Review: The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

The Lies of Locke Lamora is Epic Fantasy without all the Epic.

Since Scott Lynch’s third book in the Gentleman Bastards series, Republic of Thieves, just came out to great fanfare. I decided to check this series out.

It’s no secret that I find the bane of Epic fantasy all the tedious description and navel gazing about the world. I understand the point is to immerse the reader, but far too often I find it to be nothing but voyeurism into the mental masturbations of the author. Worse yet, all that nonsense rarely adds anything to the story itself. No guidance for the characters. No direction for the plot. Mind you, I’m not a scene-sequel junkie that requires nothing but action thrusting the story forward. I find these stories just as tedious because all you get is the next “raising of the stakes” and no plot intricacy and slim character development.

I want balance!

The Lies of Locke Lamora delivers. The cast of characters is fairly small for such a long fantasy tale, but because the story is presented in two threads, one in the past and one in the present, you get two for the price of one on many of the characters. You also get to see how the characters develop into who they are. Scott Lynch does a marvelous job switching back and forth between relevant interludes from the past and back into the present. This can be hard to pull off. All too often, flashbacks are either thrust into a story ham-fisted and seem clunky, or they have no relevance to the current plot and are simple character info-dumps. If you hate flashbacks, you need not fear them in this story, the past and present are woven together very elegantly.

The point of view is principally from Locke’s vantage, but 5-10% of the time it does switch to other characters. This doesn’t bother me. I don’t need to have everything from one PoV, or balance amongst the other eyeballs we see through. However, without getting into any solid spoilers, there was one major plot point where one of the main character dies that would have been nice to see, but we only get to see the aftermath from Locke’s perspective. This is just a detail. Far be it from me to tell Scott Lynch how to present a story. For all I know, such a scene was in there, but was edited out to prevent redundancy.

The story itself is interesting because it is not what one expects from the initial promises. The Gentlemen Bastards are grifters, and the story begins with the group running a long con on one of the nobleman. Though, about 30% of the way in, a new plot wave sweeps in and takes the characters for different a ride. From a meta point of view, this is unusual precisely because it creates a number of promises to the reader that go, not so much unfulfilled, as meaningless to the true story. I suspect many that don’t like this book don’t like it for just this reason.

For my part, I thought it a brilliant writing device. Basically, all that meaningless Epic exposition I find so tedious, was written as a meaningful story that is swallowed alive by a greater story. That said, I could see such a technique getting over used and not done half as well. So my hat goes off to Scott Lynch for writing such a seamless transition of one story morphing into another (while writing the seamless transition from past back into present!).

This story is well known for being a bloody tale, so be warned there is a lot of violence, though I would not describe it as “graphic” in its gratuity. The created world, Camorr, is a violent place. The characters are simply a product of such a world. I would classify it as ’80’s rated R. Today, a director would probably let the most bloody of actions happen just off screen and be happy with the PG-13 rating.

Overall, I was really impressed with this story. As a reader, it’s the porridge that’s neither too hot, nor too cold, and turns out to be just right. As someone who would like to write someday, it is a marvelous example of breaking many rules of the trade in just the right way to make a compelling story.

Review: The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida

The Reason I Jump is a book written in 2006 by a 13 year old child with autism. In it, he attempts to answer the basic questions one might ask of someone with a spectrum disorder. That is, if they weren’t too uncomfortable to ask such questions. I don’t normally review non-fiction, but I do follow science and the autism spectrum disorder has been featured a great deal in science during the past 15 years. And thanks to wackos, like Jenny McCarthy preaching nonsense about her mommy instincts being better than science, many people think autism is caused by vaccines despite numerous clinical studies to the contrary. The truth is, science has not completely determined the causes, though genetics seems to be a dominant factor. That digression aside, I decided to read this book because I don’t really know anybody with autism. I don’t know much about the disorder at all, and when I heard about this book, I thought it an excellent time to get some information straight from the source and what better source than from a child?

David Mitchell has a child with autism and a Japanese wife. These two circumstances led to his spearheading the translation of this monograph from Japanese to English, so if you enjoyed this work in English, you can thank him and his wife for wanting to help get this information to English speakers. An introduction written by David Mitchell appears at the beginning. I think he works a little too hard at trying to describe what it is like to have autism and should have stuck to what it was like being the parent of such a child. Regardless, his words did not detract from the rest of the book. I felt it appropriate to give him his due for his contributions to the publishing process, but that also means I have to ask why he threw in his two cents since we’re effectively reading to get a first hand account, not his interpretations of what it is like to be autistic.

The Reason I Jump is not written as a narrative. It is a simple list of frequently asked questions. Or, as I said above, questions people want to ask, but would feel too uncomfortable, or maybe fear it too politically incorrect to ask. But Don’t get me started on the PC nonsense. It is this sort of nonsense that prevents people from asking these questions when the answers would aid in understanding.

The book is actually quite refreshing  I often find personalized accounts annoying to read because they constantly have to appeal to some sense of over stylized humanity. Apparently most accounts have to have some bizarre human angle to get people to “care” about it. I find it strange that people aren’t interested in something just for the sake of knowing. This is the primary reason I don’t read a lot Human interest stories. They may have an element of reality that most find alluring, but they’re written like fiction and it always makes me wonder what it is they’re leaving out or what is being embellished for effect. I don’t want fairy tale embellishments, I want the straight talk and this is exactly what this book provides.

Naoki Higashida cannot speak (at least at the time he wrote the book) but he could communicate by pointing at a laminated card with letters, so no doubt the economy of the book is due to the slow method by which it was written. In my opinion, long drawn out narratives should be antithetical to much non-fiction since the goal is to communicate ideas. One would think the author and the readers would want to get to the point.

If you think that a child, or in particular, a child with autism couldn’t possibly challenge a “neurotypical” person’s understanding of their own world view, I would wager something in the first dozen questions and answers will open your eyes. Speaking of eyes, that is one points he makes. He is/was always told to look someone in the eyes when speaking to them or being spoken to by them. He effectively begs the response question: Why would his understanding of the words be improved simply by making eye contact? Too true! Just because “normal” people feel compelled to garner social cues and other information through eye-contact, why do we insist the same action will/should have the same effect on someone whom we all agree does not process the world in the same way?

Naoki Higadisha describes people’s voices as being close or far away, like a dandelion or a mountain, only the actual distance does not determine how people with autism hear the voice. He doesn’t get into the factors that determine the distance of the voice at any given time, but rather he gives some simple advice to help a speaker draw their voice closer. He asks that you say “our” name first, so they know they are being spoken to. A simple elegant solution to a situation so both parties can relate.

“What’s the worst thing about having autism?”

“Would you like to be normal?”

Numerous “Why do you do this or that” questions are all examples of the types of insights Naoki Higadisha tries to answer. He does not pretend he can answer all these questions for every autistic person, but he gives his most reasonable guess. No doubt there will be questions you’ll feel should have been asked and answered, but I think that’s just a by product of being inquisitive. A person will ask several questions for each one answered on any topic, if they are truly engaged.

The book is fairly short and ends with a short story written by Naoki Higashida. I won’t spoil any of that for you and end my review with a simple recommendation. If you would like a bit of insight into how a different set of people think and perceive the world, and how you should interact with them, this book is a good start.

Review: The Infernal Devices by Cassandra Clare

The Infernal Devices is a trilogy set in a clockwork punk Victorian setting. Though, I’m sure many would scold me for throwing in the “Victorian” descriptor since this is the most typical time period for such stories and they are almost assumed to be Victorianesque. I do it so I can complain about the misappropriation of the word “punk” for sub-genres like “steam punk”, “diesel punk”, and even “Now punk” to describe “punk” set in a current time frame. The “punk” descriptor was appropriate for “cyberpunk”, but is not usually appropriate for these other subgenres. Indeed, “punk” has practically become synonymous with “subgenre of speculative fiction”, which I find completely annoying. And if you don’t know why “punk” is appropriate for cyberpunk and not for any of these others subgenres, don’t waste my time commenting on my complaint. If you don’t know anything about the punk movement, keep your comments out of my review.

 I decided to read this trilogy (actually, I listened to the audiobooks) because Cassandra Clare was a fan-fic writer turned pro and I wanted to support someone who has gone through alternate publishing routes. After listening to all three books: Clockwork Angel, Clockwork Prince, and Clockwork Princess, I can see why she was pushed into publication by her fan support and not picked up in a more traditional manner. The writing itself is mediocre, but it does elicit a strong emotional response, and to the average reader, this is what is most important. Her characters are not complex and indeed, I find them a bit tedious because they are never tested, never put into any real moral quandaries. Well, aside from the classic love triangle between Tessa, Will, and James.

Can they go three full books without two of the three screwing each other while the two guys love each other, and not in a gay way? Well, it turns out they can’t. But they do make it through 2.5 books swooning over the fact that one of the guy’s thumbs happened to brush Tessa’s bare wrist. It seems none of them realized that Tessa’s corset may have been a little too tight (Will and James have no excuse). if this is how they’re getting their jollies, perhaps someone should have suggested auto-erotic asphyxiation. At least one of them would have gotten a pay-off much earlier in the story.

Okay, so I’m not really into the faux Victorian love stuff. If this is how you like your love stories, you’ll love The Infernal Devices trilogy. There is plenty of that tediousness. And I do mean plenty.

Since so much description went into furtive eye glances and Tessa’s navel gazing about being in love with two guys, there wasn’t much room to spare for plot, but the story does manage to travel in a straight line. There’s no surprising twists. No sub-plots of note. Unless you consider filling in character back stories to be sub-plot. These complaints aside, it’s not a bad story. Again, it’s just a simple one, and that’s fine. I actually have no complaints about this, except that once all the crap is thrown out, there is really only one, maybe one-and-a-half, real novels here.

I’ve read through a number of other reviews and this trilogy really does seem to be a love it or hate it type of story. As far as I’m concerned, if you’re into Victorian sensibility love stories where nothing actually happens, then this should work for you. If not, you’ll be wanting to skip around a bit. For me, it was meh. I forced myself to endure each successive book to get to the end hoping for some grand payoff. After all, Cassandra Clare has gotten famous for this type of writing. There had to be some reason she was so popular. Sadly, it’s not because of her rich stories, or her complex characters, it’s because of her ability to elicit an emotional response. If that’s what you’re looking for, that’s okay. We all read for escapism and that means we all read for different reasons. But for my money, I’d prefer something a little more nourishing. I am usually generous with my ratings, but in this case I am truly torn between 2 and 3 stars out of 5. Because each book was narrated by a different person or persons, I think I’ll go with 2 stars because I hate it when a series doesn’t have the same narrator throughout.

My First Time…

writing a LIMERICK! :D

I used to write poetry all the time, but I got over my teen angst about three days before my 25th birthday and it seems my rebellious hormonal anger toward life had finally dissipated. I still have several hundred poems taking up space in a binder in one of my file cabinets. Now, every once in a while, I’ll still whip up a little something, Though nothing as angsty as I used to come up with. Mostly, I just write silly stuff now.

In today’s internet travels I came across a limerick and it occurred to me I had never written one of those. I decided it was no time like the present. After six hours (maybe it was minutes) I was finished. It’s not dirty or anything, so I suppose some would argue it’s not a true limerick, but for those out there who are faint of heart, there’s no need to avert your gaze.

.

A Blogger blogs themselves slobbering

Quickly they wonder why bothering

To write every day

in an impactful way

While knowing they impact nothing!

.

Here are links to a couple of other poems I have posted:

If a Gangsta Rapper wrote a Jeffrey Dahmer Haiku

Self Referential – A Luc Bat Poem

What’s a Page View?

You: What’re you doing?

Me: Just sweeping up a bit. Someone came in a few hours ago and ran up 12 page views.

You: Hey, that’s pretty good.

Me: It’s definitely,… surprising.

You: You don’t sound pleased.

Me: I’m okay with it. I certainly don’t mind if people come and read the blog. That’s what it’s there for. I’m just surprised I got 12 page views. Most views don’t get registered.

You: Really?

Me: Well, I can only assume. I’ve had days where eight spam posts appear in the filter, yet no page views. Other days, three spam posts and three page views. Other days, I get a comment and again no page views. It just seems like whatever script wordpress has for counting the page views is either poor at its job or it takes a lot of coffee breaks.

You: Maybe people view pages in RSS readers and they don’t get counted.

Me: I was thinking that. But it seems like those views would get counted. I guess. I’m not sure how any of it works, so unless I go and research it, I’ll never know.

You: Oh goody. Now you’ll go and research it, get a bug up your arse, and then come back here and give the rest of the world some sort of lecture.

Me: Nah, I don’t think so.

You: What? Really?

Me: Really. It doesn’t matter that much to me. I was just idly thinking what constitutes a page view. I know when I’m logged in and look through pages it doesn’t count. That makes sense. Perhaps when spamming bots leave messages and other junk lying around, the wordpress system just sweeps it up for me. Maybe the days where I get three page views and three spam messages are just coincidences. It could have been someone else looking at the site. It’s not like I get thousands of people popping in here on a daily basis. With one to five page views a day, there’s bound to be a lot of coincidences.

You: I guess that makes sense. Just because you think you see a pattern, it doesn’t mean there’s one there.

Me: Yup, it can be pretty easy to find what looks to be a pattern in randomness, but it’s just random.

You: I still think you’re over thinking this.

Me: No doubt. But sometimes, I think about things for five minutes and then just move on.

How to Lose 50 Pounds in 200 days!

You: Interesting title. What’s new?

Me: Not much. I’ve been working on been working on that computer program I mentioned before.

You: Learning anything? That seems to be what’s most important to you.

Me: Plenty actually. I can see why there aren’t any positive integer classes built on top of bitsets floating around the internet. It’s rather annoying, but after seven weeks or so, I have a working “first draft” done. The program was able to prove the primality of a 2000 digit number yesterday.

You: A first draft?

Me: Of course, one doesn’t sit down and write the perfect program the first time any more than they sit down and write the perfect novel on the first go round. You get something down that works, and then you go back and see how you can make it better. For me, writing and programming are similar bottom-up processes.

You: No one knows what that means. You really should make an effort to not sound so pedantic. It just drives traffic away from your blog.

Me: Oh no! You’re the only one who reads it and you seem to keep coming back.

You: I know. Why is that? It’s like some days I feel compelled to come here against my will. Anyway, congrats on proving a number to be prime when you already knew it was prime. So what’s with the title?

Me: I was going through my notes and I realized today is the 200th day of my diet.

You: I didn’t know you were on a diet. So you really dropped 50 pounds in 200 days?

Me: Yup, 50 pounds since January. Honestly, I haven’t really been telling people about it. I’ve just been working at it steadily.

You: It’s because you turned 40 last fall isn’t it?

Me: Nah, not really. I turned 40 last September. I didn’t start the diet until January.

You: New Year’s resolution?

Me: Nope, I’ll keep this brief: My (now former) personal physician pissed me off by not listening to me and thinking he knew what was best for my body. He wasn’t wrong per se. This is his profession after all, but the fact that he dismissed my input out of hand annoyed me. It’s not as if I don’t keep up with the latest in science and that includes the health care profession. I wasn’t happy with his services, so I took it upon myself to improve my overall state of health. I had never really bothered with it before, but he got my dander up. Please note, my issues with him were not with his specific medical advice. He meant well. My issues were with the cost of the options available, and he dismissed my preference for the cheapest option.

You: Interesting. So you’re not doing this for your own personal health. Someone just pissed you off. That’s a strange motivation.

Me: Not really. I’ve said this before. People are idiots and their motivations are sadly irrational. I’ve never excluded myself from this. You’ve just always assumed that because I recognize it and I am vocal about it, I was somehow putting myself above it.

You: Fair enough. What kind of diet is it? Low-carb? High protein? Vegetarian? Never eat late at night?

Me: After poking around and reading a number of scientific articles, I devised one myself.

You: **Rolls eyes** Of course you did. Why would you stick with an already known method that works, when you can research and create one yourself. Why take the easy way out?

Me: That’s the thing. Most fad diets don’t work. I’m here to launch the news of my own exciting program.

You: Huh? You’ve said many times that you’re no salesman. Why are looking to change that now?

Me: I’m not. I don’t plan on making any money off this. I’m just taking this opportunity to tell the world how easy it is to shed all those unwanted pounds. You won’t drop 15 pounds in a week, but 1-2 pounds a week on average if you work at it.

You: So what’re you going to call it? If you’re going to market anything it has to have a catchy name.

Me: I call it the, “Don’t eat like a f#@king pig all the time” diet.

You: …

You: I think you might want to come up with something a little more pithy.

Me: The name’s a work in progress. I told you I work in a bottom-up process.

You: Yeah, I’m almost afraid to ask, but how does it work. I think I might have a general idea from the name, but perhaps you have something more specific in mind.

Me: You’re astute. That’s why you keep coming back to the blog. Every once in a while there’s a useful nugget on here.

You: Yeah, right. Nuggets. You were saying.

Me: So anyway, the science is in. It turns out you’re not just what you eat, but you are how much you eat. The number one deciding factor in determining weight loss through diet alone is  total calories.

You: No kidding.

Me: It’s true. Mark Haub ate about 2/3 junk food, twinkies and the like, for two months and lost 27 pounds to show that weight is determined by total calories in versus total calories burned. It may sound crazy, but it’s true. If you want to lose weight. Don’t eat like a f#@king pig all the time.

You: There’s got to be a little more to it than that.

Me: Well duh. Unfortunately, we tend to equate overall health with our weight. You may eat nothing but snacky cakes and lose weight, but that doesn’t mean you’re healthy. Having a handful of Doritos is not going to be the death of you. A 16 ounce bag, on the other hand, well, it is all about moderation. You should get to know your body and what fuels it best as opposed to just eating whatever, as I did for many many years.

You: I don’t think I’d have the discipline to drop 50 pounds.

Me: Neither did I, but even though my doctor pissed me off, I knew it was time to start shedding some pounds. My snoring used to be atrocious, but even though I’m still in the “obese” zone, I sleep much much better and I have more energy. The trick to self-discipline is to hold yourself accountable. The easiest way to do that is by keeping a record of what you eat. It’s easy to “forget” a snack feeling as if you deserve it because **Insert rationalization here**.

The truth is, you can go ahead and have that snack, you just have to pay for it elsewhere. Either by cutting out other calories later in the day, or watching the extra calories layer your stomach, arms, ass, thighs, or wherever your body finds the room to put it. I still eat my share of snacks, but I no longer allow myself to over indulge and I hold myself accountable by insisting I keep myself in my target calorie range.

I started out writing everything I ate in a small notebook, but eventually I moved it online to loseit.com. I’m an internet junkie, so this should surprise no one. This particular site has a free calorie calculator that tells you how many calories you get to eat in a day based on the goals you set. My original goal in January was to drop 80 pounds by the end of the year (about 1.5-2 pounds per week). I am still well on my way to making that goal. Come the new year, I’ll reassess and see where I need to go from there.

You: Congratulations, I hope things continue to improve for you.

Me: Thanks. Though blogging about it seems a little more self-aggrandizing than I am used to. I hadn’t ever planned on blogging about this, but with any luck, I’ve insulted some fat f#@k like me strongly enough to motivate them to do something about taking control of their own health.

Review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid’s Tale is a relatively “old” book in that it was first published in 1985, but it is still popular/well-known. This is not surprising as Margaret Atwood is one of those author’s whose work will endure as “literature” and she will still be well known in 100 years. That is, unless the Handmaid’s Tale is prophetic and all secular literature is burned.

Don’t worry, it won’t be. However, it does have some elements that could be argued as being a caricature of modern day happenings. There are plenty of reviews out there that give a run down of the plot and how they feel it’s all happening right now. No doubt many of these reviews are from women, and justifiably so since this book “speaks to them”. So I’m going to discuss the subtext of the novel, and hopefully, I can get a few guys to read this book because there is stuff in it for them.

The background story is that The United States has been taken over by religious fundamentalists. The religion is never mentioned by name, but it is clearly Christian/Jewish/Islamic. When it comes to their respective flavors of fundamentalism, they all bear a striking resemblance to one another whether they want to admit it or not. This is not surprising, since they all worship the same god and use overlapping religious texts. If you’re curious about the tale of how this happened, this is not the book for you. After all, this is the Handmaid’s Tale. All you get is the story of one woman starting probably about 10 years after an event called “The President’s Day Massacre”, i.e. the coup where the fundamentalists took over.

Personally, I do not think such a regime could take over in such a simple manner, but what followed after the coup is more plausible. As I said, we don’t get much of this story directly, but we hear snippets of how, slowly, over the course of weeks and months, oppressive policies are implemented and they are always implemented for the same reasons that such policies are implemented today. Namely, the safety of the public, the betterment of society, etc. At the same time, women are slowly and unequally stripped of their rights.

If you think that women could never be usurped of their identities in this way, and no one would stand for it, blah, blah, blah. You are wrong. All it takes is the right social pressure. Imagine a scenario where the number of women capable of bearing children is cut to a small percentage. They then become a “national resource”. (My words, not the author’s.) When it comes to resources, there will always be people (usually men, and this is coming from a man) in power who will want to exploit and seize control of such resources. This is how such things can happen. And this is the scenario used by Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale.

When I was younger, I probably would never have bought that line of reasoning and not terribly enjoyed this story. As I’ve aged to a venerable 40 years and some of my Platonic idealism has tarnished, I have learned to accept that “the masses” don’t get as outraged as individuals do. Most of the time, groups of people are scared when it comes to dramatic change and accept it if fed the line that it is temporary and for the good of all. Most of the time, these changes are never about being for the good of all, they are simply about control.

A past example to show even women are not above this: The Temperance movement to abolish alcohol. Propelled by religious minded women, fresh with their new ability to vote. Despite Jesus being pro-wine they felt it their duty to rid the world of drink. You can argue the details all you want, but at the end of the day, it was about asserting power and control.

A modern example: For the past 12 years, the U. S. citizens have been force fed the line that we are all living under a faceless threat of “Terror” and in this time we have fought two wars, one of which we are still fighting, and most of us don’t really know why, other than we are “fighting terror”. These wars are not as openly covered as the Vietnam War, because our government has learned that atrocities that are not visited daily are quickly forgotten because people prefer to stick their head in the sand. And so people forget. They don’t get outraged. They simply accept the situation because it is supposedly temporary, for the good of us all, for all our safety, blah, blah, blah. What are we looking to control? Some say oil, others say that the area is strategically located real estate. Regardless, it is about control.

So do I think a “fast coup” could take over and make such radical changes? No. But a slow insidious change over the course of a decade or two? Well, I have seen it with my own eyes, so yes, the scenario in The Handmaid’s Tale is plausible to me, but I know that such a shift would happen over years, not months. Anyone who thinks otherwise is sticking their fingers in their ears, closing their eyes, and repeating the above blah, blah, blahs.

A possible future example that’s been a long time in the making: During the 80’s (my youth) religious fundamentalists (in this country) blew up abortion clinics because they were outraged and wanted change. Presumably, they wanted things to return to the way they were when abortions were illegal, in back allies with coat hangers. Just in my lifetime, they have since learned that getting people upset only motivates them to stand with or against you. And if you’re the one blowing up teenagers, it’s tough to motivate people to stand with you. They have taken their fight political, a realm where everybody’s eyes glaze over and become dispassionate, and they have slowly set about making laws against birth control and abortion clinics. As someone who is pro-choice, I can’t say all of these laws are bad. Many are simply requiring clinics to uphold standard medical cleanliness practices. The laws that really hurt, are the laws that reduce or eliminate funding preventing the clinics from having the money to be able to upgrade their facilities and are forced to shut down. You can tell this is about the control of others and not about any religious objection because the number one cited religious reason is the belief that life begins at conception. Rather than supporting research for birth control that simply prevents conception, they politically attack all avenues of abortion and birth control. So even if you address their concerns, it does not change the way they behave.

Leaving the examples and subtext behind, back to the story at hand. The Handmaid’s Tale is true literature, thus by practical definition, this makes the story a little slow and boring at points. When I was in college, I had to take plenty of slow and boring classes that I thought were of minimal value. However, I quickly learned that it is possible to garner lessons from and learn something from every class and that is what I set out to do. I took it upon myself to walk away with something for my time and money. This book requires that same model of thought. Even after 28 years, there is a wealth of intriguing thought experiments that went into the writing of this story and a similar trove for those willing to consider the next step of reasoning, but you have to be willing to dig for that gold.

And there you have it. The subtext of The Handmaid’s tale is a marvellously thought provoking book about the subtleties that go into how societies change, but if you’re not interested in thinking, move on to something formulated for entertainment purposes this is not the novel for you.

Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

“In space, no one can hear you scream,… Like a little girl.”

MARK WATNEY

I’ve been listening to a lot of great books of late, and I’m a bit disappointed with myself that I haven’t taken the time to give reviews to any of them. The fact that I’m getting so many hits and so few misses tells me that writers are really sophisticated these days. Even middling authors have some really great stuff out there. This is my first book from Andy Weir, and a quick look through his website, http://www.galactanet.com/ tells me he doesn’t have much out there. Though after reading The Martian, I’m going to have to check out some of the offerings he has on his site.

First, The Martian is part epistolary, as much of the goings on is described through the journal entries of Mark Watson, an astronaut accidentally abandoned on Mars. Other parts of the novel is a standard third person view. Generally, these separations from the main narrative are so the reader knows what attempts NASA is making to save the poor guy. These side ventures sort of broke up the story at times, and I’ll say tolerated, because obviously I was especially interested in what Mark was doing to save himself. However, without knowing who/what/why/when/where/how he was going to be saved, the story would have become meaningless, so I put up with these obvious digressions which created so much tension and drama. I Hope people don’t think that was a spoiler, if Mark had died, very few people would be giving this book such high marks. As of the time of this writing, 1277 ratings give the story an outstanding average of 4.42 on GoodReads. This fact alone says more than I can say in my thousand words on the matter.

What makes this novel so good? Aside from all the wonderful humor, it was the authenticity without being bogged down with too much reality. That may sound a bit strange, but for any work of fiction to be enjoyable, there’s got to be elements of reality put aside. But first, I have to commend Andy Wier on including so much genuine science and weaving it into this work of fiction. I personally found the story so engaging because I’m a mathematician. Hold on, don’t let that dissuade you. I mean that in the context of mathematicians being problem solvers. Most people don’t realize that at their core, this is what mathematicians do. The more practical minded of us become engineers, which seems to have a less scary connotation. The protagonist, Mr. Watney, is a botanist/engineer. (Astronauts always have to pull double duty because of the small crew sizes, another element of authenticity.) These skills make him the perfect candidate for being abandoned on Mars. Of course, if he didn’t have these skills, he would have died, and there’d be no story.

I found the story especially interesting because Watney details (remember these are journal entries) what he had to do to survive, what broke along the way, how he solved the problems, etc. When I say the author didn’t let the story get bogged down with reality, I mean he cut short many of the “calculations” Mark had to do along the way. Often, entries would have Mark detailing what he was doing, throw out some numbers, ending simply, “Trust me on the math.” Everybody knows a person like Mark Watney. Fun, likable, marvelous sense of humor, all these things, Andy Weir was able to embody in Mark Watney.

One of the most annoying things about Sci-Fi writers is that they often get the math waaaaaay wrong. Noticeably wrong. Terribly wrong. Painfully wrong. So wrong that for any Sci-Fi authors out there who do not know what they’re doing mathematically and want a little help. Shoot me an email. I’d rather help people get it “close enough” than be so far off that it’s laughable how much the author doesn’t know what they’re doing. That said, There was nothing Andy Weir wrote that was so far off track that it raised alarm bells. This alone was step one in allowing me to enjoy the story. Anyone who happens to read this review and is swayed enough to read The Martian can feel comfortable ignoring anything they don’t quite get, trust me, it’s good enough for fiction. Which, ironically, makes it better than most government work because in fiction, there’s action meaning things actually get done…

This story takes place in the “not too far future”. For those that don’t know, NASA is shooting to put people on Mars within the next 20 years. In this universe, Mark is stranded on the 3rd Mars mission. Which is an interesting choice because it would be easy to see how someone could end up on Mars alone in the first such mission, but for a 3rd mission, such things become “routine”. One of the more authentic parts of the story was the reaction of earth as a whole. The whole planet is an unspoken minor character in this story and I find the portrayal to be quite believable. In particular, third mission means no one cares anymore. Most people on earth right now don’t care about what’s going on in space, but if we had someone trapped alone on Mars for a good 18 months, I can see where no expense would be too great to go and save him. Publicly, that is. That’s not to say there wouldn’t be politicians and NASA administrators who wouldn’t be willing to cut their losses. This story doesn’t go in depth into that, but it touches on it enough that there’s always an underlying subtext during the Earth-based portions of the story. It really adds to the tension and realism.

For my part, I found the following to be the most unbelievable aspect of the story. Many would probably think I’m just picking nits so you may want to skip this next paragraph: Andy Weir glosses over Mark Watney’s being completely alone and isolated while on Mars. He doesn’t actually skip it, per se. Mark Watney does comment a number of times about missing other people, but supposedly he’s “the type of guy” who’s super-ebullient, funny, brings people together, in short, he’s a positive sociable guy you’d want to be around. In reality, these types of people draw their energy from interacting with others. Mark manages to draw that energy out of himself. So either the reader can skip this basic tendency of human psychology, or they can believe Mark is just a special kind of person. He’s written to be extremely likable and believable. I opted to believe the latter. It makes for a much more interesting story than to whine, “Hey! That’s not what would happen. Deep down, social people don’t act that way.” In reality, most people would get so depressed and despondent they’d probably kill themselves (or more simply, allow themselves to die). But again, there wouldn’t be any story if Mark were this type of person, so this is the one thing for which I felt I had to suspend belief and it is a minor thing to overlook.

As I alluded to above, I didn’t physically read this story, I listened to it as an audiobook. So I feel compelled to comment on R. C. Bray’s reading of the story. Hands down, he was the perfect voice talent for this story. His reading syncopated with Mark Watney’s character voice so well, I think if I ever meet this guy, I’m going to call him Mark. In fact, he was so good, I’m not sure if I want to grab something else he’s read just because he’s read it, or not listen to any of his other work for fear that it may destroy my vision of Mark Watney. Fortunately, I don’t live in fear. I’m definitely, going to have to check something else from this guy.

There you have it. Five stars all around. The more people that don’t read or listen to this, the more my disappointment in humanity grows.

A Prime Topic

You: Haven’t heard from you in a while. How’s the writing going?

Me: Er, alright in one sense, not so well in another.

You: This ought to be good…

Me: Not really, this topic will bore most people, I imagine.

You: **Zzzzzz**

Me: Stop with the fake sleeping already. I know the length of everyone’s attention span has dropped by an order of magnitude the past 20 years, but at least wait for me to bore you before you get bored.

You: Fair enough.

Me: The last 3-4 weeks I’ve gotten back to my roots and started writing a program to search for large prime numbers.

You: Programming? I thought you were getting back into math?

Me: It’s both really. I haven’t done any programming for 7-8 years and that was only for a few weeks while I programmed a board game I’d always wanted to create. If you recall, I’ve always had an enjoyment of strategy board games. Prior to that little side venture, I took a beginning programming class back in 1998 where I learned some simple java syntax. I’ve always thought that if I hadn’t been so curious as to my upper bound in mathematics, math pun intended, I’d have become a programmer.

You: What math pun?

Me: I love the theory of object oriented programming. Each time I dip my toe into the java waters, I have to re-teach myself and then learn a whole bunch of new stuff. It’s amazing how much this language has adapted in the past 15 years.

You: You do realize that most people find programming hard and not a fun diversion.

Me: I know. I have a friend who has tried to teach himself a number of times and utterly failed, but not a lot of people can teach themselves. I feel lucky in that regard. With a good teacher, I think most people could learn the basics and many of the key ideas. Unfortunately, most computer science teachers are lousy on their best days. I honestly feel this is because anyone half way decent in the field can go into industry and make two, three, or ten times that of a teacher.

You: ah, the old, “Those who can, do; Those who can’t, teach” syndrome.

Me: Well, when it comes to programming, those who can’t, don’t at all. Those who are mediocre, the ones who can do it, but aren’t strong enough to convey it are often the ones who teach. I was very lucky that my beginning programming instructor was very good. But, as usual, we’re digressing again.

You: I blame you.

Me: If I were a mathematician I’d point out how self-referential that comment really is. Anyway, during the past 15 years (give or take), the EFF has offered cash prizes to those groups or individuals who have found record breaking largest prime numbers. The prizes for finding a prime with one million and ten million digits have long since been claimed. The next prize of $150,000 goes to the first person (or persons) who find a prime number with 100 million digits.

You: Wow! In the time it took you to say that sentence I looked up the current record for the largest prime number. As of today, it has 17 million digits! That seems like a lot of wasted computer time.

Me: It may seem that way, but a lot of people don’t understand the point of offering such prizes.

You: let me guess, you’re going to tell us how most people don’t think in abstract terms. You’ve said it before…

Me: As much as it bears repeating, it is important to think outside the room you’re currently standing in, I was going to skip all that and explain why these types of prizes are important. Prize problems in science aren’t there to find the answer to simple questions like, “name a large prime number”. They are there to spur innovation. Whether the question is easy, like finding a hundred million digit prime, completely incomprehensible, like the Riemann Hypothesis, or highly abstract like the P vs. NP problem, they all require something new to solve them.

Even though 99.99% (and perhaps higher) of all people would claim no impact by a solution to either problem. Nevertheless, a solution to either would shift the field of mathematics and computing. And let me assure you, in this digital age, whether you’d know it or not, you’d be affected. By the way, a solution to either of the above listed problems comes with a million dollar prize. So somebody out there thinks these problems are important.

The important take-away is that current knowledge cannot tackle these problems. Something NEW is going to have to be created. For example, in the war against large primes, sure we have faster computers, but I’ve discussed Moore’s Law on the blog, which predicts that computing doubles every 18 months. But when we go from a million digit number to a ten million digit number we aren’t simply multiplying by 10. The first million digit number is a one followed by 999,999 zeros. The first ten million digit number is a one followed by 9,999,999 zeros. Please realize this doesn’t mean we’re multiplying by 9 million, it means we’re multiplying the problem by a factor of one followed by nine million zeros! Again, Moore’s law says computing multiplies by a factor of two! Now the goal is to go from 10 million digits to 100 million. Which increases the difficulty of the problem by a factor of one followed by 90 million zeros.

You: That’s a big number.

Me: It’s practically inconceivable. Most people can barely tell the difference between a million, billion, and a trillion. A “googol” was the largest named number when I was growing up and that was only a one followed by a hundred zeros. That number isn’t even on the radar of this problem.

You: Let me see if I got this straight. The goal behind setting such a goal, isn’t to improve computers. You just showed that’s not going to help. So what then? We write better programs?

Me: That’s right. The goal behind the goal is to create different ways to solve the problem: better algorithms, better math, better computer architecture. They’ll all help. And it’s problems like this that drive programmers, mathematicians, and engineers to go beyond what they already know and create new stuff. If it weren’t for these types of problems, people may not have come up with the concept of distributed computing. The principle reason these large primes have been found is because of this process. One central server sends out assignments to people who volunteer their computer’s spare processing power. Thousands of people work together to find the next largest prime.

You: If so many people are working together, who gets the prize money?

Me: I imagine it depends on which computing group you enter into, but I think GIMPS, the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search, splits the prize so half of the money goes back into the program to keep it going. People should double check the official legalese for full details.

You: Alright, I guess I’m sold. So how is your program coming along?

Me: It’s done. It took seven hours to check 1000 numbers ranging from 900 and 1200 digits, and it found all the primes that I was looking for from that set. I assume passing that test means it works perfectly. By the way, there were only three primes in that collection. Primes get increasingly difficult to find conveniently at this size. That’s another part of this large number problem. A solution to the Riemann Hypothesis could help, but it won’t help with the problem I’m having now.

You: What problem is that?

Me: Holding a single 100 million digit number in memory takes over 40 megabytes. That’s about 8-10 times the size of a single song on your .mp3 player. Whereas, the program works, there are some technical issues that java, and most programming languages as far as I know, remember this is not my field of expertise, that cause the program to run out of memory in the middle of its computations. I’ve manually increased the memory size of the environment that the program runs in, but it still runs out of memory for numbers with only 100,000 digits. I’m a long way from 100 million. So like I said, something new is going to have to be done, before this problem can be solved.

You: Probably not by you.

Me: Probably not.

Two Years Ago Today

Me: Today is the two year anniversary for the blog.

You: Hey, Congratulations!

Me: Thank you. This is actually the third blog of mine, but is the first to last longer than 10 months. Of course, since I have taken breaks from posting several times during the two years, I can call it a win, but not an accomplishment as such.

You: That’s not true. Most blogs don’t even survive their 4:20 warranty.

Me: 4:20 warranty?

You: 4 posts or 20 days. The internet is littered with abandoned blogs. Over 95% of all blogs are effectively abandoned.

Me: 95%? Is that a real statistic?

You: According to a 2008 Technorati survey. I made up the 4:20 warranty though.

Me:  I had a feeling.

You: Sadly, the original source page for the survey is gone. I know how you find that important.

Me: It is important. You can’t trust other people to cite information properly.

You: Not all of us have the pedantism to get a PhD, but you’re right. Everybody has a bias. If you want to formulate your own opinions, go to the source.

Me: That’s the least of it, but I won’t lecture. … Not today anyway.

You: Good. You lecture people way too much for someone who gave up on education. So has your blog been everything you’d hoped it’d be?

Me: That’s an interesting question. I think so. Like most bloggers, 90% of the time I just want someplace I can put my thoughts out to the world. I understand that ultimately, I am flushing them into a virtual ocean of information. One or two people, which may or may not include myself, will read my words and then they turn into digital jetsom forever sinking under the next digital layer.

You: Wow. You sound depressed.

Me: Ha! Not at all. I’m just not delusional about my place in the universe. There’s an Urban Myth that (for some reason people believe) there are more people living now than have ever lived. This is ridiculousness. I have read estimates that the total number of people who have ever lived is between 80 and 120 billion. Here’s a recent survey that comes up with 107 billion. Because of evolution, definitively answering the question “when was the dawn of man?” is not easy to answer.

You: You said no lectures.

Me: Sorry. As I was saying, I accept my place in the universe. More specifically, human history. If we accept the estimate of 107 billion people having lived, how many of those people can you even name off the top of your head? A few hundred? How many are even named in history books? A few thousand, maybe a few tens of thousands. that means less than .0001% of all people to have ever lived have made any impact on history what-so-ever, and the rest, impact or no, will never be remembered.

And yet so many people dream about having 15 minutes of fame? Why do you think crappy reality shows are so popular? Most claim it’s a guilty pleasure. The truth is, deep down, most people know their impact on the human condition will be insignificant. Watching a bunch of no-talents tempermentally act out at the behest of a director gives them hope they too can be remembered. After all, if you can’t be legitimately famous, you may as well be repugnantly infamous.

You: That’s bleak. You sure you’re not depressed?

Me: Really. I’m fine. Just because I’m not filled with blind hope and unrealistic optimism doesn’t make me a negative person.

You: I think it might. Either way, I’m not sure I fully accept your premise. Not all reality television revolves around the negative side of the human condition. There’s shows like Survivor, So You Think You Can Dance, and American Idol. Well, if you ignore the preliminaries. But if your premise is true, what’s to stop the millions of reality TV viewers from running out the front door and becoming the next Bonnie and Clyde?

Me: You mean aside from morality, ethics, and an evolved penchant for communal survival? Or can I just use that as my answer?

The truth is, most people want to be famous and enjoy the concomitant benefits without having to deal with the negatives. Yet paradoxically, the biggest benefits to being famous are also the worst negatives.

You: What’s that?

Me: Expectations and responsibilities. When you’re famous, others have expectations of you. Most people love being adored, though there is a constant pressure to live up to whatever made you famous. You are expected to go beyond those boundaries and are expected to somehow be magically qualified in other areas as well. After all, if you’re special, you must be special in every way. It sounds ridiculous, but that’s what people expect whether they realize it or not.

Since most people look to avoid unnecessary responsibility, they wouldn’t be able to handle being famous or expert in anything. The truth is, most people can not even handle the expectations and responsibilities that are required to become an expert, let alone to actually being at expert. And as such, they will never approach fame or infamy. You can take that as the principle reason so many blogs fade away even before they’ve begun. Almost anyone can get a bur under their skin and feel compelled to write a few times. The self-imposed expectations and responsibilities to reproduce and surpass those results are usually more than they can endure. So they quit.

You: You must think you’re something special for making it two years then.

Me: Yeah right. Being in the top 5% is so special considering we’ve already discussed that less than .0001% of us will ever make an impact. As I said in the beginning, this is my third blog, so I’m only a two-time loser. Actually, based on the Technorati criteria of not having posted in a four month period, this blog has already died twice and been reborn. That’s better than…

You: Don’t go there.

Me: Fine.  What I’m getting at is this: I know this is it for me and I’m okay with that. I write and blog because I enjoy it without obligation. I’ve tried to use this site as a platform or vehicle for my writing, but after two years I’ve come to realize that’s not me and probably not what I want. I’m fine with what I have and what I do. I’m pretty sure I don’t want all the expectations and obligations of actual fame.

I’m still open to infamy though.