Motorcycles and Manual Labor

I just started reading Shop Class as Soulcraft, and I’m already a fan.

Seeing a motorcycle about to leave my shop under its own power, several days after arriving in the back of a pickup truck, I suddenly don’t feel tired, even though I’ve been standing on a concrete floor all day. Through the portal of his helmet, I think I can make out the edges of a grin on the face of a guy who hasn’t ridden his bike in a while.  I give him a wave.  With one of his hands on the throttle and the other on the clutch, I know he can’t wave back.  But I can hear his salute in the exuberant “bwaaAAAAP! blum-blum” of a crisp throttle, gratuitously revved.  That sound pleases me, as I know it does him.  It’s a ventriloquist conversation in one mechanical voice, and the gist of it is “Yeah!”

That description makes me smile from both sides of the interaction.

Rally to Restore Sanity

This past weekend, I was down in DC for the Rally to Restore Sanity.  My general feeling is that it was a lot of fun and a strong show of support for moderation, but the criticisms of it being somewhat undirected are valid.

Matt and I started the day off at the Donor’s Choose booth around 10 am, mingling with a bunch of redditors.  We were early enough that there was plenty of space, so we walked around that area, carrying our signs and talking to people.  Rather than trying to camp out a spot that was sure to become packed beyond comfort, we walked around the mall and talked to random people (one of whom gave us cookies!).  Once it was close to time for the rally to start, we wound our way back up through, but it quickly became obvious that we didn’t have a chance of seeing anything more than a couple minutes of the Mythbusters on a jumbotron through a tree.

Thankfully, both Matt and I were more interested in the people than the official proceedings, so we continued our wandering and talking for another couple hours before packing up and heading back home.  We left on the Metro shortly after 2 pm, hoping to (and succeeding in) beating the crowds.

Highlights of the day

  • Redditors.  I’m barely on the site so I felt a little outside-looking-in, but everyone we met was awesome.
  • Many young and attractive women cheering for Carl Sagan.
  • Talking with a little old lady from the Netherlands who just happened to be in town and had no clue what was going on.
  • Samurai dancing on a giant dragon.
  • An elderly gentleman taking a picture of my sign and then telling me it’s going to be his new Facebook photo.
  • Talking with engineers from SpaceX.
  • Our satirical interview with Rochester Buzz.
  • A couple dressed as The Joker and Harley Quinn from Batman: The Animated Series carrying a sign a la Fred Phelps that says “God Hates Bats”.  (side note:  Holy crap WB, that may be the worst official website I’ve ever seen)

Less than awesome things

  • People missing the point.  There were a few too many vitriolic signs for my taste.
  • Standing in line for 20 minutes for the bathroom.  Could have been worse, though.
  • Spending a total of 5-6 hours making the damn sign.  Perfectionism can be a curse.
  • Looking like I’m stoned in the interview with Rochester Buzz, and having my rant edited out.
  • Realizing post-pictures that I really needed a damn haircut.

Pictures, all courtesy of Matt.

Packing for Mars

Still shirking my plan to write something about The Mythical Man-Month, I want to get out a few quick thoughts on Packing for Mars.  First and foremost, it makes me sad that I will, very likely, never make it to space.  I got hit with that gut-wrenching realization about two-thirds of the way through the book.  Granted, I’ve intellectually known this since I was maybe 10, but something here made it resonate on a more guttural level.  I mourn for the six-year-old astronaut-to-be inside of me.

Anyway, the book focuses on the human aspects of the space program, which is an interesting topic on its own, but Mary Roach takes it so much further.  Her style is this amazingly blend of formal research and conversational tone, and I just love the way her writing sounds.  Note that I am intentionally using sounds instead of reads in that last sentence because I believe it is a more fitting description.

The topics covered deal with a wide range of human-related concerns, from comfort to clothing to food to sleeping to … I’ll say bathroom usage.  Every one of them is interesting and meticulously researched, but a large portion of the fun is all of the other things that she uncovers in the research.  I’d estimate at least half the pages in the book have one or more footnotes, and they are such beautiful sidetracks.  It’s information that’s never likely to be useful outside of bar trivia, but it’s rarely anything short of fascinating.

Packing for Mars makes me want to read everything Mary Roach has ever written or will ever write.  Before I even finished it, I had picked up Bonk.  If she decides to write a seven book series dealing with the differences between aluminum and plastic rain gutters, I will buy every one and somehow, they will all be awesome.

The Hunger Games Series

I’ve been slacking on this review thing, but it’s time to play catch up.  I’m going to be going slightly out of order, hitting up The Hunger Games series before I go back to The Mythical Man-Month.  The second is much easier to go back and reference at a later date, so I’d like to get the first out of the way while it’s fresh in my head.  Addendum:  This is finally concluded, weeks after my initial draft. I think I bit off a little more than I could chew for this one. Next series, I’ll have to do one at a time.

I started reading The Hunger Games series on the recommendation of a friend (thanks Meagan!).  She prefaced it by noting that it’s categorized as  “young adult,” but so have some great books that I’ve read recently:  His Dark Materials, Little Brother, and obviously Harry Potter.  The language structure definitely isn’t high literature, but I don’t see it as a detriment to the story, considering it’s told from the point of view of a mildly educated teenage girl.  If her thoughts and words were filled with superfluous language and peppered with semicolons it would just ring false.  Besides, this means I was able to tear through all 1200 pages in less than a week, with Catching Fire being finished in one day.

The structure of the books follows what I’ll categorize as a “Star Wars progression.”  The first book, The Hunger Games, sets up the universe and provides a cohesive story, but one that definitely doesn’t feel finished.  Catching Fire, the Empire of the group, is darker and filled with more personal conflict.  Mockingjay concludes, and the wrap-up just feels too small for a story this good.  To carry the analogy way too far, there’s a lot of backstory that could be used for a set of prequels, but I would hope that this is where the similarities end.

Enough of the boring details and on to the story, where YA fiction tends to live or die.  These are going to be a bit more extensive so I think I’ll separate it here.  Note that each of these are going to contain some spoilers.  Read at your own risk.

Part 1:  The Hunger Games
Part 2:  Catching Fire
Part 3:  Mockingjay

The TL;DR and spoiler-free version is pretty simple:  these books require almost no effort to read, and provide a great story with interesting characters.  Stop reading this swill that I write and start reading these books.  Do it before the inevitable movie is released, since it will likely pale in comparison.  See also:  The Dark Tower

The Hunger Games – Book 1

See my intro.

The Hunger Games starts off in a dystopian future where much of the world is decimated by… something.  One of the strengths here is that the author doesn’t go out of her way to explain things that really don’t matter.  Leaving some things to the imagination is a plus, especially in a young adult book.

Anyway, the known world is Panem, which is basically North America.  No reference is made to anything outside of this area.  Panem is composed of a central Capitol and twelve districts.  I view it as a hub-and-spokes design, though I can’t remember if that is ever explicitly stated or it was just my interpretation.  Regardless, the Capitol is somewhere in the Rockies, and District 12, our heroine’s home, is somewhere in Appalachia.

The back story is that about 75 years ago, there was an uprising in the districts (which are poor and oppressed).  Once the Capitol successfully squashed the uprising, they created The Hunger Games.  In this scenario, one boy and one girl from each district is selected each year to compete in a Thunderdome-esque battle to the death.  24 children enter, one child leaves.  The idea is that it is a continual reminder of the power the Capitol wields, and of the people who were killed in the insurrection.

Minor Plot Spoilers Below

Unsurprisingly, Katniss ends up in the games, but only after volunteering to take the place of her sister, Prim.  Her male compatriot is Peeta Mellark, a schoolmate with whom she shares an unspoken history.  In almost stereotypical fashion, he has an unrequited love for her, whereas she feels like she owes him for a silent favor years back.

Through the preparations for the games, Katniss does her best to develop a strategy for survival.  She does her best to stay solo, but once the games start she finds herself paired with a small girl, Rue, who reminds her of Prim.  When Rue is eventually taken down, Katniss covers her in flowers and sings to her, an act which the Capitol views as defiance.

At one point during the games, the announcer declares that there may be two victors this year, provided they are both from the same district.  Few remaining competitors meet this criteria, but Katniss immediately begins seeking out Peeta, who has been critically wounded.  This sets up the beginning of a potentially real relationship that she doesn’t quite know how to interpret.

Of course they end up winning, at which point the announcers claim that the rules are back to normal and only one may survive.  In another act of personal defiance turned political, she holds up poisonous berries that she and Peeta begin to eat.  The announcers panic and end the games, rescuing both of them.  The book ends on a semi-cliffhanger, leaving the reader wondering where we go from here.  However, it wraps up well enough to be a story in and of itself.

End Minor Plot Spoilers

Apart from the plot, one of the interesting things is that the protagonist is a female.  That in and of itself isn’t all that interesting, but how this information is revealed was novel.  For the first chunk, you’re not quite sure the character’s gender, and then offhand comments begin to get made regarding a dress, or a marriage.  The book is amazingly gender-neutral throughout, to the point where I don’t honestly know what gender some of the minor characters (such as the Katniss’s prep team) were.  Gender is noted here and there, but never emphasized as an asset or a detriment, and when the females do well in the combat situations it is never met with surprise.  It’s so subtle that I don’t think most people will even notice, but I think it’s done almost perfectly.

I loved the theme that is carried through the entire novel, even if it’s been done expertly in the past (see The Lord of the Rings):  you can’t go home again.  With each life-changing event, there is never a sense of “Ok, if I can just get through this, everything will be fine.”  Everything will, at best, be survivable.  I was also quite pleasantly surprised when this carried through the series as a whole, though I’ll get into that later.

Some of the characters were a little flat, but this fits with Katniss’s mostly-detached personality.  I don’t know if this was intentional or happy coincidence, but it works in most cases.  The only times it felt odd was with Prim and Katniss’s mother.  Neither of those characters felt as fleshed-out as I would have liked, but it makes some sense in that they were more caricatures of traits than active characters.

As I mentioned before, where this really succeeds is the story.  The simplistic language plus the constant plot advancement makes for a great page-turner.  I tend to read mainly on my morning and evening commutes, but I found myself reading in the evenings sitting at home as well.  The twists and turns are rarely surprisingly, but they’re played well enough that it doesn’t matter.

Continued in Part 2 and Part 3.

The Hunger Games – Book 2

See my intro and Part 1.

Let me begin by emphasizing that I read Catching Fire in one day.  I started it Friday morning on my commute, read it there and on my commute home, and the spent hours (after deciding to go to bed earlier) reading it through to completion.  It’s my favorite of the series, and there were actually twists in this one that made me physically sit up in bed.

Minor Plot Spoilers Below

The book begins with Peeta and Katniss going on a tour of Panem as the victors of the latest game.  She’s been instructed / intimidated by the president to keep any revolutionary actions well under wraps, though she never intended to be revolutionary in the first place.  All is well and good in the preparation for this dog and pony show, but the first stop is District 11, Rue’s home.  Peeta delivers the standard lines and avoids causing a ruckus, but Katniss jumps in at the end to give her respect to Rue and to thank the people for their bread.  This results in a moment of solidarity, originating with an old man whistling Rue’s song.  Then, as they are hurried off the stage, Katniss sees the Peacekeepers execute the old man.

The tour continues, and they do their best to not actively incite rebellion.  As it goes along, Peeta attempts to smooth things over with President Snow by publicly proposing to Katniss.  However, all of this is too little, too late, and the ball of rebellion has already started to roll.

Upon arriving home in District 12, the 75th Hunger Games is announced.  Every 25 years, the games have a twist to them, and this time, the twist is that the competitors will be chosen from the surviving victors of the prior games.  Since Katniss is the only female victor in District 12, she is automatically reentered.  Haymitch, their coach for the first games and an old victor himself, knows that if he is selected Peeta will volunteer anyway, so they begin planning for Katniss and Peeta to go into the arena once more.

For the press conference before entering the arena, Katniss is dressed in her wedding gown.  Cinna, her stylist, instructs her to spin at the appropriate time, which ignites the dress and turns the dress into a symbolic mockingjay outfit.  The mockingjay has been appropriated as the symbol of the rebellion, and as such, this is a direct challenge to the President.  Meanwhile, Peeta tells the world that Katniss is pregnant, creating one of the “Oh shit!” moments for me.

Unbeknownst to them, a large number of the other victors (and general revolutionaries) have been plotting further rebellion.  Katniss and Peeta almost immediately team up with Finnick, and slowly accumulate more compatriots.  They develop a plan to take out the rest of the competitors, but in reality it’s devised to take down the arena.  It succeeds, and some (including Katniss) are airlifted to safety by the rebellion, and some (including Peeta) are captured by the President.  The book concludes with the knowledge that District 12 has been destroyed.

End Minor Plot Spoilers

This is the Empire of the series, and just like in Star Wars, it’s my favorite.  It starts out a little slow, but more than makes up for it as the story progresses.  As I mentioned in the Book 1 review, the theme of not being able to go home again keeps on rolling.  With every action, there is quite literally no turning back.

The characters here get a little more life-like, but there is still a large number of named yet flat characters, in particular among the competitors.  They thankfully fleshed out Finnick, who very quickly became my favorite supporting character in the series.  The dynamic between characters was improved from the first book, and it seems like the author hit her stride with Katniss’s personality.

Since this book continues to be told only through her point of view, it’s interesting to see what the author allows Katniss to pick up on.  There are things that she (and many readers) might not pick up on at first glance, but they’re present in the story if one is paying attention.  What makes it interesting to me is that they aren’t always significant things that are dropped as foreshadowing.  Rather than always being the proverbial “gun on the mantle,” there are lots of little things that she misses in her naivete as well.  On top of making the character more real, it also makes the story more engaging.

The only complaint I have about the book is one that is only semi-valid at best.  The chaos at the end of the story is damn near impossible to sort through.  This is intentional, considering the disoriented state that Katniss is in and her ignorance of the overall plan, but it made me disengage from the story.  I started lightly skimming paragraphs because I knew I wasn’t going to be able to figure out what the heck was going on anyway, so I would get to a point that’s clear and work backwards.  Mockingjay clears a lot of the rubble through the other characters involved, but it was still a bit annoying as the almost-conclusion.  The clarity comes back at the last minute, which saves the ending in my opinion, but it’s still a bit meh.

Continued in Part 3.

The Hunger Games – Book 3

See my introPart 1, and Part 2.

I consider Mockingjay the weakest of the three books, but when you open up a world, there’s only so much wrap-up that can be done.  It didn’t grip me nearly as much as the first two, and the final conclusion just felt rushed.  The rushed feeling also showed up at the end of Catching Fire, but it fit better in the chaos at the end of that book.

The plot here is somewhat generic.  It’s the standard story of a reluctant rebel leader fighting against the evil oppressive government.  While the characters and world as a whole remain interesting, this particular plot line was largely forgettable.

Minor Plot Spoilers Below

Katniss takes her place as the reluctant rebel leader in the form of the Mockingjay, though the reality of the situation is that she is still largely a pawn in the larger plans of the rebel leaders and the government of District 13.  One of the first orders of business is rescuing all of the Hunger Games contestants that weren’t retrieved in the initial attempt.  However, after seeing Peeta on the broadcasts, it becomes obvious that something isn’t quite right.

When Peeta is finally rescued, the first thing he does upon seeing Katniss is attempt to kill her.  After a little research, it becomes obvious that he has been brainwashed by President Snow into believing a world of awful thing about her.  They slowly work through this difficulty, and I respect Collins for wrecking a character, but the fact remains that the character was wrecked.  Peeta, while somewhat single minded, was at least interesting.  Post-brainwashing, not so much.  Thankfully, Finnick fills in the role of most interesting male character quite nicely.

It will come as a surprise to no one that the scrappy rebel crew manages to succeed in its uprising, but there was quite a large number of named-character deaths.  As they make their way through to the president, people die almost casually.  Once again there’s chaos, though this time before the very end, stemming from an attack on the children used as a shield in front of President Snow.

Once he is captured, Katniss is given the opportunity to kill him.  She takes this chance and kills President Coin of District 13 instead, due to her belief that President Coin ordered the attack on the children (with a plan originating from Gale).  One final time, chaos ensues.  I wish the book would end here.

Katniss is magically forgiven (temporary insanity) for killing the wrong president, and she doesn’t even really lose any of her status.  Peeta is healed, they return to District 12, the bluebird sings, and the Ewoks dance.  At this point I was nervous that Collins was totally dropping the “can’t go home again” theme, at which point I might have thrown the book in frustration.  Thankfully there’s a partially redeeming epilogue, where Katniss and Peeta are married, with children, but she is still haunted by the games.

End Minor Plot Spoilers

I started this book at one of the highest possible points, and I ended it fairly low.  As it moved forward, I found myself tuning out more and more due to the predictable and formulaic plot.  If I didn’t love some of the characters, I might have put it down.  Not permanently, mind you, but still.

The theme of continued distrust of the government, regardless of the origin, had potential, but District 13 wasn’t developed enough for it to really feel meaningful.

In a similar way, Katniss’s separation from Gale due to his potential (unintentional) involvement in the attack on the children seemed forced.  I was looking forward to seeing how the love triangle was resolved, but it almost felt like a deus ex machina.  Given more time, I think the guilt and mistrust between Katniss and Gale could have been interesting, but instead Gale was simply written out.

It would be fairly easy to interpret all this as me disliking the book, but in reality I still enjoyed it.  It’s just the effect of going from a B+ to a solid A to C/C-.  It disappoints, far more than a C from the get-go would.  On the whole, the series is still fantastic, and I unconditionally recommend it.

The world is fantastic example of a post-apocalyptic future.  There’s enough individuality to separate it from the pack, and Collins doesn’t make the mistake of explaining more than she needs to.  This is important in my mind because I would love to see other books (or video games) set in this world.  I almost hope it doesn’t happen, since it would probably pale in comparison, but my imagination runs wild with Panem.

Another Great Scam from EVE Online

Stories like this make me wish I had the time (and obsessive tendencies) to play EVE Online.  Any MMO that has a legitimate economist on staff definitely piques my interest.  I love the free-for-all nature of the game, and I read about the crazy exploits of its users with an almost voyeuristic glee.

If the game were any fun at all in the beginning, I could see an amazingly large portion of my life just disappearing.  Thankfully, I can’t deal with the tedium long enough to get to the hook, despite trying on a few separate occasions.

Not Sure If Want

The Dark Tower series, as a whole, is one of my all-time favorite books.  I’ve read through the first three books six times (damn the huge gap between books three and four…), all seven books three times, and I’ll likely read through them more as the years go on.  The idea of a movie or a miniseries gets thrown around periodically, but I’ve always been skeptical about any potential adaptations considering both the breadth and depth of the series.

As such, nerves are outweighing excitement for this.  The proposed movie/TV combo seems like a reasonable approach for the story, and I’m going to hope against hope that it will be decent.

But I still think my greater hope is that it doesn’t get made at all.  Roland is just fine existing only on paper and in my head.

Language Skillz

I can only hope to one day have command of the English language at this level:

I actually get confused when I look at it. I know about “the graphics,” at least from a terminology perspective, because any vein of jargon is my delight. I like reading really weird crap and pretending that I understand it. But the cumulative assault of the demo’s various pieces – the audio, the imagery, and the controls – are the sort of thing that makes a person say “fuck” over and over, like stubbing your toe, only you’ve stubbed your mind. It has bumped up against something unrelenting, and you suffer as a result.

Via Penny Arcade