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Jul. 21st, 2014 @ 10:43 am Comments on "An Open Rant to Aspiring Superheroes"
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Jul. 20th, 2014 @ 11:48 pm How I Met Your Mother finale
For nine seasons, HIMYM is the often INCREDIBLY, INCREDIBLY annoying, sometimes sweet, sometimes funny story of Ted and friends, and all the ways Ted messes up relationships, told as the story of Ted explaining to his children how he first met their mother.

I really liked most of the last season (with a few unfortunate exceptions) with all the little hints with other cast members meeting the children's mother, and Ted not quite doing so yet, but having flashforwards to things they did together.

I'd assumed that any ending would be a let down, assuming that Ted would meet the children's mother in the last episode, and there was no possible way that could be a surprise. But I was very pleasantly surprised that they built up a whole season showing Ted and the children's mother continually nearly meeting, and showing her meeting the other characters, and building her up as a character, it felt like if they just capped it off with the expected meeting at the end, it would have been perfect, much better than I expected for a show built around a premise that encapsulated its own ending, and dragged out for nine seasons.

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Jul. 20th, 2014 @ 11:45 pm Cambridge Shakespeare Festival -- Twelfth Night
I don't have much time this week, but I'd like to go to another of the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival plays today (Monday) if I have time, probably Twelfth Night (Kicking off at 7.30 at the back of John's College). Would anyone else like to come?

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Jul. 20th, 2014 @ 11:01 pm Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson
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I really enjoyed this! It had the same strengths of Sanderson's other books, of an interesting magic system the interactions and implications of which are important to the plot. But it was on a slightly less epic scale than many of his other books which worked better for me.

It dealt with a major country, famed for its richness and dye production and council of the magically-reborn worshipped as fairly decadent but well-meaning gods, and small neighbouring country. But it didn't attempt to describe a whole world completely different (covered with ash, or a city plated in steel with no crops, or devastated by endless magic-leaking highstorms... Sanderson writes a lot of depressing worlds).

It had several main characters, all of whom seemed more human than many of Sanderson's other characters, and not immediately saddled with world-breaking problems from the first page: Siri, pledged in marriage to the imposing God-King of the larger country; Vivenda, out of her element on the streets of the capital city, inadvertently learning about the magic system; Lightsong, one of the magically-reborn worshipped as gods, nice but lazy, self-deprecating and finding it hard to take anything seriously, but pulled into events despite himself.

It felt like it was lacking some of the sharp edges of some of Sanderson's other books. I wasn't sure if that because it was written earlier when he bit off less, or because it was written later when he'd become more practised at honing books and putting in character and humour and toning down the conflicting details about the magic system, but it seems to have been somewhere in the middle, after the first Mistborn, but before the latest epic series (possibly rewritten from earlier drafts).

It manages very well to have several interesting plot developments which are in retrospect extremely sensible, but were very much a surprise to me at the time: this is something Sanderson does well, but I like that here Sanderson manages it a few times throughout the book, not only on the last chapter.

I read it for free online, with the chapter-by-chapter annotations on choices he made, and things he tried to achieve, and things he improved from earlier drafts, which I enjoyed a lot. But (I think) it was also published in paper format.

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Jul. 16th, 2014 @ 11:25 pm Other Novellas
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The Butcher of Khardov by Dan Wells

This is a tie-in story telling the back-story of a delusional brutal commander in a tabletop war-game. The story wasn't bad. I liked the intertwining of several time periods of him as a child, as a logger, as a mobster, as a hermit, as a commander, as a prisoner. Some people found it gratuitous, but I find it very natural to build up a picture of his life as a whole. But it wasn't good enough to make up for all the gratuitous killing :( But I don't know how much of that was due to the author and how much was due to the constraints of the tie-in; I've read very good tie-ins and would be interested to see if something else by Wells was better.

Wells was also listed on Correia's slate of proposed nominees, but I couldn't find him saying anything about it one way or the other, or any other link between him and Correia, and some people unrelated to Correia saying they liked some other books by his, so I don't have much of a bias either way.

Equoid by Charles Stross

I would say this was fairly typical of the other laundry stories and novels. I enjoyed it more than the other short stories (which I found were trying a bit too hard), but not as much as the first concrete cows one. It still had some humour which seemed to be trying a bit too hard (the "ruralshire" joke was tiresome the first time but made me smile a bit, but made me want to strangle Bob the tenth time he thought it!)

I completely skimmed over all the Stross-writing-as-lovecraft excerpts; I hear it's a lot more tedious if you don't.

I'm never sure how to rate stories that are good stand-alone, but don't really add anything new to previous books in the series.

Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente

Pretty good. Exactly what you'd expect from the title, a fairly straight re-telling of Snow White, but in the wild west.

Wakulla Springs by Andy Duncan and Ellen Klages

I liked this a lot. I thought it unambiguously did have supernatural creatures in, but only brief encounters which didn't really affect the story, so I don't get why they were there?

Footnote on voting

When I'm asked to vote for my opinion on something, I always hesitate. I remember the same effect looking at political leaflets asking things like "what do you think should be the priority in your area [list of choices]". Am I supposed to vote for the one *I* enjoy the most? Or the one I think *most* people would enjoy the most? Or some compromise thereof?

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Jul. 16th, 2014 @ 01:34 pm Chaplain's Legacy
This was a reasonably enjoyable adventure story with some problems detailed below. Humanity is in an awkward stand-off with an alien race with more advanced technology, brokered by a chaplain's assistant who's part of a prisoner-of-war planet, and an alien professor. The professor persuades their command that postponing extermination is worthwhile because cultural exchange will give worthwhile things to study about humans, especially about their concept of religion which the aliens don't have. Now the peace is breaking down, and the chaplain's assistant is called on to try to re-broker the peace.

It's a traditional boys-own-like space adventure story. The characterisation of the military is above average (I think the author may have some experience), it felt more like real-world military than space-opera military. Lots of exciting things happen. And I'm a bit torn, because a straightforward story of triumph of hope over adversity is a pretty good thing, and I often feel embarrassed to like things like that, but think I shouldn't be (after all, I like Harry Potter); but on the other hand, I think there are some actual problems.

There are all the common quibbles about worldbuilding in that sort of story. Why space fleets fight in the middle of nowhere, but happen to be over a neutral-territory planet? Why chief alien negotiates with representatives of a much weaker species in person? Why she automatically has absolute power to order a cease-fire without being overrules by other political factions? Why the humans automatically believe that?

I like the touching friendship between the protagonist and the alien professor, the way he was obviously in the alien culture, but didn't have much control over their politics.

I liked slight sci-fi touches, the idea that humans started to retreat full time into VR pods, not in an idealised VR world sort of way, but more of a "playing computer games full time" sort of way. And the trend was only reversed when war threatened, and many children who'd not experienced much of the real world needed extensive rehabilitation in special ex-VR orphanages, etc. And the aliens have a more-long-term but more-benign synergy, semi-permanently attached to little float-disks that provide movement, life support, etc.

Although like other things, it's a touching premise, but also a bit cliche. Sure, MOST aliens never leave their disks. But NO-ONE tries it? Even if it's taboo? There are always some humans who live without most forms of technology. There are humans who live without sex, or without speech. There are humans who TRY to live without food, or without water. If any of these made humans able to fly, someone would have discovered it by now! :)

As with several other stories, I enjoyed the focus of morality and spirituality. I specifically liked the fairly multicultural view, of all religions being a way to tie into some innate human spirituality or morality, and consistent with a literal or metaphorical view of souls (although I don't know if that view is actually equally representative of religions less like christianity or not). I don't completely agree with that, but I like many aspects of it.

On the other hand, I found many of the eventual answers too easy. "Bad person has never really seen goodness, and does bad things. Bad person sees goodness. Bad person repents," is a good story, a bit old-fashioned, but enjoyable when done well. But I'm uncomfortable extending that to a whole species: they're a hive species, but they've never seen self-sacrifice before, but when they do, they suddenly recognise how moral it is, and think that's to do with human souls, not primate tribe instincts? And I feel a little uncomfortable, am I supposed to apply that parallel to atheists, or foreigners or any other non-Christian groups, that they're mired in darkness just waiting for someone to show them how to be good? Or am I reading too much into it?

This is one of the stories which Correia pushed people to nominate because of the author's politics. FWIW, Torgerson appears not to have actively solicited Correia's support, but is in a similar position: friends with Correia, happy to accept the endorsement, and doesn't endorse Vox Day's vitriolic calls for racial cleansing, but nor willing to say there's anything wrong with that. The story itself is mildly pro-military and pro-religion, but shows both pros and cons, and isn't otherwise objectionable (except to stellar cartography :))

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Jul. 11th, 2014 @ 08:01 pm The Ink Readers of Doi Saket
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The Ink Readers of Doi Saket

I really liked the setting, I liked the concept of the village reading and recording the wishes set adrift in the river, and that there was a story in a non-western setting where people were just ordinary people.

But people who knew more about the setting than me said it definitely felt a bit appropriative. And after a short while, all the humour like "X did Y, which was said to cause Z, though of course no-one believes that any more. A year later, Z happened to him, but that's not important right now," started to feel a bit forced.

Inspired by this story but not necessarily about it

The wishes written and thrown into the river are said to come true. And many of them do, if not always exactly as you'd expect. It seems some of them come true by subterfuge, and some of them come true through coincidence (but many more than you might statistically expect throughout the course of the story) and some come true through magic, maybe. I think the story overdoes it, but I think it's something that can work very well, if the author doesn't try too hard to set up rules exactly when it will and it won't: in Babylon Five, when wishes made to Morden eventually come true through Morden's scheming, even if not to his intend or advantage; in Tolkien, when trusting Gandalf and Fate and Goodness and Manwe makes everything turn out well, even if the mechanism for that is obscure; in Shakespeare, when the witches give a true-but-obscure prophecy to Macbeth.

When I first read Macbeth, I was confused -- why did the witches do that? If they could tell the future, why weren't they more systematic about it? And if not, how did they know exactly what would happen? But now I think it's something that can happen in stories sometimes even if it's unrealistic.

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Jul. 11th, 2014 @ 07:29 pm Epigenetics
Liv posts a brief summary of what people should know about epigenetics on dreamwidth at: Hypertext in the book of life

The most important implications, which I didn't realise had become standard knowledge while I wasn't paying attention until Liv told me about it, are:

1. DNA has annotations on to say which bits are active. And some of these are fairly permanent, like to say "this cell is a liver cell, turn on all the liver cell genes and turn off all the heart cell genes" or "living in hostile environment, activate all survivalist genes". And some of these are passed on through gametes to offspring and make a measurable difference to the next generation. Biologists knew this could happen in theory, but it sounded suspiciously Lamarkian, so it took a while before people realised that it was prevalent, and important!

2. Stem cells are cells which haven't differentiated into specialised sorts yet, as in a foetus. If you want to grow tissue in a lab, you need to grow it from stem cells to get the right sort of cells. And you used to have to get stem cells from a foetus :( But now we can make stem cells out of mature cells. We can't grow a whole organ yet, but it's starting to useful for some sorts of tissue!

See, I can be concise sometimes! :)

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Jul. 10th, 2014 @ 03:50 pm Hugo Nominee: The Water That Falls on You From Nowhere (Mild spoilers)

The Water That Falls on You From Nowhere is one of the hugo nominated short stories. It's about the family problems of a man, his other half, and his chinese-american family, in a world where water falls on you from nowhere whenever you lie.

What I liked about it is that it embraced a bold premise that most authors wouldn't have thought of, that this water suddenly appeared. And it didn't waste a lot of time making up implausible excuses for where it came from, but dwelled on the characters interactions in this world.

I liked that it touched briefly on the limits of the water -- it can be cold and intense enough to be dangerous, but not usually; evasions and near-lies come close to triggering it, bigger lies get more water. Equivocations produce an unbearable urge to clarify. Enough that you know what you need to know for the rest of the story, but not enough that you're inclined to nitpick. I thought that was a very good example of how to do worldbuilding, without too much or too little worldbuilding.

However, it seemed to miss out a lot of obvious questions like, imagine how much criminal trials would change if you can just ask if someone's guilty? And you have to have mats and towels everywhere. How much politics would change if you know everyone is going to keep their oaths to the letter and not fudge. How much advertising, medical research, teaching, would all change if no-one could equivocate. The novel The Truth Machine, dealt with a lot of those questions, not perfectly, but more than most other books I've read. I think it's fine that TWTFOYFN deals with family life not public life, but it seemed like a hole to me -- I'd have been happier if there was some throw-away line justifying my head-canon, either that things massively changed, but without going into detail, or that it could be fudged in some way that made it unhelpful for premeditated lies.

I liked the family life story, it was engaging and a bit moving, many of the little details added up well.

I felt it fell a little flat that the family story was resolved without the water being massively influential, it felt like each was a background to the other, but they didn't have to be in the same story. Or did I miss something?

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Jul. 10th, 2014 @ 09:42 am Deluge
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Dear Fate,

I spent all yesterday being nice to people, and last thing when I cycled home, my front tyre valve popped and started leaking air. I was :(

This morning, as I was reluctantly driving to work, the heavens opened and the great deluge swept all the titans, leviatha and glasses-wearing cyclists off the streets of Cambridge, down the conduit, and into the torment of the eternal pits of stygium (Citation needed -- ed.).

I'm sorry I doubted :)

Love Jack

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