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Thursday, April 27, 2023

Review: The Steerswoman

 After reading Ra, I remembered that another fantasy to science fiction series of novel started with The Steerswoman. I discovered that in between when I last read it and the present day, I'd forgotten all the details and to my delight nearly everything about the series is new. The author has recovered all the rights from her publisher and is now self-publishing, which means that by buying her books you are directly supporting the author. You should do so!

The pace of the story is slow --- there's a setup, and I think more modern writers would spend less time depicting the slow realization of the protagonist about how parabolas and orbital mechanics would work. But the world setup is intriguing and at the time the books were published having strong female protagonists were rare. I finished this first book and immediately bought the next book in the series.

I've noted that the series isn't complete, and Kirstein is still working on the last 2 books in the series --- she's old enough that not finishing is a risk, but if you're OK with that, this book will be a lot of fun for you!

Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Review: Bea Wolf

 I ran across a review of Bea Wolf somewhere on the internet, saw that it was easily available from the library, and checked it out. It disappointingly did not download to my Kindle Scribe, but I could read it on any of our Fire tablets.

I've never read Beowolf, so this retelling was completely fresh to me. The language is that of high epic, but the panels, art, and words are those of a modern day kids, with foam toys, candy, video games, and of course, teenagers. Grendel is rendered as a middle aged man who ages kids into teenage years or (gasp) into adulthood, definitely a fate worse than death.

I read the book at night, and the next morning immediately read 15 pages of it to Boen. That very evening, Boen finished the book by himself without asking me to read it aloud to him, and then asked if there were more books, which indicates that the book is kid-approved, readable, and enjoyable.


Monday, April 24, 2023

Review: Astro City - Victory

 Victory is a very different graphic novel from its predecessors. While previous Astro-City pieces focus on sideline characters in the universe rather than the superheroes, Victory is an actual superhero story --- in fact, it takes the form of the well-known hero crossover story, with the Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman standins meeting and working together for the first time.

Well, not exactly, since unlike regular superhero comics, things happen a lot in between issues and the reader is left to infer the events in between. But even then, I didn't find it nearly as compelling as the previous stories.

The last part of the graphic novel is a visitor's guide to Astro City, showing what a travel brochure to the city of heroes in that universe is like. That was very well done and a lot of fun. Even bad Astro City is still one of the best comics around. Recommended!

Thursday, April 20, 2023

Review: Superfreakonomics

 I guess I never read Superfreakonomics before because it had acquired a bad reputation for its attempt to minimize the impact of global warming. Written by the same folks who brought you Freakonomics, it's an attempt to impose economic analysis on a whole host of phenomenon. The style is easy to read and a lot of fun, with lots of little factoids like the following:

the schoolteacher corps began to experience a brain drain. In 1960, about 40 percent of female teachers scored in the top quintile of IQ and other aptitude tests, with only 8 percent in the bottom. Twenty years later, fewer than half as many were in the top quintile, with more than twice as many in the bottom. It hardly helped that teachers’ wages were falling significantly in relation to those of other jobs. “The quality of teachers has been declining for decades,” the chancellor of New York City’s public schools declared in 2000, “and no one wants to talk about it.” (pg. 62)

There's a well known section about doctors not washing their hands, and another interesting factoid that complemented the above, about the inverse of what happened to the school teachers:

 An excellent doctor is disproportionately likely to have attended a top-ranked medical school and served a residency at a prestigious hospital. More experience is also valuable: an extra ten years on the job yields the same benefit as having served a residency at a top hospital. And oh yes: you also want your ER doctor to be a woman. It may have been bad for America’s schoolchildren when so many smart women passed up teaching jobs to go to medical school, but it’s good to know that, in our analysis at least, such women are slightly better than their male counterparts at keeping people alive. (pg. 115)

The big one is the section about global warming and its dismissive attitude towards it. That hasn't aged well. What did age well is the geoengineering solutions such as throwing sulfur into the stratosphere to reduce solar heating. That's been explored by science fiction novels in recent years, but not in convincing fashion. For instance, nobody has explored the impact of doing that on solar panel efficiency, and one thing that this book didn't forecast was how quickly the prices of solar panels and wind turbines dropped. So the book comes across as superficial and glibe.

The book was a lot of fun to read, but I guess non-fiction of this sort doesn't age well.

Monday, April 17, 2023

Review: Astro City - Shining Stars

 Astro City - Shining Stars explores various themes. I especially loved its exploration of Samaritan with one of his arch-enemies. One thing to note is that this series doesn't explore super heroes in a direct, straight on fashion. You never see any of their past encounters directly narrated --- it's all inferred by references and asides. Brilliantly done.  The exploration of other lesser known heroes in the universe Busiek has created are also very good, though I wasn't a big fan of the time-traveling tales of Silver Agent.

One nice thing about having missed the return of Astro-City for many years is that I get to spend my time catching up on at least 10 volumes of their work. This is a great series and well worth reading.

Thursday, April 13, 2023

Review: Song of the Cell

 I read Song of the Cell hoping for more from the same author of The Emperor of All Maladies. The book was written during the pandemic, and it shows. The book hops from place to place, from the history of cells to an explanation of gestation, as well as an exploration of stem cells as well as immunology.

Taken on its own terms, the book is quite good as far as an introduction goes, and its theme that most modern medicine is actually cell engineering, from producing insulin to antibiotics to vaccination. Maybe I've just read too many immunology books during the pandemic, but the rest of the book doesn't seem to be as thorough or introduce too many new insights.

I wouldn't say the book was bad or a waste of time, but maybe there's been a flurry of books about immune systems and their interaction with viruses and so forth in recent years, so this book isn't as outstanding as it would be without that context. In addition, the fact that the book goes back and forth in time throughout its various parts doesn't do it any favors. It always feels like just as you're getting into cutting edge research, the book pulls you back in the past again!

Thursday, April 06, 2023

Review: Astro City - Through Open Doors

 It was many years ago when I first picked up Astro City, but for a while they stopped publishing collections, so I put it out of my mind. Then at a library sale I found Through Open Doors and realized that Astro City was back!

The best thing about Astro City is when they focus on the non-superhero humans who have to live in a world where gods can effectively battle it out and destroy lives. In this collection, the story I found most effective is the one where a woman applies for a job at a call center and ends up working at the dispatch center for the superhero team honor guard. It's an awesome story and well worth reading.

I guess that means I'm just going to be picking up the rest of the series! Recommended.

Wednesday, April 05, 2023

Review: Amazon Kindle Scribe

 Eva was telling me that she really liked her Remarkable tablet. The price for that one was $400, but I saw that Amazon had a competitor, the Kindle Scribe. The thing about Amazon is that they have a great trade-in program, so I traded-in an ancient Kindle for $5 credit and a 20% off coupon in anticipation of an Amazon sale.

Sure enough, 2 weeks after I got my credit, the Kindle Scribe 64GB Essentials bundle went on sale for $326. Together with the trade-in, the entire bill of goods came out to $285 after tax. The bundle comes with a leather folio cover and an OEM charger.

When the scribe arrived, I was delighted to discover that it also came with the premium pen and a bundle of replacement tips for the pen. I'm not terribly impressed by the folio cover: it attaches to the kindle purely with magnets instead of a physical snap-fit, which means that it's possible to push the kindle out of the case with finger pressure or mishandling.  Nevertheless, the folding feature makes it possible to read the book easily by tilting the screen with respect to the horizontal, perfect for breakfast.

Typically, I wait to live with a product for a while before reviewing it, but within a couple of days of using the Kindle Scribe I knew I was going to keep it. I never owned the previous large size Kindle DX, but a large screen kindle is so nice that I was going to keep it even without the note-taking feature. First, it makes each kindle page turn correspond (at my preferred font size) to a page in a typical book. That's awesome! Secondly, the book is perfect for Japanese Manga. Kindle Unlimited had several volumes of Attack on Titan, and it's so great to be able to read manga directly without zooming in. The only way this would be better for comics was if the Scribe had color e-ink.

Third, the Kindle Scribe is appreciably faster on download and page turns! I didn't think it would make a big different but it does. As such, when I'm at home, I find myself using it instead of my paperwhite.

The note-taking feature works. I can create notes and write them and it syncs to the cloud. The kids use it more than I do! The writing works as well as paper does, but there are not advanced features --- no handwriting recognition, OCR, shape correction. If I was an artist or mathematician this would be great for note-taking, but alas, I probably won't use this feature much.

The other bad thing about this is that the Scribe is not waterproof. And it being so thin, it feels a bit fragile --- I'm not sure I would travel with it, even though traveling is precisely when I would want to have it around for note-taking. It certainly wouldn't fit well in a saddlebag on a bike tour, and on a sailing trip you would worry about water.

Nevertheless, at the price I paid, the entire package is a good value and it could be that over time, it might save a lot of paper the kids might otherwise waste!

Monday, April 03, 2023

Review: Ra

 Ra is a novel which dramatically changes its nature 3/4 of the way through the book. Since I don't really wish to spoil the book, I'll write about the surface details and the writing, and hope that intrigues you enough to read the book.

The protagonists of the book are a pair of sisters, Natalie and Laura Fenro, who live in a world in which magic was discovered in 1972. This magic is reproducible and repeatable, to the point where the pioneers in the field could write equations, make computations, and by the time the novel starts, there are even ISO standards for magic circles. The two women are traumatized by an event in their childhood, wherein they watched a space shuttle launch turn into a disaster, whereupon their mom says goodbye to them, and goes on to perform magic which is beyond the state of the art at the time, yet fail to rescue the shuttle and its crew.

Both daughters proceed in their own fashions to pursue magic in order to solve the mystery of what they saw that day, and we are drawn into a plot to understand the nature of magic in their world. When the reveal comes, the author isn't hesitant to point out all the issues with the existence of magic, and the explanation is both audacious and challenging. Ideas practically ooze out of the book in every new chapter, which makes the book fun in a way that I haven't seen since Charlie Stross's short story Palimpsest or his novel Glasshouse.

It's clear that the novelist (who goes under the pseudonym qnmt) is a computer scientist/software engineer --- the thinking behind each of the ideas is solid, but the characters are all rather one dimensional. But the ideas are cool, the action is cool, and the concepts will blow your mind. Well worth the time to read (and the $4 kindle price --- since the book is self published, you won't find it in the library).

If you don't want to take the risk, try reading the short story Lena by the same author. It's free and gives you an idea of what kind of fiction qntm writes.


Here's a quote from the book to intrigue you:

Another fun fact: in 1978, a long but startlingly elegant theorem by Shilmani proved that the language of magic had a name. That is, that the language of magic contained within itself a name for the language of magic. The proof was not constructive; it was only in 1980 that Shilmani went on to prove that the name of the language of magic was, in fact, the empty string.  (pg. 293)