissertation. He tends to know what he’s talking about.

Even so, what’s the value of a book that, in timeline terminology relative to the speed of computers, is somewhere between cave paintings and the emergence of cuneiform tablets? Certainly, these observations have no bearing on the state of computers and operating systems today. Google doesn’t exist at the time of these writings. Apple hadn’t yet made its triumphant return under Steve Jobs. Microsoft was the evil empire with an antitrust case to fend off. It was a different time.

And that’s why I enjoyed this book so much. It’s a little time machine, a look back at the heady days of the late nineties, just as this whole “computer thing” was starting its ascent into the stratosphere. It was written about a year after I received my first computer, which caused me to reflect on how things were back then. More than once, I marveled at Stephenson’s observations as I read his book on a tablet in ebook format, with that strange little thrill that yes, sometimes these gadgets really do feel like the future has arrived.

This book, more than anything, is a glimpse at the digital zeitgeist from those bygone days. Apple fans can remember the dark times while Linux fans can enjoy Stephenson’s musing on how it really is the superior tool for superior minds. Windows fans . . . well, get ready to endure some light griefing. Hey, it was the 90s. Early versions of Windows really were pretty bad. The blue screen of death and the three fingered salute (ctrl-alt-delete) didn’t become early memes for no reason. If you’re interested in the pop side of computer history, here’s a book that will take you down memory lane (assuming you were alive in the 90s). Stephenson’s a masterful storyteller, so you know that it’ll be worth it.

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Review: Mass Effect: Homeworlds

Mass Effect: Homeworlds
Mass Effect: Homeworlds by Mac Walters

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After the last few forays into the Mass Effect comic series, I’d started to wonder if they weren’t for me. I’m happy to say that Homeworlds, the fourth entry in the series, is an excellent change of course and gets things moving in a direction that I really enjoyed.

We get some backstory scenes for four of Mass Effect 3’s crewmembers: James Vega, Tali, Garrus, and Liara. It was interesting to see how the game universe handles the incredibly deep number of choices, as depending on how you played through Mass Effect 2, it’s possible that up to two of these characters will be gone by the time Mass Effect 3 starts. The story handles it by varying where in the narrative they take place: one is pre-ME 1, one is pre-ME2, and the others are just before ME3. I won’t specify which are which, to avoid spoilers.

It’s great getting to spend time with these characters. The crew members are my (and I imagine most players’) favorite aspect of the Mass Effect universe. It’s fun getting to spend some time with them and to see them operating on their own, outside of the long shadow cast by Commander Shepard (your player character).

There’s so much going on here, however, that it’d be almost impossible for a non-game fan to piece together what’s happening. Normally, that kind of thing rubs me the wrong way; my rule of thumb is that a video game story should be able to stand on its own. But it was so much fun getting to reconnect with a few of my favorites and I enjoyed the stories so much that I’m willing to overlook it.

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Review: North Korea Confidential: Private Markets, Fashion Trends, Prison Camps, Dissenters and Defectors

North Korea Confidential: Private Markets, Fashion Trends, Prison Camps, Dissenters and Defectors
North Korea Confidential: Private Markets, Fashion Trends, Prison Camps, Dissenters and Defectors by Daniel Tudor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Just the facts here, ma’am. Despite its slim size, author Daniel Tudor manages to pack in a lot of details about contemporary life in North Korea as the regime under dictator Kim Jong Un begins to reveal itself from the shadows of his father. Which isn’t to say that this new dictator is better than the previous one (the Kim is dead, long live the Kim, as they say), but it’s an updated look at the world, similar to how Barbara Demick’s seminal work “Nothing to Envy” showed life under Kim Il Sung.

Tudor’s book is considerably more academic than Demick’s, with more of a look from a top-down overview perspective rather than an individually focused narrative.

One thing that troubled me through the first half of the book was a sense of neutrality towards the regime, as though Tudor didn’t want to take a stance on the issue of North Korean human rights violations. Fortunately, that feeling was more a creation by the structure of the book, since the early chapters are more focused on the lives of average citizens. Tudor has plenty to say about the regime when it comes to discussing the political camps and the high-level purge of officials when Kim Jong Un succeeded his father.

This book is good for the academically interested or as a follow-up if you want to further your knowledge after reading a gripping defection memoir. It’s not going to go after your heartstrings in the same way, but that’s not its goal. This look at the lives of North Koreans in the modern day is, above all else, a reminder that these are real people we’re reading about, real lives we’re discussing from the ivory towers on our distant shores, and not cartoon characters in any sense, no matter how much mass media likes to say otherwise whenever North Korea declares it has discovered unicorns or cured hangovers.

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Review: Halo and Philosophy: Intellect Evolved

Halo and Philosophy: Intellect Evolved
Halo and Philosophy: Intellect Evolved by Luke Cuddy

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

While I knew this one was going to be a pop approach to philosophy, being about an FPS video game franchise like Halo, I was hoping that its discussions would be more focused on the lore behind Halo itself. We are, after all, talking about a franchise that was first introduced in a mysterious email chain that quoted T. S. Eliot. The Halo universe can be pretty mythic and deep when it wants to be.

Although a few of the essays do approach Halo from a lore perspective, the majority are more concerned with the philosophical implications and considerations of the actual Halo gameplay. For me, this was somewhat less riveting. There are a few interesting discussions, but overall, my general feeling towards these sorts of arguments is a sort of inward eye rolling. I’m reminded of my philosophy undergraduate days and how my peers could turn absolutely anything into a philosophical debate, even things that seemed rather pointless. This might be indicative that I wasn’t really cut out to be a philosopher, but as this is my review, I’m free to hold to it. But I digress.

The most redeeming aspect of this book is the fact that it’s indicative of the overall progress video games have made as a medium; that we’d ever have a book discussing Halo and philosophy is a sign of progress. That said, I remain skeptical that one can really glean any deep philosophical insight from playing Halo multiplayer. The attempts to bolt things like Leibniz’s “best of all possible worlds” argument onto a Halo deathmatch feel more like an attempt to play to the reluctant reader category, the sort of person that might be enticed towards philosophy if it comes in a tasty Halo-flavored coating. But even for reluctant readers, there are other books I would recommend instead; “Sophie’s World,” in particular, which was the book that hooked me many years ago.

Overall, we’re left with a somewhat interesting book. It doesn’t do anything wrong, but it also doesn’t manage to really excel. The arguments here aren’t going to surprise a dedicated philosophy reader (some are telegraphed enough that you’ll be able to predict them). And while I did like it enough to finish it, I’m not sure to whom I’d recommend this book. Three stars.

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Review: The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story

The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story
The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story by Hyeonseo Lee

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I haven’t picked up a North Korean defector memoir in a while, so I was pleased to see this one getting high marks and a heap of praise from my fiancee before I started. Even though this is my 10th or 11th defection account, it continues to fascinate me how each one, despite having a few similar milestones (crossing the border into China, trying to blend in, and eventually making it to permanent sanctuary) still manage to be as unique and intricate as the people experiencing them.

Hyeonseo’s story is markedly different from the many other accounts of people pushed to such desperation that defection was the only remaining option. One could almost call her an accidental defector, in that she made it to China originally just to see it for a few days before returning home. But once she was there, circumstances made it so that there was no going back and from then on, she had to negotiate the fallout of that decision.

There are three aspects of this book in particular that make it supremely compelling; the first is that Hyeonseo makes no secret that she came from a life of relative privilege compared to many other defectors. (Privilege, of course, being a relative term compared to Western lifestyles). Second, most of the story is focused on what happens to her after crossing the border; her attempts to integrate into China and eventually, her attempts to bring her family across the border as well. It’s fascinating to see what it’s like for those on the other side, who worry and wait and negotiate and risk so much to help those trying to cross.

Finally, Hyeonseo’s writing style is superb. Her story is told with a taut, gripping pace and has enough cliffhanger chapters and twists of fate that you (and I hate using this phrase, but it really is the most applicable) “can’t put this book down.” There’s an energy and pace to this story that crackles like a great thriller novel, but the fact that this isn’t a story, that this all happened to a real person makes it that much more compelling.

I’ve read a lot of North Korea defector memoirs and I’ll doubtless read many more until this humanitarian crisis is resolved (hopefully within my lifetime). Each one is remarkable in its way, but there are a few that stand out as books that I feel everyone should read. I’m happy to say that “the Girl with Seven Names” deserves a place in those ranks. You should read this book.

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NaNoWriMo Denouement

I meant to type this up a few days ago, but after thirty straight days of solid butt-in-chair time for the latest NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, for the unfamiliar), it just felt really good to not write for a few days. But now that I’ve let my brain slack off for a bit, it’s time to get back to work, because even though another NaNoWriMo has come and gone, the book is nowhere near finished.

To be honest, I’ve never actually finished a book in the 50,000 words it takes to win a NaNo.

Which is why I have a hard drive filled with half-completed novels, along with one completed novel, which is, incidentally, the novel you can read right here on this very website, if you are so inclined.

So how did NaNo 2015 go for me? Really well! Let’s take a look at the stats (because I love stats).

nano

I love the NaNo stats page. As a gamer, I’m conditioned to see stats, numbers, and bars, and then do the actions necessary to fill them. This is why YNAB got my personal finances in order when no amount of New Year’s Resolution budget-attempts ever managed to stick for more than a week or two. It’s all about dem bars.

NaNo 2015 was easily my steadiest year ever. There were only two days where I didn’t hit the word goal; the first was Friday the 13th and that was due to have a Friday the 13th party with a bunch of friends and the second was Thanksgiving. I’m pleased to note that even on those days, I still managed to get some writing done.

The other thing that I’m really happy about is the quality of the writing this year. I did a lot more outlining, note-taking, and brainstorming when I wasn’t writing, so I never put myself in that “fuck it, now what, I dunno, something explodes” mode. That’s a great NaNo technique and I don’t discount its usefulness, but there’s a cost associated with it that you have to pay later. If your plot goes down the wrong track because of a “shit-now-what” decision, it can create a tremendous amount of work later to try and fix. This is precisely what derailed my 2013 NaNo book The Snake Detective. I was really unhappy with a decision I made to get unstuck. Even though it got me to 50k for that year, I ended up with only about 20,000 words that were usable. Eventually, my interest in the project faded during the attempted rewrite and I moved on to other things.

But let’s go back to this year! 2015’s NaNo is Dinomancer and I feel really good about it. The writing went well, as I mentioned, but more than that, I feel really inspired about this world. It’s my attempt to do something new with the fantasy genre, beyond the usual elves, wizards, dragons, medieval European fare. So instead, we have a world of dinosaur riders locked in a vicious battle for survival and they have a vaguely Roman flair. Also, there are intelligent, talking velociraptors. Well, they’re not really velociraptors, because “real” raptors were about the size of a turkey, but this is the description that creates the right image in your head.

If you’re a dinosaur geek like me and want to know what they actually are, they’re a highly evolved form of Troodon.

And this is why I’m excited; not just for the win, although it feels great to keep that winning streak going. I’m excited because this story feels exciting to me. One of the problems I’ve had for a while is, after writing a book about fallen angels and the Apocalypse, I didn’t really have a lot of enthusiasm for my own subject. I didn’t feel like I was doing or saying anything new about them.

But dinosaurs? This is shit that I read about for fun, because I never really “grew out” of my dinosaur phase when I was a kid. I love reading about new theropods. I love the ongoing scientific discussion about the new depiction of Spinosaurus. My dinosaurs are covered in feathers because that’s what the science is telling us, and it’s my secret goal to make the idea of a feathered Tyrannosaurus rex cool and scary. I want talk about this stuff with people. I want to think about it when I’m not working on it. That’s something I haven’t felt for a while now. It’s a great feeling.

Work on Dinomancer continues. My personal goal is to be finished with the first draft by May 1st. I’ve scaled back my daily writing goal, because 1667 words a day every day does demand a tremendous amount of effort and focus. I’m not sure I could keep up that pace much longer than thirty days. But 500 words a day, as a baseline? That’s easily doable and it’s something I can do well and still generate a strong story.

So that’s where I’m at now. I have 50,000 words of a new novel that I’m really proud of, a story I want to finish, and a story that I want to publish. I feel like I’m doing something new in this space; there are a few books out there about fantasy dinosaur riders, but not many, and I think it’s a ripe area to explore. Even if it isn’t, I’m having so much fun with it that I don’t think I can stop.

And that’s why, even though NaNoWriMo 2015 is my seventh straight win, I feel like this year’s effort might just turn out to be the most important and most rewarding yet.

Oh, Right, I Have A Blog

When last we spoke, I informed you of the exciting news that NASA is planning its first voyage to Mars. That’s still true, which is good. I also saw The Martian at the movie theater and liked it very much, which is also good. In fact, I loved the movie whereas I only enjoyed the book. This has everything to do with the fact that I’m an artist rather than an engineer and I tend to favor soft, squishy subjects like the humanities rather than MATH.

Ahem. Sorry. I may have lapsed into the remnants of a heated discussion about The Martian that evidently I’m not entirely over.

In other news, it’s November and November means NaNoWriMo and NaNoWriMo means “oh my God, I have so much writing to do, how can I waste it blogging, what the hell am I thinking, I have to get back to WORK!” So, you know, there’s that.

The new book I’m working on is pretty cool, though. At least, think it’s cool. My working title is Dinomancer and it’s a book about people who can ride dinosaurs into battle. I’d tell you the elevator pitch about it, but since I haven’t written it all yet, it’d be somewhat insubstantial. I feel good about it, though, and my girlfriend fiancée says that she hasn’t seen me get this excited about a new project in a long time, so who knows. Maybe this will be the book that makes millions of dollars enough dollars to make a small payment on one of my outstanding student loans.

Also, this is my first winter since I moved to Washington state several months ago. My verdict thus far: seasons are beautiful, I really enjoy the cold weather, I look great in my stylish long raincoat, I hate the fact that it gets dark like at 4pm, and related to the previous bullet point, DAYLIGHT SAVINGS TIME SUCKS. Arizona may not get a lot of things right (politics, 115 degree summer days, the impending fiery apocalypse drought brought on by global climate change), but they’re the only state in the Union that doesn’t have Daylight Savings Time, and that’s pretty damn good in my opinion.

Anyway. Thanks for stopping by. I’m going to get back to writing about dinos.

Unrepentant: The Final Chapters (39-41)

This post contains the final chapters for my novel, Unrepentant. For those that have been reading since I started this experiment a few months ago, thank you for your interest in my work. Most of all, I’d like to thank my supporters on Patreon; more than anything, your support and readership has made this an excellent and enjoyable experience.

Thank you for reading.

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Unrepentant: Chapters 35-38

We’re nearing the end! Part 3 begins today and it’s the third and final part of the novel. In this post, you’ll find chapters 35-38. New chapters will be posted every Friday. If you enjoy the book, please consider supporting me via my Patreon account. Thanks!

Continue reading “Unrepentant: Chapters 35-38”