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Thursday, October 29, 2020

Review: The Awakened Kingdom

 I didn't realize that there was a novella called The Awakened Kingdom in The Inheritance Trilogy (which I reviewed: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, The Broken Kingdoms, and The Kingdom of Gods). I checked out the entire trilogy from the library because that was the easiest way to get access to the novella.

The story revolves around a new god who thinks her job is to replace one of the previously demised gods. As a newborn, she goes around causing trouble and eventually lands in the world of mortals. She then has to figure out where she really is supposed to fit.

In short form, Jemisin really shows off what she can do. Not only are the twists in the story unexpected (and the story does show off the feminist warrior tribe of the novels well), but when they get taken to the logical conclusion, your conclusion is "of course, but I didn't see it before hand!" Well worth the time.  It got me to re-read The first novel of the trilogy, which is still as readable as ever, and worth your time.


Monday, October 26, 2020

Review: The Paper Magician

 The Paper Magician is available to read for free if you're a Prime member, I checked it out, and to my surprised found myself enjoying it so much I finished it in a couple of nights. For whatever reason, the book reminds me a lot of a Hayao Miyazaki movie: the protagonist is a Ceony Twill, a girl who just graduated from a school of magic, and rather than becoming a smelter as she hoped, she was assigned to work with paper.

Her mentor is a mysterious wizard, who assigns her inscrutable training tasks but has a dark past that is only alluded to. But that dark past quickly catches up with him in a couple of months, and barely trained, Ceony is caught up in trying to rescue her mentor. The plot is predictable, she overcomes her obstacles, and accomplishes her goals through pluck but not wit.

The world building is great, and the magic system is entertaining. The writing style is easily readable, and clearly aimed at a young adult audience, but suitable for anyone looking for an escape from this election madness. Recommended.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Review: Spellbreaker

 Spellbreaker is set in preindustrial London, in a mythic world where magic exists and is used by everybody, with prices set by markets. The story revolves around Elsie Camden, an orphan who learns early on that she's a spellbreaker, one who can destroy pre-existing spells. She's recruited into a secret society that sends her missions to accomplish, and is caught on one of those missions, leading to a series of events that destroys her preconceptions of what she's been doing.

The writing is transparent and easy to read, and the plot, while simple and full of holes (e.g., we are led to believe that smart as Elsie is, when she's caught and realizes that the people who caught her weren't evil, doesn't immediately start questioning all the other missions she's being sent on), is entertaining enough. I needed a light read after all the previous heavy reads, and this was the right book at the right time (and if you're an Amazon Prime subscribe, it was a free selection). I'll hunt down more of Charlie Holmberg's other novels. Recommended.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Review: Physics of the Impossible

 I checked out Physics of the Impossible from the library, not noticing that it was incredibly dated. The book was written 12 years ago, but so much of experimental physics has changed that some of the book is now obsolete, such as the mention of the search for the Higgs Boson, and the attempts to confirm or deny string theory.

Nevertheless, the book takes on many topics that are fun from a science fiction fan point of view, such as teleportation (e.g., the Star Trek transporter), which are surprisingly potentially feasible, since quantum teleportation is a thing. There's a section on time travel, and force fields are also surprisingly in the feasible category.

Michio Kaku classifies these impossibilities as type 1 (we know the theory and can see a path to implementation), type 2 (we know the theory but the implementation is beyond us), and type 3 (our understanding of physics would have to change for this to work), and surprisingly only 2 categories (pre-cognition and perpetual motion machines) were classified as type 3.

Of course, that we know how to do something doesn't mean that it'd be easy or uncumbersome. Nevertheless, the book is a great read and gets in some physics for the layman as well. I could see giving this (though hopefully an updated version of the book) to a smart 10 year old who'd totally geek out on it. Recommended.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Review: Complexity - The Emerging Science at the Edge of Chaos

 Complexity purports to be a book about the science and math of emergence. In reality, it actually is an account of the history and founding of the Santa Fe Institute, which is not a bad thing. As with many topics in science that cross disciplinary lines, it's unusual for research in that area to be pursued without independent funding.

The book covers not just the mathematical and simulation-oriented approach that led to the understanding of complex adaptive systems, but also the politics behind it, and why the Santa Fe Institute came to be in Santa Fe, as opposed to one of the major universities that everybody knows about. In particular, the proximity to Los Alamos was important and key to attracting physicists.

This turned out to be important, because the first area of research that the Santa Fe took up was complexity in Economics. The description of how physicists reacted to the Economists' presentation was classic and well worth reading:

the physicists were nonetheless disconcerted at how seldom the economists seemed to pay attention to the empirical data that did exist. Again and again, for example, someone would ask a question like “What about noneconomic influences such as political motives in OPEC oil pricing, and mass psychology in the stock market? Have you consulted sociologists, or psychologists, or anthropologists, or social scientists in general?” And the economists—when they weren’t curling their lips at the thought of these lesser social sciences, which they considered horribly mushy—would come back with answers like Such noneconomic forces really aren’t important”; “They are important, but they are too hard to treat”; “They aren’t always too hard to treat, and in fact, we’re doing so in specific cases”; and “We don’t need to treat them because they’re automatically satisfied through economic effects.” And then there was this business of “rational expectations.” Arthur remembers someone asking him during his talk that first day, Isn’t economics a good deal simpler than physics?” (Kindle Loc 2855)

There's lots of stories, including one about a major researcher in the field who drove and organized workshops but didn't pay attention to getting his PhD, which culminated into a crisis.

The boring parts of the book involve the politics and fund-raising. Not to say that it's not enlightening, but the lobbying over who gets to be president of the institute (and who shouldn't be --- a well known Nobel prize winner wanted the position) isn't really relevant to the science of complexity.

Nevertheless, the boring parts are easy to skip and the interesting parts are well worth reading. Recommended. (This book is available to borrow if you're an Amazon Prime customer) 


Monday, October 12, 2020

Review: Blood and Truth (PSVR)

 I got the PSVR several years ago, but until recently never got around to actually finishing a game on it. Part of it is that the medium doesn't work well for long games, and AstroBots rescue mission was just too long and hard --- we never got past the 3rd boss. When Sony had a sale on Blood and Truth over labor day week, however, I realized that The Heist by London Studios was one of the better demos on the PSVR Worlds disc. After finding out that the play time was only 5 hours I went for it.

The game puts you in the perspective of Ryan Marks, a former special forces soldier, engaged in a one man battle with a rival family that tries to take over his family's business after his father dies. The story and tropes are well worn and one-note: this is a game that relies heavily on cliches and the technology to keep you engaged.

The technology does keep you engaged: the game is immersive in ways that no other normal shooter is: the feeling of presence in cutscenes and in the on-rails shooting sections are nothing short of amazing. The ability to turn your head and point your guns at what you intend is amazing. That's not to say that the technology is perfect: I had to restart the game several times whenever the PSVR control calibration drifted, resulting in your hands pointing the wrong way. One particularly frustrating situation was that the act of sheathing your automatic weapons over your shoulders was so clumsy that I could never sheathe my weapons without firing off a few shots, one time killing myself with a rocket launcher. It is a testament to the immersion of the medium and the effectiveness of the game play that I put up with all the clumsiness in order to play.

The reload mechanism, snapping off a magazine from your bandolier and then slipping a clip into your other hand feels intuitive and perfect, as do the "bullet time" sequences that you get to trigger with a cool down. The sections where you pick locks, cut wires, or do other simple puzzles are also excellent examples of integrating haptic feedback, immersion, and interaction design together to make everything feel natural. Kudos to Sony for pulling off a AAA-style game in VR, crude resolution and all, and making it playable. If they can fix the drifting issue, the PSVR will be an engaging medium for many.


Thursday, October 08, 2020

Review: Garmin Varia UT800 Urban Edition

 My light selection from 2017 is no longer in stock on Amazon, just as the battery (which is soldered to the motherboard on the device) is giving out, and of course during the COVID19 bike boom, ensuring that pricing on bike accessories is sky high.

However, I noticed that the Garmin Varia UT800 is now down to $99 as a standard price, and it claimed compatibility with my Fenix 5X, so I ordered one. As with all lights, the most important piece is the mount, which is a strangely heavy outfront mount intended to fit on your handlebars. It worked just fine on my custom fork mount position, though the 135g light would tend to tilt down to touch the fork at the right place. Not a problem, since my Ti fork doesn't have any paint to scratch anyway.

The documentation mentioned the light had a "smart light" feature that would adjust light intensity based on your speed if you had an Edge cycling computer. Since I was using a Fenix, I tempered my expectation, and operating the light in manual mode would have worked just fine. To my surprise, the Fenix 5X does adjust the light intensity based on your speed. The cutoffs seem to be 15mph (maximum brightness), 10mph (medium brightness), and less, which would use the 200 lumen setting. At 200 lumen, it was pretty much the same as my Blitzu Gator. At 400 lumen, it was fine for flat riding, and at max brightness it was suitable for a fast descent but I wouldn't push my limits at night anyway.

What's the ideal application for this? I've had several occasions to use it on a Montebello Sunrise climb, where the approach would use the high to medium intensity, and then the climb would switch to low intensity. After the sunrise, I'd manually switch it to flashing mode, and the light would last a good 3-5 hours. It's not useful for say, riding in Houston at night, where your speed would keep it at high intensity the whole time (except for the occasional stops at the stop signs or traffic lights), or commuting, where you might want high beam on all the time to remind motorists that you're there. Ironically, for my (no longer actively run) Moonlight Mt Hamilton ride, the auto feature wouldn't be useful, since the whole point is to turn off the light while climbing so you can appreciate the moonlit landscape, and the retrogrades would demand that you turn on the light manually. Obviously you have to have bought into the Garmin ecosystem for any of this to make sense, though at the new $99 price point, it's very competitive with say, Light & Motion's lineup, but obviously not competitive against any of the Chinese brands, though I certainly wouldn't trust their claims of 800 lumens, while Garmin at the very least is reasonably competent (or at least not crooked) about labeling their light intensity.

I bought it without a return policy, that's how much I tend to trust Garmin. And I even paid full price since I needed the light for the pre-dawn rides that I'm doing. It's a rare thing for me to pay full retail, so you can take that as an endorsement from me.