Friday, September 28, 2012

Book review: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick

Plot summary from Amazon:

“By 2021, the World War had killed millions, driving entire species into extinction and sending mankind off-planet. Those who remained coveted any living creature, and for people who couldn’t afford one, companies built incredibly realistic simulacrae: horses, birds, cats, sheep. . . They even built humans.

Emigrées to Mars received androids so sophisticated it was impossible to tell them from true men or women. Fearful of the havoc these artificial humans could wreak, the government banned them from Earth. But when androids didn’t want to be identified, they just blended in.

Rick Deckard was an officially sanctioned bounty hunter whose job was to find rogue androids, and to retire them. But cornered, androids tended to fight back, with deadly results.”

My enduring impression of Dick is that he is a genius when it comes to visions. The worlds he creates, the stories, the ideological conflicts — all are arresting and immediately engrossing. As a writer though, the words he puts on the page somehow fail (for me anyway) to inspire the kind of electric energy that could bring his books to the next level. That’s how it is with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the story that inspired the film Blade Runner. If you’ve seen the film before reading this book, you may be surprised, as I was, as to how different the book actually is. Without getting into a detailed description of all of the elements that were changed for the screenplay, I’ll just say that I think Blade Runner did a better job with Dick’s story than Dick did.

I rarely feel this way when it comes to books vs. movie adaptations, but I don’t really think this book is required reading at this point. It’s bizarre: very cold and detached, with all of the tension building to Deckard’s final showdown with the remaining androids, though the final meeting wraps up in a matter of seconds. It’s the ultimate in anti-climatic; I literally blinked and missed it and had to go back and make sure I had really just read the entire encounter in about four sentences. I don’t really have much else to say. It’s a short review for a short book.

Book review: The Vampire Lestat and Queen of the Damned by Anne Rice

I’m doing these two together because I read them together, and because Queen of the Damned picks up right were Lestat left off. Beginning in Lestat, the titular character has awoken some time in the 1980′s after years of sleep. He comes across the “memoir” Interview with the Vampire, written by Louis, the vampire he had created over a century earlier. He decides, partly to get the attention of Louis, and partly to set the record straight, to form a hugely popular rock band and release an album and novel (all called “The Vampire Lestat”) at the same time to create intrigue. What we are reading, then, is his novel of his early life as a vampire, bookended by more recent exposition at the time of his awakening.

Queen of the Damned begins on the evening of The Vampire Lestat’s debut concert, when Lestat’s music has awoken Akasha, the millenia-old original vampire. Lestat is the narrator of this story, too, but he has also “collected” the stories of other vampire characters as they concern their whereabouts and doings that evening of Akasha’s rise. Akasha, herself, has a plan (that Valerie Solanas would love) to “save” humankind from itself, and she has taken Lestat with her as her prince to put the plan into motion.

Taken together with Interview with the Vampire, I found the story overall to progressively pick up steam. Interview was an interesting read, but a rather slow one. Lestat started off much the same, and I wasn’t intensely interested in most of his backstory; he engaged in a lot of the kind of existential whining and drama that Louis did for most of Interview. It wasn’t really until Lestat relates the story of Marius, which gets into the detailed history of vampires themselves and introduces Akasha and Enkil, the original Mother and Father, that I started to really feel engaged. That anticipation continued into Queen, and as such I finished this novel much more quickly than either of the other two. It had a lot more action, and the idea that it was taking place in the present rather than being presented as a memoir worked to up the excitement for me as well. Finally, in the third novel, we also get to meet many more of the older vampires, and the dynamics of the group as they come together provided a welcome dimension of interaction that differed from the histrionic “fatal attraction” type of love that was often described between several of the vampire “couples.”

As these are “classic” (in their own way) vampire novels, it is hard for me to recommend some over the other, as there are extremes these days in what people like in their vampire stories. For me, if I were to do it over again, I would skip Interview entirely and begin with Lestat’s story. Though the first half of the novel wasn’t my favorite, it provided the necessary backstory to understand Queen, which was my favorite.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Things I was really proud of when I was younger

Maybe as a kid you weren't as competitive as I was, but if you were, you may be able to relate to my experience of turning the dumbest things into a competition. Here are some I was actually proud of "winning" as a youngster:
  • Having the fastest WPM on "Mario Teaches Typing"
  • Having the biggest shoe size among my girl friends
  • Being the "best" girl longjumper in my class (my Olympic dreams were promptly and thoroughly dashed at our first track meet which involved other schools)
  • Having the most successful "business" of leasing out my Beanie Babies for the day to sit on the desktops of other students who were not fortunate enough to own their own Beanie Babies -- No shit. I actually did this. There was a sign up sheet on my locker, and for a small fee of whatever-it-was-I-don't-remember I would let classmates rent my Beanie Babies for the day so that they could avoid looking dreadfully uncool by not having them around in class. Other people caught onto what I was doing and tried to replicate it, but I was the original gangsta and no one came close to my entrepreneurship
  • Being tall enough to stand in the back row for class pictures
  • Building the longest clover chains
  • Finding substantial vats of "Indian clay" -- I can't even begin to describe what this could have actually been, but it was what we called the clay-like mud that occasionally could be found underneath our sand pits and the like. So PC of us...
  • Being able to withstand Indian burns the longest -- and as long as I'm remembering inappropriate uses of "Indian," here is another dumb accomplishment. Who is actually proud of letting their classmates injure the shit out of their arm skin? I was!
Were you a goofy kid too?

Monday, September 17, 2012

Things I do not need

That Durex ad that has been playing on Spotify for the last few weeks (not gonna link to it because of reasons, and I'm sure you've heard it if you listen to Spotify.)

Why I do not need this:
  1. I'm at work
  2. I'm disgruntled that a company that purports to specialize in sex, by way of making condoms, engages in tired-ass stereotyping about the kind of sex 'women' vs 'men' like to have
  3. I'm at work. Seriously. There are people around.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

"More trial, less error"

Here is an interesting article about reproducibility in science -- a really important concept that falls by the wayside more often than it should.

There is a daunting amount of research that is published monthly in every scientific field, including the social sciences. Papers often contradict each other, indicating unreliable results or results that are specific to the conditions in which the experiments were performed, or the group that was surveyed, etc. Many other published works, though, go unchallenged for months or years before anyone else attempts to recreate the experiment, or improves the experimental method or designs a new method. In this time, other work may be done that accepts these results as fact and begins a new phase of experimentation that builds on the inherent assumption that the prior work was true. This can result in impossible projects or increasingly stacked publication of unreliable data, if the initial assumption was a bad one.

This is why projects like the "Reproducibility Initiative," discussed in the linked article, are so important:
"‘Published' and ‘true' are not synonyms," said Brian Nosek, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and a member of the initiative's advisory board.
Last year, Bayer Healthcare reported that its scientists could not reproduce some 75 percent of published findings in cardiovascular disease, cancer and women's health.
In March, Lee Ellis of M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and C. Glenn Begley, the former head of global cancer research at Amgen, reported that when the company's scientists tried to replicate 53 prominent studies in basic cancer biology, hoping to build on them for drug discovery, they were able to confirm the results of only six.
The new initiative, said Begley, senior vice president of privately held biotechnology company TetraLogic, "recognizes that the problem of non-reproducibility exists and is taking the right steps to address it."
Those are some pretty awful statistics. Without knowing exactly what studies these scientists were able to reproduce, the use of the word "prominent" suggests to me that these could have been studies in higher-impact journals, which are supposed to have more rigorous peer-review and editing standards in order to avoid publishing sloppy science. The top journals are not completely immune to publication of "bad" or problematic studies, but it is supposed to happen less often.

The initiative is a great idea and offers an important service. We need more resources like this in science, double-checking results to verify their validity. We need these resources to be available in a trustworthy environment, so that lead scientists feel comfortable sharing their data and techniques without fear of getting "scooped" -- I believe that this (justifiable) fear is what prevents a lot of these checks from happening in the first place, so these "validation labs" would need to be neutral, non-competitive environments.

The diseases we are studying are complicated enough as is, and we don't need bad data or results obscuring their true nature and causes any more than the human body already does.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Book review: Partials by Dan Wells

Amazon: “The human race is all but extinct after a war with Partials—engineered organic beings identical to humans—has decimated the population. Reduced to only tens of thousands by RM, a weaponized virus to which only a fraction of humanity is immune, the survivors in North America have huddled together on Long Island while the Partials have mysteriously retreated. The threat of the Partials is still imminent, but, worse, no baby has been born immune to RM in more than a decade. Our time is running out.
Kira, a sixteen-year-old medic-in-training, is on the front lines of this battle, seeing RM ravage the community while mandatory pregnancy laws have pushed what’s left of humanity to the brink of civil war, and she’s not content to stand by and watch. But as she makes a desperate decision to save the last of her race, she will find that the survival of humans and Partials alike rests in her attempts to uncover the connections between them—connections that humanity has forgotten, or perhaps never even knew were there.”

I’m just going to keep on rolling with the dystopian/survival thing. Partials was a lot of fun: there is a varied cast of characters, personality-wise and racial/ethnically (fistbump for diversity in YA literature,) a great fast pace that had me finishing this one in about a day, and a nice twist in the middle of the book. The protagonist, Kira Walker, is an interesting character. She’s kind of a smartass, and she’s intelligent, moral, and brave. I also really enjoyed the aspect that within the community of surviving humans, it’s not as if there is complete peace and concord. The government has enacted some desperate measures that divide the survivors and has caused some of them to live in the open, beyond the protection of the Defense Grid and therefore more immediately vulnerable to attack from the Partials. The particular law at the center of the ideological chasm is the Hope Act, which states that women 18 and older are required to try and get pregnant as often as possible, in order to potentially have even a single child that is born immune to the RM virus. It’s drastic in the way that government laws often are in dystopian literature, but still, it eerily reflects a political climate today in the US that seems rather focused on legislating women’s bodies. Partials was published early in 2012; I’m not sure, given the timing of writing and publication, if Wells was “inspired” by current events, or that the similarities are coincidental. In any case, the parallels did amp up my reading experience.

Overall, this one is recommended. It’s a quick read, with a story that draws you in, and IMO likeable characters. I’m looking forward to the sequel next year (are there any YA novels coming out right now that don’t have intended sequels?)

Brilliant Internet Comment

From this post:

To be fair, if you are the kind of guy who whine on about man-hating feminists, there’s a pretty good chance that many feminists do indeed hate you (I know I do). Your mistake is thinking that this is because of your gender rather than your repugnant, insufferable, ugly personality, your rude, obnoxious, boorish behavior, your petty, small-minded, self-righteous sense of entitlement, your sociopathic disregard for the feelings of your fellow human beings unless they happen to have/be a dick like yourself, your hateful, intolerant, fascistic bigotry, and your general lack of any traits that any person in his/her right mind could find anything other than infinitely disgusting. And I haven’t even gotten to the bad part yet.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Book review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

From Amazon: “The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night. 
But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway: a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them both, this is a game in which only one can be left standing. Despite the high stakes, Celia and Marco soon tumble headfirst into love, setting off a domino effect of dangerous consequences, and leaving the lives of everyone, from the performers to the patrons, hanging in the balance.”

I’m not going to spend a ton of time on little details because I'm a lazy reviewer again today.

I will, however, offer criticism, as this book wasn’t 100% perfect for me. (Yes, I’m holding it to a higher standard than my pet genre of YA dystopian lit.) Essentially, what everyone before me has said is true: Morgenstern is a master storybuilder, and her vivid imagination of the Night Circus leaps off the page. It’s lush and beautiful and it’s the circus I wish I have always wanted to see. The off-linear pacing from the converging timelines was skillfully performed, but I was a little distracted by the second-person narratives that were thrown in from time to time.

But the biggest issue for me was the romance. I couldn’t grasp any motivation or reasoning behind Celia and Marco falling in love, other than that they were “supposed to.” As far as I can tell, Marco is enchanted at first sight, but Celia never seems to much register his existence; then, she discovers that he is her “opponent,” and a few brief meetings later, they are DEEPLY IN LOVE, owing to their magical cosmic connection or something. Celia goes from a strong, composed, charismatic and powerful person into a simpering “I don’t have the strength to do this without him!” trope.

It was so easy, with the rest of this book, to be picked up and swept away into the beauty and magic of the circus. The romance dragged me out of my reverie; it was too cliched and seemed to have been built on nothing. Clearly, this was not as distracting for a lot of people as it was for me, and truthfully, I still do highly recommend this book. It is a gorgeous and unique read, and it was evocative of vivid imagery in a way that few other novels have been recently. I just could have been truly blown away with some more depth to the characters and more truth to their romance.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Book review: The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

Amazon description: “The times and species have been changing at a rapid rate, and the social compact is wearing as thin as environmental stability. Adam One, the kindly leader of the God’s Gardeners–a religion devoted to the melding of science and religion, as well as the preservation of all plant and animal life–has long predicted a natural disaster that will alter Earth as we know it. Now it has occurred, obliterating most human life. Two women have survived: Ren, a young trapeze dancer locked inside the high-end sex club Scales and Tails, and Toby, a God’s Gardener barricaded inside a luxurious spa where many of the treatments are edible.
Have others survived? Ren’s bioartist friend Amanda? Zeb, her eco-fighter stepfather? Her onetime lover, Jimmy? Or the murderous Painballers, survivors of the mutual-elimination Painball prison? Not to mention the shadowy, corrupt policing force of the ruling powers…

Meanwhile, gene-spliced life forms are proliferating: the lion/lamb blends, the Mo’hair sheep with human hair, the pigs with human brain tissue. As Adam One and his intrepid hemp-clad band make their way through this strange new world, Ren and Toby will have to decide on their next move. They can’t stay locked away…”

(This is going to be kind of a lazy review — sorry.) Like Oryx and Crake, I had a bit of trouble with this one. Not so much with the story or the book itself, I suppose, but the way that Atwood (and many reviewers) seem to think that this world is an inevitability. I suppose only time will tell if I’m the one that’s naive here, but I find all of the “a world so similar to our own” rhetoric around these two books a bit overdramatic and tinfoil-hat-y. I mean, sure, genetic engineering and gene-splicing exist, but not like this. There are elements of truth and feasibility, but I don’t think we are depraved enough collectively to move in the direction portrayed in these novels. We’ll see, I guess.

Anyway, story-wise, I liked this one more than Oryx and Crake, mostly because I liked the narrators in The Year of the Flood a lot better than I liked Jimmy/Snowman in Oryx and Crake. What can I say — Toby and Ren’s backstories of survival and coping with adversity were a lot more interesting than Jimmy’s “Woe is me, my best friend is smarter than me and I’m in love with a manic pixie dream former child prostitute” memoir. The narrative gets a little jumpy, as the characters’ backstories catch up to the present, and the switches between character POVs are broken up by God’s Gardener sermons and hymns, which I found a little trite and tiring. Overall though, it was an interesting read, but not one of my favorite books this year.