Thursday, July 20, 2017

Review: Pachinko

Pachinko is Min Jin Lee’s novel covering the Japanese occupation of Korea, and depicting the lives and various fates of Korean Japanese during the world war 2 period. As someone who’s always heard about how badly Koreans were treated in Japan for many years, I’ve always been curious about how it’s happened, and this book was a great way to find out about it.

The novel depicts Sunja’s family, starting from her parents’ lives, and including her children during the pre-World War 2 and post-WW2 period in Japan. Having been made pregnant by a Korean businessman living in Japan, Sunja refuses to become his mistress but then a Christian pastor on his way to his church in Japan feels sorry for her, marries her, and then they move to Japan proper.
Basically, Korean people in Japan have limited job opportunities. You can run a restaurant (or sell street food), or be hired into the Pachinko industry, which apparently has some ties to organized crime as well. As the war proceeds, we get views as to how the family survives (and in some case even thrive) and what the effects of the war is.

I enjoyed the book’s depiction of Japan and Korean people living in Japan. The book is a long read but at no point did I think it had filler. Definitely worth your time.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Review: Howl's Moving Castle

Howl’s Moving Castle is Dianne Jones’ fantasy novel upon which Hayao Miyazaki’s movie of the same name was loosely based. Fans of the book often say that the book's much better than the movie. I haven't seen the movie, but if this is true then I probably won't bother with the movie at all.

The story revolves around Sophie, who as the eldest daughter  of the house is predestined not to find her fortune, and is so reconciled to being a hat maker. Then she runs afoul of the Wicked Witch and is cursed, whereupon for random reasons she ends up in the castle of evil wizard Howl.

Howl ends up not being so evil, and Sophie ends up being able to release herself from her curse. I didn’t realize that the book was the start of a series of (apparently well loved) YA novels, but in any case, the book while well written didn’t feel compelling. None of the characters felt anything more than 2-dimensional, while there aren’t any interesting reveals: magic in the novel doesn’t really follow any systematic approach, and it feels like a random series of events rather than the characters actually driving the plot.

I bought the book when it was on sale on Amazon, but I won’t be pursuing further books in the series.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Review: My Sister Rosa

My Sister Rosa is Justine Larbalestier’s hybrid novel  both about a coming of age and of psychopaths in families. It’s an excellent book and you should just run out and borrow (or buy) it. 

Che is a typical teenager, except that he’s been moved between various countries in the last few years  by his do-gooder parents. As a teenager moving to New York City for the first time, he has 3 goals: 

  1. Keep his sister Rosa under control 
  2. Get to the  boxing ring and Spar 
  3. Get a girlfriend 

Except for the last goal, these are actually pretty unusual goals for a teenager. But Che’s sister Rosa isn’t just a baby sister, she’s a psychopath, which Che has actually looked up in the DSM. What’s more, Che seems to be the only person aware of it. Both his parental units seem blissfully unaware, and Rosa when she wants to can charm other people easily, to the point where they do whatever she wants them to. 

Che then goes through the process of settling into New York City, going to a new boxing gym where he does meet a pretty cool girl. Then Rosa decides to start messing with his life and everything quick goes into pieces. 
The novel’s well written, with most characters being fully realized. The twist in the second third of the book was profound, and the set up for that was fair. Unlike most other books which nowadays seem determined to shove a happy ending down your throat no matter what, My Sister Rosa doesn’t end on an undoubtedly happy note, and Che doesn’t achieve all of his goals. 

Pick up a copy of this book and read it. You won’t regret the time you spend in Che’s world. I certainly don’t. 

Monday, July 17, 2017

Review: Norse Mythology

Norse Mythology is Neil Gaiman’s retelling of (what else) Norse Mythology. It’s written in modern language, but with the tell-tale Neil Gaiman style --- easy to read and straight forward, by lyrical as well. If you’re not familiar with Norse Mythology except (for example) through the Thor comic books, Norse Mythology isn’t just a good introduction, it’s a well-written one. Gaiman writes that many of the stories from the folklore have been lost in time, and it would be interesting to know which he picked to put in this book and what was left out because it was incomplete and he didn’t want to add to the mythology with his own fiction.  It would also have been interesting to see what he would have wanted to add to the mythos.

A light, short airplane read. Perfect for a vacation. Recommended.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Review: Revenger

Revenger is Aliastair Reynold's novel about space pirates in a far future setting. Told from the point of view of a highly educated young woman (Fura Ness) from a family down on its finances, it tells the story of her and her sister's attempt to go on an adventure by signing up on a sailing vessel as "bone readers." Bone readers are the VHF/telegraph operators in this millieu, and since it's a talent that you can age out of, new  bone readers are always in demand and the sisters sign up on a treasure-hunting expedition boat. During the expedition, the boat is attacked by space pirates and the rest of the story revolves around Fura's attempt to get revenge and rescue her sister.

The millieu is particularly interesting, obviously constructed to mirror the golden age of sail's particular constraints so as to make the kind of voyages described interesting. For instance, everything takes place within a single solar system, so solar sails can be used as a means of getting everywhere. The result is travel times described in weeks, rather than years required for interstellar distances without breaking the known laws of physics. Similarly, the worlds described aren't planets, but rather artificial habitat constructs ranging from 25 miles wide to about 100 miles wide, similar to island sizes in the Caribbean. Scattered amongst the worlds are baubles, apparently stasis-protected former habitats that may contain artifacts or quoins (treasure) so treasure hunters have something to do.

It's always interesting to me to see authors work around their weaknesses. Reynolds, for instance, cannot write a romance to save his life, and in this novel he works around it by eliminating any such possibilities: the lead characters are essentially asexual, and married people are introduced with their status as though it's a title. It works, but obviously one of the tropes of pirate fiction is completely eliminated.

As a story, the novel is fun: we watch as Fura Ness goes from naivete to becoming a classical pirate. The book is full of slang and sayings that evoke the golden age of sail while being more or less scientifically correct, and the setting is interesting if improbable.While not his best work, it has a certain appeal to those who like pirate fiction/science fiction mashups and can be recommended as such.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Review: The Populist Explosion

The Populist Explosion is a political overview of recent political movements that have swept both the USA and Europe as a result of the great recession. It ties populist movements in the past (such as Huey Long's) with recent movements like Occupy Wall Street as well as the Tea Party.

What's interesting is that it covers both left and right movements. For instance, while the left explicitly avoided scapegoating by race, the right has no compunction against doing so, and in fact, this probably did win Donald Trump the election. As a result, the author's attempt to conflate the two sides don't really make a lot of sense to me.

What is interesting is that the right wing in Europe does seem particularly focused on immigration, and the movements have been because the generous welfare states mean that the middle class is opposed to large scale immigration of any form. Those societies have historically been so homogeneous that even relatively small amounts of immigration constitutes a sizeable shift in the feel of the population to citizens.

What the author fails to do is to provide context: for instance, when discussing immigration in Denmark, he provides absolute numbers but neglects to provide the total size of the country, so you have no idea whether citizens are complaining as to whether new immigrants consist of 1%, 2%, or 10% of the population. When reading the book you want to have Google handy so you can give yourself context with regards to those numbers. Otherwise you start to see big numbers like millions or hundreds of thousands and have no idea whether it's a big shift that would take a while to get used to.

Regardless, the author points out that the center-left in Europe and in the US has been neglectful of the working class, to the point where they have no felt like they have any stake in the process and therefore might rationally choose to "burn down the house" rather than continue to accept a (to their point of view) worsening situation. This is an important dynamic that has led to the political situation we see today. He doesn't provide any suggestions but does allude to the fact that in the past, such political movements rarely turn into long lasting changes in the system, but instead get co-opted into actions like the New Deal which were driven by the existing political parties.

Here's hoping that something like that does happen. In any case, flawed as the book is, it gave me a lot to think about. Recommended.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Building a custom desktop

In recent years, performance on consumer desktop processors have pretty much stagnated, so I felt comfortable sticking with my 2009 HP m9600t. That machine's had several upgrades: to SSDs, additional RAM, and a new GPU. It's had hard drives added and expanded, and a blu ray drive when those became cheap. Over the past year, the ethernet port went out, so I added a PCI ethernet card to it. The machine's gotten flakey over the years: it no longer slept or hibernate, waking up whenever it put itself to sleep. While this was annoying, I lived with it by hard powering off the machine every time I turned it off. For a while, it wasn't a big deal as I used a laptop for non hard core tasks (any Adobe software).

Then I won a Gigabyte Z170X Gaming 7 motherboard during a web-site lottery. The motherboard was not the latest, but it's over-clocking enabled, and was forwards compatible with the latest intel desktop processor: the Core i7 7700K CPU. Since I had a friend at Intel who could supply me with the processor (and a PCIe m.2 SSD) at employee discount prices, I figured i could build a new machine. Note that in most cases you can usually purchase equivalent machines from Dell or some other white label device at a better price than putting it all together yourself. Those manufacturers, however, typically skimp on parts. For instance, the case of my HP m9600t was so tightly packed that I pinched my fingers every time I installed or replaced a part. Similarly, the PSU is usually not an energy efficient PSU. Back in the old days, you wouldn't keep a PC around long enough for a more efficient PSU to pay for itself, but now that you typically keep a PC around for 10 years or more (because of the failure of Moore's law) there's no reason not to pay for a better unit, especially if it's quieter.

As a first time PC builder, I went with the Fractal Design Define R5 case. I picked it because it was a fairly large case, which meant no more pinched fingers. It comes with 7 3.5/2.5" drive trays and 2 5.25" drive trays, which I figured would be sufficient capacity even for a storage-hungry photographer/video processor. The case was indeed huge but to my surprise was well balanced and easy to handle. It also came with an ample set of screws and nice features such as being able to change the direction in which the front door opens.

The instructions start with screwing in the power supply, which apparently is a fixed size in PCs. Mys elected power supply screwed in just fine, and then I plugged in the power cord and then grounded myself using an anti-static strap. Next came the motherboard. Plugging in the processor was easy, but then the cooler felt like you had to be much more careful. I'd acquired both a water cooler and an air cooler, but at the last minute went with the air cooler for simplicity, so I wouldn't be managing 2 pieces that are attached to the motherboard. The air cooler was interesting because it had multiple orientations, and you're supposed to point it up or out of the case for better airflow, so I played some 3D rotation games before I settled on "up." I then plugged in the memory and the SSD. The SSD is weird because the motherboard had a bizarre table which showed what configuration of SSD installation would preclude the use of which other SATA slots and/or reduce the speed of the PCIe SSD. I found myself thinking: "Really, Intel? Really?!" Apparently this has been fixed in the latest Z270X motherboards, but of course, I wasn't going to buy one when I had one for free. But the next step after selecting the right slot really puzzled me.

All motherboards come with a back plate. You're supposed to insert it into the case, and then insert standoff screws into the motherboard and then insert the motherboard and then screw it down. What I was surprised by after having such an easy time with the processor, cooler, memory and SSD was how much I had to wrestle the motherboard and backplate together into the case and make everything line up. You have to tighten down the screws because otherwise if you insert or remove display cables or USB cables from the computer you'd shift or move the motherboard, which would not be good. I did so without damage (I thought!).

Then I started plugging in cables into the motherboard. The manuals here just don't help much. For instance, some of the case fans have only 3 holes while the corresponding motherboard pins have 4! I had to do some googling around before figuring out which 3 pins should be used. Similarly, for many of the single jumper cables I practically needed magnifying and tweezers to get a 5mm cable plugged into a pin squeezed into a 8mm space. This was definitely a pain. This was also where spending lots of money on the case helped. The Fractal Design case had rubber grommet windows where many of the cables were already pre-wired to run correctly. Unlike my HP, where there were cables everywhere, you could place only the cables you needed and route even those cables under the motherboard, so you had nothing hanging on top. Working on this was a pleasure.

Then came the moment of truth: plugging a display cable in and seeing if the machine would POST. To my horror, when I powered it on, the fans spun up and then spun down. Something was horribly wrong. I googled around and finally figured out that I'd made the rookie mistake: I had forgotten to plug the CPU power cable in. For whatever reason I thought that giant 24pin cable plugged into the motherboard ought to be sufficient. It's not. I plugged in 2 4-pin cables into the motherboard socket, and the device posted!

After that, the rest of the process was easy, though I was disappointed that the "backside of the motherboard" 2.5" SSD trays didn't actually fit 2.5" SSHD drives. But I moved over the blu ray player, intalled 3 HDDs, and still have room and power left over for more.

After installing Windows 10 (which transferred the license over with no issues), the machine sleeps and hibernates with no issues and is also incredibly quiet. I tried over-clocking it a little with no issues, but probably won't do too much. Lightroom and Premiere Elements 12 now fly! A usual, the storage upgrade to a PCIe SSD was probably more responsible than the mere 3X increase in CPU performance.

I haven't installed a GPU yet so am relying on the built in Intel GPU which many enthusiasts love to complain about. I am still of 2 minds as to whether to decommission the old machine or to let my son use it, but if the latter I can take my time to shop for a GPU.

I must say that over-all, the process has been much easier than I expected, and some of it was (dare I say it) even fun! Just like with a bicycle you've built yourself, there's something special about a machine you've built yourself. I expect that this is probably the best approach if you're not in a hurry for a machine and have time to shop. My wife's Dell now sounds loud by comparison, while my old HP sounds like a jet-engine whenever it does anything compute intensive. Given the changes in the PC market over the past years, I fully expect this to be the correct approach going forward.