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Mike’s favorite books of 2013

December 6th, 2013 Comments off

Following the tradition I started in 2009, and continued in 2010, 2011 and 2012 I present my annual list of my favorite books I read during the past year. As always, the lists tends towards history, science, and speculative fiction, but hey, it’s my list, so without further ado, and in no particular order…

The Abominable: A Novel by Dan Simmons

This novel starts out slow, and turns into an absolutely intense fight for survival in a harsh environment with stakes as high as they get. The attention to historic detail and the minutiae of 1920s mountain-climbing tech is fascinating.

One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson

Bryson could write about watching grass grow and it would be fun. He has much more interesting material here, chronicling one summer in American life, using as his hook Lindbergh’s famous flight. A remarkable look at pop-culture history.

On the Steel Breeze by Alastair Reynolds

The best writer in science fiction today hits another out of the park with “Steel Breeze,” a story that combines a fight for survival on a massive generational starship, an encounter with a mysterious alien machine intelligence, and the politics of a world where human nature has been changed (or has it?) due to the influence of advanced software.

Year Zero: A History of 1945 by Ian Buruma

A refreshing and entirely new take on World War II, focusing not on the fighting itself, but what happened during the first year after. Of particular note, the author covers the entire world, Asia and Europe, focusing on the themes of vengeance, re-establishment of the rule of law, and the politics and implementation of the occupations.

Doctor Sleep: A Novel by Stephen King

The sequel to “Shining” is much less ‘horror’ then the original (although some old friends do make appearances) and more meditative. This is King, though, and he doesn’t skimp on the plot development or strong characters. A fun read with color villains and great heroes.

Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety by Eric Schlosser

Investigative journalist Schlosser (“Fast Food Nation”) digs into one of the biggest secrets of the atomic age: namely that our weapons were stored and controlled with less attention to security and detail then the average person’s LinkedIn password. An essential history of how we managed these weapons is told through the story of a near-disaster in an Arkansas silo where a nuclear weapon came close to accidental detonation on American soil.

More Than This by Patrick Ness

A teenage boy wakes up alone in a world that is empty and decayed, with no memory of how he got there. This is the hook for a mystery that extends very deeply into the nature of reality, linked to traumatic events in the boy’s family past as he discovers who he is. One of the most unique and fresh takes on this genre in years.

Odds Against Tomorrow: A Novel by Nathaniel Rich

Cross Nate Silver with Rick Grimes, and you might have the protagonist in this literate post-apocalyptic novel. The protagonist is a conflicted math whiz who uses his predictive skill to make himself rich forecasting disasters for insurance companies and other wealthy clients, becoming numb to the world, until he and the woman he cares about experience an apocalypse he himself predicted.

The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking by Brendan I. Koerner

Ostensibly the story of one of two drug-addled screwballs who managed an audacious hijacking in the early 1970s, Koerner’s book more broadly focuses on a history of the so-called “golden age” of hijacking, in the late 60s and early 70s, the age before metal detectors and when hijackers were generally non-violent. Both a history of the hijackers themselves and the story of how the system tried to respond, the book really brings alive that crazy, amazingly innocent (compared to now) era.

Fiend: A Novel by Peter Stenson

The premise is simple. The zombie apocalypse happens, and the only folks who are immune are meth addicts, and only if they remain addicted (sobriety means a quick death and turning into a zombie). A mix of delicious zombie gore and musings on the nature of society and addiction, this novel is both comic and touching.

Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry That Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food on Your Plate by Rose George

Look around; almost everything in your home or office got there because it travelled on a giant boat from somewhere else. Author Rose George climbs aboard the merchant marine and through her journey throws some light upon this little-known but essential piece of our world’s infrastructure, covering shipboard life, pirates, cargo handling, the the experiences of sailors and captains as they keep the flow of world commerce going.

Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History by John Fabian Witt

War is horrible, but it has rules, right? How these rules developed is a little-known story, featuring a very well-known President. Mixing military history, legal theory, and politics, author Witt tells the story about how fallible men tried to make what is essentially an inhumane activity as “humane” as possible.

The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England by Ian Mortimer

There are many histories of Elizabethan England, and most of them cover the the lives of the powerful, and a certain well-known playwright, but what was it like to actually live then? How would you go about daily life, what would actually make you laugh or cry, what might you do to fill your plate and where might you go to shit it out? This is history made real, and short of a time machine, the closest we’ll come to really feeling what it might be like to experience another time.

To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism by Evgeny Morozov

In recent years there has been a lot of hype about how technology will finally be able to solve various problems that have been plaguing humanity. While no luddite, Evgeny Morozov takes a much needed pin to these balloons of hot air, explaining that technology is not a panacea and by itself cannot fix problems that at their root are not solvable via purely technical means. Sharp and witty, but backed by real thought and depth, this is some of the best writing on this issue I have seen in years.

The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honor and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century by Joel F. Harrington

Using the little-known diary of a German executioner as its primary source, the lives of 16th century Germans and their notions of law and justice are examined. This book is fascinating, because for the vast gulf of time, and major changes in legal concepts and morality since then, the humanity of the titular executioner and the people he served have stayed surprisingly constant over time. History at its most interesting.

The Rule of the Clan: What an Ancient Form of Social Organization Reveals About the Future of Individual Freedom by Mark S. Weiner

There’s a fundamental difference between two different systems for organizing political life – tribal rule, and rule of law; the latter seems self-evidently much better, but there are strong pulls in human psychology towards the former. A fascinating look at the strengths and weaknesses of both systems, and how they can explain a lot of what we see in the world today; probably the best popular political philosophy book I’ve read in years.

The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution That Transformed the South by Bruce Levine

That the South lost the Civil War is obvious, but less obvious is the very specific ways that the Southern “system” was dismantled, socially and politically. Looking at both the debate in the North and the facts on the ground in the South, author Levine brings this turbulent era to life on both sides.

The Secret Lives of Sports Fans by Eric Simons

I am a pretty dedicated fan of the Kansas Jayhawks basketball team, and my euphoria when they win big and despair when they lose has always tickled my intellectual side – why do I feel this way, how does it affect me psychologically and socially, and is it similar to other “mass euphoria” like religion? This wonderful book demonstrates experimentally some of the deep truths about sports fandom and the inner lives of fans.

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach

Mary Roach is one of the most entertaining science writes out there, and she doesn’t disappoint with this delightful trip down the digestive tract, from the mouth to the, uh, other end. It is rare to find an author who combines the childish fun of a fart joke with some interesting and genuine science, a real winner.

The Age of Miracles: A Novel by Karen Thompson Walker

A simple premise – the Earth starts rotating slower, the days start gradually getting longer. In “Age of Miracles” we see how this affects the world, through the eyes of a teenager girl with the usual joys and terrors of adolescence. The changes causes by the slowdown are well thought out and scary. Amongst the best speculative fiction novels I have read in a while.

Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet, and How We Live by Marlene Zuk

As someone who is quite sick of pop-evolutionary psychologists saying that we do X or Y because the “cavemen” evolved to do it, or that we should eat this or that for the same reason, this book is a breath of fresh air. Zuk uses real science to show us how evolution really worked on human beings and separates the paleo hype from scientific fact in an engaging and informative style.

Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws who Hacked Ma Bell by Phil Lapsley

Phone Phreaks were the original hackers, and their story has never been told with as much verve as here. Combining an interesting technical history of the phone system in America with the personal stories of some of the most colorful hackers who explored the system, this book takes us to a more innocent time. The cat and mouse tales practically leap off the page; a real celebration of the spirit of learning and exploring that marks true hacker culture.

The Disaster Diaries: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Apocalypse by Sam Sheridan

Zombies, meteors, bird flu, alien invasions or whatnot, what would it actually take to survive? Sam Sheridan explores this, taking on the role of an ordinary schlub who decides to learn all the skills of apocalyptic living, ranging from extreme driving, tactical weapons, food preparation, and combat first aid. This is a fun and interesting book, it’s not a boring survival manual – the author’s sense of humor comes through as he concocts ridiculous scenarios but then learns what real-world skills might come in handy.

The Reach of Rome by Alberto Angela

This might be considered the Roman equivalent of “The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England” noted above; both books do an amazing job of really giving the reader a feel for life in the past. Where this book differs is that it covers the Roman world more broadly, following the movement of a coin around the Empire, touching on dozens of different people as they go about their lives. It reads like fiction, although everything in the book is based on actual archeology. An amazing trip through time; a day at the chariot races, a trip to a garum factory and a visit to a doctor’s office…real life in the Roman world from patricians down to slaves.

Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them by Joshua Greene

If psychology and philosophy had a baby, it would be this book. A great exploration of how humans make moral decisions and how these decisions inform our political and social choices, Greene ends up with a full-throated defense of a form of utilitarianism as the best way for groups of people with different moral views to live in peace.

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A soft apocalypse is a hard read

May 5th, 2011 Comments off

Will McIntosh’s “Soft Apocalypse” is one of the most emotionally intense and harrowing books I have read in several years. Set in the near future, it is the story of one man, and his friends, as they live through the terminal decline of our modern civilization.

“Soft Apocalypse” is refreshingly different then most “end of the world” genre books – you see, this book is about you. Yes, you. You are no action hero. You don’t know how to grow your own food, and you probably aren’t a crack shot. If you were in a zombie movie, your brains would be in the digestive tract of the walking dead. This book’s author’s protagonists are all ordinary people like you and I, not action heroes.

Throughout the entire book, the protagonist, Jasper, deals with life as society slowly crumbles. He doesn’t have any grand plan, he just muddles by, unheroically, with a circle or friends, as things gradually decay. The book takes place over a decade, and through the slings and arrows of Jasper’s daily life, you get a real sense of what it is like to live through the gradual decay of civilization. If most fictional ends of the world are the sharp bite of a cobra, this one is the slow, long suffocation of a constrictor.

Our story opens with Jaspar and friends living as travelling nomads a few years after a major depression has led to 40% unemployment. While things are bad, modern life is still holding up. The power’s on, you can still find Oreos at the grocery store, and a text message is still the fastest way to stay in touch with friends. Yet, the middle class has declined, the armies of the poor are vast, and the rich live in secure privately-guarded enclaves while ostensible public servants such as the police do nothing to prevent or try to stop crime. In many ways, it is America as a third world country.

As the years pass, Jasper settles into a modicum of stability as a convenience store manager, moving in and out of various social circles consisting of old and new friends, as the world around him continues to crumble. The economy just doesn’t improve. A nihilistic tribal-ish terrorist movement called the Jumpy Jumps spreads random dadaesque violence. Strange new diseases and genetically engineered destruction accelerate the decay of both the natural and man-made environment.

There are so many fascinating and well-written vignettes here – a bowling alley during a power outage, a trip to a virtual reality speed dating service, a flash rock concert, an abandoned carnival, canine-powered taxis, browsing an abandoned bookstore, and even (a bit too sterotypical) an emergency surgery via cell phonel.

This is a challengingly violent book – brutal rapes, torture, violence against people and animals – that are frankly disturbing and in many ways reminiscent of accounts I have read from World War II. In one scene, paramilitaries are executing citizens, and Jasper spots a fondly-remembered teacher about to be shot, and all he can do is look away while the man begs for help. Even a riot which destroys a Wal-Mart is rendered in a way that is less about economic despair and more about pure nihilism. Many of the scenes of destruction are more heart-rending then other books’ nuclear wars, perhaps because those are massive, while this book is, in many ways, very intimate. As ugly as the violence is, it is never gratuitous or celebrated, and is presented as a necessary part of the plot.

There is despair in “Soft Apocalypse” – the book in many ways seems the fictional representation of the famous poem by Yeats – the center definitely cannot hold, and a bevy of antagonists tear down society while decent people – including our protagonist, can’t do much other then survive the best they can as the rudiments of civilizations gradually seep away. The book’s strength is the author’s exposition of Jasper’s essential humanity, even after he sees everything he has cared about fall away and is forced, in the end, into making a terrible choice. Like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road , there is no happy ending, but like “The Road” the “Soft Apocalypse” is at its best when exploring the human condition, and how humanity can exist even in the most terrible conditions.

“Soft Apocalypse” is not a fun read, but is a very good book, and has provoked hours of thought and reflection, even after I was finished. It also kept me up at night, and it has been a while since any book was able to do that.

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Review: Across the Universe

January 9th, 2011 Comments off

Across the Universe by Beth Revis

“Across the Universe” is an excellent, fairly fresh take on the generational starship theme written for teenage/young adult readers. The basic themes are familiar – a passenger in hibernation is unexpected woken up, the cloistered society of the ship has gotten really weird over hundreds of years, and a tyrannical leader rules with an iron fist (and some help from genetic engineering and drugs). However, the author deftly blends these themes together, creating believable, sympathetic characters living in an environment that is weird enough that you wonder how things really work. The story itself is fairly straightforward, told from the alternating perspectives of the two protagonists – the teenage girl unexpectedly awoken, and the son of the ship’s absolute leader.

As both protagonists discover more and more about the truth of the situation on the ship, they are faced with a bit of a murder mystery as well as threats from both the ship’s dictator, Eldest, and the various forces that are keeping most of the people living on the ship in a state of almost animal-like somnolence. For those who like the science in their sci-fi, the author is quite believable, creating a realistic shipwide ecosystem, as well as not forgetting small touches, like the fact that the accents of the people living aboard would have gradually changed over hundreds of years to be difficult for a newly-awaked person to understand.

This isn’t merely lightweight teenage reading. The author imbues even the dictator Eldest with humanity and you can really appreciate the reasons he made the choices he did, even if in the end you will probably not agree with them. No one-dimensional villains here. There’s a small amount of PG-rated romance between the protagonists, but also a few scenes of slightly less mild sexual and physical violence, but nothing outside of the scope of similar books. “Across the Universe” will appeal to both fans of dystopian young-adult literature (readers of the Hunger Games trilogy and the Uglies will likely enjoy “Across the Universe”) as well as anyone who enjoys science fiction or dystopian novels.

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Coffeehouses of Lawrence

December 27th, 2010 1 comment

I drink a lot of coffee. Luckily, Lawrence has a lot of places to get coffee.
Here’s a brief overview of what Larryville has to offer coffee-wise. By the way, all the coffee places in Lawrence as far as I know have free WiFi.
This list is very subjective, and only includes places that are primarily coffeeshops where there is sit-down seating (so, no tea places and no Scooters). Also not grocery stores with coffee nooks, I want to keep this list manageable.

23rd Street Corridor

Z’s East
Vibe: Townies and commuters, pretty laid back back definitely businesslike
My thoughts: Great coffee (the house blend is superb, and they have really good mochas), good place to hit coming to or going from Johnson County. I don’t visit this location too often though.
Bonus features: drive-through, roast their own beans

Dunn Bros.
Vibe: Mix of townies and students, study and discussion groups, pretty open
My thoughts: Decent coffee (and a bonus for two shots standard in 12 oz espresso drinks), lots of good chairs and a fireplace, a good overall chain coffeehouse especially for its location. I go here maybe once a week.
Bonus features: peanut butter for spreading on bagels!


Z’s Downtown
Vibe: Grad students, professors, and townies, pretty businesslike, working and studying.
My thoughts: Good coffee (like the East location, the house blend is superb, and they have really good mochas), both brewed and mixed drinks, and great location, but seating is limited to tables. Still come here probably once a week.
Bonus features: roast their own beans

Vibe: Thorough mix of Lawrence civilization. It’s a Starbucks.
My thoughts: It’s a Starbucks. You know what you’re getting. Not very much seating, so the place will fill up quickly.
Bonus features: It’s a Starbucks

Vibe: Very laid back, students reading and studying.
My thoughts: Haven’t been here in a while, but good location on the south side of Downtown, and features lots of comfortable seating and food to go along with the coffee
Bonus features: Couches and antiques

Vibe: Mostly townies, some students, intellectual
My thoughts: Only table seating, but really good coffee and nice decor. The baristas are probably the most artistic in Lawrence with drawing cute designs on the mochas. Bonus for the awesome little bar upstairs. Downside is in the summer they have a persistant problem with flies. Probably come here a couple times a month.
Bonus features: upstairs bar, late hours

Bourgeoisie Pig
Vibe: More townies then students, casual and laid back, strong group of regulars
My thoughts: I’ve only been here a couple times, so I can’t really testify to the quality. However, the Pig is very popular and has a loyal group of regulars. They also have a liquor license and for smokers, have the most comfortable smoking porch among Lawrence coffeeshops.
Bonus features: booze, covered smoking area, late hours

Java Break
Vibe: Townies AM, students PM, very laid back, place to read, study and hang out
My thoughts: One of my favorite places in Lawrence, really good speciality and espresso drinks, several rooms with different feels, great location, and offer cereal and food in addition to coffee. I come here several times a week. Probably the best mochas in Lawrence, but annoyingly, they don’t offer a 12 oz size for any drink.
Bonus features: sandwiches and cereal, couches, open 24 hours

Signs of Life
Vibe: Artsy, mostly students, Christian
My thoughts: Good coffee and a nice relaxed intellectual vibe. Good place to work for a while. They are closed Sunday for religious reasons. They have good mixed drinks, especially like the “donkey”
Bonus features: Bookstore and art gallery

Prima Tazza
Vibe: Mixed crowd, intellectual
My thoughts: I don’t go here enough. I like their coffee a lot (especially the espresso-based drinks), but it is a very small location and there often isn’t any room to sit. Good people-watching.
Bonus features: Next door to Free State

Seattle’s Best (at Borders)
Vibe: It’s a Borders, so lots of “library” patrons and people studying
My thoughts: It’s a Borders. So, always something to read. I don’t usually go there (for coffee) because I feel awkward taking my own reading material into a bookstore.
Bonus features: Bookstore

West Lawrence

Scone Lady’s
Vibe: Very quiet, townies and grad students
My thoughts: A nice quiet place to escape to in the middle of the day to read or get out of the office. Good selection of baked goods. Never seen them crowded. Their Caramel Twist, coffee mixed with caramel (but no milk) is quite good.
Bonus features: roast their own beans

Vibe: Townies, business people, a place to get work done
My thoughts: Really good brewed coffee, and a great location, the only coffee shop on the far west area of town. I will usually go here at least once a week, a great “coffee break” from the office. The Mayan Mocha is great, a mocha with chili and cinnamon, the drip coffee is also really fresh and really good.
Bonus features: roast their own beans, kids play area

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21 for 2010: The best books I read during 2010

December 25th, 2010 Comments off

As most of my friends know, I read a lot. I make no claims to read books on every subject – I am quite prejudiced. I only read books that looks interesting to me! Being a geek, I tend towards history, science, and books on “big themes” (and for some odd reason this year, several books set on generational starships). However, part of the pleasure of browsing a real bookstore is that sometimes something completely unexpected will pass my eye, and I will discovered and enjoy a book that I never would have known about otherwise.

Below is my list of the best 21 books I read through the past year. Not all of these were actually published in 2010 (although many of them were). Why 21? Basically, I went through my catalog of books (yes, I catalog my books – I told you I was a geek!) in reverse order back to the beginning of the year, and this is what I found…

Pump Six and Other Stories by Paolo Bacigalupi
A great collection of thoughtful and humane science fiction short stories by the author of “The Windup Girl” (see below). The best among the bunch is the title piece, “Pump SIx” about a a guy who tries to keep civilization going as everything is breaking down and coming apart.

Death By Black Hole and Other Cosmic Quandaries by Neil deGrasse Tyson
Tyson’s collection of short essays covers the gamut of astronomy and physics, in a fun and enlightening style. This is one of the rare science books that would be enjoyed by any intelligent person even if they do not otherwise have much interest in science.

Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals by Hal Herzon
A fascinating overview of the psychological and cultural aspects of humankind’s interaction with the animal kingdom. If you’ve ever wondered why we keep dogs as pets but eat pigs, or how owners of fighting animals can claim with a straight face that they love the animals they condemn to death, this book will enlighten and entertain you.

Hull Zero Three by Greg Bear
A man wakes up in an enormous, frigid, ancient, mechanically unsound spaceship, and has no idea what is going on, all the while being chased by strage horrifying creatures while trying to survive and figure out what is going on. Bear takes the reader on an intense and entertaining journey that plays out like a more intellectual version of the (underrated) movie “Pandorum”

At Home by Bill Bryson
Bryson is genius at taking the mundane and peeling it like an onion, and in “At Home” he used the rooms of an average home to explore the social and cultural history of everything from why salt and pepper are our ‘default’ spices to how the modern bathroom came about. As is Bryson’s wont, he peppers his prose with a myriad of fascinating historic tidbits and stories about obscure and not-so-obscure people and their amazing lives. You will never look at your house the same way after reading this.

On the Grid by Scott Huler
Infrastructure is the sinew of our society. Without plumbing, sewers, electricity, roads, and communications, we would be living like monkeys. If you’ve ever wondered about how all these systems actually work and what it takes to maintain them, you will enjoy Huler’s book. In the best “Dirty Jobs” style, Huler goes on location investigating (and working with) the people who make our civilization operate by delivering water and power and removing waste. Entertaining and enlightening.

War by Sebastian Junger
“War” has won numerous awards, and for good reason. This is probably as close as the average reader can come to getting a feel for the emotional and physical experience of being in combat in a modern wartime environment. The author ’embedded’ with troops in an isolated firebase in Afghanistan, going into combat with soldiers, coming under fire, and basically experiencing everything except actually firing a weapon. A truly intense and harrowing read.

Packing for Mars by Mary Roach
Rocket engines, trajectories, and such are quite important in space travel, but what about how you go to the bathroom in space? Or eat, sleep, and of course, make love? And of course, what happens to the human body when you are weightless for months? The practical issues of “human engineering” are the topic of Roach’s book, and she takes the reader on an enlightening and entertaining trip into the lesser-covered aspects of day-to-day life in space.

Sex At Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha
Everyone “knows” that men naturally evolved to mate with as many women as possible, and that women evolved to be naturally picky about mating, the best to protect their precious eggs and look for a mate with the right qualities. It’s just common sense. Not so fast! The authors show, carefully, with ample evidence that many of our most cherished myths about what is “natural” human sexuality isn’t backed up by the latest research. Written in an engaging and friendly tone, never lecturing, the authors cover the latest research on human sexuality with wit and verve.

Lucy by Laurence Gonzales
Lucy is a “humanzee” – a hybrid of bonobo and human, who is adopted and raised by a woman in Chicago after Lucy’s original father is killed in an African civil war. What makes “Lucy” amazing is that the book focuses on not on the science of hybridization, but rather Lucy’s actual life as a teenager, and how she develops and socializes, as well as the political and cultural reaction once her true nature becomes known. Emotional and touching, the “Lucy” represents the best tradition of science fiction by moving tech to the background, and making us examine ourselves.

Ancestor by Scott Sigler
“Ancestor” was the most fun book I read this year, and winner of the “most likely to be made into a blockbuster movie” sweepstakes. The plot? Genetically engineered ‘organ donor’ cows give birth to…something. These somethings are isolated with researchers on a snowbound island in the middle of the Great Lakes. There is a blizzard. The animals are very, very hungry.

How Pleasure Works by Paul Bloom
I never thought an evolutional psychology book on the nature of pleasure could turn out to be so interesting. Bloom covers the obvious bases, but in looking deeper at the meaning and source of ‘pleasure’ he examines sources as disparate as the fetishes of cannibals and the mechanisms of overeating along with a survey of the latest findings in a topic in which we all are self-developed experts.

Grounded by Seth Stevenson
I picked this up almost at random at the bookstore and I glad I did. “Grounded” is the travelogue of a couple who take a journey around the world while eschewing any travel by air. They take steamers, trains, busses, cars and everything in between as they circle the world in an adventure featuring exotic people and places that are unseen from the usual 30000 foot view.

Five Roads To the Future: Power In the Next Global Age by Paul Starobin
I do not read many books on geopolitics, but am glad I made an exception here. For anyone wondering about our turbulent age and what the next few decades will bring, Starobin proves to be an adept guide lucidly laying out five scenarios, all of them both plausible and refreshingly free of the posturing and wishful thinking of the usual pundits on both the right and left.

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
An amazing journey into a post peak-oil world in which the genetic code of plants (controlled by “calorie men”) is the source of wealth, molecular springs are the main source of power, and civilization is adapting and making the best of things. The genius of the book is its plausibility and refusal to give into Mad Max-like scenarios of a post-oil world. The titular character, the Windup Girl, is a genetically-engineered ‘pleasure girl’ who is on the run from the law and whose movement through society ties the various threads of the novel together. Covering themes from cultural identity to the meaning of power, “Windup Girl” is one of the finest novels I have read in years.

Mistress of Rome by Kate Quinn
Probably my surprise book of the year. I don’t read much historic fiction, and certainly not a book (apparently) aimed at female readers with a title containing the word “mistress!” However, I am glad I did. “Mistress” is a historically-accurate look at life in first-century Rome under the emperor Domitian, and about the flow of power, vengeance, and politics in that world, along with a generous helping of (very perverted) sex and gladiatorial violence. A fun read, and an interesting look into one of Rome’s lesser-known periods.

Ill Fares the Land by Tony Judt
Tony Judt is one of the the most thoughtful historians with a keen eye towards recent history and political trends. He passed away in 2010, and this was his last book, which was adapted from a speech he gave to graduating college students. At once both a meditation on the current (degraded) state of affairs in the modern economic-deterministic American body politic as well as a stirring call to arms, “Ill Fares the Land” is at once both disturbing, wistful, and hopeful.

The Dark Beyond the Stars by Frank Robinson
A starship sent from Earth has been wandering the galaxy for hundreds of years, searching for life. The captain is both immortal and mad, the ship is falling apart, and the protagonist seems to be suffering from severe amnesia, all the while someone (or something) seems to be trying to kill him, as he starts to unravel the secrets of the voyage. “Dark” contains some great action sequences, as well as a really interesting take on the evolution of shipboard culture and mores over hundreds of years that propel the story forward.

Lonely Planets by David Grinspoon
“Lonely Planets” is a great survey of all aspects of extraterrestrial life. One of the most unique aspects of this book is that Grinspoon includes a history of SETI going back hundreds of year – surprisingly, a lot of philosophers and scientist going back centuries were open to the idea of ET and actively speculated what form he might take. Grinspoon covers the modern SETI program, technologies and findings, and then goes into details with some speculation on what real alien life might be like and why we haven’t yet found it. This is probably the best overall book on this subject I have read.

Terminal World by Alastair Reynolds
Alastair Reynolds manages to do “it” again – “it” being a novel that has a relatively mind-blowing “big idea” as well as some great character development and old-fashioned action sequences that are something right out of a blockbuster movie. The “big idea” is that at some point in the distant past, something changed the nature of reality on Earth, splitting the world into various zones, each one having different physical laws. In some zones life is impossible, in other zones humans can survive but higher-energy processes don’t work, and so on. The story is about a man who is ‘drafted’ into an adventure crossing many zones to figure out the nature of the world, as well as save his city and friends from a terrible calamity.

Exodus: The Ark by Paul Chafe
“Ark” is the second book of a planned trilogy, and is far better then its predecessor (and luckily doesn’t require the reading fo the first book to enjoy this one). “Ark” is the story of life aboard a massive generational starship, and about a series of people. over thousands of years, who try to figure out the nature of their world and where they came from, and are going. The depiction of the ship itself is amazing (think something Rama-sized) and both the culture of the residents and the mechanics of the ship itself are presented in a very plausible manner weaved into a great adventure.

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A comparison of Scrabble-like iPhone games

August 9th, 2010 12 comments

I like Scrabble-style word games. I like them a lot and I have gotten halfway decent, at least if you believe the anguished tweets of my friends. (on the other hand, I’m nowhere near these people either!).

Naturally, playing Scrabble on the iPhone with actual friends is a lot of fun. There are really only three Scrabble-like word games I know of for the iDevices, and I thought I would briefly compare them, focusing on iPhone gameplay and the fun factor.

You’ll note I did say “Scrabble-like” – there is a reason for this. Scrabble (i.e. Hasbro) owns the rights for actual Scrabble. Therefore, it’s two main competitors, Lexulous and Words With Friends, have had to make some subtle alterations to stay legal. These alterations are not severe, but they do change the game a little bit, kind of like the differences between Canadian and American football. However, all three of these games have the basic template – you take turns making interlocking words on a board with point values for letters and spaces.

Scrabble ($1.99 for iPhone, $9.99 for iPad)

First, the original, Scrabble. This application is the real deal, with the official borad and rules, exactly like you’re familiar with. For the most part, the developers have done a really good job translating the gameplay for the iPhone. You have a choice of several modes of play, including solo (against the computer), turn-based (pass the phone to a friend), and most fun, competing electronically with your friends via Facebook.

The latter option works with the Scrabble Facebook app, meaning you can play either via the Facebook web site or on your phone. This is a really great option because it lets you compete with any friend who has Facebook – you are not limited to iPhone-owning buddies. You can also challenge and accept games against random strangers, which is a good way to build your skill. Integration with the iPhone notification system will let you know when its your turn in any of your active games.

The Scrabble back-end keeps track of your statistics (games won and lost, best bingoes, so so forth), and the iPhone version of the game comes with some useful features, including a dictionary and somewhat controversially, a “word-builder” assistant which will show you (after your turn) what the best word you could have played.

Unfortunately, the official Scrabble app is by far the slowest and most difficult to start up of all its brethren. Even on a new iPhone 4, it takes a solid ten or more seconds to start the game up, and creating a new game is a slow, multi-step process. Additionally, unneeded animations make the game feel slower yet and it seems like even the most simple tasks in-game take a half-dozen taps to accomplish.

Words With Friends ($2.99 for iPhone, $2.99 for iPad, or free ad-supported version)

Words With Friends is a lean, mean Scrabble-like game, which focuses on one task: getting you playing as fast as possible (and showing ads if you’re using the free version). Unlike Scrabble and Lexulous, there is no Facebook integration, Words With Friends uses their own account system. After signing up for an account, you then have to find your friends on the system or you can play a stranger. Integration with the iPhone notification system will let you know when its your turn in any of your active games.

Load time and game play is fast. You see a list of all your active games and tapping on a game lets you play. Words With Friends eschews many of the features of its competitors. There’s no dictionary, no way to see the value of a word before playing it, and the game doesn’t keep track of player statistics or past games (beyond your most recent). As such, it is clearly designed for the quick, casual player, but is still a lot of fun for anyone who enjoys these types of games. There is also an in-game chat feature so you can talk smack to your opponent. The game is also easier on the eyes then either Scrabble or Lexulous – alone among these three games, Words with Friends has been partially updated for the Retina Display on the iPhone 4.

Rule-wise, the main difference between Words With Friends and traditional Scrabble is that the location of the bonus squares on the board are different, and the point value for some letters is slightly changed. I do have a small beef with the location of some of the bonus squares, specifically there is no double-word tile for the first move, which automatically gives whoever goes first a slight disadvantage. Furthermore, some of the triple word tiles are placed in a way that makes them too easy to double-up upon.

Regarding gameplay, the main downside to Words With Friends (beyond the missing features) is that the back-end server can sometimes be very slow in the evening, resulting in long waits when you try to load the game or play a word. Furthermore, the reliance on its own account system means it is difficult to find existing friends unless you know their screen name in advance. Still, of all three games, Words With Friends is probably the one I’d recommend for a new player who wants to have some fun quickly.

Lexulous ($3.99 for iPhone)

Lexulous is the grand-daddy of Scrabble knock-offs, and used to exist on Facebook as “Scrabulous” before the Hasbro lawyers got sicced. Like Scrabble, Lexulous can be played both on Facebook and on the iPhone, and is by far the leanest, fastest of the three games discussed here. Unfortunately, the developers of Lexulous have been giving the game some not-so-benign neglect in the past year and it has grown very long in the tooth.

Rule-wise, Lexulous has tweaked the original Scrabble rules to make for a higher-scoring game. Players have 8 tiles rather then 7, but you get a bonus for making a 7-letter word (as well as a true 8-letter bingo). Furthermore, many letters have higher point values, making games with scores in the 400s and higher common, and allowing for big comebacks. This freewheeling style of play can be a lot of fun.

Lexulous caters to the “serious” player by keeping very detailed statistics and archives of past games. Well, I should say “catered” because these features are only available in the Facebook version, not on the phone, and the archive functionality has been broken on Facebook for months with no fix. Furthermore, the interface on the iPhone has seemingly been copied from another mobile platform, and doesn’t use any iPhone conventions – for example, instead of a scrolling list view of friend, you have to move page-by-page with a “next” button through all your friends. Furthermore, Lexulous stands alone among these three apps in not making use of the iPhone notification system, so there’s no way to know when it is your turn except by opening the app and checking manually.

In spite of these bugs, actual gameplay works fine, and is very zippy. Fast load times and quick move recognition cover for a multitude of functional and UI sins, but still it is frustrating that Lexulous gets so much right and yet the developers have seemingly abandoned it. As it stands, I can’t recommend Lexulous to anyone unless they already play friends in the Facebook version and want to check on games from the Phone.

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Packing For Mars

July 17th, 2010 Comments off

Packing for Mars cover

Packing For Mars by Mary Roach

When most people think of space travel, they think of the adventure, the excitement of discovery, and the daring of the astronauts, who ride giant tubes filled with explosives into orbit and beyond.

Once you read Mary Roach’s delightful and informative new book “Packing For Mars” you will gain added appreciation for the heroics of our astronauts…for their bravery in putting up with the surprisingly complex minutiae of eating, sleeping, moving around, and yes, defecating in outer space. Not to mention surviving the horrid odors generated when grown adults live in a compartment the size of a small car for days or weeks on end, to the point their underwear actually beings to disintegrate.

Roach’s book covers everything about what happens when human physiological needs meet the final frontier. Chapters deal with the complexities of eating and drinking in zero G, as well as, the travails of motion sickness, psychology and, of course, zero-G sex. The author does some impressive research on this latter subject even tracking down the people involved in the production of a supposed low-gravity adult film as well as talking to former US and Soviet space travelers about this oft-taboo subject.

Roach is a delightful writer, always willing to throw in a well-timed joke or piece of obscure trivia (often contained in addictively fascinating footnotes) from the NASA archives. She also “walks the walk” going on a zero-G simulator and even participating in a simulated Mars mission in the Arctic. In one of the most touching chapters, she tracks down the remains of the first Americans in space – two chimpanzees, and talks to their (now long-retired) handlers about their contribution to increasing our knowledge of space.

“Packing For Mars” is one of the best general-interest books on space travel in years, and will be enjoyed by anyone who has ever gazed at floating astronauts and wondered – even for half a second – “how do they go to the bathroom up there?”

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Chimpan-A to chimpan-Z

July 6th, 2010 Comments off

(I am always happy for an excuse to include a Troy McClure Simpsons reference in my titles)

Anyway, Dave is a member of the Amazon Vine program, which gives him access to review copies of books and such, and through this, I was able to read an advance readers’ edition of a new novel called “Lucy” which is the story of a girl who is a hybrid human-bonobo and the various ethical and social issues this brings up.

“Lucy” is an amazing story, which should appeal to a wide variety of readers. It is several books in one: the story of how a “home schooled” girl from the jungles of Africa learns to adapt to American culture, a science-fiction tale about the relationship between humans and bonobos and what a hybrid of the two species might be like, a gripping chase yarn pitting a few good people against a heartless enemy, and lastly, and most importantly, a philosophical examination of what it means to be human, told in the voice of the protagonist.

“Lucy” touches on so many different issues that in the hands of a lesser writer, the story might end up unraveling into a series of disjointed vignettes. Luckily, we are in good hands, as author Laurence Gonzales deftly weaves the various threads of the novel into a unified whole, providing enough background on the legal and scientific issues to satisfy the curious, while making sure the real star of the tale, Lucy herself, shines through. Lucy is the center of this book, and it is to the author’s credit that she becomes, well, real in a way that made me think long after I had finished the book.

“Lucy” is a thoughtful, deep, and emotional exploration of what it means to be human, and is one of the best books I have read so far in 2010.

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The glass is half full – but of what?

May 31st, 2010 Comments off

We’re in a recession, oil is gushing uncontrollably into the ocean with humans helpless to stop it, North and South Korea are on the brink of war, the Middle East is near boiling, the US is mired in two intractable wars, and the ending to “Lost” was thoroughly unsatisfactory.

Perfect timing for me to start reading Matt Ridley’s newest book “The Rational Optimist”, don’t you think?

The subtitle is “How Prosperity Evolves” – so I have a good idea what Ridley’s thesis will be. I generally much prefer doom-and-glood books, but I like having my preconceived ideas challenged, and I really liked Ridley’s earlier books on evolution and the human genome, so I am actually quite looking forward to the new book….because let’s face it, the way the world is going, I need some sunshine and unicorns right now.

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The ten best places to eat in Lawrence

May 5th, 2010 4 comments

Lists are easy, lists are fun, I am hungry, so here’s one!

My ten most favorite restaurants in Lawrence. The rules…no chains, and the place has to primarily be a restaurant (i.e. no coffee houses for this list)

By the way, if you are a restaurant, there are two things you can do to make me come and throw money at you. First, either get rid of the Flash on your website, or make it so when I visit your site on a mobile device (such as the iPhone — have you heard of it?) I get served a page that actually has useful information on it, as opposed to a broken plug-in icon.

Secondly, join Twitter, or Facebook (or both) and post/tweet your daily specials. Hell, even a blog with RSS is better then forcing me to actually pick up the phone and call you. I can’t count the number of times I have spontaneously gone out to eat at a restaurant because I saw a special on Twitter which sounded good. This takes 5 minutes to set up, and 1 minute each day to use. Its free. It will get you business. Do it.

Free State Brewery
Can’t get enough of that wonderful…not Duff. Seriously, I could eat here 7 days a week (and weigh 100 pounds more if I did, but hey). The beer is as good as any in the world, and the food is gourmet bar comfort food.

Pachamamas/Star Bar
I really like the Star Bar, Pachamama’s elegant bar area, and the dining room is probably the “nicest” place to eat in Lawrence. Great local food.

There are a lot of good Italian places in Lawrence, including the great new 715, but Tellers is still my favorite Italian place by a hair. Superb atmosphere and really great fresh pastas and salads.

Henry T’s
Awesome comfort food, and the best wing sauce in Larryville. They also have gourmet burgers.

Yellow Sub
I love the fresh sandwiches. My favorites are the homemade meatball sub and the “spicy cheese” (get it with buffalo sauce for a real treat!)

La Parilla
What a short order Latin American joint should be. All kinds of fresh grilled dishes, including the titular “Parillas” which are kind of unique fajitas, as well as salads, awesome enchiladas, and the best guac in the city. FWIW, La Familia (which is more pure Mexican as opposed to Latin American) gives La Parilla a run for their money with the best fresh salsa in town.

A little hole int he wall in a dinky strip mall, but seriously the best pad thai this side of Bangkok.

Papa Kenos
Rudy’s is awesome, but Papa Kenos wins by a hair for my favorite pizza in Lawrence. Love the Shredder with the blue cheese and the Santa Fe with real bacon.

The Burger Stand at Dempseys
Real gourmet hamburgers. A heart attack on every plate. They have a lot of unique, flavorful burgers, along with the saltiest, crispiest fries around.
I often just get the classic burger, which is “good enough” but they have a dozen other pretty unique burgers as well.

Best bread on the planet, best cookies in Lawrence, and probably the best overall sandwiches around. Great breakfasts too, although I rarely eat out for breakfast.

OK, there you have it. Hungry?

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