Monday, May 23, 2022

Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter: a very short review

Wow, it's been a really long time since I wrote on the blog. Bad Bryan!

Seth Grahame-Smith's quite bizarre Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter followed just a few years after his earlier (and better known?) sensation: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (which I didn't read).

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter has several things going for it:

  • It's a quick read, with (unsurprisingly) lots of action!
  • The decision to suspend your disbelief is not complicated here: you either accept the basic premise or (and I'm sure this is common) you just don't bother with the book.
  • Grahame-Smith actually turns out to be much more interested in Abraham Lincoln than he is in Vampires
  • And, perhaps most importantly, the premise is actually quite an interesting metaphor.

It's that last point that is surely arguable, and I'll concede it is not to be taken too seriously. The two hundred and fifty years or so during which North America experienced the horrors of human slavery are surely among the most evil period of modern human history, and anything which deflects from that evilness can be criticized and rightly so.

On the other hand, it is all too easy for modern Americans in their easy chairs to look away from that time, close their eyes, and try to avoid thinking about it entirely. For how can we easily come to grips with the sheer monstrosity; it is so dreadful that we cannot even bear to contemplate it, and yet, undeniably, Abraham Lincoln did contemplate it, and did come to grips with it, and did do something about it, and did pay for that with his own life.

It's a story worth telling, and if Grahame-Smith's bizarre mash-up of history and horror novel manages to provoke even some people to stop and consider and imagine what it must have been like in those times, and how hard it must have been to completely re-shape the country into a totally different result, I'm willing to grant him considerable latitude in trying to take steps in that direction.

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Death and Judgement: a very short review

Donna Leon's Death and Judgment is the fourth Guido Brunetti novel.

But rather than becoming formulaic and predictable, Leon's books are progressing nicely, becoming richer, more compelling, and more fascinating.

Indeed, at this point we can perhaps say that Leon has solidly found her footing, and Death and Judgment is perhaps the first complete work of the Guido Brunetti series.

What evidence can I present for this claim? Well, here's a sampling:

  • The plot is sharp. The criminals are despicable, and the villains are truly horrific. The three page segment late in the book in which Brunetti finally connects all the dots when he views a short video of one of the crimes is one of the most gripping sequences I've read in years. After I got through it, I had to put the book down and go for a long walk in the sunshine and look out over the ocean and try to recover: it was that vivid and terrifying.
  • The supporting characters become richer and more fascinating. Previously we've learned a lot about Brunetti's wife Paola; in Death and Judgment it is his daughter's turn. And this, too, adds depth, as Brunetti observes when he reflects on the consequences of bringing his work home with him:
    His mind flew up and away from the room. He tried to think noble thoughts, tried to think of something to say that would assure his child, convince her that, however wicked what she had seen, the world was a place where things like that were random, and humanity remained good by instinct and impulse.

Brunetti does not so attempt to convince his daughter. Rather, he is straight with her, in a quietly powerful conversation.

Everything is working for Leon: her pacing is excellent, her characters are believable, her evocation of Venice is engrossing, and her plots and tales are just as vivid and compelling now as when she wrote Death and Judgment twenty seven years ago.

Can't wait to read more of Comissario Brunetti's adventures!

Saturday, April 30, 2022

Before the Fall: a very short review

Noah Hawley is perhaps best known for his work in television: first Bones, then the extremely well-received Fargo.

It turns out that he's also written a number of novels. I was looking for something simple to take along with me on a cross-country plane trip, and I ended up with his Before the Fall

Hawley developed his skills as a screenwriter and you can really feel it in his writing. Before the Fall opens with a BANG! and the first 50 pages fly by before you can catch your breath.

The rest of the book careens along like Mr Toad's Wild Ride, but Hawley has a natural sense of pace. Each time I felt my attention about to flag, he'd drop another shoe and hook me for another few chapters.

Overall, the book delivers on its promise: it's an enjoyable time-filler, keeping you just intrigued enough to see it through to its satisfying conclusion.

One detail, though: I think I mentioned I picked this up for a plane trip?

Uhm, perhaps not my most well-considered choice, as the entire book is about a plane crash.

Heh. Serves me right.

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

What does Google have against "exposed"?

I was writing a document using Google Documents, and I wrote:

[Activity X] exposed problems with [Program Feature Y]

Google flagged "exposed" as an undesirable word, and said to me:

Word Choice: These synonyms may make your writing flow better. Try using:
  • uncovered
  • revealed

Elsewhere in my document I wrote:

The precise timeframe for this ...

and Google flagged "precise" as an undesirable word, and said to me:

Word Choice: These synonyms may make your writing flow better. Try using:
  • specific
  • exact

What the heck is up with Google?

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

California COVID progress

From what I can tell, the California state-wide COVID-19 website has now switched to twice-a-week updates.

For many months, the site was updated seven days a week, with only occasional omissions for major holidays.

Sometime last fall, the site switched being updated only five days a week, taking Saturday and Sunday off and bundling those results into Monday's update.

This week, when I look at the website, it says:

Data is updated on Tuesdays and Fridays.

I suppose this is probably progress, as the state presumably feels that it's no longer important to update the site as frequently.

P.S. I think nobody makes the attempt to say "Data are updated..." anymore. I am showing my age.

Release notes done well

In computer industry parlance, Release Notes are a mechanism for communicating change.

A software system typically undergoes a series of development cycles, with the result that, every so often, a new version of the software is released. Each release generally contains a compendium of bug fixes, as well as some number of new features.

For a small piece of software, or for a piece of software that is frequently released, release notes can be boring and mostly inconsequential, simple recitals of bug fixes which are often only of interest to the handful that encountered that particular bug.

For a large and sophisticated piece of software, a long time may have elapsed between releases, and a large team may have been working on the software, and so the scope of the change between releases may be hard, and challenging to communicate.

A common approach is to have a summary listing, embedded with myriad links to details, for example the Linux Kernel release notes tend to follow this format. Another classic example is the Java release notes.

Now, Unreal Engine is a very sophisticated piece of software which is nearing its 25th anniversary.

Unreal Engine 4 was released in 2015. Unreal Engine 5 was released in 2022.

That's a long time, and that's a large piece of software, and so the technical communication challenge is immense.

So it's lovely to see what a stunning job has been done with the Unreal Engine 5 Release Notes.

Although the overall format is very similar to the Linux Kernel release notes, being a single immense listing of changes, each with their own hyperlink to background material with further details, what a difference the presentation makes! The Unreal Engine 5 release notes are lavishly illustrated, with animated GIFs and other illustration techniques throughout.

Of course, this material is not for the novice reader; you have to be prepared to encounter sentences such as

The Shader Complexity view mode shows a heatmap of shader instruction counts per pixel, encompassing all rendered objects. Nanite's existing Material Complexity view mode shows a heatmap of the number of unique materials on Nanite geometry only per 8x8 tile, which is a useful metric for determining material coherency in the Nanite pass.

But my oh my, if this is the sort of stuff that gets you up in the morning, browsing the Unreal Engine 5 documentation will provide many hours of glorious exploration of new and fascinating ways to make computers work magic.

Thursday, March 31, 2022

USMNT is Qatar-bound!

Losing to Costa Rica by a score of only 0-2 turned out to be plenty to retain third place in the CONCACAF World Cup qualification group, and means the US has qualified for the 2022 World Cup, to be held in Qatar approximately eight months from now.

I haven't followed the qualification matches closely, but all accounts seem to agree that the team have recruited some young and exciting talent and hopefully it will be fun to watch!

Actually, the big surprise from this round of matches is the impressive performance of the Canadian team, which finished clear first in CONCACAF. This is the first time in THIRTY SIX YEARS that Canada have qualified for the World Cup, and to do so by taking clear first in the group is remarkable.

Looking forward to November!