29 July, 2012

Review: Speaker for the Dead

Speaker for the Dead Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A family torn asunder by lies, frailties, and seemingly unspeakable acts nevertheless survives as any good catholic family would. Until Ender Wiggin, Speaker for the Dead and destroyer of an entire ramen species, arrives. He brings truth, and with it, redemption. Meanwhile, the aliens of this world provide mysteries to solve both scientifically and politically.

Ender as a child was remarkable in his own way, but as an adult, he is even more interesting. Card is able to weave a story here that consistently keeps the reader on edge, always wanting to know more. As the mysteries surrounding the family he meets, the aliens he comes to know, and the disease that threatens to kill them all deepen, Ender, along within his (faithful?) companion Jane, uncovers truths that change everything at a level that the preceding novel cannot come close to matching. This is a story that speaks on several levels.

However, there are significant problems, despite the five star score I give this book. First, his characters are stupid. I know he is trying to ensure that there is a clear distinction between the super-human intelligence of Ender and Valentine when compared to the characters that happen to live on the world he visits. There is some justification for the people he writes to be of only average intelligence. But the way they are written makes most of them (with a few notable exceptions) nearly brain-dead. They make very poor life decisions -- which creates a stark contrast to the characters of Ender's Game, who were all extremely intelligent. Second, Ender's victories come too easy. Sure, Ender is VERY smart. But his powers of empathy here are incredible. Third, what is up with the philosophy Card uses?

As a philosopher, one of the most interesting parts of this book for me was reading about Ender's philosophic viewpoint. Believe me when I say that the fact that Ender's philosophy is completely opposed to my own, I nevertheless found this book a VERY entertaining read. But I almost feel like warning the reader of this book to treat the philosophy espoused within as nothing but fiction in the same way that I might warn a teenager before letting them read Ayn Rand. Nevertheless, the book thoroughly entertains and warrants the full five stars. I'm willing to use suspension of disbelief to handle the parts I disliked philosophically in the same way that I give no fault to the text for not being hard science fiction.

This book is worth the read even if you didn't like Ender's Game. Although this is a sequel, it is completely different in every way, and deserves a chance from any fan of soft science fiction. Highly recommended.

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28 July, 2012

Review: Ender's Shadow

Ender's Shadow Ender's Shadow by Orson Scott Card
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As much as I adored Ender's Game, this sequel blows it out of the water. It is unbelievable as to how much extra content there is in coming to the same story/characters from a different viewpoint. This parallax does much to clarify and obfuscate those things that seemed easy or hard to understand before, and it puts a whole new wrinkle over the entirety of the situation.

If you've read Ender's Game and rated it at 4 stars or above, you MUST read this novel. You will greatly regret it if you do not.

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26 July, 2012

Review: Ender's Game

Ender's Game Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is quite simply one of the greatest novels of all time.

Now that we've gotten that statement out of the way, I feel compelled to point out that this book is filled with flaws. No matter how much Card may want it to be true, children simply do not think the way that these children think. Yet this is perhaps partially explained by the Wiggins being exceptional children, and is even justified in the case of Bean. The politics here are also very strange, and the idea that Locke/Demosthenes could do as much as they could using the internet seems almost unbelievable to our ears; but this is because Ender's Game was written before the internet was really going at full speed. The portrayal of women seems a bit odd, as well.

Nevertheless, these flaws cannot possibly take away from the story's sheer power. This was perhaps my tenth or so reading of the book, and yet I still cried at the sad parts. Some later books do make portions of the dialogue a bit strange; reading Ender's Game after having read Ender's Shadow makes nearly every portion of dialogue between Bean and Ender surreal. You can tell that the author has not taken Bean's story into account when this first novel was written, which usually would cause me to not give five stars; but in the case of Ender's Game, Card is able to convince me of the strength of the novel despite these flaws.

Finally, a small word about the author. If you have not read the entire series yet, please ignore this paragraph; it will color your first reading of Card;'s novels, and I would never want to take you away from being able to see the masterpieces through the Speaker of the Dead storyline and the Ender's Shadow storyline. Please stop reading here if you have not finished all the Ender's Game saga.

Orson Scott Card is not a nice person. He is, to be perfectly blunt, a complete asshole. I still adore this series, despite his homophobia and offensive religious views, but there are parts of his novels where you can clearly see that the writer is a bigot. It is sad, really, because the books are so very, very good. But it really bothers me that there is latent prejudice in each of the books, and becomes quite obvious to see when you start actively looking for it. However, my rating is not for the author's morals, but for his ability to write a good story, and the fact remains that this series is one of the best series I have ever read. I stand by my rating of 5 stars no matter how much I dislike the author.

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21 July, 2012

Review: Cycle of Fire

Cycle of Fire Cycle of Fire by Hal Clement
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A human gets stranded on an alien planet just as an alien gets stranded in his own way. The only way out of the situation is for the two to befriend each other. Despite vast differences culturally and biologically, the two of them bond together as they overcome each obstacle in their path.

Hal Clement is a master of hard science fiction, and this is perhaps one of his best works. There are drawbacks to any Clement novel, of course; idealism abounds in any human character Clement writes (his idealism goes too far at times), and if you're familiar with the overall theme of Clement's hard sci-fi, you'll probably be able to guess the "twist" of the final pages. But the beauty of any hard science fiction novel Clement writes is the science which leads to such an utterly amazing alien world, and Cycle of Fire is no exception to this. The biology and culture of the aliens described is stranger than anything you might find in a fantasy or soft sci-fi novel, and yet there remains a scientific basis for every seemingly outlandish idea Clement puts to paper.

While this novel is often overlooked when compared to Clement's masterpiece, Mission of Gravity, its short length and interesting premise makes Cycle of Fire well worth the read.

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Review: Foundation

Foundation Foundation by Isaac Asimov
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Okay, I admit it. This series starts slowly. Very slowly. Impossibly slowly. As in: you don't really start to get the scope of the Foundation series until after you've read the first three books. But believe me when I say it is worth it.

The Foundation series starts with this novel, and you'd be a fool to start anywhere else -- though you might want to read the "I, Robot" series by Asimov to get an idea of how the author writes his fiction first. (Yes, really.) As the story progresses, you will start to appreciate the scale of the epic tale Asimov weaves before you. Skipping from generation to generation a la War and Peace, you may be tempted to think that each new character you encounter can't possibly be as important in later books, but you'll be wrong. Never before have I read any science fiction series keep my rapt attention over successive story arcs that entangle with each other over vast spans of time.

Note that if I were rating this book by itself, I'd probably give it three stars. But knowing what comes afterward really does a lot to help one appreciate what comes before, and the things you learn in later books truly does enhance the story in this one. If you're pressed for time, don't bother reading just this book. But if you have a lot of time to waste, I highly recommend reading the entire Foundation series, starting right here. You definitely won't regret it if you do.

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17 July, 2012


GM Nam Kyu Yoon carrying the '88 Olympic Torch

When I was a child, violence was a portion of my everyday life.

It was not unduly important or meaningful, like it may have been in the childhoods of persistent bullies or abused children. But it was still there, like sleeping or eating. Violence was something I went through every day and never really gave much thought to changing.

I took martial arts classes for a long time, earning medals in the state championships for my age group. With my friends, we would play role playing games where long sticks were used, and each of us would hit each other liberally with staffs. Our intent was to block each strike, but if a block was not made, the fault was that of the blocker, not the attacker. We even played a form of tag that used small stones we would throw toward each others' torsos; if you were hit by a stone, you were "it".

None of these things ever went "too far". I do not bruise easily, and I doubt any parental figures knew I did dangerous things when out with my friends as a child -- if you can call them truly dangerous. We knew enough to stay away from playing with things that can really hurt. Once, while playing king of the hill, one neighborhood kid claimed the top while wielding a shovel. My response then was to back down. We stayed away from sharp objects, and when I practiced with nunchaku, I made sure that no one else was within a few feet of me.

Anger was not something that I associated with violence back then. Intellectually, of course, I knew they were linked, but it was a very rare event for violence to enter my life alongside anger. On a few occasions, my father used violence to discipline me; once, at school I was challenged to a fight that ended with them hitting me and my not returning any blows. But other than these incidents, violence was just a game to me. A way to bleed off excess energy.

It did not always stay this way, though.

Perhaps the thing I am least proud of is the fact that I started out viewing violence as unconnected to anger, and then, for some reason, I came to associate them whenever I was upset. I became a bully toward those children that I felt deserved it; in a way, I conceived of myself as a superhero, I suppose. But none of them ever fought back. I was violent toward early girlfriends, too. My bitterness was overwhelming, and the way I acted toward even friends and family is quite horrifying to me now.

It would be one thing, I guess, if I started out like that and grew out of it. But I have to admit that when it comes to violence, I started out only acting violently among those who consented, like in our games of tag. I even got in a school fight where I refused to throw a punch because I knew it was wrong to fight.

But no. I started out knowing that violence was inappropriate in many circumstances, and grew to use violence whenever I became angry. I became a worse person.

It took a long time before I realized that violence was (almost) never appropriate. Even just a few years ago, I can remember getting angry and responding by hitting a window, breaking it completely. Today, I am glad to know that I have finally denied that part of me from ever taking hold again. I have not been violent toward anything with a brain for a very long time, and have not even been violent with inanimate objects for quite a while. I have become a pacifist, not just for personal reasons, but for philosophical ones as well. I believe military intervention does so much more harm than good that it cannot possibly be justified except in circumstances that do not occur in reality.

Uncle Mike Tomaso with UFC Champion Joyce Gracie
When I look back to my childhood, I regret even the violent consensual games I used to play with friends. I was never a good thrower, and I imagine now that back then the reason I was "it" more than others was to get back at me for all those staff blows I'd make when they were too slow to block. Even in consensual situations, violence is just too dangerous to fully justify without safety gear on.

The only violence of my youth that I do not regret was my martial arts training. Grand Master Nam Kyu Yoon was an excellent teacher for me, and I am proud of the extra-curricular lessons my uncle Mike Tomaso put me through before he opened his own martial arts academy. This is what violence should be: consensual AND safe. I just wish I could have learned these lessons earlier on in my life.

13 July, 2012

Review: The Nitrogen Fix

The Nitrogen Fix The Nitrogen Fix by Hal Clement
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In the Earth of the future, humans are the last native animal species on a planet fully depleted of freely floating oxygen. What civilization is left is isolated and separated in what many would call a doomsday scenario, but Hal Clement has somehow made the resulting Earth appear far more enticing than it at first seems.

Clement's trademark hardest-of-the-hard science fiction style explains nearly every aspect of this new world in a fully believable way. Everything about the setting is perfect -- or as near to perfect as the science of Clement's time allows.

However, as usual with Clement, his portrayal of characters is not nearly as strong as his exactitude with setting. The humans of the future act wildly different than how we might expect them to in such a harsh environment. Yet at the same time, the sheer immensity of the realistic future world Clement describes is more than enough to make up for his minor defects in portraying human actions well, especially since not all characters are human. The alien species he describes in the story from the first page is utterly captivating, not just in terms of biology, but also of psychology and philosophy.

While the weak point of this story is definitely Clement's idealism which bleeds through to the human characters in the story, Clement does a superb job with the alien characters and most especially the setting which serves as the backdrop for the entire story. I'm giving this five stars despite its flaws because the perfection of setting Clement provides is that good.

This is a must read for anyone who likes hard science fiction, though those who dislike too much science in their pleasure reading will dislike the depth of technical details Clement uses throughout the book.

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11 July, 2012

What does "Bayesian" mean?

I've been using the term "Bayesian" for a while now on this blog, usually linking to the Wikipedia article each time to help newcomers to the concept understand exactly what I mean. But I still occasionally get questions about what I mean when I use the word, mostly because the wiki page focuses just a little too much on the mathematics involved, and is not really readable by non-math people yet. Since quite a few of the current draft articles I am writing require a fair understanding of the term, I've decided to write a short, readable essay on what I mean when I use the term "Bayesian". Hopefully this will clear up any confusion about the purpose and importance of the term.

The Problem Bayes Theorem Solves

For most people, science is just something that is taken for granted. Whatever those scientists are doing seems to bring us new inventions and technology that improves our daily lives, so we leave well enough alone about the specifics of how what they do works. We know that for some reason, the knowledge acquisition methods employed by scientists seems to bring results, so we praise science as a good method of knowledge of science acquisition.

Compare this to another field of knowledge acquisition, such as the one psychics or astrologers use. They employ a method that does not seem to produce results, so we generally call such fields unscientific. By this, we seem to be implying that science's methods work while these alternatives do not. This is, of course, completely correct. The predictions of psychics and astrologers are never believable to a rational human being, even when they happen to occasionally correct. This is because the method by which they purport to gain new knowledge is completely unbelievable.

But why is it unbelievable? What is it about science's methods that makes us tend to put trust in it when they are correct, when we simultaneously fail to put trust in pseudoscience's methods even if they also turn out to be correct? Why do we say one is correct by design and one is only correct by accident?

The Bayesian Solution

[...the rest of this entry was left unwritten. I am publishing anyway because I have no goal of ever finishing this old essay.]

Review: Blindness

Blindness Blindness by José Saramago
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The story of a blindness epidemic spreading through a city, written in a style distinct to Saramago. Although I read the English translation, the way the characters think and talk are very Portuguese. The philosophies spoken of throughout the novel are very different from what I'm used to, and reek of a continental philosophy influence. Nevertheless, I was captivated by the story's twists and turns.

Not my favorite style of science fiction, but worth the read anyway.

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09 July, 2012

Review: The End of Eternity

The End of Eternity The End of Eternity by Isaac Asimov
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A very interesting premise, and not all is as at seems. The story kept me guessing even after I thought I had figured out the plot. Best of all was the excellent use of sexism and other prejudice of this book's day; Asimov did a good job of portraying it Archie Bunker-style to good effect. Definitely worth the read if you like time travel scifi.

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Review: Anne of Green Gables

Anne of Green Gables Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Although some sections suffer from the prejudices of the day, overall this book really touched my heart. I found myself really enjoying all the characters in their own way, and I loved the way that Anne changed over the course of her years at Green Gables. It was definitely well worth the read.

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02 July, 2012

My Birthday

My pen ran out of ink on my birthday.

Ordinarily, this would not be such a big deal, but at the time, I was a few miles deep in the forest while my ink sat useless on top of a stack of so far unread books at home (an eight book set of Anne of Green Gables I bought for $1.50 at a library sale in New Jersey). My electric light shone brightly on my journal as I tried desperately to at least finish the sentence in my birthday entry, but it was not to be. I had run dry.

My pen is perhaps my most prized possession; certainly, it is the most expensive -- if you don't count Topia, my loyal beetle. I've only had my montblanc for about four years, but in that time it has served me well in situations good and bad. Perhaps I was naive, however, to just assume it would not run out of ink while I was in the center of a dark forest at night.

Still, it's no justification for getting irritated on my birthday. I'd chosen this venture because I wanted some alone time. Far be it from me to dictate that alone time must be spent on journal writing. My light was still functioning quite well, after all. So I took out a book I haven't read for almost a decade at this point: Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy.

It is a well-worn copy, though not by my hand. I found it in a store of a battered second hand shop somewhere in the midwest, I think. It's a nineteenth century edition, with writing in the margin of the first few pages from at least three previous owners. Although I have a copy of the same text published in the twenty-first century, it just feels cooler to read Boethius in a dark mountain forest on my birthday from a book that is four times older than I am. One day, I will get a kindle, but in the meantime, I can't help but consider this method much more awesome.

Suddenly, the sky lights up brightly, and I realize a storm is headed my way. As I gather up my fold-out chair, electric light, books, journal, headphones, iphone, walking stick, backpack, pen, water bottle, and bag of nuts, I wonder to myself: why didn't I bring an umbrella?

01 July, 2012

Review: Viscous Circle

Viscous Circle Viscous Circle by Piers Anthony
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Although the book suffers from the blatant sexism of its day, it was forward thinking for its time, and had some very positive messages about what ideals should be truly valued. The science in the book was hit or miss; some parts make it seem like hard science fiction, but other parts are so implausible on their face that it made me wonder why the author attempted to be so scientifically accurate in the more rigorous sections. Apparently, the author wrote this book while going through a serious illness, so that might explain some of the defects. Nevertheless, it was a fun read, and I don't regret going through it, flaw-filled though it may have been.

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