KDE Challenge (Fall 2021)

With KDE’s 25th Anniversary and the release of KDE Plamsa 5.23, I got excited to check out a few KDE-focused distros.

Kinoite

First up was Fedora’s KDE-based RPM-OSTree distro, Kinoite. (summary after each video)

Fedora Kinoite

Fedora provides a nice RPM-OSTree solution for folks who want to use the tech, but don’t want to use Gnome. The install is a bit barebones and doesn’t come with Flathub pre-configured, reducing the number of KDE applications that can be installed after the distro is first installed. Once Flathub is activated and Discover is reloaded, the user can start installing KDE apps. Not a good starting distro now, but with some sensible defaults, it could be great thanks to the way that RPM-OSTree makes the system more maintainable.

Kubuntu

Kubuntu 21.10

Kubuntu‘s 21.10 release just came out recently. Overall, it’s got more sensible defaults packages thank either Kinoite or KDE Neon. That said, it’s a little behind from KDE Neon.

KDE Neon

KDE Neon 5.23

While KDE Neon is based on Ubuntu LTS (long term support), it is true to its purpose with the most recent version of KDE Plasma Desktop, Frameworks, QT, etc installed. I just grabbed the ISO yesterday and it had KDE 25th Anniversary edition even though that just came out 3 days ago. Surprisingly, considering that it’s a showcase for KDE, there weren’t too many applications installed by default. The biggest surprise was that it’s setup to use Flatpak and not Snap. It seems that the KDE project has decided to center on Flatpak instead of Snap.

Conclusions

As I said in the videos, I’d recommend KDE Neon to anyone who’s really into KDE or must have the latest packages at all times. (Without the complexity of running Arch Linux) Kubuntu is the best bet for a newer Linux user who is going to set it up on their own without an expert there to help them out. Kinoite is great if you want the stability of RPM-OSTree and will probably mature into something great with time.

Review: Lightspeed Magazine, June 2014: Women Destroy Science Fiction! Special Issue

Lightspeed Magazine, June 2014: Women Destroy Science Fiction! Special IssueLightspeed Magazine, June 2014: Women Destroy Science Fiction! Special Issue by Christie Yant
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of my favorite collections of stories and one of the best anthologies/magazines I’ve read so far in 2021. A lot of the stories in here a phenomenal. There are also a lot of authors in here who, in the past 6-7 years have become quite a bit more famous. That’s fun. The essay section was a little sad in the repetition of negative situations the women found themselves in. There were rays of hope in there, too. And I hope things are getting better. I’m certainly trying with my kids to raise them without gender limits.

As usual with a magazine or anthology, here are my reviews and notes for each story and essay:

ORIGINAL SHORT STORIES
– Each to Each by Seanan McGuire – What makes this tale of a SF future female navy extra scary is that we’ve done stuff like this before. We prefer looks over practicality. In this tale there are genetic modifications done to make the women better submariners (don’t want to give the plot away), but they are left with even larger breasts because that will increase the appeal for the program. At once terrifying and sweet, a great story by Ms. McGuire.

– A Word Shaped Like Bones by Kris Millering – This could almost have been in Nightmare magazine; a variant on the insanity of long-term space travel. A great subversion of my expectations.

– Cuts Both Ways by Heather Clitheroe – While this is immediately a meditation on what it’s like to work intel and get scarred by the situation, it also appears to have a couple other metaphors in it. The PTSD that our main character feels also seems an apt metaphor to what some folks on the autism spectrum describe as their lived reality when people don’t respect their needs. It also appears to be a slight metaphor for trans folks with the drugs and his whole situation going through airport security and having his body a source of ignorant questions. Even if none of that was Ms. Clitheroe’s intention, it’s still really neat that so much could fall out of one short story.

– Walking Awake by N.K. Jemisin: There is so much metaphor in one short story: slavery, complicity in opresssion, denial, how oppression can swallow the perpetrators of oppression, sacrifice, and more. It’s pretty powerful in a small package.

– The Case of the Passionless Bees by Rhonda Eikamp: A steampunk Sherlock Holmes, how delightful! Like any detective story, a good twist; one I didn’t expect.

– In the Image of Man by Gabriella Stalker: Combines late 80s-early 90s libertarian corporate dystopia with a solution to the mall crisis plus a little bit of of a reaction to the debt crisis. It’s really great.

– The Unfathomable Sisterhood of Ick by Charlie JaneJane Anders: Almost like a reverse Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Charlie Jane Anders has created a very interesting premise here. The story goes in some unexpected directions, but I really enjoyed it.

– Dim Sun by Maria Dahvana Headley: a science fantasy story about a good critic in the most exotic restaurant you’ve ever heard of. Funny and enjoyable.

– The Lonely Sea in the Sky by Amal El-Mohtar: I love this style of short story where it cycles between story and news clippings. Really enhances the universe of the story.

– A Burglary, Addressed By A Young Lady by Elizabeth Porter Birdsall: I’ve read some SF where, for some reason or another, Victorian values have reasserted themselves. But often they have some moral message within. This one seems to just be pure fun.

– Canth by K.C. Norton: The Science Fiction is almost incidental to the story and it falls more into Science Fantasy anyway. The story unfolds slowly, revealing a little more about the situation with each new discovery. A fairly neat and self-contained story, but I’d love to have another story with this protagonist.

REPRINTS
– Like Daughter by Tananarive Due: An interesting story about clones that hearkens back to the debates from a few decades ago that treated clones as some weird mystical thing when they’re simply time-separated twins.

– The Great Loneliness by Maria Romasco Moore: A delightfully strange world full of clones and Popes frozen while waiting for the second coming. It’s ultimately more profound than it seems at first.

– Love is the Plan the Plan is Death by James Tiptree, Jr.: I’m sure there are all kinds of metaphors here about sex and gender and roles and so forth. But I hate stories like this that are hard to parse because the characters speak strangely and there isn’t anything to latch onto for understanding.

– Knapsack Poems by Eleanor Arnason: very cute and fun hive mind story. Really enjoyed it.

– The Cost to Be Wise by Maureen F. McHugh (novella): Deeply depressing story about a space colony that has fallen “backwards” on the civilization scale and the Earth anthropologists interacting with them.

ORIGINAL FLASH FICTION
– Salvage by Carrie Vaughn – The old, investigate a dead spaceship trope in flash fiction form.

– A Guide to Grief by Emily Fox – This one takes a little bit to parse because of the way it’s written – almost poetic, but it’s very neat once it comes together.

– See DANGEROUS EARTH-POSSIBLES! by Tina Connolly – A bit dark, but hopeful. Enjoyable.
A Debt Repaid by Marina J. Lostetter – an extremely dark short story involving a fascinating technology. Really moving.

– The Sewell Home for the Temporally Displaced by Sarah Pinsker – a very short story about a possible danger of time travel. Would love to see more in this universe.

– #TrainFightTuesday by Vanessa Torline – A really funny story about a superhero fight told via tweets

– The Hymn of Ordeal, No. 23 by Rhiannon Rasmussen – A story that could be considered a metaphor for how our soldiers often come back in worse physical shape than the left.

– Emoticon by Anaid Perez – A very, very short story.

– The Mouths by Ellen Denham – a very interesting story about a society with only one sense organ

– M1A by Kim Winternheimer – HOLY MOLY! You can make stuff sound REALLY scary when it’s from a kid’s point of view! An interesting take on the stem cell debate. Showed this to my wife who is really into horror. She said it’s one of the most disturbing things she’s ever read. Now we’re reading Nightmare Magazine’s People of Colour Destroy Horror issue. Also, she has a different interpretation of the ending which is that the main girl will be replaced by the clone because the clone is more capable.

– Standard Deviant by Holly Schofield – A very cool story about how much worth we truly have.

– Getting on in Years by Cathy Humble – A really neat story about how we can be and are manipulated by PR firms.

– Ro-Sham-Bot by Effie Seiberg – A neat story about bots and sentience.

– Everything That Has Already Been Said by Samantha Murray – a poetic story.

– The Lies We Tell Our Children by Katherine Crighton – a pretty sad story about parenting


NOVEL EXCERPT
Artemis Awakening by Jane Lindskold – seems to be a sci-fi/fantasy combo in the Neo Pulp tradition. Added it to my TBR pile.


AUTHOR SPOTLIGHTS
– All of these involved talking about stories that appeared before: Seanan McGuire, Kris Millering, Heather Clitheroe, N.K. Jemisin, Rhonda Eikamp, Gabriella Stalker, Charlie Jane Anders, Maria Dahvana Headley, Amal El-Mohtar, Elizabeth Porter Birdsall, K.C. Norton, Tananarive Due, Maria Romasco Moore, Eleanor Arnason, Maureen McHugh


NONFICTION
– Artists Spotlight by Galen Dara – Interviews with all the artists and their galleries.Artist Gallery: Li Grabenstetter; Artist Gallery: Hillary Pearlman; Artist Gallery: Elizabeth Leggett; Artist Gallery: Christine Mitzuk

– Illusion, Expectation, and World Domination through Bake Sales by Pat Murphy – we still have unconscious bias, maybe through science fiction we can start changing assumptions.

– Women Remember by Mary Robinette Kowal – A very cool interview and the older generation of female genre fiction writers. They talk about how things have changed and how they’re the same. Also some conversation about the acceptance of genre fiction in the broader literary world.

– Interview: Kelly Sue DeConnick by Jennifer Willis – An interview with one of my favorite comic book writers about how she got into comics and her views of the industry, particularly as a female writer. It’s a good interview, but I wonder how much more incredible the interview could have been if Bitch Planet was already out at the time.

– The Status Quo Cannot Hold by Tracie Welser – A summary of a feminist SF convention. Sounds like it was a very awesome time.

– How to Engineer a Self-Rescuing Princess by Stina Leicht – A great essay with a reading list for the budding female SF fan.

– Screaming Together: Making Women’s Voices Heard by Nisi Shawl –


PERSONAL ESSAYS
– We are the Fifty Percent by Rachel Swirsky – this goes in a slightly different direction than i thought it would. It’s less about women being approximately 50% of the population and now about how people over-perceive women’s presence.

– Science Fiction: You’re Doin’ It Wrong by Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff – about the perception (among some) that women automatically can’t write hard SF.

– Join Us in the Future by Marissa Lingen – About the whiplash of enjoying female SFG authors for years and then realizing some think that women don’t write in the genre.

– Are We There Yet? by Sheila Finch – another essay about dealing with the idea that women can’t write hard

– Not a Spaceship, Robot, or Zombie in Sight by Anne Charnock – about writing SF without the usual tropes.

– Writing Among the Beginning of Women by Amy Sterling Casil – another person who was rejected from SF because she focused on character development.

– Toward a Better Future by Nancy Jane Moore – editors should work to increase the amount of women published so that new authors will feel there is a market.

– We Are the Army of Women Destroying SF by Sandra Wickham – an essay that i think supports the idea that people raised without limits will not accept their imposition.

– Read SF and You’ve Got a Posse by Gail Marsella – a great essay about the camaraderie in the SF world.

– Stomp All Over That by O. J. Cade – a poetic essay about women in science and SF.

– For the Trailblazers by Kristi Charish – a really awesome essay about someone who’s only had positive experiences in the fields of science and genre writing.

– Women are the Future of Science Fiction by Juliette Wade – another neat essay about gate keeping

– We Have Always Fought by Kameron Hurley – I think this is my favorite essay, probably because it is longer and has much more space to make its point. Ms Hurley does an awesome job conveying why it’s important to make sure the women in SFF are more than 1D caricatures.

– Writing Stories, Wrinkling Time by Kat Howard – One of many essays that mentioned how A Wrinkle in Time was a life-changing read.

– Where Are My SF Books? by DeAnna Knippling – Bemoaning the last of middle grade SF books. (A sentiment I share!)

– Reading the Library Alphabetically by Liz Argall – Both a view to how even the old Golden Age SF could be inspiring to *some* women and a tale of internalized misogyny.

– Stepping Through a Portal by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam – Again, about how there have always been a lot of women genre writers, but they often aren’t taken seriously.

– The Wendybird by Stina Leicht – Another essay about internalizing misogyny from old genre stories.

– I Wanted to be the First Woman on the Moon by Sylvia Spruck Wrigley – About how easy it is for the adults to kill (or at least smother) drive in children.

– Never Think of Yourself as Less by Helena Bell – Introduced to SF by her mother, but her mother was going with what she knew – perpetuating the cycle of the idea that it’s men who write SF.

– An ABC of Kickass by Jude Griffin – An alphabet poem celebrating women authors of the past and present.

– Stocking Stuffers by Anaea Lay – About being 13 and getting the perfect SF book for Christmas.

– Breaching the Gap by Brooke Bolander – X-Files leads the author to a depiction of a realistic woman in SFF.

– Women Who Are More Than Strong by Georgina Kamsika – A call for more SF featuring women

– A Science-Fictional Woman by Cheryl Morgan – an interesting essay with a few different ideas, but that meshes with what other essays have said – the future is here and that has changed some of the ways people are seeing SFF and how that brings out regressive ideas and actions in some.

– Your Future is Out of Date by Pat Murphy – Another essay talking about how books have the power to affect the way people think.

– Stray Outside the Lines by E. Catherine Tobler – about not letting the constant moves against you kill your motivation.

– My Love Can Destroy by Seanan McGuire – About how lonely it can be when you have to hide your passions.

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Review: The Consuming Fire

The Consuming Fire (The Interdependency, #2)The Consuming Fire by John Scalzi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Scalzi continues to kick butt in the second book of The Interdependency. I’m used to the second book of a planned trilogy to be all setup for the third book which can mostly be climax. Yet, within this book Scalzi continues to have mini-climaxes and story beats and surprises.

The story continues to be a sort of updated Dune/Game of Thrones type story with multiple families vying for control of the Emperox. Some of them want to manipulate her and others want to unseat the Wu family from their position at the top. There’s also what seems to be a throwaway line involving some simulated folks that isn’t paid off in this novel, so I assume it’s going to turn out to be a huge plot point in book three. The big difference is that Emperox Cardenia is coming into her own rather than being sideswiped by the events and deaths in book 1.

All the characters continue to be a blast to read, especially Kiva. I’m sad that it seems there’s a lot less of her, but I think that makes sense given the shift in the center of the gravity of the story. Warning – if you’re SOMEHOW or for some reason reading this review before having read The Interdependency 1 – this book is not for the prude of mind. Especially the Kiva chapters. If that doesn’t bother you, you’ll probably have a lot of fun.

I’m reading this series because I’m a voting member of this year’s WorldCon (Discon 3) and after the first book, I was leaning strongly towards Murderbot winning the series award. Now, after this one, it’s neck and neck. That’s my way of saying that while I loved the world-building of the first book (and I am a huge world-building geek), it dragged the story a bit. Now that we have the world in place, Scalzi can put the pedal to the metal and really push the story. I liked this one better than the last one. The battle continues as I move on to Network Effect before coming back to The Last Emperox and finish out both those series. (Then I’ve got a couple more series to read before I make my final decision for the category)

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Review: Witches Abroad

Witches Abroad (Discworld, #12; Witches #3)Witches Abroad by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is my second time reading the book

Our third outing with the Witches and the second one that includes Magrat Garlick. This one is part parody of the travelogue and part parody of Fairy Tales and Fairy Godmothers. It also introduces the Discworld version of dwarf bread; my first time hearing about it. This made it extra funny when I encountered it in the Lord of the Rings books.

This book is fairly standalone – you don’t need too much knowledge of Nanny Ogg, Esme Weatherwax, or Magrat Garlick to enjoy the book. You’ll miss a little reference here and there, but you don’t need to really have read any other Discworld books to enjoy this one.

I left the rating at 3 stars as I felt it was a fairly middle-of-the-road Discworld book. It’s not my favorite Witches book. Pratchett is already driving things very well by this point and it has more of a conventional story than early Discworld books. It’s just not particularly funny or exciting in the way most of the Watch books or the later books about modernizing Ank-Morpork are exciting.

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Review: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes (The Hunger Games, #0)The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Greg from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend as I drove the 900-something miles from Maryland to Florida and it was better than I thought it would be. Ms Collins has avoided most of the annoying tropes that often plague prequels. There aren’t too many of what I call “cute” moments (eg in the Star Wars prequels seeing the Death Star original plans). Mostly those are limited to District 12 once again being the focus, the Hanging Tree song’s origins, an appearance of the katniss plant, and the origins of Mockingjays.

All too often (Disney live action prequels) when we get a prequel involving a villain from the main book/movie/etc, we get some tragic backstory that excuses their evil behavior. Your mileage may vary, but I didn’t find that to be the case with Coreolanus (spelling? I only listened to it) Snow. He was always kind of a pretentious snot who viewed everything in terms of saving face for the Snow family instead of just doing what’s right. In fact, his friend-by-default (the kid from District 2) ends up making choices like Holden in The Expanse, but with less successful results.

That said, we do get a view of what happened to The Capitol during the war and siege by the districts during the war that leads to The Hunger Games. While it doesn’t excuse the creation of The Hunger Games (that goes to a one-dimensional villain in Dr Gall), it certainly goes some way towards explaining why the citizens were willing to go along with the formation of the games.

Speaking of The Games. Ms Collins was clearly spoofing Reality TV when she created the original trilogy. This book has her reverse engineering how the games got to that point. The 10th games (the one happening during this book) finds folks throughout Panem not really paying attention to the games, making them pointless. They are supposed to sow distrust among the districts (similar to the point of the game at the center of Battle Royale – a Japanese book with almost the same plot (but not the reality TV angle), but which Collins claims not to have read or heard of when she wrote Hunger Games). So Dr. Gall has the senior class at the academy devise ways to make the games more exciting and, by the end of the book, we have most of the innovations that are in place by the 74th games that make up the first game of the original trilogy.

If there’s one negative thing I can say about the book it’s that the way it’s paced, I was astonished near the end when Snow mentions that so much had happened to him over the past 2 months. I thought it’d been at least half year by that time. I mean, Collins definitely gives you the dates that you can use as time points, but these 2 months contain SO MUCH that it seems so much more time has passed.

The best thing I can say about the book is that I wasn’t looking forward to it (see the intro paragraphs about how often prequels disappoint) and I pretty quickly found myself unable to stop listening. Collins does a good job of making each story beat lead directly into the next. This doesn’t mean it’s perfect and I’m sure that Hunger Games geeks will find plenty to pick at, but I found it a lot of fun.

If you liked the original trilogy, don’t mind YA, and want to get a little more background on Panem and The Hunger Games, it’s a good read. (Also a good listen)

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Review: The Collapsing Empire

The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I can’t believe I waited so long to read this book, it’s so great. The quick summary: Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Series meets the family competition dynamics of Frank Herbert’s Dune. Interesting to read at the same time as The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. Both books use the idea of segregated resource management as a form of control. In Hunger Games’ Panem it’s each district being in charge of a particular resource. In The Interdependency it’s each family guild controlling a resource.

The book’s got a great cast of characters, especially Kiva Lagos who’s foul-mouthed and as cunning as any Lannister in A Song of Ice and Fire. Then there are the Nohamepetans who’ve got Grini (sorry about the spelling, I mostly listened to the audiobook on a long trip with my father) who reminds me a lot of Littlefinger (again from ASOIAF) (in many ways).

The book is segmented into three parts, each ending with a major reveal. Part 1 is about The Interdependency. Part 2 is about the plot that the book revolves around. Part 3 is about the consequences of that plot and a great setup for the next book.

Scalzi is being Scalzi and creating a good outer space SF universe. This time around he’s obeying the laws of physics for the universe – there is no FTL travel. Unlike Star Wars or Ender’s Game there’s also no FTL communications. This provides some great plot points that we’ve mostly lost on Earth since the communications age made it possible to spread information around the globe instantaneously. Instead, even with The Flow – basically worm holes – there’s travel time required on the order of months. People on any given planet can be operating on old information, allowing for lots of tension and Scalzi uses it well. The novel has plenty of racial representation – ie it’s not just caucasians in space – although it’s mostly limited to Asian and Indian surnames as culture has changed so much from present day as to not really matter in the way the characters behave. That said, Scalzi has a device in the Wu chapters that makes the Asian idea of talking to and getting advice from your dead ancestors real in a science fiction way. I’ve seen the idea explored in some short stories and I think he does a good idea here. There are also numerous important female main characters. Not being female myself, I’ll leave it to others to say whether Scalzi did a good job there. That said, this is one of the few times I’ve read a story that acknowledges the fact that women have menstrual cycles. It’s half the population and something they have to do monthly for a good chunk of their lives. I shared the section with my wife and she was impressed with the passage and thought a woman had written it.

If you like Scalzi, you’ll likely love this (although you have to be OK with profanity as the Kiva chapters are LOADED with them. If you don’t like Scalzi, you probably won’t like it since it’s Scalzi doing what Scalzi does best. If you’re not sure, give it a shot. I think it works very well as an updated Foundation plot. (Although with Apple TV coming out with a Foundation TV show, I wonder if that hurts the chances of an Interdependency Show)



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Review: Exit Strategy

Exit Strategy (The Murderbot Diaries, #4)Exit Strategy by Martha Wells
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the perfect ending to the original Murderbot novella quartet. All the threads from the previous three books finally line up in a way that sets Murderbot up for its debut novel. Murderbot takes everything its learned and developed in order to solve the biggest problem its had yet.

The first couple novellas could have been picked up as standalones, but this one really only truly makes sense as the finale, so don’t bother picking up unless you read the first three.

By the way, Tor.com puts out a short fiction collection (I think they’re also freely available individually) periodically and there’s a Murderbot 4.5 story in the April 2021 edition. The story is called Home: Habitat, Range, Niche, Territory.

Not much else to say since this is the finale and almost entirely made of climax. The last thing I can say in its favor is that I couldn’t put it down for 1.5 hours straight and only stopped because there were 10 people depending on me to cook dinner that night.

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Review: Rogue Protocol

Rogue Protocol (The Murderbot Diaries, #3)Rogue Protocol by Martha Wells
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another great entry in the Murderbot novellas! Our favorite SecUnit is once again involved in a mystery while working on the overarching plot of the novellas to figure out what happened during the incident that led it to override its governor as well as help out the humans from the first novella in their legal fight.

Wells continues to increase the variety of the Murderbot universe and introduce us to various bots with various levels of autonomy. As usual, the story also focuses on humanity and whether it truly only belongs to humans. And Murderbot continues with its HK-47 commentary on the humans around it.

Definitely worth reading!!

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Review: Artificial Condition

Artificial Condition (The Murderbot Diaries, #2)Artificial Condition by Martha Wells
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After reading the second entry in The Murderbot Diaries, I’m sold on why this is such a hit with everyone. Martha Wells takes what was great about the first one – an android who just barely understands human irrationality (although suffering from some himself since he’s made of both synthetic and human tissue) and has to solve a mystery in an update from the older Golden Age format of I, Robot – and changes just enough to keep it incredibly interesting. Tore through this one in just two days and I’m already a few chapters into the next one. This one’s definitely going to be a strong contender for Hugo for best series.

Wells also continues to widen the universe as well as Murderbot’s backstory. I’m going to make a guess that the novellas conclude that portion of the story, allowing the first novel to be more self-contained. Because the novellas are short readers you won’t want to put down, I would recommend reading them all in order. However, this one catches you up enough that you can jump in here if you need to.

Murderbot is awesome!

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Review: All Systems Red

All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries, #1)All Systems Red by Martha Wells
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I got this book for free from the Tor.com eBook club. Also, would have gotten it for free from the Hugos 2021

I know I’m late to everyone’s favorite genderless, somewhat on the autism spectrum, Murderbot but I really loved this book a lot. I had no idea what to expect because when I’m going to read something, I tend to avoid all spoilers, even the back of the book text. What I found was a a great mystery story with a murderbot that’d been put on protection duty. The irreverence Murderbot has for their job and for humans in general reminded me a lot of what I really liked about the Knights of the Old Republic character HK-47. The book was funny without being slapstick or parody. It was more or less the perfect length so we’ll see what happens when I get to the novel-length entry eventually.

Once I got into it, I just wanted to keep going and that’s more or less the best praise I can give for any story.

This series seems to have made Martha Wells the reverse George RR Martin. He wrote lots of science fiction before hitting it big with the books in A Song of Ice and Fire. Now that’s all he’s known for. I feel like Ms Wells is getting the same notoriety with Murderbot overshadowing her earlier fantasy books. In fact, I got (but haven’t yet read) her fantasy books on the strength of everyone’s love for the Murderbot series.

Anyway, READ THIS NOVELLA! You may not feel the overwhelming joy because by the time you get it, it might be over-hyped, but I’m pretty sure you’ll enjoy it!

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Review: Necessity

Necessity (Thessaly, #3)Necessity by Jo Walton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was the perfect cap on the trilogy. Told in a series of POV chapters that shuttle back and forth through time, the book forms the perfect meta-analogy to the way the gods experience time. Their personal time is moving forward even as they move forward and backward through our timeline.

We also get a perfect conclusion to the story of The Just City and why Athene was allowed to set it up. The scene with Zeus reminded me of the Christian gnostics and it really provided a very interesting answer to the question Christians always ask – why did God create us? The answer is (view spoiler).

I also enjoyed the expansion of the pantheon of gods to include alien gods.

Walton does a great job with Apollo’s song to create something similar to the original epic poems.

I really loved this story although this review probably isn’t doing that great a job conveying it. As a story interested in socratic and platonic ideas, it’s really hard to talk about it without spoiling too much.

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Review: Black Powder War

Black Powder War (Temeraire, #3)Black Powder War by Naomi Novik
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Black Powder War is another great entry by Ms. Novik in the Temeraire series. It picks up almost immediately after the previous book ended. Now Temeraire and crew must head to the Ottoman Empire. Oh, and for variety, Ms Novik has their ship burn down so they have to travel along the ancient (and at this point mostly non-existent) Silk Road.

As before, the story milks a lot from Laurence and aristocratic manners. But it also touches on quite a few other things. Temeraire has now seen how well dragons are treated in China and is impatient to get back to England to begin reforms for dragon equality. Most of his back and forth with Laurence (as well as the except of an in-universe book at the end) mirrors the debate around human African slavery. In fact, since that also exists in the world of Temeraire, it proves extra hard for Laurence to reconcile since his family has been on the side of ending the British involvement in the slave trade. Indeed, in the real world, Britain had ended its role in the slave trade much earlier than the USA.

If there’s one thing most non-history geeks know (and even quite a few history geeks) it’s that most people never left their immediate 20 mile radius from where they lived. We learn about traders and how they must have traveled, but until I read Neal Stephenson’s Foreworld Cycle, I never considered that traders and those in the military (including crusaders) would have traveled infinitely more than those around them. In fact, more than many modern humans. These people were often seen as outside of society, contaminated from contact with foreigners. That makes sense, because they’d probably come back with some ideas that the ruling class might find anathema. Couple that with the race theory of the 1800s and you can see why Tharkay, a character with a caucasian father and central asian mother, finds himself completely outside of society. To survive he effectively becomes nomadic – ferrying messages and goods across overland routes that most would deem too dangerous. This makes him one of the more interesting characters in this book. Ms. Novik contrives to have him play a small role in the book and I think this makes the impact of his lot in life hit a bit harder.

There are probably other themes I’m forgetting. But this book, once it got going, was one I found hard to put down. As you can see, I finished it in a mere 3 days. The battles in the latter third of the book are harrowing and I was left in suspense each time I had to leave the book. I don’t know if this is due to my ignorance of European history at this time or if Ms. Novik changes history at this point thanks to Napolean’s availability of air power (via dragons) changing the calculus of his conquest of Europe. I’m still hesitant to look it up. I know, because it’s so famous, that in real life he eventually lost to Russia when trying to conquer them. But I don’t know if this is yet to happen. For example, I know Temeraire makes mention of the American Colonies having won their independence from Britain, but I also think I read somewhere (not sure if it’s a spoilers thing or if it was in one of the in-world books) that the USA doesn’t get to enact full manifest destiny because the Native Americans also have dragons.

Either way, if you liked the first two books, this one is like a great combination of them. The battles of book 1 put together with the travelogue of book 2.

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Completing Advent of Code 2015 with 3 Programming languages

Throughout the spring and summer of 2021 a few of the times that I mentioned on the Advent of Code subreddit that I was doing the 2015 problem set in all 3 languages, some folks said they’d be interested in a writeup on the experience. Now that I’ve finally finished 2015 (my first set of 50 stars!) it’s time for that writeup. Before I continue, I’d like to thank everyone on the subreddit who has helped me. I have a README.md for each day’s problem and you’ll find my thanks to those who helped me within those READMEs here in my repo.

Why these languages?

  • Python – it’s my main language and the one in which I’m most proficient. I have written some programs used by many others (like my Extra Life Donation Tracker) and utilities that solve some problem I have (like my btrfs snapshot and backup program). By solving each problem in Python first, I allow myself to focus on the problem first instead of a syntax I’m unfamiliar with.
  • Ruby – I’ve had a lot of interest in Ruby because it is often compared and contrasted to Python. In 2020 I’d read through a book teaching kids how to program in Ruby and I wanted to push further. 
  • Perl – my first exposure to Perl was in the mid-90s when I was trying to figure out how people were making these cool websites with something called CGI scripts. I didn’t get too far with it at the time. Then, about 15 years ago I went through the O’Reilly books because I had the book Flickr Hacks and all (or most?) of the scripts were in Perl. I hadn’t really touched it since then and wanted to see if I could get proficient in it. Perl may be on the way out (I don’t think the Perl5 -> Perl6/Raku transition helped) but it’s still ranked #21 on Github. And the language is still being developed. But, anyway, there isn’t a real need for justification, I’ve just had a lot of folks ask me “why?” so I wanted to address that.

What the experience was like

First of all, Python’s list comprehensions are AWESOME. The funny thing is that until 1-2 years ago, I couldn’t figure out how to make sense of them. Then I just so happened to come across the right tutorials in some books and online classes last year that finally brought it all home. I now love it so much that it annoys me that Ruby doesn’t have it. (of course Perl wouldn’t).

I tried to be as idiomatic as I could given what I knew about either of the languages. In general, if you go through my repo in order – the later days will be more idiomatic as I learned more about the languages and gained more experience. That said, I could usually port my Python solution over to Ruby without too much trouble. Sometimes I would see where I could make idiomatic changes as I went along. Other times I would make the changes after getting the solution working or after getting some help from the AoC subreddit or the Ruby subreddit. Perl, being the older language, often was the most different. Sometimes it was for the better, but often it was worse.

Although I’ve never been an awesome programmer, I’ve done it at work and in school so I’ve come across C and Java in addition to Python, Ruby, and Perl. There are lots of arguments about curly braces (brackets in British english), indentation, etc. But having used 3 languages each with their own different ways of doing things has really shown the pros and cons. Python is the one I’m the most used to, so I have no problem using indentation to see when functions, classes, conditionals, etc end. (Especially in an IDE – copying code from a book is another story) I also find that curly braces tend to be pretty easy as long as you indent them so you can match it with the one above. But, for some reason, “end” with Ruby just causes me all kinds of headaches in seeing what goes with what (Day 23 was a real pain for that). Especially since the semantics are different in conditionals compared with Python and Perl. What I mean is that in Python when you have an if statement, you out-indent for your else or elif. For Perl you close your if statement curly braces and start a new one for your else. But in Ruby your else goes in the same “end” as your if statement. There’s definitely a logic to it, but it’s the odd man out in this trio.

Anyone who’s programmed for a while knows how important for the DRY principle it is to be able to create functions/methods/subroutines. But it is incredibly apparent to me that subroutines in Perl were created in a VERY DIFFERENT time period or mindset because they are the biggest pain in the world. Every time I had a subroutine-heavy algorithm designed in Python I began to dread creating the same thing in Perl. Passing arguments is THE WORST. Unlike a modern language where you’re defining what the variables are going to be called in the signature you’re pulling them off of an array that holds all the variables as if every single Perl subroutine is the equivalent of making your Python functions all have *args in the signature. And getting the data out reliably usually meant getting it as a scalar; a big pain if it was really an array! And there was the passing of references instead of arrays….oy!

Finally, one of the things that programming language geeks get into (and I guess I’m one of those now) is talking about how much extra syntax there is just for your language to parse. I hate languages that require semicolons. The fact that Python and Ruby don’t need them; the fact that, as I’ve done my research into Golang, it doesn’t need them. It just serves to remind me how pointless they are in Perl. The sigils were also annoying. The funny thing is that I could actually see them being incredibly useful if someone designed a major IDE to have a Perl parser. It could provide suggestions, etc based on knowing if your variable was an array or hash before you’ve even added data to it. But mostly it just served as a source of warnings when I’d first run any given Perl script.

What I learned

First off, a generic thing – different languages have different strengths. For the vast majority of the AoC problems, any programming language was as good as the next. But there were some where the built-ins or the parsing of a particular language made a solution easier or run a little faster.

  • Python
    • Got a lot more practice with regular expressions including learning when to use search vs match
    • After struggling with it last December, I finally understand memoization
    • using ord() to get the ASCII value for a letter and then using that to advance to the next letter
    • How to do permutations where you need all the elements to sum to a specific number.
    • How to use itertools Product to make combinations from different lists
  • Ruby
    • Creating files to import
    • Using iterable#each to do idiomatic for loops
    • map(&:to_i) to change an entire array from string to int without having to explicitly loop through the array.
    • if $PROGRAM_NAME == __FILE__ to do Python’s equivalent of if __name__  == “__main__”
    • How to do unit testing
    • memoization/caching
    • blocks in Ruby don’t need something like pass, so I was just able to do if backspace_or_unicode == nil and keep going.
    • string.delete_prefix and string.delete_suffix are the equivalent of lstrip and rstrip in Python
    • Chunk and chunk_while – which made Day 10 so easy!
    • Ruby classes and how to initialize them
    • using sort to sort by custom variables in a class
    • It appears you cannot just access variables in a Ruby class, you have to have a method to return the value. 
    • How to do permutations where you need all the elements to sum to a specific number.
    • array#flatten to reduce an array of arrays into an array
    • by default, the Hash just returns nil instead of erroring out if I try to access a key that doesn’t exist. Easier having to use get in Python.
  • Perl
    • Push instead of append to add to arrays
    • sorting numerically is a lot more complicated in Perl than the other languages 
    • using CPAN.
    • Perl does not have True/False primitives
    • Apparently there’s no way to tell if something is a string. If it’s not a number, hash, or array – it’s a string
    • The existence of the $-[0] and $+[0] after you do a regex match. They return the start and end of a match, respectively. 

What’s Next

Next up for me is starting work on the 2016 problem set. For that problem set I plan to add Haskell and Go to the list of languages. I will also keep Python, Ruby, and Perl so that I can stay sharp on those languages. I’ll also be intermittently going back to 2020 to finish the problems I didn’t finish last December and, eventually, also doing those in the other languages.

Review: Crimson Son

Crimson Son (Crimson Son #1)Crimson Son by Russ Linton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I got this book from a Story Bundle called “Immerse or Die”. The editor of the bundle had a process that went something like, “I got on the treadmill and started reading. If the book wasn’t pulling me in by the time I finished my 30 minutes, it was eliminated.” I didn’t find it quite that engrossing, but I did enjoy it and by the time the climax arrived, I kept wanting to turn the pages to see what would happen next.

Irrespective of when this book was written, I happened to read it after having watched season 1 of the Amazon adaptation of Invincible. That happened to inform some of my guesses about where the story was heading. Pleasingly, I don’t think any one of those predictions came true. Just like the beginning of both the comic and TV show, we have a non-super kid who is the son of a seemingly Superman-level super hero. However, where Robert Kirkman starts off Invincible as a deconstruction/reconstruction of both the Spider-Man and Superman mythos, Crimson Son starts off completely differently. The family is in hiding in a kind of a defunct Fortress of Solitude – perhaps a more realistic fate for the Parr family in The Incredibles 1 after Mr. Incredible punches his insurance office boss through a bunch of cubicles. Coming closer to Invinsible (at least the TV show – it’s been a while since I read the comic) the dad seems to have anger management issues causing some estrangement with his son. His son also seems to have very interesting lucid dreams (dreams where you are aware you are in a dream and, sometimes, able to control some of the events) that I believe the reader is meant to suspect are some kind of latent super powers.

The book seems to meander a bit at first, which made me surprised that it survived the Immerse or Die challenge. However, Linton pays off nearly all of the setup. He also manages a pretty sweet deconstruction/reconstruction of a Reed Richards/Hank Pym type of character. I think what dropped it from a 4 star was the ending. This book was clearly (I may be wrong, but it certainly reads this way) written to be part of a series. So while Spencer, our main character, actually has a great resolution to 2 of his plots, the ending still seems like if it was a movie we’d have at the end of the credits: “Spencer will return in Crimson Son 2: The Crimsoning”. There also didn’t seem to be a payoff to the strange sexuality with Charlotte near the end. Look through my book history and you’ll see I’m no prude – I’ve read erotica novels and romances and so on. But without any kind of payoff for the nudity or the ultra-specific detail of an erect nipple brushing against his arm – it just seemed gratuitous for what is otherwise a normal novel. (In other words you expect gratuity in an erotica, not a normal novel. In a normal novel there should be a reason for the excessive violence, language, or nudity.)

Overall, I had fun with the book. I’d recommend it as a super hero book that takes a slightly different look than all the others I’ve read – Invincible, The Boys, Irredeemable, etc.

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Review: Reaper Man

Reaper Man (Discworld, #11; Death, #2)Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is my second read. I have dropped the rating from 4 stars to 3 stars

I love Discworld’s Death. He makes any book better by his presence and so I especially love the books that feature Death. In this book Death is the A story. As we’ve seen throughout the previous 10 books, he’s developed a slightly more human personality. There was even that book a while back (Mort, I believe) where Death became a short order cook for a while. Apparently the auditors of reality don’t like this and Death now has a life timer. He ends up living out the rest of his life in a rural town and has a character growth arc.

The B story revolves around the effects of a lack of Death. My recollection of this book involved remember a Death of Mice and other Deaths. Turns out this was the tiniest smidgen of a plot point and didn’t loom as large as it had in my memory. We follow Windle Poons who was introduced, I believe, in Moving Pictures, as a semi-senile Wizard pushed around in the Discworld-equivalent of a wheelchair. Due to Death taking a break, Poons can’t die and essentially becomes a zombie (although without any of the zombie tropes we’re aware of in our real world). While there’s somewhat of an arc with Poons that’s kind of a lamentation of what death robs you of and how we don’t spend enough time in our youth truly paying attention – it’s mostly an excuse for Pratchett to introduce horror elements – vampires, werewolves, etc. He will make great use of this in future books. And there’s a weird plot about shopping malls that I didn’t like the first time and liked even less this time as it seemed too similar to the movie theatre plot of Moving Pictures.

If you like Discworld, read it for Death’s parts. The part with the horror guys and the wizard faculty (which is no longer ever-changing with Ridcully at the helm) are just OK.

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