Archive for the 'Review' Category

Review: The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss

Friday, October 31st, 2014

I have yet to decide whether or not Patrick Rothfuss is an asshole.

I know that sounds like a mean thing to say, but I have my reasons which I’ll get to soon.

I was introduced to Rothfuss through his first novel, The Name of the Wind. Since that can get tedious to type, allow me to abbreviate it TNotW.

TNotW is the first book in a trilogy. It concerns a near mythical figure named Kvothe, and it is one of the best novels ever written in the fantasy genre, or any genre for that matter.

At least one of my three readers is asking themselves why I would write about fantasy literature on an open source blog. One reason is that open source tends to be a geeky thing and so is reading fantasy, but the other thing is that it helps me think about the future. As the third law of Arthur C. Clarke states “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” in my mind anyone who wants to create advanced technology must first start with “I want to do magic. How should I begin?” Reading fantasy allows me to think in different ways that I find both enjoyable and useful.

Anyway, in TNotW Rothfuss introduces his magic system. In the best fantasy there are rules that both empower and limit the characters, and I really like his. Called “sympathy”, magic in his world requires three things: a link, a source of energy and strength of will.

For example, suppose you wanted to move an iron skillet off of a fire through magic. First you would need some way to link what you wanted to move with something you could easily manipulate. In this case the best thing would be a small piece of the skillet itself. That would form a very strong link. Barring that, you could use any piece of iron, but that link would be weaker. Weaker still would be a non-ferrous metal, etc.

So let’s assume you have a small chip of the skillet in your hand. You would then need a source of energy. The bigger the magic, the more energy you need (i.e. rules). In this case you could probably use the heat from the fire itself.

Finally, you would need strength of will to connect your piece of the skillet to the whole thing. This is the hard part, as you basically have to imagine, with the full weight of reality, that the small part of the skillet you hold is the skillet itself, so when you move your piece, the skillet will move.

I’m oversimplifying but you get the gist. In TNotW Kovthe starts to learn about sympathy and is admitted to The University, a place where its principals are studied and taught. Out of them comes a form of engineering, a form of medicine, a form of chemistry, etc.

However, in addition to this sympathetic magic, there is a more primal, raw form of magic based on names. It is a common theme in fantasy that by knowing a thing’s “true name” one can control it. Names are powerful, which is why I obsess over them more than most people. In the world that Rothfuss creates, the pursuit of “Naming” is magic in its truest sense, but it is also the most dangerous. One of my favorite characters in his stories is Master Elodin, the Master Namer, who is quite bent.

In any case, Rothfuss is the rare author who inspires a certain type of rabid fandom. Anything he posts on his blog is almost always met by a chorus of fawning comments. It’s not that he isn’t talented, quite the contrary, but this type of fandom ends up rubber stamping everything he does as “great”.

For example, the second book in the series, The Wise Man’s Fear, did not resonate with me like the first. I came close to actually disliking it upon a first reading.

Now, granted, once I set it on the shelf for awhile and then took it down and re-read it, I liked it more, but still, it didn’t affect me like the first book. I look on it like Tolkien’s The Two Towers where “things happen that must happen” but it acts like a bridge between the first and last books of a trilogy. I eagerly await the third book, tentatively titled Doors of Stone to see if he can pull off the magic of TNotW.

And this is where the asshole part comes in. I have some friends who have met Rothfuss and spent some time with him and some of their comments tip the meter toward “asshole”. Some of the stuff that he writes on his blog rub me the wrong way, thus re-enforcing the thought. But I guess I am mainly upset because I just want him to work on that third book instead of all the other stuff he does. This is very selfish of me, because some of the stuff he does is very worthwhile and makes the world a better place, but at this point I am emotionally invested in the story of Kvothe and I want to know how it ends.

Which brings me to a sobering point: I know almost nothing about Patrick Rothfuss. One of the fallacies of the Internet is this illusion of intimacy. The thought that I can read a blog or a twitter feed or an interview and think that really gives me insight into who the person is is ludicrous. To paraphrase Silent Bob, what I don’t know about Patrick Rothfuss could just about squeeze into the Grand Canyon.

But I do know one thing without a doubt: he loves words.

I like words. I like my ten cent words and my five dollar words. But to me they are a means to an end. I like how a certain word can convey just the right feeling or evoke a particular response. But I don’t love words.

Rothfuss loves words almost as much as his family (which, if you read his blog, he loves a lot). He dotes on them. He caresses them. And I’m almost certain that he stays up nights obsessing over finding the right word.

Which brings me to his latest book, The Slow Regard of Silent Things.

This is a tiny book, around 150 pages. It’s even shorter than Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. He warns on both his blog and in the forward that many people won’t like this book. Heck, it only has one character in it, Auri, the mysterious girl befriended by Kvothe in TNotW.

I loved it.

This is a love song to words. He uses them to paint pictures and to compose symphonies. It is a three ringed circus of adjectives and adverbs, nouns and verbs all coalescing to create an experience if not exactly a narrative.

Auri is a woman of unknown age. She is very small, about the size of a child. She lives in a complex of tunnels and forgotten rooms called “The Underthing” that exists beneath the grounds of The University. While Rothfuss has never told us straight up her history, I’ve always imagined that she was a great student at The University who studied Naming and went crazy. She decided to “make herself small” and hid herself away. It is one of the characteristics of Kvothe that he was able to befriend her. He even gave her the name “Auri” which inspired Master Elodin to instruct Kvothe in Naming. But don’t expect to see those characters in The Slow Regard of Silent Things. It is all about Auri and can stand alone from the rest of the series.

If you haven’t read any of his books, then you won’t know what I’m talking about. Heck, I’m not even sure I know what I’m talking about. All I know is that I feel like a better person from having read it.

It covers several days in the life of Auri. And that’s about it. Pretty easy not to spoil. She has good days and bad days but to her they are just “days”. The narrative focuses a lot on her drive to put things in their proper places and in some cases, give them names.

One of the world philosophies that I strongly identify with is Taoism. Now I’m certain that a true scholar of the Tao will be horrified, if that is possible, over how I’m about to describe it, so my apologies in advance.

The Tao is all things and how they are connected. There is no “good” or “evil”, there is just the natural cycle of things. When one lives in tune with the Tao, this we call happiness. When one struggles against the Tao, sadness ensues. It stresses a very low impact existence and an acceptance of the way things are, but still manages to get a lot of stuff done, which sounds a little like an oxymoron.

One of the best books on the subject is The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff. In it he demonstrates the principals of Taoism through the stories about Winnie the Pooh. It works, and it is one of my favorite books. It sits next to me at my desk in case I’m having a rough day and I need a reminder.

As I was reading The Slow Regard of Silent Things I couldn’t help but think that Auri was a Taoist master. Here is a quote from toward the end of the book:

That meant you could move smoothly through the world without upsetting every applecart you came across. And if you were careful, if you were the proper part of things, then you could help. You mended what was cracked. You tended to the things you found askew. And you trusted that the world in turn would brush you up against the chance to eat. It was the only graceful way to move. All else was vanity and pride.

Seems very Taoist to me.

I once saw Kurt Vonnegut give a lecture. He was talking about “the shape of stories” and the normal Western narrative and how it has these huge swings in mood. The example he used was Cinderella. It starts off pretty bad. Her parents have died and she’s living with her evil stepmother. Then it gets really good. She gets to go to the ball and she meets the Prince. Then the clock hits midnight and things are bad again. Then the Prince finds her and all is well. He drew this on a white board in the form of a big sine wave that swung from bad to good.

He compared that to Native American stories. Usually the mood is very flat. We walked in the woods. We saw a deer. We caught some fish. We ate. We went to sleep. That sort of thing. There really isn’t this whole process that we expect from our stories. On his white board he drew a straight line, pretty much neutral between good and bad.

Then he examined Hamlet. Hamlet is not a happy story. Things start of bad and remain that way. As Vonnegut talked through the plot he drew another straight line. Granted, this was firmly on the “bad” side of the chart but it had a lot more in common with a Native American narrative than a traditional one, and Hamlet is one of the greatest stories ever told.

Heh – I just decided to take a stab at the premise that “everything is on the Internet” and I found a page talking about this very thing.

I don’t think that The Slow Regard of Silent Things is one of the greatest stories ever told, but it is a very good one. It, too, has a flat narrative arc. I will reread it a number of times. While I think a lot of his fans will be put off by it, and he knows this, but the fact that he created it and felt strong enough to see it through to publication moves the needle, at least for me, back firmly into the “not asshole” side of the meter.

Review: OnePlus One Android Phone

Wednesday, October 1st, 2014

I agonize over my technology decisions, often to a point that other people, including free software people, tease me about it. Is my distribution of choice free enough? Is it secure? Is my privacy protected so that I choose exactly what I want to share?

My current Android ROM of choice is OmniROM, and I’ve been quite happy with it. I do have issues with the limited number of phones that are officially supported, but it was my choice of ROM that drove me to buy an HTC One (m7).

I like the HTC. My main complaint is with the horrible battery life, and the phone is somewhat old having been replaced by the m8 which I don’t believe is supported by OmniROM. I’ve been frustrated in that it seems I have to choose between freedom and cool gear.

But maybe that isn’t the case anymore.

My friend Ronny first brought the OnePlus One (OPO) to my attention, and recently, through one of my Ingress friends Audrey, I was able to get an invite to purchase the new OnePlus One handset. While not supported officially by OmniROM as of yet, it is one of the new phones to ship with Cyanogenmod, and since OmniROM is a fork it should be compatible. Plus, it is very similar to the phones from Oppo which are supported by OmniROM, so perhaps support will come when the OPO becomes more widely available.

The first thing I realized when I opened the box is that this handset is a monster. It boasts a 5.5 inch screen at 1920×1080 pixels (full HD) which makes it the same as the new iPhone 6 Plus (401 ppi). It has a 2.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor and 3GB of DD3 RAM at 1866MHz which makes it fast. I bought the 64GB version (quite a jump from my HTC One’s 16GB) and the 3100mAh battery lasts all day and then some. I thought the size would worry me, but I quickly got use to it. I can even read magazines on it which may cause me to travel less with my Nexus 7, and as my eyes age I’m finding the OPO’s screen to be much to my liking.

The phone arrived two days after I ordered it via USPS in two separate boxes. There was a thin square one holding the phone

and underneath it a USB cable and a SIM tray removal tool. To remove the OPO SIM you need a longer tool than the standard Apple one, so I’ll have to be sure to carry it with me. In a separate small box was a wall charger.

There was zero paper and no earbuds of any sort, but I would rate the packaging equal to that of other premium products like those from Apple.

Even though it has pretty much the same size screen as the iPhone 6 Plus, the phone itself is slightly smaller and lighter, although thicker (the iPhone is wicked thin – you are almost worried you’ll bend it). The back of the “Sandstone Black” model is coated with a rough textured finish that makes the phone feel solid in your hand and I haven’t come close to dropping it.

Another improvement over the HTC is the camera. The OPO comes with a 13MB Sony Exmor IMX 214 with six physical lenses. It can shoot 4K video (including slow motion) or 720p video at 120fps. It takes nice pictures.

But you could have read that on the website. How does it fare in real life?

I was concerned with the fact it ran Cyanogenmod. When they announced they were going to take on investment to license their code to handset makers, they handled their community poorly (which resulted in the OmniROM fork) and I was worried that the OPO would be “less free”. I was happy to find out that it was very open. Unlocking the phone was the same as with Nexus devices, simple hook it up to your computer and run “fastboot oem unlock”. While I despised the “flat” icon theme that shipped with the device, it took about two taps to change it back. If I wanted a theme that looked like Windows 8 I would have bought an iPhone.

All my usual options were there. I disabled the Google search bar, increased the icon layout grid size and otherwise customized the phone exactly how I wanted it. I rooted the device and used Helium to restore my application settings and the whole conversion took less than an hour.

I did have to make a change to allow the phone to work with my Linux Mint Desktop. The system wouldn’t recognize it when I plugged it in, and I had to edit “/lib/udev/rules.d/69-libmtp.rules” to include the following two lines:

# Added for OPO
ATTR{idVendor}=="05c6", ATTR{idProduct}=="6764", SYMLINK+="libmtp-%k", MODE="660", GROUP="audio", ENV{ID_MTP_DEVICE}="1", ENV{ID_MEDIA_PLAYER}="1", TAG+="uaccess"
ATTR{idVendor}=="05c6", ATTR{idProduct}=="6765", SYMLINK+="libmtp-%k", MODE="660", GROUP="audio", ENV{ID_MTP_DEVICE}="1", ENV{ID_MEDIA_PLAYER}="1", TAG+="uaccess"

After that it was a breeze. Note: that on one system I had to reboot to get it to recognize the phone, but I don’t think I did on the first one. Strange.

There are a few shortcomings. It took me several tries to get it to pair with my Motorola T505 bluetooth speaker, but once paired it seems to connect reliably. The voice recognition sucks like most Android phones. I don’t use Google Now but I shouldn’t have to send information off to a remote server to voice dial a call. I do miss that from my iPhone days when the original (non-Siri) voice dialer rarely made a mistake. Voice dialing on the OPO is usable, though, and there is a rumour that there will be an “OK OnePlus” voice activation feature like on the Moto X but it isn’t there now. No microSD slot, but with 64GB of internal flash memory that is less of an issue and fewer and fewer phones offer that. I also just tested this little dongle I have for accessing microSD cards via the USB port and it worked just fine.

I’m sticking with the stock ROM for now to see what Cyanogenmod will do in the future, but I know that I have the ability to put on my own Recovery and ROM should I so choose. At the moment they are in the “not evil” column, but I was a little worried about their Gallery app. I noticed a new Galley app account on my phone that looked like it was going to sync my pictures somewhere. Some research suggests that it is disabled when autobackup is off, but it would still like a little more transparency about random, non-removable accounts on my phone.

All in all I’ve been very happy with the OnePlus One and I’m eager to see where they take it. I am especially enamored of the the price. At US$349, the black 64GB version is the same price as a 16GB Nexus 5 and half the price of the iPhone 6 Plus. Probably the best bang for the buck in the Android world at the moment, if not phones in general.

Review: Question Bedtime by MC Frontalot

Friday, August 15th, 2014

The best perk of my job is that I get to meet some truly amazing people. From the people I work with, to others in the open source world, to people like Damian Hess, my life has definitely been enriched by the people in it.

I was able to sponsor Damian, aka MC Frontalot, to perform at the Southeast Linuxfest (SELF) last year in Charlotte, and it was a great weekend. One evening ended up with a group of us in a hotel room, and Damian played some of the raw tracks from what would become his sixth studio album, Question Bedtime.

When he told me that he was doing an album based on bedtime stories, I was like “Wha?”. It didn’t seem to fit in with his “nerd” focus, but now that the album is out I can see why it works. First, while classics like “Goldilocks” and “Little Red Riding Hood are represented, most of the songs reference more obscure tales. Fairy tales are, by definition, fantastical, in much the same way as comic books or other geek friendly literature, so it isn’t as much of a stretch as I originally thought.

One of the tracks I heard that night at SELF was called “Devil in the Attic”. It is based on an obscure Japanese fairy tale called “The Ugly Son“. Such was their vanity, the parents of a very beautiful girl send out notice that she should only be wed to the fairest youth in all the land. Some grifters with a deformed (but intelligent) son think up a plan to wed him to her. They claim he is the fairest in the land and a courtship ensues, but based on tradition they do not see each other at first. On the night of the wedding, the boy’s father goes up into the attic of this grand house and starts claiming to be a demon who will visit a curse on the boy for daring to wed the girl, which the demon claims for himself. The curse turns out to be to deform the features of the boy – thus explaining his looks once they are revealed.

Front puts his own spin on the tale, turning it into a story of the oppression when women were considered property, as well as a lesson on conceit. In the chorus the father of the girl brags “Anything you could have, we have it. Even got a devil in the attic.”

Well, more than a year later, the CD Question Bedtime is now available for pre-order and immediate download. I’ve been listening to it for several weeks now and just got the final copy when it released this week.

The “his own spin” theme flows throughout the album. In “Gold Locks” the classic “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” story is retold from the bear’s point of view, portraying Goldilocks as the boogie man, creeping into your house to chop you up and eat you. The opening track “Start Over” is the story of “Little Red Riding Hood” as told by Front to a group of children who, in the chorus, exclaim “That ain’t how it happened”.

Just like in Solved, the album is laid out with tracks separated by little interstitial skits, this time with the theme that Front is a babysitter talking to his charges. Only they are all adults. In the opening one Front is trying to get “Li’l Kyle” (comedian Kyle Kinane) to go to sleep, and Kyle questions the arbitrary nature of a “bed time” – hence the name. It’s funny just to hear the arguments presented by the “children” in the skits – I wish I could have thought up some of those when I was younger.

I like every track on the album, but as can be expected I like some more than others. Almost all of them have a hook that will give you more earworms than the victims in The Strain. This morning I was walking around getting ready for work with “Gold Locks, gets in through your open door” on repeat in my brain.

My favorite track is “Two Dreamers” which is based on a tale from 1001 Arabian Nights. What has always attracted me to Front’s work has been the quality of the music. Too much of nerdcore rap tends to focus on the lyrics. While the lyrics are important, and Front excels at them, it is the music that takes it past novelty act and into valid art. In “Two Dreamers” there is even a bit of auto-tune, which I usually shun, but in this case it works. Quite frequently while listening to the album I switch over to Banshee and put that track on repeat.

Of course the track that is bound to be talked about the most is Wakjąkága. It is based on a tale from the native American Ho-chunk (Winnebago) tribe. Let’s just say that when I was learning how classical mythology explains things like why the sun rises and sets and why we have winter and summer, my instructors skipped over this little origin story.

If you are an MC Frontalot fan, you’ll like this album, and if you haven’t been exposed to him before, this album is his most accessible CD for non-geeks. It showcases his progression as a musician, and while my favorite tracks from Solved (“Critical Hit”, “Stoop Sale”, “Victorian Space Prostitute”) resonate with me more than the tracks on this album, they are offset by a couple of tracks I either don’t care for or actively dislike, such as “Invasion of the Not Quite Dead”. Overall, I like the album Question Bedtime the most, and tend to listen to it straight through.

As a bonus if you are an audio nerd, the download includes an 88.2kHz FLAC version which is as close as you can get to the music exactly as he mixed it. Be sure to read the README that comes with it though – if your audio card doesn’t support it he also ships a mastered 44.1kHz FLAC version that will sound better than if your media player is forced to downsample the 88.2kHz one.

Upgrades? Upgrades? We don’t need no stinkin’ …

Friday, April 25th, 2014

I am incredibly behind on blog posts, for which I apologize. Three weeks ago (sheesh) I was in the UK for the OUCE, and I owe a post on that. The week after that was filled up with meetings, mainly exciting meetings that I hope to be able to talk about in the near future, and this week I am supposed to be on vacation.

Unfortunately, I caught a nasty cold while in Southampton that I haven’t been able to completely shake and this week I hurt my back, which makes it even hard to type. As George Bernard Shaw said, youth is wasted on the young.

Anyway, apologies once again for disappointing my three readers (one of whom I met on the plane ride back from the conference, hi Greg!) and I hope to do better.

This quick, vacation week post concerns upgrades. I’ve been a bit of an upgrade fool and I thought I’d share some of my stories, most of them actually pretty positive.

The first concerns OpenNMS 1.12.6, which was released this week. That upgrade was the smoothest of the three I did. Upgrading from 1.12.5 only involved two configuration files changing: datacollection-config, which added Cisco Nexus metrics, and magic-users.properties, which added a new permission “role” for accessing the Asset Editor UI without being an admin user.

This release also addresses a security bug where an unprivileged user could get a list of user names via ReST. While not a huge issue for most OpenNMS users (How many of you still have admin/admin as the username and password? Be honest) it is still a recommended upgrade if just for all of the other fixes included.

The second upgrade I did was to the latest Ubuntu LTS, Tasty Trollop. It, too, went pretty smoothly.

Many years ago I got frustrated with my laptop and laptops in general. First off, they seemed to be expensive for the performance you received. Second, I would often have to make the “laptop drive of shame” when I forgot it on my way to the office. Finally, I just hated to have to lug it around when I wasn’t traveling.

So I saw a deal on woot for an HP desktop with pretty nice specs, and I bought two of them: one for home and one for the office. While I do have a small laptop for travel, for the most part I use these desktops, and with modern network speeds I can usually access any information I need from either machine.

Now the office machine, which is the one I use most of the time, gets a lot more attention than the one at home. While they both started out running Ubuntu 12.04 (Pastel Pederast), I upgraded the office machine to the newer, non-LTS Ubuntu releases and wasn’t as happy with them. I ended up switching to Linux Mint on both that machine and my laptop, but I left the home machine running Ubuntu.

My initial thought was to wait until Mint 17 came out and then switch to it, but I figured there could be little harm in upgrading to the new 14.04 LTS release in the meantime. The first challenge was actually getting the operating system to realize there was a release out there. I ended up running “sudo do-release-upgrade -d” with the “-d” option finally finding it and getting it started. I run a pretty vanilla setup at home, so there were only a couple of configuration files requiring attention and otherwise the whole thing went smoothly. Took about two hours to download and complete.

So far I’m pretty happy with the new release. No huge new changes, and everything seems to work well together. I did have to re-enable workspaces, and I took advantage of the new option to move application menu bars back to the window versus being in the title bar (I use a 27 inch monitor and it can get a bit tedious swiping the mouse up to the top) but other than that, I don’t see too many changes. Empathy has gotten worse, at least for me, but it was easy to switch to Pidgin. The only bug so far is that if I let the lock screen kick on automatically, a good portion of the time I can never get it to come back up: the screen just remains blank. I usually have to ssh in from another machine and reboot. Other people are reporting the problem (search on “lock screen freeze”) and I have yet to try and restart lightdm (suggested as a way to bring the desktop back), but as a workaround I just manually lock the screen whenever I leave, which is a good habit to be in in any case. I figure they’ll fix this soon.

I still prefer Cinnamon to Unity, but I’m happy using either, and due to the ease of upgrading I’ll probably stick around to using Ubuntu at home for the foreseeable future.

The final upgrade I did this week concerns OS X. I still have three Macintosh computers at home. There is an older Mac Mini that solo boots into Debian that I use for a web and file server. There is an older 24-inch iMac that tri-boots OS X, Ubuntu and Windows 7 that is usually booted to Windows since that is what my wife uses, and there is a newer Mac Mini that runs Snow Leopard and acts as my DVR using the EyeTV product. It also gathers and publishes my weather station data via wview.

I was cleaning up the DVR when an “Upgrade to Mavericks” window popped up. Now I really hated Lion and never used Mountain Lion, so there was no real reason to upgrade, except that I’ve been having an issue where I can’t add any bluetooth devices to the Mini. I really wanted to add a mouse, since some times stupid windows pop up that ruin the DVR aspect of the setup and they can be a pain to close if I have to VNC in. I figured, what could go wrong?

Of course, the first thing I did is make sure I had a full Time Machine backup. I really wish I could find a “bare iron” restore app for Linux that was as easy to use. I do like the Ubuntu backup integration with Déjà Dup, which seems to be missing in Mint so I use BackInTime, but neither offer the ease of Time Machine.

The upgrade to Mavericks didn’t go as smoothly as the others. At some point close to the end, the monitor went blank and wouldn’t come back, so I had to power cycle the system. This caused the install to start over, but the second time it finally completed. I then had to go through and turn off all of the “spyware” that seems to be on by default now. It automatically signed me up for “iCloud” which I turned off (good thing I didn’t have any contacts, etc., on this system or Apple would own them) and I also disabled Facetime, which required deleting a plist file out of the Library directory. My weather station software didn’t start because of a missing USB to Serial driver, but once that got installed things seem to work. I was even able to add a bluetooth mouse with no problem.

Then I found out that Front Row was missing.

Now when I had a Macbook, I hated Front Row. I was always turning it on by accident. But for my DVR, it made a great interface to EyeTV. Apparently Apple has dropped it since Lion, so I spent a couple of hours trying to find a replacement. When nothing I found was acceptable, and with my growing distrust of Apple with respect to the information it was going to capture on my computer, I decided to go back to Snow Leopard. Should be easy, right?

Wrong.

Both the version of Snow Leopard I have on a USB stick and the install disk that shipped with the computer would now gray screen when trying to boot. I know that Mavericks futzes around with the disk partitions, so I figure that is to blame. I was just about to boot to an Ubuntu disk just to repartition the disk when I decided to try and boot into the new “recovery” partition that Mavericks installed. While I didn’t have much hope that it would be able to access a Time Machine backup made with Snow Leopard, I was pleasantly surprised when it worked.

Another surprise came when I found out that my bluetooth mouse was still associated with the computer. I’ve always thought of the term “backup and restore” to mean one puts a set of bits into storage and then puts those same bits back. Apple has a weird interpretation of this, especially when it comes to the iPhone, where “backup and restore” can mean “perform a complete operating system upgrade in the process of putting back user data”. Apparently Time Machine is similar, and my new device settings were remembered.

So in summary, I guess the time I spent playing with Mavericks was worth it. I know now that I don’t ever want to upgrade from Snow Leopard, and I got my bluetooth issue addressed, if not fixed. Ubuntu 14.04 LTS is worth checking out, especially if you are looking to get rid of Lion/Mountain Lion/Mavericks, and do upgrade to OpenNMS 1.12.6.

You’ll be glad you did.

Review: The Circle by Dave Eggers

Thursday, March 20th, 2014

[NOTE: While I try to avoid out and out spoilers, purist may want to skip this post].

The easiest way to describe The Circle by Dave Eggers is as some sort of 1984 prequel for the digital age.

It is not a happy book.

The story follows Mae Holland, a relatively recent college graduate who is working a dead-end, soul sucking job at a local utility in a small town in California near Fresno that no one has heard of.

Through her college roommate Annie, she manages to land a job at The Circle, sort of an über Google/Facebook/Twitter company in The Valley. Annie quickly rose through the ranks at The Circle and is now part of the Gang of 40 – the 40 most influential people in the company. Through her, Mae is introduced to the culture of the company, including learning about its three founders, called the “Three Wise Men”.

Ty Gospodinov is the boy genius who created TruYou, a now ubiquitous single sign-on technology that made sure that people on the Internet were who they said they were. His goal was to remove some of the hate and vitriol that anonymity on in Internet permitted, and TruYou soon became the standard for most web-based commerce. Socially awkward and a bit of a recluse, Ty hired the other two wise men: Eamon Bailey and Tom Stenton. Eamon was the ebullient visionary and Tom the corporate man who found a way to commercialize Ty’s product which resulted in a huge IPO. They later subsumed their competitors and became the main social, search and e-commerce company in the world.

Mae was extremely happy to be at The Circle, on its gorgeous campus with all the perks one could hope for and working among all the amazing people employed there. The Circle even allowed her to put her parents on her health plan, which was important because her father suffered from MS and was having issues with his current insurance company. It was like a dream come true.

Mae’s initial role in the company was in the Customer Experience department, basically customer service. While she gets off to a great start, things start to sour in wonderland when she is reprimanded, in the nicest way possible, for not being “social” enough – not sharing enough of her life, her likes and dislikes, and getting involved with the rest of the Circle community. At times it comes across as a little sinister, and much of the story follows her fumbling steps to become fully integrated at The Circle and her efforts to excel there. She does attend more company events which eventually creates a love triangle between her, a shy fellow employee named Francis with whom she feels empowered, and a mysterious stranger named Kalden who randomly appears and disappears at the oddest times, but for whom she has a strong attraction.

My favorite aspect of the book is the technology that Eggers introduces. I’m not sure if he came up with it all on his own or, Malcolm Gladwell-like, just assembled it into a narrative. My guess is a little of both. One such innovation is called SeaChange – an inexpensive, tiny camera that can be deployed anywhere and introduced with the slogan ALL THAT HAPPENS MUST BE KNOWN. As the book progresses we learn about the impending “closing of the Circle” which is identified as the completion of some grand plan that would make Big Brother blush.

Not everyone is as thrilled as Mae with The Circle. On a visit home she sees an ex-boyfriend named Mercer. He delivered one of my favorite quotes of the book:

Listen, twenty years ago, it wasn’t so cool to have a calculator watch, right? And spending all day inside playing with your calculator watch sent a clear message that you weren’t doing so well socially. And judgments like ‘like’ and ‘dislike’ and ‘smiles’ and ‘frowns’ were limited to junior high. Someone would write a note and it would say, ‘Do you like unicorns and stickers?’ and you’d say, ‘Yeah, I like unicorns and stickers! Smile!’ That kind of thing. But now it’s not just junior high kids who do it, it’s everyone, and it seems to me sometimes I’ve entered some inverted zone, some mirror world where the dorkiest sh*t in the world is completely dominant. The world has dorkified itself.

I learned that Eggers was the founder of McSweeneys, which is really cool, and although this isn’t “Literature” with a capital “L”, his prose is well written and easy to read. I only had one issue with the book, concerning a subplot where CEO Stenton has The Circle create a submersible so that he can go to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, a lá James Cameron, and return with specimens. These animals are kept in a normal aquarium, exposed to atmosphere, which really bothered me since any life that could live at those depths would simply explode when the pressure was removed. He also talks about coral and other things that simply wouldn’t exist at those depths. I’m willing to forgive him since the whole thing is required for an metaphor at the end of the book, but it still bothered me. Plus, The eventual denouement is a little predictable, but overall I really enjoyed the book.

My reference to 1984 is not casual. While Orwell was working with post World War II technology, The Circle is what he would have imagined had he written the book today. Even the iconic “WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH” is mimicked as “SECRETS ARE LIES, SHARING IS CARING, PRIVACY IS THEFT”.

There is much more to the book, many more little jewels of social interaction that I loved, but I am trying hard not to spoil anything. It is worth checking out, and I’ll end with another of my favorite quotes, this one from Mae when she is distressed about some “frowns” she receives:

Why was there so much animosity in the world? And then it occurred to her, in a brief and blasphemous flash: she didn’t want to know how they felt. The flash opened up to something larger, an even more blasphemous notion that her brain contained too much. That the volume of information, of data, of judgments, of measurements, was too much, and there were too many people, and too many desires of too many people, and too many opinions of too many people, and too much pain from too many people, and having all of it constantly collated, collected, added and aggregated, and presented to her as if that all made it tidier and more manageable – it was too much.