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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Review: Inside Intuit

I know it's hard to believe, but before the era of widespread internet use (which I peg at around 1995 or so, though 1993 first saw widespread web pages at university), there was the era of the desktop software revolution. Prior to that, most software was custom written for big corporations to fulfill their needs, and standard software was priced beyond the reach of a mere consumer.

The desktop revolution was amazing. First, you could buy Turbo Pascal for $50, an IDE that ran circles around the professional compilers. Spreadsheets became the killer app that businesses would buy PCs for. And then there was Intuit.

I ignored Quicken from the moment of its inception until 1992, when I first bounced a check. That one experience taught me that I couldn't just trust myself to manage my money just based on my memory alone --- I needed help. Quicken is a funny piece of software. Even at the time this book was written, it only has 15 million users. In a country with a population of 300 million people that's 5% market penetration. Then you realize that the top 10% of the population controls about 50% of the country's assets, and you realize that Quicken probably has a fairly sizable share of those.

This book covers most of the history of Quicken, from its origins as an idea, to a partnership between Stanford Engineer Tom Proulx and Scott Cook to found th company. The partnership between businessman and engineer is typical --- it didn't take too long for the businessman to try to screw the engineer. But of course, Proulx quit and retired from Intuit, so the authors only tell Cook's side of the story. And what a story it is. Quicken is not a very engineering intensive product --- while getting the UI and the user model right was correctly identified by Cook as the challenge, I bet that Quicken could be effectively assigned as an undergraduate homework assignment today, and modern tools would render most of its functionality easy to implement.

Cook and company forged the customer-orientation into a competitive weapon, working hard to make sure even the most non-technical of users could use every feature of the product. As the company grew, though, you could see the lack of engineering process or vision showing through --- the company did not successfully build a portability layer for its software. (Not a surprise, given that Quicken was UI heavy and there's not much you can do there for portability if you want the app to look native) Even today, Quicken for the Mac and Quicken for Windows aren't compatible, and Intuit is about to throw out the Mac version of Quicken and rewrite it. It's quite clear that engineering at Intuit was never taken as seriously as the marketing or customer service.

Yet the company thrived, and did something few other software companies did --- which was to beat Microsoft at the shrink-wrap software game. First, it priced the product correctly, so Microsoft couldn't immediately enter the market at a much lower price point. Secondly, it acquired TurboTax, which with its annual schedule of required updates, never fit in with Microsoft's culture of massive projects and massive integrations. But most impressively, by listening very closely to their customers, QuickBooks (the extremely profitable small business accounting application) ran circles around Microsoft's Great Plains acquisition. This relentless approach served Intuit well until the dawn of the age of the internet.

The authors write a lot about how Intuit survived the age of the internet through innovation, but I don't see it. Certainly, downloaded updates have made Intuit's job easier by allowing frequent patches to the software. But true migration of the tools of financial planning that Intuit's products manage requires serious engineering, and startups like or even Financial Engines. Intuit's lack of emphasis on engineering and computer science has hurt them here, and will continue to hurt them. Already, users have a hard time staying on the Quicken upgrade treadmill, for instance, and the lack of trust between banks and Intuit will not enable them to get at the data they really need to be able to provide their customers with real help.

Ultimately, the authors fall under Scott Cook's spell, and refrain from criticizing the company, even on such moves as their successful effort to lobby against the IRS for its proposed program to send out pre-filled 1040EZs to eligible taxpayers. For me, anyway, that was the moment Intuit lost my trust, but Taylor and Schroeder were so enamored of the company by that point they could not bring themselves to criticize the company whose leaders they had fallen in love with.

All in all, I don't think the time I spent reading this book was wasted, but it is important to read this book with a critical eye. Otherwise, you'll be hoodwinked into thinking that Intuit is some kind of technology company. It's not, and from the moment of its conception, it never was.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Cycle Touring and the Spriit of Adventure

Over and over again, whenever I tour by bicycle, I run into people who tell me, "You're supposed to have a SAG wagon follow you so you don't have to carry your own luggage." In fact, there was a time in Colorado when touring by ourselves when we ran into cyclists who couldn't get their heads around the fact that we weren't touring with a car! This is my attempt to explain what we do and why.

Fully loaded touringCredit card tour

The two have very little to do with each other, even if you call it all "loaded touring." One is not harder than the other (in fact, the credit card tours are frequently much tougher, because having a reduced load lets you do unpaved roads, hiking trails and carry your bike over electrified fences because you can:

I think the biggest difference isn't with how you carry your luggage, but with the spirit that accompanies the trip. When Lisa & I announced that we were going to do a tour of the South Africa, my friends responded with: "Cool! Wish I could go with you." Her friends responded with: "You're going to be eaten by lions and tigers!" The difference between the two attitudes is key --- folks who express the latter sentiment will be extremely unhappy on one of our trips, and folks who express the former sentiment will be frustrated at being given a schedule and told what to do, because we remember that from being in school and didn't enjoy it. We weren't carrying camping gear on that trip, and stayed mostly on paved roads. At one point, however, to avoid a known nasty section of road, we rode into the middle of town to hire and hitch a ride on a so-called "black taxi." When we were dropped off at the destination, it was 5pm on a Sunday and we rode a block towards the tourist information center before we got a flat. While I fixed the flat, an old gentlement wearing a "Viagra Test Subject" T-shirt came up to us and asked us where we were going. We were wary at first, but he proved to be friendly and helpful, showing us a local B&B since the local tourist information was closed. It was a wonderful experience and Lisa enjoyed every moment of it, including the wonderment of our hosts when we told them we had arrived via a "black taxi", which they wouldn't have dared to take.

That trip clinched Lisa's attitude towards cycle touring --- we would ride into a farm where we were staying, and dogs, the hostess, her sons would dash out to greet us, having never seen a tandem before. We would stop at a gas station to buy ice cream, and the local kids would run up to the back of our bike, count the gears, and run away, screaming: "9! 9!" They had never seen a 9-speed before. At no point were we in danger of being eaten by lions and tigers, and at every point our choices were entirely ours to make --- to stay at this lovely place a second day, or to push forward to the next delight. Sure, there were a few hard days, but no worse than what we found on any other tours.

A few years later, we did our first fully-SAGed tour, the Bicycle Tour of Colorado. It's a very well-organized tour and the route was enjoyable, going over Trail Ridge road and visiting several high passes. The support was great --- in Colorado, there are lots of places where you have 50 miles or so between water, and we brought along our four-person luxury tent for the two of us. But a couple of incidences highlighted that the SAG was not without cost. First, there was a day when I woke up with a stiff neck from sleeping wrong the night before. On a self-supported tour, we would have either elected to wait out the stiff neck, or do only a short ride that day. Being a fully scheduled tour, the BTC had scheduled that day for 100 miles of riding. So I ended up riding 100 miles without the ability to really turn my head. (The alternative was to ride the SAG, which wouldn't have been as pretty) Then, there was a day when we climbed trail ridge road without proper acclimation, because with 2000 people on the tour or so, there were only certain days available for riding the road. By ourselves, we would have been able to ride the road whenever we wanted to.

At the end of the BTC, it was with relief, not with a sense of burden, when we put panniers on our bike and headed off for another week of touring around Colorado. Lisa was much happier with this trip, because now we were setting our own schedule, choosing where to stay, and while our tent was comfy, staying at hotels didn't cost any more than the BTC was costing us, but gave us plenty of choices as to where to go.

One more example: in 2005, Mike and I rode over Col D'Izoard into a tiny village called Le Rauffes. There, we found the most delightful country Gite you could imagine. At 5:30pm, I asked the owner, Thierry, when dinner was served. He said: "I closed the restaurant 6 months ago. You'd have to go down to Embrun to eat." Embrun was down the mountain, 1000' down, and the prospect of climbing after dinner didn't appeal to me, so I asked him if there were other places to eat. Thierry looked at me, and said, "Oh, you arrive by bicycles. I make something for you." And he proceeded to make us the best meal of the trip (and I have high standards for food). If we had showed up as part of a supported/SAG'd group, he'd have told us to go down the mountain. There are lots of other examples like this throughout my trip reports, and in Gary Erickson's book.

Yes, there is a cost: you must carry your own stuff (but it doesn't have to be very much stuff --- less is more, and Gary Erickson's book tells you how). You can't be cocooned and speak only English --- but the point of traveling is to meet new people and be part of the local culture. You might have to backtrack a town on occasion to find a place to sleep. But the rewards are amazing --- folks like Jobst Brandt (who's over 70) have done it for over 40 years and go back over and over --- and believe me, having stayed at the hotels he's stayed at, and eaten at some of the restaurants he's recommended --- it's not "roughing it" in any way, shape or form, despite the extremely low cost, compared to the fully supported tours. Galen Rowell wrote a column in Outdoor Photographer called The Hello Factor. In which, he explained how you knew you were on an adventure: if people you ran into who were doing the same thing said "hello," you were having an adventure. In that respect, every self-supported cycle tour is an adventure.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Review: Creative DECT Skype Phone

In anticipation of our move to Munich, we are switching over to Skype as our land-line provider. Buying Skype service for a year (including Skype Pro and SkypeIn) costs about $60. Yes, I know that Skype is fairly evil as far as taking over your machine while it is running (one way Skype reduces costs is to turn each of its clients' hosts into a router), but the prevalence of hardware support is quite important.

My cousin, Tom, told me that Fry's on-line had the Creative Cordless phone for a paltry $17.99 + tax and shipping. This made it a screaming deal, so I bought it despite already having purchased a Philips USB Skype handset, which will get relegated to travel service.

The Creative phone comes with a single piece of paper for a manual, a disk, a USB dongle that serves as the base station for the phone, a handset, a charger, and 2 NiMH 750mAH AAA batteries. Since we already had 2 NiMH batteries fully charged at home, I just popped those in and avoided the 14 hour wait and put the batteries into our fast charger. This use of standard components is a plus, since it means that if you lose the charger or the batteries wear out, you can just get more NiMH batteries and pop them in.

The software installed just fine on both my Mac Mini and my EEE PC, both of which were running Windows XP Professional. Plugging in the dongle and getting it to recognize it was easy in both cases, and the sound quality to my ear was quite good.

The user interface on the handset leaves much to be desired, however --- I actually had to read the manual to learn how to dial out: you have to push the call button, dial 00 + country code + phone #. (US phone numbers meant: 001 + area code + phone #) Fortunately, this is mitigated by the fact that you can use the Skype contacts list on your PC. Incoming calls ring the phone just fine (you have a choice of four different ring tones), and there's a button on the dongle that you can push so you can find the handset if you were to misplace it. The handset also allows you to set up a conference call (with 3 way calling, etc), but good luck remembering how to use it --- you are probably better off doing sophisticated duties like that from your computer.

For the price ($25 shipped in California), this is a great deal and comes highly recommended. Lisa's been using this every day, and she's satisfied with both the sound quality and the service. We will cut off our land-line at our next bill. As everyone knows, you can't rely on Skype or other internet phones in an emergency, and in the case of an earthquake, cell towers might also be down, so only do this if you're willing to bear the risks involved.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Review: Fatal Revenant

Warning: Spoilers Below

The Runes of the Earth ended with Thomas Covenant and Linden Avery's adapted son, Jeremiah coming back from the dead and in corporeal form. Fatal Revenant can be divided into two parts, first, Avery's translation back in time to the time of Berek Halfhand with Covenant and Jeremiah, and secondly, her quest to reach Andelain, to achieve her purpose.

The first half of the book is interesting, filled with continuity adjustments that Donaldson puts in. A lot of the history of the Land is covered in first hand which has always been put away in mist, including the introduction to the words of power that were used frequently in the first and second chronicles. (Though one of the words is also used as the name of a place, which I think is unfortunate --- that would be sort of like naming your sailboat Mayday and then trying to hail it)

Donaldson does not fall into the George Lucas trap of trying to explain everything, thereby removing the mystery behind the power and magic of the land, but in many ways, by giving Linden Avery power and magic, he eliminates a lot of the mood of despair that pervades prior novels and replaces it with a sense of frustration with the protagonist. In the second half of the book that frustration is at least dissipated as he provides challenges for Avery's newfound power, and also reintroduces some former races to the land.

Donaldson's writing style is still unfortunately repetitive, and if I never see the words puissance and theurgy on the printed page again it would be fine with me. The ending is a genuine surprise and I did enjoy it, but that is not (yet) enough to redeem the book in my eyes. Since there are two more books to come, I will reserve judgment until they are all over. One would think that after having to wait years for George R. R. Martin's series to end would teach me a lesson about starting series that are not over...

Review: SKS Race Blades

I've always used full fenders, because my bike had plenty of tire clearance. But the Ti bike, because of a geometry that was designed to maximize handling feel rather than fender clearance or toe clip overlap, could not take a full fender without interference with the downtube, so I ordered a set of Race Blades XLs from BikeTiresDirect, which ironically doesn't actually sell tires I like.

Since my rear could handle a full fender, I only tried the front. The mounting scheme is very easy, with rubber grommets that wrap around your fork. The fenders stays are designed to be bent, and the instructions say to bend them gently, but it turns out that you can't bend them gently and expect them to stay --- you have to bend them pretty hard! When I was finished, I had just a little bit of clearance for my down tube mounted pump, and quite a bit of a gap between the fender and the fork. This made me quite skeptical of how effective they would be, since I use a rain cape, and spray thrown up from the wheels would be like spraying water from under a tent.

These work surprisingly well, however --- I commuted in the rain all this week, and while my feet got wet (easily solved by a mud flap), my knees stayed dry, indicating that the gap is not an issue at all. I did notice quite a bit of dirt and other gunk sprayed onto the crown and fork below headset, so one of the big benefits of a fender (protecting the bearings from the elements) isn't a feature, but on the other hand, that's why I run Chris King stuff (and to be honest, in all my years of touring, I've never had a headset failure --- they're one of those perpetually working items on the bike, like caliper brakes).

Since I usually tour without fenders anyway (fenders are no good if you do even a little bit of off-roading, and I've had a number of fender failures over the years just from commuting), these are a good compromise, and the easy-on/easy-off nature makes them quite practical as my primary ride. Recommended with the above caveats.
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Monday, February 18, 2008

My first carbon failure

I've heard of a lot of carbon fork failures, mostly because the people to whom it happens end up in a hospital, so when my Fuji approached its third year, I ended up with a custom Ti frame and a custom Ti fork.

However, unknown to me, I had already broken a carbon component, which was the seat post that came with the Fuji. Note that as Pardo mentions in his entry, this seat post lived as pampered a life as I could make it, no loaded touring, no rough man-handling, and throughout its life I was a svelte 145 pounds. I'm replacing it with a Thomson aluminum post, which I love and would want to rave about one of these days.

In any case, people occasionally ask why I wanted to go Ti, and for me anyway, all it takes is one bad carbon failure in the fork or frame and I might never be able to ride again. I don't treat my bikes kindly, and I don't see myself being any nicer to my bikes in the near future.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Review: Declare

I reported that I was disappointed with Tim Power's latest book, Three Days to Never, but when Charlie Stross recommended Declare at the back of The Atrocity Archives, I had to place a hold at the library.

Once again, Tim Powers chooses to base a novel on a historical figure, this time super-spy and Russian mole, Kim Philby. The approach, however, is more indirect than most of his other novels, perhaps in deference to traditional approaches towards Spy Fiction, such as John le Carre's. We start off with a description of Andrew Hale, a former British intelligence agent who had been groomed since the age of 7 to participate in project Declare.

Before we even meet Kim Philby (though there are plenty of references to Kipling's Kim, which apparently Philby was named after, we get an exploration of Hale's motivations, his past, his experience during World War II infiltrating the Russian spy network in Paris, and the great love of his life, a spy named Elena who swore allegiance to communism. We then get introduced to the conflicts between Philby and Hale, as well as the grand story behind the novel: the supernatural and occult reasons behind Russia's success. Rest assured there is plenty here to satisfy the fantasist, yet when reading up on Philby after finishing the novel, I found that the historical details were exceedingly accurate --- clearly, Tim Powers did his homework here.

The plot is well put together, and Powers succeeds to a large extent in impersonating le Carre. Even the most supernatural action sequences that could have been dressed up were written in a quiet, under-stated fashion. I did find the ending a little predictable, but perhaps the protagonist does deserve a little happiness after his years of service.

This novel is dense, and took me many more days to read than the usual stories. It is recommended for an intriguing view of World War II and its aftermath, an intelligent speculation, excellent characters and characterization, great writing, and for me at least, an excellent re-entry into the genre of spy fiction. Yet you need not be familiar with Kim Philby's life to be able to read it. It is not a page turner in the traditional means, but some novels deserve to be savored, with each chapter contemplated and with the reader putting together pieces of the puzzle as it is revealed to him, and this is one novel deserving of such treatment. I would not be surprised if at the end of this year, I would nominate this the best fiction I've read this year.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

First impressions: Strong Frame

Today was the first long ride on the custom bike, so I can write an extensive first impressions review.

During the week, I had the bike configured as a commuter. I had my light wheels on the back, but my Brooks saddle, generator wheel, and lights mounted. In that configuration the bike handles very nicely, though it isn't fast by any means, especially with a load in the saddlebag. One problem I found was that I couldn't mount a full fender in front, because it would interfere with the cable runs on the down-tube. That's unfortunate, but I ordered a set of SKS Race Blades and hopefully those will work out.

This morning, I mounted my Thomson seat post, my Flite saddle, and my lightweight front wheel, and got a slightly lighter bike, but not by a whole lot. The front fork is scheduled to be replaced this week with the Ti fork, so the bike will get lighter but not a whole lot lighter --- the Ti bike is definitely a heavier than the Fuji, and my guess is it will end up being about 19 pounds in light bike configuration and 22 pounds in touring configuration, which is still miles lighter than my Heron Touring bike.

The handling remains the same on the flats and even on climbs. At low speeds, the low trail bike wobbles a bit more than the Fuji did, but I attribute that to the fit not being exactly dialed in yet. I expect that to go away once I get out a tape measure and actually try to replicate my touring position. I was, however, completely unprepared for the bike's handling on descents: this bike descends as though it was on rails, much more stably than the Heron or the Fuji. This behavior surprised me until I reflected on the bike's geometry. I had specified longer chainstays than the Fuji (43cm), which increased the stability, and a lower bottom bracket, which lowered the center of gravity. The two combined together gave me increased confidence on descents, to the point where my cornering speed is determined solely by my willingness to go fast with respect to prevailing traffic. The combination does affect climbing, however --- the bike does not appear to respond as quickly to standing hard on the pedals as the Fuji does, though it isn't anywhere as sluggish (or slow) as the Heron is.

The next thing to do, obviously, is to put a saddlebag and load it up and then descend a major hill to watch for obvious problems such as a high speed shimmy. My thinking is that a high speed shimmy is unlikely with this bike given how stable it is, but one never knows. For now, however, this ride is incredible!

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Lumotec Light Problems and Diagnosis

I've been using the Lumotec N and Lumotec Schmidt Switch headlights for the last 3 years, but have had really poor reliability with them (so did my brother). In the cases of most of the failure, it seemed as though all that was needed to destroy the lights was a sharp knock. Late last year, my 18-month new Lumotec N failed again. But a sharp jiggle to the wire brought it back, so I thought nothing of it. But when I moved the light over to the new bike, the light once again failed.

So this morning, I rode over to Pardo's house and we took the light apart and tried to fix it. The first observation Pardo made was that there was no strain relief at all on any of the wires. This made the prime suspect a broken wire. We fiddled about, but the light appeared to work once the casing was off. So we decided to call it a day and reinstalled the light. I then took the bulb out to clean it before riding off and it immediately failed. On examination, the bulb is held against a negative contact spring by the holder, and the positive contact is a spring. The positive contact is fine, but the negative contact had become corroded. A cleaning, however, did not solve the problem, so I suggested using tweezers to pull the contact out towards the bulb. That solved the problem, and the light is now reliable.

My conclusion is that the Lumotecs are not very well-engineered. According to Pardo, adding strain relief (which is routinely done, for instance, for objects such as cell phone chargers) adds a few cents at most. The contact spring should be stronger so that a year of jiggling and rain riding does not destroy it or cause intermittent failure. But my guess is the majority of these lights outlast the year warranty, so the manufacturers have no incentive to fix these problems.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Review: Halting State

I seem to have become a bit of a Charlie Stross junkie lately, but I think I've finally caught up to his latest output.

Halting State takes an interesting look at the MMORPG and the upcoming link to reality TV shows. What if a massively multi-player role-playing game intruded into your reality? Better yet, what if the usual alphabet soup of government agencies decided to use a massively multi-player role playing game as a recruiting tool for its purposes? What are its implications, and what might one look like?

The plot revolves around two main characters, Jack and Elaine. Jack is a game programmer who was recently laid off, and Elaine is a forensic account with an insurance firm. When a group of Orcs decide to perform a cyberheist involving the central bank of a company hosting such a gaming service, Elaine is asked to lead the investigation, and she asks for a programmer/consultant to guide her through the audit. Both Jack and Elaine are avid consumers of role playing games, historic re-enactment societies and the such, and their combination of skills enable them to dig into the investigation in a way that quickly becomes a matter of life and death for them.

The plot is entertaining, and very plausible. I enjoyed the description of the graphical role playing games and it is quite clear that Stross did his homework. References to griefing and non-PvP zones are made throughout without explanation, and the reader is never talked-down to. The characters themselves, however, are not that interesting, and perhaps behave a little bit too much like wooden stick figures made to fit the plot. Nevertheless, it works.

Perhaps the weakest part of the novel is that it is written entirely in the second person. The use of the second person is something entirely germane to the role playing game genre, of course, starting from the Choose Your Own Adventure books. But in this particular context, it feels wooden and contrived. Perhaps because as a PC, you would never so stupid as to fall into the kind of traps or emotional pitfalls that the characters would. As an artifice, this usage cheapens what is otherwise a very entertaining book.

The book starts off slowly, and it jars a bit as it switches viewpoints between the primary and secondary characters. After the first third, however, it steps into high gear and becomes an obsessive page turner, making this an ideal airplane novel, though it comes nowhere close to matching Stross' best work. Nevertheless, not a waste of time at all, especially if you're a gamer.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

The Ti bike is ready

It was a massive ordeal, but I finally have a bike I can ride without worrying about broken this and that. I actually received the frame 2 Fridays ago, but an early build showed that the brake bridge was at 52mm, rather than 57mm, so I sent the frame back to Carl Strong. He graciously agreed to redo the entire thing and shipped it back to me next day air, so I got it back again on Friday. All day yesterday, Pardo, Mike Samuel and I moved the parts over from the Fuji. The Ti fork is still in transit, but Mike fortunately had an IRD steel fork that he could lend me. The IRD by the way has lawyer's lips and is only really about 52mm reach as well, so if you're looking for a fork that will clear 32mm tires this is not it.

Notes from the build: first of all, the spoke holder doesn't quite work. The holes aren't big enough for me to thread spokes through properly, and looking at it now, I don't see how it can be convenient to use on the road. It only holds two spokes anyway, while I normally need four on tour. My guess is, I'll go back to electrical tape and carry it the way I normally do: taped to the seat tube. 57mm reach is a bit too much for the brakes. Pardo had to file down the brake slots to get the brake shoots to hit the brake track squarely. Not a major problem, but my guess is 55mm is really the limit of the tolerance, if you don't want to have to do what we did.

I haven't taken it for a long ride yet, but as far as short first impression rides go --- it rides like my beloved Bridgestone RB-1 or my Fuji, which is what I wanted all along, so that part of the bike is straight on! It's been a long wait, and our work is not quite done. I'll need the new fork, which I hope wasn't built to 52mm, and also a new seat post so I can transfer the Fuji's seat over for weekend riding. I've ordered a new handlebar so I can put on my favored carbon brake levers and bar-end shifters for touring. And of course, lights and fenders need to be tested (and mounting systems deviced as necessary). I need to consider a triple. But as of right now, the Fuji is sitting in my brother's garage, and that Heron already has a buyer. I will soon be down to one "do-everything" bike, a condition that I haven't been in since 1992. And just in time for the Munich move!
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Saturday, February 02, 2008

Review: The Runes of the Earth

I first read The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant way back in high school, right after The Lord of the Rings. The two trilogies are of course very different. First of all, I think Stephen R. Donaldson burnt out his thesaurus a long time ago. He is verbose, prone to using words and colors that you can guess at but would really need a dictionary handy to look up, and overly dramatic.

But this first set of books caught my attention because of its characters. The lead character is as anti-hero as they come (he rapes a girl in an early section of Lord Foul's Bane, which alienates many women readers I know --- and since women read more than men, that's not something that you really want to do if you want to achieve bestseller status). Abusive and rough, Thomas Covenant runs rough-shot over a vibrant fantasy world in such a way that you can't quite believe that he is supposed to be the savior. Yet the internal narrative of Covenant is such that at least, for a teenager going through the tumult of alienation, loneliness and despair, was very appealing. In fact, at the end of the first trilogy, his redemption and healing was very moving, and something I took quite to heart.

The second chronicles weren't as compelling for me, introducing a character, Linden Avery, who was abused in her own way as a child, but ultimately was too passive for me to want to pay a lot of attention to her. In fact, I was very surprised that I remembered almost none of the plot summarized in the leading section of The Runes of the Earth.

Has 20 years improved Donaldson's writing style? In many ways, it has. First of all, he seems much less dependent on a thesaurus this time, and his style seems much more stripped down, less extravagant and flowery, but more conducive to story telling. His character, Linden Avery, is still not as interesting a character to me as Thomas Covenant, but this time I'm much more interested in her (perhaps that reflects the changes in me, rather than the changes in Donaldson's approach). She's now the director of a hospital specializing in mentally injured patients, and has adopted a son who is autistic. One of her patients is Joan Covenant, Thomas Covenant's wife, who was difficult to manage, but when Covenant's son shows up to claim her and is denied, things start moving quickly, and quite soon, Avery is translated back to the Land, along with her son Jeremiah and Joan, and Avery starts a quest to rescue her son and redeem the land in the process.

Avery as a character is insecure, but much less in denial of her reality. As a result, she's much more willing to wield the power of the ring (there's much less of the impotence theme her in this book), and willing to take on more risks. She encounters many of the previous cultures in prior novels such as the Haruchai, the Ranhyn, and Ur-viles. Continuity and previously known facts are conveniently side-stepped through the common science fiction device known as time travel. If you suspend your disbelief, all this works, but perhaps one thing that escapes me at this point is why? I guess I should suspend judgment until I've read the remaining pieces of the series, but for now, if the first chronicles is about redemption and the second chronicles is about healing, perhaps the third chronicles is about taking risks. I will keep reading to figure it out, but cannot provide a recommendation until the story is complete.