Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Review: Revenger

Revenger is Aliastair Reynold's novel about space pirates in a far future setting. Told from the point of view of a highly educated young woman (Fura Ness) from a family down on its finances, it tells the story of her and her sister's attempt to go on an adventure by signing up on a sailing vessel as "bone readers." Bone readers are the VHF/telegraph operators in this millieu, and since it's a talent that you can age out of, new  bone readers are always in demand and the sisters sign up on a treasure-hunting expedition boat. During the expedition, the boat is attacked by space pirates and the rest of the story revolves around Fura's attempt to get revenge and rescue her sister.

The millieu is particularly interesting, obviously constructed to mirror the golden age of sail's particular constraints so as to make the kind of voyages described interesting. For instance, everything takes place within a single solar system, so solar sails can be used as a means of getting everywhere. The result is travel times described in weeks, rather than years required for interstellar distances without breaking the known laws of physics. Similarly, the worlds described aren't planets, but rather artificial habitat constructs ranging from 25 miles wide to about 100 miles wide, similar to island sizes in the Caribbean. Scattered amongst the worlds are baubles, apparently stasis-protected former habitats that may contain artifacts or quoins (treasure) so treasure hunters have something to do.

It's always interesting to me to see authors work around their weaknesses. Reynolds, for instance, cannot write a romance to save his life, and in this novel he works around it by eliminating any such possibilities: the lead characters are essentially asexual, and married people are introduced with their status as though it's a title. It works, but obviously one of the tropes of pirate fiction is completely eliminated.

As a story, the novel is fun: we watch as Fura Ness goes from naivete to becoming a classical pirate. The book is full of slang and sayings that evoke the golden age of sail while being more or less scientifically correct, and the setting is interesting if improbable.While not his best work, it has a certain appeal to those who like pirate fiction/science fiction mashups and can be recommended as such.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Review: The Populist Explosion

The Populist Explosion is a political overview of recent political movements that have swept both the USA and Europe as a result of the great recession. It ties populist movements in the past (such as Huey Long's) with recent movements like Occupy Wall Street as well as the Tea Party.

What's interesting is that it covers both left and right movements. For instance, while the left explicitly avoided scapegoating by race, the right has no compunction against doing so, and in fact, this probably did win Donald Trump the election. As a result, the author's attempt to conflate the two sides don't really make a lot of sense to me.

What is interesting is that the right wing in Europe does seem particularly focused on immigration, and the movements have been because the generous welfare states mean that the middle class is opposed to large scale immigration of any form. Those societies have historically been so homogeneous that even relatively small amounts of immigration constitutes a sizeable shift in the feel of the population to citizens.

What the author fails to do is to provide context: for instance, when discussing immigration in Denmark, he provides absolute numbers but neglects to provide the total size of the country, so you have no idea whether citizens are complaining as to whether new immigrants consist of 1%, 2%, or 10% of the population. When reading the book you want to have Google handy so you can give yourself context with regards to those numbers. Otherwise you start to see big numbers like millions or hundreds of thousands and have no idea whether it's a big shift that would take a while to get used to.

Regardless, the author points out that the center-left in Europe and in the US has been neglectful of the working class, to the point where they have no felt like they have any stake in the process and therefore might rationally choose to "burn down the house" rather than continue to accept a (to their point of view) worsening situation. This is an important dynamic that has led to the political situation we see today. He doesn't provide any suggestions but does allude to the fact that in the past, such political movements rarely turn into long lasting changes in the system, but instead get co-opted into actions like the New Deal which were driven by the existing political parties.

Here's hoping that something like that does happen. In any case, flawed as the book is, it gave me a lot to think about. Recommended.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Building a custom desktop

In recent years, performance on consumer desktop processors have pretty much stagnated, so I felt comfortable sticking with my 2009 HP m9600t. That machine's had several upgrades: to SSDs, additional RAM, and a new GPU. It's had hard drives added and expanded, and a blu ray drive when those became cheap. Over the past year, the ethernet port went out, so I added a PCI ethernet card to it. The machine's gotten flakey over the years: it no longer slept or hibernate, waking up whenever it put itself to sleep. While this was annoying, I lived with it by hard powering off the machine every time I turned it off. For a while, it wasn't a big deal as I used a laptop for non hard core tasks (any Adobe software).

Then I won a Gigabyte Z170X Gaming 7 motherboard during a web-site lottery. The motherboard was not the latest, but it's over-clocking enabled, and was forwards compatible with the latest intel desktop processor: the Core i7 7700K CPU. Since I had a friend at Intel who could supply me with the processor (and a PCIe m.2 SSD) at employee discount prices, I figured i could build a new machine. Note that in most cases you can usually purchase equivalent machines from Dell or some other white label device at a better price than putting it all together yourself. Those manufacturers, however, typically skimp on parts. For instance, the case of my HP m9600t was so tightly packed that I pinched my fingers every time I installed or replaced a part. Similarly, the PSU is usually not an energy efficient PSU. Back in the old days, you wouldn't keep a PC around long enough for a more efficient PSU to pay for itself, but now that you typically keep a PC around for 10 years or more (because of the failure of Moore's law) there's no reason not to pay for a better unit, especially if it's quieter.

As a first time PC builder, I went with the Fractal Design Define R5 case. I picked it because it was a fairly large case, which meant no more pinched fingers. It comes with 7 3.5/2.5" drive trays and 2 5.25" drive trays, which I figured would be sufficient capacity even for a storage-hungry photographer/video processor. The case was indeed huge but to my surprise was well balanced and easy to handle. It also came with an ample set of screws and nice features such as being able to change the direction in which the front door opens.

The instructions start with screwing in the power supply, which apparently is a fixed size in PCs. Mys elected power supply screwed in just fine, and then I plugged in the power cord and then grounded myself using an anti-static strap. Next came the motherboard. Plugging in the processor was easy, but then the cooler felt like you had to be much more careful. I'd acquired both a water cooler and an air cooler, but at the last minute went with the air cooler for simplicity, so I wouldn't be managing 2 pieces that are attached to the motherboard. The air cooler was interesting because it had multiple orientations, and you're supposed to point it up or out of the case for better airflow, so I played some 3D rotation games before I settled on "up." I then plugged in the memory and the SSD. The SSD is weird because the motherboard had a bizarre table which showed what configuration of SSD installation would preclude the use of which other SATA slots and/or reduce the speed of the PCIe SSD. I found myself thinking: "Really, Intel? Really?!" Apparently this has been fixed in the latest Z270X motherboards, but of course, I wasn't going to buy one when I had one for free. But the next step after selecting the right slot really puzzled me.

All motherboards come with a back plate. You're supposed to insert it into the case, and then insert standoff screws into the motherboard and then insert the motherboard and then screw it down. What I was surprised by after having such an easy time with the processor, cooler, memory and SSD was how much I had to wrestle the motherboard and backplate together into the case and make everything line up. You have to tighten down the screws because otherwise if you insert or remove display cables or USB cables from the computer you'd shift or move the motherboard, which would not be good. I did so without damage (I thought!).

Then I started plugging in cables into the motherboard. The manuals here just don't help much. For instance, some of the case fans have only 3 holes while the corresponding motherboard pins have 4! I had to do some googling around before figuring out which 3 pins should be used. Similarly, for many of the single jumper cables I practically needed magnifying and tweezers to get a 5mm cable plugged into a pin squeezed into a 8mm space. This was definitely a pain. This was also where spending lots of money on the case helped. The Fractal Design case had rubber grommet windows where many of the cables were already pre-wired to run correctly. Unlike my HP, where there were cables everywhere, you could place only the cables you needed and route even those cables under the motherboard, so you had nothing hanging on top. Working on this was a pleasure.

Then came the moment of truth: plugging a display cable in and seeing if the machine would POST. To my horror, when I powered it on, the fans spun up and then spun down. Something was horribly wrong. I googled around and finally figured out that I'd made the rookie mistake: I had forgotten to plug the CPU power cable in. For whatever reason I thought that giant 24pin cable plugged into the motherboard ought to be sufficient. It's not. I plugged in 2 4-pin cables into the motherboard socket, and the device posted!

After that, the rest of the process was easy, though I was disappointed that the "backside of the motherboard" 2.5" SSD trays didn't actually fit 2.5" SSHD drives. But I moved over the blu ray player, intalled 3 HDDs, and still have room and power left over for more.

After installing Windows 10 (which transferred the license over with no issues), the machine sleeps and hibernates with no issues and is also incredibly quiet. I tried over-clocking it a little with no issues, but probably won't do too much. Lightroom and Premiere Elements 12 now fly! A usual, the storage upgrade to a PCIe SSD was probably more responsible than the mere 3X increase in CPU performance.

I haven't installed a GPU yet so am relying on the built in Intel GPU which many enthusiasts love to complain about. I am still of 2 minds as to whether to decommission the old machine or to let my son use it, but if the latter I can take my time to shop for a GPU.

I must say that over-all, the process has been much easier than I expected, and some of it was (dare I say it) even fun! Just like with a bicycle you've built yourself, there's something special about a machine you've built yourself. I expect that this is probably the best approach if you're not in a hurry for a machine and have time to shop. My wife's Dell now sounds loud by comparison, while my old HP sounds like a jet-engine whenever it does anything compute intensive. Given the changes in the PC market over the past years, I fully expect this to be the correct approach going forward.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Review: Rise of the Rocket Girls

Once upon a time, computers didn't refer to machines running programs, but to people who did the computation work that were eventually relegated to those machines. Rise of the Rocket Girls is the story of the computer department at JPL. It's a great read and well worth your time.

That the computer department at JPL consisted entirely of women was not an accident but deliberate policy. The supervisor of the team, Marcie Roberts, had a policy that she only hired women. She would say to the women in her team:

"In this job you need to look like a girl, act like a lady, think like a man, and work like a dog." (Kindle Loc. 3061)

As the department switched to electronic computers, the women involved trained and learned to write computer programs. What's document is interesting: the early IBMs were so unreliable that the engineers involved wouldn't trust the results unless it was a human who did the computation. It took several generations of improvements before the computers became good enough to be used. The first of such machines was even given a name by the department and became a valued part of the team. Subsequent generational iterations happened so quickly that the people no longer became attached to them:
The scientists reviewed the computer analysis and tried to make sense of it. Some of the students were surprised by how much of the operation required human interaction. They expected to see supercomputers instead of people doing all the work. Senior scientist Harold Masursky good-naturedly responded to one inquiry: “Computers are just like wearing shoes. You need them when you are walking on gravel, but they don’t get you across the gravel. (Kindle Loc. 2922)
Note that JPL as an eventual government agency focused on research instead of financial results, didn't hand out stock options. That didn't actually matter: the programmers were paid by the hour, which given the usual extreme overtime hours required of programmers actually meant that they were paid much better than if they were salaried:
The women worked late nights and weekends on Mariner, desperately checking their trajectories and programs. The hours were exhausting, especially for new mothers Barbara and Helen, but their paychecks were worth it. As hourly employees they were both earning impressive incomes, outstripping their husbands, thanks to the long hours Mariner required. (Kindle Loc. 2154)
Having an all-woman department at JPL meant that in the early days the lab could run beauty contests:
As odd as it seems by today’s standards, the beauty contest was a result of JPL’s progressive hiring practices. As the bouquets were handed out and an attractive woman crowned the winner, the competition was unintentionally highlighting the presence of educated young women working at JPL. After all, other laboratories would have found it impossible to hold such a contest in the 1950s; they simply didn’t hire enough women. (Kindle Loc. 949)
An interesting difference between  biographies of men and women is that while men's biographies rarely mention their personal lives (like raising kids, etc), in women's biographies that's covered in detail. Nevertheless, the book provides ample coverage of the various missions that JPL ran, including the practice of planning dual missions for redundancy.

It's also well-written and provides a compelling narrative. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Review: Planet Hulk

Amazon was having a comic book sale, and Planet Hulk came up as an Amazon recommendation. I was about to be taken in, but fortunately, I've installed library extension on my web browser, which automatically told me that the library had a copy and the hold queue was 0.

You don't read a Hulk story for the subtlety or characterization. Hopefully the plot is interesting, and there are fun set pieces, but it didn't take 20% of the book to get tired of the "hulk smash, bigger problem shows up, hulk smash" loop. I finished the comic book but don't feel the need to read further.

Not recommended.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Review: How Great Science Fiction Works

How Great Science Fiction Works is a survey course for science fiction, easily my favorite fiction genre. I audited this course hoping to find themes or maybe even discover great books I haven't already read.

Not surprisingly, I've already read a ton of the books referred to in the lecture series. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. On the one hand, when he discusses a book, most likely I know what it's about, and can recall the primary themes of the book. On the other hand, there's only a handful of books he's mentioned that were new to me, and I would want to follow up on.

The worst part of the series is that he doesn't really explain what makes a particular work great. He covers the plot but doesn't explain, for instance, that Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun was interesting because it was one of the early examples of the unreliable narrator in science fiction. Further disappointing me was that the themes he chooses for the lectures are usually surface detail: Robots, Spaceships, etc. rather than the themes I would choose to organize a course on science fiction about: "Science Fiction as the literature of ideas", "Provoking the sense of wonder", etc.

The last lecture of the series redeems the series, as he captures one of the differences between the literary genre of fiction and science fiction. "Literature" usually provokes the "Ah yes!" reaction of recognition, while "Science fiction" tries to provoke the "Oh my!" reaction as the author extrapolates (usually to the extreme logical conclusion) the initial premise of the setting, plot, or idea. There's room for both types of fiction, but the best novels or stories would ideally involve those. As such, the lecturer points out that good science fiction is actually really hard to write as it needs to provoke both reactions in the author, while literary fiction as a genre doesn't have to provoke the sense of wonder in order to win awards in the traditional fields.

As a survey of the genre, I think the course has some merits. But for me, it just wasn't fun enough to recommend to anyone else.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Reread: House of Suns

I don't normally re-read novels, but my recent read of Beyond the Aquila Rift's Thousandth Night made me go back and start reading House of Suns again, and the book absolutely sucked me in. Not only had the 9 years between reads eroded my memory of the book so that it was completely fresh to me again, but I discovered new things upon re-reading the book, which is a true test of how good a book is.

For instance, I realized that the novel postulates answers to the question, "What is Dark Matter and why can't I see it?" And the ending, far from being unsatisfying, was actually quite good from my point of view. I certainly no longer feel like Reynolds wrote himself into a corner.

The secondary story, which tells the story of Abigail Gentian is less compelling as I don't think it gave us a good grip on what motivates the primary characters in the novel. Nevertheless, it references the Winchester Mystery House in an indirect fashion.

What I love about the book is how subtle all the references and postulations are. At no point does Reynolds point out "Hey, this is my great idea. Pay attention!" He respects the readers' intelligence and expects you to do the heavy lifting. Thinking about the lesser novels I read this year like The Three Body Problem or The Wall of Storms, I think that makes even the worse parts of House of Suns better than the best parts of other novels.

Highly Recommended, and well worth the re-read.