Saturday, August 31, 2013

[Book Review] Assassins in Love

Assassins in Love (Assassins Guild #1) / Kris DeLake (Powell's Books)

When one killer falls for another

Agent: Misha
Profile: Highly trained in every method the assassins guild has to offer. Always goes by the book.

Agent: Rikki
Profile: Rogue assassin who kills only to rid the world of hardened criminals. Hates organizations. Always does it her way.

Love becomes a matter of life and death

Misha's mission is to get Rikki to join the guild or give up her guns. He completely underestimated the effect she would have on him...and what heat and chaos they could bring to each other...
Sometimes I read well written smutty novels, sometimes I read serious literature, sometimes I read hard science fiction, and sometimes I read fluff.  This novel was fluff, and not even real well written fluff.  It at least doesn't have people in physically impossible poses on the cover (even if the appearances don't match the character descriptions).  We have some plot that exists between marathon boinking that is supposed to be wildly creative but is largely bland.

Kris De Lake is a pen name for Kristine Kathryn Rusch, who has won two Hugo awards for her Science Fiction before.  I haven't read anything else she has written, but I really hope that her writing under her real name is higher quality.  Assassins in Love is not a book I can see winning any awards, even as Romance.As Kris De Lake she loves parenthetical comments more than I do, and that's saying something.  There is rarely a need for parenthetical comments inside parenthetical comments, especially in light fluffy novels.

There are some other issues in this book.  Serious fat shaming (including odd moments like the main character refusing to cry because she isn't a chubby blond).  False rape accusations just to manipulate a situation piss me off.  Rikki is alternately written as incompetent and highly skilled, sort of like how Bella Swan is so clumsy she cannot survive a Physical Education class without serious injury but can skip down stairs.  On the bright side, besides mostly accidental moments of supreme idiocy, Misha is actually a pretty decent love interest.  The closest he gets to super alpha male activities is the way he hunts her down, but then they are trained assassins and it was somewhat work related.  Other than that it was refreshing to have a male love interest who is steadfastly devoted without needing to mark his woman for the world to see.

If you like fluffy romance with a pinch of science fiction seasoning, but don't want to actually read erotica, this book isn't a horrible way to go.  It isn't a book I particularly care for, but it was over quick.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Sometimes the little things are quite big

So back at Book Expo America I met a whole bunch of awesome authors, including Chuck Palahniuk, who I've described as "possibly one of the coolest authors I have ever met" and then completely failed to explain why.

Awkward photo pose is awakward
Well, several months later I can finally talk about one of the reasons he is so damn awesome.

My cousin (not actually my cousin, but close enough) Scott is a huge Palahniuk fan.  This man's books triggered reading as a fun activity for him, which alone is enough to make me happy.  What can I say?  I cannot image not enjoying reading.  So when I found out that Palahniuk would be hanging out at the Kobo booth doing an interview via questions submitted on Twitter I had to track him down to say hi.  On hearing that I knew someone whom his books impacted he paused me, dug around in his bag, and gave me a SASE with a greeting card inside.

See, Mr. Palahniuk has this game.  My part in it has finally finished and as it has been written about in published interviews I feel I can talk about it without ruining it (besides, it is not like I have a huge readership).  The game works like this: he runs into someone who knows someone who is a huge fan.  He then hands out one of his SASE envelopes with instructions.  The receiver fills out the greeting card with how the cardholder met Mr. Palahniuk, a little about the friend, and a shipping address.  The friend cannot know about this at all because that would ruin the fun.

I sent the filled out greeting card during June, telling only my cousin that I needed his shipping address for something awesome, and that he'd know it when he saw it.  And then we waited.

I like giving people surprise goodies that I know will mean a lot to them.  I may suck at gift-giving in general, but once in awhile I know I have found the perfect gift.  My fiancee can attest to the fact that if I'm sufficiently excited about gifting something I may just give it early or at a completely random time.  This was totally one of those times where I knew this would get a super excited reaction.  My only regret is that I didn't have it delivered to my house so I could be there when Scott got the package.

Tegan, today a box arrived at my house with a return address for "Palahniuk". Instantly I cut my work shoe laces off, raced down stairs with this box. Using only the energy conjured from the excitement of this package. The contents of this box had blown me away, it had me laugh, cry and laugh some more. I have to say, this is BY FAR FAR FAR the coolest gift I have every received. That is in no way an exaggeration. There is no way I can express how fucking amazing this was of you to do. THANK YOU SO MUCH! I really hope I can repay this to you some how.

I'm for real tho Tegan, do you know what he put in the package??
Signed copy of Snuff, "To Scott, who's hard to offend".
Box of Andes Mints
Box of Cracker Jacks
A ceramic brain bank.
2 CD's of Chuck Palahniuk's Tour Stories Volumes I, II (Only available to people who write to him.)
A box of French Shark Cards. Pokersized playing cards. All are moving motion graphics!
A pack of Cinnamon scented matches.
25g of Extra Pure Soap Fresh Verben
1oz Pink Grapefruit scented Soy Candle
Incense care package (Wood incense holder with cones, sticks and candles)
Not only that, but once I asked Scott's permission to write about him he immediately sent me a whole load of pictures.  The written list of goodies doesn't really show how awesome it is, so instead look at this awesome collection of stuff (the Magic cards I believe are not part of the package, last names and mailing addresses inelegantly removed by me):

What Scott posted on Chuck Palahniuk's Facebook author page:

"Last night I opened a package from you. An extremely surreal experience. It first started when I received a photo text message from my step father showing me the return address label of a package that arrived at the house for me. I was at work, cooking at our local Applebee's restaurant. I needed hours really bad to help pay my tuition, but on the inside i was battling my conscious to say, "fuck this Scott, go home and check out your possible Chuck Palahniuk shwag!"
Short story long.. I kicked my grubby kitchen work shoes off, grabbed the package and scissors off the table, flew downstairs to my room skipping every step on the way to plop down onto my favorite chair in the room. Then, carefully and anxiously unveil the mystery of its contents.

Thank you for helping Tegan create a story for me/us to tell that hits all angles of the emotional pie chart."

Unfortunately, Mr. Palahniuk is actually somewhat difficult to get in touch with directly as a fan.  His website states explicitly that fan mail will not be forwarded (except during announced windows).  I can understand, he probably would not have time for anything else if it was.  So of being able to contact him directly to let him know how happy his game made someone, I figured sharing how awesome he is, how much things like this mean really matter, was the next best thing.

Right now, as best as I can tell, Scott is engrossed in re-reading Snuff.  After all, this copy came directly from the author.  I completely understand this.  Books can be powerful.  The package showing up and my cousin's excitement totally made my week instantly better than it had been going.  In the large scope of things this one package could be a "little thing" - as Chuck Palahniuk even admits, he has a lot of money, and all I did was mail a greeting card - but that doesn't lessen the importance.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Not exactly a series of tubes

I spent a good chunk of this past Sunday crawling under grubby desks while my library was closed.  But it was for a good cause - how else to actually trace out all our network lines and clean up this mess:

I wonder if this is why Charles Stross likes to include Lovecraftian horrors in his cyber-fiction.

For various reasons, technology at my library has a bit of a haphazard history.  To start things off I am the sum of the technology budget (which is a whole different issue) and the library itself consists of a historic house with two 'modern' additions, none of which were built with any sort of Internet access in mind.  My predecessor did a lot for the technology set up in my library, but computers made up only a small area of her many responsibilities.  The wiring was not all run by the same person, or even all by people who really knew what they were doing, and it shows.  Some of the mess is stuff we are not supposed to touch (such as the yellow cables in the above photo, and the equipment they connect to).  The list of factors goes on.

We are looking at some major reorganization in the Reference and Circulation areas of the library, and this is going to entail moving computers.  Until this past weekend I could not have told you where 95% of these lines connected, and with the looming reorganization this created both a large issue and a great opportunity to call in the cavalry (and by cavalry I mean my step-father who is awesome and damn good at this).  Unfortunately I had not thought to supply him with photos before hand (and he had not asked), so the above mess caught him a little by surprise.

Lesson #1: Always provide your help with reference photos when reorganizing and restructuring.  It gives them a better scope of what to expect and what to bring.

There are a few problems beyond the cable spaghetti that may not be obvious from that photo.  The whole kit and caboodle is rather too close to the wall, I can reach my hand up behind the patch panel, but if I actually want to see the back side I would have to detach it from the frame.  Behind the switches rests a plugged in UPC... that nothing is plugged into.  Our best guess on that is that it was placed there as a spacer so the switches are not shoved up against the wall, either way I will be replacing it with something not powered and more appropriately sized in the near future.  There actually are some labels on the patch panel, but few and with indications of inaccuracies.  Next we find that behind all the wires hanging down from the back of the patch panel is a power strip.  Finally (or at least the last one I'm listing) is the lack of space on this backboard.  The strip of black visible is about how much space we had, and combined with the lack of proper framing for the equipment limited our options for routing the cables.

I knew the physical network had more issues than just all of this, but our intent was essentially triage.  Identification and organization were desperately needed, and nothing could be fixed until we had this first step taken care of.

So after we assessed our situation and acquired some last minute hardware, we dove in.  Step one was to label our patch cables and record everything in a chart so we could put everything back together.  Step two was to disconnect all of the patch cables from the panel with some initial sorting by switch and filling out of our chart.  I may have at one point started slowly singing "Daisy, Daisy" during the disconnecting.  This served two purposes (the disconnecting, not the singing).  First and foremost we needed to disconnect patch cables connecting the patch panel and switches so that we could trace lines - otherwise the connections would have interfered with our test signals.  Secondly, there was no way we were going to be able to untangle the mess patch cables otherwise.  Once this was completed the fun part began - line tracing.

Now here comes the cautionary tale for anyone thinking about redoing (or even creating) a computer lab.  The furniture choices matter.  It is not simply enough to make sure that the computer and its accessories are neatly packaged (and make sure your 'neatly packaged' set up doesn't cause air flow issues or place the power button in prime knee bumping locations).  At some point someone will have to get at the nuts and bolts of the set up, and it probably is in your best interest to make that relatively easy.

We have some in-house built furniture that I at first thought was pretty nifty.  In particular they have electrical outlets and Ethernet jacks built-in for the four partitioned desks of each unit.  Unfortunately, as you might guess from my earlier comments, there are some issues with the placement of the power button on some towers as well as issues with air flow.  The cables are also nicely hidden inside this central shaft and only accessible from the top or from the bottom.  Being a female of average height and really not wanting to risk breaking the furniture by standing on the desks I went through the gap at the bottom that was wide enough to admit my head as well as one arm and shoulder.  These 12 connections took probably as much time if not more than all the rest simply due to the need to wiggle under and back out for each one.

My view of Sunday, only better lit.

I've had to get at some of these wires before, and it is something I avoid when possible.  It is a huge pain and an incredibly undignified process to attempt during operating hours.  For scale purposes the holes that the wires come through are about a foot and a half off the ground, and the top pair of Ethernet ports at finger tip height when lying flat on my back under the desk.  I'm a little embarrassed at quite how messy this is because I could have at least replaced the ridiculously long Ethernet cables with shorter ones long before now.  Well, I have a handful of shorter patch cables now, with the means to make more, now I just need to get to it while computers are not in use (and on a day when I'm not wearing especially nice clothes).

Lesson #2: Accessibility is really important for easy maintenance.

Lesson #3: I probably should arrange more work sessions outside normal operating hours.

At the end of the day the lines were traced and the spaghetti was cleaned up.  It isn't perfect but it is exponentially better than what I was facing before.

Thank the powers that be.  Having this done makes me ridiculously happy and lessens the number of things to stress about.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Link Smorgasbord, August 19 - 25

LibraryThing is Hiring: Bookish and Social Media Savvy?

What do you think about E-Cigarettes in libraries?
This is spurred by an active discussion right now on the MA library listserve.  No definitive answer has come either way, but largely libraries are leaning towards "not allowed."

New Infographic: Good News in Fair Use for Libraries 

Selling the value of literacy
I love the focus on the idea of selling the value of literacy, of learning from the students in order to best help them love learning.

Censorship doesn't just stifle speech - it can spread disease
About some real world health risks that can (and do) arise due to information lock-down.

Newest YouTube user to fight a takedown is copyright guru Lawrence Lessig
Well, this could be worth following.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Science Fiction & Fantasy Wrap Up

Recap: Fantasy & Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World

This was a decent class with some amazing fellow students and on subject matter interesting that I find interesting.  It also had distinct downsides.

Taking this class also requires a significant time commitment, and even as a quick reader I experienced difficulties staying on top of the assignments, often choosing to not complete all of the readings when presented with several books in a week.  The course description says 8-12 hours of work per week - a week that includes likely 2 hours of lecture video, reading several hundred pages, writing a short essay, and evaluating other student's essays.  Completing the coursework would have been distinctly easier had I not also enrolled in a second MOOC, and if I was willing to read only the assigned coursework for 10 weeks.

I found the format choice a bit odd.  Each unit began on a Thursday with a 2-3 minute "before you read" segment that sometimes gave a little about the book, but mostly served to wish us happy reading for that unit so as to not spoil the ending of the book.  The essay for that unit was due Monday night, the lectures for that unit were released Tuesday, and we were required to complete our peer reviews by Thursday morning.  Most of us needed to start the next unit's reading as soon as (if not earlier) we finished the current unit's reading.  I would have preferred to have some of the lecture videos released a the start of the unit for context and food for thought as we delved into the book of the week.  As it was, by the time I got to the lecture videos for a book I was mostly disengaged with that book and in the midst of the text for the next assignment.  Overall not a big issue with the class, just something that I would have preferred otherwise.

My biggest issue with this course lay in how it was taught.  The professor obviously knows the subject matter, however with limited exception, the class videos are simply reused each time the class is taught.  A few of the weeks Professor Rabkin added a very short video in response to forum activity, but otherwise we were given no original content.  Class interaction consisted of forum discussions with peers and occasionally TAs, and the peer reviews of each other's essays.  The inability to respond to peer reviewer's comments I can digest as par for the course, I am not quite so accepting of lack of response and flexibility in the course itself.

Over all I feel that it was the students that made this class engaging and inspiring, not the professor.  This has nothing to do with his lecture content, but rather the format he chose to run the class.  However the content was interesting and I'd rate the class experience as about average for a distance learning environment.  If it is a class you are interested in he future sessions are available at the link above.

For those interested, here is a list of all of the mini essays I wrote over the course of the class:

Household Stories / The Brothers Grimm
The Brothers Grimm & Clever Deception

Alice in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass / Lewis Carroll
Alice, a Stranger in a Strange Land

Dracula / Bram Stoker
Dracula and Carnal Women

Frankenstein / Mary Shelley
Frankenstein, or, the Folly of Man

Selected short stories / Nathaniel Hawthorne
Hawthorne & Beauty

The Invisible Man / H. G. Wells
Invisible Man, The Invisible Man

Herland / Charlotte Gilman Perkins
Herland and gender expression

The Martian Chronicles / Ray Bradbury
The Martian Chronicles, a distopian dream

The Left Hand of Darkness / Ursula K. LeGuin
The Left Hand of Darkness and "otherness"

Little Brother / Corey Doctorow
Little Brother & Security Theater

EDIT: Another issue I discovered with the class is the grading.  We were instructed that a very small percentage of what we read should earn 1s or 3s, but that most should get 2s.  Now that the certificates are available I find that basically we were instructed to give everyone Cs as grades with occasional Fs and As... which means even though I did better than average on several essays and did more than required, my numeric grade is rather horrifying.  When it comes down to it I know the class if really pass/fail, but I still find it upsetting.

Little Brother & Security Theater

For the final essay of Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World, we read Cory Doctorow's Little Brother.

This essay earned me my worst grade in the whole class.

I wish that my peer reviewers all gave some feedback on this essay, though I appreciate the three that made an effort.  I do admit that I failed to stick to the guidelines for sticking to purely literary matters.  I also needed a larger Works Cited submission box, I went past the word limit and could not include more citations (including the book itself).

Little Brother resonates with me.  I strongly believe in the message that Doctorow projects through his novel, and do not mind that his message is about as subtle as a brick wall.  This all is pretty evident in my essay.
Little Brother is about the dangers complete trust in security measures.  Benjamin Franklin wrote "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety (1)," and Marcus personally experiences the flaws in the security net that the DHS covers San Francisco with.

In computers and networking, absolute security does not exist, but instead exists as a compromise.  You trade security for convenience, for cost, for choice (2).  Life may operate on a different set of rules than computer networks, but the security principles remain the same.  False positives are a huge issue, be it due to strict rules such as a computer program, or influenced by personal bias, and even innocent actions can be misconstrued.  Sometimes the false positives are humorous, such as Hamlet being blocked by a filter due to violent content (3), and sometimes not so funny.  In the United States, citizens are supposed to be 'presumed innocent until proven guilty,' however citizens are subject to armed search in their homes due to research for kitchen supplies (4) and travelers are subject to embarrassing (5) and demeaning (6) searches if they wish to travel via airline (7).  The consequences for 'cybercrime' are often far greater than the damage done.  A denial of service attack on a site, even a malicious site such as the Westboro Baptist Church, can land someone in jail under felony charges (8).

Little Brother asks us to think about what are the implications of our security measures.  Are they actually helping or just theater.  What does it mean if exposing flaws in the system brings persecution?  Can we believe in our Bill of Rights as both absolute and disposable, and how does that hurt us as individuals and as communities?


FORM (1.5)
peer 2 → The form of the essay is fine.
peer 3 → Some grammatical flaws
peer 4 → There are some typos in this essay (e.g. first sentence, are they actually helping or just theater). Anyway, the focus is completely on something unrelated to literary matters. You only used Little Brother to talk about a real-life topic.
peer 2 → The essay is well researched and points out some important things about the world at large. However it doesn't connect those items to the essay itself. The questions posed at the last paragraph are not cited or cross referenced from the book. E.g. when asking if security measures are helping or just theater, it might have been helpful if examples from the book are cited and then referred to in the real world.
peer 3 → Issue is well argued but doesn't seem convincing.
peer 4 → see above
peer 2 → This book brings out a lot of passion in all of us. However the examples are not related back to the book and the essay becomes generic. A whole essay could have been written about the first question in the last paragraph: security: does it help or is it just theater.
peer 3 → The issue is well argued but the writing needs editing

Link Smorgasbord, August 12 - 18

Hamlet is Banned
It should be no surprise that I'm against filtering, and this is a rather hysterical (if incredibly frustrating for the author) instance of filtering gone wrong.

A Rational Framework for Library eBook Licensing
Interesting read.

XKeyscore: NSA tool collects 'nearly everything a user does on the internet'
Does anyone else miss the days when NSA was known mostly as the boogie man of a Dan Brown novel?  It's good to know, but damn it is depressing.

Cory Doctorow: privacy, oversharing and government surveillance
On privacy, over-sharing, and concerns about surveillance.

Are Hackers the Next Bogeyman Used to Scare Americans Into Giving Up More Rights?
Aren't they already being used as the bogeyman?  This is a great time to reread Little Brother by Cory Doctorow.

Fortunately, the book... (Explained)
Gaiman's Fortunately, the milk is delightful both in writing and illustration, and I was fortunate enough to acquire a signed ARC at Book Expo America this past May.  I sort of want to order a UK edition of the book now though.

Beyond Books : Libraries Lend Fishing Poles, Pans, and People
I love the idea of having people in the catalog.

How to clean and secure your browser like a pro
Rule one: SAY NO TO TOOLBARS.  Please.  I want to cry sometimes when I'm asked to help someone and I see their web browser.

50 Sci-Fi/Fantasy Novels that Everyone Should Read
Some amazing titles on this list, including a surprising handful that I was unaware of.

DARPA Fears Bid Data Could Become Big Threat
Does anyone else find this incredibly ironic?

From the Omni Archive: Dune 
Some gorgeous artwork that really pictures Dune well.


Books with Borders
If you're thinking about renting textbooks from Amazon, make sure you're aware of the fine print - in this case  you must stay within the state you rented the book in, otherwise you may be forced to purchase it.

Funniest Reviews
Hey look, I'm posting something that I like about Amazon.  Seriously though, the reviews here are awesome.

NF Display August 2013

I'm on a bit of an outdoors kick it seems lately, or it could be the friends who are inspiring my displays are just really outdoorsy and active.  Either way, this display is for Seth (aka "Cheddar"), who has hiked the entire Appalachian Trail and who hopes to hike the Pacific Crest Trail in a year or two.  While you can't see the image thanks to light reflection, I plundered his photos of his hike to make a sign for this display (added text is "Go Take a Hike... ...and Explore").

The selections this month are a mix: about hiking or experiencing the Appalachian Trail, about hiking and backpacking in general, hiking maps, and about the trail itself.  Some of these books come very highly recommended, in particular AWOL on the Appalachian Trail.

  • Becoming Odyssa : epic adventures on the Appalachian Trail / Jennifer Pharr Davis
  • AWOL on the Appalachian Trail / David Miller
  • A walk in the woods : rediscovering American on the Appalachian Trail / Bill Bryson
  • The thru-hiker's handbook / Dan "Wingfoot" Bruce
  • On the beaten path : an Appalachian pilgrimage / Robert Alden Rubin
  • Long distance hiking on the Appalachian Trail for the older adventurer / David Ryan
  • The Appalachian Trail reader / David Emblidge (Ed.)
  • Exploring the Appalachian Trail : hikes in Southern New England / David Emblidge
  • Exploring the Appalachian Trail : hikes in Southern New England, 2nd Edition / David Emblidge
  • A journey north : one woman's story of hiking the Appalachian Trail / Adrienne Hall
  • Mountain adventure : exploring the Appalachian Trail / Ron Fisher
  • The Appalachian Mountain Club's White Mountain Guide : hiking trail in the White Mountain National Forest / Gene Daniell and Steve D. Smith (Eds.)
  • The A.M.C. Maine mountain guide / Appalachian Mountain Club
  • Stand up that mountain : the battle to save one small community in the wilderness along the Appalachian Trail / Jay Erskine Leutz
  • Massachusetts trail guide : AMC's comprehensive guide to hiking trails in Massachusetts / John S. Burk (Ed.)
  • Southern New Hampshire trail guide : AMC guide to hiking Mts. Monadnock, Cardigan, Kearsarg, and the Lake regionshire / Gene Daniell and Steven D. Smith (Eds.)
  • The backpacker's field manual : a comprehensive guide to mastering backcountry skills / Rick Curtis
  • The backpacker's handbook / Chris Townsend
  • Encyclopedia of outdoor & wilderness skills / Chris Townsend and Annie M. Aggens
  • Walking to Vermont / Christopher S. Wren
  • 2000 Miles to Maine : Adventures on the Appalachian Trail
  • Appalachian Trail (National Geographic)
  • Thru-hiking on the Appalachian Trail
  • Trek : a journey on the Appalachian Trail

Monday, August 12, 2013

Link Smorgasbord, August 5 - 11

Union Standoff in Germany
I find the description of Amazon's "American-style business practices--in particular, an antipathy to organized labor--that stand at odds with European norms," quite interesting.  I really don't know much about European labor rights and practices (except they generally have better parental leave), but then I also have issues with Amazon so I've been following the news on the fights with Amazon in Germany for the past few months.

Jeff Bezos buys the Washington Post
Holy crap.
Read more:
Obama task force revives SOPA provision outlawing online streaming
What I believe this is trying to target is the increase in streaming services that continue to offer content after license agreements have expired (or without license agreements).  I have come across several law suits where artists have found that companies are continuing to use their work in such case.  That being said I see this targeting individuals way more than corporations similar to all the lawsuits in the early days of Napster.

A Guide to YA Novels with LGBTQ Characters
Available to view on the website and as a PDF download.

Dresden Municipal Libraries Expands Library eBook program to Include All of Germany
Not for free, but at a yearly subscription price that is only slightly more than a month subscription of Netflix.

19th century online romance — and access barriers to public domain texts
Sometimes accessing a public domain ebook can get ridiculous.

Worth a read, if you were unaware of library efforts to boycott HarperCollins.

Yay Corey!

E-Books Strain Relations Beween Libraries, Publishing Houses
Yup, they do.  Interview on NPR with librarians who have been on the front lines of developments with library ebooks.

Is online privacy a right?
I think it should be, as does the author of this article.  Most people don't think a whole lot about their online privacy (or at least that's the impression I get dealing with our public computers), but it is something that is very important.

Chairman Goodlatte Announces Comprehensive Review of Copyright Law
Stay tuned for more, just because Copyright Law is getting a much needed revision does not mean that the revisions will be for the better.

A warning to college profs from a high school teacher
I've never understood the love of standardized tests, particularly as someone who was in the first round of students who had to pass the MCAS to graduate high school.  Seriously it was an awful experience and a poorly written test.  For the essay section one of my essays was two pages detailing exactly why the prompt question was inappropriate for the test, and another essay was half properly answered and half an explanation of problems with the rest of the question.  There were questions in the math section that were simple enough, but were not things that I encountered until I took a graduate level statistics course (that's right, I didn't even come across them in the undergrad statistics courses).

I went to a high school that had the resources for some amazing classes, and regardless of how useful these classes have proven later in both my professional, personal, and academic life, many of them were essentially useless in regards to the various standardized test options I encountered.  Criminology was an amazing one trimester class, other students took photography and that became the groundwork of their profession, we had an auto shop, a wood working shop, electronics classes, CAD and graphic design classes, etc.  Fantastic and useful resources that are no use at all on high school standardized tests.

TL;DR: I might rather like articles like this.

Algorithms Are the New Content Creators, and That’s Bad News for Humans
Very interesting article at an angle that I never considered.

I view Amazon as the Walmart of the bookselling industry, if not the Internet overall.  Consumers generally just see the wide selection and the (possibly) lower prices, and don't really have much awareness of Amazon's questionable business practices.

15 Curious Things Found in Library Books
I kind of want to start leaving notes in my library books for the next patron.

TL;DR - this library has smart and tech savvy people, and libraries do way more than lending books.

The Left Hand of Darkness and "otherness"

Ursula K. LeGuin is an author that I admire, even if I found some of her work inaccessible as a teen.  Maybe that was because I started reading her through her Earthsea books, and was expecting the magic of Earthsea (Powells Books) to be present in the The Left Hand of Darkness (Powell's Books).  Regardless, I hung on to my copy of The Left Hand of Darkness for years, and now thanks to a class I had encouragement to read it again.  I'm glad I did.

One thing that I hadn't quite realized was exactly how accomplished she was.  She is responsible for the first use of the term "ansible" as a device for FTL communication, which is now widely used in Science Fiction and as a theoretical device in real life.  The Left Hand of Darkness was the second book ever to win both a Hugo and a Nebula (first was Dune), and it was not her last book to win both awards.  Take a look at her honors and awards.  She also gives a great interview on Wired about her writing, interactions with other authors, publishers, pressure to write books more like Harry Potter, and more.

As for this week's essay, it was hard to settle on a topic.  With such a rich book how do you choose one topic and write just 300 words on it?  Dozens of tiny paper scraps mark pages with significant passages on different concepts and topics.  So ultimately I went with a quote to ground the essay, as a compromise for the varied and shifting concepts floating around in my head.

Some notes on content and form:
The opening quote is the central idea of my essay, I use it to highlight the otherness that we experience in our daily lives contrasted to the society in the book.  Does this mean I never clearly develop a thesis?  So be it.  I also maintain that my commentary linking this book to the real world is not "irrelevant" but each to their own.  Also, "paradigm" is a bizarre looking word.

Without any further meandering, here's what I submitted for my mini-essay.
"In a sense, women are more alien to me than you are."

The Left Hand of Darkness explores otherness, how it shapes cultures and interactions.  On Gethen,  Genly Ai is both familiar and other, as the Gethenians are both familiar and other to us.  Most of us go through life with an explicit and innate sense of gender and sexuality, something we may not even have to think about, it just is. These are so much a part of us that young children are often aware of when their gender does not match their biology, that teens and adults risk banishment from their families and communities (or worse) for what is a part of them.  The otherness that we experience based on innate attributes has caused violence, mistrust, and misunderstandings.

The Gethenians never experience this.  The do not experience the otherness of race or gender or even sexuality. They have minimal variations of skin tone.  Residents are not heterosexual or homosexual, rather sexual or asexual, lacking the fear of intimate otherness.  Every Gethenian is connected by experiences.  They still have conflict, have lines drawn, but by geographic boundaries and political ideologies, the enemy more familiar than foreign.

Genly is other, and he is feared for it by those with power.  He represents a shift in both power and cultural paradigm.  As Estraven asks, what sane man thinks of flying?  We live with otherness around us regularly, and war over it within our cultures and across our cultures.  Genly is one man alone, but his presence represents over 80 worlds of other existence that is outside their entire frame of reference. 

FORM (2)
peer 1 → I find the form of your essay a little confusing. Like disjointed sentences thrown one after the other. Nevertheless, you manage to make your point. Sort of. Have a 2, I am in a generous mood.
peer 2 → Your essay is clean, clear and well written. There is a typo “paradgim” should be “Paradigm.”
peer 3 → Essay structure rather weak. No topic declared.
peer 4 → The essay discusses otherness as a factor in this novel. The sentence structure is appropriate for the purpose of this essay. Words are well used within the structure and the grammar is good. The author states their argument of "otherness" clearly and directly. It is substantiated by details from the book.
peer 1 → You have an idea. An interesting idea. But you don't develop it fully, you get lost (as the other students I reviewed did) in the surface aspects of the novel and don't get as deep as your thesis (and the novel) would lead you. Maybe I feel this because I know a little more about anthropology than the common person and so I read this book a little more deeper than the common person. I don´t know. But what is sure is that your thesis deserved a little bit more depth than it actually had. But, don't worry, you have a 2 anyway. I am in a good mood, I told you ;-)
peer 2 → Your argument and thesis are clear and to the point. You bring out an important point and so fulfill the assignment very well. Thank you
peer 3 → The commentary about situation in real world seems irrelevant. The author seems to have an idea to discuss but it was never declared nor provided as such. This is the biggest problem of this essay.
peer 4 → I believe this author has good insight into the concept of this novel. They state the idea of "otherness" as being the behind the scenes issue covered in "The Left Hand of Darkness". The student author did a good job of bringing out that issue in their essay. There were many references to the issues that were mentioned in the book.

peer 3 → State what is your topic. Why it's special? Write in one topic sentence: What is your opinion on the matter.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

[Book Review] Diamonds and Toads : a modern fairy tale

Diamonds and Toads : a modern fairy tale / K. E. Saxon (author website, Powell's Books)
Together, sweet Delilah and wicked Isadora make the perfect woman. But the Perrault family fairy is a troublemaker and imbues diamonds upon one sister and toads upon the other. Now up is down and down is up in a world where no good deed goes unpunished. Leather, blindfolds, and handcuffs purge sweet of all reserve. A few misspoken words of lust gives wicked a whole new meaning.

Once upon a time, there were two sisters, one cursed and one blessed by fairy magic...

Bibbidee-bobbidi-boo, They're naughty. How about you?
This week I decided that my reading pile wasn't big enough (yes, I am an idiot) and went looking on NetGalley for titles to review.  Diamonds and Toads is one of the five I acquired because it sounded cute and I'm a sucker for fairy tale adaptations.

I guess 'cute' could still apply to the story.  I do think the description is misleading, as while diamonds do occasional (twice) come out of Delilah's mouth, Isadora's curse has nothing to do with toads.  And since this is a novel with some kink can I safe word out of excessive run on sentences?  The punctuation may have improved by the end of the novel, or I may have just stopped noticing as my mind automatically divided the run on sentences into shorter sentences.

Of the two stories, Delilah's had more depth and characterization, but in both stories only the main characters have anything resembling character depth.  The sex is an odd mix of clinical descriptions (such as 'clenching vaginal walls') and fantastical over the top sex.  I suppose it is refereshing to read sex scenes not filled with descriptions of "throbbing manroots" or sensations "down there," but I guess I wanted more of a happy medium.  I do give kudos to the author for actually including discussion of a safe-word, even if I'm wondering if Delilah actually bothered to call in that she wasn't going to show for her sessions (and if not, why was she given a second one?).

Thursday, August 8, 2013

[Book Review] Ender's Game

Ender's Game / Orson Scott Card (Powell's Books)

In order to develop a secure defense against a hostile alien race's next attack, government agencies breed child geniuses and train them as soldiers. A brilliant young boy, Andrew "Ender" Wiggin lives with his kind but distant parents, his sadistic brother Peter, and the person he loves more than anyone else, his sister Valentine. Peter and Valentine were candidates for the soldier-training program but didn't make the cut—young Ender is the Wiggin drafted to the orbiting Battle School for rigorous military training.

Ender's skills make him a leader in school and respected in the Battle Room, where children play at mock battles in zero gravity. Yet growing up in an artificial community of young soldiers Ender suffers greatly from isolation, rivalry from his peers, pressure from the adult teachers, and an unsettling fear of the alien invaders. His psychological battles include loneliness, fear that he is becoming like the cruel brother he remembers, and fanning the flames of devotion to his beloved sister.

Is Ender the general Earth needs? But Ender is not the only result of the genetic experiments. The war with the Buggers has been raging for a hundred years, and the quest for the perfect general has been underway for almost as long. Ender's two older siblings are every bit as unusual as he is, but in very different ways. Between the three of them lie the abilities to remake a world. If, that is, the world survives.

When I first read Ender's Game in my early teens I enjoyed the book, but it was not the earth-shattering read for me that it seems to often be for others.  Some of the finer points of Ender's Game may have also been lost on me, or maybe some of the full ramifications did not really hit me until I was an adult.  Reviewing Ender's World earlier this year rekindled my interest in reading Ender's Game, so I finally got around to doing just that.

These days Ender's Game is a difficult book for me on several levels.  I think it is a brilliant and beautifully written book.  It is a book about leadership, diversity and acceptance, politics, friendship, growing up, or any of a dozen things depending on who you are and where in life you are when you read it.  But I cannot completely separate the book from the author's beliefs and politics, and it is also about the deliberate systematic abuse of a child to save the human race from a perceived threat.

Card's politics baffle me.  I have trouble reconciling such vehement intolerance with the author of a book like Ender's Game, which has incredible depths of tenderness and love in it.  What further confuses me about the whole topic is encountering words of praise by Card on books like Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner, where the central love story is between two men.  Maybe his stances have grown more harsh over the years?

On its own, Ender's Game stands strong.  Card has created characters who are frighteningly intelligent and vulnerable.  The Wiggen children stand out in their self-awareness for ones so young, lending them a maturity far beyond their years, yet their interactions have little reminders of their youth.  The story itself has so many levels of meaning that different readers can relate to.

This next bit is a bit weird for me.  I find Ender and Valentine's relationship disconcerting.  Their love and affection comes across as romantic when it is meant to be familial.  I do not have any close siblings, and by close I don't mean to say I care nothing for my step and half siblings, but whatever connection I have with them in general seems more removed than siblings who grew up together.  I also have trouble closely connecting with people.  However Ender and Valentine have this intensely strong and complicated set of emotions towards each other that to me reads as romantic.  I cannot tell if I simply cannot understand the deep connection between siblings or if the soul-mate bond between Ender and Valentine is beyond normal.

I think that Ender's Game is a good book to have read at least once.  If you do not wish to contribute to the wealth of an author who's politics offend you it should not be difficult to find a copy to borrow or a battered paperback in a used book store.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Martian Chronicles, a distopian dream

Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles is a wonderful collection of vignettes.  I also for the life of me could not focus the way I wanted to and produce an essay that I am happy with.  That lack of focus and the strict word limit also meant that when I did write an essay I was unable to address everything I wished to include - and that lack was noticed by Peer #4.  Peer #1 seems very put out that I did not specifically put The Martian Chronicles in the 'works cited' field, even though we were explicitly told that step was unnecessary for the week's assigned reading.  I usually do include it regardless, but for some reason I did not this time.
Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles is a daydream of humanity's self-destruction regardless of where we call home.

The Mars that Bradbury describes is a fantasy land, a utopia of its own before we arrive.  The Martians are civilized, with unique technology, and an innocent incompatibility with the persistent, single-minded Earthlings.  The Earthlings start first as dreams, then perceived as projected hallucinations, until they literally fade away into phantoms.  Even after the Martians have faded away they continue to exist in a world outside that of the immigrants from Earth, trying to integrate unnoticed and seamlessly into the lives of the planet's new residents.  The Martians even try to fill the voids in settler's lives left by missing loved ones, and bequeath the planet to settlers when they comprehend the death of Earth itself.

The Earthlings flee to Mars seeking salvation, but ultimately bring with them all the problems they sought to escape from.  The first astronauts to land think only of their own achievement, of kissing the Martian maidens or of celebratory parades.  Later, after human disease has decimated the Martians allowed humans to land without meeting any natives, they quickly proceed to sully the new land, celebrating as they spread their waste.

As they settle the planet, the Martian cities stand, out of bounds and profane.  Children are forbidden to visit them, and adults strive to fill the planet's empty space with highways and cities.  The Earthlings fight against the existence of the Martians, relegating their existance to boogey men and inferior conquered people just as men have done on their homeworld.  A native bringing news of gift is treated as hostile and killed in self-righteous "self-defense."  Men may have left Mars when Earth called them home to help in the war, but they brought all the seeds that grew into the death of their homeworld with them when they traveled to Mars.
FORM (2)
peer 1 → There are a number of grammatical mistakes but the real problem here is the form of the essay. The first paragraph is too short, and the rest are a bit long. You might have divided them differently. Also, no cited work?! That is never a good decision - I'm not sure if you did it on purpose or if you just forgot.
peer 2 → Need a citation. Small stuff missing on a very excellent effort.
peer 3 → I like the way you write, really good structure!
peer 4 → Great language use- your essay is articulate and flows well! The only sentence I found a bit confusing is the one that begins 'the earthling start first as dreams...' - not sure what the sentence refers to...? Still, grading you a 3 on form!
peer 5 → Well structured. Good use of paragraphs.
peer 1 → There is some retelling here and no quotes whatsoever. The thesis is not clear and, overall, it is not a bad essay but it's not great either. Some sentences were too short, some too long, and some hard to understand.
peer 2 → Well written. Dark view but I like it.
peer 3 → Really liked the argument, well discussed points!
peer 4 → Extremely interesting essay. I enjoyed how you interpreted the Martians' later acts as benevolence, I perceived them differently during my reading! The only small point of improvement: perhaps you could have included the early exceptions to Martian kindness- wiping out of expeditions 1, 2 and 3, in which the human explorers were killed. Perhaps you read those differently as well, I would have liked to see how those were reconciled to Martian innocence...
peer 5 → Very well written. Good insight.
peer 1 → You must cite the work, and what's even more important, use quotes in the essay! They give valid support to your point of view and often result in higher mark.
peer 4 → Great job, overall!

Friday, August 2, 2013

Link Smorgasbord, July 29 - August 4

Got a bunch of these this week.

xkcd - Time
Randall Munroe is a mad genius.  If you do not already read xkcd you should, it is a brilliant comic.  Then on March 25, 2013 he posted this one, "Time."  3000+ images loaded over a four month period.  You can now watch the whole series at an accelerated or controlled rate here and read discussions about the whole comic at the explain xkcd wiki.  As an extra bonus, Randall Munroe talked to Wired about his comic.

Why Core Gamers Hate Free-to-Play

Obama Gives Jobs Speech at Amazon Warehouse
TL;DR - Obama praises Amazon's "economy boosting" efforts, in this case largely creating thousands of part time and seasonal jobs.  As Amazon is in essence the WalMart of the book world this has greatly upset many industry organizations and business owners.

NPR's Top 100 Science-Fiction & Fantasy Books
I scored a 55, most of the books I haven't read were already on my "to read" list.

Image, Public Perception, and Lego Librarians
Brilliant and hilarious.  Also, I need that minifig (yes, I know I lack glasses or even a remote interest in drinking coffee, I'm still amused).

"Heald has now finalized his research and the picture, though more detailed, is largely the same: "Copyright correlates significantly with the disappearance of works rather than with their availability," Heald writes. "Shortly after works are created and proprietized, they tend to disappear from public view only to reappear in significantly increased numbers when they fall into the public domain and lose their owners.""
Recovering the Classics
A creative collaborative effort creating gorgeous covers for public domain titles.

iPhone Hacked in Under 60 Seconds Using Malicious Charger 
It's 2am, do you know who's charger your phone is plugged into?

This is an argument of freedom of speech vs publicity.  The decision distinctly strikes against freedom of speech but I could see it be used as a basis for stronger privacy protection later on.  This suit however was not about privacy, but about publicity and depictions of public figures.  More discussion on the implications can be found here as well.

Ten Books for the Geek in All of Us
Some really good books on this list.

Your app makes me fat
A very interesting read.  Also caused one of those "oh yeah" moments of reflection concerning my emotional and mental state when coming home from a particularly... demanding day at work.

Update: Now We Know Why Googling 'Pressure Cookers' Gets a Visit from Cops
And what happens if someone is completely innocent and doesn't consent to the casual search of the premise?  Ironically I'm re-reading Corey Doctorow's Little Brother for a class right now too...

The article title lies, there are significantly more than ten books.  Some of them are fantastic in their awfulness.

FBI pressures Internet providers to install surveillance software
The upside is that, as of right now, ISPs seem to be reluctant to go along.  The downside is that there's a number of other things ISPs resisted at first then gave into that were anti-consumer.

Battle of the media ecosystems: Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft
Interesting read.  TL;DR - all have their ups and downs, but they all sort even out across the different categories.

Nothing to Prove - Geek Girls & The Doubleclicks
I've largely been lucky as a female gamer in my encounters, but this video still made me incredibly happy.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

On book covers, marketing, and gender

For once I was able to get a bunch of book ordering done the other night.  Collection development is one of my responsibilities, though a responsibility that is shared and that I have limited time for.  In the process of this tonight several books stood out for various reasons (not all good).

So for starters, I came across this gem:

First off, I'd like to say that I'm sourcing that book cover off of The Discovery Channel store.  Yes, I know that The Learning Channel, History, and all of those often aren't these days.  I might also have issues with child beauty pageants, as well as what seems to be a celebration of anti-intellectualism and just general bratty behavior that I've been seeing on television (and other places).  As for "So tap into the beautimous from within and celebrate life with some vijiggle and vijaggle!" those words are a bit too close to "vajazzle" for me to feel comfortable when talking about children.


Ok, moving on.

Book covers (like books themselves) can be amazing, horrible, or anything in between, and tonight they ran the gambit.  Probably one of the best things that 50 Shades of Grey has done for the book industry is to encourage a different style of book cover.  I have been known to grumpily list issues with the poses on romance covers (that satin nightie is definitely not period for 1600's Scotland, why does the cover art end right above his nostrils, is she humping his shoulder?).  The exploitation isn't limited to just women in romance covers, but they do tend to be put in the more anatomically puzzling poses (where as men are generally in a limited range of simple poses, universally lacking of any hair below the neck, and oiled to a glistening luster).

I've gone some into the ridiculousness that is romance covers before here.

Sometimes however there covers that pull on sex appeal but are very clever, such as Sex and the Citadel:

Tonight I found perhaps one of my favorite clever sex associated covers when I found Vagina : a Literary and Cultural History.  This is also on my to-read list:

So, one book that makes me want to cry, and one that I think is pretty awesome.  Win some, lose some, right?

What about when a book is supposedly actually fantastically written, and a great teaching aid, but it and the others in its series look like they're at least soft-core?

I've heard from some of my friends who are teachers that these books are actually very well written and easy to follow.  That this series has great math books that work... but that the covers often cause them to be dismissed by educators.  I'm going to be honest, it's not just the educators that look at the cover and don't take this seriously as a educational resource, I showed it to a number of male friends all of whom got the impression that this was anything but an educational (at least, educational relating to math) book.

It's the whole image, not any one part.  She is a lovely young woman, and is not showing much skin at all, but the accents on the cover stress her breasts and hips, and the title and tag line sound like something with at least a NR movie rating, and the rest of the series isn't much better.  And lets be honest, what would your reaction be if you saw a man posed like that on a cover of a math book?  Likely amusement, or even more certain that it was sexual in nature.  Female sex appeal is being used to sell math to girls, and that doesn't sit right with me.

The summary from Amazon it did not do much help my impressions of this book.  It felt too patronizing:
New York Times bestselling author and mathemetician Danica McKellar tackles all the angles—and curves—of geometry

In her three previous bestselling books Math Doesn't Suck, Kiss My Math, and Hot X: Algebra Exposed!, actress and math genius Danica McKellar shattered the “math nerd” stereotype by showing girls how to ace their math classes and feel cool while doing it.

Sizzling with Danica's trademark sass and style, her fourth book, Girls Get Curves, shows her readers how to feel confident, get in the driver's seat, and master the core concepts of high school geometry, including congruent triangles, quadrilaterals, circles, proofs, theorems, and more!

Combining reader favorites like personality quizzes, fun doodles, real-life testimonials from successful women, and stories about her own experiences with illuminating step-by-step math lessons, Girls Get Curves will make girls feel like Danica is their own personal tutor.

As hundreds of thousands of girls already know, Danica's irreverent, lighthearted approach opens the door to math success and higher scores, while also boosting their self-esteem in all areas of life. Girls Get Curves makes geometry understandable, relevant, and maybe even a little (gasp!) fun for girls.
Barnes & Noble at least treats the book as an actual educational text and girls as people rather than as budding sexual beings who need geometry to snag a husband.
Three-time New York Times bestselling author Danica McKellar now makes it a breeze to excel in… Geometry!
Hollywood actress and math whiz Danica McKellar has completely shattered the “math nerd” stereotype. For years, she’s been showing girls how to feel confident and ace their math classes – with style! With Girls Get Curves, she applies her winning techniques to geometry, giving readers the tools they need to feel great and totally “get” everything from congruent triangles to theorems, and more. Inside you’ll find:
·        Time-saving tips and tricks for homework and tests
·        Illuminating practice problems (and proofs!) with detailed solutions
·        Totally relatable real-world examples
·        True stories from Danica’s own life as an actress and math student
·        A Troubleshooting Guide, for getting unstuck during even the trickiest proofs!

With Danica as a coach, girls everywhere can stop hiding from their homework and watch their scores rise!
And here's the thing.  I bet that had the cover not made me think I was looking at a particularly steamy romance novel, I probably would have no issue with Amazon's teaser text.  But we use sexy women to sell things to girls and women of all ages and to boys and men of all ages, and often men and some women respond to gender flipping (putting men in the same poses/depictions as women) as "gross" and it most people think that is reasonable.  There is no reason that it should be "gross" for one gender to be in a pose and not the other, regardless of your sexual orientation or gender.  Straight women have been reading Cosmo for years, and that is filled with nearly naked women.

Go take a look at the Hawkeye Initiative, or watch both the original and gender swapped versions of Blurred Lines (I also recommend reading "Why the Gender-Swapped "Blurred Lines" Parody Gets it Wrong".  Do they make you uncomfortable?  What about it causes a reaction, why does it upset you?  Does the gender of the person posing effect your response and acceptance of the image as "normal" or "wrong"?

EDIT: There's also an interview with Danica McKellar on selling math as sexy that's worth taking a look at.  Danica McKellar: Are her math books bad for girls?