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Zion & Bryce National Parks
We went to Utah last week and I got some photos of Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park. (Shawn hastens to point out that Bryce is not actually a canyon!) Anyway.

One Doctor

I just finished reading One Doctor: Close Calls, Cold Cases, and the Mysteries of Medicine by Brendan Reilly, M.D. I realize a book by a doctor sounds boring, but it was actually quite a page turner! It was very easy to read and I found it hard to put it down.

Dr. Reilly writes in the first person, describing his extensive experience as a "generalist" primary care physician, both decades ago and today. Each story is intensely personal, describing specific patients and their stories, including those of his own parents. These stories illustrate how we think about health and treatment, and how healthcare has changed over the years. Not all for the better.

This book also made me consider more deeply how I think about disease treatment and death. Doctors have an unusual perspective on death that seems strange at first: the fact that we all will die. The fact that we have choices to make about how we die. That there may be worse things than dying, and that it's important to know what that means for yourself.

These ideas are so matter-of-factly obvious to a doctor, but are things that many people never think about. But it's relevant to all of us, especially since we will increasingly face these issues at the end of our lives.

Low flying rocks

This week was the Persied meteor shower, which we watched this week after moonset and, to a vastly lesser degree, photographed. A couple of shots:

And I even got a rather underwhelming meteor!

Mendocino

Last month I visited the shores and redwoods of Mendocino with my mom. I didn't get very many good shots, so these are the ones that came out least badly.

First, a weird lighthouse that they let you climb around in:

Next, some ferns in a redwood grove:

There was also moss.

And some vines.

The end.

Security guard

I found this not-so-little guy hanging out on our screen door. He's about 4 inches long. I guess our moths are delicious?

The Martian

I just finished reading The Martian by Andy Weir. In a word, this was a fantastic book which I would recommend to nearly anyone.

Page one finds our hero, a NASA astronaut named Mark Watney, accidentally left behind on Mars after his mission goes wrong. Unconscious and bleeding, he is the now the only living thing on the entire planet. He can be rescued if he can find a way to survive for two years using 30 days worth of leftover supplies, making his way over 2000 kilometers to the next mission site. Without running out of air. Or food. Or water. Or shelter. And establishing communications somehow. Other than that, he's fine.

The most important thing you need to know about the book is that it is really funny! I was laughing with almost every page, and could not stop reading. The narrative is comprised mostly of written diary entries from Mark, and he handles the impossible odds he faces with liberal gallows humor. I giggled more or less constantly at his funny layman's explanations of all the crazy jury-rigging he does to stay alive.

Despite the high drama, the diary entry format lightens the mood of the book considerably. Since the main character is telling you what happened each day, you know that he must have lived through it or else he wouldn't still be writing diary entries. That alleviates some of the nail-biting tension you might otherwise feel as you read.

Also: having worked with an astronaut I can tell you that the NASA characters seem realistic; they are smart, funny, practical people with a wry outlook on life-threatening situations. If a NASA austronaut ever really were stranded on Mars, this is probably how they would act.

The book's only downside is that the premise that strands Mark in the first place is a touch improbable, but otherwise the science seems very thoroughly researched. It certainly passed my "Wired Magazine" level understanding of physics, chemistry, computers, telecommunications, botany, and orbital mechanics.

Highly recommended!

Daemon and Freedom

Wow, reading up a storm this summer. I just finished Daemon by Daniel Suarez, and its sequel, Freedom.

Nominally set in the present day, Daemon opens as a who-dun-it and then evolves into a thought-provoking techno-thriller. There's nearly nothing spoiler-free I can say about the plot... the main characters include a detective, a reporter, a thief, an ex-KGB software engineer, an NSA codebreaker, and some military guys, all pitting their wits against an ace video game programmer who dies of cancer on page 2 of the book. So that's interesting.

The action and plot are well developed and made me want to stay up late to keep reading and find out what happens next. The computerized arch-enemy of the book is genuinely intriguing. And much of the computer tech is well researched and plausible; if the author isn't a network programmer, he certainly interviewed one extensively.

On the downside, there are some fancy tech-feats later in the book that are a bit beyond present-day technology, so the skeptical reader will need to suspend disbelief by reading the book as set in the "near future" rather than literally the present day. And there is some mass social engineering portrayed in the book that is a touch far-fetched.

Overall an enjoyable read even if you're a computer professional. And then, on to the sequel:

If Daemon is a techno-thriller, Freedom is an economics thriller. It portrays an interesting unfolding of world political and economic events that, while not necessarily plausible, are certainly very interesting to think about.

As the action-packed plot unfolded, I found myself rooting for some antagonists from the previous book, and disliking some of the protagonists as well, all clearly the author's well-crafted intent. The book has a good arc and never bores.

Unfortunately the second book has a pretty heavy-handed political message about the perils of modern society that had me rolling my eyes a few times. Demands on the reader's skepticism become more severe in the sequel, since extreme world events are portrayed that forced me to ask myself, "oh come on, that probably wouldn't really happen". Some of the computer-augmented combat scenes in the sequel are also a bit implausible compared to the first book. So not perfect.

Overall, Freedom is well written and provides a satisfying conclusion to the two-book story with only minimal eye-rolling. It's not high literature but it has some ideas that are worth thinking about. A cautious thumbs up to the pair if you're looking for a fun action read.

Against a Dark Background

I just finished reading Against a Dark Background, a science fiction novel by Iain Banks that is, for a change, not set in the Culture universe.

Our hero is a wealthy brat on the run from a religious cult bent on murdering her for her family lineage. She gets back together with her neurologically synchronized troupe of war buddies of questionable morals from back when they flew combat spaceships during the Tax Wars. Together they scour the solar system hunting for the ancient artifacts that would clear her name. Hijinks ensue.

As with the Culture novels, Banks packs Against a Dark Background with creative technological and social ideas intertwined with explosive adventure and a touch of dark humor. The book includes several unique settings that showcase Banks' imaginative future vision.

Unlike the Culture novels, the characters are not particularly noble and the stakes are not particularly high. Nobody is out to save the galaxy or enlighten a race of billions. They want to make some money and save their own skin, little else. As a result, the story is certainly unpretentious, and the characters are reasonably believable if not always terribly likable.

My least favorite element of the book is that some of the nonstop action scenes get a bit incoherent; the writing gets muddy and it's not always clear what's going on. It's still more readable than Remember Phelbus, but you can tell that Banks got better at writing action sequences after this book was published.

The book is standalone, concluding in a way that is basically satisfying and does not demand a sequel or anything. (Although Banks did publish an epilogue on the pulisher's website, since the last chapter is action-oriented and could stand to wrap up the story a teensy bit better.)

Overall I recommend this book, it was a fun read that sits nicely beside the more expansive Culture novels.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

I just finished The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which was recommended to me as one of the least bad Heinlein books.

Published in 1966, the book imagines a grimly realistic future of resource-starved overpopulation on Earth, and harsh living conditions on a penal lunar colony. The story is told by our first-person narrator, a lunar convict and computer technician who recollects the moon's rebellion and declaration of independence. The book is written entirely in his slightly tiresome but basically decipherable lunar street slang.

It's interesting to judge how Heinlein's half-century-old technological predictions hold up: reasonably well, actually, with the unsurprising exception of the computer technology. Heinlein overshoots on his portrayal of an artificial intelligence, which is a basically human-acting main character. And he undershoots on the ubiquity and decentralization of computing power, mobile computing, and networking. But most other technical elements related to space travel, orbital mechanics, radio communication, disease, and colony construction seemed pretty well-considered and interesting to this reader.

The social themes of the book, however, are comparatively outlandish. Heinlein largely romanticizes a lawless, decentralized, anarchistic lunar society featuring vigilante justice masquerading as chivalry. The main characters gleefully eschew peace between Earth and Luna, instead manipulating the colonists into violently gambling their lives through propaganda and misinformation. Heinlein assures us that this is all for the greater good, not even once entertaining questions of the ethics of these tactics. In only one or two places is it offhandedly mentioned that such a society has a roughly 50% mortality rate, and even that is romanticized as having darwinian merit. It's difficult to tell if Heinlein is advocating, cautioning, or merely predicting that in the future, individual human lives will have little value.

My main practical criticism of the book is that a lot of boring pages are spent examining the implausible computer tech at the beginning, before the story itself gets interesting. The tedious slang-speak is also an annoyance, since it can be frustrating to parse if you're reading sleepily before bed time.

But on the bright side, there is genuine suspense and action in the latter half of the book, which has entertainment value almost justifying its 400 page length. I would recommend this book if you're in the mood for some retro-future sci fi from one of the biggest, if not the best, pioneers of the genre.

The Gandalara Cycle

When I was a kid I read this fantasy trilogy called The Gandalara Cycle that I found on my sister's night stand. I remember it being awesome, so over the winter I re-read it to see if it was any good to these old eyes. Details:

The main character is an elderly American linguistics professor with terminal cancer who meets a young, beautiful Italian heiress aboard a moon-lit cruise ship. They enjoy about 7 paragraphs of witty banter and then are both killed in a meteor strike. How's that for an intro!

Our hero then awakens in the middle of a scorching desert wasteland in the body of a young swordsman. He has no idea where he is or how he got there, or how to escape the desert. After being dragged to safety by what turns out to be his giant life-bonded telepathic riding lion (yes seriously), he must decide how to live the life of the young scoundrel whose body he's taken in this medieval world of desert heat, battle cats, and mind power.

The first 200 pages are surprisingly captivating. It's fun to watch the our professorial hero guess at the details of the swordsman's life, accidentally correct some of his youthful mistakes, and figure out the fantasy world. I enjoyed reading it even though I remembered how all the mysteries come out.

But after the first 200 pages, things go downhill. In retrospect this trilogy is clearly a Young Adult Fantasy offering: long on fisticuffs and short on sex, swear words, and plausible characters. But also because of that, it's very easy to read; even slow readers could zip through the 3 book series in a few days. Overall, though, the trilogy is probably not enjoyable for an adult audience. There are many flaws, but I'll pick on just one:

To create drama and romance comprehensible to a pre-teen audience, the authors basically have all the characters quarrel like middle school children for 600 pages. Our hero is wise and level-headed when it suits the plot, but then turns inexplicably into a rash jerk to create conflict with his allies between major plot points. Kids might see their own youthful impulsiveness in this behavior, but to an adult reader it is tiresome and implausible.

Overall I recommend this book to YA readers, but not adults. There's a lot of creative ideas, lots of adventure, and a satisfying if slightly corny reveal at the end. The books also prominently feature the Loyal Animal Friendship theme, which I was largely indifferent to as an adult but remember really enjoying as a nerdy kid. It's a nice escape from the confusing roller-coaster of middle school clique membership.

But the implausible character interactions and somewhat corny plot tropes are likely a fatal turn-off for grownups.


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