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Updating My Rating System

After writing about the awfulness of numeric rating systems, it only made sense to update my own personal rating system. With a star system, I feel compelled to rate on artistic merit rather than on personal enjoyment. After all, a numerical score should have an objective reality behind it. But sometimes I have a hard time judging artistic merit and I spend a lot of time ruminating over the "correct" rating.

What I really want is just a way to give a personal review and recommendation: did I enjoy this or not? Switching to a binary thumbs up / down system gives me the freedom to rate on my personal enjoyment and not worry as much about artistic merit. So, thumbs it is.

I am going to cheat a bit and add a second thumb for overall enthusiasm. One thumb means that the rating applies just to me and whether or not I enjoyed something. The second thumb means that I think the enjoyment (or distaste) should be universal and that I'm proactively recommending for or against something.

  • 👍 I liked it
  • 👎 I didn't like it.
  • 👍👍 You should read it.
  • 👎👎 No one should read it.

Since I'll still post book reviews over on Goodreads, I'll need to map my ratings to Goodreads' star ratings. That breaks down like this. (Basically, the wishy-washy three star review is out.)

  • 👍👍 = ★★★★★
  • 👍 = ★★★★
  • 👎 = ★★
  • 👎👎 = ★

This entry was tagged. Review

The Awfulness of Numeric Rating Systems

Caroline O'Donovan wrote at Buzz Feed about why the existing rating systems are awful.

“The rating system works like this: You start off as a five-star driver,” Don, a San Francisco Lyft driver told BuzzFeed News. “If you drop below a 4.6, then your career becomes a question. Uber or Lyft will reach out to you and let you know that you are on review probation. And if you continue to drop, then you're going to lose your job. They'll deactivate you."

But ratings are nonetheless a stressor for some drivers. Julian, who drives for both Uber and Lyft in San Francisco, said maintaining a good rating can be difficult because customers don’t really understand them. "They think that 3 is okay, and a 4 is like a B, and 5 is exceptional," he told BuzzFeed News. "Well, if you got a 4 every time, you’d be terminated. You have to maintain a 4.7, so anything less than a 5 is not okay.”

​> …

This sort of rating anxiety extends well beyond Uber and Lyft. “The rating system is terrible,” said Ken Davis, a former Postmates courier, who noted that under the company's five-star rating system couriers who fall below 4.7 for more than 30 days are suspended. Said Joshua, another Postmates courier, “I really don’t think customers understand the impact their ratings have on us."

​> …

Wendy and her son Brian, visiting San Francisco from Indiana and using Uber for their first time, were surprised to hear that most drivers consider four stars to be a bad rating. “I would have thought 5 is excellent, and 4 is good,” Wendy said. That revelation was equally shocking to Elnaz, a longtime Uber user visiting San Francisco from LA. “Four stars sucks," she said, incredulous. "Really?"

“Customers don't understand the impact ratings have on couriers at all,” said a former Postmates community manager, who requested anonymity while discussing her previous employer. “A customer might rate a delivery three stars, assuming that three stars is fine. Several three-star ratings could bring a courier’s rating down significantly, especially if they’re new. It could even get the courier fired.”

​The biggest problem is that no two people have the same definition of what each of the ratings means.

Lyft says that five stars means “awesome,” four means “Ok, could be better,” and three means “below average.” But for Uber, five stars is “excellent,” four is “good,” and three is “OK.”

To that point, Goodreads has the following rating system:

  • ★: Did not like it
  • ★★: it was ok
  • ★★★: liked it
  • ★★★★: really liked it
  • ★★★★★: it was amazing

But few people actually use that scale to rate their books. In fact, many people start or end their Goodreads reviews with a discussion of their own personal rating system. I'm guilty of this myself.

It's even worse than that. People give ratings differently from how they actually use ratings. When it comes to giving ratings, people are nuanced critics. Take hotel stays. We'll knock off a star for a room that's a little dingy or a shower that doesn't have the right water pressure. We'll give it back for friendly staff and a hot breakfast. The result is a 3.7 rating that we think accurately represents our "mostly good with a few minor downsides" experience at the hotel.

Given our own nuanced ratings, how many of us even bother to read star ratings with a similarly nuanced eye? We only want to stay at five star establishments. We'll consider a four star hotel, but anything lower than that makes us inherently suspicious. We know how we rate businesses and we know that an average rating of 5 should be impossible to achieve, if everyone rates like we ourselves do. But we read ratings with a highly critical eye anyway and hotels are reduced to begging for high ratings because anything less is the kiss of death.

O'Donovan recounts an anecdote that I find telling.​

John Gruber, publisher of Daring Fireball, is among those who believe that five-star rating systems don’t produce particularly useful data, and that generally speaking, binary systems are better. “There’s no universal agreement as to what the different stars mean,” Gruber told BuzzFeed News. “But everybody knows what thumbs-up, thumbs-down means.”

A few years ago, during a trip to Orlando, Gruber had an experience that made him realize how this confusion over what the stars mean can impact individuals in ways customers don’t realize. After taking a ride in an Uber that had an overpoweringly strong smell of air freshener, Gruber gave the driver a four-star rating. The next day, he got a call from an Uber employee asking him to explain what the driver had done wrong.

“I was like, Holy shit!” Gruber said. “The guy was nice, I wish I hadn’t done this.”

When I read this, everything suddenly clarified. Exact, specific, nuanced ratings aren't useful to consumers. I only care about one thing: would you stay here again or would you avoid it? When I'm thinking back on my own stays, maybe the water pressure was too low, but if the overall experience was good then I'll book another room at the same hotel on my next trip. The crucial question really just boils down to: would I stay here again and would you recommend it to me. Everything else is just details.

Jason Snell came to the same conclusion, writing One for the thumbs.

Say you’re Netflix, which has allowed its users to apply five-star ratings to movies since its inception. Netflix offered user ratings because it’s always been focused on improving its own recommendation engine, so that it can look at your tastes and suggest other movies you might like—and use your ratings to feed the recommendation engine of viewers who share your tastes, too.

At some point, Netflix must have looked at its data and realized that their five-star rating system wasn’t really improving its recommendations. It was just adding noise. Does knowing that one user gave a movie four stars while another one gave it five stars really provide more information? The answer is clearly no, because Netflix eliminated star ratings and now only seeks a thumbs up or a thumbs down, just like YouTube did in 2009. In the end, you can obsess over whether a movie deserves three or four of your precious personal stars, but Netflix doesn’t care. It just wants to know if you liked the movie or not, because that’s all that really matters.

Take it from Gene Siskel, via that same Roger Ebert piece:

Gene Siskel boiled it down: “What’s the first thing people ask you? Should I see this movie? They don’t want a speech on the director’s career. Thumbs up—yes. Thumbs down—no.”

Or as John Gruber succinctly put it, star ratings are garbage—“thumbs-up/thumbs-down is the way to go—everyone agrees what those mean.”

I think a numeric rating system only makes sense for purely personal use. For instance, in family meal planning. My family uses a 4-star system for rating meals. After trying each recipe, we ask our daughters to rate it using this four point scale.

  • ★ Never make this again.
  • ★★ I didn't care for it but I'll eat it without a tantrum if you do make it again.
  • ★★★ Make this a part of our standard list of meals.
  • ★★★★ Make this every week.

It helps that it's a simple system. But the main reason is it works is that everyone in the family knows the definition and uses it in a consistent way. When my wife plans the meals, we include some recipes rated 3 or 4. The 2-star recipes may get used sparingly, if one family member happens to love them, since the rest are willing to tolerate them. The 1-star recipes are kept around purely as a reminder of what not to make. It works, but it's a system that would break down entirely if we tried to share our recipe database with another family.

I would be happy to see numeric rating systems disappear entirely from public websites and apps. Let's stick to a simple recommended / not recommended binary choice for everything that we're not personally curating for our own personal use.

This entry was tagged. Review News

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 fails to meet Groot expectations →

I'm glad I'm not the only curmudgeon that failed to enjoy the new Guardians movie. The Globe and Mail also panned it.

After the original earned $770-million (U.S.) worldwide – all without boasting a name-brand star or much built-in affection for a talking tree named Groot – a sequel was inevitable. But it didn't have to be this sequel, which swaps out amusement for arrogance, delight for disdain.

At least a dozen times, for instance, this new movie laughs at its own jokes – literally. The characters of Drax (an alien warrior) and Rocket (the aforementioned talking raccoon) regularly deploy punchlines or watch ones whiz by, and then cackle for what seems like minutes on end. (Some choice jokes pivot around the size of one character's turds and another's urgent need to urinate.) There is even a running bit about the fine art of winking at your audience. And if that is not enough to hammer home Guardians' particular brand of misplaced confidence, then the filmmakers hope snippets of seventies' AM radio pop will inject a sly bit of nostalgic levity into the proceedings. See, we're just here for a good time, not a long time – why else would Looking Glass, Electric Light Orchestra and Cheap Trick be blasting on the soundtrack?

It is tittering, unrestrained filmmaking at its most self-indulgent – high, as it were, on its own supply.

This cinematic smugness touches everything, all while clinging to the law of diminishing returns. The plot, for starters, is a weak facsimile of the 2014 film, solely designed to connect set-pieces that rehash best-loved moments from the original. Wasn't, say, that first prison-escape scene so funny and unexpected? Well, maybe you'll also like a new escape sequence that triples the body count while erasing the number of laughs and adding Jay and the Americans' 1964 hit Come a Little Bit Closer to the soundtrack, for no reason in particular? Oh, remember when hundreds of Xandarian space ships converged to battle Ronan's warship back in the first movie? That was mighty cool, so why not revisit that here but with an even larger fleet of space ships? Did you enjoy the Vin Diesel-voiced Groot? Good, because now he's a cute widdle Baby Groot, voiced by what sounds like Diesel on helium, and present in nearly every other frame.

Look, I like Groot. But that's a fair bit of criticism. Dude was everywhere, almost as though someone were thinking of the potential for moving massive amounts of Baby Groot action figures and dolls over the next couple of months.

Review: 👎 to *Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2*

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 2

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2

My rating: 👎
Watched on: 6 May 2017

I enjoyed Guardians of the Galaxy so much that I bought the Blu-Ray and enjoy rewatching it with my daughters. We all love the soundtrack and enjoy listening to it when we're out driving around. I've been looking forward to Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 2 ever since I heard there was going to be a sequel.

Now the sequel is out, I've seen it, and I'm disappointed. I was primarily looking for two things: a fun soundtrack and a fun movie. I don't feel like I got either.

The soundtrack was pretty bland. None of the songs stuck in my head and, aside from the in-movie conversation about Brandy, I couldn't actually tell you what any of them were. Maybe it's because I'm mostly oblivious to songs from the 80's. Or maybe the song selection was bad. Either way, this isn't a soundtrack that I feel a need to listen to again.

The movie itself tried too hard. Gunn wanted to recreate the fun of the first movie, but I think he mostly failed. Between overly clever sequences, boring emotional journeys, and humor that wasn't funny, the movie fell flat.

The opening fight sequence with Baby Groot was clever, but I've seen the "fight happens in the background while the viewpoint character is unaware" gimmick before, in other movies. That set the tone for the rest of the movie as most things felt like something that I'd seen before in other places. For instance: the remotely piloted ships that The Sovereign used — piloted by gamer teens — came straight from Ender's Game. The Sovereign's genetic engineering and general demeanor came from Lois McMaster Bujold's Cetagandan Empire, which I wouldn't have minded had the script included any kind of a nod in that direction other than ripping off the idea.

For the rest, I found the overarching story to be banal. Of course the second movie has to be about how the gang that appeared to have gelled at the end of the first movie is really falling apart and becoming experts at in-fighting. After the fun of seeing everyone come together at the end of the first movie, I really wanted a movie where we got to enjoy the cast working together for a full story, not one where we have to wonder why the cast doesn't seem to like each other as much as we do.

And about those personal journeys that everyone went on during the story. Was it really necessary for everyone to go on an emotional journey? Sure, Starlord has father issues. Apparently, so do Rocket, Yondue, Mantis, Gamora, and Nebula. In addition, Gamora and Nebula have a whole sister frenemy thing going on. It's all both too much and too little. Too much because it's a bit overwhelming keeping up with who has their mope on for which reason. And too little because every character's emotional space gets cramped by the need to make room for every other character's emotional baggage.

Finally, humor. I really enjoyed the humor in the first movie. I didn't enjoy the humor in this movie. Between the turd jokes and the non-stop penis references, it seemed to be aimed at an audience of boys, somewhere between kindergarten and 8th grade. No thanks.

I was mostly bored by the on-screen hijinks, I wasn't laughing, and I didn't leave the theater humming the songs from the soundtrack. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 2 was a rollicking disappointment. Better luck next time guys.

Review: Hidden Figures [★★★★★]

Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures
by Margot Lee Shetterly

My rating: ★★★★★
Read From: 22 January 2017 - 24 January 2017
Goal: Non-Fiction

I loved reading this book. I enjoyed it on multiple levels. I'd heard that the story involved the African-American women scientists, who helped NASA send men into orbit. I was surprised to learn that all of them worked in Hampton, VA.

I grew up next door to Hampton, in Norfolk, VA. I'm not used to reading about my hometown in books. It was a very pleasant surprise to read about my hometown in this book. I'm woefully ignorant of the history of the area, so I'd never known that Hampton had played such a pivotal role in the development of flight.

The women worked for an organization called the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) — a precursor to NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration). I was fascinated to learn about the role that NACA played in the development of airplane technology, discovering the science behind many of the airplane features that we take for granted today.

I also learned something about airplane designations. For instance, we've all heard of the B-29 bomber or the P-51 Mustang. I hadn't realized that the "B-" and "P-" designations had specific meanings. Shetterly explains.

Like Darwin’s finches, the mechanical birds had begun to differentiate themselves, branching into distinct species adapted for success in particular environments. Their designations reflected their use: fighters—also called pursuit planes—were assigned letters F or P: for example, the Chance Vought F4U Corsair or the North American P-51 Mustang. The letter C identified a cargo plane like the Douglas C-47 Skytrain, built to transport military goods and troops and, eventually, commercial passengers. B was for bomber, like the mammoth and perfectly named B-29 Superfortress. And X identified an experimental plane still under development, designed for the purpose of research and testing. Planes lost their X designation—the B-29 was the direct descendant of the XB-29—once they went into production.

I was also struck by the love that these woman had for science and mathematics. They were truly doing these jobs because they loved the work and the mathematics behind the work. I don't think it would be inaccurate to call them math nerds and I love reading about the contributions that nerds have made to our world.

Finally, I was struck by the racism that Shetterly revealed. I'd known that Virginia had a racist past. I wasn't aware of just how committed to that racism Virginia had been and just how adamantly they fought for it.

The racism could be casual, such as the incident that Mary Jackson experienced, at the predominantly white East Side section of NACA.

Her morning at the East Side job proceeded without incident—until nature called. “Can you direct me to the bathroom?” Mary asked the white women. They responded to Mary with giggles. How would they know where to find her bathroom? The nearest bathroom was unmarked, which meant it was available to any of the white women and off-limits to the black women. There were certainly colored bathrooms on the East Side, but with most black professionals concentrated on the West Side, and fewer new buildings on the East Side, Mary might need a map to find them.

And the racism could be very deliberate, entrenched, and vindictive. For instance, one Virginia school system took extreme measures to avoid integrating their schools.

In Prince Edward County, however, segregationists would not be moved: they defunded the entire county school system, including R. R. Moton in Farmville, rather than integrate.

… Prince Edward’s schools would remain closed from 1959 through 1964, five long and bitter years. Many of the affected children, known as the “Lost Generation,” never made up the missing grades of education. Virginia, a state with one of the highest concentrations of scientific talent in the world, led the nation in denying education to its youth.

… Commenting on the situation in 1963, United States Attorney General Robert Kennedy said, “The only places on earth known not to provide free public education are Communist China, North Vietnam, Sarawak, Singapore, British Honduras—and Prince Edward County, Virginia.”

Definitely, it was offensive. But, ultimately, Southern racism was incredibly stupid and shortsighted.

Foreigners who traveled to the United States often experienced the caste system firsthand. In 1947, a Mississippi hotel denied service to the Haitian secretary of agriculture, who had come to the state to attend an international conference. The same year, a restaurant in the South banned Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi’s personal doctor from its premises because of his dark skin. Diplomats traveling from New York to Washington along Route 40 were often rejected if they stopped for a meal at restaurants in Maryland. The humiliations, so commonplace in the United States that they barely raised eyebrows, much less the interest of the press, were the talk of the town in the envoys’ home countries. Headlines like “Untouchability Banished in India: Worshipped in America,” which appeared in a Bombay newspaper in 1951, mortified the US diplomatic corps. Through its inability to solve its racial problems, the United States handed the Soviet Union one of the most effective propaganda weapons in their arsenal.

… Newly independent countries around the world, eager for alliances that would support their emerging identities and set them on the path to long-term prosperity, were confronted with a version of the same question black Americans had asked during World War II. Why would a black or brown nation stake its future on America’s model of democracy when within its own borders the United States enforced discrimination and savagery against people who looked just like them?

I came away from this book with great admiration for these black women as well as an even greater contempt for the racists that dominated the South during this time period.

I was also struck by Shetterly's epilogue. She wants to give these women their due, not by showing how extraordinary they were but by showing how normal they were. They were extraordinary because they were black, female nerds who had to fight to fit in, but they were also very normal because they were nerds who just wanted a chance to fit in and do what nerds everywhere do — geek out about the science.

For too long, history has imposed a binary condition on its black citizens: either nameless or renowned, menial or exceptional, passive recipients of the forces of history or superheroes who acquire mythic status not just because of their deeds but because of their scarcity. The power of the history of NASA’s black computers is that even the Firsts weren’t the Onlies.

… By recognizing the full complement of extraordinary ordinary women who have contributed to the success of NASA, we can change our understanding of their abilities from the exception to the rule. Their goal wasn’t to stand out because of their differences; it was to fit in because of their talent.

I enjoyed reading about these women and I'll recommend this book to anyone that asks for a recommendation of what to read.

Thoughts on *Dr. Strange*

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." — Arthur C. Clarke

Doctor Strange used this quote in reverse. The movie eases the viewer into magic by smuggling in magic as just advanced technology. The Ancient One and Dr. Strange talk about cellular regeneration as Strange gets his first introduction to magic. By the time that the story moves into astral projection and the weirder forms of mysticism, we've already been lulled into accepting magic through our acceptance of the miracles of advanced technology.

The movie's weakest point is that the magical school is both too large and too small. During a couple of scenes, Stephen Strange is shown practicing magic with 15–20 other students. But when the time comes to throw down with evil, the fighting force is limited to the Ancient One, Mordo, Wong, and Strange.

It's strange that Strange gets thrown into battle so quickly, even as he's constantly told that he's nowhere near ready. Certainly the plot would dictate that Strange be the hero of his own movie, but it seems like an odd choice to show other students but not actually use them.

The surprise character of the movie is Strange's cloak. It shows a surprising amount of personality for a normally inanimate object. As a non-living side kick, it rivals BB-8 in expressiveness. I'm looking forward to seeing more of the cloak in future movies.

This may be one of Benedict Cumberbatch's best movies. He's one of those quirky actors that usually ends up portraying a variant of himself on screen. In this movie, he became Stephen Strange to an impressive degree. I spent the entire movie watching Strange, without ever once thinking of Sherlock or Khan.

Review: Hillbilly Elegy [★★★★★]

Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy
by J. D. Vance

My rating: ★★★★★
Read From: 27 August 2016 - 10 September 2016
Goal: Non-Fiction

I highlight the things I read for one of three reasons: because I vehemently disagree with it, because I agree with it, or because it makes me think. I've highlighted this book more than any other and all of it made me think.

J. D. Vance writes his story, of how he achieved the American dream. He's now a successful lawyer and venture capitalist, living in San Francisco, married, and with two dogs. He started as a hillbilly in Eastern Kentucky, lived with his mother, grandparents, and a string of his mother's boyfriends and husbands. He came from a broken home — in nearly every way that it's possible for a home to be broken.

While this is a story about overcoming obstacles, it's really a story about the obstacles and how daunting they are. This is a story about J. D., but it's really a story about hillbilly culture and how it's both an asset and an incredible hindrance to success.

I was enthralled by this book and often had trouble putting it down. But I also had multiple nights when I had to put it down, because J. D.'s story was wrenching and too emotionally draining to just power through.

This book, more than anything else I've ever heard or read, showed me how incredibly privileged I've been. Not in finances — I definitely didn't grow up rich — but in having an intact family, in having stability, and in having a supportive community who never told me anything other than how I would succeed in life. J. D. Vance's story was educational, in the best possible way.

This book is worth your time.

Review: Grendel [★★★☆☆]

Grendel

Grendel
by John Gardner

My rating: ★★★☆☆
Read From: 2 July 2016 - 5 July 2016
Goal: Literary Fiction

I read this book because Adam suggested it to me, as a somewhat out of the box choice for literary fiction. It's the story of Beowulf. Except that it's really the story of Grendel, the monster whom Beowulf killed. The entire story is told by Grendel, from his perspective.

This is one of those books where I feel like I must be missing something. Probably a lot of somethings. A lot of people really like this book. I didn't like it. I didn't hate it. I was mostly apathetic towards it.

It's short enough that I'd be willing to read it again, if I was reading it as part of a larger discussion group. I'd be interested to see what's there that I'm not seeing.

This entry was tagged. Book Review Review

A Nerd's Review of the Tesla Model S →

iOS developer David Smith recently wrote about his own experiences owning a car from Tesla.

I’m going to draw on my own background as a lifelong nerd and technology enthusiast to discuss what makes it so compelling to me.

​On charging:

The thought of instead needing to remember to plug in my car each and every night was admittedly a bit daunting. In the end it has really been a rather boring non-event.

It is now just a simple habit that I am used to. I park the car, get out, walk around to open the door for my kids and on the way almost absentmindedly pull the charger from the wall and plug it in. It’s so unconscious now that I occasionally have moments of puzzlement trying to remember if I did it or not.

What surprised me most around charging was not what it was like to keep a car charged but instead how much it drew my attention to how awful gas stations are. We still have another car that requires increasingly less frequent trips to the gas station. The smell was oppressive and the experience decidedly gross.

Also surprising, was how nice it is to essentially always leave your house with a full ‘tank’. No more rushing out of the house, late for an appointment, only to discover that I have to stop for gas along the way. I had worried that I’d have a constant sense of anxiety about having enough charge, instead I find I think about keeping my vehicle fueled less than I did before.

​On the self-driving autopilot feature:

Tesla’s autopilot system is a far reach from truly autonomous driving but also tantalizingly close. It is very competent at typical and routine highway driving. It can hold its speed, adapting to changing traffic conditions. It can keep itself perfectly centered in a lane and on command perform neat, clean lane changes. Closer to home it can park itself with a precision I doubt I’ll ever match.

​And:

As with everything Tesla does, autopilot seems to be getting better each and every software update (which as a side note is amazing…my car is better now than when I bought it, which is quite a thing).

While now I find I rely on autopilot mostly just situationally when having the extra help is useful, I imagine the days where my skill exceeds my car’s will be short-lived. Sadly I don’t get software updates, my driving is probably about as good as it will ever be. It is bound to catch up.

​It sounds like fun. I'd like to get a Tesla, but I want it for the nerd fun, not for phantom dreams of clean energy. My Wisconsin electricity comes from a coal plant, so gasoline may well be cleaner than an "electric" car.

This entry was tagged. Cars Review

Review: Starship: Mutiny [★★☆☆☆]

Starship: Mutiny

Starship: Mutiny
by Mike Resnick

My rating: ★★☆☆☆
Read From: 27 August 2015 - 30 August 2015
Goal: Flotsam & Jetsam

This piece of space opera stars Wilson Cole, a space navy officer who never met an order he liked and who makes a habit of being demoted for cause. He's assigned to the Theodore Roosevelt for his insubordination. Once there, he proceeds to violate orders multiple times before finally mutinying and taking over the ship.

This is all supposed to be in the service of a grand adventure, starring a supremely competent officer. It fails because Cole is a jerk who's constantly explaining his own superior understanding of what everyone else should be doing. Worse, he's a loose cannon who acts on his own initiative, always impressed by his own abilities. If you developed a plan no failed to tell him the entire thing, he's exactly the type of officer that would screw it up, by taking the part of it he did know and deciding to "improve" it.

All of the other characters are wafer thin and seemingly only exist to either admire Cole's brilliance or make Cole look more brilliant by playing the part of the idiotic foil. There's the weapons tech who worships Cole, just because he disciplined the tech for being high on duty. There's the alien best friend, who will support him no matter what. And there's the beautiful security chief who will tell him everything, subverting ship,security to do so, , and who (of course) ends up in his bed.

Having been blinded by the light shining from Cole's halo, I have no interest in reading any further in this series.

This entry was tagged. Book Review Review

Review: River of Stars [★★★★★]

River of Stars

River of Stars
by Guy Gavriel Kay

My rating: ★★★★★
Read From: 18 June 2015–29 June 2015
Goal: Specific Authors

This is another novel of Kitai, Guy Gavriel Kay's analog to historical China. This book takes place in a time roughly equivalent to the early 12th century. Kay described his own setting, in the book's "Acknowledgement" section, along with his reason for working in historical fantasy, rather than historical fiction.

River of Stars is a work shaped by themes, characters, and events associated with China’s Northern Song Dynasty before and after the fall of Kaifeng.

... I am significantly more at home shaping thoughts and desires for Lin Shan and Ren Daiyan, or developing the characters of my two Lu brothers, than I would be imposing needs and reflections (and relationships) on their inspirations: Li Qingzhao, the best-known female poet in China’s history, General Yue Fei, or the magnificent Su Shi and his gifted younger brother. Not to mention other figures at the court (including Emperor Huizong himself) in the time leading up to and through the dynasty’s fall.

But what is the river of stars? In Kitai legends, it is that which lies between mortal men and their dreams. It is what must be crossed over, after death, to reach the afterlife. That's an appropriate title because the major theme of the book is what is remembered of a life, after that life is over. River of Stars focuses largely the life of the main character, Ren Daiyan and explores what he did and how he was remembered.

Kay is fascinated by the ways in which the decisions and events that seem almost trivial at the time become something that reverberates throughout time. He's also fascinated by the opposite side of that: the things that could have been momentous, but sink with barely a ripple because of what was happening elsewhere or because of the way in which a life was cut short.

All of that leads, inexorably I think, to a meditation on the way in which we construct narratives to explain the world around us. I think the result musings were frequently poignant.

He died too young in a war in which too many died.

We cannot know, being trapped in time, how events might have been altered if the dead had not died. We cannot know tomorrow, let alone a distant future. A shaman might claim to see ahead in mist but most of them (most of them) cannot truly do this: they go into the spirit world to find answers for today. Why is this person sick? Where will we find water for the herds? What spirit is angry with our tribe?

But sometimes storytellers want to inhabit certainty. They assume more than mortals ought. A tale-spinner by a hearth fire or gathering a crowd in a market square or putting brush to paper in a quiet room, deep into his story, the lives he’s chronicling, will deceive himself into believing he has the otherworldly knowledge of a fox spirit, a river spirit, a ghost, a god.

He will say or write such things as, “The boy killed in the Altai attack on the Jeni encampment was likely to have become a great leader of his people, one who could have changed the north.”

Or, “Lu Mah, the poet’s son, was one whose personal desire would have kept him living quietly, but his sense of duty and his great and growing wisdom would have drawn him to the court. He was lost to Kitai, and that made a difference.”

However boldly someone says this, or writes it, it remains a thought, a wish, desire, longing spun of sorrow. We cannot know.

We can say Mah’s was a death too soon, as with O-Yan of the Jeni, their kaghan’s little brother, slain in the first attack of a grassland rising. And we can think about ripples and currents, and wonder at the strangeness of patterns found—or made. A first death in the north and the death farthest south in the Altai invasion, in the years of the Twelfth Dynasty when the maps were redrawn.

But then, maps are always being redrawn. The Long Wall had once been the forbidding, fiercely guarded border of a great empire. We look back and we look ahead, but we live in the time we are allowed.

A related theme is the way in which we, of the present, look back at the past and try to draw lessons from it. But that too is a construct. Life happens and is often incomprehensible in the happening. It's only much later that someone can see a pattern or a lesson.

He died on that last thought, not the one about fearing a sword. That had come a moment before, while the man who ended his short span of days (Pu’la of the Altai was seventeen years old, his father’s only son) had been levelling a bow.

It was a similar death—on guard at night, an arrow—to that of another young rider two summers before. O-Yan of the Jeni, fourteen years of age, had been killed by an arrow loosed by Pu’la’s own skilled and deadly father on the night the Altai attacked the Jeni camp, beginning their assertion of themselves upon the world.

There might have been a lesson, a meaning, in this, or not. Most likely not, for who was there to learn of it, and what would the teaching be?

I gained two things from this novel. The first is a continuation of my desire to learn more about Chinese history and culture. Kay has convinced me that that history is rich and deep and worth studying. Second, is a humility about looking back at that history. The events of the past are the sum of the hopes, dreams, fears, and actions of the people of the past. Their stories are what's worth focusing on, more than the supposed lessons of the past.

This entry was tagged. Book Review Review

Review: Under Heaven [★★★★★]

Under Heaven

Under Heaven
by Guy Gavriel Kay

My rating: ★★★★★
Read From: 10 June 2015 - 15 June 2015
Goal: Specific Authors

This story, set in a fictional country of Kitan, is loosely based on Tang China, the master poets of the dynasty, and the An-Lushan rebellion. I came to the story completely unfamiliar with Chinese history. I was captivated by the story and the beauty of the society that the story depicts.

Shen Tai, the second son of General Shen Gao, has spent the last two years in a solitary pursuit—he's been burying the dead at Kuala Nor. These are the soldiers killed during one of the last battles with the Taguran Empire. He's been burying the dead of both armies, as a way of honoring his late father's memory.

Near the end of his two years at Kuala Nor, Shen Tai receives a letter from the Taguran princess, giving him a gift of 250 Sardian horses. These are the most magnificent horses for hundreds of miles, coveted by everyone in Kitan. Men would kill for any of these horses, let alone 250 of them. This gift is both a potential death sentence and an incredible opportunity.

The rest of the story concerns both Shen Tai and the empire of Kitan, how they grew and changed and what effect the horses had on the course of history. This is a story about Kitan, the Tang Dynasty, as much as it is about Shen Tai or anyone else.

Like all of Guy Gavriel Kay's novels that I've read, this one is beautifully written and very moving. There are fantastical elements to the story, but they take a back seat to the characterizations and the evocative language. It's a story that forces you to appreciate human nature and the way that history can change on the smallest of decisions. It was a pleasure to read.

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Review: Lords and Ladies [★★★★☆]

Lords and Ladies

Lords and Ladies
by Terry Pratchett

My rating: ★★★★☆
Read From: 15 March 2015 - 17 March 2015
Goal: Flotsam & Jetsam

After Terry Pratchett's death, last week, I felt the need to read more of his novels, in memoriam. When I last read a Discworld novel, I was reading in the "Witches" sub-series. I decided to keep going with that and read Lords and Ladies.

The last novel was a send-up of fairy godmother stories. This was a pastiche of elf (or fairie) stories, primarilyA Midsummer Nights Dream. Pratchett chose to present his elves as amoral monsters who toyed with humanity purely out of a boredom and a desire for entertainment. Their power derived from their ability to make people feel completely overwhelmed by their inferiority to the elves. The overmatched individuals lost all inclination to fight back, feeling that whatever happened to them was just and right.

The surface plot revolved around the wedding of King Verence and Magrat Garlick. Throughout the story, Magrat tries to figure out who she is and what her role in life should be. Granny Weatherwax and Mustrum Ridcully, Archchancellor of Unseen University, both feel regret for paths that they didn't take through life.

Surprisingly, I thought the story contained a strong streak of conservatism. Part of the idea of conservatism is that past generations knew things that we don't and structured society (or traditions) in response to that knowledge. We may have forgotten the knowledge that they had, but we still have the traditions that they established to embody that knowledge.

In Lords and Ladies, elves are let into the world of men through the actions of young witches who think that their elders (Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg) are exasperatingly old-fashioned. They flout several traditions, including several that were key in keeping elves away from the Discworld. Because of their rejection of tradition, Lancre almost falls under the sway of the elves again. The current generation has to relearn the lessons that led to the traditions of past generations. By the end of the story, they begin following those traditions again, to keep their own families and children safe.

I enjoyed this story on all of the levels that I saw.

This entry was tagged. Book Review Review

Review: Maskerade [★★★★☆]

Maskerade

Maskerade
by Terry Pratchett

My rating: ★★★★☆
Read From: 17 March 2015 - 18 March 2015
Goal: Flotsam & Jetsam

Amazon description:

The Ghost in the bone-white mask who haunts theAnkh-Morpork Opera House was always considered a benign presence -- some would even say lucky -- until he started killing people. The sudden rash of bizarre backstage deaths now threatens to mar the operatic debut of country girl Perdita X. (nee Agnes) Nitt, she of the ample body and ampler voice.

Perdita's expected to hide in the chorus and sing arias out loud while a more petitely presentable soprano mouths the notes. But at least it's an escape from scheming Nanny Ogg and old Granny Weatherwax back home, who want her to join their witchy ranks.

Or as I'd describe it: "the one where Gytha Ogg and Esme Weatherwax go to Ankh-Morpok and meet the Phantom of the Opera." I quite enjoyed it. Pratchett had some great humor around the inherently nonsensical nature of opera. And, of course, it's great fun to see what happens anytime that Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg interact with unsuspecting innocents.

This entry was tagged. Book Review Review

Review: Carpe Jugulum [★★★★☆]

Carpe Jugulum

Carpe Jugulum
by Terry Pratchett

My rating: ★★★★☆
Read From: 18 March 2015 - 19 March 2015
Goal: Flotsam & Jetsam

Amazon description:

[This book] involves an exclusive royal snafu that leads to comic mayhem. In a fit of enlightenment democracy and ebullient goodwill, King Verence invites Uberwald's undead, the Magpyrs, into Lancre to celebrate the birth of his daughter. But once ensconced within the castle, these wine-drinking, garlic-eating, sun-loving modern vampires have no intention of leaving. Ever.

Only an uneasy alliance between a nervous young priest and the argumentative local witches can save the country from being taken over by people with a cultivated bloodlust and bad taste in silk waistcoats. For them, there's only one way to fight.

Go for the throat, or as the vampyres themselves say...Carpe Jugulum.

The best part of the book is the fact that Lord Magpyr is aware of every single vampire trope—and is determined to be unaffected by any of them. He intends to be the first of a new breed of vampire: invulnerable to anything. The main hitch in his plan isn't the witches. It's his servant Igor, who thinks that the old ways are the best and that his new master is a disgrace to the memory of the old Lord Magpyr.

This book is a humorous send-up for anyone who's ever enjoyed a Frankenstein movie, a Buffy episode, or Dracula itself.

This entry was tagged. Book Review Review

Review: Time [★★★★☆]

Time

Time
by Stephen Baxter

My rating: ★★★★☆
Read From: 07 March 2015 - 22 March 2015
Goal: Hard Science Fiction

I like hard science fiction, but I don't like it for the stories. Most of the hard SF stories that I've read are a little bit thin in the plot department. Mostly I don't care, because I'm not reading them for the plot or the characters. I'm reading them for the ideas. It's a more enjoyable way to learn about science than actually reading journal articles.

This story isn't an exception to that generality. There wasn't a lot of plot and the characters weren't very deep. But the science was interesting. It had a lot of elements that I enjoy. There's a company called "Bootstrap" that exists to, well, bootstrap humanity into space, mining the incredible wealth in the asteroids.

Bootstrap uses cheap, disposable rockets and its initial flight is piloted by an intelligent squid. The flight is to an asteroid called Cruithne, which appears to orbit the earth in a very odd pattern. The launch date is sparked due to the Carter catastrophe.

The characters also use something called a Feynman radio, to pick up signals from the future. As things progress, we see a vision of a possible far, far future where humanity's distant descendants mine the stars themselves, and blackholes, for energy. The characters also witness a succession of universes, showing that our universe is but one of an evolutionary tree, with universes evolving from each other. It turns out that blackholes could be the means by which daughter universes are spawned.

All of these science elements are either real or quite plausible and Baxter gives a list of references, at the end of the book. Don't read this for the plot, but do read it for the ideas and the exploration of what could, quite possibly, be.

This entry was tagged. Book Review Review

Review: Yesterday’s Kin [★★★☆☆]

Yesterday's Kin

Yesterday’s Kin
by Nancy Kress

My rating: ★★★☆☆
Read From: 10 March 2015 - 11 March 2015
Goal: Interesting Hooks

I put this book on my reading ideas list because of the author's description of the story.

I wanted to portray contemporary biological science as it is actually done: with sophisticated equipment, as part of an international conversation, with career-impacting mistakes and triumphant corrections. Too often, the “science” in SF is of the cloning-in-a-basement-by-a-mad-scientist type, or else gibberish hand-waving (“If we hook up the actofrabble cycle to the Hartford drive, we can create galaxy-spanning life insurance!”). I have enormous respect for science and scientists (all right, I’m a science groupie) and I wanted to show biological discoveries being made under pressure, with the inevitable competition as well as the teamwork, as realistically as I could.

I don't feel like I saw that in this story. The science seemed real enough. (I don't have nearly enough knowledge to speak confidently on the subject.) But I don't feel like I saw any career-impacting mistakes or triumphant corrections.

The main viewpoint character didn't really do any science in the story. It opens after she's already published her groundbreaking paper. Everything else she does, throughout the story, is described as the type of thing that a lab assistant could do. As a result, I didn't see "biological discoveries being made under pressure", either with teamwork or competition.

The overall story also seemed flat, like pieces were missing. Everything was painted in with a brush that was just that much too light. We needed more more detail than we got. The story worked fine as a pitch for a longer novel, but didn't work all that well as it is.

This entry was tagged. Book Review Review

Review: Beyond the Shadows [★★★☆☆]

Beyond the Shadows

Beyond the Shadows
by Brent Weeks

My rating: ★★★☆☆
Read From: 8 March 2015 - 10 March 2015
Goal: Specific Authors

This book was better than Shadow's Edge, the previous book in the series. The action moved along at a brisk pace and there was plenty of it. Much more action than you normally get in a book of epic fantasy.

The action comes at a cost though. This entire series spent much less time on world building than typical epic fantasy novels do. I think that's a weakness of this action packed approach. Because it's epic fantasy, Brent Weeks created a large world with multiple different nations, complex politics, varied religions, and multiple different magic systems.

Weeks spent comparatively little time actually describing how everything worked. I spent a lot of time confused, wondering what was going on and what the significance of certain characters or actions was. Things were unexplained enough that I spent parts of the story wondering if I'd missed a previous book that set things up or if parts of this story were missing.

The story was also prone to sudden bouts of info dumping. Often, it would come as characters suddenly paused and "realized" what had been going on for the past 10 chapters and thought threw a whole chain of events. Or characters would suddenly start explaining things in-depth in a way that rarely felt natural. These info dumps served to inform the reader, but in a way that magnified the story's flawed structure.

Weeks created characters that I liked and magic systems that were interesting, but I didn't completely enjoy the books that contained the stories. I read Brent Weeks as an experiment. After concluding the experiment, I'm not sure I'll be reading more of his books.

This entry was tagged. Book Review Review

Review: Shadow’s Edge [★★★☆☆]

Shadow's Edge

Shadow’s Edge
by Brent Weeks

My rating: ★★★☆☆
Read From: 3 March 2015 - 7 March 2015
Goal: Specific Authors

I really enjoyed The Way of Shadows, the first book in this series. I thought it was exciting, fast paced, and a real page turner. I did not feel the same way about this book.

I wish I'd been taking notes as I read this book. There were several instances where the dialog was downright pedestrian or things were awkwardly phrased. The pacing felt odd in places. There was a lot less action and a lot more moping around and traveling from place to place. This definitely was not a page turner.

I'm hoping this was just a sophomore slump or a middle book muddle. I'll be disappointed if The Way of Shadows was the highpoint of this series.

This entry was tagged. Book Review Review

Review: The Way of Shadows [★★★★☆]

The Way of Shadows

The Way of Shadows
by Brent Weeks

My rating: ★★★★☆
Read From: 28 February 2015 – 2 March 2015
Goal: Specific Authors

I put this book on my reading list for 2015 because Brandon Sanderson described Weeks' writing as "epic fantasy novels that read with the pacing of a thriller". After reading this novel, I can confirm that Sanderson wasn't exaggerating. This book is an absolute page turner, even as Weeks paints a world worthy of epic fantasy.

And it's a gritty, dark, painful world. Pain, viciousness, and brutality are everywhere. Don't spend too much time hoping for things to come up roses for our heroes—no one will make it to the end of the story uninjured. Azoth is a 10-year old member of a criminal street guild, barely able to survive. He wants to become a "wetboy" (an assassin with magical Talent) because he's tired of being afraid and powerless; he wants the security that kind of power can give him. His desired mentor and teacher is Durzo Blint, the best wetboy in Cenaria.

This is the story of how Azoth becomes Kylar Stern, the wetboy that he always wanted to be. He has to make painful decisions about whether or not to have friends and how to protect the people that he cares about, in spite of trying not to care.

This isn't a great story. But it's a good story that's written very well. I read it to see if Weeks was an author that I wanted to follow closely. Given that I read a 659 page novel in 3 days, I think I've got my answer. I'm already looking forward to the next novel in the Night Angel series.

This entry was tagged. Book Review Review