Dec 292013
 

The Wire logoThere’s many a decent crime shows to choose from: the BBC modernization of Sherlock is nothing short of magnificent (but a three episode season every two years is kinda slow pace), CSI started a whole new police procedural genre, Criminal Minds brutalized it, and Bones finally perfected it with a cast of genuine characters instead of cardboard cutouts.

But they all pale in comparison to the greatest of them all: The Wire. Which, obviously, is far from a mere crime show, but as its backbone is the police department, there’s no way to avoid nominating it. After all, despite all the bitching and insubordination, McNulty and the rest of the team does some quality police work indeed.

TV Thursday #8: Best new wave crime show

Dec 292013
 

Magic of Reality coverIf I had had access to Richard Dawkins Magic of Reality as a child I would have been an even more terrible pupil in school.

After all, this is a book that firmly establishes scientific reductionism as the basis for reality, and does not fail to use good examples on common misconceptions. In the hands of a 14 year old schoolkid this would have been weapons grade plutonium in battles with the staff of the Steiner School.

This is probably Dawkins most accessible book, clearly aimed for a younger audience, but not short of pointful argumentation. The author first provides the traditional explanation on a subject before launching into the current best knowledge of the topic. His argumentativeness comes off a bit too eager at times – while it is fun to read about skewering one miracle after another, the book is easily dismissable as anti-religious. Which it really is not – all non-scientific misconceptions are treated equally.

Magic of Reality comes beautifully illustrated by Dave McKean, who employs chaotic collage-technique to good effect on pretty much every page spread.

No big revelations, but an enjoyable book nonetheless.

Dec 292013
 

Atrocity Archives coverUpon purchasing the fourth volume of Charles Stross’ Laundry novels I came to the conclusion that I had only a vague idea what had happened in the third installment, and that it’d be better to recap the series before the fourth.

Atrocity Archives is not actually a novel, but two in a single book.

In Laundry H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos meets geekery and gets formalized into a branch of british secret service with an unfortunate aptitude for mind-shattering bureaucracy.

Not a bad promise at all, and a fine basis for inspired action-horror.

The freshman nature of the book shows. There’s rampant infodumping for exposition, clumsy dialogue and a lot of the technology is severely outdated. Though the latter point is easily forgiven on account of the setting – it’s not actually modern, it’s decisively early millennial.

Despite the potential for degradation into a humorous technofest, the stories are actually bleak. The effects on dealing with entities beyond this reality tend to be permanent and scarring.

There’s so much untapped potential here, but a lot of it is trapped in bubbles with too strong surface tension to actually meaningfully add to the story.

Dec 292013
 

Century Rain coverI had quite a bit of doubt about Alastair Reynolds’ Century Rain. Even though I had revised my opinion following the disastrous closing of the Revelation Space sequence, the prospect of a standalone timetravel-related novel wasn’t truly appealing.

How wrong I was.

Century Rain weaves together many strands. Amongst them hard science fiction, alternate history and timetravel (with a tiny smattering of detective fiction in fifties Paris for good measure).

To say more of the premise would rob readers of a genuinely juicy layered surprise, so no more on that.

The tale brims with ideas, and exposition is deliciously slow. Plenty of concepts are referred to by name only long before they get explained – a nice application of “show me, don’t tell me”-philosophy. At times I was sure I had missed something crucial when alien elements were casually almost bypassed, but the explanation followed in a more natural location.

In yet another surprise, the characters in the tale are far less cardboard-y than is the norm of the genre and the author. Their limited number and strong personalities helped a lot in this respect.

nanocaust

Far better than expected, and heartily recommended. It’s not as strong as the best of Reynolds’ work (Chasm City and The Prefect), but a definite sign that I should persist in picking up his later works, too.

Dec 292013
 

Makers coverMakers is the third book by Chris Anderson.

Like its predecessors, Long Tail and Free, Makers tackles a subject on the cusp of mainstream and provides an enlightening view on a multi-faceted topic.

The subject is the rebirth of do-it-yourself culture and its implications on design, manufacturing and life in general. Headlining the highway to self-manufacturing is the advent of cheap and reliable 3D printing, but that is by no means the only driving factor.

The author does a good job concretizing the potentially very vague subject with two examples: his grandfather’s idea on lawn sprinkler improvements, and his own on drones. Especially the latter is insightful in showing what it takes to bootstrap a new industry.

Even if some of the tools of the trade are evolving at a pace that renders this book’s descriptions obsolete, most of them have been with us a long time and are not metamorphosing into something wilder (such as CNC routers), and as such Makers will serve as an introductory book for a long time. Some of the concepts (like crowdfunding) are new arrivals, and the author tends to be overly optimistic about their longevity. The same enthusiasm permeates most of the book, fortunately he doesn’t push personal manufacturing as a solution to all possible problems.

In comparison to both of his earlier books, Makers is shallower. That’s hardly unexpected – there’s plenty more ground to cover here. Then again, I didn’t expect more than an introdction in two hundred-ish pages.

Makes didn’t prod me into experimenting with manufacturing, but it sure provides a nice starting point should the itch ever appear.

Dec 292013
 

Taikurin Hattu coverTaikurin Hattu, quite non-oviously “Finn Family Moomintroll” in english, is my favorite of Tove Jansson’s Moomin books.

But it was not in book form that I first encountered the story, but as a radio serial. Lasse Pöysti’s reading of the book in five or ten minute weekly installments was a staple of Sunday mornings back in the day.

Taikurin Hattu covers most of the active half of a moomin’s year – from the early spring to the arrival of the fall. But it concentrates on the good bits, the summer.

The titular headpiece of the tale is its main plot device. The wizard’s hat works wonders and wreaks havoc amongst the inhabitants of the valley. Unlike the rollercoaster roadtrip of the previous book here the action remains at home, and the perils are nowhere as earth-shattering. But they are scary, nonetheless, though less physical: loss of identity, the cold of the Groke and utter travesty of justice meted out on her.

The author doesn’t explain much. Even though there are footnotes attached, very little of the history of the characters and their relationships is explicitly told. Readers have to infer quite a bit from the dialogue and actions, which is obviously quite a challenge for the youngest members of the audience. Nevertheless, the book works well without the subtexts.

Taikurin Hattu is whimsical, cutesy and warm – things can only get more angsty from here.

Dec 292013
 

Muumipeikko ja Pyrstötähti coverMuumipeikko ja Pyrstötähti is the first moomin book purchased by the Lavonius clan.

It was by no means the first book we got familiar with, that’d be Taikurin Hattu, tackled in the next post. But for some odd reason the local libraries were unable to provide access to the first book of the series, and thus we resorted to begging our parents for a copy.

And were kind of disappointed and thrilled simultaneously.

This is not the same kind of cozy mainly domestic adventure that the book we were familiar with is.

Nope, the titular astronomic catastrophe provides a nice framing device to a rollicking adventure with peril and change around every corner. And the pace being very fast, there are indeed plenty of corners to round and people to meet. While the other early Moomin books are no slow movers, the frequency of danger in this book approaches a chuck norris movie watched on speed.

Moomintroll’s entourage grows significantly in the 100-ish pages of the book. Both Snufkin and the Snorks are added to the crew in this novel. And there’s continuity to the preceding and following items in the series, too.

May the ground swallow me up, may old hags rattle my dry bones, and may I never more eat ice cream if I don’t guard this secret with my life.

This is a distilled adventure book. Amongs the thrills there’s no room for the philosophical introspection that increasingly pervades the later books.

Dec 292013
 

Entropy is expressed in the internet by links going stale.

My “presence in social networks” chunk in the lower edge of the sidebar seems to have crossed into territories beyond the best before-date.

Will fix. At some point.

Dec 292013
 

Bongauksen Hurma coverBongauksen Hurma is a collection of tales from the finnish birdwatchers.

And by birdwatchers the authors mean more or less obsessive collectors of bird sightings. They are a bunch of twitchers, in the british side of english language.

A lot of the stories precede mobile telephony, GPS receivers and as such read as heroics in a pre-digital world. It was quite a different thing to see a stray nököhuittinen back in the eighties.

A lot of the stories sadly do not read very well. They come off as war stories for a small audience. A small audience able to understand the jargon. At worst the tales use (apparently) outdated words or are written in the local dialect of swedish.

However, at times the authors transcend the borders of clique and actually provide a meaningful story on how seeing a bird was either world-shattering news or somehow extremely meaningful to them.

And while I wouldn’t be able to differentiate between the scores of small passerine birds (the most populous group in Finland), I did get an itch to actually list the bird species that I’ve encountered. It’s not an itch I’ve scratched thus far, but one that remains.

Dec 282013
 

Practical Typography is a freely available book on the theory and applications of typography.

Well-written, lengthy and not naggy at all about compensation.

Heavily recommended.

You can still make good ty­pog­ra­phy with sys­tem fonts. But choose wise­ly. And nev­er choose times new roman or Arial, as those fonts are fa­vored only by the ap­a­thet­ic and slop­py.

Dec 282013
 

nshipster is one Objective C / Cocoa blog I keep on returning to.

Not on account of answering questions (that’s what Stackoverflow is for), but informative articles on a wide variety of topics.

And I’ve got to respect a site whose logo features an animated moustache.

Dec 282013
 

Voivod logo(In the series of long-overdue postings.)

Saw Voivod for the second time, after an interval of nineteen years.

Quite a lot has happened since my encounter with them in Club Zephyr in Salt Lake City promoting The Outer Limits back in 1994.

For starters the guys have aged well, and they still play well.

Happily enough, they played quite a bit of the old stuff, too, instead of concentrating on the newest albums:

Voivod
Ripping Headaches
Target Earth
The Prow
Forgotten in Space
Mechanical Mind
Nothingface
Jack Luminous
Kluskap O'Kom
Psychic Vacuum
///
Tribal Convictions
Astronomy Domine

Yes. They played the whole Jack Luminous, in its seventeen minute glory.

And the songs off then-forthcoming Target Earth didn’t sound bad at all.

Dec 282013
 

Rupert GilesMany sidekicks deserve their own shows.

And my two finalists are off the same show: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the show that worked with long story arcs, snappy dialogue and a cast of unforgettable characters.

For a long time I would have given Spike his own series. After all, the blonde british vampire was pretty much the best thing that was permanently attached to the show.

But Spike’s history is more than thoroughly explored during the show. And behind bad poetry, rampant travelling with bad people and not letting go of british cultural values doesn’t really give much in the long term prospects. I hate to say it, but in this contest James Marsters ends up in the second place.

And the crown of laurels is put on Rupert Giles, Buffy’s long-suffering watcher. Even though his backstory contains many of the same elements as Spike’s, the rebellion, dark magic and rock’n'roll is far neater when connected to a fusty pre-maturely middle-aged man. A man whose history is far less known, and with serious Hellblazer-style street magic. Conveniently confined to a couple of decades for simplicity, not traipsing through centuries like Spike would have.

The concept of “Ripper” as a show of its own has meat on its bones. So much meat that Joss Whedon actually began development of such a show with BBC, but that sadly fell apart.

TV Thursday #7: Give the poor bastard his own show already!

Dec 282013
 

In addition to Ursa’s fare, Helsingin Sanomat publishes two astronomy-centered blogs: Kuubongari contains pictures of the moon (and stories how the pictures were taken) whereas Kohti Tähtiä is more scattershot in its topic choices.

Sadly, hesari puts the blogs behind its paywall (trivially circumvented, but annoying nonetheless), but at least the lunar pictures can be seen for free.

Dec 282013
 

Rabbit, Run coverI vaguely remember reading about John Updike’s Rabbit, Run in a book club magazine in the early eighties (probably in the context of a newly translated sequel). Picked the book up in an Amazon sale and kept it on a shelf for a long while before embarking on a voyage of serious literature.

Or so I thought.

Rabbit, Run is a thoroughly period-tied piece of a man making a series of epically bad choices.

Not choices that mean the end of the world, but choices that never fail to evoke questions.

The protagonist, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom is a high school basketball star who finds it very hard to settle down to slow domesticity. He’s also a self-serving narcissist who quickly comes off quite unlikable and fails to shine as the plot moves on.

I once did something right. I played first-rate basketball. I really did. And after you’re first-rate at something, no matter what, it kind of takes the kick out of being second-rate.

The Run starts off as a vehicular escape from his hometown, and I expected little more than an average road trip ending in guilt. But that’s not what happens, not at all. The expectations are shattered as soon as he returns, after getting lost. And things spin out of control after that. In actions and words. But especially actions provoked in others, Rabbit ends up shaking up the lives of relatives, friends and strangers.

The book is told in present tense, which initially grates a little, but soon flows smoothly off the pages. And while the plot is quintessentially a small-town drama, the prose is downright beautiful. Updike takes the time to fill in details, but does not drown the reader in minutiae. The dialogues ramble on, repetitively, but sounds genuine all the way.

I have a hard time picturing James Caan in the title role. Then again, I have a hard time picturing him as anybody else but Sonny Corleone.

This was a good book. I will see where the Rabbit has run in the sequels, too.

Dec 272013
 

First it was responsive design to take into account devices with non-desktop screens.

Then it was mobile first, since a lot of reading happens on the smallest screens.

Now it’s offline first to cater for sporadic connectivity.

And I utterly like their premise:

We can’t keep building apps with the desktop mindset of permanent, fast connectivity, where a temporary disconnection or slow service is regarded as a problem and communicated as an error.

Dec 272013
 

Jason Kottke’s blog was one of the starting points back in 2004 when I started thinking about setting up a blog.

In a year-end prediction he claims that the medium has been usurped thoroughly in the last few years and the blog as a concept has quietly expired.

While the rise of alternatives cannot be denied, I firmly believe that there’s still room for longer-form text.

Despite appearances to the contrary, this blog isn’t fading out nor going out with a bang either.

And happily enough, neither is his.

Dec 272013
 

Avaruussää coverReceived an annual Ursa book as a christmas present for a couple of years and embarrassingly enough they have been unread thus far.

Settled on arrival order on going through these, and Avaruussää, a book on space weather was the earliest delivered by Santa.

The book concentrates on Sun, and especially on solar effects on Earth.

While a bit dry, the chapters on sunspots and solar weather in general were definitely on the fascinating side.

But the book really gets going when guesstimating how worse solar weather could adversely affect the modern society. After all, we’re increasingly vulnerable as reliance on power grids and satellites proves.

I learned a lot on space weather, picked up a couple of interesting links alongside and set up quite a high bar for the rest of Ursa-published books (reviewed in due course). A few more pictures on aurora borealis wouldn’t have hurt, but that’s a teensy-weensy criticism.

Obligatory link: Spaceweather.com, proving that the subject can be interesting and requires non-trivial visualizations.

Dec 262013
 

Wild Thing coverAs stated in the re-reading of the preceding book, I truly liked Beat the Reaper.

So, embarking on the sequel, Wild Thing, I had high hopes of well-written escapades in the twilight world of witness protection and organized crime.

But that’s not what Bazell delivers. Not by any means.

Wild Thing is nothing short of a massive disappointment.

It’s never good if the copious endnotes turn out to be a better read than vast chunks of the main book.

Wild Thing is the proverbial difficult second novel, and the author’s pain shows. While the baseline plot is comparably plausible to that of the first volume, execution manages to suck and blow at the same time. The plotline is muddled by wildly implausible actions and characters (including a cameo appearance so outrageously bad it’s almost cause for a libel law suit).

This might be recoverable, if there was plenty of humor in the soup. But there’s none. The book reads very somberly, completely at odds with the cast and the plot.

The protagonist, a medical MacGyver whose condescending knowledge and instant adaptation to whatever happens, has been replaced with a bumbler who keeps on reeling from events.

Pacing is off. Severely off. So much off that the author has to resort to the “urchins with guns” safety. A couple of times.

The connection to Beat the Reaper is close to non-existent. Which, considering the strength of the debut novel, is quite a disadvantage.

Bonus points for cryptozoology, though.

Will seriously consider not giving inevitable part three a fighting chance, this was a major letdown.

Dec 262013
 

Eating Animals coverI found Eric Schloesser’s Fast Food Nation a frighteningly good read back in the day. It scared me off fast food for more than six months.

I didn’t expect Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals to turn me off meat, but expected tough arguments against carnivorous side of man’s diet.

And sure enough, I got what I expected.

The book was informative and entertaining.

And simultaneously disturbing and frightening.

Our carnivorous habit is indeed destructive on too many axes to count.

Chapter by chapter the author peels back the skin on the high price of meat. The animals suffer, the local environment suffers and the world at large suffers. No punches are pulled, the details are ugly and verifiable as sources are listed in the well-annotated appendix.

While the author has gone meatless, he does not advocate the same route for everybody. Towards the end the spotlight turns to sustainable farming, which provides the same goods. Though at a price probably unacceptable to the great masses who have got used to cheap industrial meat.

But the book was not enough to convert me from eating meat (unlike Natalie Portman). I sincerely hope that the finnish meat production chain is less inhuman and environmentally destructive than their american counterparts. But I do expect to re-evaluate my position when I finally manage to pick up and read Syötäväksi Kasvatetut, the winner of last year’s Non-fiction Finlandia prize. And based on the quality of writing, it’s high time to take a look at Foer’s fiction as well.

Dec 262013
 

Snuff coverTerry Pratchett has slowed down a lot. His “for young adults” books and thickish collaborations with Stephen Baxter have diminished the speed of Discworld expansion.

Snuff is a Vimes-book.Not a city watch-book, since it’s a solo outing. In my books this is a disadvantage, the previous Vimes solo (Fifth Elephant) was one of the weakest books in the series.

Snuff is a solo outing in the countryside. With a lot if old english manor house drama, cast and paraphernalia attached.

But it wouldn’t be a Discworld book without a subtext. And here the underlying theme is racism. Or more actually speciesism. Goblins are re-introduced as the most downtrodden bunch of creatures, with the attendant theme of slavery attached.

Snuff is not up to the high standard set by most earlier City Watch-books. It is easily better than the unfocused Fifth Elephant, though.

The plot rambles on, this could have easily been a far tighter book. Especially the dialogue has turned from snappy attention to detail to monologues developing in parallel. And additionally there are is an unusually painful amount of baggage from previous Vimes-books in the load. While his wife and offspring are pretty much expected elements, I had quite forgotten about his assassinationally skillful butler and a demon lodged in his head. The latter is too much of a convenient plot point and as such stands out the usually quite smooth Pratchettian writing.

Two turtles (out of four, obviously), this was far less enjoyable than I hoped.

Dec 262013
 

Boomerang coverMoneyball was a great book as a package deal with a dvd of the movie, picked his Boomerang up as a chance buy. Couldn’t resist the prospect of well-told stories of financial woe from multiple countries as stated in the not-too subtle subtitle: “Travels in the New Third World”.

And while Boomerang doesn’t have an as attractive topic as statistics as driver for success in sports, it’s nonetheless a very smooth book to read.

It tells tales of countries in the throes of economic disarray, each of them with a different approach. The guilt is laid on lying bankers (Ireland), institutional corruption (Greece) or just the plain old “whole nation going mad for money” (Iceland). But the book does not concentrate on pouring salt in open wounds, it looks inwards and through, for the gullible banks and snake oil salesmen in nations that have not yet gone under.

It is very much a necessary tale for the era, things aren’t getting any better or prettier. The book is full of insight, and it is sensibly written in the same interested, but nonetheless detached point of view that made Moneyball an easy read. A heavier treatment would probably have been forgotten on the shelves after a dull first forty pages or so.

Not so in this volume, though, I was impressed, entertained and educated, and will continue to buy other Lewis books, too.

Terrible cover image choice, though, in the Penguin UK edition. But not terrible enough to prevent from being read in public transport. For which the chapter per country in trouble is just the perfect length.