Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Romance Novels & Tall Tales

So, there are many troupes that pop up in romance novels that I'm not a big fan of (though sometimes I find them amusing), but one that is standing out to me more of late is in an aspect of the physical descriptions of the male lead.

Often (but admittedly not always) we have a female lead who is of average height who doesn't see herself as a great beauty who finds some manly stud who finds her irresistibly sexy and after lots of lusting they eventually end up together.  Mr. McStudly, more often than not, is tall.  And not just tall as in "taller than the average woman," but tall enough that they tower over normal men.  I recently read a historical fantasy romance where the male lead was "six and a half feet tall, maybe more."

Now, all things being proportional, how tall you are doesn't make a face more beautiful or what not, but height often is equated with manliness.  I've been a bit of a tomboy most of my life, and as I have always been on the short to average side of height for women, which means I've accumulated a number of friends (and some ex-boyfriends) who are taller than me.  Quite a bit taller than me.  So I have some insight on some of the less sexy things about a foot or greater height difference between you and your partner (or object of possibly unrequited lust since we're talking romance novels).

I'm going to jump in assuming the "he towers over you" is established and let people figure out if this is a good or bad thing.

First off, if you're 5'4" someone close to 6' or over can do obnoxious things like use your shoulder (or top of your head...) as an arm rest.  Yes, I speak from extensive personal experience on this one.

We tend to look at things within a general "eye-level" range.  Some of my tall friends essentially have "blind spots" that I can hide in because they look over my head.  With gents who are 6'4" or taller, looking straight ahead short folks will be well acquainted with his nipples (they're staring you in the face), pretty much anything you wear that isn't a turtle neck offers a view right down your shirt thanks to geometry, and their elbows are at breast height.  Why do I make note of this last one?  Because most people don't hold their arms in tight to their body when casually turning around.  Ow.

Several of my ex's have a foot or more in height on me.  I came up to their shoulder, at most.  You don't get to put your chin over their shoulder when embracing, or nuzzle your face in their neck.  It's pretty much a decision between embedding your nose in their sternum, or choosing which armpit to have in your face.  However, since romance novels love to have men "crush" women to their chests, that is at least a relatively accurate description of what the delicate ladies are experiencing.

In the absence of anything like a convenient stair or step stool, kissing while standing required me to stand on my tip toes and for him to hunch over awkwardly to make the rest of the distance.  So, any lady in a romance novel isn't going to be able to quickly sneak a kiss on her towering studmuffin if he's that tall because she won't be able to reach.

There are some advantages to a tall partner, they can reach all the stuff you have to climb on a ladder for.  When you sit on their lap you are probably now the same height.  But the world isn't really constructed around folks of significant height.  Doorways and ceiling fans may or may not accommodate a 6'6" + frame.  Cars almost never do comfortably.  And I haven't even gotten into some of the geometry issues of interaction between significant height differences (even holding hands gets awkward).

I guess the trend just gets a bit much for me, but maybe I've spent more time around unusually talk folks?

Friday, September 26, 2014

Boldly exploring...

Today's awesome find:

We have the earlier edition as well, but I figured I might as well go with the 2007 updated version.

[Book Review] Scandalous Summer Nights

Scandalous Summer Nights / Anne Barton (Powell's Books)

Lady Olivia Sherbourne knows her mind, and is known for it, on top of being stubborn, direct, and the sister of the protective and sometimes intimidating Lord Sherbourne.  James Averill works as a solicitor and is childhood friend of Lord Sherbourne, putting Olivia out of bounds.  Oliva doesn't much care for James' concept of "out of bounds," and when she learns that he is bound for a two-year expedition in Egypt, she decides to throw away lady-like convention and not only make her intentions known but follows him to the countryside.

Scandalous Summer Nights is an apt description, in the setting Olivia and James do behave in a shamelessly scandalous manner.  I have to hand it to Olivia, for a relatively innocent maid, she's got chutzpah.  James may try to stand on propriety, but she identified his returned interest and played dirty.  Too bad for overprotective brothers barging in, assuming the worst, and through sheer stubbornness to do the right thing nearly destroy a relationship.

There's a tiny hint of magic in this book.  Not strong enough to say for sure that it's included, but just enough to make you wonder.  The story is rather sweet, for all that it revolves around some incredibly stubborn people.  There is no dastardly villain or reputation ruining skeletons in the closet.  Just two adults with some strong mutual attraction getting up to what adults get up to when left to their own devices.  There is character growth and noble (if a little far-fetched) efforts to do the right thing.

Overall Scandalous Summer Nights makes for a fun, fanciful, romance read.

Advanced Reader Copy copy courtesy of Netgalley; differences may exist between uncorrected galley text and the final edition.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

[Book Review] Hotter than Helltown

Hotter than Helltown / S. M. Reine

A killer is mutilating bodies in Los Angeles. Agent Cèsar Hawke is on the case, but the murderer is ahead of him – way ahead of him.

Wiping the memories of the dead so that the team’s resident necrocognitive can’t talk to them? Done. Preventing magical reconstruction of crime scenes? Oh yeah. And the murders keep getting worse while Cèsar struggles to catch up.

The best way to heat up a cold case is to go to Helltown, where LA’s most powerful evil hides out, but even those demons are afraid of the murderer. Their fear adds one more question to the growing pile of unknowns:

What kind of bad guy is too hot for Helltown?
Hotter than Helltown is the 3rd book in the Preternatural Affairs series by S. M. Reine.  I read the first book, Witch Hunt, back in January, and apparently need to dig up the middle book.

Cèsar seems like a nice guy, dedicated and stubborn to be sure, but definitely seems like he'd be happier with a laid back life with a family of his own instead of one where he has to hunt down a serial killer who mutilates bodies while the victims still live.  He's a sucker for jelly donuts, imitates a deer in the headlights when women flirt with him, and has let himself believe what other people think of his skills without trying to overcome those perceived limitations.

But happy mediocrity isn't always enough.  The Office of Preternatural Affairs doesn't deal with the mundane.  Cèsar needs to overcome himself to keep his job, his memories, and quite likely, his life.  After all, what's so bad that the demons are scared?

The pacing and narrative in Hotter than Helltown is much tighter than in Witch Hunt.  I tore through this book and really want to read what comes next.  The content has stayed around PG-13 so far, but keeps reads as if building up to something really steamy between Cèsar and a certain lady.  The storyline of Hotter than Helltown is tied up nicely at the end, with good groundwork for the series to continue or to allow the book to stand on its own.  You don't actually need to read the previous novels to step into the story, but I'd say reading them all is worth the time.
Advanced Reader Copy copy courtesy of Netgalley; differences may exist between uncorrected galley text and the final edition.

Will the singularity happen?

In the Programming for Everyone (Python) class I took over the summer we had a few short written assignments.  I posted my first response during the summer, and then forgot that this post was wallowing as a draft.  Whoops.  I had fun with these open ended questions, and in both cases received good feedback from my classmates who peer-reviewed my submission.

You are now nearly through a first programming class (congratulations). There are many people that feel that at some point in the future, computer intelligence will surpass human intelligence. The word for this moment is called the "singularity". There are endless movies and books about the time where technology will become the master of the human race. What do you think about the singularity? Is it coming soon? What will life be like after the singularity? Will the singularity never happen? Is there a point in time where the impact of technology on our lives will be reduced as shown in alternate future scenarios like "steam punk"? You can pick any position you like but make sure to write in a way to make your point and support your arguments.

I cannot say with a certainty that I believe that a singularity will or will not happen.  In creating artificial intelligence, we are somewhat limited by our own intelligence.  The singularity that seems more plausible to me is when technology and integration moves from the silicone and digital to biology and life.  When the singularity is part of us and the disruptive technology involves the artificial evolution from human into trans- or post-human.

Part of what technology allows is for us to transcend the physical and mental boundaries of our bodies.  While it is not common practice to voluntarily undergo surgery to implant robotics or circuitry, if one looks into the world of assistive technology and innovation one can discover things seeming right out of science fiction.  We are using robotics to give eyesight to the blind, implanting electrodes in the brain of a paralyzed woman allowing her to control a robotic arm with her mind, and more.  In the consumer sector we see things like real-time translations in voice chat, parking assist and collision detection in our vehicles, and Google glass.

As computing devices become quicker, more intuitive in standard interaction, and more portable, we integrate them more and more.  What happens when the bio-mechanical body parts can out perform what we are born with?  What happens if we develop the technology where we can literally save our memories directly to a personal "data cloud"?  How could the ability to turn our bodies into bio-mechanical computers change the bounds of innovation?  Will we be able to learn how to upload consciousness to a digital format, and how will that effect our concepts of life, death, mortality, and even religion?

According to Ramez Naam, author of More than Human : Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement, “scientists cannot draw a clear line between healing and enhancing," and raises the question of where the line even is between healing and enhancing.  Should bio-mechanical devices progress to the point where they far surpass nature, I would not be surprised to see people electing for upgrades similar to how today one might visit a doctor for body sculpting plastic surgery.  I feel that the potential singularity that we could face lies in humans becoming something else, where human intelligence becomes intertwined with computer intelligence, rather than the singularity of computer intelligence alone.


Friday, September 19, 2014

[Book Review] Circus of the Damned

Circus of the Damned / Cornelia Grey (Powell's Books)

Magician Gilbert Blake has spent his entire life conning drunkards in the seediest pubs in the darkest towns, careful to hide the true depths of his power. But when he spends a little too much time in Shadowsea and the infamous slumlord Count Reuben gets wind of his abilities, hiding within the Circus of the Damned may be Gilbert’s only chance at survival.

But there’s more to the Circus than meets the eye. Every time a performer dies, a new one must take his place, or the entire circus suffers the consequences. And while the handsome ringmaster Jesse isn’t one to coerce unwilling performers into giving up their souls to the devil, a recent death in their ranks makes Gilbert exactly what they need.

Yet the longer Gilbert stays with the Circus, the more danger he seems to bring them. Being with Jesse is more than Gilbert could have hoped for, but as Count Reuben’s men continue to search for Gilbert and the Circus loses another performer, they all face running out of time long before the Devil claims his due.
I'd say Circus of the Damned comes out as a sweet and steamy, if somewhat improbable (beyond the bounds of a fantasy) novel.

Jesse belongs to the circus, bound by a pact with a devil.  As long as he and the circus abide by the pact Jesse lives on without aging, but as soon as the covenant is broken his soul and that of every performer ever part of his circus go straight to hell.  Gilbert signs his soul away to the circus as an escape from capture, not realizing that what he agreed to was no jest.  Thrown together they face an undeniable attraction, the power machinations of Count Reuben, and a fight for their souls.

Warning: Spoilers Ahead

It turns out that Jesse has been ringmaster of the circus for over 200 years.  The terms of the deal are as long as he keeps the circus going (with a full compliment of performers) he lives to seek his fame and fortune.  Once signed to the circus, no one leaves, ever.  Their soul stays attached to the circus (with plenty of company after so many years), but if the contract is every broken everyone goes to hell.  Not only that, but whenever someone dies Jesse basically experiences their death.  200 years seems like a long time to have kept the circus going in light of the fact that it's basically a hell soul farm.  Though I guess no one wants to go to hell while they have a chance of staying out just a little bit longer.

One thing that the author does well is create rich setting description.  She weaves together imagery pulling on the array of senses when creating the environment that the action takes place in.

The setting is not true historical, but more a fantasy vaguely historical setting that allows this story to exist.  The book is within the same world as Devil at the Crossroads, just not set in modern times.  I expect that the author will be writing more romance novels revolving around performers making deals with this particular devil.

Advanced Reader Copy copy courtesy of Netgalley; differences may exist between uncorrected galley text and the final edition.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

[Book Review] The Golem and the Jinni

The Golem and the Jinni / Helene Wecker

In overstated simplification, The Golem and the Jinni is a story about two improbable beings discovering themselves, and each other, in a time and a place where neither belong.  The setting is the New York of 1899, with flashes of the past lives that set the stage on which our actors perform, yet the novel has a feel of happening once upon a time.  As the golem named Chava and the jinni named Ahmed learn what it means to live as a human in a city they explore existential questions of human behavior and belief that are so alien to these creatures of myth.

The Golem and the Jinni was the August pick for Virtual Speculation.  I had previously read this book and failed to review it simply because it was one of those books that I loved yet had difficult describing or quantifying.  The story has a dreamlike quality that I feared ruining through poor description.

Discussion Fodder:
  • What do you think of Rottfield's requests for his golem's personality?
  • Could The Golem and the Jinni be considered a sort of "Adam & Eve" story?  About creation, innocence, curiosity, and downfall?
  • What do you think about the golem's willingness to accept another's decision to destroy her, or even to destroy herself?  Can she be considered suicidal?  Fatalistic?  Pragmatic?
  • Do you agree with "A man might desire something for a moment, while a larger part of him rejects it.  You'll need to learn to judge people by their actions, not their thoughts"?  What about the intent behind an action?
  • The jinni finds assuming a name to be upsetting; "To him the new name suggested that the change's he'd undergone were so drastic, so pervasive, that he was no longer the same being at all."  Do you think the assumption of a name and the attempt to appear human change him?
  • Does Chava have a "soul" (and does it matter)?  Beyond the physical, what sets her apart from humanity?  Is she "a person made of clay" or a "beast of burden"?
  • As a golem, Chava needs to be bound to someone, is this a terrible thing?
  • Is relying on someone a weakness, as Ahmed thinks, or is it the way things for everyone, as Chava believes?
  • "So, it's just stories now.  And perhaps the humans did create their God.  But does that make him less real?  Take this arch.  They created it.  Now it exists."  What makes something real, when does something become "just a story," and no longer real?
  • Did the jinni child die because Sophie wished it, or because a human/jinni child couldn't survive within a human?
  • What do you think about Chava's relationship with Michael.  Is it wrong that she responds to his sexual desire out of her need to answer the desires of those around her?  What about her suppression of exploration of her own sexuality due to Michael's discomfort?
  • Chava suffers from dissatisfaction, restlessness, a desire to be more.  Do you see any of the 'feminine mystique' in her difficulties?

Sunday, September 14, 2014

[Book Review] The Witch

The witch : and other tales re-told / Jean Thompson

We all know at least one of the classic fairy tales.  Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel & Gretel, and others, both just as well known and less well known, such as the tale of Bluebeard.  Stories that all take place once upon a time, in a faraway land.  "In a time when wishes came true" as I believe the stories were originally published as starting.

What if these stories took place today, in a time considered without magic, and when wishes do little to impact our lives.  That is what we find within The witch : and other tales retold.  Thompson has masterfully recreated familiar fables into dark tales of the modern world.  I highly recommend her re-imaginings.

Advanced Reader Copy copy courtesy through Penguin First to Read; differences may exist between uncorrected galley text and the final edition.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

[Book Review] First Annual BDSM Writers Con Anthology

First Annual BDSM Writers Con Anthology / Lori Perkins (ed)

This was an interesting book to read. The stories explore a variety of flavors of sexual encounters and life styles, varying in style from realistic, paranormal, to fantasy. Additionally, there is a non-fiction essay exploring and defining areas of BDSM sexuality. Some of the stories seem designed to showcase aspects of differing sexuality as realized by eager, consenting adults. Other stories are clearly erotic fantasy. One of the stories I could barely read and I still feel unsettled by, I can't see how the scene within involved any sort of consent but instead seemed overwhelmingly the story of a woman fighting (and failing) to get away from a man beating her in anger.

If your interests to not run towards BDSM, I would tread carefully with the book. I can see some of the stories acting as triggers for some. The non-fiction essay will likely read as familiar subject matter to people in the scene, but would likely be a good write up for those curious (be it academic or active interest). The stories are well written and edited, with some good plot twists worked in. The tones range from playful to intense, and if you read the book it is worth it to finish a short story before you decide if you like it or not, the end may change your mind.

Advanced Reader Copy copy courtesy of NetGalley; differences may exist between uncorrected galley text and the final edition.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

[Book Review] Stone Mattress

Stone Mattress / Margaret Atwood (Powell's Books)

Margaret Atwood turns to short fiction for the first time since her 2006 collection, Moral Disorder, with nine tales of acute psychological insight and turbulent relationships bringing to mind her award-winning 1996 novel, Alias Grace. A recently widowed fantasy writer is guided through a stormy winter evening by the voice of her late husband in "Alphinland," the first of three loosely linked stories about the romantic geometries of a group of writers and artists. In "The Freeze-Dried Bridegroom," a man who bids on an auctioned storage space has a surprise. In "Lusus Naturae," a woman born with a genetic abnormality is mistaken for a vampire. In "Torching the Dusties," an elderly lady with Charles Bonnet syndrome comes to terms with the little people she keeps seeing, while a newly formed populist group gathers to burn down her retirement residence. And in "Stone Mattress," a long-ago crime is avenged in the Arctic via a 1.9 billion-year-old stromatolite. In these nine tales, Margaret Atwood is at the top of her darkly humorous and seriously playful game. 

Stone Mattress was a delight to read.  I always find that Atwoods fiction shows the world in a light that is unlike any other.  The stories draw us in, told by narrators of questionable authority and reliability, bringing us into possible past, current, and future lives.  Reading the stories I am left with the uncertainty of what is meant to be real or fantastic.  Is there magic or is it all a hallucination?  Masterfully told stories.  I highly recommend this collection of short stories.

Advanced Reader Copy copy courtesy of NetGalley; differences may exist between uncorrected galley text and the final edition.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Link Smorgasbord, August 2014

Science Fiction and Fantasy 101: Thinking Academically About Genre
A great discussion on thinking about Science Fiction & Fantasy seriously, and on the outstanding texts that have been published since the days of Asimov and Heinlein.  I'm very passionate about Speculative Fiction as a genre and depth at which issues and topics are explored.  That's part of the reason I started the Virtual Speculation book club, as an effort to share and hash over some incredible books.  I actually would love to pull things together enough to teach a Speculative Fiction MOOC, but there's a lot of prep work I'd have to do for something like that first.

LOC recommends formats for preservation of software, data sets
Preservation of software and data has a lot of challenges, so always interesting to see what's being discussed and recommended.

Why the Public Library Beats Amazon—for Now
TL;DR - libraries are far more than buildings full of books.

About that simian selfie
An interesting copyright fight.

Libraries are Giving Away the User-Privacy Store
About challenges in privacy, and ways that we give it up.

What Happens to #Ferguson Affects Ferguson: Net Neutrality, Algorithmic Filtering and Ferguson
Interesting read.

How One Publisher Ditched Amazon and Succeeded
On a publisher going away from Amazon entirely.

Feds warn first responders of dangerous hacking tool: Google Search
There's a lot of stupid and overreacting going on in defining people who know how to actually do quality searching as malicious... I mean, it's pretty much part of every librarian's job ever (or at the very least, the job of all the Reference types).  In essence the idea is that you need to actually be careful what you put on your website (*gasp*), but how it is easily interpreted is that knowledge of how to run searches can (and will) be used against you should you end up under scrutiny.  It is true that by knowing how to really utilize a search engine you can find a lot of things that others may not want you to find... but it's also true that you don't even have to be really good at searching (or know how to "Google dork") to find information about exploits and hacking tools.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

iTunes on Public Computers

So, thinking about putting iTunes on public computers?

Please, don't do it.

Now, this is completely my personal opinion, but it's really not a good idea.  Even the Apple help forums agree.

You can of course do it if you really want to, and likely if you're in a public library, you've had patrons request iTunes on the public computers.

Here's the problem - iTunes is designed to work with personal collections and personal devices, and does this whole authorization thing that verifies that the iPod is authorized to the iTunes library account (and not to a different account), as well as potentially limiting the number of machines that items in your library can be saved to.  If you have an iTunes account you can authorize up to 5 computers, and 5 devices to that one account.

If you hook up your device to a computer with a different authorization, the authorization on your device will be reset in order for it to work with iTunes on that computer.  When your authorization is set to a new one, you then lose the content on that device.  Now you can re-authorize the device to your account, but you're now using up device authorizations.

You can always of course, authorize the public computer to your account, but then you'd be giving other people access to your iTunes account if you leave it authorized.  Even if someone else authorizes a device, overwrites your authorization on the public machine, or the authorization gets wiped when the machine reboots due to the likely presence of reimaging software such as DeepFreeze, you use up authoirzations.  Then if you come back to that computer you have to use another authorization. 

If you can see how this can go horribly wrong, fast, congratulations.

Every time a patron has trouble understanding why they can't find their songs in the iTunes library because someone else left their authorization in the machine, you get to handle it.  Every time a patron hits the limits of authorizations because they're using iTunes on a public computer, you get to deal with it.  Every time a patron erases the contents of their iPod, you get to deal with it.  If you're really really lucky, they might not blame you for it.

Yes, you can use this as an opportunity to educate people about the software they use, and the EULA/Terms of Use they likely don't read.  They're probably not going to appreciate the teaching moment, and it still doesn't fix the fact that you now have some extremely unhappy patrons.

This is actually why, until very recently when In-Browser reading was added, that you couldn't read library ebooks in the library.  In fact, this is why, with some exceptions, you generally can't download library ebooks to transfer to your device using a library computer.  It's annoying, but we're working with programs that are requiring authorization in order to to interface with the different devices.

So, in my humble opinion, it is not worth it to put iTunes on public computers, for them or for you as a the person supporting the users.

Monday, September 1, 2014

[Book Review] Sheet Pan Suppers

Sheet Pan Suppers : 120 Recipes for Simple, Surprising, Hands-Off Meals Straight from the Oven
/ Molly Gilbert

Sheet Pan Suppers promises to reinvent the "one pot meal" with a sheet pan instead of a pot.  I was expecting reinventions of classic recipes, and keeping within the idea of a one "pot" cooking.  The book sort of delivers, but I was left wanting more from it.  Don't get me wrong, there are a handful of recipes that sound delicious and I will be trying them shortly.  However, overall I found the book lacking in invention.  Many of the recipes are basic, the book relies heavily on pre-made, store-bought components (though I do allow that pre-made components makes for shorter prep time), a number of recipes are multi-pan, and one or two involve cooking outside of the oven.

If you do a lot of cooking, many of the recipes you can look at just the title and the ingredients and know how to cook it.  Sheet Pan Suppers is largely accessible to those with introductory level skills in the kitchen, but the recipes themselves are not necessarily set and forget.  You'll encounter some meals that you can set up and serve when done, others that have several stages of preparation and construction, so the book won't always work as a go-to for someone in a time crunch.  What Sheet Pan Suppers is very good at is creating dishes with good flavor using few pans and with generally simple preparation.

Advanced Reader Copy copy courtesy of NetGalley; differences may exist between uncorrected galley text and the final edition.