Reamde – A review

On my scale of Neal Stephenson books, Reamde ranks near the bottom.  On my scale of all books, it ranks near the top.

Anathem was one of the most innovative books in that last several years.  Reamde resembles Anathem in its weird name, but Reamde is no Anathem.  But what is it?

Reamde is a page turner.  900 pages of “I can’t put this down.”  It is an action adventure story.

In chapter one we meet Richard and Zula Forthrast.  Richard is a Steve Jobs type computer company owner.  He has one product, a giant MMOPRG, called T’Rain,  that competes with WoW.  Zula is one of his nieces – twice orphaned and a former refugee from Eritrea – now she is a recently graduated university student who comes to work for her Uncle.

In chapter two, we find out a bit more about each character.  Richard has always been a bit uncomfortable in every role he’s occupied and has an incredibly colourful past.  But it is Zula’s choice in her most recent boyfriend that will drive the plot.

In chapter three, the action starts.  It never really stops for the rest of the book.  Peter and Zula become involved with Russian mobsters and Chinese fraudsters.  The MacGuffin is a file encrypted by the virus REAMDE that all three groups want.

The rest of the book?  Running and guns.   Explosions and hostages.  In addition to the Russians and Chinese layer on a bewildering array of Islamic Jihadists, American survivalists, Canadian bike gangs, British spies and one Hungarian hacker.  The first half of the book, novel length in its own right, deals primarily with the Russians and the encrypted file.  The second half, also book length, shifts to the Jihadists.

Stephenson has always loved geeks.  They get a lot of love here.  The staff of Richard’s company, Company 9592, is a lineup of interesting nerds.  Add in the Chinese virus writers, Zula’s boyfriend Peter and the hacker, Csongor and there is a lot for fans of Stephenson’s work to enjoy.  His use of action and technology is also exciting and familiar.  (Although I think Cory Doctorow’s For the Win dealt with the Chinese gold farmer is a more in-depth manner.)  But there is no science-fiction here.  It is set firmly in a present day world.

He explores the dynamics of a game company.  He looks at global terrorism.  He spends time with the MMORPG game world (but not in an Otherworld way).  And whenever something comes up that is important to the plot it gets described in detail: guns, treaded pickups, global flight paths, etc.  But most of the book is spent on the madcap action that spans the globe.  I think people will likely dislike the book for two reasons – the descriptive asides are either too frequent and distracting or Stephenson focuses too much on the plot and not enough on the exploration of these various topics.

Zula and Richard aren’t the only main characters either.  Zula drives the plot, but a vast array of people assume roles as important as Richard’s as the book progresses.  Stephenson gives each of them time in the spotlight.  The asides I explained above and the time spent with each character explain the book’s incredible length.

Why do I rank it low in the Neal Stephenson ouevre?  I miss the sci-fi.  I wanted more depth in the asides – I missed the insane detail into basically philosophy, logic and math shown in Anathem for instance.  But I was also disappointed in the end.  It surely pays out the main premise in a very satisfactory fashion.  There is a climatic gun fight that spans more than 100 pages.  But some plot elements seem to just get forgotten.  The biggest is that a war in the online world is left hanging with a game character literally wandering undirected through the game landscape.

This book most closely resembles Zodiac of Stephenson’s previous books.  That might help i the rest of my review doesn’t.  Of other writers, I don’t know of anyone quite like Stephenson.  If you have never tried him this is an easy introduction to his work.  It is hard to put down and that is trouble when there are 900 pages to turn after the first one.

But that is a good problem.

Note: I finished the book yesterday before supper.  This morning my e-mail informs me that a corrected version is available to download online.  I imagine that the revision corrects some typos, but if there is actually any major changes to the text, they are not covered in this review.

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Mouseguard the RPG

This post in no way is supposed to indicate a dissatisfaction with the current game being played Friday nights.  But I constantly read new things.

For those of you who don’t know Mouseguard is keen.  It is a comic series written and drawn by David Petersen about the adventures of mice.  The Mouseguard is an organization that protects other mice – guiding them on dangerous journeys, fending of predators and generally being knights.  Mice (and their foes weasels) are anthropomorphic.  The rest of the animals are normal.  The mice face danger on all sides as they are potential prey to almost everything else out there.  The Mouseguard wears colored cloaks and carries swords and staves.

The first series showcased the Mouseguard fighting against sakes, crabs and eventually a betrayal of one of their own and an entire army raised up against them.  They experienced loss, humiliation and fear.  But they also displayed wisdom, courage and expertise at the martial arts.  It was pretty awesome and had great, great art.

There have been three more series that follow: Winter 1152, The Black Axe and Legends of the Mouse Guard.

Mouse Guard uses five interacting mechanics:

  • target numbers from 1 to 6.  Each point in skill (1-5) allows one die roll.  1-3 is a failure, 4-6 a success.
  • roleplaying benefits: Fate points (which cause sixes to explode ala WEG Star Wars) and Persona points which allow extra dice.  They are earned by roleplaying your traits, goals, instinct and belief.  These descriptors are a lot like Fate system aspects.
  • Skills (24 skills) and abilities (3 abilities) similar to the D&D skills and attributes.
  • A streamlined combat system that mixes narrative decisions with tactical modifiers.
  • bonuses to rolls or successes from helping, gear, environmental benefits (like weather) and your traits.
  • Six wound conditions (as opposed to hit points)
  • And a different narrative framework where the first half of each session is DM driven and that second half is player driven.

The book is evenly split between establishing the setting  (territories, Mouse Guard background, roles, etc., foes and the weather and seasons) and the rules.  While not as whimsical as the Dresden rules the presentation is still very entertaining to read.

Like Dresden, Mouse guard stakes a middle ground between a tactical system like D&D and a narrative system like Esoterrorists (although Esoterrorists was still on the crunchy side of narrative games).

It seems to be a very workable and playable system.  It isn’t a perfect fit for our group – I think the setting would be a hard sell and the lack of magical elements removes a potent hook for character creation.

Relativity

I have so much to say in the last week, but neither the time nor the energy to say it. My blog has been lonely.

Physics:

If you have an observer (o) floating motionless in the water and a a dude (d) on a boat going by at 20 kph then the observer sees the dude moving at 20 kph and the dude sees the observer moving at -20 kph. The movement is relative to the field of observation. Thus relativity.

If the dude throws a baseball at 80 kph then he sees it moving away from him at 80 kph. The observer (assuming the ball is thrown in the same direction the boat is moving) sees the ball moving at 100 kph (80 +20). Cool?

But if the dude shines a flashlight, he sees the light moving away from him at the speed of light (1, 080,000,000 kph). The observer sees the light moving away at the speed of light also. NOT the speed of light + 20 kph (1,080,000,020 kph). Nope. Weird right?

This is the theory of special relativity. It is weird and counter-intuitive. For things going very, very fast physics just doesn’t add up… OK – it does still add up, but you’ve got to be ready to have your mind blown. If both the dude and the observer see light moving at the same speed from different points of reference that means that something else is changing when the boat is moving 20 kph away from the observer. For the dude, it must mean that either time is getting shorter or distance is getting longer. That is less time is passing for the dude on the boat than the observer in the water. Wild!

Now if the boat is moving fast enough, this actually starts to get noticeable. If the dude wears a wrist watch and the boat moves away from the observer at near the speed of light for a while and then comes back near the speed of light for a while, when the dude and the observer meet up and compare their watches, the dudes watch will be behind.

Still here?

Now the dude absolutely cannot move faster than light. At the speed of light, he would experience no time passing at all. His watch would show the same time he left when he gets back to the observer. And he really, really absolutely can’t move faster then the speed of light or when he got back his watch would show a time earlier than he left and that is just wack-a-doodle. (Meanwhile who knows how long our poor observer has been out there treading water! Poor observer – fortunately, I’ve chosen an observer who is a very good swimmer.)

Now we get to this week, when some scientists say they’ve spotted something going faster than the speed of light. They’ve fired this neutrino and measured how long it takes to get from point A to point B and it shows up some billionths of a second before it should be possible.

It is tempting to say that this changes everything! Modern physics – our understanding of electrodynamics, astronomy, creation, quantum mechanics and a bunch of other stuff is based on relativity. It may be counter-intuitive, but experimentally and logically it is the way things work. Zowie and wowsers! The universe is tilting under our feet!

But, but, more likely what will happen is that they’ll find a mistake. The way the measurement is done will have a small error. Or they’ll have forgotten to take some complication into account in their formulas. When all is figured, the neutrino will go slower than is being measured.

Or, maybe, just maybe, it will turn out to be true. That will be nifty. Not because it invalidates everything that came before, but because now they have to figure out how to explain it without throwing out everything else. When relativity was discovered it “invalidated” Newtonian dynamics. Well, kinda. At normal everyday speeds Newtonian dynamics work just fine. They (the dude, the observer (who is now out of the water with really pruny skin) and some scientists_ just had to concoct some alternative formulas to explain the slow moving digital watches when things are moving really, really fast.

Wouldn’t that be exciting? I think so. Figuring that out would be tres nifty.

I’m hping for that instead of there being an error in measurement. I’m a romantic.

But it might all just be relative. (Sorry, that was cheesy, but I couldn’t resist.)

Note: changed all speeds to kph because the fact I had used miles was just bugging me.

Drive – A review

Finally after a summer of big budget action comes my kind of movie.  Noir plus car chases.

Drive isn’t perfect.  I don’t understand either the musical score choices or the decision to use a pink cursive script for the titles.  I also think the violence was too graphic.  Once during a surprising and shocking scene the row behind me burst into laughter.  inappropriate laughter.  I think they were so shaken by the violence they didn’t know how to react.

In general, I think the audience didn’t know how to deal with the movie.  I think they were expecting the dreamy Ryan Gosling in a “Fast and the Furious” type pic.  That was not this movie.

Much has been said about Gosling’s decision to act the main character mostly silently.  His emotions were shown in the narrowing or his eyes, the grip of his hand on the wheel and often a slow smile.  The smile worked – it was spontaneous whenever he spent time with the child Benicio.  In fact, the relationship between the Driver and the child seemed to be the core of the movie – even more so than the romantic one between the Driver and the child’s mother, Irene, played by Carey Mulligan.  Little is spoken of Mulligan’s performance.  Like Gosling’s it existed mostly in silence as well.  I thought she was quite effective – and to my mind way dreamier than Gosling.

The plot, like most noir, is simply a structure in which the characters hang.  Driver drives.  He drives the getaway car.  He drives the stunt car in the movies.  He drives to relax and think.  When he isn’t driving, he works in a garage.  When he isn’t doing that he isn’t involved.  His apartment is barren.  He doesn’t help plan any heists or stunts.  Outside the car he barely exists – a ghost on the edges.

He makes a decision to befriend Irene and Benicio.  Because of the people that surround them a plot develops.  His boss at the garage is a penny ante con man with a history and dependency on two gangsters.   Bryan Cranston is effective as the garage owner – pitiful and cheap and desperate.  Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman play the gangsters.  Perlman is loud and large and grows more pathetic as the movie progresses.  Brooks is the opposite, but as he talks and acts, he grows more chilling in every scene.

Behind the wheel, the Driver is in control, but outside he struggles.  He struggles with a core of violence that can burst forth.   He wears the same jacket throughout.  It starts off bright and shiny and silver.  As the movie progresses it dulls and dirties and is splattered with blood.

The final catalyst is Irene’s husband, Standard.  A recently paroled thief.  A truly tragic character.  He wants nothing more than to love his wife and care for his son.  But the Driver is in their lives now.  And his criminal past just won’t leave.  Had he befriended someone else when things start to go wrong, he might go to the police.  Instead he turns to the Driver – the man who may have made him a cuckold.

Just in case it isn’t clear, this is a not a movie that will end well.

The character acting is all excellent.  The driving and chases is awesome.  The tension as things start to go wrong and you see the blackness at the core of the Driver is incredible.

I recommend this movie.  Go noir!

My favorite Hospital visit Ever!

Why not?

Back in the late seventies I was a sick little boy.  I was hit with bouts of tonsilitis over and over again.  So I was off the the hospital to get those pesky things removed.

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve never been uncomfortable at the hospital.  Because Dad worked there and we visited often, it felt like a second home.  My doctor was a little scary – but only because he was big and hairy – he was alway friendly and called me “champ”.  I had little dread (that I remember) of the short stay or the surgery itself.  It remains to the day the most drastic surgery I’ve ever had.

The procedure went very well.  I woke up in my hospital room with a very sore jaw, but otherwise no worse for wear.  Here is what made it great:

  1. Everyone was really nice to me during the stay.  I had visits from folks we knew on the hospital staff.  I felt like I was the centre of the whole world for a day.
  2. I got this nifty paper crafts book as a get well gift.  You made little cut and fold buildings from templates in the book.  When you were done you ended up with a small city made of paper.  It was the coolest thing ever.
  3. I was promised ice cream, but I only got Jello.  Hah!  Only got Jello?  I loved Jello (still do).  The treat alone made it all worth it.
  4. Even when I returned home, the fun didn’t end.  My Mom called the radio station and had them play me favorite song, “There’s a Hippo in the Bathub.”  How cool is that?

All in all, it was all a pretty good time.  I wonder if I’ve just forgotten being scared?  Doesn’t matter.  I remember it as a good time now!

Weekly Awesome Sauce Recap

I felt summer end and fall begin this weekend.

I scheduled DATS wrong on Saturday and spent an hour and a half outside waiting for my bus.  At first I sat out in the sun – reading a book, watching the pedestrian students, thinking of Dad and enjoying the rays.  But it was too hot to spend the time in the full sun.  i needed to move into the shade.  Dad would have called me a wuss.  🙂

Yesterday I spent 20 minutes outside after mass waiting for the bus.  During that time the wind picked up, the sun disappeared and he temperature seemed to plummet.  I was chilled as I finally boarded the bus.  Brr!

I miss the summer already.

The week started modestly.  I took Tuesday off work.  I used the time to run some quick errands – but nothing Mom wants me to accomplish.  Sorry Mom.

Wednesday was back to work.  Crazy.  Tim came over in the evening for comics.  We ordered Pete’s a Pie pizza.

Thursday was another adventure.  I got to sleep in the morning and then work from home.  In the afternoon, I headed to the Mis for a round of sonic stone blasting.  I’m still a bit torqued that I wasn’t allowed to drive there and back on my scooter so Mom had to accompany me.  But the surgery went great and was successful.

Friday was back to work for another full day.  Crazy.  Even though I only worked 2.5 days the project is moving forward with gusto.

Friday night we had a surprisingly small turnout for gaming.  Trips, farewell dinners and football games all cut into the normal attendance.  My favorite person was there though.  I drank too much.  My last drink was my second beer and as I asked for it, I was thinking “two beer.  That isn’t much!”  But I forgot the cider and the two fingers of scotch that preceded it.  (proceeded?) I paid for that the next morning with a headache that never really went away.

The scotch was a gift and was very nice!  Thanks to the gifters!

We played two rounds of Ghost Stories.  We were trounced once and one once.  There was some great teamwork in the second game.  We also got out butts kicked in the weekly trivia.  It must have been bad questions.

Saturday I started teaching the Pharmacy public speaking course at the U.  It went great!  The only downside was I ate a big plate of fruit for lunch and my system isn’t used to that much fruit.  My stomach started to make unhappy noises abut 1.5 hours later.

My class looks awesome.  They will be the best of all classes this year.  They didn’t laugh at most of my jokes though.  I’m not allowed to fail them for that.  Life can be unfair.

This was also the week that Keenan Hebert was taken and returned.  That was a great way to end the week!  I’m strangely distanced from the bad news although I’ve been peripherally involved in both another disappearance and a different tragedy with a child.  But the Hebert’s have ties back to Peace River so many, many friends on Facebook were passionately involved in the search, spreading word and prayer.  I gave up hope after 72 hours and Keenan fell from my prayers.  I was so astounded Sunday morning.  Thanks be to God for not matching my cynicism.

It seemed fitting that the readings and sermon at church were about anger and forgiveness.  Not 7 times, but 77 times.

That is all I’ve got.  No post tomorrow – be busy with the teaching.  See y’all Wednesday!