Review: Yendi

JasonC —  December 27, 2016 — Leave a comment

Yendi
Yendi by Steven Brust
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The first time I read this one, 20 or so years ago, I don’t think I truly realized how good a book this is. On second reading, it is absolutely fantastic. This book is also a reasonable choice for a starting point for the Vlad Taltos series of books as the events in the book actually occur chronologically prior to the first published book, Jhereg. (Personally, I’d say read Jhereg first, but they’re written in such a way that you can start almost anywhere and pick right up. There is a combination tome – The Book of Jhereg which collects the first three books by publishing order. Definitely go with that if you’re just getting started).

Yendi is a very early story in the Vlad Taltos series, covering several very momentous events that set the tone for events later in the series. In this novel, Vlad fights a territory war against a competing Jhereg named Laris. Both sides are supported by unseen patrons, and the events become bad enough that the Empress even notices and feels the need to intervene.

Along the way, Vlad is assassinated, meets his wife and uncovers a plot that spans hundreds of years and ultimately determines the Dragon heir to the empire.

As with all of the Vlad Taltos books, this is a fast-paced fun read. Brust writes with a very humorous style that I always find brings me several laugh out loud moments per book. While the book is quite action-packed, the backbone of the book is really a sleuthing tale wherein Vlad tries to figure out what is going on and then sets things up to try and win his war against Laris. As always, it’s a fun, engaging read and the details are what ends up making it. All of the usual characters are here – Morrolan, Aliera, Kragar. Cawti and Norathar also show up in dramatic fashion.

Definitely worth the read.

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Review: Jhereg

JasonC —  December 27, 2016 — Leave a comment

Jhereg
Jhereg by Steven Brust
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a fantastic book and I highly recommend it if you want a fun read that doesn’t constantly regurgitate the standard fantasy tropes.

The series is very well done and still continues to have solid additions. I originally read this book while I was in med school (borrowed it and a couple of the others in the series from a friend who recommended it) about 20 years ago. I’ve started re-reading the series recently and it’s standing up well to the re-read. It’s also useful because it’s helping me to recall some details I’ve long forgotten. Also, in the re-read, there are a TON of inside jokes that hit me harder now that I know the characters well.

This is the first book in the series and should be read first, in my opinion. It is NOT chronologically the first in the series. In fact, there’s a fair amount of chronological jumping in the series, so you might as well get used to that.

Jhereg introduces the reader to Vlad Taltos, who is the primary “protagonist” through all of these books. Vlad is an “Easterner” (an Earth-style human) living in the land of Dragaera amongst another humanoid species he calls “elves” and whom the author calls Dragaerans (they call themselves “humans.”) In Dragaeran society, there are 17 “houses” each with it’s own characteristics. Vlad’s father bought his way into the Jhereg, which is thought of as the house of criminals and is therefore a lower house. Dragaerans typically live hundreds to thousands of years, are 6.5 feet tall or taller and are typically thinly built.

Vlad himself runs a smallish territory in the town of Adrilanka. He also occasionally takes work as an assassin to supplement his income. He has some skill in the eastern arts of witchcraft along with Dragaeran sorcery. He also has some extremely powerful friends and acquaintances. It all makes for some interesting storylines throughout the series.

In this particular book, in addition to meeting the “cast” as it were, the main story involves a leader of house Jhereg hiring Vlad to assassinate another high-ranking member who has pulled a “fast one” on the house itself. As the story unfolds, you find out it’s deeper and then deeper still than anyone knew. As is pretty common with the series, most of Vlad’s time is spent trying to figure things out with frequent flurries of action along the way. There are twists, turns and surprises. I won’t spoil the surprises for you, but I will say it is a convoluted but enjoyable ride the whole way. A great deal of the fun in reading these books is getting to see how Vlad figures things out and how he figures out how to get out of his tight spots.

As a final comment: Steven Brust has built an excellent world in this series. It’s different, but exceptionally well thought-out. In addition to the Vlad Taltos books, there are several other books (6-7) that take place in the same world and focus on other characters who figure prominently through all of the series. Those are worthwhile reads as well. I’m continually surprised that Brust (and these books, in particular) isn’t a much more prominent/popular author amongst those who enjoy the genre. (If you have any insight as to the reason for this, I’d love to hear it. It is mind-boggling to me.)

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Review: NPCs

JasonC —  November 15, 2016 — Leave a comment

NPCs
NPCs by Drew Hayes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a fun romping adventure wit ha nice twist. If you ever enjoyed playing Dungeon’s & Dragons or anything similar for hours with your friends, you’ll “get” this book.

A group of players starts a new campaign that the GM has invested a lot of time and effort preparing for them. A campaign that is “a lot more realistic” than their previous ones. That means they have to pay attention to every little detail. Unfortunately, as many gamers have experienced, there are always those in a gaming group who only care about certain parts of the gaming experience (the fighting) or who are so busy trying to figure out how to short circuit the “experience” to get to the loot. So not long after setting the stage for the campaign, the whole party ends up dead due to an unfortunate side effect of some mushrooms they found along the way.

But the NPC’s (Non-Player Characters) in the campaign world are left to pick up the pieces when they find the bodies and realize this means the less-than-benevolent King may come to their town and destroy it because of these “lost adventurers.” So they have to take up the mantle and set off on an unexpected quest.

It’s a pretty fun read. I’m not going to say there’s anything exceptionally original about it, but it moves quickly, develops the characters and world, and definitely left a smile on my face after reading it. This is the first in a series, and I’ll definitely pick up the next one to see what happens next. That said, this is a pretty well-contained story in itself. More like reading The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe than The Fellowship of the Ring.

Similar reads:
Off to Be the Wizard (Scott Meyer) (the whole Magic 2.0 series, in fact)

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Review: The Last Colony

JasonC —  November 15, 2016 — Leave a comment

The Last Colony
The Last Colony by John Scalzi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Part 3 of the John Scalzi Old Man’s War series carries the torch quite well, delivering a good story, advancing/developing the characters we meet and ones we’ve come to enjoy in the previous 2 books.

Very briefly, this is a continuation of the story with John Perry and Jane Sagan as the primary protagonists. They’ve settled down as colonists on a human planet when the United Defense Force comes calling. Along the way, they are tricked and cornered. Scalzi continues his excellent way of telling stories, infusing suspense, action, and humor while producing a story that ends up feeling satisfyingly deep and nuanced.

If you haven’t read any of these, definitely start with Old Man’s War (which is first in the series) before moving on to The Ghost Brigades prior to picking up this one. Those are both 5-star reads, so it’s worth the time and effort. This is a good series to invest your time.

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Review: Cryptonomicon

JasonC —  October 18, 2016 — Leave a comment

Cryptonomicon
Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow, what an enjoyable read!

Neal Stephenson is one of those authors that until a couple of years ago had been notable because I had several of his books on my “to read” list (and on my shelves) who always seemed to get high praise, but for one reason or another, other books always kept leaping ahead of those. Now having read 4 of his books in the last 3 years (Snowcrash, The Diamond Age, Seveneves, and now Cryptonomicon), I think I’m going to have to read through everything he puts out. I think the main reason for my previous hesitation is the length of some of his works – he likes to publish thick books. Sometimes that’s what I’m looking for, sometimes not. Also, he jumps genres and themes like no other author I’ve previously read.

Anyway, as for Cryptonomicon, here are a few things you should know:
1. This is not in any way, shape, or form a science fiction novel.
2. It isn’t related to anything in the horror genre, either (in case you’re thinking it is due to the Necronomicon, which is totally unrelated).
3. It IS historical speculative fiction with action and adventure
4. If you don’t know anything about code-breaking, you will learn a lot. If you do, you’ll have great fun with this one.

If you have a geeky background (like me), this book will likely hit your groove early and keep you happy for the entirety.

The construction of the book is interesting. There are essentially 2 timelines, one set in the WW2 era (late 30′s to mid 40′s) and one set in the “modern” era (2000-ish). The characters are wildly different, but through their efforts in the war, they intermingle around Bobby Shaftoe (early era) who seems to be the glue that ultimately binds them together. Lawrence Waterhouse is the “other” main character in the early era and you might also consider him the center of the whole story. He is the lead American cryptographer helping break codes to turn the tide of the war.

In the “modern era” story, the primary character is Randy Waterhouse, grandson of Lawrence mentioned above. Both eras have intriguing stories that ultimately come together in the modern era and weave it all together.

Along the way, you meet Historical figures such as Alan Turing and Douglas MacArthur. Travel around the world several times (with particular attention to the Philippines and Bletchley Park in Britain). Both eras have an interesting connection with cryptography, with Lawrence being a key contributor to the Cryptonomicon (a tome of Allied knowledge of code systems and code-breaking) and Randy working with a company focused on using cryptography to protect data and ultimately trying to establish an international data crypt storage facility/bank.

Other characters in the book flesh it out very well and really make the story about the people behind the events that they all seem to be caught up in and yet are out of their control. Bobby Shaftoe is an almost Forrest Gump type character who always seems to find himself in the middle of things, yet his single-minded determination and positive attitude take him extremely far. Goto Dengo is a Japanese officer who Shaftoe befriends early, before America is brought into the war with Pearl Harbor. Enoch Root is a somewhat mysterious figure who is a former member of the clergy who saves Shaftoe’s life and ends up traveling with him on most of his adventures and yet also works with Lawrence Waterhouse and even makes it into the modern era storyline intact.

If the topic of cryptography seems intimidating to you, or boring, don’t let that sway you from picking this up for a read. While there is some technical jargon, the whole book has much more of an adventure feel to it. The pace is pretty fast-paced and moves you right along from beginning to end. That said, if you have some interest in computers or crypto, then I suspect that will just add to your enjoyment.

Did I find any negatives to the book? There was some language, which I tend to find unnecessary, but others seem to think adds to the “grittiness” or authenticity of a book that is often about conversations between soldiers. There is some sex and sexual references that might be off-putting to some, but at the end of the day don’t add up to any kind of deal-breaker. It might make it more appropriate for college-age readers, but some of the technical discussions would probably attract adult readers more than teenagers anyway.

I listened to the audiobook version and it weighed in at a hefty 42 hours and 53 minutes, but I enjoyed it immensely. As things wrapped up in the end, I really didn’t want it to end at all. To me, that’s a sign of a truly good book. Great world-building. Personable characters who change and grow. And a fantastic plot. All told, this is simply a fantastic book.

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The Restaurant at the End of the Universe
The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Rating: 3.5 stars

For whatever reason, when I was a teenager, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books were always books that I had on my “to read” list but it’s only now that I’ve actually gotten around to reading them. There must have been a lot of talk amongst my friends about them. 25+ years later, I’m finding these pretty enjoyable light reading.

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe takes up immediately after the end of Hitchhiker’s Guide and involves the same main characters. They’re on a galactic road trip, essentially caught up in the whirlwind of Zaphod’s drama wherein he is trying to figure out a personal mystery that lead to him stealing a spacecraft in the first book. Along the way, you get to know a very little more about the characters, see some pretty interesting planets, and almost get to watch the end of the universe.

Honestly, the most impactful thing about this book is all of the cultural references that I had seen previously, but never knew the origin. Much of those are found in other science fiction (movies, etc) but also randomly in other places. There is some always-fun British humor, of course. Dry wit and sarcasm galore.

Overall, the story didn’t go much of anywhere. The character development is pretty glacially slow. Towards the end there was some ironic time travel (for some reason, I find that I loathe time travel stories and elements… not sure why). Thankfully, it was a pretty short book and a “quick” read. I have all 5 books in a Kindle collection, but this one made me wonder if I’ll get through them. Maybe I’ll save it for when I’m needing some sarcastic dry wit or British humor. I’m still glad I’ve read the book, though.

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The Industries of the Future
The Industries of the Future by Alec J. Ross
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Rating: 4 stars

What I liked about this book: Generally good writing style that allowed it to flow. Interesting take on the concepts of globalization and how it will effect the choices our children will have to make in regards to their education and future jobs. Good examples of the effects of globalization with interesting people, places and situations coming into the new economy.

What was not so great: This book is very much an “overview” and almost seems more targeted towards non-Americans with a very hopeful tone for certain regions and political regimes (which is great, just that I am not that target audience). There was a fair amount of political pushing toward traditional American Democrat agendas. It wasn’t so heavy-handed as to be offensive, though.

Discussion:
As a man in my mid-forties now (sigh), there has been profound change in the world over my adulthood in a way that really alters my outlook for the children of Gen-X’ers such as myself. If you watch the news, it’s almost always portrayed as a bleak future with little hope for our children. This is a huge change from when I grew up – there seemed no end to the optimism about our future and the never-ending opportunities that were before us. Work hard and the world would be your oyster. Now, it seems kids are wary of the world and the opportunities seem few and far between. Not only that, but you can work harder and somebody in India will still be available to work twice as hard at half the price.

So, going into this book, my thought was there is still opportunity out there. It is likely just harder to find. And best to ignore the media on what your future is likely to be like. But where is that opportunity for America’s youth? Where should I be pointing my kids’ efforts and how can I help guide and prepare them so they can realize the opportunities that are out there?

In many ways, The Industries of the Future ties in with The World Is Flat (and Hot, Flat and Crowded) by Thomas Friedman. In summary, for those of us here, we are best served by avoiding traditional old-school jobs and careers that put a premium on doing one thing well. Work to be broad in your knowledge and skill set. Learn languages. Look for opportunities to combine your specific knowledge with new technology and possibly even emerging markets. Be quick on your toes and expect change.

Overall, I found this to be a thought-provoking and well-reasoned book. Interesting examples of technologic change and how it has effected certain regions and industries are found throughout the book and are fairly engaging. Definitely worth the read if you are a young person or have young people in your life that you will be influencing.

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3D Printing – Intro.

JasonC —  September 29, 2015 — Leave a comment

3dprinting

About 4-5 years ago, I started hearing about 3D Printing and I thought at the time that it was an interesting, but maybe a little gimmicky an idea. The first mention I remember of it was of a guy (student?) who made a 3D Printer in the desert using solar magnification (check it out) which could make things out of sand. Seemed pretty cool, but impractical. Then I heard about some companies who were prototyping toys with 3D printers. That made sense. Shortly thereafter, I heard about projects where you could get the plans and make your own, then kits became available, then you could buy a pre-built model.

For the longest time the idea grew on me, but whenever I would read about them, one thing was clear: prepare to spend more time tinkering with the 3D printer than actually making anything. That was kind of a bummer. As the past few years have passed, more companies have been born with different models of printers. Most people have heard of MakerBot, which was one of the earliest companies selling kits and pre-built models. At some point, I decided I was definitely going to make the jump, but there were so many options and every model seems to have serious pros and serious cons. There are $500 models and some that go all the way up to $3500+ (in the consumer line, I’m sure you can go to 6-figures easily in the pro lines) Reading reviews online didn’t help a whole lot because every model has good and bad reviews. When I changed jobs in February, I earmarkeda budget of $2500 from my signing bonus for it.

Once our house sold and we got moved in to our new place in Chattanooga (still a work-in-progress), I was ready. I decided on the Ultimaker 2 printer due to it’s quality and speed of printing, size of the printing area, and ease of use as reported by and consistently used by several YouTube folks I follow. Check out @Barnacules and his YouTube videos, Tested’s YouTube Review, and just do a search for Ultimaker on YouTube or Google). It was right at the $2500 budget mark. The other candidates were the Lulzbot Taz 5 (used by James Bruton extensively) and the MendelMax. I ruled out MakerBot’s products due to common failure issues, lack of multi-material support, and numerous bad reviews (pretty much nothing BUT bad reviews, really). 

I didn’t end up buying the Ultimaker. 

Something came up. Actually 2 things:

Printrbot Plus

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Review: Ready Player One

JasonC —  September 7, 2014 — 1 Comment

Ready Player One
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

First off, I’d just like to say that I could kick myself right now.

Why? Because this book started showing up on my “to-read” and suggested books lists in various places like Shelfari, Goodreads, and Amazon about 2 years ago. Maybe longer. I actually bought it over a year ago with a credit in Audible (unabridged and read by Will Wheaton, yes that Will Wheaton. And I started listening to it/reading it about a week and a half ago.

WOW! I’ve just completed this and I feel that near-gut-punch feeling of having finished a GREAT book. One with no sequel. If you’re a reader, you’ll know what I mean by saying “it feels like I’ve lost a close friend.” This book is instantly in my top 10 of all time and probably in my top 5.

RPO is set in a dystopian 2044 where the real world is ravaged by poverty, food shortages and economic collapse. But most people don’t care because they spend the majority of their “lives” in The OASIS, which is a virtual reality universe. Because of the instability of the economies of the real world, the credits of the OASIS are actually more valuable than those in the real world.

Into this milieu is dropped our protagonist (Wade Watts, essentially a high-school senior) who is a self-proclaimed gunter. The creator of the OASIS has died and left his vast fortune as the prize for the first person to find the ultimate game Easter Egg in the OASIS. Millions of people spend their lives as egg-hunters (hunters) trying to find that egg. Wade has very little in the real world, but he has a good friend “H” and a much-better-than-average grasp of the knowledge needed to find the Egg.

The twist is that the creator, James Halliday, was obsessed with 80′s culture and geeky pastimes. Video games like Pac Man, Zork, and the like, awesome 80′s music and movies. You name it and it’s probably references in Ready Player One.

Through an incredible set of discoveries and adventure, Wade makes new friends, falls in love, nearly calls it quits, nearly gets killed (several times) and takes us, the readers along for an incredibly fun, fast-paced ride into the future AND the past.

If you’re a geek of the 80s (like me), jump in the way-back machine and pick up this book immediately. Just do it. Don’t waste your time waiting. This is a FANTASTIC book.

And if you enjoy audiobooks, I highly recommend the audiobook. Will Wheaton’s performance is fantastic. There’s nothing distracting about it whatsoever. He’s simply the perfect choice for narrating this one.

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So I was watching YouTube videos and I came across this one where the guy was talking about his personal philosophy and this concept really stuck with me: AnythingWorthDoing

When you first say it out loud “Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly” it just feels “off.” But then when you think about it, it makes so much sense! How many people NEVER strive for greatness for fear of failure? How many try something once and give up because the results aren’t PERFECT the first time? 

I think it happens all the time. Probably the majority of people who read this have “settled” in life because they didn’t even try. Or maybe they tried, but didn’t push through to the point where they actually get good at it. 

In one of Malcolm Gladwell’s books (I think it is Outliers), he talks about the 10,000-hour rule. 10,000 hours! That’s essentially 10 years of 50 hour/week (or more) solid working at something before you get to the “expert” level! 

So if you love doing something, it shouldn’t matter how good you are to start out. What matters is that you do it. Stick with it. Overcome and outlast! Because 10 years down the road is where you really see the benefit of sticking with it. 

Are YOU doing what is truly worth doing?