Older blog entries for malcolm (starting at number 122)

Reviewing The Hugo Nominees

A couple of months ago, I mentioned the Hugo award nominees. A post over at John Scalzi's blog reminded me that I'd been intending to write up something about each of the books nominated in the novel category. So here goes (everything here should be free from meaningful spoilers, I hope)...

The Novels

Rainbow's End (Vernor Vinge)

This was the only novel nominee that I had read prior to seeing the list. I picked this book up whilst travelling late last year and read it over the space of a couple of days. I can't say I really enjoyed this book a lot, but I've also thought about it a fair bit since reading it, so the themes must have been interesting to my subconscious.

Normally I like books set in the near future that extrapolate within reason from our current society. This time, though, the characters annoyed me a bit. It almost seemed a bit formulaic (guy trying to rediscover his memories, has hidden past, etc). The ending felt very unsatisfying and I've subsequently seen a couple of reviews that talked about confusing viewpoints in the writing and I guess that could be part of it. On the other hand, the universe that the story is set in (which is Earth in 2025, so not too fantastic) gives a lot of food for thought. I should probably get over my wish for less disturbing protagonists and admit that as an attempt to entertain as a story, I found it wanting, but as a comment on society and what could happen if we pull this thread over here a little more, it's nicely done.

His Majesty's Dragon / Temeraire (Naomi Novik)

In my original post, I somewhat flippantly quipped that I preferred the US (Tor publisher's) title for this book (His Majesty's Dragon). Having now read the book (and one of the sequels), I would like to revise my answer and say that Temeraire is a truly appropriate name for the books. Temeraire is the main dragon character in the novel (you learn this very early on; I'm not spoiling anything, trust me) and the name certainly conveys the noble nature of the animal.

I loved this book, but I'm not sure it should win the Hugo. It feels a bit lightweight in some areas and Novik certainly does better in the sequel (I'm yet to read the third book in the series, but I'm looking forward to it). I am not usually a big fantasy fan, so I approached this book with some hesitation. I was wrong (as usual); thoroughly enjoyed it.

The books universe is well thought out — what if dragons participated in the Napoleonic War between England and France as a type of air-force, with pilots and crews as well? And what if the dragons were intelligent, vocal animals? Some of the consequences of the assumptions are nicely done: a dragon pilot is devoted to their animal and, as such, practically withdraws from normal society. Women can be pilots in an age where a woman's role is much less liberated than today. The idea of women in the armed forces (and women in pants!) is addressed throughout, with intelligence and humour.

My main gripe is that the main human protagonist gets away with far too much. He starts out as a captain in the British Navy and seems to think nothing of punishing his crew for expressing displeasure in a meeting (a week of no grog), yet, later, in reversed circumstances, he is overtly impolite and seems to not care about finding out what expected standards and normal behaviour might be. No problems there — flawed characters drive a story but this guy never seems to have to suffer any real consequences for his actions.

Partly because of the lack of any real disasters happening to the main character, it's a fun story. I read this book in an evening and went out to buy the sequel (The Jade Dragon) the next day and read that fairly quickly, too. My criticisms, above, of the first book are certainly corrected in the sequel. The poor protag starts out behind the eight ball and it only goes downhill from there for a large part of the novel. The second book is a better novel, I think, but I would recommend reading the first one first (it's not bad, I just think it could be better in places).

Eifelheim (Michael Flynn)

I had forgotten that I had read any Michael Flynn novels before until I noticed he had written Firestar, which is a book I re-read every couple of years. Firestar runs on it characters, rather than the science fiction features and Eifelheim is not too different in that respect.

This is probably the book I would pick to win the Hugo for best novel at the moment, although it may be not be "science fictioney" enough for some people.

What would happen if space aliens crash landed outside a small village in Germany in the 14th century? What is that village contained a priest who, whilst being very devout, had an enquiring mind and was trying to reconcile the emerging scientific discoveries of the age with his religion? Throw in a bunch of other well thought-out characters and it's not a dull historical or religious novel. Don't let my previous paragraph mislead anybody into thinking this book is a religious debate or sermon in any respects. I found it to be a well-written examination of the conflict between belief systems through the eyes of a 14th century priest and some interstellar visitors (who also have a lot to learn about the alternate beliefs).

In parallel with this 14th century tale, there is a parallel 21st century story covering an historian trying to discover why the village has disappeared from the map and his girlfriend who is making a plausible-sounding breakthrough about variable light speed. At times, I found the 21st century storyline a bit of a drag, at other times it was a welcome break from life in the village. So I think the author has probably found a good mix. I am always a sucker for pseudo-scientific-sounding theories like the one Sharon (the physicist girlfriend) pieces together. Overall, though, my impression is that this is a 14th century story with some bits from the future, rather than the other way around.

Recommended as something to read and think about. I wasn't able to read this quickly for some reason (it's not the big words or anything; my brain just need to absorb things slowly), but I'm glad I persisted.

Blindsight (Peter Watts)

I haven't quite finished this (a few dozen pages to go), but it's another good book. It's probably the most overtly "Hard Science Fiction" book of the bunch (I guess Glasshouse is also close, but it felt less fantastical in some ways).

One thing I sometimes find hard about big Science Fiction plots (not thick books; big stories in big worlds) is that it's like the German sentence from Hell. You have to store up a lot of details as they go by, enjoying the scenery and then slowly piece together what you've scene when the necessary threads are all available halfway through the book. It's like finally reaching the verb(s) at the end of a German sentence: you can pop off all the subjects and qualifiers and work out who's talking about doing what). A lot of good novels of this form then give the reader a period of enjoying their hard work as they go for another ride along the narrative that is consistent with the model in their head. The last portion is good entertainment, rather than a puzzle.

Blindsight does it well. It's not necessarily an easy book to read, but the characters are varied enough and interesting enough to interact with each other through the book. The lack of knowledge we (the reader) have at the start does not hamper the storyline, but many things make more sense as you work out how the world works.

Probably not a good choice for My Very First SF Book, but recommended for fans of the genre.

Glasshouse (Charles Stross)

I'm sorry, I really am. I've tried hard to like this book. Charles Stross seems like an important author and I enjoyed Accelerando, one of his earlier novels. But I haven't been able to persist with Glasshouse through to the end and I've tried a few times.

The premise sounds sort of good, particularly the location choice: put people from the far future into an experiment that simulates late-20th century Earth life. I just haven't been able to like many of the characters and there's a lot of conflict from these fish out of water (in the 20th century environ), so the book doesn't fill me with happiness when I read it. The sort of detective-novel style of plot, with somebody or more than one somebody keep trying to kill the main character and he/she — sexual choice can change in this future — has their work cut out a bit trying to get through the experiment without it all ending very prematurely, adds some suspense to the story. Unfortunately, that doesn't outweigh my emotional reaction to the fine details of the story.

Maybe one day I'll be in the right mood to enjoy Glasshouse. Maybe it truly is a great novel. Right now, for me... not so much.

Summary

Except for my current dislike of Glasshouse and initial dislike of Rainbow's End, these are all good books. On an entertainment level, I easily enjoyed Temeraire the most. If I had to rank them in order of worthiness for a major Science Fiction/Fantasy prize, I guess Blindsight, then Eifelheim, then Temeraire, although the second two are pretty neck-and-neck.

One comment about buying all these: Australian book shops should be ashamed! I checked out a couple of large book shops in my local area and in Sydney City proper and none of them had all of these books in their not-insignificant SF/Fantasy sections. Thankfully, Galaxy came through (again) and I was able to walk in, spend an hour or so happily browsing the shelves and pick up all the Hugo nominees in one hit (along with Scalzi's Last Colony and three Scott Westerfeld books I want to try out, since Risen Empire was excellent when I read it recently).

Syndicated 2007-05-30 15:01:34 from Malcolm Tredinnick

How Much Supporting Evidence Is Appropriate?

A section heading from Wikipedia's style page on weasel words:

Offhanded references to the sky being often-blue will not necessarily demand a citation

Take that nit-pickers!

(Why do I always feel that "weasel words" should be followed by "...and the weasels who use them"? I may have some prejudices here, of course.)

Syndicated 2007-05-29 17:58:21 from Malcolm Tredinnick

Tommy Emmanuel

Mindlessly following browser links earlier today, I stumbled across this YouTube clip, showing Tommy Emmanuel fooling around with his guitar at a concert. I love this sort of stuff. It's like watching Tiger Woods do golfball tricks, or Michael Jordan play H.O.R.S.E, or Chuck Avery draw crazy doodles. A professional having fun with his skill is great to watch.

Turns out there is quite a collection of clips of Tommy on YouTube, of varying sound and video quality. For somebody who hasn't heard him before, recommended are

  • Angeline, a song he wrote for his youngest daughter (the sound is a bit poor on this clip, but it's a nice sampler),
  • Day Tripper/Lady Madonna medley, just to hear what he sounds like doing "classical" stuff, and
  • Countrywide, one of the many pieces he wrote and played that tries to capture the Australian country and outback environment in music.
  • Update At the risk of sounding like a fanboy, there's even a recording of Mombasa! Probably a must-see if you've never seen a guitar used as a drum set. The video/sound sync is a bit dodgy, so the initial percussion doesn't look as impressively hard as it should and the audio recording is a bit fuzzy in parts, but this is a nice piece.

I have a fairly large collection of Tommy Emmanuel's albums. Not all of them, but most of them. They are great background music for relaxing or doing stuff that doesn't require intense concentration. He's also a fantastic live performer and I've shelled out for tickets three times to go and watch him. Particularly in smalller venues (pub settings), he's great. His wikipedia page doesn't really do justice to his history. This page is probably a better musical history.

Syndicated 2007-05-26 14:36:32 from Malcolm Tredinnick

Poor Criticism

Straight out of the "cheap shot" basket, but I cannot resist: I saw this post go paste in my RSS feed earlier this evening (via programming.reddit.com). It's almost a textbook example of begging the question.

The author wants to make the argument that you shouldn't hire "rock star" programmers/developers and gives a few examples of IT advertisements looking for such. He then starts his case by definining "rock star" in a way that makes his argument. The problem is highlighted further down as he points out what a really good developer might bring to the table (not just coding, but documentation, testing, and working with and educating others). For some reason, they don't make his definition of rock star. After all, that would undercut the argument and render the post (more? less?) pointless. Such people really would (and do) bring a rock star effect to place in the sense that they perform well and others want to be around them and emulate them. Having a slightly less "glass half-empty" outlook could help here.

Really, people, if you're going to offer "look at the silly animals" commentary, try to make sure you're not inside the same cage.

Syndicated 2007-05-25 19:38:53 from Malcolm Tredinnick

Pirates: At World's End

I may have watched a longer movie at some point, but it doesn't come to mind. I'm pretty sure I went into a Friday session and when I came out it was something like Tuesday already.

This movie needs a meal break about halfway through.

On the plus side, I could sit and listen to the score for hours and the characters are great, even if the story drags a bit at times. Worth seeing.

Syndicated 2007-05-25 16:42:02 from Malcolm Tredinnick

Free Bike Loans

I hope a plan to loan residents bikes for free in south western Sydney works out.

Syndicated 2007-05-23 09:47:23 from Malcolm Tredinnick

A Cool Use For Flickr

Suppose you were a startup company trying to attract people to work for you. You wanted to sell yourself as a "cool place to work". One approach, taken by Exoweb is to have a Flickr group devoted to your company. Probably kind of obvious in retrospect, but I'm easily impressed.

I found this whilst mindlessly browsing through Flickr today and realising I hadn't checked out the Django/Python cluster in a while. Always interesting to see what people are doing there.

(I'm not associated with Exoweb in any fashion; I've never paid any particular attention to them until 20 minutes ago. Merely noting their cluefulness in this particular instance.)

Syndicated 2007-05-19 06:15:06 from Malcolm Tredinnick

Foreign Workers In The USA

Articles like this one that suggest there are some pretty obvious abuses of the USA's H1-B visa program going on really annoy me. The article does a pretty good job of pointing out why there isn't any obvious way of returning the scheme to its original purpose without making things even more difficult for employers and employees (both local and international).

I have a very large vested in these problems: I'm an IT professional with a lot of experience who likes the US and wouldn't mind working in any number of places there. However, in the current climate, it isn't even possible to get a foot in the door and on the odd time when a firm hasn't done their homework and approaches me about an onsite position, interest rapidly dries up when they find out I'm Australian (on the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog a Southern hemisphere resident). There's even a special visa type for Australian professionals working in the US, but it's not well known and eyes have already glazed over by the time they hear "not currently able to work permanently in the US, but..."

The problem isn't isolated to the US, either. In most countries, an employer is taking on a lot of extra effort and expense when they consider trying to hire a foreign worker, even when genuine attempts to hire locally have been exhausted. The companies using foreign worker schemes as a way to ultimately outsource do not flag their applications as "frivolous" or "exploitative", so the genuine cases don't stand out from the others.

I have a lot of sympathy for the motivation behind a restricted visa program like this. International-scale outsourcing and other forms of job replacement make sense on a global economic scale, but at the level of the individual work, or community, it is completely debilitating. The reality is that knowing somebody else has a job doesn't put food on my table and the theoretical correction that redundant workers are retrained or placed elsewhere takes time and a person can't live outdoors and not eat for three months and then double up in the subsequent three: you are already in trouble after month one! So I am not an advocate for simplistic solutions like "increase the quota" or "add more sub-types", since that's a screw-your-buddy-in-the-other-country solution on a global scale.

There is not simple solution, or even necesarily a complex one, to this problem. How can you identify genuine cases where a foreign worker is the right solution, in the sense that they possess skills you cannot hire from your own country? How do you do this without driving down wages in a market-driven economy?

That, of course, is the counter-counter-argument: local job losses reallly bring home the downside of international markets and, yet, the same people live improved lives through the benefits of those same markets. Reduced income means you can no longer afford those foreign-manufactured shoes, clothers and cars that people like so much. Selective blindness to the bigger picture is certainly not a recent phenomenom. Everybody is aware of their own areas of speciality and take other pieces of the infrastructure they operate in as something akin to necessary and acceptable magic. Considering the full set of interactions is very depressing and only a few people have the necessary skills, drive and opportunity to try and take it all on.

I'm going through the first part of that last sentence at the moment: in many ways, I can't see that the regulators creating restricted working visa systems are doing the wrong thing. Politics is mostly local and it's often a question of considering how wide your local area extends when making decisions. I can easily get very angry at companies who try to work around such systems for purely their own benefits, though. I mean, a company like Wipro is, by their very nature, an outsourcing company. This isn't a case of a US company hiring a foreign worker directly. It may be legal, but I have trouble with the ethics behind it. Accenture is a trickier case. A US company with a huge multi-national presence where an internal transfer can involve a new country stamp in your passport. How do you stop them using foreign workers as a way of saving costs whilst still permitting cross-training experience that requires a couple of years to be worthwhile?

Like I said: no easy solutions here and the logistics of international business means it might well unfixable. There are other facets to the problem as well, particularly having to do with long-term contributions to the community you live/work in, but I don't want to write forever here. I mostly agree with what I wrote about a year ago in the comments at Dave's place, although I think I must have been on happy drugs at the time, because I'm a lot more frustrated by the realities now than I was then. On a practical level, I am grateful for the fact that most countries allow contract workers in most fields (particularly mine) to enter and work for a few months without requiring special visas. So off-site work with periodic visits are possible, as are short-term contracts.

Syndicated 2007-05-16 21:13:52 from Malcolm Tredinnick

I Told You It Was A Good Book

Random follow-up to a random post: Justine Larbalesteire's Magic Or Madness book (the first one in the trilogy I reviewed) won the Andre Norton Award last night for best Young Adult Science Fiction/Fantasy Novel in 2006. That's part of the Nebula Awards, so kind of a big deal.

See? Other people thought it was good too.

Syndicated 2007-05-13 15:41:17 from Malcolm Tredinnick

"This Should Be Easier..."

The sort of code comment that is usually a sign that whoever wrote this code originally thought it would be easier than it turned out:

  # If all that malarkey found an object domain, use it; otherwise fall back
# to whatever get_absolute_url() returned.

Syndicated 2007-05-12 00:55:01 from Malcolm Tredinnick

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