Monday, May 28, 2007

Review: Banjo Brothers Handlebar Bag

Someone on the Rivendell mailing list recommended the Banjo Brothers handlebar bag to me. I found it at Calhoun Cycles for $20, and decided it was worth the risk. The main attraction to me was the side straps that attach to hooks mounted on the fork's eyelets (hooks are provided with the bag) which lend the bag extra stability.

The hooks mount on easily with a socket wrench and a philips head screw driver. My brother had it on his bike for 3 months and it never came loose, but I'd loc-tite it anyway for a long trip. The straps end in a triangle that loops around the hooks, which I thought was pretty clever: past bags I've seen have straps that end in a hook that hook directly into the eyelets, and woe unto you if the strap were to snap or you were to miss the eyelet: the hooks would fly all over the place.

The mesh bags on both sides of the bag are just about right. Enough for a digital camera, and a phone on each side. The space is ample for what I want to do when I'm traveling, and the zippers seem well-made. I did not test the bag for water-proofness, but I'm going to seal stuff that must stay dry with zip-lock bags if it rains.

The big minus that's really obvious is that the bag velcros to your bars, and leaves little room for you to hold the tops of the bars, if that's your favorite position for climbing. Perhaps the Nitto Lamp Holder 2 will solve the problem. That's a costly solution, however.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Review: 1001 Nights of Snowfall and Other Fables

After my last review of Bill Willingham's Fables, I found as many back issues as I could and read all of them, including the hardback, 1001 Nights of Snowfall.

1001 Nights of Snowfall fills in a back story. Snow White petitions the Arabian legends to form an alliance against the adversary. The individual stories are entertaining, but none of them stack up against the series proper.

The series past volume 3 gets even better. We learn, for instance, who the adversary is (it's someone you've heard of, and it's a surprisingly logical move). We find a happy ending for Snow White and the Big B. Wolf. We thrill to the adventures of Little Boy Blue, and the perhaps hapless self-promotions of Jack Horner. The stories are entertaining, interesting, make a lot of sense, and have the taste of the whimsical that make all fairy tales special. (Come now, any story that reintroduces you to the three blind mice has got to be fun!)

Highly recommended. It's worth paying Amazon.com prices for this series.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Review: Raising The Bar

Most business books sound too self-congratulatory, especially if written (well, really, ghost-written) by a company founder. But Clif bar has always been one of my favorite bars (since Eric House introduced them to me in 1993), and the front cover of the book had a picture of a cyclist pushing his bike on a dirt path through the alps (an experience I've had once or twice), so it boded well.

The story of Clif bar was very well-written. I hadn't known that they had stayed private through all those years (despite almost getting bought out), and the metaphor Gary Erickson used for running his company was that of a self-supported bicycle tour through the alps! The comparison between secondary roads, pioneering new paths, and big main roads are used very aptly, as is the tips for businesses Gary thought he learned on his bike trips.

But perhaps the most revealing piece of the book is his commitment to his business. I've read a lot of well-meaning pieces written by various company founders as to their aspirations for their businesses (including my current employer), but rarely do these commitments pan out: it is rare to see companies do anything really serious about sustainability, and for all the statements about work-life balance I've seen, most companies just want to squeeze as much work as possible out of each employee.

Gary Erickson is actually proud that his company's offices are empty by 5 or 6pm. He instituted a 9-day fortnight (meaning, every other weekend is a long weekend if you work for him). His sabbatical program for his employees get used, and yet aren't just used to jump ship (as is all too frequent in the tech industry). He deliberately chooses to grow the company slowly. You can argue that perhaps he's in an industry perfectly suited for such an extreme work environment, but the truth is, it takes a special person to choose the road less traveled, and it's clear that Gary Erickson is one of them (for an example, I've asked many members of my 700-person strong bike club if they would like to join me on one of my tours, but none have ever taken me up on it).

This book wins a two thumbs up for me. It's a great book on cycle touring, and a good book on Clif Bar's business. Consider me sold! The negatives are that the layout is terrible, and there are too many interruptions and diversions to interrupt the rhythm of reading the prose, but that is probably another one of Erickson's point.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Review: The Ghost Brigades

I reviewed John Scalzi's latest novel, The Last Colony a while back and found it intriguing enough to place holds on his other books at the library. As luck would have it, the books are arriving in reverse order, so I'm reading his oldest work last.

Fortunately, the novel is self-contained, and provides all the background you need in order to understand its context. The plot revolves around a scientist, Charles Boutin, who has defected to an alien race against the humans. What do you do in response? Well, in Scalzi's universe, what you do is to genetically engineer a brain (with a body, of course), force-grow it in several months, and then transfer an imprint of the renegade's consciousness into the new super-body. (It's a super-body because for whatever reason, the powers that be decided to use the special forces imprint for the body so that the effort will at least produce a super soldier if the original plans don't work out)

Well, the imprint does not take, at least initially, so we get a good view of how Special Forces in the Colonial Union works. The story moves pretty quickly, since with the kind of brainware and special coping mechanisms used to train special forces units, the training can be done in just two weeks (why they don't just use the same type of units in all the soldiers I don't quite understand).

In any case, trauma affects the protaganist, Jared Dirac (all of Scalzi's special forces have last names of twentieth century scientists), and he starts regaining Boutin's memories. After he remembers where Boutin went, he is sent as part of the mission to retrieve Boutin, and things start going horribly awry, leading to a confrontation of Boutin and his motivations.

The book is well-written, though not as polished as his latest novel. It is a real page-turner. I started reading it last night, and found myself ignoring newspapers and other books in favor of reading this. There are a few plot holes that don't quite make sense (a military as paranoid as the Colonial Union would have installed anti-viral safeguards and protected against back-doors), but the plot moves you along and you don't have too many moments to question the premise.

All in all, a good read. Once again, the ideal airplane novel. Recommended.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Review: Fables In Exile, Vol 1-3

It is rare that there are new ideas in fantasy series, but there it is, Fables In Exile, a series that deals with fairy tales. Everybody knows that these stories always end with And they lived happily ever after....

The series begins with a postulate that the fairy tale lands have come under attack from a mysterious Adversary (who's not actually revealed yet). All the fairy tale creatures (including Brer Rabbit, for instance) escape from the fairy tale lands into Mundania, most abandoning their possessions. But all are immortal, in the way stories are, and those that have chosen to live amongst humans adopt human guise, while those who can't live in a secluded area of upstate New York, hidden away from the mundanes.

I can't tell you how much I like the mix of whimsy that Bill Willingham brings to this story. He starts off having a very frustrated Snow White (one of the protagonists and the administrator of the community in New York) having to cope with a marital dispute between Beauty and her Beast. The dialog is beautiful, entertaining, and draws you into the fantasy. But the story is anything but whimsical. The first volume deals with Bigby Wolf's (yes, that's the Big Bad Wolf of the fairy tales) attempt to solve the mystery of the murder of Rose Red. The way the clues are placed and provided to the reader are delightful: those who are used to prose mysteries will be surprised that most of the clues are visual --- one has to read the art as carefully as the prose and the dialog in this story.

Volume 2 is centered around the other Fable community, the one with three little pigs, the three bears, their unhappiness with not being able to fit into mundania, and their plan to do something about it. The result is again an ongoing deluge of beautiful ideas, wonderful characters from childhood revisited, and a plot that keeps you at the edge of your seat.

Fables Vol. 3: Storybook Lovedeals with the consequences of the fallout of volume two, and we find out that fables are really tough to kill. It also begins to resolves a romantic entanglement that we've been teased with so far in the series. Now that you've grown to know the characters, Willigham plays with your expectations for them, and some of them will surprise you.

All throughout the art is consistently great, right up there with the best of The The Sandman, and the stories are consistently better. I kid you not. I think Willingham is a better writer than Gaiman, and the endings are definitely not lame, since he doesn't write himself into a corner.

All in all, two thumbs up, and worth paying full price at Amazon.com for these books if you can't find them at the local library. I've got the entire series on hold at my local library and I await them eagerly!

Monday, May 07, 2007

Review: The Last Colony

I was impressed by how much I liked this book. I started reading on chapter one, and the book just sucked me in and I had to keep going until I finished it. It's been a while since a science fiction novel did this to me, and I even picked up some of the inside jokes and references. (A character, Lieutenant Stross, was an obvious reference to fellow science fiction author Charles Stross)

Basically, a retired major in the human race's Colonial Union is called back (along with his wife, a former Special Forces soldier) to establish a new Earth Colony. Unknown to him, the Colonial Union has a not-so-innocent motive for this new colony, which puts his family, his new colony, and the entire fate of the human race in danger.

One odd technique that John Scalzi uses is to treat the entire novel as a mystery. Not a mystery as in a who-dunnit sense, but he basically treats every major plot point as a puzzle for the reader to solve. In most cases, he plays fair, giving you everything you need to guess what's going to happen next.

Yes, there are action sequences in this book, but no, they don't dominate the story or the plot, and they're not egregious, though Scalzi leaves more loose ends than I like at the end of the novel, they're not that important to the overall outcome.

All in all, while I would not pay hardcover price for this book, the paperback would be worth paying for, and it would make fine airplane reading. This book is the third book in a series, but since I hadn't read the first two books and didn't find that an impediment, you can safely read this book on its own. I'll dig up the other two from the library and write reviews on those as well.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Review: Plan B 2.0

Apparently, Lester R. Brown is a big shot in the environmental movement, but when he came to Google for a talk I didn't know any better, so I went and sat in and got a copy of the book. The talk was lackluster, but I hoped the book would be better.

The book unfortunately, is a litany of the environmental disasters facing us. Divided into 3 parts, Part I covers the problems facing us, part II provides a plan for getting us out of trouble, and Part III waxes rhapsodic about what a brave new world it's going to be.

I'm a card carrying environmentalist, and I don't disagree with any of the problems Lester Brown covers in Part I. But I have a hard time considering many of the problems he delineates really solvable. For instance, I don't believe 3rd world poverty is solvable through 1st world intervention. All our history indicates that 1st world intervention does nothing but exacerbates the problems. All 3rd world countries that have bootstrapped themselves into becoming developing countries and then developed countries have done so without a lot of help from 1st world countries. I am therefore skeptical of any effort placed into the humanitarian corner of Lester Brown's plan.

Brown points out, in Part II, how cheap it is to save the world. All it takes is 10% of the world's military budget. He neglects to point out that the biggest problem is that while everybody benefits from having the world saved, only the ones who voluntarily chose to pay the costs of doing so pay the cost. That makes it a classic tragedy of the commons problem, which means that the chief job of an environmentalist is really to try to convince the public that it's in their self-interest to clean up. Brown does not go over this, and it is clear that he lacks the necessary training as an economist to propose real systems that can solve this problem.

Part III's call to action sounds a bit idealistic to me. He waxes rhapsodic about gas taxes. I'm a cynic because I've seen over and over again how one woman after another would tell me she's an environmentalist, but then refuse to ride her bike to work because it would screw with her hair, because she considers cycling dangerous, or simply because it would take an act of god to pry the steering wheel from her cold dead hands. I don't believe that people are willing to put their money where their mouth is, so the only hope, I guess is for there to be a politician willing to exercise true leadership.

All in all, this book isn't really worth your time to read. The plan is plausible but likely ineffectual and unlikely to gain traction, and the description of the problems at too high a level and too shallow for you to truly learn anything.

Not recommended, even at the price I paid for it ($0). Go buy yourself a copy of Jared Diamond's Collapse instead. (Capsule Review)