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Wrong side
I recently went on vacation to the wrong side of the world, where they made me drive on the wrong side of the road. Amongst other things this was an interesting cognitive experiment, in which I learned things like:
  • New Zealanders really like their hot-rod Subarus. I saw more blatting, body-kitted WRXs and STIs there even than in the Bay Area.
  • Shifting a manual transmission with my left hand instead of my right was surprisingly intuitive. Perhaps even an improvement on the cars I'm used to. I adapted to it within a few minutes and never thought about it again.
  • Driving in the left lane was completely unintuitive and also terrifying. I did eventually get used to the highways, but every intersection was frightening. I turned into the oncoming traffic lane only once, but I almost did it about 50 times.
  • Due to (I assume) the exorbitant cost of yellow paint in the Southern hemisphere, all of the lines on the road are white and dashed, regardless of their meaning. This led me to a strategy of cowering at the far left edge of the road at all times.
  • In our right-hand-drive car, the steering column stalks were flipped--- the turn signal is on the right and the windshield sprayer etc is on the left. As a result, I found myself wiping furiously at people to let them know that I was coming into their lane. I did not ever get used to this.
  • Unfortunately, it also rained while I was in New Zealand, which caused me to sometimes signal for the rain to get off of the windshield. (This was not effective.)
  • I almost got us T-boned about 3 times. I eventually decided that pulling out into traffic is done most safely by assuming that cars can come from all directions.
  • I don't recall using the rear view mirror pretty much at all. I mean, what's it doing over there on my left?
  • It's briefly shocking to get into the driver's seat and then not find any steering wheel. I only did this once.
  • My passenger reported several temptations to actuate the emergency brake, since from his perspective it's exactly where it should be, were he driving.
  • While going around one of New Zealand's many round-a-bouts, I noticed, as I exited, a white arrow painted on my lane pointed straight back at the car. In retrospect this was a good indication that I had gone backwards around a traffic circle. I only did this once that I noticed.
  • Upon driving my own car when I got home, I only twice thwapped my left hand against the driver's door expecting to find the shifter. This confusion wore off quickly.
  • However, I do still sometimes wipe at people as I change lanes. I am hoping this will wear off in the coming years.
I hope you can learn something from my experience, like: take more taxis.
Children of the Sky

(This entry cross posted from our media review blog.)

Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge is one of my favorite science fiction books of all time. This book, Children of the Sky, is a much-awaited sequel that I just finished.

Unfortunately I didn't enjoy the majority of the book. This is mostly my own fault, because i broke my personal rule of not having high expectations--- I desperately wanted an amazing continuation of the amazing story, and I should have remembered the lesson of Greg Bear: the sequel is never as good.

So my purpose here is mainly to save you from Children of the Sky with some spoiler-free expectation-setting.

First, this book is about as direct a sequel as you can imagine. It's critical to have read Fire Upon the Deep, because the characters are all the same, and their histories with each other are important. (However, it's not important to have read "Deepness in the Sky", which is a fine book but irrelevant to this story.)

Second, you should know that the whole story takes place on the Tine's world. Don't expect to turn the page and find a chapter about some soaring ultradrive civilization in the Transcend. It doesn't happen.

Third, I am here to report to you that there's no grand ending: some of the story concludes, but large, important questions are still unresolved as the book ends. So if you go in (as I did) holding your breath for a total resolution, you will be disappointed. Hard to say more without spoilers!

Instead, the book is sort of about the characters and the politics of their little village. But it's mainly an exhaustive extrapolation of the Tines' physiology, society, and technology--- especially in contrast to humans. Vinge has thought most thoroughly about what it might be like for a super-advanced civilization to be marooned on a medieval planet. The degree of detail is fascinating, and is the best part of the book.

The narrative itself is mainly about politics, which was sometimes interesting but sometimes annoying to me. The main character, Ravna, is basically likable, but she has self-esteem issues which (to Vinge's credit) he captures in the voice of the writing. The result is probably honest ("how would a librarian fare in a world of violent, cut-throat politics") but also irritating ("grow a spine already, you stupid girl!") At the risk of being a slave to fashion, I found it grating to read a weak, gullible female main character.

Besides my complaints about plot and characters, the book has some flaws that sometimes made me want to give up on it. There is a 200 page arc where most of what happens is that committees are formed and have meetings. There's an entire chapter in which the only thing that happens is that a character prepares to give a PowerPoint presentation. There's 50 pages devoted to describing a circus act. I think Vinge meant to develop characters with these scenes, but I could have done without them.

The final 200 pages of the book were pretty exciting, but the rest was sometimes a slog. Overall I would cautiously recommend this book to Vinge fans who found the Tines creatures fascinating, and want to read about them for 600 more pages. But if you're like me and you're looking for a broader resolution to "Fire Upon the Deep", you'll have to keep waiting.

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